Thursday, January 9, 2014

My Top Films of 2013

The following films are what I consider the best released this past year. They are in alphabetical order.

12 Years a Slave
 
This film is long overdue! Director Steve McQueen turns a vicious slavery tale into a somewhat beautiful aesthetic and moving tale. Chiwetel Ejiofor hands in what I consider the best performance of the year (and, yes, even above Matthew McConaughey's role in Dallas Buyers Club). Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong'o both turn in wonderful supporting roles as well. The only slavery film that has come this close to reality was John Singleton's 1997 film Rosewood -- although, even though the film is based on the true story of the 1923 racist lynch mob that destroyed an African American community, that film still has somewhat of a "Hollywood touch" to it. With this film, McQueen has really earned his place amongst some of the great contemporary directors. Also, Hans Zimmer's score is haunting, beautiful, gripping and frightening all at once -- one of the best scores I've heard in a while!

In this film, Ejiofor's Solomon Northup is completely robbed of his freedom, only to be shuffled from master to master -- mostly due to his rebellious nature -- and trying not to get himself killed. Along the way, he meets the hard worker Patsey (Nyong'o), who is also mistress to their alcoholic slave-owning master Epps (Fassbender). This is a film that needed to be made. Not only because it addresses racial issues, but also, in general, inequality issues -- a topic that is ever-so-present today. 

MEMORABLE MOMENT: When a large group of slaves are first introduced to their new master Edwin Epps (Fassbender), who reads from the Bible/Scripture of Luke 12:47, to justify slavery. And Northup is freed.


42
 
Chadwick Boseman gives an outstanding performance as the legendary Jackie Robinson! I didn't think I would be that impressed by this film, but the story of Robinson's struggle is brave and heartfelt. It is a testament to the strength of his character. All performances here are great and the film is a landmark amongst others of its ilk this year -- namely, The Butler and 12 Years a Slave. It's easy to see why the man is considered a hero by many. He had to swallow a lot of pride and anger to lead the way for other men of color. And the world is all the better for him.

MEMORABLE MOMENT: When Robinson asks Major League executive Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) if Rickey wants a player who doesn't have the guts to fight back against the taunts and physical threats of teammates and other baseball players and coaches. To which Rickey replies, "I want a player who's got the guts not to fight back!" This enlightens Robinson to use tolerance and restraint as opposed to violence and revenge. Throughout the film, when Robinson comes against these taunts which would cause most of us to fly into a rage, Robinson keeps his cool.


American Hustle

David O. Russell's Silver Linings Playbook was so good I couldn't wait for his next film -- especially when I heard he was getting Bradley Cooper and the uber-cool Jennifer Lawrence to star, as well as a previous star of his film The Fighter (Christian Bale). I was not disappointed. American Hustle, loosely based on the FBI ABSCAM operation of the late 1970s/early 1980s, follows FBI agent Richie (Cooper) as he forces two con-artists, Irving (Bale) and Sydney (Amy Adams), into trying to prove Camden, New Jersey's mayor (Jeremy Renner) is corrupt and illegally using Mafia money. There is no surprise with this roster of actors that the acting is superb and the story does have its twists. This was one of the few Christmastime releases I enjoyed. I'm a little surprised that I've liked Russell's latest films as I was not too crazy for any of his earlier work (Flirting With Disaster, Three Kings, and I Heart Huckabees). If you're a fan of any of these actors and Scorcese films, I recommend this one.

MEMORABLE MOMENT: Irving comes clean. 


Blackfish

When the tragic death of SeaWorld Killer Whale (Orca) trainer Dawn Brancheau in February 2010 by one of the killer whales, Tilikum, occurred, people were shocked. Well, after watching this documentary, you won't be surprised anymore. In fact, you'll be downright saddened and angry. This is a documentary about an immoral group of creatures: SeaWorld executives. I know, I know. But SeaWorld gives those animals a good life, and, besides, those animals don't have any real feelings. Well, I've got a movie I think you should see. This doc follows the history of capturing killer whales (particular Tilikum and his history) as well as the previous "accidents" of orca trainers with their animals. This film is just proof positive why documentaries are just as important as -- if not more so -- the news media, especially in this age of poor, oftentimes biased reporting.

