Top 5 Films of 2018

           Today was a busy year for me. Married my best friend, got a new job and because of all the planning and saving lead up to said events, like the wedding, I did not see as many films as I usually do. I also did not seek out bad films this year, and if I was going to see a crappy film I better to have least thought it would be good. Because of this there is only one film I can say I didn’t at least have fun with, and that film was “Mute.” Seriously, that film has beautiful cinematography but the story and characters are absolute garbage. It feels like a bunch of hacks got their hands on “Blade Runner” and that was their creation. So one film that I saw that I wouldn’t recommend for 2018.

Some of the fun forgettable films were “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” “Aquaman,” “Pacific Rim: Uprising,” and “Ready Player One,” that I would only ever see once. They were good for the experience but I don’t ever plan to buy them.

Now for the honorable mentions. There were a lot of great films that came out this year, some of which were in pretty steep competition for 4th and 5th place. Choosing those films took a while. For the great films that weren’t in the running for 4th or 5th place there was the Coen Brothers “Ballad of Buster Scruggs” which is a wonderful western vignettes, there is the heavy metal fantasy horror of “Mandy” that is beautiful and stunning with it’s visuals and music and I did enjoy “Solo: A Star Wars Story” even though it has a really stupid name. These were some of the greats that came out this year that weren’t competing to be on the list.

Now for the honorable mentions. For the ones that were on the list or nearly made the list at different points there is “Black Panther,” which has an amazing cast, one of my Marvel’s best villains in Killmonger and a great soundtrack. The reason it didn’t make the list in the end is I did find the story a bit predictable and had seen those story beats before in other films, but I did still enjoy it immensely.

https://cameronmoviesandtv.wordpress.com/2018/02/19/black-panther-2018-seeking-justice-in-a-broken-world/

The other runner up was “Avengers: Infinity War,” like “Black Panther” we have a great villain, an amazing cast and solid soundtrack. Where it falls apart is in how it is Part 1 of 2 and if 2 fails that will effect the overall story and at times it was a bit cluttered because of all the moving parts. I also found the big battles with large armies in both “Black Panther” and “Infinity War” not as creative as they could have been given how powerful the characters are. Visually more could have been done to raise the stakes and tension. Both are still favorite films by the way, but that kept them from making my Top 5.

https://cameronmoviesandtv.wordpress.com/2018/05/21/avengers-infinity-war-2018-the-power-of-a-compelling-villain/

The final film that nearly made the list was “A Quiet Place.” “A Quiet Place” is one of my favorite horror films and feels like a classic Spielberg horror film akin to “Jaws.” Where it doesn’t work is character stupidity and the monsters, when you finally see them they look stupid. This movie showed me that it is often better to not see the monster at all if you can’t come up with something frightening. The film’s horror worked because of what you didn’t see, once you saw the horror went away.

https://cameronmoviesandtv.wordpress.com/2018/07/19/a-quiet-place-2018-the-beauty-of-silence/

Now for the Top 5 films of 2018.:

5) Bird Box

Directed by Susanne Bier

Where “A Quiet Place” ceased to be scary once you saw the monsters, “Bird Box” kept me invested through the entire film. This was a film where it is all about what you don’t see. Whatever disease or cosmic horror has effected those who have gone outside it leads them to insanity or to kill themselves, all it takes is you looking outside for them or it to get you. As a concept I already love it and what makes it work is a wonderful cast of complex characters. John Malkovich plays the bitter man whose house the survivors are staying in who loses his wife early on in the event but who develops empathy over the course of the film. Sandra Bullock’s Malorie also has a similar arc where she learns to trust and develop empathy and even eventually love the people around her.  BD Wong and Trevante Rhodes also do an amazing job as the more empathetic characters who already care and are taking care of others whose actions help shape Malorie and the survivors. The horror element of not seeing what the terror is is the basic plot of the film. I was invested in the events of the film and want to see what Susanne Bier does next. This film has received a lot of press and become a living meme of sorts. It definitely isn’t everyone’s pot of tea but for me it was worth the hype.

https://cameronmoviesandtv.wordpress.com/2019/01/01/bird-box-2018-a-fantastic-post-apocalyptic-horror-thriller/

