2013 Year End Movie Review: Jason Zingale

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If you haven’t been to the movie theater over the past few months, you’d be forgiven for thinking that 2013 wasn’t a very good year for film. In fact, my own year-end list was looking pretty suspect before October, but as is usually the case, the awards season blitz was jam-packed with enough great movies to fill more than the customary ten spots. That made compiling this year’s best-of list a little more challenging than in years past, especially with so many popular choices relegated to honorable mentions or missing entirely. With that said, after much deliberating, flip-flopping and even revisiting certain films, the following represents what I believe to be the best of 2013.

Best Movies of 2013

1. “GRAVITY

It’s been six years since Alfonso Cuarón’s last feature film – the criminally underrated “Children of Men” – but his outer space survival thriller was well worth the wait. “Gravity” is the kind of movie that will likely change the way films are made in the future. From the stunning, single-take opening sequence that lasts more than 12 minutes, to the numerous set pieces throughout, “Gravity” is such a technical marvel that it looks like Cuarón shot the whole damn thing in space. Though the story is ridiculously simple, not a single second of its 91-minute runtime is wasted, extracting so much suspense from the film’s terrifying setup that the brief injections of comedy (courtesy of George Clooney’s easygoing astronaut) are a welcome reprieve from the almost unrelenting intensity. Sandra Bullock delivers one of the best performances of her career as the rookie astronaut caught up in a seemingly impossible situation, but the real star of “Gravity” is Cuarón himself, and he deserves every bit of praise for creating what can only be described as pure movie magic.

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2. “AMERICAN HUSTLE

David O. Russell has always been a quality filmmaker, but he’s quickly becoming a force to be reckoned with thanks to movies like “The Fighter,” “Silver Linings Playbook” and this farcical con-artist caper. Loosely based on the ABSCAM scandal of the late ‘70s, “American Hustle” is immensely entertaining, impeccably structured and features top-notch acting from the entire cast. Forty pounds heavier and rocking the most elaborate comb-over you’ve ever seen, Christian Bale gives a wonderfully nuanced performance as the straight man of the bunch. His co-stars aren’t quite as committed physically, but they’re just as good. Amy Adams oozes sexiness as Bale’s cunning partner in crime, scene stealer Jennifer Lawrence is an absolute riot as his unpredictable wife, and Bradley Cooper is hilarious as the short-tempered FBI agent in charge of the sting. The whole film is a lot funnier than you’d expect due to Russell and Eric Singer’s darkly comic script, and though some have argued that it’s too long, the characters are so richly developed and crackling with personality that I would have gladly spent another hour in their messed-up world.

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3. “ABOUT TIME

Richard Curtis has written and directed some of the greatest romantic comedies of the past two decades, so it should come as no surprise that his latest movie follows in the same footsteps. Curtis’ films have always been about much more than the superficial meet-cute between boy and girl, and “About Time” is no different, aiming for something a lot deeper and more emotionally rewarding than the typical rom-com. Breakout star Domhnall Gleeson and Rachel McAdams have some fantastic chemistry, but it’s the relationship between Gleeson and Bill Nighy (playing the world’s coolest dad) that best serves the story’s central themes and leaves a more lasting impression, especially for anyone who’s ever lost a member of their family. Equally charming, funny and touching, “About Time” is classic Richard Curtis, through and through. And if the rumors about it being his directorial swan song are true, Curtis can take comfort in knowing that he went out on top, because this is not only his most mature and personal work to date, but it’s just a really beautiful film.

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Blu Tuesday: Stoker, Jack the Giant Slayer 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.

“Stoker”

WHAT: After her father dies in a car accident on her 18th birthday, India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) becomes infatuated with her uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), who she never knew existed, when he comes to live with India and her unstable mother (Nicole Kidman). But when people around town start disappearing, she begins to suspect that Charlie may be the one responsible.

WHY: Written by former “Prison Break” star Wentworth Miller, “Stoker” plays like one giant homage to Alfred Hitchcock (particularly his 1943 film “Shadow of a Doubt”), but with a decidedly unique and erotic twist that only a director of Park Chan-wook’s warped sensibilities could conceive. To call the movie a slow burn would be putting it lightly, but it’s entirely compelling in the way that it patiently seduces the audience into an almost dreamlike trance. You simply can’t look away, and that’s thanks mostly to the stylish combination of Chung Chung-hoon’s rich cinematography and Nicholas de Toth’s playful editing. Though it would be easy to criticize the film for favoring style over substance, there’s a lot more going on behind the sumptuous visuals, including some excellent performances by its lead actors. “Stoker” isn’t for everyone, but fans of Park’s previous work won’t be disappointed by this offbeat, psychosexual thriller.

EXTRAS: Fox’s single-disc release boasts a behind-the-scenes look at making the film, a trio of featurettes on the characters, production design and score, footage from the red carpet premiere and deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

“Jack the Giant Slayer”

WHAT: When a young farmhand named Jack (Nicholas Hoult) accidentally opens a gateway between his world and a race of vengeful giants using some magic beans, he joins a search party of the king’s bravest men to climb the beanstalk and rescue the princess (Eleanor Tomlinson) from captivity, reigniting a centuries-old war.

