2014 Year End Movie Review: David Medsker

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Let’s get this out of the way up front: there is a lot of popcorn on my list this year. That might sound bad, since critics are supposed to dislike what’s popular (that’s not true, actually: we just dislike anything we think is bad, whether or not it’s popular), but hey, I’m just happy that I liked enough movies this year to put a Top 10 list together. (This is my first full Top 10 since 2010.) There weren’t a lot of blockbusters this year, but some of the year’s biggest films were big for a reason: they were better than the others.

Of course, I say that, and yet the top four movies on my list barely made a penny. Let’s see if we can change that, shall we?

My Favorite Movies of 2014

1. “WHIPLASH

The Battle of Alpha Males: it’s a timeless plot device. Usually it concerns two guys on the same level (“Tin Men,” “Pushing Tin”) and sometimes involves having sex with your enemy’s spouse (again, “Tin Men” and “Pushing Tin), but here it is the battle of student versus teacher at a music conservatory. Miles Teller, the prodigious drummer, and J.K. Simmons, the sadistic teacher, have never been better, but the movie’s best trick is that it gets the audience to root for both sides, even though both men are horribly flawed and unlikable. It came and went quietly in its theatrical run, but this is a must-see when it hits the video circuit.

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2. “NIGHTCRAWLER

It’s assumed that everyone’s soul has a price, that there is a limit to what people will do for money or success. “Nightcrawler” makes it painfully clear that when it comes to a functioning sociopath like Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal, who’s superb), all bets are off. Indeed, the uplifting corporate buzz speak that Louis uses to influence characters in the film serves a dual purpose: it gets him what he wants, and it warns the audience that if they work with or for anyone who uses that language, RUN.

3. “BIRDMAN OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE)

There are so many genius moments in this movie that it is hard to count. The entire movie is shot to look like it was done in one take, even though it takes place over several days (your move, Alfonso Curaón). Edward Norton is pitch-perfect casting for the part of Mike, playing on his own reputation as a difficult actor, but having Michael Keaton play the lead, a guy who did exactly what his character does in walking away from a blockbuster franchise, is just sublime. It is one of the rare films that uses mainstream pop culture as a means to make an artful statement about life. There are many unforgettable moments, but the movie’s last shot will be permanently etched into your memory.

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Movie Review: “A Most Violent Year”

Starring
Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, Albert Brooks, David Oyelowo, Alessandro Nivola, Elyes Gabel
Director
J.C. Chandor

Writer/director J.C. Chandor has quickly become one of the most promising American filmmakers working today, maturing as both a director and storyteller with each new project – from Wall Street potboiler “Margin Call,” to man vs. nature survival tale “All Is Lost,” to his latest movie about an ambitious immigrant’s rise to power. All three films are markedly different stories, but they share a common thread in that they’re about characters that have been thrown into the fire and forced to react. “A Most Violent Year” might just be the strongest example of this yet, with Chandor content to sit back and allow the story to develop organically rather than force the point through manufactured conflict. It takes incredible discipline to build tension that way, and though he risks losing his audience with such a slow-burn approach, “A Most Violent Year” holds your attention thanks to some fine performances and a surprisingly engaging narrative.

Set in New York City during 1981, statistically one of the most violent years in the city’s history (hence the title), Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) finds his heating oil company embroiled in a turf war – with trucks hijacked and drivers beaten at an alarming rate – at the worst time possible. Abel has just gone into escrow on a waterfront fuel yard that could take his business to the next level, and he only has 30 days to close the deal with the bank or surrender the down payment. Meanwhile, a young district attorney (David Oyelowo) tasked with cleaning up the oil industry’s corruption launches an investigation into Abel’s company, despite the latter’s insistence that he runs a (mostly) clean and legal business. But when one of his drivers (Elyes Gabel) – having just returned to the job after being robbed at gunpoint weeks earlier – tries to protect himself from a pair of hijackers against Abel’s direct orders, everything that he’s worked so hard to create threatens to come tumbling down.

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Blu Tuesday: The Equalizer and The Good Lie

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 Facebook and Twitter with your friends.

“The Equalizer”

WHAT: When former CIA agent Robert McCall (Denzel Washington) saves a young prostitute (Chloe Grace Moretz) from her abusive, mob-connected pimp, the Russian mafia sends in a specialist (Marton Csokas) to track down the men responsible. But after it’s revealed that the seemingly ordinary McCall acted alone, the Russians plan to make an example out of him, unaware of who they’re dealing with.

