Tag Archives: Sicario

What Were the Best Films of the 2010s?

Sarah Polley in Stories We Tell

The best films of the decade will be wildly different for everyone. Naming them is a way of highlighting what you value and anchor to. It might call attention to a movie someone else hasn’t seen, or that they don’t see the same way as you. The films on lists like these show us something about ourselves.

Sometimes the films named anticipate a movement that follows, or interpret one already happening. Other films are simply unique, and unlike anything else. Is the perfect war film superior to a challenging and flawed film that’s utterly unique and does what no other film you’ve ever seen before has? The answer to that is going to vary by critic, by viewer. The reasons for that answer are more important than the answer itself.

These are the films that stay with me, that I think about on random days because they’re close to me. There are elements in some of them I haven’t fully figured out. The viewing experience may have been going on for years because I still haven’t stepped out of that beautiful moment after the credits are over and I consider the way each sits like a presence beside me.

10. “Selma”

written by Paul Webb
directed by Ava DuVernay

“Selma” isn’t a biographical or historical film. It’s a war film. It communicates the process and procedure of meaningful protest. It follows the strategies the groups involved created and reacted to. It engages the architecture of successful protest and the work that goes into it at the ground level. It’s not a film about individual icons, though it features them. It’s a film about real, flawed people who fostered and empowered community to make change.

“Selma” measures its sacrifices as both countless and deeply personal. Each is unknowable as even more mount, and each is world shattering for the people left in its wake. It’s an exercise in perfect direction and tight character acting. It doesn’t stylize its era and it spends time with smaller roles to show you the impacts and emotion of that moment in time.

(Read my original review.)

9. “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem”

written and directed by Ronit Elkabetz & Shlomi Elkabetz

The third film chronicling a troubled and unsatisfactory marriage, “Gett” is a movie that erodes you just as it does its main character. Struggling against her country’s religious laws, Viviane Amsalem (co-writer/director Ronit Elkabetz) spends years in court trying to obtain a divorce from her husband.

He refuses to grant her one, and even when he does the conditions are his alone and subject to change. The film is simply presented, relying on its very real performances. Among many other things, “Gett” is an incredible examination of communicating desperation through restrained and even dulled emotions. It’s a film that, inside one courtroom, portrays a consistent resistance to the normalization of being treated as sub-human and without rights.

8. “The Secret of Kells”

written by Tomm Moore & Fabrice Ziolkowski
directed by Tomm Moore & Nora Twomey
(released in 2009, U.S. in 2010)

“The Secret of Kells” designed its animation to look like the illuminated manuscripts that monks would spend years designing. The story it told concerned some of those monks attempting to finish the Book of Kells and then save the manuscript before invading vikings pillage their abbey. It doesn’t help that a god of death is lurking in the woods, but a helpful faerie does her best to help.

It all sounds a bit ridiculous, but it works as a beautiful fable and the Celtic-styled animation is often overwhelming, stunning, and evocative. The film achieves an experience of calm and wholeness that matches the best of Hayao Miyazaki.

7. “Interstellar”

written by Jonathan Nolan & Christopher Nolan
directed by Christopher Nolan

This is one of the two big event films on the list, and I genuinely think it deserves to be here. As a high-concept science-fiction film, it sits comfortably alongside predecessors like “2001”. What’s unique about writer-director Christopher Nolan is that in his best moments, he melds high-concept to event filmmaking. That “Interstellar” also succeeds as an adventure film is incredible.

It’s also a movie that finds hope buried under layers of hopelessness. It presents a world that’s given up, that lies to itself to maintain the illusion that it’s not clearly dying – a world that becomes more and more familiar with each passing day – and it shows us an optimistic story of finding a way through. That way through is demanding, it takes generations, and it asks for work and sacrifice.

(Read my original review.)

6. “Under the Skin”

written by Walter Campbell & Jonathan Glazer
directed by Jonathan Glazer

“Under the Skin” is an art film that nearly all my friends hate. I love it. It’s a chaotic and lurking work that follows an alien (Scarlett Johansson) as she picks up lonely men and consumes them. You try to understand her and her burgeoning interest in becoming human – or at least experiencing human things.

