Blu Tuesday: A Most Violent Year, The Voices and More

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.

“A Most Violent Year”

WHAT: Set in New York City during 1981, Abel Morales (Oscar Morales) finds his heating oil company embroiled in a turf war at the worst time possible. He’s just gone into escrow on a waterfront fuel yard that could take his business to the next level, but when a young district attorney (David Oyelowo) launches an investigation into Abel’s company, everything that he’s worked so hard to create threatens to come tumbling down.

WHY: Over the course of three movies, J.C. Chandor has established himself as one of the most promising American filmmakers of his generation, and “A Most Violent Year” is his best one yet. A smartly directed character study of a man fighting to uphold the antiquated ideals of the American Dream, the movie is very much a product of its time period, owing a lot to the work of Sidney Lumet and other 1970s classics like “The French Connection” and “The Godfather.” You’d never imagine that a film about the heating oil industry could be so absorbing, yet that’s exactly what makes “A Most Violent Year” so unique, defying the typical gangster movie conventions every chance it gets. Oscar Isaac has never been better, commanding the screen with an ice-cold intensity that evokes Al Pacino in his prime, while Jessica Chastain delivers a deliciously fierce turn as his mob-connected wife. Much like last year’s underrated crime drama “The Drop,” “A Most Violent Year” is the kind of movie that Hollywood doesn’t make often enough, but with brave new voices like Chandor behind the camera, it’s hard to argue against the need for more just like it.

EXTRAS: In addition to an audio commentary by writer/director J.C. Chandor and producers Neal Dodson and Anna Gerb, there’s a pair of production featurettes, an interview with stars Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain, and some deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“The Voices”

WHAT: Jerry Hickfang (Ryan Reynolds) is a socially awkward but overall nice guy who’s just trying to lead a normal life in the wake of a family tragedy. But when he gets stood up by office crush Fiona (Gemma Arterton), only to cross paths with her later that night, he inadvertently murders her in the middle of the woods. At least, he thinks it’s an accident, but Jerry hasn’t been taking his meds lately, which is why he’s starting to hear voices – namely, his loyal dog Bosco and sociopathic cat Mr. Whiskers – urging him to kill again.

WHY: Ryan Reynolds has had some really bad luck with blockbuster filmmaking (see: “Green Lantern,” “R.I.P.D.”), but he’s delivered some of his best work on the other end of the spectrum in small indies like “Buried” and “The Captive,” and that trend continues with “The Voices,” a flawed but amusing dark comedy that plays like a strange mix between “Doctor Dolittle” and “American Psycho.” The movie is unlike anything the actor has done before, channeling Norman Bates as the sweet but creepy schizophrenic in addition to voicing the pets that serve as Jerry’s very own shoulder angel and devil. It’s his interactions with them, as well as the reanimated severed heads of his victims that he keeps stored in the refrigerator, that produce some of the best moments, putting Reynolds’ deadpan comic delivery to great use while still allowing the actor to challenge himself in a more nuanced role. Though the film straddles a fine line due to its off-kilter tone, Reynolds and the supporting cast (including Gemma Arterton and Anna Kendrick) do just enough to make “The Voices” an enjoyably weird genre flick with an unexpected dash of humanity.

EXTRAS: There are four production featurettes that cover the making of the movie, the many voices provided by Ryan Reynolds and visual effects, as well some animatics, deleted and extended scenes, and a cast and costume sketch gallery.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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2014 Year-End Movie Review: Jason Zingale

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After watching hundreds of films throughout the year, it can be somewhat daunting trying to compile a Top 10 list that isn’t laden with footnotes, caveats and what-ifs. (That’s the whole point of the Honorable Mentions section.) My annual year-end features tend to follow a pretty similar formula in that two things are almost always certain – they will include a mix of blockbusters, awards contenders and genre flicks, and there will be several notable omissions – and the 2014 edition isn’t any different. So what if Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” didn’t make the cut, or that “Selma” is ranked too low? These are my favorite movies of the year, and if you’ve got a problem with that, go make your own list.

Best Movies of 2014

1. “WHIPLASH

A gripping, electrifying and brutally unrelenting thriller, Damien Chazelle’s sophomore effort draws you in from the very first beat of the drum and never lets go, like a freight train of intensity and emotion that leaves you breathless and your heart still pounding when it’s over. “Whiplash” isn’t just one of the best movies of the year; it features perhaps one of the best endings to a movie ever. Chazelle doesn’t waste a single frame in this pressure cooker of a story about a young musician so determined to achieve greatness that he’s willing to do whatever it takes to get there, even if that means enduring the physical, verbal and psychological abuse of the one man capable of squeezing out every last drop of potential. Miles Teller is phenomenal in the lead role, capturing Andrew’s commitment and passion to his craft with an all-in performance that’s soaked in literal blood, sweat and tears, but it’s J.K. Simmons who steals the show with his turn as the borderline psychotic Fletcher, hurtling insults like a drill instructor that are as funny as they are frightening. The film has earned a lot of attention for these two performances, although it would be short-sighted not to mention the superb writing and dynamic editing as well, because they’re just as essential to its success. For a movie about perfection, “Whiplash” comes pretty damn close.

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

Alejandro González Iñárritu may not be the most prolific director around, but that hardly matters when you make movies like “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance),” a remarkable piece of filmmaking that’s as refreshingly original as it is wildly ambitious. While it’s a pretty incisive satire of Broadway and fame, the movie goes even deeper than that, digging into themes of ego, family and artistic integrity vs. commercial success. More than anything else, though, it operates as a character study of a broken man trying to reclaim his former glory, and in that regard, the film reminded me a lot of Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler.” Some of it is played for laughs, but it’s mostly a profoundly sad look at one man’s struggle to validate his existence. The acting is top-notch across the board – especially Michael Keaton, Edward Norton and Emma Stone – however, the real magic comes from Iñarritu’s decision to stage the movie as one long tracking shot. The balletic precision and sheer ballsiness required to pull that off is mind-boggling, but it results in a more immersive and seamless viewing experience akin to a theater performance, and it’s one that’ll be mimicked for years to come.

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3. “NIGHTCRAWLER

Dan Gilroy’s “Nightcrawler” might just be the most frightening film of the year – not in the scares it delivers (because there are none), but rather the chilling peek that it provides behind the curtain of a completely different kind of horror: local TV news. This isn’t the first time that subject has been satirized before in cinema, but “Nightcrawler” tells its darkly comic tale of immorality in the newsroom through the eyes of a Rupert Pupkin-esque antihero more terrifying than any masked killer. The cinematic influences are boundless in Gilroy’s directorial debut, but that hasn’t stopped him from producing a first-rate thriller highlighted by a career-best performance from Jake Gyllenhaal. The actor has been taking bigger risks lately with darker, more mature material, and Louis Bloom is the pinnacle of this career rebirth – a wickedly entrancing and transformative piece of acting that’s fully deserving of an Oscar nomination. Rene Russo is also really good as the Dr. Frankenstein to Gyllenhaal’s monster, feeding into his sociopathic tendencies with an equally amoral disposition, but the movie simply wouldn’t work without Gyllenhaal’s dynamic performance, because it’s the quiet ferocity he brings to the role that makes Bloom such a fascinating character.

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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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