MEMORABLE MOMENT: When one of the fishermen who caught Tilikum (as a calf) described (and video is shown) of Tilikum's pod (family) crying and calling out to him as he was being taken away by the fishermen.


Captain Phillips
 
It should be no surprise by now that Tom Hanks is a great actor and puts out great films -- especially when teamed up with a great director and writer(s). In this case, the story is based on the true story of Captain Richard Phillips and the hijacking of the MV Maersk Alabama, adapted by Billy Ray (Breach, The Hunger Games), and directed by Paul Greengrass (United 93, The Bourne Supremacy). Phillips is one of those films where even though the viewer knows what's going to happen, the events onscreen nevertheless keep you on the edge of your seat with an intensity that is exceptional storytelling. What is even better is that Greengrass chose to get no-name actors (and real-life Somalis) to portray the hijackers (Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali), adding to the authenticity and believability of the actors. I have to admit that I'm not a guy who's usually impressed by military actions but what the Navy SEALs accomplish in this film is amazing! And it's true to how they actually saved Capt. Phillips. By the end of the film, the viewer is just as emotionally drained after the past two+ hours as Hanks, and Hanks' acting in the final scene is just one pure example of why he's considered one of the best in his craft.

MEMORABLE MOMENT: Near the end of the film with the Navy SEAL mission to save Phillips in an almost-inescapable situation, and Hanks' emotional response in the med bay.


The Conjuring
 
This was a surprising year for me in terms of horror movies. I don't usually like them or am impressed by them enough for them to make this list. But director James Wan (Saw, Death Sentence) and screenwriter brothers Chad and Carey Hayes have gotten my full attention with this one! And it's not just because it's a "scary movie." It's because of the way the story takes precedence over its mission to scare you. Yes, there are plenty "what's-in-the-dark, jump-out-and-scare-you" scenes and effects, but the true story of a paranormal investigating husband-and-wife team, Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), adds to the other side of the story -- the creepiness of ESP and the true suffering and wrath of the spirits they come across ... and the sometimes hit-or-miss moments of their job (like when they are called to inspect a house only to find out it's just a draft from the pipe work). There is no gore in this -- just good ol' fashioned possession (fans of The Exorcist, take note! And be sure to listen closely for the Amityville Horror reference at the end of the film). The story may be as cliché as a rom-com's but it's one of the most finely-tuned takes on the story I've seen in a long time.

Memorable Moment: Annabelle the Doll gets her hair brushed. And Carolyn Perron (Lili Taylor) gets trapped in the basement!


Don Jon
 
Let's hear it for rom-com that does not follow the usual formula with which movies of this genre typically use! Writer/director/actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt, in his first role as writer/director, stars as Jon Martello, an Italian-American man who loves his women and his porn. Most women he has sex with, he immediately leaves afterward. Then, one day, he meets Barbara (Scarlett Johansson) and he falls hard for her. She talks him into waiting to have sex and he tolerates her love for rom-coms, which he finds completely annoying because he finds them unrealistic. When Barbara finds out Jon is addicted to porn, their relationship comes into trouble. Now, I know what you're thinking -- you think you know where this is going to go because of the usual formula that Hollywood rom-coms (romantic comedies) have shoved down viewers' throats for the past 34 years or so. But ... you would be wrong. What starts out as looking and sounding (oh, the cussing!) like a Jersey Shore wannabe film turns into a film with undercurrents of philosophical meanings and metaphorical moments -- all wrapped up in an independent Hollywood package. An especially interesting turnaround is the metaphor about how Jon believes all rom-coms are the same and unrealistic, but he fails to realize that porn falls into the same category. This aspect runs parallel with the solitude in Jon's lifestyle throughout most of the film; most activities he does keep him alone and it isn't until Jon truly feels a connection that he begins to connect with others. The film features a great cast -- Tony Danza, Julianne Moore, Glenne Headly, and Brie Larson -- and proves that Gordon-Levitt is a new triple threat force to be reckoned with!

MEMORABLE MOMENT: Jon's sister's (Larson) words of wisdom, and Jon's final confrontation with Barbara.