WHY: Very loosely based on the 1980s TV series of the same name, “The Equalizer” is probably the closest that Denzel Washington will ever get to playing a superhero – a one-man army who takes down his opponents with such Bourne-like precision that he knows exactly how long it will take before he even throws the first punch. While director Antoine Fuqua obsesses a little too much over McCall’s methodical habits, when he just lets Denzel be Denzel, kicking ass and taking names with the poise and gravitas that he brings to each role, the film is all the better for it. Washington could read the dictionary and it would probably be riveting, so it goes without saying that he elevates the material here as well, even if he doesn’t get much help from the supporting cast. With that said, you don’t go to a movie like “The Equalizer” for the story or the acting, and Fuqua is well aware of this, populating the film with some excellent action sequences and unexpected moments of brutal violence on both sides. It’s hardly groundbreaking stuff compared to Fuqua and Washington’s last collaboration (“Training Day”), but it’s a slick crowd-pleaser that provides the escapist entertainment of any good action flick.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes an audio commentary/behind-the-scenes featurette with director Antoine Fuqua and star Denzel Washington, as well as additional featurettes on bringing the TV series to the big screen, the fight choreography and stunts, and profiles on Fuqua, Washington and Chloe Grace Moretz.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“The Good Lie”

WHAT: A group of Sudanese refugees – orphans of the civil war that ravaged their country in the 1980s – are given the chance at a better life when they’re relocated to the United States, aided by an employment counselor (Reese Witherspoon) that takes a personal interest in them.

WHY: “The Good Lie” isn’t the first movie to be made about African immigrants escaping the horrors of their homeland, and it won’t be the last, which is exactly why you shouldn’t waste your time on such a mediocre film when there are much better options available. Though it boasts an A-list actress in Reese Witherspoon, she’s far from the headlining star that Warner Bros. would lead you to believe, instead focusing on the Sudanese refugees (specifically Arnold Oceng’s Mamere) as they struggle to adapt to life in Missouri. It’s a refreshing departure from the typical “white savior” movie, but that doesn’t prevent it from devolving into a generic fish-out-of-water story that appears to have been made using the Disney Guide to Inspirational Family Dramas. “The Good Lie” isn’t a bad film, but it’s not a particularly memorable one either, so safe and vanilla with its dramatization of real-life events that it lacks any genuine surprise. And in the end, the movie gets so caught up trying to hit all the usual beats of a feel-good drama that it forgets to give you anything to actually feel good about.

EXTRAS: There’s a making-of featurette and some deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

  

“The Wire” is remastered and back on HBO Signature

“The Wire” marathon is about to start on HBO Signature with remastered episodes. Remastered or not, this is one of the best dramas in television history, so catch it on HBO, on DVD, or any other way you can watch it.

  

Movie Review: “The Gambler”

Starring
Mark Wahlberg, Brie Larson, Michael K. Williams, John Goodman, Jessica Lange
Director
Rupert Wyatt

Rupert Wyatt’s “The Gambler” is a curious beast. It’s based on a film that’s just obscure enough that a remake wouldn’t ruffle too many feathers, yet is well-regarded by those who have seen it. In other words, the 1974 original starring James Caan isn’t exactly holy ground, but there’s not much to improve on either, which makes this Mark Wahlberg vanity project feel every bit as irrelevant as the story it’s trying to tell. There’s nothing wrong with flawed characters – in fact, that’s what makes some of the best movies – but when they’re as irredeemable as the one that Wahlberg plays in “The Gambler,” it makes it very difficult to give a damn what happens to him.

Wahlberg stars as Jim Bennett, a college English professor who gave up on his literary dream after his first novel was met with little fanfare. The grandson of a banking magnate, Jim partly attributes his privileged upbringing to becoming the degenerate, high-stakes gambler that’s led him to his current predicament. After falling into debt with a Korean mobster (Alvin Lee), and then borrowing money from nefarious loan shark Neville Baraka (Michael K. Williams) that he promptly loses on the blackjack table while trying to win back what he owes, Jim is given seven days to pay or else. When his mother (Jessica Lange) eventually caves in and gives him the $260,000 to clear his debt, vowing that it’ll be the last time she bails him out, Jim blows it at the casino instead, putting him in a precarious position when Neville threatens the lives of his two students.

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