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: The World’s End, 2 Guns 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 World’s End”

WHAT: It’s been over 20 years since Gary King (Simon Pegg) and his high school friends embarked on a quest to finish The Golden Mile, a 12-pub crawl through their peaceful town of Newton Haven. Desperate to relive those glory days, Gary gets the gang back together under false pretensions to complete the illustrious pub crawl, only to inadvertently uncover a secret invasion by robot-like beings that have assimilated most of the town’s inhabitants.

WHY: For fans of “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz,” the final installment in Edgar Wright’s Three Flavors Cornetto trilogy couldn’t come soon enough. Of course, it’s not even a real trilogy in the traditional sense, but any time that Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost join forces is cause for celebration. Best described as “The Big Chill” meets “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” “The World’s End” is more of a group effort than their previous movies, with all five actors – Pegg, Frost, Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan and Paddy Considine – in fine form. In fact, their chemistry is so good that some of the funniest scenes take place when they’re just sitting around the table talking. The action sequences, however, are pretty hit and miss, which is a shame considering Wright’s outstanding work in “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” and the sci-fi setting seems to be working against the story at times. Still, while expectations were undoubtedly high for their third (and hopefully not last) cinematic outing, Wright, Pegg and Frost have produced another excellent comedy that, although it falls a little short of their previous films, still delivers all the laughs that we’ve come to expect from the trio.

EXTRAS: Following in the footsteps of “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz,” Universal has packed this Blu-ray release with an unbelievable amount of bonus material, including three audio commentaries (one with Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, one with Wright and director of photography Bill Pope, and one with Pegg, Nick Frost and Paddy Considine), a U-Control storyboard picture-in-picture track, a 48-minute making-of featurette and a 28-minute stunt and FX featurette. There’s also a pop-up trivia track, 10 mini-featurettes covering various areas of production, deleted scenes, alternate takes, outtakes, a montage of the film’s hidden Easter eggs and more, if you can believe it.

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

“2 Guns”

WHAT: When DEA agent Bobby Trench (Denzel Washington) and naval intelligence officer Michael Stigman (Mark Wahlberg) fail to infiltrate a Mexican drug cartel, they decide to rob a bank that they believe contains evidence incriminating the cartel’s boss. But the $42 million they make off with actually belongs to the CIA, and to make matters worse, neither one knows that the other is working undercover.

WHY: It’s hard to believe that Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson were originally tapped to play the two leads in this throwback to late 80s and early 90s buddy cop films, because while a lot of the dialogue sounds like it was written with the “Wedding Crashers” duo in mind, they’re not exactly convincing action stars. Credit to director Baltasar Kormakur, then, for casting Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg in the roles instead, because while “2 Guns” is a pretty average action-comedy that’s riddled with decades-old clichés and plot holes, the actors make it much more enjoyable. Not only can they handle the physical stuff, but they’re also both incredibly charismatic, forming the kind of effortless rapport that directors only dream about. The rest of the cast isn’t quite as memorable – though Bill Paxton has some fun as a crooked CIA agent – and the plot is beyond ridiculous, but Washington and Wahlberg have such great chemistry that it’s just fun watching the odd couple bicker while blowing away bad guys.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary with director Baltasar Kormakur and producer Adam Siegel, a 30-minute making-of featurette and some deleted/extended scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“We’re the Millers”

WHAT: After low-level drug dealer David Clark (Jason Sudeikis) loses his entire stash and personal savings to a group of thugs, his boss (Ed Helms) offers him the chance to make amends by smuggling a shipment of marijuana across the Mexican border. Knowing that he’ll draw attention on his own, David convinces his neighbors – stripper Rose (Jennifer Aniston), dork Kenny (Will Poulter) and runaway Casey (Emma Roberts) – to pose as his fake family.