The specifics of the Michel Faber novel on which it’s based are thrown to the side in favor of a multitude of potential readings. In fact, director Jonathan Glazer allowed his crew to design and score the film according to their own individual interpretations. A movie can so easily go careening off into disaster with that approach – and some would say this one did.

For me, however, it’s a disturbing work of inverting horror. It asks you to identify with a predator, making it inaccessible as it should be but coaxing you into the work of attempting to do it anyway. Then it confronts you with the idea that this is the work you’ve been doing. That might seem like a betrayal or trick on the movie’s part, but so much of our society has been built on normalizing and shielding predators that we’ve now elected one. Maybe we could have used a few more movies like this one.

(Read my original review.)
(Read my interview with author Michel Faber.)

5. “Life of Pi”

written by David Magee
directed by Ang Lee

Few films try to tackle the meaning of faith. Far fewer actually engage it without focusing on proselytizing or idolatry. “Life of Pi” tells the story of a young survivor stuck on a life raft with a tiger. The second of the two event films on this list, it’s patient, heartbreaking, and utterly human.

I hate frame stories – they’re a terribly used concept across movies. Yet the idea of a journalist going to interview the survivor as an adult allows Irrfan Khan to recall his story in ways that build both emotional and logical anchors (Khan has a solid and overlooked argument for greatest actor of his generation). Doing so creates a remarkable moment of self-questioning in the audience that makes the frame story a valuable way of describing and explaining hope and faith.

4. “Sicario”

written by Taylor Sheridan
directed by Denis Villeneuve

“Sicario” is a stalking thing. It’s a movie that’s a nightmare, a film about FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt). She’s tasked to an ill-defined covert operations team in order to legitimize its actions across the U.S.-Mexico border. It’s all standard spy fare so far, right? The film itself begins like a mystery and descends into a murk of threat and erasure.

It’s controversial in some circles of critics of color because of the way it poses Mexico as a war zone for the drug trade. The presentation in the film is definitely somewhat overblown. I find value in how the film illustrates the way the United States feeds the drug trade and installs leaders who are no less violent – but whose violence simply aligns with and feeds the financing of our own.

The villain in the film isn’t ultimately Mexico in any way. The villain is U.S. imperialism. What’s powerful in the film to me is one woman simply trying to do her job, and how the overwhelming nature of that imperialism increasingly dissolves the values that she imagines she’s risking her life to uphold. As I put it in my review, “It’s not the threat to Kate’s life that is most compelling. It’s the threat to the idea that Kate’s life matters”. For my money, it’s Blunt’s best performance.

(Read my original review.)
(Read my Best Film of 2015 piece.)

3. “Girlhood”

written and directed by Celine Sciamma

I once called “Sicario” the best film of 2015. I don’t know that I was wrong – it’s very close by in this list. The movie that’s stuck with me ever so slightly more, however, is my runner up that year – Celine Sciamma’s “Girlhood”. I’ve found that many “bests” in years past have shifted slightly – this list itself might look entirely different in a decade’s time.

“Girlhood” itself is a coming-of-age movie that doesn’t deal in the usual trials and tribulations of maturing. It follows a group of high-school girls in France. Most of them are Black or of Middle Eastern descent. The film deals with trans identity. It covers the silence of women before groups of men. It shows the path of maturing in a far different light than in the safe, stereotypical, low-risk, middle class ways that most coming-of-age tales cover.

It’s a film that shows growing up as a constant struggle to find or create safe harbor in a world that doesn’t provide it for everyone. It is inspiring, emotional, evolving, it feels all the more real when very light touches of magical realism are used, and there is a full scope of emotion to it – from the joy of community to the isolation of survival.

(Read my Runner-Up of 2015 piece.)

