While there are many current science fiction action films that rely heavily on nostalgia, Upgrade is the type of film that features throwback nods to classics of 80s sci-fi action thrillers while still bringing in original story concepts. The film utilizes practical stunt work, inventive death scenes, and eerie futurism in a way that is reminiscent of films like The Terminator, Robocop, or Total Recall, but its themes are fresh, and director Leigh Whannell combines uniquely stylized hand-to-hand combat with an interesting commentary on artificial intelligence.
Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) is a mechanic and self-professed “technophobe” who is left permanently crippled after a deadly attack leaves him disfigured and his wife dead. Grey’s life is changed when he accepts an experimental procedure that combines his body with an artificial intelligence program called STEM, paving the way for him to undertake a quest of vengeance. Not only is it a wildly entertaining revenge fantasy, but Upgrade features a strangely philosophical ending that leaves the story on an oddly profound note.
4. Boy Erased
After proving to be a talented filmmaker with the highly underrated thriller The Gift, Joel Edgerton crafted another challenging drama with the moving biographical film Boy Erased. The film tells the true story of Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges), a teenage boy sent to gay conversion therapy by his Baptist preacher father Marshall Eamons (Russell Crowe). Jared is forced into a conversion program led by the manipulative Victor Skyes, played by Edgerton.
The film is often tough to watch, as it depicts the manipulative and damaging effects of these programs with a grim intimacy, and Edgerton in particular is simply terrifying as the leader that tries to force Jared to change his identity. Hedges once again proves to be a young actor of remarkable subtlety and grace, and he gives a voice to a character who must discover himself when he’s surrounded by enemies. Crowe, as well as Nicole Kidman as his wife Nancy, give strong performances as Jared’s parents, who are forced to come to terms with their views when they witness the effect of the program on their son.
3. Blinded by the Light
Blinded by the Light is a film of pure, infectious joy, drawing the line between rabid fandom and personal inspiration through a charming coming of age musical adventure. Javed (Viveik Kalra) feels completely isolated; he doesn’t agree with the practices of his traditional Muslim family, and he struggles to fit in at school and develop his creative instincts. Javed’s world is rocked when a friend slips him a cassette tape of Bruce Springsteen’s music; when he listens to the music of “The Boss,” Javed feels like he’s been spoken to for the first time.
The sequence of Javed reveling in the words of Springsteen is among the most powerful sequences of someone discovering their love for a work of art depicted on screen, and seeing Javed take these words to heart makes for a potent story of a young man finding his voice. Kalra captures the adventurous spirit of the boy, and the film also features a remarkable supporting performance by Kulvinder Ghir as Javed’s father Malik; Ghir is able to transcend the “overbearing father” stereotype with an emotional performance, and the scenes of father and son working out their differences are quite profound.
2. Dragged Across Concrete
S. Craig Zahler is perhaps the boldest and most exciting cult filmmaker today, and his first two films Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99 proved to be instant grindhouse classics. Zahler’s third, and most controversial, film Dragged Across Concrete is an unflinching look at the reality of police corruption, told with a sickening fixation on slow burn violence and escalating situations. Mel Gibson stars as Brett Ridgemen, a corrupt cop who is suspended from duty after a video leaks of him using excessive force to apprehend a suspect.
Ridgemen comes to question what the future of his family is, as his daughter faces harassment at school, and he ropes in his partner Anthony Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn) as they follow a group of bank robbers on a long getaway. It’s a film filled with unlikeable characters and inflammatory statements, but Zahler proves to be a master of suspense with his drawn out sequences of dread and terror. The film’s moral greyness and unflinching realism make it one of the more compelling crime thrillers of its time.
1. American Animals
American Animals is a film of splendid imagination, combining interviews with the real subjects of a true crime case and recreated footage that tells their story in a narrative context. The four leads are Warren Lipka (Evan Peters), Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan), Chas Allen (Blake Jenner), and Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson), four students who plot a robbery of their university’s library for rare books. These men aren’t motivated by greed or by defiance, but they all feel as if there is something missing in their lives, leading them to make choices that will forever alter them as people.
The film utilizes the fact that the narrative segments are inherently recreations to peel back the layers of true crime; often, Lipka is unreliable, so many of the segments involving his character can be interpreted as exaggerated or even imagined. The heist sequence of the film is exhilarating, as the characters are forced to abandon their meticulous planning for a frantic and haphazard one, but what’s more impressive is the way in which the film deals with the anxiety and regret they face after committing the heist. A nail biting work of suspense that includes phenomenal performances from its cast, American Animals is a sorely underseen film that deserves to be regarded as a modern classic.