Bullz-Eye’s 2014 TV Power Rankings

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With “Breaking Bad” wrapping up after five brilliant seasons, the top spot in our annual TV power rankings has finally opened up for the rest of the field. But AMC gets the nod for the best television show again this year as “The Walking Dead” edges out HBO’s “True Detective” on our list.

The list is dominated again by cable TV dramas, which seem to have surpassed movies in popularity. Streaming and binge watching have contributed to this trend, but it all starts with the quality of the programming. You’ll find some of the best writing, directing and acting talent on television these days, and often the quality of the storytelling surpasses the best that a film industry obsessed with blockbusters, superheroes and sequels can muster.

We’ve kept the spoilers to a minimum, but you might want to skip over some of the write-ups if you’re behind on a particular series, as we naturally refer to recent events.

1. “The Walking Dead”

Some fans have complained about the deliberate pace of this show when the gang sought temporary refuge at the farm and prison, but the tension built during these lulls always led to a bigger payoff when all hell inevitably broke loose. In the current fifth season, that payoff came quickly with jarring episodes that kicked off with the battle at Terminus and the confrontation with the hunters. The end of the world offers countless opportunities to explore how survivors might deal with a zombie apocalypse, and the writers have done a great job telling this story over the first five seasons. It’s currently the best and most consistent show on television.

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2. “True Detective”

This was by far the most intriguing and talked about show of 2014, featuring epic performances by Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. It also didn’t hurt to have sexy and provocative turns by beautiful actresses such as Alexandra Daddario, Lili Simmons and Michelle Monaghan. The dark tone was set in part through the use of flashbacks to a 1995 serial killer investigation framed in the context of interviews with the two primary detectives, with McConaughey’s intense Rust Cohle looking and acting like a burned out alcoholic as he told his part of the story. Yet after so much tension and anticipation was built up through the season, the ending was surprisingly predictable in some ways and incomprehensible in others. Still, the letdown at the end didn’t diminish the creepy and fascinating ride along the way.

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3. “Game of Thrones”

This show pretty much has everything, including great action, intrigue, sex and dragons. Our only quibble is the sheer number of characters and storylines, leaving less screen time for favorite characters like Tyrion and Arya. Bran’s character, for example, went from fascinating to boring pretty quickly. All the supernatural stuff surrounding his character will no doubt be important in the long run, but the road to wherever he’s going has been a snoozer of late. Fortunately, there are reports we won’t be seeing him in the upcoming Season Five, though we’ll get a heavy dose of Cersei instead.

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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.

Check out David Medsker’s 2014 Year-End Movie Review as well for David’s picks.

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?

Check out Jason Zingale’s 2014 Year-End Movie Review as well for Jason’s picks.

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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Blu Tuesday: The Equalizer and The Good Lie

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 Equalizer”

WHAT: When former CIA agent Robert McCall (Denzel Washington) saves a young prostitute (Chloe Grace Moretz) from her abusive, mob-connected pimp, the Russian mafia sends in a specialist (Marton Csokas) to track down the men responsible. But after it’s revealed that the seemingly ordinary McCall acted alone, the Russians plan to make an example out of him, unaware of who they’re dealing with.

WHY: Very loosely based on the 1980s TV series of the same name, “The Equalizer” is probably the closest that Denzel Washington will ever get to playing a superhero – a one-man army who takes down his opponents with such Bourne-like precision that he knows exactly how long it will take before he even throws the first punch. While director Antoine Fuqua obsesses a little too much over McCall’s methodical habits, when he just lets Denzel be Denzel, kicking ass and taking names with the poise and gravitas that he brings to each role, the film is all the better for it. Washington could read the dictionary and it would probably be riveting, so it goes without saying that he elevates the material here as well, even if he doesn’t get much help from the supporting cast. With that said, you don’t go to a movie like “The Equalizer” for the story or the acting, and Fuqua is well aware of this, populating the film with some excellent action sequences and unexpected moments of brutal violence on both sides. It’s hardly groundbreaking stuff compared to Fuqua and Washington’s last collaboration (“Training Day”), but it’s a slick crowd-pleaser that provides the escapist entertainment of any good action flick.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes an audio commentary/behind-the-scenes featurette with director Antoine Fuqua and star Denzel Washington, as well as additional featurettes on bringing the TV series to the big screen, the fight choreography and stunts, and profiles on Fuqua, Washington and Chloe Grace Moretz.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“The Good Lie”

WHAT: A group of Sudanese refugees – orphans of the civil war that ravaged their country in the 1980s – are given the chance at a better life when they’re relocated to the United States, aided by an employment counselor (Reese Witherspoon) that takes a personal interest in them.

WHY: “The Good Lie” isn’t the first movie to be made about African immigrants escaping the horrors of their homeland, and it won’t be the last, which is exactly why you shouldn’t waste your time on such a mediocre film when there are much better options available. Though it boasts an A-list actress in Reese Witherspoon, she’s far from the headlining star that Warner Bros. would lead you to believe, instead focusing on the Sudanese refugees (specifically Arnold Oceng’s Mamere) as they struggle to adapt to life in Missouri. It’s a refreshing departure from the typical “white savior” movie, but that doesn’t prevent it from devolving into a generic fish-out-of-water story that appears to have been made using the Disney Guide to Inspirational Family Dramas. “The Good Lie” isn’t a bad film, but it’s not a particularly memorable one either, so safe and vanilla with its dramatization of real-life events that it lacks any genuine surprise. And in the end, the movie gets so caught up trying to hit all the usual beats of a feel-good drama that it forgets to give you anything to actually feel good about.

EXTRAS: There’s a making-of featurette and some deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP