Shutter Island (2010) – Movie Review

You can just hear the ominous pipe organs playing in the background of this static image

For my first official review, I wanted to do a film that most people enjoy but often forget about until it’s brought up and then you go “Oh yeah! I loved that film!”. “Shutter Island” perhaps most perfectly encapsulates that very feeling.

Director Martin Scorsese has built a reputation over many decades of work as one of the most prestigious filmmakers in Hollywood, but this film is an oddity for him, not because of a drop-off in quality, but the content stands out dramatically when you compare it with his other work. His filmography has an abundance of gangster films, Robert DeNiro, and Joe Pesci. “Shutter Island” is not like any of those. “Shutter Island” is a mystery thriller, with a nice splash of horror mixed in for good measure.

The film stars Scorsese’s new golden boy and DeNiro’s spiritual successor, Leonardo DiCaprio, as US Federal Marshal Teddy Daniels, alongside Mark Ruffalo’s Marshal Chuck Aule, both sporting some strong Bostonian accents and over-the-top pre-cancerous cigarette addictions, both of which I am here for. The two marshals are brought to Shutter Island, which hosts a mental hospital for the criminally insane run by Ben Kingsley’s Dr. Cawley, because one of the patients has escaped. On the island, however, the marshals discover a greater conspiracy than they were brought there for.

“Shutter Island” is an exceptionally tense experience from the very beginning when Marshal Daniels is vomiting from seasickness. At no point does the viewer have the opportunity to relax because it is clear that things are not what they seem. You are as on your guard as the marshals are. This is exacerbated by the brilliant technical aspects of the film. The score is haunting, ominous, and powerful. The use of lighting to convey the stress and physical pain was brilliant. There is one scene in particular, where Marshal Daniels is suffering from a migraine, and the lighting used is so piercing that it almost hurts the viewer. But you’ll be damned if you aren’t craving relief from the intense pain just the same as the marshal. Furthermore, the lighting is of the utmost importance as it is a great tell for how in the dark he is to what is really going on around him.

Similarly, the sound editing process that the film underwent does more than just add intensity, it adds to mystery. There are key moments of the film where dialogue is not totally clear, but clear enough that the brain fills in the gaps to what we think they said. And the constructed dialogue makes sense, only to be later revealed that we all missed one key word that totally changed the meaning of what was said. It is a brilliant trick.

Like with any great mystery film, this film relies on a twist ending that the viewer is not supposed to see coming. In some cases, an ending such as this can be considered a novelty that only really has an impact upon the first viewing, and while it is true you will never truly be able to recreate the sense of unknown in subsequent viewings, “Shutter Island” does offer reasons to watch it multiple times. If a mystery has been done correctly, subtle hints should have been sprinkled throughout the film prior to the reveal. Most of these hints had no significance to the viewer before they knew what it was they were hinting at, but it is only with subsequent viewings that we can all truly appreciate how intricately the seeds of mystery were woven into the story.

It may come as no surprise that the acting in the film is exceptional. DiCaprio, who won a Best Actor Oscar in 2016, is one of the finest actors of any generation, so complimenting his work is fairly commonplace. What makes this performance standout amongst his other work is just how much this film relied on him. In most films, there are scenes that do not involve the main character, often for exposition or to reveal something the viewers. But not “Shutter Island”. In the roughly 2 hours and 18 minutes runtime, he is onscreen for virtually all of it. With the exception of a few landscape shots and opposing conversational camera angles, Leo never leaves the view of the camera. It may not seem like that big of a deal but I challenge you to find any film that relies that heavily on the presence of its lead. The story focuses so intently on who Teddy Daniels is as a person and it takes a special performance to portray paranoia, confidence, aggression, and intelligence all in one.

Mark Ruffalo does a great job as well, albeit his burden not quite the same as Leo. Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow both play their roles with exceptional tact, portraying doctors with both noble intentions and possibly sinister undertones. Their European accents certainly help in that department as well.

The film is not flawless however. In the latter part of the film, I couldn’t help but be aware of the very obvious greenscreen use. Perhaps this is where the use of lighting actually hurts the film. DiCaprio and Ruffalo are standing on some cliffs and even to the untrained eye, you can see that the actors were most certainly not outside. I would give it a pass, possibly since the effects could have been convincing for the time, but this film is only 9 years old at the time of me writing this. CGI and green screen usage were not foreign concepts in 2010. Ultimately, it is not a huge deal and does not ruin the film, but it is a noticeable flaw. Also, there are a few parts of the story that upon careful review do not make logical sense. Specifically, why would the overseers allow for the events of the film to take place during a hurricane. It makes for a more dramatic and stressful story, but it seems unreasonable when you stop to think about it. But I know I am just nitpicking.

“Shutter Island” through its narrative discusses themes of acceptable violence, acceptance of reality, and the morality of certain psychological treatments. There is a running comparison made throughout the film of the Nazis in WWII. Marshal Daniels was part of the liberating force of the Dachau concentration camps and he is fearful that the actions of the Nazis could be replicated. Also, harboring the burden of his own lethal actions during the war, the marshal questions the morality of these criminally insane patients, the use of lethal force, and the ability to accept responsibility for your actions.

This is a film that I fear gets forgotten amongst its peers because it doesn’t quite fit in. It is a very competently created film with a lot to offer any viewer, whether they are just looking for an entertaining thriller, or wish to examine a technically sound film.

I would rate this film a solid 8.8 out of 10.

Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Max von Sydow, Michelle Williams
Rated: R
Runtime: 2 Hours 18 Min

Top 10 Movies of All-Time

Congratulations. Despite my best efforts at self-deprecation, somehow you wanted me to make another list. Even more disturbing is that I received a request for this specific list. I worry for you if you really want to hear my opinions. But who am I to deny the 3 whole people who read that last list, and the 2 whole people who read my Oscar picks? Those people were there with me from the beginning of the week. You can’t buy loyalty like that.

I am going to try my best at this list. There are so many genres of film and it is really hard to compare a comedy that doesn’t take itself to seriously to an 80s action movie or one of those pretentious period dramas that all the rich assholes love. With that in mind, I am going to try to be as varied as possible, including as many different genres as I can, otherwise this list might consist solely of Christopher Nolan, Martin Scorsese, and Quentin Tarantino. There is no correct way to do this so give me a break if this looks nothing like the list you would put together. (Note: I reworked this list four times because I couldn’t come to a one person consensus with myself.)

Special shout out to the movies you couldn’t pay me to put on this list but your film professor insists are perfect: “Citizen Kane”, “La La Land”, “Titanic”, “The Breakfast Club”, “Forrest Gump”, and “12 Angry Men”. And a much more deserved shout out to the Honorable Mentions crowd: “2001: A Space Odyssey”, “There Will Be Blood”, “Inside Out”, “V for Vendetta”, “Anchorman”, “Pulp Fiction”, and “The Shawshank Redemption”.

10. “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946)

Wow! I’m starting out with a black-and-white film from the 40s? I must be so intellectual, unique and mysterious. I bet everyone thinks I am cool. I should wear a fedora and get a pocket watch too. Well hypothetical onlooker, who am I to tell you that you’re wrong for thinking that?

While I may be auditioning for your local annoying hipster with this pick, there is a reason this film is so fondly remembered. As optimistic as the title suggests the movie is, the plot centers around the contemplation of suicide. Fun times. The main character, George, is considering taking his own life on Christmas Eve, 1945, and a guardian angel descends from heaven to help show him how his life has impacted others and the world around him.

I am not a religious man in the slightest so the heaven aspect is just fluff to me. However, the power this film has to give anyone’s life perspective is incredible. As someone who struggles with depression on a daily basis, it is a story I want to connect to.

George sees how his life saved so many others’ lives from death and prison, but it also doesn’t forget to show where he went wrong. The film doesn’t lie to you and say that your impact is all positive because that isn’t true. No one has lived life to perfection. The point is to look back and see what you’ve done right because it’s easy to forget that when all you can feel is the wrong.

The angel shows George what life would be like if he was never born at all and it wasn’t what he expected. In fact, it was unrecognizable because his absence meant all of the positive influences he made were gone.

This film can impact your life, the way it impacts George’s. Sometimes you need this kind of perspective to help you. Most films inject positivity just by being positive, but “It’s a Wonderful Life” is reflective and can appeal to absolutely anyone.

9. “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” (1975)

This is a film that has aged gracefully. Apparently, people had mixed feelings upon its initial release, but since it came out during the legendary Gerald Ford administration, who can fault all those hippies for not knowing what quality looked like? Take that all you boring Gerry Ford fanatics out there. I bet all three of you are crying now.

Monty Python is a famous British comedy group that released numerous films that were either sketch compilations or satire. This film falls into the latter. In a spoof of the legend of King Arthur, Monty Python produces a notoriously low budget tale that is so self-aware of itself, you’ll be in physical pain (in a good way). One of the funniest gags they implement is the use of coconuts as an onscreen prop in place of horses. Obviously, the budget for horses didn’t exist so the writers decided “let’s just roll with that” and it is so satisfying to watch.

In so many brilliant maneuvers, the writers and cast know they are dictating their own rules as they go along and can have the viewer so confused. I know it sounds odd if you haven’t seen it, but it just does its own thing. This ultimately comes to a head when at the final conclusion of the film, a lowkey side-gag of police investigating a murdered character actually stops the main climactic duel to arrest the protagonists and throw them in a modern police car. And that’s it! The movie ends like that!

The film is littered with cheeky British wit that is not just limited to small gags. The dialogue is virtually perfect and very quotable, and the comedy will have you tearing up. With respect to all the Mel Brooks comedies out there (I’m looking at you Spaceballs), this is the greatest parody film, in my humble opinion, of all-time.

8. “Spirited Away” (2001)

Have you ever watched a movie and it just makes you feel some type of indescribable way? “Spirited Away” is a film that will give you that experience. Although my knowledge of Eastern films is limited, and I am sure there are others that I have not watched that deserve to be mentioned here, this film is my personal favorite of those films and I cannot think of many films in general that gave me a sense of wonder quite like this.

There are a multitude of comparisons to “Alice in Wonderland” that can be drawn, and for a good reason. The sheer oddity and creativity that went into designing the world in which the stories take place are both upper-echelon. It is truly a beautiful sight that mystifies at every frame. I recall watching “Spirited Away” for the first time as a kid home on a Saturday night and having the strangest, yet enjoyable dreams that night, which might be the point of the film: A strange, dream-like adventure to help children go on their own strange, dream-like adventure.

On paper, the film is a coming-of-age, animated fairy tale that takes place in the spirit world. But if you haven’t gotten it yet, this film is so much more than what it is on paper. This film is enchantment in its rawest and most pure form. As a 23-year old, I still feel moved by even the mention of this film’s name in casual conversation. I could explain the intricacies of the plot and characters, but I believe wholeheartedly that doing so is just a distraction from the point I am trying to make.

