While we could easily fill several pages with suggestions of great films and cool box sets that deserve a spot on any holiday wish list, we’ve picked some of our favorites released over the past 12 months. If you can’t find anything worth buying here, then chances are that the person you’re shopping for doesn’t like movies.
Click the links within the write-ups to purchase each product online, and check back throughout the week for more additions to our Holiday Gift Guide.
Captain America: Civil War
“Civil War” has been jokingly referred to as “Avengers 2.5,” and for good reason, because while the movie may be a Captain America sequel in name, it’s a continuation of several different story threads from “Winter Soldier,” “Age of Ultron” and more. Though the film feels a bit crowded at times with all the various characters and cameos (including the introduction of Black Panther and Spider-Man), they never overshadow the central conflict. Unlike “Batman v Superman,” “Civil War” actually gives its characters a reason for fighting, and that goes a long way in legitimizing the ideological and physical clash between its opposing heroes. The movie isn’t perfect – Daniel Brühl’s villainous Zemo is underserved, and the filmmakers ignore a key argument in favor of the anti-registration side – but it does such a good job of balancing the emotionally-charged narrative with some excellent action sequences and fan service that those flaws seem trivial in comparison. “Civil War” is perhaps Marvel’s darkest and most mature film to date, but it still knows how to have fun, and that’s key to its success.
The Nice Guys
Shane Black is to buddy cop films what Raymond Chandler is to hard-boiled crime novels, and his latest movie, the retro detective noir “The Nice Guys,” is arguably his best entry in the genre since redefining the buddy cop formula three decades earlier with “Lethal Weapon.” Although it hits all the usual beats of a Shane Black feature, “The Nice Guys” does so with such remarkable efficiency – brimming with humorous banter, exciting action and even a little heart – that it feels totally fresh. Black and co-writer Anthony Bagarozzi’s dialogue crackles with wit and humor, while the chemistry between Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe is simply outstanding. The two actors form one of the best double acts in recent memory, and though Crowe is quite good as the sardonic straight man, Gosling is the real standout, delivering a side-splittingly funny physical performance that makes great use of his comedic abilities. “The Nice Guys” doesn’t reinvent the wheel in any way, but it’s a consistently enjoyable flick that reconfirms why Black is the best at what he does.
Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, John Hurt
“Jackie” is a breath of fresh air for a biopic. Unlike other films in the subgenre, this isn’t a series of CliffsNotes or the greatest hits of a former first lady’s life, but rather an entirely subjective, visceral, upsetting and sometimes beautiful experience. Director Pablo Larraín and screenwriter Noah Oppenheim have crafted a dazzling 99-minute drama.
For the most part, Oppenheim’s script focuses on Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) following the assassination of her husband and President of the United States, John F. Kennedy (Caspar Phillipson), which we experience via a framing device where Jackie tells her side of the story to a journalist (Billy Crudup) about what occurred and what she was feeling at the time. She’s surrounded by people throughout most of the movie – brother-in-law Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard), Social Secretary and close friend Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), a priest (John Hurt) and Bill Walton (Richard E. Grant), to name a few important figures – but she’s portrayed as deeply alone and hurting, and Larraín and Portman make that pain tangible. She has to go from trying to pick up her husband’s brain, to witnessing Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson (John Carroll Lynch) be sworn into office, to then trying to arrange a funeral that’ll help maintain her husband’s legacy.
Every Tuesday, I review the newest Blu-ray releases and let you know whether they’re worth buying, renting or skipping, along with a breakdown of the included extras. If you see something you like, click on the cover art to purchase the Blu-ray from Amazon, and be sure to share each week’s column on social media with your friends.
WHAT: Three young thieves break into the house of a blind Iraq war veteran (Stephen Lang) who’s reportedly sitting on a large stash of money. But the man isn’t as innocent as he seems, and before long, the intruders (including Jane Levy and Dylan Minnette) are unexpectedly thrust into a fight for their lives.