4) Sorry to Bother You

Directed by Boots Riley

“Sorry to Bother You” is Boot Riley’s first film, and I can’t wait to see what he does next. This is a film that is a surreal trip and exploration of race, class, passing and tackling corrupt people and systems as well as how easy it is to get caught up in and becoming a part of those systems of oppression. The story follows Cassius “Cash” Green who becomes a telemarketer to pay the rent. He soon finds himself pulled into a conspiracy when he joins his friends on strike and his bosses give him a chance to take the Golden Elevator up where all the big sales happen. The story is very Terry Gilliamesque akin to “Brazil” as we see Cash changed as he rises up among the elites as it all presented in a dreamlike state before the horror is revealed underneath. I won’t give away any more, but if you like films that have a deeper point you will probably love this film.

https://cameronmoviesandtv.wordpress.com/2018/12/31/sorry-to-bother-you-2018-a-surreal-exploration-of-race-class-and-privilege/

3) Hereditary

Directed by Ari Aster

“Hereditary” is a brilliant film that explores layers of trauma. For much of the film I questioned if the supernatural element was even there because the layers of pain that exist in the abuse that the mother has faced from her own mother and in turn carried onto her children is so heartbreaking and real. It truly is no wonder why all the characters are on edge and lashing out as the story unfolds of a family’s history and the darker secrets that were kept from the mother Annie who has experienced the brunt of this trauma and manipulation. The way they express the story through symbolism is stunning too as Annie is a famous artist who creates scenes of her life growing up in miniatures that give visual cues through the film. The ending is one of the most difficult horror scenes to get through as it takes you deep into some pretty horrible events but they payoff is amazing. If you are into horror you will love this film as it is easily one of the best horror films I have ever watched.

https://cameronmoviesandtv.wordpress.com/2018/07/19/hereditary-2018-layers-of-horror-and-history-in-a-beautiful-miniature/

2) Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Directed by Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman and Bob Persichetti

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a masterpiece. This is a film that was made by Sony, so already my expectations were pretty low going in given their history of messing up the Spider-Man Franchise, but this film changes everything. This is easily the best Spider-Man film I have ever watched. We get complex heroes in Peter B. Parker, Gwen Stacey and Miles Morales (whose coming of age and becoming Spider-Man is the heart of the story) and wonderful villains like the Kingpin and Liv Octavius. This is a film that I hope suceeds as I want to see more of Gwen Stacey’s story as The Ghost Spider / Spider-Woman, I want to see more of Miles Morales and his story and I want to see the potential stories that remain in the expanse of possiblities that is the Spider-verse. This is a film that stands solidly on it’s own and even if nothing comes out of it, it was easily the best Super Hero film of the year for me and is one of the best animated films of all time (they mix different animation styles for the different characters and it works amazingly). If you haven’t seen this film yet, check it out.

https://cameronmoviesandtv.wordpress.com/2018/12/16/spider-man-into-the-spider-verse-2018-the-best-spider-man-film/

1) BlackKklansman

Directed by Spike Lee

Coming in at first we have “BlackKklansman.” This is a long film that doesn’t feel long at all given how well the character beats and message flow through the film. The story follows the first African-American cop Ron (John David Washington) in the police force in Colorado Springs and the racism and both personal and systemic that he comes up against. Sidelined within the force he calls David Duke and in turns forces the force to infiltrate the KKK in how he’s forced them to action. From here his complex relationship with Flip (Adam Driver) unfolds. This movie is full of great tension as Flip has to explore the prejudice him for being Jewish while helping the police force take down their operation they have planned in the area. The film has an amazing ending and even if the film didn’t have the exploration of racism and prejudice it’d be worth it just for the buddy cop relationship between Flip and Ron. I didn’t know what to expect going in but I came out impressed. This is an all-star cast and the writing is nearly flawless while also having some impressive cinematography that illustrates how trapped so many of the characters feel during the film. For me, this was easily the best film of the year.

https://cameronmoviesandtv.wordpress.com/2018/12/29/blackkklansman-2018-a-powerful-and-relevant-masterpiece/

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018): The Dark Humor and Despair of the “Old West”

      I am a huge Coen Brothers fan. “Fargo,” “Blood Simple” and “The Big Lewbowski” are some of my favorite films of all time and I love the desolation and farcical nature that is brought to so many of their dramas. “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is certainly up there with those films, but doesn’t quite reach their level of perfection. Lately they’ve been doing more collaborations but this is wholly a Coen Brothers film as they wrote, produced and directed this film.