I encourage anyone and everyone to watch this film with an open-mind, don’t ask questions until the end, and just absorb this with your eyes and ears. Trust me, you’ll understand then.

7. “A Clockwork Orange” (1971)

Time for an unexpected 180o turn from all the light-hearted positivity is was spewing in the previous entries. Optimism sucks anyways. “A Clockwork Orange” is on the total opposite end of the spectrum from all that junk and I am here for it.

A film that can be described as overwhelming and desensitizing, “A Clockwork Orange” walks a path that no other film prior had even treaded near, and really no film since has tried to approach. Critics, at its release, claimed it was “pornographic” and “dehumanizing”. When boundaries are pushed, the boundaries often push back.

But somehow, despite being so removed from the mainstream, this film is actually quite positively regraded by most people who aren’t the president of their church’s book club. In college, my History of Cinema professor was an old, holier-than-thou woman, who didn’t much care for opinions that weren’t her own. You always wanted to ask “who hurt you?” whenever she scolded your thoughts. Even this woman, unprovoked, raved about this film as a masterpiece to a class that she told she didn’t enjoy Harrison Ford’s work to. Who hurt you, professor? Who hurt you?

Underneath its controversial subject-matter and depictions comes a legitimate criticism of censorship, psychology, humanity, free-will, and morality. The main character Alex is not a good person at all. He is a murderer, thief, and rapist who shows zero remorse about his actions. The story is about the dubious nature of his reconditioning back into a society he utterly demonized, via the means of traumatic psychological conditioning that limits his free will and thinking. There are heavy questions you must ask yourself of the absolutes of your morality and just how far you think it is acceptable to go to execute that morality.

6. “The Shining” (1980)

I don’t believe I am going out on a limb here when I declare that “The Shining” is the best horror film ever. You may disagree, but (A) you’d be wrong in doing so, and (B) most people would agree with my assessment.

Not relying on the usually jump-scares that litter modern horror, “The Shining” is a great story that doesn’t create fear by hiding things in what you cannot see and what you do not know, but instead by presenting it all to you. The threats feel real because you see it develop and you watch it encroach. Found footage horror has a niche and I understand the appeal, but this is a narrative, a full, well-told story that does more to create its horror on its own than any other film of the genre, at least that I know of.

Jack Nicholson does a brilliant job portraying the steady decay of Jack’s (conveniently the name of his character too) psyche, and Shelley Duvall, who was basically tortured by perfectionist director and utter psychopath Stanley Kubrick, gives the purest portrayal of fear I can recall in film. The atmosphere of slowly impending doom makes you feel paranoid as if you are really having visions of bloody waterfalls coming out of elevators or being chased down by an axe-wielding, crazy, if not realistic depiction, of Jack Nicholson on a given Tuesday.

A testament to how important this film is for the genre of horror and pop-culture is how often it is referenced still. Just for reference, 2018’s “Ready: Player One” had a major aspect of its plot centered around the recreation of the film in video game form. On top of that, there is an absurd amount of parodies of the film due to how recognizable so many of its scenes really are. This film has a powerful and lasting legacy.

5. “Back to the Future” (1985)

Has anyone ever said anything bad about this film? Ok, aside from the suggestion of an incestuous attraction between Marty and his mom and how she was definitely being raped by Biff, this might be the most universally beloved film ever. And ignore the fact that one of the main, goofy protagonists was hired by Libyan terrorist to steal Uranium and build them a nuclear weapon while you are at it, because no one cares, nerd. It is the weird, forgotten subplots like that one that add to the charm.

It may not be number one on my list, but it is borderline impossible not to enjoy yourself watching “Back to the Future”, regardless of what genre of film you generally prefer. The characters of Doc and Marty are one of the greatest “odd couple” duos in any medium ever. Doc’s wacky antics create all the zany possibilities while Marty, as the viewers’ point of reference, constantly gets himself into trouble seemingly only by existing. Marty, especially, has to learn on the McFly (Sorry. I hate myself too) and his improvisations are incredibly entertaining.

This movie, and its subsequent sequels help the imagination explore time in a way that can appeal to every moviegoer, not just the usual science fiction niche that typically explores the topic. I’m sure that it is a fantasy that we’ve all had at least once to explore eras before you and some that have yet to happen. And that is what this is: an adventure!

There are lessons about being careful what you wish for and how actions have unintended consequences, but that’s not why the film is special. No one watches this film to learn anything. You watch it to be entertained! That is the goal of watching movies, after all, and “Back to the Future” is, without question, one of the most universally entertaining films ever made.

4. “Star Wars” (1977)

I have zero tolerance for disagreement on this one. If you have an “alternative” opinion, you are instructed to kiss my ass. I love “Star Wars” and so does everyone else because as the saying goes “Nobody hates ‘Star Wars’ more than ‘Star Wars’ fans”, meaning you either love it or you criticize it because you love it and want more for it. I’m glad we cleared up the fact that everybody loves “Star Wars.”

With “Star Wars” we have the original blockbuster, the genesis of all modern movie franchises, and the emperor of pop culture. You know that little group of Indi-films called the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Well, that simply does not exist without “Star Wars”. The idea that a film could impact society in an economic and cultural way was laughable before “Star Wars” and now it’s counted on by film studios. The toy aisles at Walmart, filled with LEGOs, action-figures, and posters, all are the way they are because of “Star Wars”. I will shamelessly admit to owning multiple custom-made lightsabers and a wall displaying my Star Wars LEGOs in my room. Judge me.

