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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2013 Year End Movie Review: David Medsker

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It is not gross hyperbole to suggest that, box office be damned, the last couple of years have not been Hollywood’s finest. With all due respect to “The Artist” and “Argo,” the previous two Best Picture winners and fine movies, neither of them would have won had they been released in 2010. In fact, “The Artist” wouldn’t have even made my Top 10 list that year, while “Argo” would have slotted slightly ahead of “The King’s Speech” (that year’s Best Picture winner, by the way), which means it would have ranked as the sixth best movie that year. Yes, 2010 was that good, and everything since has been, as far as I’m concerned, a great disappointment.

Enter 2013, and the first time since 2010 that a movie truly excited me, to the point where I wanted to stay and watch it again the second it ended. Then I felt sad because Roger Ebert hadn’t lived long enough to see it. I’m really going to miss him. He was a damned fine writer.

Sadly, I still don’t have enough movies to make a top ten list. This is a combination of two things: missing some daytime screenings (stupid day job), and being rather underwhelmed by some movies with big time buzz, including the one that will likely win Best Picture. That won’t be a travesty along the lines of “Crash” taking the trophy in 2005, but unworthy of the honor just the same.

My Favorite Movies of 2013

1. “GRAVITY

Only one movie comes even close to this one. I was thrilled when Alfonso Cuaron’s 2006 film “Children of Men” won my local film critics group’s award for Movie of the Year, and what he does here dwarves that in terms of technical achievement, while Sandra Bullock delivers as raw a performance as she’s ever given in her life. Even better, the movie is a mere 91 minutes long. Showing people something they’ve never seen before, while showing respect for the audience’s time: now that is my idea of a modern-day filmmaker.

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2. “AMERICAN HUSTLE

This is one of those ‘little moments’ movies, where the story is thoroughly engaging, but it’s the little bits that will stick in your head, and each of the leads has one. Bradley Cooper impersonating Louis C.K. towards the end. Christian Bale letting it all hang out at the party while listening to Duke Ellington. Jennifer Lawrence and the “science oven.” (Lawrence actually has two, if you include her lip sync of “Live and Let Die.”) Jeremy Renner explaining all of the different things you can heat in a science oven (all Italian foods). Amy Adams introducing Lady Greensly. “American Hustle” has a gonzo spirit, but it’s a smoke screen to distract you from the fact that at least one of the characters at any point in time is already thinking two moves ahead. Brilliant stuff.

3. “HER

If “American Hustle” is a ‘little moments’ movie, “Her” is the one that will lead people to have book club-type conversations after seeing it. If the idea of someone developing feelings for an operating system seems odd on the surface, it won’t once you see Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) give up people for Samantha (Scarlett Johannson), who satisfies him in ways that real women can’t. Johannson will probably be overlooked by the Academy for the same reasons that motion capture master Andy Serkis has been shunned (only her voice appears in the movie), but she delivers a heartbreaking and utterly believable performance as the zeroes-and-ones Samantha.

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Blu Tuesday: The Way Way Back, Only God Forgives 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.

“The Way, Way Back”

WHAT: 14-year-old loner Duncan (Liam James) has been dragged by his mom (Toni Collette) to a Massachusetts beach home to spend the summer with her overbearing boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) and his daughter (Zoe Levin). While the adults party like they’re on spring break, Duncan finds solace at the local water park, where he meets an unexpected friend and mentor in easygoing manager Owen (Sam Rockwell).

WHY: Earlier this year, “The Way, Way Back” made waves at the Sundance Film Festival when Fox Searchlight bought the crowd favorite for a near-record $10 million, and though that may sound like a lot for an indie movie, it was worth every penny. Much like “Little Miss Sunshine” (another Sundance darling), “The Way, Way Back” succeeds due to its winning script and talented cast. James holds his own alongside some really great performers, and Carell proves once again that he may be a stronger dramatic actor than a comedian. But it’s Rockwell who completely owns the movie as the fast-talking king of the water park, channeling Bill Murray from “Meatballs” with an immensely charming and hilarious performance. Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (who won an Oscar for penning the 2011 tragicomedy “The Descendants”) also deserve a lot of credit for writing a movie that’s as smart, funny and sweet as it is incredibly heartbreaking at times, because although their coming-of-age story follows an all too familiar journey, they manage to make it feel like an entirely fresh experience.

EXTRAS: There’s a making-of featurette exclusive to the Blu-ray, a trio of behind the scenes featurettes (including a tour of the water park) and some deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Only God Forgives”

WHAT: After his brother is killed as revenge for raping and murdering a teenage girl, drug smuggler Julian (Ryan Gosling) is pressured by his domineering mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) to track down and kill the Bangkok police lieutenant (Vithaya Pansringarm), who the locals refer to as the Angel of Death, responsible for authorizing the retaliation.