    “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is a Western anthology that follows the tales of the gunslinger, the thief, the conman, the prospector, the cowboy and the bounty hunter. Each story is haunted with tales of death and destruction as all are faced with choices told in a storybook fashion. The name of the anthology also is the name of the first story within the anthology itself.

I’m judging each story individually before an overall take on the whole, since though they are each connected in theme, it is still an anthology film.

SPOILERS ahead

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is one of the happiest of the tales, as even though death and destruction happen, Buster Scruggs always has a song on his lips and his sheer joy rubs off on the events throughout the story. The story follows Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson) the Gunslinger as he goes about from town to town, taking out people who challenge him. It finally all comes to a head when the Man in Black finds him and it is the duel he finally loses, that brings his story to an end. This one was great as a musical and I love Tim Blake Nelson’s energy as Buster Scruggs. He is fun and funny and even though is willing to kill always treats people as a good person first and always has a song on his lips. This is what makes his death tragic, but he does get to go to Heaven and gets angel wings, so his story isn’t entirely tragic…especially compared to the stories that come up later.

Score: 9.4 / 10. The cinematography is beautiful, the music is great and if we’d had more time with characters it could have been a perfect Musical Western.

Near Algodones

This story is comparable to “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” in how absurd it is, though it differs in that it doesn’t have the joy of that story. This is a story of desperation and lack of luck where every situation leads to a worse one. The story follows a young cowboy (James Franco) who is attempting to rob an isolated bank. He fails and is about to be hung by local law enforcement, when some Native Americans attack and leave him to die. Another band of thieves takes him and and they are caught and brought to town to be hung. This is the young cowboy’s second hanging and the one where he finally dies. This was the story that made me wish we’d gotten the Native story in these tales. They are all from the perspective of the privileged old west, which does have intriguing stories, but the Natives are only ever antagonists or in the case of this story, indifferent. Some of that tribe’s story could have been explored in this but instead Franco’s character just takes the long way around to finally getting hung.

Score: 7.5 / 10

Meal Ticket

This story was by far the most haunting and probably my most favorite. There are two characters, the Impresario (Liam Neeson) and his actor Harrison (Harry Melling). Harrison doesn’t have arms or legs and performs speeches and Shakespeare as the Impresario travels through towns to make money. We don’t know how they came about together but we soon see how little the Impresario doesn’t care about Harrison at all leading into a tragic ending, where the Impresario buys a chicken who can do basic math and it is implied he drops Harrison into the river. This is after Harrison has stopped bringing in the money he once did. Liam Neeson plays the Impresario and is wonderfully creepy. He reminds me of a much worse version of Fagin from Dickens’ “Oliver” and seeing just how much he disregards Harrison is powerful as well as Harrison’s fear as Harrison only acts through his eyes and the acting he puts into the shows. This story is all about exploration and despair and how powerless the only good person (Harrison) is in a world that sees him as a burden or something to be exploited. It is a tragedy and easily the best story of the bunch.

Score: 10 / 10.

All Gold Canyon

“All Gold Canyon” is a film focused on the beauty of nature and the ravings of an old prospector (Tom Waits) searching for gold in the wilderness. I really enjoyed this story as so much of it is Man v Nature as the prospector goes through the process of finding gold flakes and eventually hitting the gold but finding himself attacked by a young man who was watching him as he is no longer facing the wilderness but facing the selfishness of humanity. He ends up killing the man after he outsmarts him and buries him in the small hole he created in his search for the gold. It is a really great story with the only problem being how distracting the CGI deer is. There was no reason not to use a real deer given how beautiful the landscape is and the owl looked real at least. If there hadn’t been the deer and bad CGI this story would have been perfect for what it was. I was rooting for the muttering prospector who talks to himself, I wanted him to find the gold and I was happy when he did and survived.