WHY:We’re the Millers” is every bit as formulaic as the typical road trip movie, but the cast makes up for those generic story beats with some winning performances, and they all pull their weight equally. In fact, although Sudeikis is technically the film’s lead, he’s actually the weakest link of the bunch, relying too much on his one-note wisecracking to realize that he’s being outshined by the rest of his “family.” Aniston should tap into her naughty side more often, because the actress delivers one of her more enjoyable roles to date as the stripper-turned-housewife, while Poulter steals nearly every scene he’s in. What’s perhaps most surprising about the movie, however, is that the trailers haven’t ruined all the good bits, which is very telling of just funny the movie is at times. It’s also oddly sweet in the way that the Millers gradually evolve into a real family over the course of the film, even if you can see that twist coming from a mile away. Still, “We’re the Millers” could have been a lot worse, because though it drags on for a little too long, it’s one of the year’s better comedies.

EXTRAS: In addition to an extended cut of the movie featuring 9 minutes of new material, there’s a collection of behind-the-scenes featurettes, outtakes and some deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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A chat with Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Edgar Wright of “The World’s End”

If you’re a geek, then odds are actor/writers Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, and writer/director Edgar Wright are superstars in your world. Pegg’s face is known to geeks and mundanes alike as the comic relief Scotty in J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek” movies and the similarly amusing techie, Benji Dunn, in the “Mission: Impossible” films, but to many of us, that’s merely a footnote.

The now legendary Wright/Frost/Pegg collaboration began with the very funny 1999 U.K. sitcom, “Spaced.” It went worldwide with 2004′s horrifically delightful ur-zombie comedy, “Shaun of the Dead,” and the even more gleefully bloody buddy cop homage, “Hot Fuzz,” in 2007. Co-written by Pegg and Wright, the films’ sharp and hyper-imaginative direction and well-crafted, sincere screenplays gave us all hope that the ancient art of dramatic comedy was undead, at least.

While the trio remained best pals, their professional lives inevitably diverted. Frost and Pegg collaborated on the 2011 science-fiction comedy, “Paul,” with director Greg Mottola, while Wright took on “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.”

Now, it’s time for the inevitable reunion. The third film in what is being called The Three Flavors Cornetto Trilogy, a sly nod to the late auteur Krzysztof Kieślowski and a popular brand of ice cream cone, “The World’s End” might lack zombies and buckets of blood, but it’s easily the darkest of the three films. It’s also pretty clearly influenced by such wry post coming-of-age comedies as “Diner,” “The Big Chill” and, believe it not, Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s great 1955 noir musical, “It’s Always Fair Weather.” (The latter two films played together at a recent film series curated by Edgar Wright at L.A.’s New Beverly Theater.)

“The World’s End” bring us a leather-jacketed Simon Pegg as Gary King, a bad boy well past his sell-by date who goads four old chums into recreating a 12 pint hometown pub crawl. As the film rolls on, the depth of Gary’s estrangement from his pals, especially his embittered, teetotaling ex-best friend Andrew Knightley (Frost), becomes increasingly clear. The fact that the boys’ old digs are the apparent seat of the imminent destruction of humanity via an alien invasion of mechanical humanoids actually lightens the mood.

“The World’s End” features UK acting stalwarts Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman and Eddie Marsan as the rest of the gang, and Rosamund Pike as the girl who got away, all grown up. Critics, like our own Jason Zingale, are upbeat about the film’s quality, but the more downbeat tone of the tale it tells is inescapable.

We caught up with an intense and very tired Pegg, a laidback but slightly shagged-out Frost, and an ever enthusiastic but clearly exhausted Wright, whose next film will be the long discussed “Ant Man,” at, where else, Comic-Con.

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Coming Soon: A Moviegoer’s Guide to August

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In recent years, August has typically been the month where studios dump their summer fare that can’t compete with the bigger blockbusters, and although that’s probably true with this year as well, it’s hard to complain with a line-up as great as this, including the latest sci-fi treat from “District 9” director Neill Blomkamp, the sequel to “Kick-Ass” and the final chapter in Edgar Wright’s Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy.