2. “Stories We Tell”

written by Sarah Polley & Michael Polley
directed by Sarah Polley

“Stories We Tell” is a complex family documentary that covers extensive meta territory. Filmmaker Sarah Polley was curious about stories that she might not be her father’s daughter. She delved into her own family’s history to profile her late mother, interview her mother’s lovers, her own family, and to research who exactly she was, what stories shaped her, and which were truthful.

One of the most interesting aspects of the documentary is that Michael Polley – her mother’s husband and the father who raised her, serves as narrator for it. He’s also interviewed, and his calm and acceptance of the entire endeavor is another layer to be…not examined, but simply sat with and understood.

The film reveals piece by piece, but it’s never a mystery so much as it’s a contemplation of lives lived, of what a person understands about someone they love and might also fail to understand about them. It’s unlike anything else I’ve seen, and stands out as something truly and quietly unique in all of film.

1. “The Milk of Sorrow”

written and directed by Claudia Llosa
(released in 2009, U.S. in 2010)

“The Milk of Sorrow” is a Peruvian film that traces how trauma shapes future generations. It follows Fausta (Magaly Solier), a young woman whose mother passes away in a remarkable first scene. Fausta’s mother was raped in a civil war, and her stories and experiences of this have shaped Fausta’s view of the world. She passes through it quietly, timidly, shying from a hundred normal things that she reads as potential dangers.

Fausta’s also made shocking decisions for her own health that make no sense, but that are framed by paranoia, superstition, fear, and how trauma has infused itself into folklore. The film is a reserved piece of magical realism that traces in one character how trauma echoes in a society – especially among its indigenous communities.

The cinematography is stark and beautiful one minute, rich and full of motion the next, yet another argument that Natasha Braier is without a doubt the cinematographer most overlooked by the Oscars this last decade. Writer-director Claudia Llosa’s film operates on two levels: a quiet, obvious, and patient one on the surface, and one that exists below that in the muted suppression of panic that deals with anxiety, shame, and betrayal.

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“Sicario” — The Best Film of 2015

by Gabriel Valdez

“Sicario” is a masterpiece of the inevitable, of the unavoidable, of the moment you know you’re leading to your entire life and dread facing, because you know you’ll be less coming away from it. And yet everyone involved must, because they are who they are.

The architecture of this is brilliant:

The visuals frame the dust hanging in the midday sun, the evening clouds, the ground underneath your feet, all as unfeeling and silent witnesses to what takes place before them. The textures of these interstitial moments are felt and given room to breathe even as the action takes place before them. It makes the story smaller, and in feeling smaller it becomes more personal. This is no epic. This is the ruination of a week in front of our eyes.

Lives are cast asunder. The music sometimes hunts you. You can hear it lurking around the bend. Voices yearn at something beautiful. The strings plunge deeper than you thought they could. The horns fret and cackle amongst themselves. The music is a vulture. The music is the sand, shifting yet immutable. The music is your thirst, some nostalgia for an ideal of a world that requires your willing ignorance to believe in. There’s a string you can cling to, high and disappearing.

We live our lives discovering who we are and why we are that way, of learning ourselves better than we did the day or week or month before. Of putting one foot in front of the other. Our hearts will break and heal, and break and heal, but they are rarely stolen out from our chests in ways that force us to relinquish our Who and our Why. “Sicario” takes that away. “Sicario” plunges a hand into one woman’s chest over the course of a film and takes away who she is, why she is.

“Sicario” is the husking of people, in a broad sense through the political games of the Drug War, and in a specific sense in the decimation of how one woman’s shaped herself over the course of her lifetime.

“Sicario” is conscious of this, and so it gives you breaks to breathe. Yet the horror is in the breathing, in those moments in between. It is a film of anticipations, of hearing the hunt around the bend. You look around and you see the dust in the air, the clouds in the sky, the ground beneath your feet. It makes your story smaller, it makes it more personal. It makes you wish you didn’t have that chance to breathe and recognize these things.

“Sicario” is a vulture. It picks the bones of people clean. It takes the best of us and shows her to be useless in the face of an unfeeling system that has its own agenda. It is a masterpiece of meeting your fate, and having no self left into which you can recede.