Aside from the soul-crushing and wallet-killing economic leviathan that is franchise merchandising, this film was groundbreaking in its advancements for special effects and world-building. The modern film industry is where it is now because of Director George Lucas’s experimentalism with miniatures, pyrotechnics, and post-filming editing techniques. But as George himself said “a special effect without a story is a pretty boring thing”.

The story of “Star Wars” inspires hope, follows an ideology (albeit a simple one) that everyone can get behind, and has so many memorable, surprisingly deep characters to root for. This film burgeoned into possibly the largest pop culture franchise to date, with TV shows, video games, books, comics, and too many movies than the producers know what to do with, because the story is fun. It captures the imagination and teaches you that it is never too late to be a hero.

Now the sequels… Much to everyone’s surprise I have some thoughts on those too, but we can talk about them another day.

3. “The Departed” (2006)

Martin Scorsese has directed more fantastic movies than I have had actual moments of happiness in my life, and I do think it is criminal that I only put this one film of his on my list. If that’s the crime they finally get me for, I’ll surrender peacefully. I deserve what I’ve got coming. Frankly, Scorsese could direct 3 hours of uninterrupted static and I’d probably watch it.

“The Departed” (the legal pronunciation is with a heavy Bostonian accent) is an utter masterpiece of the highest caliber. Consisting of one of, if not the finest ensemble casts ever assembled, the movie executes its story as close to perfection as humanly possible, which include Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin, Vera Farmiga, and Anthony Anderson. The acting is stellar, and the on-screen chemistry between actors is beyond exceptional.

At the heart of the story is a two-way cat-and-mouse chase between an undercover cop in the Boston Irish Mafia, and an undercover mafia member in the Boston police department, both of whom are tasked with finding the rat in their organization. I’ve been told that this is a remake of the plot from the 2002 Hong Kong film “Infernal Affairs”, but as I haven’t seen the original, I can’t comment on how the two compare to each other. Either way, the movie is filled with tension, unexpected changes of the status quo, and incredibly written dialogue, and we should appreciate the quality in which all of those were undertaken. This film is long but it doesn’t let up at any point. The pacing is consistent and every moment shown on screen is there to give you necessary information.

I love this movie. My friends and I go around asking each other “Are you a f*cking cop?!” (again, a heavy Bostonian accent is necessary) just randomly just to make sure neither one of us is a rat. If you give this a chance, maybe you’ll be doing that with your friends soon enough.

2. “The Dark Knight” (2008)

Is this a modern blockbuster that is also a poignant detective movie with Oscar-winning acting? Yes.

What, you want more? You’re so needy. That’s a really unattractive quality.

“The Dark Knight” is arguably the finest work in the filmography of Christopher Nolan, of which he has objectively made zero movies that are even below average. He takes a character and stories that have been told and retold for more than seven decades prior to its release and somehow sets the bar. The movie was so good, that when the Oscars inevitably snubbed it for a Best Picture nomination, the entire Academy reformed their nomination process so films like “The Dark Knight” could get the recognition it deserves. Getting an organization that is so stuck in their ways that are probably still mad at Lincoln for the Emancipation Proclamation (#OscarsSoWhite) to go home and rethink their life is an accomplishment equal to that of the Herculean tasks of Greek myths.

What this film does is create the first blockbuster that can also be taken seriously as a sophisticated drama. Nolan does an amazing job creating a fictional city that very easily could exist. Somehow, he turns a story about a mentally scared man who dresses like a bat in military-grade super armor, drives a tank to work at his multibillion-dollar company which he owns, and beats up Italians and mentally ill people in his down time seem real. Because that’s reasonable.

The legend of Heath Ledger’s performance doesn’t do it enough justice. He creates a psychological villain in the Joker that is without question belonging in the Mount Rushmore of movie antagonists. His unfortunate passing is a shame for many reasons, but the fact that he was not able to see his best and final performance on the big screen is truly heartbreaking.

There is honestly too much to say about this film and why it is so amazing. Other films have tried to emulate it in hopes of creating a formula for greatness, and yet none have yet to succeed. The Dark Knight is my personal favorite film of all-time, and it juuuuuuuuuuuust missed out on the number one slot.

1. “The Godfather” (1972)

Remember when I said “The Departed” had “one of, if not the finest cast”? Well, this film is the reason I used the qualifiers. Sorry, but it is hard to top Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, James Caan, and Diane Keaton.

What can I say about “The Godfather” that hasn’t been repeated thousands of times before I wrote this? Nothing. Okay, cool. Well, then I guess I’ll be unoriginal.

The film centers around the gang wars of the 1940s and 1950s, and the New York crime families that head them. The story tackles themes of power, family, revenge, and criminality. Honestly, you ask any random person and chances are this is what they would call a perfect movie. It’s violent, it engaging, and it sets the standard for the genre of crime-based gangster films that is so well-remembered that it is unlikely that a film can reach the near hyperbolic accolades we’ve bestowed upon “The Godfather”.

Maybe it’s unfair that I give a film credit for being a literal living-legend but it is part of the package that is “The Godfather”. Its impact cannot be denied and it has had enough time to fully saturate itself into our American culture, more so than the other films I put in the top 3. But “The Godfather’ has no faults in my eyes so it is not like it hasn’t earned its placing up on top. If they are tied, I give this the edge because it is the standard that was set, and still to this day, has been unbaled to be surpassed.