WHY: Those expecting another “Drive” will be sadly disappointed by “God Only Forgives,” because director Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest film is a very different animal – an abstract and morally ambiguous neo-noir dealing with classic themes like vengeance, justice and loyalty that is almost dreamlike in its execution. Though Refn’s artistic flourishes do more harm than good, turning the barebones story into a daring exercise in expressionism, the movie still managed to hold my interest, thanks in part to its great cast. Gosling has such a strong screen presence that he barely needs to utter a word, while Thomas delivers a memorable turn playing against type as the bitchy queen bee. But it’s Thai actor Pansringarm that is the biggest surprise, nearly stealing the show as the bloodthirsty lawman with a God complex. The film isn’t for everyone, but between Larry Smith’s stunning cinematography and Cliff Martinez’s hypnotic score, “God Only Forgives” is an amazing sensory treat that deserves to be seen for the experience alone.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes an audio commentary with writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn, a behind the scenes featurette, a look at Cliff Martinez’s score, and additional interviews with Refn.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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Movie Review: “The Way, Way Back”

Starring
Liam James, Sam Rockwell, Steve Carell, Toni Collette, AnnaSophia Robb, Allison Janney, Maya Rudolph
Directors
Nat Faxon & Jim Rash

Earlier this year, “The Way, Way Back” made waves at the Sundance Film Festival when Fox Searchlight bought the crowd favorite for a near-record $10 million, and though that may sound like a lot for a small indie movie, it was worth every penny. Of course, this isn’t the first time that the studio paid so much for a Sundance darling – in 2006, they won a heated bidding war to acquire the rights to “Little Miss Sunshine” – and the two movies are very similar in the way that they effortlessly transition between comedy and drama. “The Way, Way Back” doesn’t have enough emotional punch to be an awards contender, but in a summer filled with big budget blockbusters, leave it to a quaint coming-of-age comedy to stand out as the best of the season.

The title refers to that rear-facing backseat found in station wagons, and this is where we’re first introduced to introverted 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James), who’s being dragged by his mom (Toni Collette) to a Massachusetts beach home to spend the summer with her overbearing boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) and his daughter (Zoe Levin). Trent is a bit of a dick, and he proves as much in the opening scene when, after asking Liam what he thinks of himself on a scale of 1-10, Trent suggests that he’s only a 3. But for some reason, Duncan’s mom likes him, and so while the adults party like they’re on spring break, he’s left to wallow around town on his own. Lacking the confidence to strike up a friendship with the cute girl next door (AnnaSophia Robb), Duncan finds solace at the local water park, Water Wizz, where he meets an unexpected friend and mentor in easygoing manager Owen (Sam Rockwell).

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Coming Soon: A Moviegoer’s Guide to July

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Audiences have seen quite a few big movies may their way into theaters over the past two months, but the onslaught of summer tentpole films isn’t even close to over. In fact, we’ve just reached the midway point of the season, and as you might expect, there’s plenty more big blockbusters on their way, including a potential new Disney franchise for Johnny Depp, Guillermo del Toro’s answer to Godzilla, and the return of Wolverine.

“THE LONE RANGER”

Who: Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer, William Fichtner and Helena Bonham Carter
What: Native American warrior Tonto recounts the untold tales that transformed John Reid, a man of the law, into a legend of justice.
When: July 3rd
Why: Disney may think that they have another ready-made hit on their hands with this big screen adaptation of the popular radio serial, but I don’t know many people that are actually excited about “The Lone Ranger,” and that includes myself. Though Johnny Depp will almost certainly be a riot as the dead-bird wearing Tonto (he’s at his best when playing eccentric characters), Armie Hammer has yet to prove himself as a viable leading man. Additionally, the rumors about the film’s troubled production don’t exactly exude confidence, and although “World War Z” taught us not to take behind-the-scenes drama at face value, there hasn’t been a single trailer released yet that doesn’t make the movie look like one really expensive mess.

“THE WAY, WAY BACK”

Who: Liam James, AnnaSophia Robb, Sam Rockwell, Steve Carrell and Amanda Peet
What: Over the course of his summer break, a teenager comes into his own thanks in part to the friendship he strikes up with one of the park’s managers.
When: July 5th
Why: After becoming a smash hit at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the coming-of-age comedy ignited a bidding war, with Fox Searchlight ultimately acquiring the rights for a near-record $10 million. The indie studio clearly believes that the film can replicate the box office success of “Little Miss Sunshine” (it even features two of the actors from that movie in Steve Carell and Toni Collete), and if the festival buzz is to be believed, an awards campaign might not be too far behind. The film marks the directorial debuts of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who first turned industry heads with their Oscar-winning script for “The Descendants,” and boasts a star-studded cast that also includes Sam Rockwell, Allison Janney, Rob Corddry and Amanda Peet. Though it may seem like an odd time of the year to release such a small comedy, it’s actually a smart piece of counterprogramming that could work to its benefit.

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