“2 GUNS”

Who: Denzel Washington, Mark Wahlberg, Paula Patton and Edward James Olmos
What: A DEA agent and an undercover Naval Intelligence officer who have been tasked with investigating one another find they have been set up by the mob.
When: August 2nd
Why: It’s hard to believe that “2 Guns” was originally planned as a post-“Wedding Crashers” reunion for Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson, because they’re hardly the action movie types. Thankfully, that never came to pass, and director Baltasar Kormakur ended up finding an even better onscreen duo in Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg, who are just as good at handling action as they are at delivering a quip. And that’s important, since it appears that the humor in Blake Masters’ script has remained mostly intact. Washington and Wahlberg are both incredibly charismatic actors that have the box office power to sell a movie on their names alone, so while audiences may have missed out on the chance of seeing Vaughn and Wilson do their version of “Bad Boys,” “2 Guns” is probably better off for it.

“ELYSIUM”

Who: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley and Alice Braga
What: Set in a future where the wealthy live on a space station while the rest of society resides on a ruined Earth, a man embarks on a mission to bring equality to the worlds.
When: August 9th
Why: Moviegoers have been patiently awaiting Neill Blomkamp’s follow-up to “District 9” ever since the 2009 sleeper hit arrived in theaters, and although it’s not a sequel like some were hoping for, it is another sci-fi thriller with a socio-political message. Obviously, getting actors like Matt Damon and Jodie Foster was a huge coup for Blomkamp, but the success of “Elysium” will once again rest on its unique premise, which already has my interest piqued. The South African director proved with his debut that he’s really good at world building, and the same holds true for “Elysium,” which looks like a fully formed piece of science fiction with some great visuals to boot. And with the talent involved, another Oscar nomination certainly isn’t out of the question, though it’s just nice to see such an original voice working in Hollywood.

“WE’RE THE MILLERS”

Who: Jason Sudeikis, Jennifer Aniston, Emma Roberts, Will Poulter and Ed Helms
What: A veteran pot dealer assembles a fake family as part of his plan to move a huge shipment of weed into the U.S. from Mexico
When: August 9th
Why: It probably won’t be the best comedy you see this year (and quite likely, not even this month), but “We’re the Millers” has the potential to be a lot funnier than it sounds. For starters, the movie is directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber (who made the underrated 2004 comedy “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story”) and written by the same duo behind “Wedding Crashers,” which means that you can expect plenty of silliness without it going too far over the top. There are better leading men than Jason Sudeikis, who’s usually more effective in supporting roles, but the rest of the cast is great, including Jennifer Aniston (tapping into her naughty side once again after the positive reception from “Horrible Bosses”) and up-and-comer Will Poulter in what promises to be a scene-stealing performance.

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Movie Review: “The World’s End”

Starring
Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine, Eddie Marsan, Rosamund Pike, David Bradley
Director
Edgar Wright

Fans of “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz” have been badgering director Edgar Wright about the final installment in his self-titled Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy for so long that it seemed like it might never happen. Granted, it’s not really a trilogy at all, at least not in the traditional sense, but any time that good friends Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost get together is cause for celebration, and the long-awaited “The World’s End” is no exception. While expectations are undoubtedly high for their third (and hopefully not last) cinematic outing together, Wright and Co. have produced another excellent comedy that, although it falls a little short of their previous two films, still delivers all the laughs that we’ve come to expect from the trio.

Back in 1990, a group of high school friends embarked on a quest to finish The Golden Mile, a 12-pub crawl through their peaceful town of Newton Haven ending at the titular World’s End. They never made it that far, however, and more than 20 years later, it still haunts would-be leader Gary King (Pegg), who’s refused to grow up while the rest of his friends have gone on to build families and careers. While reminiscing about the good old days in group therapy, Gary decides to get the gang back together so they can finally complete the illustrious pub crawl, and seeing how much it means to him, Andrew (Frost), Steven (Paddy Considine), Oliver (Martin Freeman) and Peter (Eddie Marsan) reluctantly agree to tag along. Upon their return to Newton Haven, they inadvertently uncover a secret invasion by robot-like beings that have assimilated most of the town’s inhabitants. When their attempts to blend in fail miserably, the guys are targeted by the robotic collective and given a choice: submit or die, but Gary’s not about to let that get in the way of him finishing the Golden Mile.

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