Top 10 Acting Performances of All-Time

Our obsessive need to constantly rank and compare things in this world help us contrive value from effectively obscure and inconsequential aspects of life. Yeah, that’s pretty deep. I fancy myself a fan of movies, or cinema if you’re annoying, and I too feel the need to rank them because I desperately crave understanding of the randomness of life. So, having said that, here are my 100% objective, totally unbiased Top 10 Acting Performances of All-Time. If you disagree, good for you. You deserve a cookie. I made these picks under my own criteria for greatness, and considering there are literally thousands of performances in film throughout history, I’m willing to bet my mortgage I got this one down perfectly.

Certain factors resonate with me more than others when making these judgements: does the performance leave a legacy; was the performance unique; could anyone else have done this at the time…? These are primarily the factors I considered to filter out the great from the legendary. So, hold onto your butts, because here we go!

10. Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara (“Gone with the Wind”)

Yeah, I didn’t expect me to go to a pro-Confederacy movie for any of my picks but here we are. Is the content something I love? No. Glorifying the Confederacy as a lost way of life is a tasteless interpretation of history, especially through the lens of today’s social standards. But I will not hold Vivien Leigh responsible for that and judge her solely on her performance.

I first saw this film in my High School English class, so you can imagine how enthused I was about the experience. It was long. It was old. But it meant that for 3 days I didn’t have to do any real work so I was all in. And not only was I pleasantly surprised by the film’s ability to keep me awake during my de-facto “free days”, I was also amazed how such a long film could be carried by the performance of the lead, Scarlett O’Hara.

O’Hara broke the mold of a female protagonist, especially for a film from 1939. She was layered and complex, which really stands out in contrast with the world she lives in that willfully tries to simplify women. “Gone with the Wind” is full of all sorts of symbolism, but essentially it is a narrative that is burdened on the shoulders of Vivien Leigh, and there is a reason it is still remembered fondly 80 years later.

9. Leonardo DiCaprio as Hugh Glass (“The Revenant”)

Hey Leo, you got a little shmutz on your face…

This might be the most controversial pick on my list. Not because it isn’t great, but because is it really legendary? You could say “no”, and I’ll tell you that your opinion is wrong and you should seek help. But you could say “yes” and make yourself feel a little bit smarter. I say take the deal.

DiCaprio is, without question, one of the top actors of any generation with a plethora of amazing performances. So why does this one top the ones in “The Aviator”, “Blood Diamond”, “The Departed”, “The Wolf of Wall Street”, “Catch Me if You Can”, “Django: Unchained”, and the colossally underrated “Shutter Island”? This one is the only one that I believe no one else could have pulled off to the extent he did.

His role as Hugh Glass is not prototypical of most of his work. There is no flashy monologue to steal the spotlight. This is probably beyond acting. Leo is legitimately surviving on camera. If at any point during the making of this film, Leo died, I don’t think a single human being on the face of the planet would be shocked.

He portrayed so much emotion, purpose, and drive without speaking, it almost seems shameful how much other performances rely on verbal communication as a crutch. I guess my point is that while he was exceptional in all of his other roles, someone else could have pulled them off with similar performances. But this one? This one required one of the finest actors ever to use a skillset that is, more-or-less, unprecedented, and he succeeds beyond anyone’s wildest expectations.

8. Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates (“Psycho”)

Fair warning: there are a lot of crazy people on this list beyond this point. Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates in “Psycho” is the stuff of legends. Considering this role is not a typical drama, his performance is more unique than most others with this sort of mainstream recognition.

Bates is a horror film icon and perhaps the most memorable character in the entire filmography of the immortal Alfred Hitchcock. Perkins plays the psychotic side and the friendly outer façade of Bates flawlessly.

This role has impact and was a trailblazer for the horror genre. Portraying psychosis, but also as a sympathetic antagonist who is a victim of his own life, is very difficult to do. Often in order to sell one of those you must overcommit to that aspect and the other suffers. With Perkins’ portrayal, there is balance. AND this performance came at a time when many of the themes explored were groundbreaking. I mean, he was an onscreen murderer who was abused by his mother at a time when flushing a toilet and having a man and woman share a bed (NO NOT SEX, I MEAN SHARING A BED) was still taboo. It takes a special performance to pull that off.

7. Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley (“Aliens”)

Ellen Ripley is royalty in the science fiction genre. Sigourney Weaver has honored us with a character that, not only is a blessing in one film, but the lead for an entire franchise. But there are all types of franchise leads that do a great job, why is this so good that it is in the elite performances of all time?

If you take a look at franchises today, most struggle to create believable, strong female leads. Maybe this is more of a knock against other franchises, but the fact that it isn’t easy to do just makes this all the more important and amazing. For example, the recently Disney-afied Star Wars movies can’t help but make its female lead perfect without any real explanation for her lack of faults. Ellen Ripley is the antithesis of that.

She is strong, not because she can do know wrong, but because in a movie about large, spaceship-destroying monsters with two mouths, Sigourney Weaver makes Ellen Ripley a real person. Now that doesn’t sound too hard to do, right? Well, it is. Portraying overwhelming fear while still exhibiting courage is an extraordinarily difficult thing to achieve. Depicting a protagonist who is constantly in danger while still giving her a realistic ability to overcome her adversary is rare. You could give credit to the writers, but what is most impressive is the actor’s ability to translate the screenplay into a reality. I know this performance is revered, but I maintain that it is an overall underrated performance because we really don’t appreciate it for its difficulty. Although not the standard I am really considering, the fact that she was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for a role in a sci-fi movie should tell you all you need to know.

6. Malcolm McDowell as Alex DeLarge (“A Clockwork Orange”)

Here comes another crazy guy! Malcolm McDowell plays an absolute psychopath in “A Clockwork Orange”. The character of Alex is a remorseless rapist and an enthusiastic, violent brute. He revels in the dangerous taboos of society, being driven by the primal urges most people have learned to suppress and work around.

