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 Holiday Gift Guide: Movies

These days, if you don’t own a Blu-ray player, you’re missing out, especially with a variety of classic movies being offered in high definition for the first time ever. But while we could easily fill several pages with suggestions of great films and cool box sets that deserve a spot on any holiday wish list, we’ve picked some of our favorites released over the past 12 months. If you can’t find anything worth buying here, then chances are that the person you’re shopping for doesn’t like movies.

Click on the image next to each item to purchase it online, and for more gift ideas, check out the other categories in our Holiday Gift Guide.

The Dark Knight Trilogy: Ultimate Collector’s Edition

Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy will likely go down as one of the best franchises in movie history, so it’s not too surprising that Warner Bros. has decided to capitalize on the films’ success with a fancy Ultimate Collector’s Edition box set. Though most people have probably already purchased the movies individually, this limited edition six-disc set (with only 141,500 copies produced) is geared more towards diehard fans – the kind that would gladly buy all three films again if it meant getting their hands on the exclusive bonus disc (featuring a new retrospective on the series and an interview between Nolan and “Superman” director Richard Donner) and the Happy Meal-sized reproductions of the Batmobile, Batpod and Batwing. The set also includes an introduction letter from Nolan, a glossy photo book, and a series of cool art cards by Mondo artist Jaw Shaw featuring the trilogy’s villains. The only thing it’s missing is your very own Batsuit.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – Extended Edition

It was never going to be an easy job adapting “The Hobbit” for the big screen, especially after the success of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, and although that likely played a hand in Peter Jackson’s initial decision to let another director take the reins, at the end of the day, it just wouldn’t have felt right with anyone else behind the camera. Not only does Jackson know the source material inside and out, but in keeping with the same tone and breathtaking visuals from the original trilogy, the movie feels like it’s part of a bigger story. Though it’s not as great as the “Lord of the Rings” films, “An Unexpected Journey” is still a delightfully fun trip back to Middle-earth with a solid lead performance by Martin Freeman. And for those diehard fans who have been patiently awaiting the customary Extended Edition, it’s arrived just in time for the holidays with 13 minutes of additional footage, an audio commentary by Jackson and co-writer Philippa Boyens, and two entire discs of supplemental material clocking in at over 9 hours. If this doesn’t satisfy your “Hobbit” fix, nothing will.

Star Trek: Stardate Collection

Most diehard “Star Trek” fans probably already own all of the films on Blu-ray, but for those that still haven’t gotten around to picking up high-def versions of the U.S.S. Enterprise’s first 10 big screen adventures, the Stardate Collection is the easiest and most cost-effective way to remedy that. This 12-disc set combines the previously released Original and Next Generation Motion Picture Collections into one massive box of sci-fi goodness, including every feature-length film starring the respective crews of Captain Kirk and Picard, from 1979’s “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” to 2002’s “Star Trek: Nemesis.” Additionally, there’s over 25 hours of bonus material like audio commentaries, featurettes and the 70-minute roundtable “The Captain’s Summit.” While “The Wrath of Khan” remains the only installment to have received a 4k restoration (though likely not for long with the original show’s 50th anniversary just around the corner), the rest of the movies still look and sound better than ever.

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Blu Tuesday: World War Z, Behind the Candelabra 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.

“World War Z”

WHAT: After barely surviving a zombie outbreak in his hometown of Philadelphia, former United Nations crisis specialist Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) leaves his family aboard a military vessel and heads to the other side of the world to track down the cause of the epidemic before it’s too late.

WHY:World War Z” may have gone through a battle of its own on the way to theaters – with rumors of a ballooning budget, massive reshoots and more – but you wouldn’t know it from the final product. Staged more like a socio-political thriller than a typical zombie film, even the creatures themselves are unique compared to the classic variety. Not only are they fast and twitchy, but they behave like insects, swarming together to create large, living structures in order to attack helicopters or traverse walls. It’s a really interesting, nature-based approach to the timeworn zombie mythology, and it makes the action sequences even more intense as a result. The movie is also peppered with some great actors in small supporting roles, although it’s essentially the Brad Pitt Show, who’s one of the few guys that can pull off such a star-centric performance without making it feel flashy. Fans of Max Brooks’ bestselling novel will undoubtedly be disappointed by how much was changed from page to screen, but “World War Z” is an immensely entertaining film that’s smarter than your average summer blockbuster.

EXTRAS: Though it was a missed opportunity on Paramount’s part to include the original ending (unless they’re saving it for the rumored sequel), the two-disc set boasts behind-the-scenes featurettes on the movie’s journey to the big screen, the filming of several major set pieces and more.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Behind the Candelabra”

WHAT: Based on the autobiography of Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), a veterinarian who had a chance meeting with Liberace (Michael Douglas) at one of his Las Vegas shows, leading to a secretive five-year love affair with the famous piano player from 1977 to 1982.