Final Score: 9.6 / 10

The Gal Who Got Rattled

“The Gal Who Got Rattled” is the weakest of the stories and brings everything else down. There are far too many characters, none of them are really likable or interesting and it has nothing profound to say and lacks a coherent point. The story follows Alice (Zoe Kazan) who is traveling west with her brother to marry. Her brother dies along the way and we learn she’s been conned and now doesn’t have any money. One of the cowboys falls in love with her and that goes nowhere, and later she is with her brother’s dog when they are attacked by Natives and she ends up killing herself when the leader of the caravan says she should do it cause it is a better fate than getting captured. This one has the same problems as “Near Algodones” in how the Native Americans only exist as a threat and also in that we never get to really know any of the characters. They are doing things but I couldn’t really tell you who they are. This story is cinematically beautiful, but when that is the only thing I’m saying as a pro, you kind of failed.

Final Score: 6 / 10

The Mortal Remains

“The Mortal Remains,” is also one of the best stories of the bunch. This is a story that has an element of magical surrealism to it as for a good portion of the film I thought all the characters might be dead. The story follows 5 characters in a carriage on their way to Fort Morgan in a stagecoach. The conversation unfolds as we learn about our characters and their relationships. From an old religious lady who is coming to see her husband, the Frenchman who says that her professor husband was probably cheating on her, a trapper who has no internal editor and is looked down on by the lady for how unclean he physically is and the Irishman and Englishman who we learn at the end are Bounty Hunters. There is an heir of foreboding through the entire conversation and outside it is dark and covered and mist, this made me think of the afterlife and if they were all being transported their. The fact that the carriage doesn’t stop until they reach Fort Morgan played into this. We see this theme in the hotel they stop at has a stairway of light leading up that the bounty hunters carry the dead body up and in the carriage driver whose face we never see and is always moving. My favorite characters were the bounty hunters as the others with them were a bit bland. We learn their backstory but they are more interesting in how they reacted to their situation and the bounty hunters. Their fear and not knowing what to do made them more compelling than the backstories they shared, which made the story work.

Final Score: 9 / 10. Solidly great. Would have been better with more interesting characters outside of the bounty hunters.

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is well worth your time if you are a Coen Brothers or western fan. This film captures so much of what works and doesn’t work about westerns and I loved the absurdity, detachment and sorrow that the Coens bring to their films. This is a beautiful anthology and I would have watched more stories if it had been longer. When it is great it is perfect and when it is flawed it is still enjoyable. Not many anthology films can claim that, as average is easy. This was an amazing film and definitely one of my favorites, though it might not make my Top 5 at the end of the year. This year is a year of steep competition and the things that bring the anthology down are enough to keep it from landing higher up on the list of greats this year. Still, this is a film I highly recommend. Check it out.

Final Score: 9.6 / 10 The bad stories bring it down, though the great stories make this score still very high.

Hail, Caesar! (2016): A Satire and Celebration of Hollywood’s Past

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     The Coen Brothers continue to make gold. This film is a really good satire that isn’t as great as some of their older films, but still would easily make my Top 10 Films of the Year (whether it’d make Top 5 remains to be seen). This is a film that captures the Coen Brothers’ humor, western feel and detachment that makes up so many of their films. It also does a great job illustrating the craft of making a film and all the art and messyness that goes into it as it explores it through the lens of Hollywood’s “Golden Era” during the 1950s.

    The film was written, directed and produced by Joel and Ethan Coen with the other producers being Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner.

SPOILERS ahead

      The story involves Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) the head of Production at Capitol Pictures and the drama of the life he lives as his star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) of “Hail, Caesar” is kidnapped, the pregnancy of one of his star actresses DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) and two rival gossip column sisters Thora and Thessely (Tilda Swinton) which puts the choice Lockheed Martin is offering him as an out into perspective as he must make a choice to take the offer or stay with Capitol.

The Pros: The Cinematography – The cinematography is beautiful as old style ways of filming are captured…whether it is the epic open shots of the Roman Epic “Hail, Caesar” or the small black and white of the comedy western Doyle is in, or the stark, sterile large rooms of a Laurence production. Roger Deakins truly does a fantastic job.

The Soundtrack – The soundtrack is amazing too. Just like with the cinematography all the different styles of 1950’s films are captured. From the epic trumpets of “Hail, Caesar” or the more action adventure of Doyle’s western. Carter Burwell did a great job once again.

The Writing – The Coen Brothers are great writers and though there is a narrator we never see narrating the life of Mannix, it never interferes with the story going on. We are shown and not told most of what happens and that is part of what makes the brothers so great at what they do, as the script is usually the strongest part of their films.

The Characters – The Characters are easily the strongest part of the film. This film was really well cast and each of the side characters has their moment to shine at different points.

Laurence Laurentz – Ralph Fiennes is wonderful as an uptight director doing Victorian style films who has to use Doyle, a cowboy with a very strong accent as the star of his show. Over the course of his scenes you see him slowly lose control of his calm nature and finally explode at Mannix before keeping Doyle to only two lines to make the film work. He really is a fun character.

Thora and Thessely – These two (both played by Swinton) are a lot of fun as they reveal the underbelly of everything and the drama. They have a relationship with Mannix too in that he does throw them bones to keep scandals from getting out of hand. I wish we could have seen what got them into the circuit as they are both extremely driven.

Baird Whitlock – George Clooney plays the naive star who gets kidnapped by a communist cell of writers and comes around to their way of thinking. He’s an example of the pseudo-intellectual (like many cell) except he’s largely an idiot and you get the idea he’s doing what he’s doing for the attention as him going on benders and getting into trouble is a huge part of his character. He gets his act back together though after Doyle rescues him and Mannix knocks some sense to him as we see that all he really wants is to be a star (and the attention that comes with it).

Hobie Doyle – Alden plays Doyle who was a rodeo guy who was picked up by Mannix and when he got the chance to sing became the star of westerns. He’s a kind and naive guy like Baird but also serious about his work. He doesn’t make it out of being in the westerns and he likes it that way as it gives him a chance to celebrate the western background he comes from. He’s the hero of the picture besides Mannix as he is the one who finds Whitlock and brings him back to the studio.

Joseph Silverman – Jonah Hill is awesome as the no-nonsence fixer who is a legal person so that Moran can get legal control over her child. They end up falling in love though as she’s tough and he fits what she wants in a man as they get married and leave the child behind and send it into foster care.

DeeAnna Moran – Johansson is awesome in this role and I wish we’d spent more time with her. She doesn’t care about anyone but herself and is a huge diva but in the end finds love with the most un-person person, showing that there is more to her too, though she is still extremely selfish and the character we’ve known all along as she has her child go into foster care rather than raising it. I wish we could have got more of her backstory. She steals every scene she’s in.

Eddie Mannix – Josh Brolin plays are main guy who is a rough manager facing a choice of stability with Lockheed or the chaos of the studios and making pictures. In the end he stays as he loves the challenge of it and feels he is main for it as he is made to be the Christ Figure as he is born in light (Film) and will live forever because of it. He is a smooth operator and is able to fix everything, which in the end we learn is why he likes to do it so much. It’s difficult but he’s good at it.

The Satire of Hollywood – The satire is in layers, whether it is the sisters focusing on stupid actor pairings and hookups, the communist cell intellectuals are aren’t changing anything and just hanging out in a vacationesque home and how every film we see captures the hammyness of those early productions where everything was big and overdramatic.

The Celebration of Hollywood – The very things that are being satired are celebrated too as the humanity of characters is shown. “Hail, Caesar” is a film I would watch as it has heart to it and the overdramaticness fits the film, same with the westerns that are played largely for comedy but find something more sometimes. In each thing being satired there is a celebration of the arts and film and this is shown the most when Mannix chooses Capitol Pictures of Lockheed (Where the guy kept insulting films as useless and a dying industry), making this one of the biggest love letters to the art of cinema and Hollywood’s past and present.

The Cons: Pacing – At times it goes really slow and this really hurts the overall quality of the production and keeps it from rising higher.

The Communist Cell – I felt that these guys weren’t explored as well as they could have been. They were a group of intellectuals who never got beyond that and that was a shame given that they kidnapped a person because of their beliefs.

More Character Exploration – If the script had been tighter we could have explored more of these characters more. In my opinion Manix is one of the weaker characters of the story and because the focus is on him we lose sight of the fascinating characters like Moran or the Sisters who had a lot more potential to be explored within the confines of the script.