But simply being a deranged brute and violent sexual deviant isn’t what makes this performance so special. Yes, it probably pushed the boundaries of common decency more than any role prior or since. But Alex has depth. Maybe he doesn’t exhibit the standard redemptive character arc we look for, but McDowell portrays an exceptionally intelligent character that makes you wonder just how detached from reality he really is.

The scene that stands out to me beyond the violence and torture is the moment Alex feels threatened by the free thought of his goons. He manipulates them into believing they were equals and then he ruthlessly beats them to reestablish his dominance. This is a character that not only lives for violence, but expertly knows the correct ways to utilize coercion to get his way. Then the tortured method of treatment he must undergo forces him to be sickened by the very impulses that drove him is an interesting twist. He is not exactly sympathetic, but it is really amazing how a character that is unadulterated evil can get an audience to root for his overcoming of his reconditioning into society.

5. Charlize Theron as Aileen Wuornos (“Monster”)

You thought I wouldn’t include any mentally unstable women on this list? Well you were GODDAMN WRONG. Charlize Theron, without question, belongs on this list for her 2004 performance in “Monster”.

A lot of mid-twenties fanboys, such as myself, go nuts for the hardcore method acting of juggernauts such as Christian Bale, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Leonardo DiCaprio, but most of us admittedly aren’t even aware of this film’s existence, sadly. And that’s a real shame because it shows that Charlize Theron can method act better than our frat boy man-crushes. Luckily, I’m sure there are circles outside of my own where this film gets the praise it deserves.

Her performance here is genuinely disturbing. Theron utterly transforms into Aileen, both physically and mentally, and even though I only saw this film 10 years after it was released, I still fear for the well-being of Charlize. Aileen is a very disturbed street prostitute who commits a string of murders in Florida (I know, so cliché). Experts in the field verify that her performance accurately portrayed the struggles of antisocial personality disorder and borderline personality disorder. I am no expert, but she sells crazy QUITE convincingly. Also, Theron underwent a ridiculous physical transformation. Since normally she is objectively a very attractive woman, you’d be excused if you thought she actually wasn’t the one staring in the film. She gained roughly 30 pounds, wore fake teeth for the entire shoot, and even shaved off her eyebrows.

I actually have remorse that this performance isn’t higher on the list because 5 just seems too low for what it actually is. Even famed film critic Roger Ebert says that “[It] is one of the greatest performances in the history of cinema.”

4. Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes (“Misery”)

She looks like a reasonable person

We are going back-to-back! That’s right. We have got our second batshit crazy woman in a row! I’ll call that a streak at this point. Kathy Bates’s performance is one of legends. Not because of any ridiculous method acting, but simply because of how effective she was as an antagonist.

Annie Wilkes still makes me shiver whenever I see her on screen. She is the ultimate Stan (Stan is an overly obsessive fan. Listen to the song by Eminem) and is totally unhinged. She rescues her favorite author, Paul Sheldon, after a car accident and holds his life hostage until he writes her favorite character back to life. She claims she loves Paul but she brutalizes him on camera. On top of all of that, she is a serial killer. Fun! Paul discovers that she has committed a series of murders throughout the years but got away with them, which just makes her presence so suspense-inducing.

The scenes that stand out the most is when she savagely breaks Paul’s legs with a sledgehammer because she found him snooping around her house for that information, and when she drugs Paul and murders a state trooper. For a woman that looks so innocent on the outside, she is so cold and ruthless. I am very happy that this performance is appreciated even in my generation because she is genuinely one of the most intimidating antagonists in film history.

3. Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview (“There Will Be Blood”)

Danny, you also got some shmutz on your face…

DDL is arguably the greatest actor of all time, so of course he’s on this list. I had a literal metric ton of performances to choose from but honestly it had to be his turn as Daniel Plainview in “There Will Be Blood”.

Plainview is a ruthless oil tycoon around the turn of the 20th century, and while he isn’t the typical lunatic that I’ve been praising in previous entries, he is psychotic in his own way. First off, his voice. Just wow. Day-Lewis obviously is a master of his craft but he could not have constructed a voice more appropriate for the character. It is deep, scratchy, yet oh so slimy. It’s like he breaths petroleum.

As a protagonist, you root for his success, but you’re utterly amazed how a person could be so violently detached from humanity all together. He claims he has a competition in him, that he wants no one else to succeed but him, but as you watch him from start to finish in the movie, you realize just how deep he feels that. His complicated utilitarian relationship with his adopted son displays this fully. He initially uses his son as a marketing tool to appear like a family operation, but he abandons him when he is deafened in an explosion. Then when he is publicly shamed by his rival Eli for his actions, he reunites with him just to win over the townspeople. When his son grows up and wants to start his own oil company, Daniel disowns him claiming he was nothing more than “a bastard from a basket”. Those words echoing through his giant, lonely home as his son leaves him for good.

But the last scene of the film, where he finally claims victory of his internal competition, is where he really shows just what a madman he is. He savagely beats Eli to death with a bowling pin after he tells him that he had already gotten all of his oil years ago. The words “I drink your milkshake” have never been more deranged. With that, Daniel wins his competition with Eli and completely cuts himself off from the last link to humanity he still had. I think it’s a magical moment honestly.

2. Meryl Streep as Zofia “Sophie” Zawistowski (“Sophie’s Choice”)

I was so, so, so close to putting Meryl Streep at number 1. Honestly, if you put her there, I don’t blame you at all. She is a living legend and this performance in “Sophie’s Choice” is her magnum opus.