Evil Dead
 
... And here's the second horror film to grace the list! I'm also not usually one for re-makes, especially with the Evil Dead films! But I have to admit, this one rocks! The only aspect I did not like about this version is the way the reading from the book of the dead was done. In the original, writer/director Sam Raimi had the brilliant idea of not following the usual cliché of some idiot teenager reading from some evil-looking book, the passage is read by a professor on an audio recording. In this version, director/screenwriter Fede Alvarez made the mistake -- in my opinion -- of having one of the characters read the text, thusly running into the same cliché the original had so brilliantly avoided. Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed every other aspect to the story -- especially the metaphor of Mia's (Jane Levy) heroin addiction running parallel to her possession by the book. Whereas The Conjuring didn't feature any gore, this movie has it in abundance.

Memorable Moment: It starts raining blood! BLOOD!


Frozen
 
As a father, it's pretty much a given that you're going to start inadvertently memorizing all Disney movies and characters. Luckily, for me, I don't mind Disney films -- in fact, I'm quite damn fond of 'em -- especially the way Disney makes them now! Whereas Brave centered around mothers and daughters, Disney's latest, Frozen, is about sisters. Based on Hans Christian Andersen's tale The Snow Queen, Disney's adaptation is about sisters Elsa (Idina Menzel) and Anna (Kristen Bell) who grow up close at first, but, after an accident, become estranged. When Elsa ends up placing her kingdom in eternal winter, it is up to little sister Anna to seek her out and try and get Elsa to stop the curse. What is so beautiful about this story is the many metaphors racing throughout the story. Elsa's "talent" is representative of anyone who is different; and the love in the film is a love that is more important than some romantic "true love's kiss" kind of love -- it's unconditional love. With films such as Up, Wreck-It Ralph, Wall-E, Tangled, Toy Story 3, Brave, and Frozen, Disney has proven that they are no longer merely a movie producer of "kids movies." Their stories are some of the most heartfelt, well-written and -plotted I've seen in recent years.

MEMORABLE MOMENT: Anna's act of true love.

 


The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
 

Director Peter Jackson's first act of his Hobbit trilogy, An Unexpected Journey, fell flat for me and did not make my "best of 2012" list. Fortunately, with Smaug, Jackson gets back on track to what made his Lord of the Ring films so great and fun. I would easily see (and buy) an extended version of this film! The addition of the love triangle between Legolas, Turiel, and Kili doesn't really bother me as it did not take central focus of the story (not yet, anyway!), and the addition of Gandalf's visit to Dol Guldur is very welcomed as I greatly approve of Jackson's tying this film series to his masterpiece LOTR series. As for the dragon Smaug, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, he met every expectation I had; then again, I'm a little biased because, when it comes to Cumberbatch, I'm a BIG fan of his (if you have not seen his Sherlock on BBC yet, I immediately order you to Netflix, rent, or buy the first two seasons)!  
To me, whereas the only real highlight of Journey was the meeting between Bilbo (Freeman) and Gollum (Serkis); in Smaug, the highlight was the barrel river ride/fight scene. Seeing Legolas in action was a sight to behold just like in the LOTR films, and even seeing what fighting these dwarves could do in such a tight situation gave me a newfound respect for them and The Hobbit franchise. Up until this movie, I found the movie series and the book to be not that impressive simply because I didn't quite care for the dwarves or their plight. To me, I had the same belief that Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), the "skin-changer," has: "I do not care much for dwarves. They do not think of anything that they feel is beneath them."  But this film has finally returned to the magic that made the LOTR films so great! This is one of the few blockbusters I was really wowed by this year!

MEMORABLE MOMENT: The barrel river ride/fight scene!


The Impossible
 
Based on the Alvarez's -- a family of four -- harrowing real-life story of their experience during the 2004 earthquake and tsunami that hit Phuket, Thailand, the day after Christmas. In this film, the family's nationality was changed from Spanish to British, but it makes no difference. If you see any film that emotionally guts you, it's this one. The action, terror and drama never subside in this film, and, by the end, you feel like you've gone on a major emotional rollercoaster. Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor are both superb (as usual), but one of the major heavy hitters here is 14-year-old actor Tom Holland, who plays Lucas, the oldest of the sons. The film is a beautiful testament to the fragility of life and the fact that we are all here to help one another. You can only watch this film in awe, while realizing that life is a gift and beautiful. A powerful movie!