WHY: Bryan Singer hasn’t made a good movie since “X2: X-Men United,” and that streak continues with this dull reimagining of the classic fairy tale, which features some of the ugliest special effects of the year (unless you include Ewan McGregor’s hair). There are so many things wrong with “Jack the Giant Slayer” that it’s hard to know where to begin, but a lot of the problems stem from the script, which strikes such a contradicting tone (one minute a silly adventure film, and the next a dark and gritty action movie) that it doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. The actors suffer the most as a result – especially star Nicholas Hoult, who’s unable to do much with such a bland, one-dimensional character. McGregor does have a bit of fun as the head of the king’s guard, but he’s about the only enjoyable thing in an otherwise lackluster film.

EXTRAS: In addition to an interactive experience on how to “Become a Giant Slayer” hosted by Nicholas Hoult, there are also some deleted scenes and a gag reel.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

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Movie Review: “Stoker”

Starring
Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode,
Nicole Kidman, Jacki Weaver
Director
Park Chan-wook

Korean director Park Chan-wook is one of the biggest filmmakers in his country and a cult figure here in the U.S. thanks mainly to his 2004 revenge thriller “Oldboy.” Fans have been patiently awaiting his English-language debut for quite some time now, and though it’s taken longer than expected for Park to export his talents to Hollywood, it’s hard to imagine a film more perfectly suited to his tastes than “Stoker.” A psychological thriller that’s every bit as tense, twisted and sexually perverse as the director’s previous work, “Stoker” is the kind of movie that gets under your skin and stays there for days, an achievement on its own whether you enjoy Park’s disturbing family drama or not.

After her father is killed in a horrible car accident on her 18th birthday, India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) is awash with emotion, but mostly curiosity when her Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), whom she never knew existed, arrives at the funeral with news that he’ll be coming to live with India and her unstable mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) in their Gothic-styled mansion. Puzzled as to why Charlie’s existence was kept a secret from her, India begins to suspect the mysterious stranger is up to no good when he begins seducing Evelyn just days after her husband’s death. But when people around town start disappearing and Charlie’s attention turns from Evelyn to India, his ulterior motives are finally revealed.

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Coming Soon: A Moviegoer’s Guide to March

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After suffering through the doldrums of winter, it’s encouraging to see that the quality (and selection) of movies will improve along with the weather. Though many of this month’s films probably won’t be remembered by the time summer rolls around, there are a few indie flicks with real cult potential and a pair of tentpole-type movies based on popular properties that will benefit from opening during a less competitive time of year.

“JACK THE GIANT SLAYER”

Who: Nicholas Hoult, Ewan McGregor, Eleanor Tomlinson, Ian McShane and Bill Nighy
What: When a young farmhand unwittingly opens a gateway between our world and a fearsome race of giants, he must fight for his kingdom and the princess he loves.
When: March 1st
Why: It’s been awhile since Bryan Singer directed a movie that I was genuinely excited about, and unfortunately, “Jack the Giant Slayer” doesn’t break that trend. Though the fantasy film sounds great in theory, the trailers don’t look very promising, particularly in regards to its uneven tone (is it for children, adults or the whole family?) and cartoonish CGI. It doesn’t even bare much resemblance to the fairy tales on which it’s based, and while the cast is filled with some great actors (Nicholas Hoult appears to be the real deal), there’s probably a good reason why the original summer release date was axed.

“STOKER”

Who: Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman, Matthew Goode and Jacki Weaver
What: After India’s father dies, her Uncle Charlie comes to live with her and her unstable mother, only to discover that he has ulterior motives.
When: March 1st
Why: Continuing the Korean invasion that kicked off in January with Kim Ji-woon’s “The Last Stand,” Park Chan-wook’s English-language debut hits theaters in time for U.S. audiences to get accustomed to the director’s unique style ahead of the long-awaited remake of his 2003 cult hit “Oldboy.” It’s taken longer than expected for Park to export his talents to Hollywood, but “Stoker” is the perfect project if there ever was one. It’s also clear from the cast he’s assembled that the director is well-admired within the industry, and all three leads don’t seem to be holding back. Early buzz has been mostly positive, drawing comparisons to Hitchcock, and that alone should be enough to get you excited.

“OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL”

Who: James Franco, Michelle Williams, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz and Zach Braff
What: A small-time magician with questionable ethics arrives in a magical land and must choose between becoming a good man or a great one.
When: March 8th
Why: Disney is putting a lot of faith in Sam Raimi’s “Wizard of Oz” prequel, no doubt hoping that it can reach “Alice in Wonderland” levels of success, but was anyone really clamoring for another movie? It’s not even based on any of L. Frank Baum’s novels, despite the fact that Disney owns the rights to nearly every book in the Oz series, and though it’s supposedly inspired by his works, the risk of upsetting fans of the original film doesn’t seem worth it. Then again, “Oz the Great and Powerful” is exactly the kind of franchise-ready cash cow that Disney loves to produce (i.e. “Pirates of the Caribbean”), and while it’s depressing to see Raimi wasting his talents, at least it’s in good hands.

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