Streep plays the title character, Sophie, who recounts her experiences as a Polish immigrant and prisoner at Auschwitz. I hate to say that alone isn’t anything special in film, but it kind of is. In fact, the film itself isn’t amazing. But Streep stands out emphatically. She is tortured by her past and present, haunted by her decisions and her reality. She literally had to make a choice between which of her two children will live and which will die in a death camp. Yet Streep manages to convey the trauma without appearing too fragile, or too strong. It’s exceptionally nuanced and avoids coming off as a hackneyed “female survivor” character and becomes unique.

It was a tough order to fill, yet what makes this performance so damn exceptional is how much work Streep put into perfecting her character. She actually spent 6 months learning Polish, specifically in a genuine Polish accent. To anyone who says that’s reasonable, you’re a madman. This is the epitome of “no one else could this but her”. Her acting saves a rather underwhelming film and makes it exceptional.

The material alone is ripe for a standout performance and accolades, but Meryl proves why she is in the upper echelon of acting legends. For what it’s worth, Premier Magazine ranked this as the 3rd greatest performance of all time. They were so close to being right.

1. Heath Ledger as The Joker (“The Dark Knight”)

If anyone knows me, this one was pretty obvious. I am mildly obsessed with this performance, both as a comic book nerd and just a fan of film. I showed this performance to my mother, who thinks I get shoved into lockers and get wedgies, even as an adult, and even she, with her out-of-touch thinking, was blown away. That should be telling.

Ledger is immortalized with his performance as The Joker in the acting community. But before he took the role, fans thought he was a bad casting by Christopher Nolan. Congratulations, nerds. You. Were. Wrong. Ledger took a character that was portrayed dozens of different times in all sorts of mediums, and created something unexpected and unique. Oh yes, we’ve had plenty of psychopaths in film before. Hell, we’ve had a lot on this list alone. But goddamn is The Joker special.

For those who haven’t seen the film, The Joker is a mix of Alex DeLarge (see entry 6) and Verbal Kint from “The Usual Suspects”. The kind of chaos that is under control. Throughout the film, The Joker keeps insisting he is not crazy and he very well might not be. He’s definitely a violent sociopath but he’s so calculating and has legitimate worldviews. He is well aware of what he is doing and sees a good reason for doing it. “Do I look like a guy with a plan”? Yes! Yes, you do!

Well that is just how the character is written, and Ledger has taken that Herculean task and ran with it. He created all the weird little ticks that make The Joker so unsettling. He directed and filmed the ransom video himself. He designed the makeup himself. He created the voice after a month of being alone in a hotel room and keeping a journal of what The Joker would think. Every time he asks you if you want to know how he got his scars, you’re convinced that The Joker himself doesn’t even know or even care. He loves that you can’t understand him. He is the unstoppable force, making the perfect antagonist to the immovable object that is Christian Bale’s Batman. He doesn’t undergo a character arc, he is the character arc for everybody in the film. He is the change in Commissioner Gordon, Bruce Wayne, Alfred, and especially Harvey Dent. That could easily be confused with what any antagonist does, but no. The change is not because of The Joker, it is The Joker. I could go on and on about all the subtleties of his portrayal but I don’t intend on doubling the size of this post.

His legacy is forever tied to this performance, which won him a posthumous Oscar as a comic book character, a genre that typically is ignored by the elitists of the academy. Many people believe his sudden death was brought on by his experience playing The Joker. It’s and unfortunate and haunting aspect of the legend of this performance.

2019 Oscar Predictions

Major Categories

Best Actor

One of the more competitive acting races, I still have to say I am ultimately underwhelmed by the total. While the Academy has, let’s just say, a soft spot for roles in biopics, I tend to view them as glorified impressions, which in itself is still worthy, just not as creative. 4 of the 5 nominees fit this bill, and the one outlier, Bradley Cooper, stared in a remake of a film. So ultimately, there is nothing too original here, albeit each actor did an exceptional job becoming their characters.

Winner: Rami Malek (“Bohemian Rhapsody”) – Malek has the benefit of playing the most flamboyant character of any of the nominees, with more eye-catching quirks and an in-your-face personality. His performance is not exactly understated, but it does have its moments of humanity. Is this the greatest acting performance ever? No. That could ultimately lead me to believe this is a lesser overall class than we’ve seen, but there truly is no weak link. I would say 4 of the 5 on any given year would score a Best Actor nomination regardless of the competition, so there is that. If Malek doesn’t win, it will be Bale (“Vice”), who underwent another absurd physical transformation and actually acted more like Dick Cheney than the former Vice President, himself.

Best Supporting Actor

This category disappoints me more than ever this year. While Best Actor has the perception of a weak class, Best Supporting Actor sports that as a true reality, which is disheartening, to say the least. This category usually yields remarkable and groundbreaking performances that can change the way we think about secondary characters in film. This class simply fits comfortably in the mold and makes no attempt to break it.

Winner: Mahershala Ali (“Green Book”) – Ali is one of my favorite actors alive and it did pain me to include him in that paragraph above. Having said that, his win is an easy call. First off, he is basically a co-lead meaning he holds way more screen time than his competition. Secondly, he hits every checkmark that the Academy looks for: period piece; artist; victim of social injustice; LGBTQ character; alcoholic burdened by his own genius… You know, all those things. The reason I am so critical though is that we’ve seen that hundreds of times before. This performance doesn’t bring anything new to the table. It is not a leader, it is a follower. But it is the best of the followers.