MEMORABLE MOMENT: The tsunami hits.

 
Let the Fire Burn
 
Truly one of the most captivating documentaries I've had the pleasure of watching! Director Jason Osder takes previously unreleased archival footage, new footage, and public hearing meeting footage, and edits it together to make a masterpiece of documentary cinema. The film centers on the May 13, 1985, assault on a radical group called MOVE in a Philadelphia neighborhood, which created a six-alarm blaze, destroying 61 homes, and killing 5 children and 6 adults. What's worse is that the blaze was started -- and allowed to persist -- by Town officials and police. This documentary perfectly captures how intolerance, prejudice and fear can lead to incredible violence. It is a bipartisan film that focuses on the wrongdoings of both sides -- the town and police officials, and the MOVE members. I could not take my eyes off of every interview and scene presented -- even though they were recorded some 28 years ago! The music is powerfully affective and this documentary is essential viewing about a tragedy in America's history which most in this country either have no knowledge of, or have completely forgotten!
 
MEMORABLE MOMENT: When the evidence is presented that the police commissioner intentionally did not convey to the Fire Chief to extinguish the blaze, therefore causing the death of innocent lives and the destruction of several innocent neighborhood residents' homes.

 
 
Man of Steel
 
So this is it. The moment all Superman fans have been waiting for since it was revealed that Dark Knight trilogy helmsman Christopher Nolan and director Zack Snyder (Dawn of the Dead, 300, Watchmen) were rebooting the franchise. Of course, Man of Steel is better than any current standalone Marvel Comics movie (i.e., Captain America, Thor, The Incredible Hulk, The Wolverine, or any of the Iron Man trilogy). But the question most people may ask is: "Is it better than The Avengers?" More on that in a moment.

If you were to think more about Superman's plight, you'd see that he doesn't have it so easy either. There are many philosophical complexities and moral dilemmas presented in Superman's stories. Man of Steel features all of these complexities of Kal-El's existence:

  1) The knowledge that despite his love for humans and his feeling of being one, knowing he will always be an outsider -- check!
  2) The knowledge that any time an alien comes to defeat him or make him suffer, it is his mere presence on Earth that brings them there so he believes any destruction or human casualty is his fault -- check!   3) The knowledge that any small physical reaction could lead to instant disaster and would garner great scrutiny and fear from the humans he so loves -- check!   4) Having to truly sacrifice those he loves the most ... even meaning letting loved ones die for the "greater good" -- check!   5) Being solely opposed to killing ... no matter good or evil -- check!

It has been reported that the "controversy" (if that's what you want to call it) of Man of Steel particularly touches on two aspects of the film. One involves that last bullet point I just mentioned. The other is the destruction of Metropolis at the end of the film when Superman (Henry Cavill) fights General Zod (Michael Shannon) and his Kryptonian cronies -- an inevitable result considering a bunch of super-powered alien beings are there to take over the planet and trying to kill Superman (this is definitely no Superman II where Superman flies away to avoid destruction and human casualties). The fact that the destruction of a city is even an issue proves that critics and audiences are merely nitpicking for any negative criticism they can find. What would one expect when a group of beings with the same superpowers as Superman -- but with no morals -- and determined to rule Earth, come here? Also, was there a lot of this nitpicking when The Avengers, Watchmen, Transformers 3, or G.I. Joe were released (and that doesn't include all of the numerous alien-related films where New York is destroyed)? Did their destruction of a city sully the film's worth? Besides, if you want to get into semantics, then you have to remember that Superman has unlimited strength and can move at the speed of light, so I'm sure the city could be rebuilt in no time. Besides, if it weren't for the heavy action you expect from a Superman film, then those same critics who are moaning about the destruction of a city would be saying how little action there was in the film (remember what most people said about Bryan Singer's 2006 Superman Returns?).