WHY: Steven Soderbergh marked his early retirement from feature films with this long-gestating biopic about Liberace, and though it works perfectly fine as a TV movie, it’s hard to believe that it got a theatrical release in other countries. Though Douglas and Damon are both really good in their respective roles (the former is practically guaranteed to walk home a winner at this year’s Emmys), the film just isn’t as interesting as you might expect. The first half of the movie recounts the early years of the couple’s relationship, and it provides some great material for both actors, but the latter half is incredibly monotonous, devolving into movie-of-the-week melodrama that, quite frankly, is above Soderbergh and his two leads. The rest of the cast delivers solid performances, but only Rob Lowe makes much of an impact as the perpetually drugged-up plastic surgeon Dr. Jack Startz. Then again, the other actors aren’t given a whole lot to do, and it’s exactly this cursory treatment of the material that makes “Behind the Candelabra” feel like such a wasted opportunity.

EXTRAS: A making-of featurette with interviews from the cast and crew.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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Movie Review: “World War Z”

Starring
Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, Fana Mokoena, Sterling Jerins, Abigail Hargrove
Director
Marc Forster

“World War Z” has gone through a battle of its own just to make it into theaters. In addition to rumors of a bloated budget and unrest on the set between director Mark Forster and star Brad Pitt, the film’s original release date was pushed back six months to accommodate major rewrites and additional shooting. The studio may not have been able to keep the behind-the-scenes drama under wraps, but it doesn’t seem to have affected the final product, because you honestly wouldn’t know there was even a problem to begin with from watching the movie. Although fans of Max Brooks’ bestselling novel will undoubtedly be disappointed by how much has been changed during the adaptation from page to screen, “World War Z” is an immensely entertaining film that also happens to be much smarter than your average summer blockbuster.

Pitt stars as Gerry Lane, a former United Nations worker who specialized in averting international disasters. These days, however, he’s just an ordinary stay-at-home dad living with his wife (Mireille Enos) and two kids in Philadelphia. During a routine trip into the city one morning, all hell breaks loose when people suddenly start attacking others on the street like feral animals, transforming the victims into similar monsters within seconds of being bitten. Gerry and his family barely manage to escape the chaos and are eventually rescued by helicopter and transported to an aircraft carrier in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean after his old U.N. buddy Thierry (Fana Mokoena) pulls some strings. Of course, Thierry has ulterior motives for saving Gerry’s life and wants him back in the field immediately to help track down the cause of the zombie epidemic, and if he refuses, his family will be swiftly booted off the VIP-only vessel.

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Coming Soon: A Moviegoer’s Guide to June

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Though the summer movie season is typically reserved for the kind of big blockbuster action films that dominated theaters last month, June offers a more eclectic assortment of movies, including star-studded comedies, small indies, and yes, another helping of big blockbuster action films. From the return of Superman to the end of the world (twice), there are plenty of good reasons to get out of the sweltering heat and be entertained this June.

“THE INTERNSHIP”

Who: Vince Vaughn, Owen Wilson, Rose Byrne and John Goodman
What: Two salesmen whose careers have been ruined by the digital age get internships at Google, where they must compete against young, tech-savvy geniuses.
When: June 7th
Why: It’s been almost a decade since Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson teamed up for “Wedding Crashers” – which, along with “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” helped revive the R-rated comedy – so there’s a certain degree of excitement about seeing them together on screen again. Of course, “Wedding Crashers” was actually funny, whereas “The Internship” doesn’t look quite as promising. The studio clearly believes that just by reuniting the two actors, the laughs will automatically flow, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here. Director Shawn Levy’s previous comedies have been pretty tame in comparison to the duo’s last film, and many of the jokes in the trailer feel about five years past their sell-by date, Still, the Vaughn/Wilson reunion is simply too enticing to pass up, so I wouldn’t count out “The Internship” just yet.

“MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING”

Who: Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Clark Gregg, Reed Diamond and Nathan Fillion
What: A modern retelling of Shakespeare’s classic comedy about two pairs of lovers with different takes on romance and a way with words.
When: June 7th
Why: Most directors would take a much deserved vacation after wrapping on a movie as massive as “The Avengers,” but not Joss Whedon, who used his short break between filming and post-production on the Marvel blockbuster to shoot a modern day version of “Much Ado About Nothing” with some friends at his house. The movie is packed with familiar faces from the director’s so-called Whedonverse, with every one of his former TV shows represented in some capacity. Shot entirely in black and white, the film looks about as close to a low budget indie as you’re bound to find, but Whedon and Shakespeare are such a great fit (both celebrated for their sharp and witty dialogue) that it’s a wonder the latter didn’t attempt an adaptation of the Bard’s classic any sooner.

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