Best Actress

This category I appreciate. The nominees all did a great job and I thoroughly enjoyed each of their performances, which is in contrast to the male categories this year. It also helps that there is potential for some competition here. Nothing helps spice up a performance more than knowing there is a lot in the real-world riding on it.

Winner: Glenn Close (“The Wife”) – Full disclosure, you could make this pick without seeing any of the films. Close has the distinction of garnering 7 Nominations without collecting a win. That alone might play as a bigger factor than the intricacies of her actual performance. She is due for a win and that is how many voters will decide. Her performance was great and she will deserve the win. Gaga had a very crowd-pleasing performance but she is almost guaranteed to win for Best Original Song which will also play a factor here. Olivia Coleman is also trending upwards and could make it interesting but the award is Close’s to lose.

Best Supporting Actress

Another great category for acting. And again, there is suspense in who the winner will be. The past few years, the winners seemed too predictable and kind of drained the fun out of it all.

Winner: Regina King (“If Beale Street Could Talk”) – I am just following the trends here. She is on an enormous hot streak and she seems to be the unstoppable force in the group. Weisz and Stone being in the same film doesn’t help their chances, nor does the fact that they’ve both already won an Oscar before. I loved Mariana De Tavira’s performance but I don’t see it winning, sadly. Amy Adams is the interesting one though. She could easily be considered the female lead for “Vice” and has legitimate screen time. She is also rather ruthless as Lynn Cheney which was fun to watch. But most importantly, this will be her sixth nomination, and yet she still does not have a win. It is a major factor in the Best Actress category as well, so it shouldn’t be taken lightly here. I would almost put her as a 50/50 split with King, but I still give King the slight edge.

Best Director

This is another relative tossup. The directors of my personal top 2 films of the year are also the 2 frontrunners for this award.

Winner: Spike Lee (“BlacKkKlansman”) – I don’t make this prediction with 100% confidence, but I do believe both Lee AND Cuarón are deserving. Honestly, either could win. But Lee doesn’t have an Oscar and Cuarón does. Lee is also in contention to be the first ever black winner of this award, and with the Academy’s recent efforts to be more socially conscious with it’s voting, maybe that could play into it. Cuarón made some brilliant artistic choices in “Roma” that certainly are deserving of recognition too. I just think I would give a slight, slight, slight edge to Lee at this point.

Best Picture

I’m just going to start with the prediction.

Winner: “Roma” – “Roma” was, for me, unexpectedly beautiful and heartbreaking. It took more somber and real material and made it compelling without the use of melodrama or monologues that typically garner attention. Instead it demands your attention with its beauty, in a way that I have rarely seen in a film before. It is an understated masterpiece that feels more real than any other film in contention. It takes creative risks, such as completely foregoing the use of a musical score, and filming in black and white at the risk becoming a cliché. And yet it takes the challenge it sets for itself and runs with it. In a world where films tend to hit you over the head with its message, “Roma” is more thoughtful and it stands out.

As for the rest of the films, most never had a real chance and should just be happy with a nomination. “BlacKkKlansman” is my runner-up, followed by “The Favourite” then “Vice”. “Green Book” is colossally overrated and cliché.

Technical Categories

Best Cinematography

Winner: Alfonso Cuarón (“Roma”) – This film was a joy to watch. Every frame was art with purpose and this film deserves to win this category

Best Visual Effects

Winner: “Avengers: Infinity War” – Nothing groundbreaking, but it is the biggest blockbuster that heavily relied on its visuals.

Best Costume Design

Winner: Sandy Powell (“The Favourite”) – Period piece that is in contention for Best Picture. These tend to win.

Best Editing

Winner: Barry Alexander Brown (“BlacKkKlansman”) – Editing was a major part of the visuals of the film. It most effectively used editing to convey its message, especially with it’s opening scene and it’s closing montage.

Best Makeup and Hair Styling

Winner: “Vice” – Did you see how they changed Christian Bale into Dick Cheney? That can’t be easy to do.

Best Production Design

Winner: “Black Panther” – I am hesitant to give credit to big budget films over smaller ones, but this is the category where they shine most. Black Panther did an exceptional job.

Best Sound Editing
Winner: “A Quiet Place” – This was the only film that relied on sound as the focal point for the narrative. The film was well received for its success in doing so in a unique way.

Best Sound Mixing

Winner: “A Star Is Born” – I almost gave this to “First Man” but sound and music was everything to “A Star Is Born”. The way the performances were recorded live and how impactful they were seal the deal for me.

Minor Categories

Best Adapted Screenplay

Winner: “BlacKkKlansman” – The best film in the category.

Best Original Screenplay

Winner: “The Favourite” – Great script with better dialogue than “Roma” and just overall better than “Green Book”.

Best Documentary Feature

Winner: “RBG” – Grossing over $14 Million is really great for a documentary, and in today’s political climate, this seems ripe for a victory.

Best Foreign Language Feature

Winner: “Roma” – A Foreign Language Feature that is also the frontrunner for Best Picture doesn’t come around often. Very easy win here.

Best Original Score

Winner: Terence Blanchard “BlacKkKlansman” – A mix of Jazz and R&B perfectly compliments the story that Spike Lee told here.

Best Original Song

Winner: “Shallow” (“A Star Is Born”) – Easy money.

Best Animated Feature

Winner: “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” – Just watch it. It’s obviously the best in this category.

Best Animated Short

Winner: “Bao” (Pixar) – This once again proves the advantage appearing with a major Pixar release brings. A mix of Chinese culture and a short story about a mother struggling with her son growing up, “Bao” was a very touching and funny short that should win.

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