Sicario poster

Images are from Space and Jo Blo.

The Mid-Budget Film Awards of 2015

Emily Blunt in Sicario tunnels

Mid-budget films are an interesting breed these days. There’s been a great deal made about their extinction, though much of these claims exist in pretty selective territory. While it’s true that David Lynch, Steven Soderbergh, and John Waters have more trouble getting films funded these days, Clint Eastwood, Todd Haynes, and Denis Villeneuve don’t.

Google a couple of articles about the death of mid-budget film. Try this one, for instance. They lament that “L.A. Confidential” could never be made today, but wasn’t “Sicario” made just this year?

“The Insider” would never find a budget today! Except “Spotlight” found a budget without the benefit of Al Pacino and Russell Crowe.

“Zodiac” could never be made! Except “Gone Girl” was made just last year.

“In the Line of Fire?” If only lead actor Clint Eastwood had built an entire career of directing successful mid-budget films.

And certainly “Apocalypse Now” couldn’t be made for $32 million today! Well, considering that $32 million in 1979 is $104 million today, no it couldn’t.

Critics also lament that Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy, and Bill Murray are essentially retired. Well, yeah, but funding for mid-budget comedy didn’t go with them. You may not like Kevin Hart, Jonah Hill, Anna Kendrick, Melissa McCarthy, or Seth Rogen, but their films are getting funded and make money.

These arguments also ignore the rise in what the industry rather derisively refers to as “urban” films. If you ignore the rise of Black and Hispanic filmmaking, then yes, the mid-budget film industry is struggling because you’re cutting half of it out. Yet Black filmmaking, and especially African-American comedy, is based almost entirely within the mid-budget realm. The spate of Mexican and Spanish directors Pedro Almodovar, Alfonso Cuaron, Guillermo Del Toro, and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu have brought up through the industry operate across that same mid-budget range.

When we talk about the death of the mid-budget film, we’re being incredibly selective with our choices.

For our purposes, we are defining a mid-budget film for 2015 as any film that cost between $15 million and $50 million to produce, and was either shown in at least 100 theaters for the first time in 2015, or (failing the theater requirement) became widely available to audiences through rental or streaming during 2015. The following was voted on and written by: S.L. Fevre, Eden O’Nuallain, Cleopatra Parnell, Amanda Smith, Rachel Ann Taylor, Vanessa Tottle, and Gabriel Valdez:

Best Supporting Actor in a Mid-Budget Film
Jessica Chastain, A Most Violent Year

We liked Kate Winslet in “Steve Jobs” quite a bit, as well as Mark Ruffalo’s role in “Spotlight.” Both earned Oscar nominations. What didn’t were Benicio Del Toro’s and Josh Brolin’s roles in “Sicario,” which also got a great deal of support from us. In the end, it was a close vote (that required a second ballot), but we decided on a role from a film that tried to play last year’s Oscar race, failed, and subsequently fell between the 2015-2016 gap.

Behind every great man is a great woman. That’s how the saying goes, isn’t it? In “A Most Violent Year,” the reality is a bit different. Behind Oscar Isaac’s upstanding businessman Abel Morales is a terrifying power player in Jessica Chastain’s Anna.

Abel handles their business legally, even as competing suppliers start hijacking their trucks, kidnapping their salesmen, and beating their drivers at gunpoint. It’s Anna who threatens to start doing things her way. As the daughter (and perhaps even heir apparent) to a mob empire, she’s largely given up those responsibilities in order to build a life with Abel on his more honest path.

Yet she’s constantly keeping her finger on the pulse of the film. In fact, as the company’s accountant, she often knows more than anyone else. She makes all involved aware that if and when she’s needed, she will involve herself in ways that others will not like. It may be Isaac who’s embodying an Al Pacino-style role here, but it’s Chastain who brings to life the lurking indignance, the quiet rage, and the unspoken threat of what happens when you make her angry.

And yes, this is the second supporting actor award we’ve given Chastain this year (the other being in big budget films for her role in “Crimson Peak.”)