So ... onto the question I originally posed: Is Man of Steel better than The Avengers? Yes. And I'll tell you why. Basically the same type of threat that was in The Avengers (i.e. a demigod being attempting to have alien beings take over Earth, starting with a major city) is the same threat in Man of Steel. The one major difference? The threat that took an entire superhero team (and a few random regular humans) to diffuse in The Avengers took only one man (and a few random regular humans) in Man of Steel! But it's just not that. Man of Steel takes the audience into every aspect of Superman's character (his birth and more background into his birth parents and home planet, his formative years, and his reclaiming his heritage and powers), and also injects some of the new origin material that has inhabited the comics for the past few years. The scope is massive and Snyder pulls it off without making the audience roll their eyes. To say this is not your grandfather's or father's Superman is a huge understatement! Man of Steel introduces the audience to the contemporary Superman. Nolan and screenwriting partner David S. Goyer inject more of the alien world and technology of Krypton into the story, which is necessary seeing how the main hero and villain(s) are alien (Kryptonian) and this is an origin story. The film explores both Clark's farm-bred past and his isolated present, which is what makes the story so great. Unlike Avengers, which would not have worked if not for each character (save Hawkeye and Black Widow) having their own respective movie before its release, Man of Steel shows both Kal-El and Zod's background, almost making Zod a character with which to sympathize. In fact, there is a bit of art imitating life when it comes to Zod's views as well as the reason behind Krypton's fate. But I cannot go into those points without giving away the story. I believed an updated cinematic origin and retelling of Superman was long overdue, and Nolan, Snyder and company have greatly succeeded! The acting is well-done, the writing is stellar (with plenty of quotable lines), there is plenty of action (at least enough of what a fan would expect from a Superman movie), and every major complexity of Kal-El's life is conveyed in all of its bittersweet glory.

It should be pointed out that if Nolan & company did a somewhat "traditional" origin story -- the same one all audiences have seen over and over again -- critics and audiences alike would be quick to point it out and complain about how unoriginal and ho-hum the film would be. If there are two things that Man of Steel is not, it's unoriginal and ho-hum! If Man of Steel is the beginning franchise in what DC Comics Films will be offering, we're in for one hell of a fun, imaginative, heartfelt, cool ride! Man of Steel is the best big movie of the summer and the best action film I've seen so far this year!

MEMORABLE MOMENT: Superman versus the Kryptonians in Smallville. And Jonathan's sacrifice. It's hard to choose because there were so many moments that gave me chills.


Now You See Me
 
 To be honest, this movie was not some wonderfully clever script or deep, meaningful story -- just a fun, entertaining film to watch. There are plot twists aplenty in this heist comedy-action-mystery directed by Louis Leterrier (The Incredible Hulk, Clash of the Titans) -- a director with which I am not a big fan. Nevertheless, the cast is wonderful with Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Mark Ruffalo, Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, Melanie Laurent, and Dave Franco. The use of magic and deception -- along with the plot twists -- keep my mind guessing and the story never stalls. Not many films can do that, and, for that, as well as having more of a story than I thought it would, this film makes the list.

MEMORABLE MOMENT: When Dave Franco and Mark Ruffalo get in a tussle.


Prisoners
 

The best crime thriller of the year! If there was any justice Hugh Jackman would have gotten nominated for an Academy Award/Oscar for his role in this film, and the film itself would've been nominated for best picture. Prisoners is about the abduction of two young girls and the families, detective (Jake Gyllenhaal), and suspects involved. This is director Denis Villeneuve's first American film and writer Aaron Guzikowski's second feature film, and, wow, what a film for beginners! The film has its fair share of twists and keeps the viewer on the edge of their seat -- even more so than You're Next -- as well as guessing who took the kids and if the kids are even still alive. As a parent, these types of films are difficult to watch because the topic of abducted children hits too close to home; one can't help but think the worst. However, I was very impressed by this film! All of the performances are powerful, and the story just works. The great aspect to this story is that it makes the viewer question his/her values and morals. It makes you ask yourself the question How far would I go to find my kid? And How far is too far?

MEMORABLE MOMENT: Keller (Jackman) figures it all out.

 



Saving Mr. Banks
 
This was probably one of my most favorite of the year. Even though the scene near the end of the film portraying Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) as weeping because of her facing up to what happened to her father, which was not the case in real life; Travers wept because she did not approve of the Disney film version of her books. Nevertheless, the drama works for this film and Thompson's performance as well as Tom Hanks' portrayal as Walt Disney are nothing short of fantastic. The story of Disney adapting Ms. Travers' Mary Poppins is no surprise who know the history of the production on the 1964 film. But for those who don't know, they would be surprised to find out that Travers was not enthused at all at having her creation made famous by Disney, and she was quite difficult to work with. The acting, directing, music and story all mix together splendidly, while also getting a big glimpse into Travers' childhood. Ironically, this film is one of my favorites this year, right up with another Hanks film (Captain Phillips).