WHY: Following his 2013 remake of “The Evil Dead,” it’s nice to see director Fede Alvarez return to more original genre fare like “Don’t Breathe,” which features one of the best horror premises in recent years. The film gets off to a cracking start as well, ramping up in intensity at every turn as the burglars slowly make their way into the blind man’s house, only to discover that they’re messing with the wrong guy. Unfortunately, while the first half is a really strong home invasion thriller that smartly uses its confined space and sound design to build suspense, “Don’t Breathe” is ruined by some lazy writing. Not only does it contain a really dumb twist that comes completely out of left field, but the characters are so idiotic that their poor decision-making skills will have you pulling your hair out. It’s been a while since the horror genre has had protagonists this patently stupid, and when combined with the sheer implausibility of certain events, it turns what could have been a new cult classic into just another mediocre B-movie.
EXTRAS: In addition to an audio commentary by director/co-writer Fede Alvarez, co-writer Rodo Sayagues and actor Stephen Lang, there’s a collection of featurettes on the cast, production design and score, and eight deleted scenes with optional commentary.
With December comes the push for award season, but there’s a lot of other entertainment being released this month as well. Of course, the big movie for many will be the new “Star Wars,” which looks to extend the brand outside of the episodic entries. And while there’s not a lot of Christmas fare being put out this year, there is the potential new holiday favorite “Office Christmas Party.” There’s also the possible sci-fi heights of “Assassin’s Creed” and “Passengers,” which both appear to be something special and come with many bonafides behind and in front of the camera. The rest of the month’s offerings are awards bait material, but there’s something unique and exciting about most of them, whether it’s the powerful acting of “Jackie,” the stylish thrills of “Live By Night,” or even just the return of Martin Scorsese with “Silence.”
Who: Natalie Portman, John Hurt, Peter Sarsgaard, Billy Crudup and Greta Gerwig What: Following the assassination of JFK, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy fights through grief and trauma to regain her faith and define her husband’s historic legacy. When: December 2nd Why: The film circuit has been abuzz about Natalie Portman’s performance in this film, directed by Pablo Larraín, with many festivalgoers already predicting an Oscar for her turn as the former First Lady. The film appears to be an actor’s dream, with a meaty script for the actress that allows her to showcase a lot of different emotions at a volatile time in Kennedy’s (and the country’s) life. Add to that a real sense of style that exudes from every frame of the trailer, and it appears like “Jackie” may be a real Oscar contender on multiple fronts while also telling a compelling story that is oft-overlooked in history lessons.
By all rights, Disney has been kicking sister company Pixar’s butt on the animated film front for the last five or six years. This is due to two unrelated events: Former Pixar chief and current Disney chief John Lasseter brought The Process with him from Pixar, where instead of putting one or two people in charge of the story, a group of writers will work on the story until they have ironed out any potential kinks. At the same time, Pixar hit a point in their release schedule where they were working almost exclusively on sequels (with only one of the non-sequels, 2015’s “Inside Out,” good enough to stand alongside Pixar’s best work). This left Pixar vulnerable, and while Pixar was by no means out, they were down, and Disney seized the opportunity. In the last four years, Disney and Pixar have each won two Academy Awards for Best Animated Feature, though if you ask us, “Wreck-It Ralph” was robbed at arrow point by “Brave” in 2012, and the real tally should be 3-1 in Disney’s favor.
This brings us to “Moana,” coming out in a year where Disney and its many subdivisions have completely conquered the box office. (They own the top four spots on the worldwide box office rankings, with the recently released “Doctor Strange” at #9 and climbing, and “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” still waiting in the wings.) One wonders if releasing three animated films in one year proved to be a strain on the brain trust, because The Process let “Moana” down. It’s fun, and it’s beautifully rendered, but it is a far cry from “Zootopia” in terms of story, a farther cry from “Frozen” in terms of musical numbers, and it pales in comparison to both in terms of emotional weight.