All actors receiving a vote (descending order):
Jessica Chastain, “A Most Violent Year”
Mark Ruffalo, “Spotlight”
Kate Winslet, “Steve Jobs”
Benicio Del Toro, “Sicario”
Josh Brolin, “Sicario”
Mark Rylance, “Bridge of Spies”
Yo-landi Visser, “Chappie”
Rachel McAdams, “Spotlight”
Jason Mitchell, “Straight Outta Compton”
Elyes Gabel, “A Most Violent Year”
Olga Kurylenko, “The Water Diviner”

Best Actor in a Mid-Budget Film
TIE: Rooney Mara, Carol
& Emily Blunt, Sicario

When we did a check-in last September, Oscar Isaac handily led this race because of his performance in “A Most Violent Year.” Nobody even came close. Then Gabe saw “Sicario” and insisted we all needed to see it in the theaters. Then Eden saw “Carol” and insisted we all needed to see that in the theaters.

Now, all seven of us have either Emily Blunt or Rooney Mara at the top of our shortlists. Although their order varies, five of the seven of us have them going 1-2 on our shortlists. Blunt got a few more points in our system, but we unanimously decided to call it a tie. Sorry, Oscar Isaac. Both Blunt and Mara dominated their films, albeit in tremendously different ways.

Mara has been doing remarkable work for years. Her run from “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” to “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” and “Side Effects” is one of the more impressive and rangy stretches of acting in the last decade. Mara’s performance in “Carol” is as vulnerable as acting gets. As the shopgirl and photographer swept up in the charms of a glamorous woman, Mara’s performance is made of utterly human reactions. From helplessness to confidence, from confusion to realization, it’s a performance to break hearts. Yet first it demands the actor break her own so that the rest of us can be let in.

Blunt is the polar opposite as Kate Macer in “Sicario.” The leader of an FBI SWAT team, she is tasked to an anti-cartel operation that doesn’t seem to be telling her the entire truth. Tough, commanding, sure of herself but distrusting of others, Blunt makes Kate one of the strongest heroes in recent thrillers.

Despite playing a very different sort of character, the unspoken treatment of Kate by the men around her most recalls Jodie Foster’s role in “Silence of the Lambs.” “Sicario” puts Kate’s life at stake a few times, but what it’s really doing is putting her entire reason for being at stake. It puts all of who she is and why she is on the table, and when Kate is finally confronted with making a choice between that and survival, Blunt makes you inhabit the impossible choice of that moment like few actors can.

All actors receiving a vote (descending order):
Emily Blunt, “Sicario”
Rooney Mara, “Carol”
Oscar Isaac, “A Most Violent Year”
Michael B. Jordan, “Creed”
Bryan Cranston, “Trumbo”
Alicia Vikander, “The Danish Girl”
Cate Blanchett, “Carol”

Best Screenplay in a Mid-Budget Film
Spotlight

We had to do three ballots to finally figure this one out. See, we liked “Carol” for its lack of frills – for its ability to get at the story, yet it’s a film that puts a little more on its performances, direction, and design. We adored “A Most Violent Year” because it depicts a gangster film from the perspective of the one honest person in the entire plot. It also depicts that determination for honesty as something that can be wielded very powerfully.

Ultimately, we chose “Spotlight,” the story of the Boston Globe investigative team that revealed systemic sexual abuse of children in the Boston area by Catholic priests. Making a film about a procedural investigation is difficult, not least because we’re inundated with procedural TV series that increasingly make procedure up as they go. “Spotlight” manages to find the drama in the process of uncovering research. It also boils down the essence of editor-reporter relationships: when you pursue a story and when you don’t, how you keep a story churning when it gets put on the backburner, when you have to break the rules that protect yourself in pursuit of a breakthrough.

“Spotlight” is a special film in how it gives its entire cast a process to work through as their characters. It also presents the investigatory process to audiences as a living mechanism to reveal truth and affect change.