MEMORABLE MOMENT: Disney pays Travers a visit in London. And Ms. Travers thinks of her father while viewing the film Mary Poppins.


Short Term 12
 
Writer/director Destin Cretton (who is mostly known for his short films) has hit one out of the park with this film! The story -- about a group foster home supervisor (Brie Larson) and her struggles with both the kids' issues as well as her own -- leaves the viewer with many feelings, most of which stem from the oftentimes pain and difficulty one has to go through when it comes to love and healing ... but without being pretentious or falling into that genre of "troubled-kids-who-just-need-an-inspiring-teacher-who-believes-in-them" (i.e. Dangerous Minds, Stand and Deliver, Lean on Me). I can't gush enough about how great the story and Larson are in this film. Hopefully, it will be an Oscar contender.

MEMORABLE MOMENT: Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), one of the foster kids, sharing the children's story she wrote.


Star Trek Into Darkness
 
This one was really good, but it barely made my list. If the writers of the new re-booted Star Trek franchise had not have set up the time travel loop like they did in the first installment, then I would've hated this movie. Basically, it's Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan (so those of us who remember viewing the original will see the many aspects J.J. Abrams and his writers lifted from that film), but also being a prequel to that film. Nevertheless, it's action-packed, well-acted (especially with the inclusion of Benedict Cumberbatch), and has a cool story that lives up to its equally awesome trailer. I also enjoy the way the crew is sort of splintered in this sequel; there had to be some way to show that this crew works their best when they work together. Yes, it's a popcorn action flick, but it's one of the few good ones in 2013.

MEMORABLE MOMENT: Harrison's (Cumberbatch) revelation as to who he really is. And the fight of Spock vs. Harrison.


TWA Flight 800
 
Of all the documentaries I watched this year, this one may very well be the most important, angering, and heartrending I've seen. The film follows independent investigator and physicist Dr. Tom Stalcup as he enlists the assistance of actual National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators who worked on the crash of TWA Flight 800 when it happened. After much in-depth research and hundreds of eyewitness interviews, they come to the conclusion that Flight 800 did not crash as a result of a mechanical failure or malfunction of the fuel tank, but rather because of a missile attack. Most may say it sounds crazy or use that "c" word, but, trust me, just watch this once and you'll seriously by questioning what the public was told then, and is still told today. A powerfully intense documentary that will keep you thinking about it for several days, weeks after watching it.

MEMORABLE MOMENT: The FBI and NTSB get help from the CIA (in the form of producing a video broadcast) trying to explain how several people saw lights ascend toward the plane (the video says the light was not ascending, but rather it was a part of the plane descending) and how "there was no conspiracy." And eyewitness proof of FBI's altering of evidence. And the investigators present their new findings to some of the family members of the victims of the Flight 800 crash.


Warm Bodies
 
The last (sort of) horror film on my list, albeit it's more of a black romantic comedy rather than a horror film, but it deals with zombies, so I'll run with "horror romantic comedy." Warm Bodies, based on the 2010 novel by Isaac Marion, is basically William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet with a zombie spin. The film centers around zombie R (Nicholas Hoult), who narrates his thoughts and feelings since he cannot talk. He ends up falling in love with human Julie (Teresa Palmer) and, after R saves Julie's life, the two end up spending time together ... but in a guarded way since, you know, R is a zombie. I like that the film's story doesn't take itself too serious but gives out a meaningful message of two different races getting along for the common good. A fun film that's sharp, witty, full of action and snarky romance.

MEMORABLE MOMENT: The cool concept that zombies can experience their victims thoughts and feelings when consuming their brains. Gross, but interesting.