   This was a solidly great film and well worth checking out. It isn’t the greatest of the Coen Brothers films but it doesn’t need to be. Within the confines of the story it explores all the themes and characters it means to and it presents it beautifully through the soundtrack and cinematography. This is a film well worth your time and I’m glad that this was the film that kicks off my film reviews for the films of 2016.

Final Score: 9.2 / 10

Blood Simple (1984): The Consequences of a Murder

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“Blood Simple,” is the first of the Coen Brothers. The Coen Brothers are two of my favorite film writers and directors…”Fargo,” being one of my all time favorite films. This film has all of the themes that make Coen Films so great…the bleakness, tension, dark, mystery along with well fleshed out characters. I’ll go into the details in the assessment.

The premise of “Blood Simple,” is a rich bar owner named Julian Marty (played by Dan Hedaya) hires a private investigator (Loren played by M. Emmet Walsh) to kill his wife (Abby played by Frances McDarmond) and the man she is cheating on him with (Ray played by John Getz), from here nothing goes as planned and the drama unfolds.

Here is the assessment:

The Pros: The music – The music is amazing! Especially the opening theme. It has a haunting piano melody to it that adds tension throughout the film. The use of western music adds to the “No one must live,” theme of the picture.

The Cinematography – Is fantastic! There are some of their shots that they would use later (night drives where the character’s paranoia and desolation are captured), as well as famous bullet holes through the wall at the very end and the details of the crime…from shattered glass to scattered paper…and the use of dark rooms and shadows to create tension in the lead up to murder attempts and murders. It captures the moments of never quite knowing if what the characters are seeing is real.

The script – The script has all the Coen brothers’ themes as well. The witty and intelligent dialogue mixed with dark humor and people reacting to desperate situations and lack of information (“Burn After Reading,” is a great example of this). The story never felt boring or long and it was constant action throughout.

The characters – The characters each capture the darker side of humanity in their different ways (with only a few exceptions), which make them compelling to watch besides the talent behind the characters in the actors.

Julian – Is a despicable human being, who when he finally dies is really rewarding (he tries to rape his wife). He is the silent, controlled fury for most of the time he is around who hits on people even after they say “no,” and puts down his employees for no reason. He is still played as a fully dimensional person though, just a very bad person.

Investigator Loren – Is the primary antagonist in this film in the end. He’s the one who uses Julian in order to get his money before trying to kill him, which sets off the whole chain of events that leads to him trying to kill Abby and succeeding in killing her lover Ray…who he had originally let live along with her. He holds most of the humor in the picture…joking about being mistaken for a swinger and mocking Julian about being cheated on. He is the main driver of the action once he shoots Julian which eventually leads to him later hunting down Ray and Abby before Abby ends him.

Ray – Ray is a lot like Julian but a decent human being. His biggest problem is how quick he is to trust his enemies…he begins to distrust Abby the moment Julian says she will cheat on him too…It is this that leads to his separating from her and accusing her throughout the film (he believes she shot Julian since Loren left her gun at the scene of the crime). They eventually resolve things but not before he is killed by Loren.

Abby – Is the main character and the most likable character in the whole film besides the barkeep Meurice. She is tough and fights off her husband when he attempts to rape her and is the one to finally kill Loren (she believes it is her husband since she keeps hearing that he is still alive). This film is really about her defeating her abuser and finally finding freedom in the desolate world. I love this actress…she was part of what “Fargo,” a favorite for me.

Meurice – Is the one good character in the film, which is partially because he is ignorant of the truth of events. Regardless if he’d been listened too Ray would still be alive (he tells him to leave since he believes Julian thinks he stole the money) and generally offers good advice to Abby too while putting him with Julian’s crap.

The Ending – Is perfect. Abbey kills Loren believing him to be her abusive husband…Ray meets his end as they reach some sort of resolution and we are left with the possibility of the future. It is dark and bittersweet.

The Coen Brothers, have yet to disappoint me with one of their films and I look forward to getting to the ones I’ve seen before and the ones I have not. I highly recommend this film, especially if you are looking for a good dark, thriller, western and drama.

My final score for this film is 9.8 / 10. One of my favorites after today.