All writers receiving a vote (descending order):
Josh Singer & Tom McCarthy, “Spotlight”
J.C. Chandor, “A Most Violent Year”
Phyllis Nagy, “Carol”
Charles Randolph & Adam McKay, “The Big Short”
Taylor Sheridan, “Sicario”
Aaron Sorkin, “Steve Jobs”
Matt Charman, Ethan & Joel Coen, “Bridge of Spies”
Ryan Coogler & Aaron Covington, “Creed”
Jonathan Herman & Andrea Berloff, “Straight Outta Compton”
John McNamara, “Trumbo”

Best Director of a Mid-Budget Film
Sicario

We liked “A Most Violent Year” and “Carol,” but this was a runaway vote. “Sicario” is just too perfect of a beast. There’s a sense that every speck of dust in the film has been consciously placed where it needs to be, yet the film doesn’t feel passionless because of this. If anything, the film is yearning yet melancholy, dissatisfied yet resigned. Those are rare descriptions for a thriller about the Drug War.

Despite its sense of control, however, the actors seem to have been given free reign. They’re taking chances routinely, which is something that’s come to define Denis Villeneuve’s films. There’s a sense of history, of lives lived, of both small and large sacrifices made in each of their lives that bring them to this point. “Sicario” is less of a story, and more of a culmination of lives thrown together.

It’s this mix of organic, loose performances in a tightly controlled world that makes “Sicario” feel most real. Sometimes we feel like the universe is against us, as if we’re responding too organically to something that’s consciously leading us down a path without our knowledge. “Sicario” is drenched in that feeling because it’s more or less the truth of this film. Villeneuve has made this feeling, this sense of inevitability, his calling card on film. It is rare and powerful, and it makes his films feel truly unique and purposeful.

All directors receiving a vote (in descending order):
Denis Villeneuve, “Sicario”
Todd Haynes, “Carol”
J.C. Chandor, “A Most Violent Year”
Tom McCarthy, “Spotlight”
Ryan Coogler, “Creed”
Adam McKay, “The Big Short”
Steven Spielberg, “Bridge of Spies”
F. Gary Gray, “Straight Outta Compton”

Best Mid-Budget Film of 2015
Carol

If you’re guessing this came down to a four-horse race, you’re right. Even on our final vote, the difference between “Spotlight” (4th) and “Carol” (1st) was a difference between 2 points out of a possible 21. “A Most Violent Year” and “Sicario” were stuck in between.

Ultimately, “Carol” carried it, and for good reason. The love story at its core is exquisitely realized. Few films are able to carry their emotions on the surface while also hiding them from view. There’s a sense of privacy to the film, as if we’re looking in on someone else’s life from the outside. It makes us feel both invited and intrusive. “Carol” occupies a beautiful middle space that runs counter to the world continuously buzzing around its characters. That helps us feel the impossible space a lesbian relationship had to occupy in 1952, and in many ways in our society, still does.

It’s a beautiful film and one that travels in ways you don’t expect. Its snub for Best Picture at the Oscars is inexplicable.

All films receiving a vote (in descending order):
Carol
Sicario
A Most Violent Year
Spotlight
Creed
The Big Short
Bridge of Spies
Straight Outta Compton

Also check out our awards for Big Budget Films in 2015.

 

Where did we get our images? The featured image from “Carol” comes from Roger Ebert’s site, still maintained by a host of other reviewers even after the great critic’s passing. The image from “Sicario” is from Fox Force Five’s review.

“Sicario” is a Beautiful, Vicious, Primal Slow Burn

Emily Blunt in Sicario tunnels

A pulsing, foreboding sense of threat. A festering thought you can’t quite pin down, that you know will come back to bite you. Realizations of something sickening and bad you’ve gotten yourself into. “Sicario” is all these things and more. It’s a rare thriller of powerful patience and primal rhythm. It will hook you and keep you strung out so far along its line that you’ll never see where you’re being taken until it’s too late.

Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) leads a SWAT team for the FBI. After her team suffers losses due to an IED planted in an Arizona home, she’s recruited by an adviser to the Department of Justice. They’re going after the leader of one of Mexico’s largest drug cartels. It becomes quickly apparent that she can’t trust this adviser, Matt Graver (Josh Brolin). Is he CIA? Something else? How legal is their operation? Why is she along when her only purpose seems to be getting babysat? Incursions into Mexico, highway firefights, desperate struggles, and hidden politics throw Kate back and forth as she grows increasingly suspicious of the mission for which she’s volunteered.

You will feel terrible for Kate. She’s risking her life for something idealistic and she’s pulled from that into doing something that only contributes to elongating the cycle of violence she’s trying to stop. She’s a warrior fighting for her ideals in a war that never had any to start. She becomes a victim of what’s expedient, what pushes the problem down the line for someone else.

“Sicario” is a vicious movie. It’s not overly gritty. It’s very distanced and removed at points, making you care for Kate by holding you back from her. This only adds to the film’s viciousness. There’s little release, and yet there’s a primal energy pulsing through it all. Director Denis Villeneuve (“Prisoners”) is a master of the slow burn, of waiting for the other shoe to drop. He utilizes exacting yet heartfelt detail in every scene. How light plays off Kate’s face, the rhythms of editing, when to cut to an actor’s tic all contribute to shaping for us the worlds of other people’s lives.

Here, he’s created something ugly and threatening, yet there’s so much attention to the details and texture of each moment. There’s the contrast of the looming clouds. There’s the sand as colored by the light of the morning. Even different forms of night vision are used at one point to evoke something otherworldly, as if descending into Hell itself. There are beautiful moments even amid such viciousness. The characters don’t notice, but it’s impossible as a viewer to avoid them. Minor details embrace the feeling of the moment in contrast to the over-arching, cold, dispassionate reality of it.

Emily Blunt in Sicario highway

Then there’s Emily Blunt. She is remarkable. This is performance-of-the-year territory. She will break your heart not because she tries, but because she tries so hard not to.

The entire ensemble follows suit. Brolin is grimy, hard to pin down, some evolved form of the most easygoing yet manipulative characters he’s played. Benicio Del Toro plays Alejandro, who – well, you’re not really meant to be sure who he is. Daniel Kaluuya is Kate’s SWAT partner Reggie, loyal to a fault. Theirs is a compelling and very real friendship.

The musical score by Johann Johannsson contributes incredible tension. It plays its most intense moments as muted, far off. It’s like hearing a hunting party beyond a hill, or relentless drums around the bend, their reverberation growing louder than the sound itself, sudden silences creating more anticipation than relief.

This is a film that plants itself in your head and simmers there. It gives you consequences and then lurks. “No Country for Old Men.” “Zero Dark Thirty.” “Traffic.” The list of films that resemble “Sicario” is a list of tonal high points in cinema, and yet none of them fully captures quite what “Sicario” is. If there’s a movie it reminds me of most, it’s “Silence of the Lambs.” It’s patient in closing its trap. It presents the treatment of a sole woman amid a group of men in particular and subtle ways. Nothing’s ever said out loud, but a moment of derision, being made to feel extraneous to the moment, and certain visual cues all combine to make a point of her treatment.

In its own way, “Sicario” would fit right into gothic horror. It’s trappings are as far away from the genre as you could get – sand, cigarettes, and assault rifles. Yet at the same time, the madness of how our drug war has evolved, fighting the very monsters we propagate – there’s nothing more gothic in theme.

That’s where “Sicario” gets you. It’s not the threat to Kate’s life that is most compelling. It’s the threat to the idea that Kate’s life matters. The notion that it doesn’t, that what she does with it, that what truth she chooses to hold is inconsequential…that’s why “Sicario” is such a vicious thing. These are ideas that can be vicious without ever making themselves apparent. They just wear you down. And “Sicario” presents this masterfully. It is easily in the conversation for Film of the Year.

Does it Pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

This section uses the Bechdel-Wallace Test as a foundation to discuss the representation of women in film.

1. Does “Sicario” have more than one woman in it?

Not really. Kate is played by Emily Blunt. There are two other women who feature in moments, but neither speaks a line.

2. Do they talk to each other?

Not applicable.

3. About something other than a man?

Not applicable.

My own read on “Sicario” is that this is very purposeful, but mine is not the only read, so take it with a grain of salt. I compare it to “Silence of the Lambs” in the way that the film purposefully isolates a woman amid men, yet even “Silence of the Lambs” manages to pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test.

Emily Blunt easily owns more screen time than any other character. She is, essentially, the only main character. “Sicario” feels like a Greek hero myth gone terribly wrong. Her being one of a kind, an outsider in another world, is the entire point. In some of the same ways “Silence of the Lambs” visually laid into the treatment of a professional woman in a field of men, “Sicario” uses specific actions to isolate Kate amid the men with whom she works. It’s not always comfortable. In fact, “Silence of the Lambs” is a bit of an upper compared to “Sicario.” Kate’s partner, Reggie, is the only black character. That’s no mistake either.

Normally, I’d criticize a film for making decisions to isolate women or black characters in such a way without stating a clear message as to why, yet “Sicario” is undeniably aware of these two characters, making a point of their treatment without ever saying it aloud. The isolation itself is a commentary. The violence other characters are willing to let Kate suffer is a commentary. “Sicario” reveals itself to be angry about very specific things later on, but to describe them would enter spoiler territory.

Kate and Reggie are, essentially, our only two good characters, the only ones who stay true and heroic. Kate dominates the story. Sometimes she is tough. Sometimes she comes out on the losing end anyway. This is the story of a hero meeting something that can’t be beaten, not because of her shortcomings but because of everyone else’s. If she can’t beat it, no one can. She’s a role model and a hero, but she’s also alone.

Again, take this with a grain of salt. I am a man. It would not be the first time I let a film off more lightly in this section than I should. With certain films, it can be difficult to balance my reading of it against its feminist qualities. If I always knew which films those were, then it wouldn’t be so difficult. I come with my own subjective limitations, though I do my best. This section is never meant to present me as an expert in feminism. It’s meant to do something that critics should be doing more often, but aren’t. It’s meant to provide a place to discuss these things, not decide them altogether.

I feel “Sicario” uses Kate’s isolation and the visual language inherent to certain moments of violence directed against her to consciously acknowledge and portray an aspect of the difficulty she faces: as a woman in a field where the men around her dismiss her usefulness. I could be wrong on that point. It could instead use those elements as shortcuts. I may let the bias of how good I feel “Sicario” is influence my reading of those elements.

I left the film considering Kate the kind of hero who would make it far as the protagonist in 1970s cinema, as a beset outsider trying to ferret out a truth. Others may feel differently about her treatment and they wouldn’t necessarily be wrong.

That may or may not be helpful, but something that critics need to do more often and something that men in particular need to be open to doing is admitting when we just don’t know something, even in our field. When some aspect of a particular film lies outside my realm of knowledge or expertise, I will tell you how I feel, what my inclinations are, but the most honest thing I can couch that in is, “I don’t know.”

“Sicario” is challenging. It will be a film I think about and pick apart for a long time. I may write about more realizations down the road. As of this moment, whether it’s feminist or not – the best answer I can give is: I think so, but in such particular, subtle, and experiential ways that I might be misreading it. If those ways translate through the experiences of a woman, then as a man, I’m not the best qualified to assess them. Sometimes that happens. As a critic, it’s not my job to give you my best guess when an aspect of a film reaches outside my realm. It’s my job to recognize what’s in and out of my realm, to give you my best guess knowing that, and to be clear to you about what qualifications I both possess and lack in making that assessment. “Sicario” reaches outside my realm in certain ways, and it drives me to understand those ways better.

Where did we get our amazing images? The last shot of Emily Blunt, in the car, is from The Film Stage’s article 8 Films to Watch Before Sicario. They have some very good recommendations. The feature and top images are from Fox Force Five News’ review of “Sicario.”