The Way, Way Back
 
 Screenwriters/actors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (who also wrote the wonderful movie adaptation of Alexander Payne's The Descendants) have written one of the best films of the year! But it wasn't that easy getting their story to screen; it took years to find a distributor for the film. Luckily, for the movie-going audience, Fox Searchlight picked it up, and even though it was released in mid-summer to mostly limited theaters, it proves that some of the best films are rarely seen ... or widely distributed. The film centers around 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James), who is on his way to a small resort town for summer vacation with his mother Pam (Toni Collette), her jerk of a boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell), and the boyfriend's daughter Steph (Zoe Levin). Feeling alienated and awkward, Duncan does not quite fit in anywhere ... until he meets Owen (Sam Rockwell), the owner/operator of a local water park. One of the reasons I was especially drawn to this film was because I deeply relate to the Duncan character in how shy and awkward he is around others; I was the same way when I started high school. It wasn't really until I started work at an amusement park that I really started coming out of my shell and feeling like I belonged. This coming-of-age film has a special heart to it -- with superb acting, a great soundtrack and quite a bunch of laugh-out-loud moments.

MEMORABLE MOMENT: Duncan confronts Trent at a party. And Owen has a heartfelt moment with Duncan.


You're Next
 
A film that some may categorize as horror but I'd list it more as a thriller. Newcomer director Adam Wingard (V/H/S) and writer Simon Barrett (V/H/S) have hit one out of the park with this starts-off-being-a-slasher film that quickly transforms into a thriller/suspense/survivalist flick! Die Hard fans rejoice! Only, instead of a high-rise building, it's a giant backwoods mansion that the victims must survive. The movie is simple. A family comes together for the parents' 35th anniversary, only things go awry when someone starts killing off the guests. Sounds like every other story we're used to seeing; however, things change for the killer when one of the guests starts fighting back. I have to say -- this is a film where the pacing doesn't rest, the music is creepy and intense (think cheesy 1980s synth, but it's cool!), and the twists and turns in the story keep the audience guessing and satisfied. The best thriller of the year!

MEMORABLE MOMENT: The blender gets put on puree.



MATT'S BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT OF 2013:

The worst film of 2013, by far, is Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim! But, I sort of figured that would be the case; I'm only happy I didn't pay to see it in the theater or to rent (I watched it at my brother-in-law's house). So I have to list the one film that I was most disappointed in this past year. A film I thought would be good but was one big flop! And here it is:

A Good Day to Die Hard
 
Remember when John McClane (Bruce Willis) was cool? Yeah, me too. I even remember seeing the kick-ass trailer for this film and getting so excited! That's why I was so pissed off, disheartened and sick all at once upon viewing this lame sequel to the impressive 2007 fourth installment Live Free or Die Hard. What's especially lame about this installment (besides the story's main threat/MacGuffin) is the way McClane -- one of the coolest, toughest characters created -- is written and portrayed. They make Willis' McClane out to be some lame, old fogey, while making McClane's son Jack (Jai Courtney) the new badass. Blasphemy! What the viewer starts off thinking, "OK. This will be a father-son adventure flick like Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) and his dad, Henry (Sean Connery), in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade," turns out to be just the opposite -- plain awful. John McClane says stupid things that are supposed to be funny (I guess?), but they just leave those of us who saw the first Die Hard puke a little in our mouths.

The Die Hard movies have always had action sequences that are hard to swallow (remember in Live Free or Die Hard when McClane drives a car into a flying helicopter?), and I've always taken these sequences with a grain of salt. But A Good Day to Die Hard's action scenes are too much to stomach. Maybe I'm being too harsh. Maybe a man can live through being thrown at full force from a helicopter high in the air, through a large plate-glass window and onto a hard, cement floor, and then not have any broken bones. Maybe he can survive exposure to an area of Chernobyl in Pripyat, Ukraine (an area that Ukrainian officials says won't be habitable for another 20,000 years!) ... even without the special contraption to keep away the lethal radiation. Maybe it's just me, but these sequences (and more), as well as the transformation of McClane into a lame fogey, are too much to take. During the film, there were numerous times I was insultingly chuckling at how bad the scenes were and rolling my eyes. Plus, add on to it that the overall story simply isn't that good, and this movie is a stinker. But what's worse is -- as opposed to the Voltron rip-off story of Pacific Rim -- A Good Day to Die Hard had such great potential! Willis has hinted that there may be another Die Hard installment in the future, and as a die-hard fan, for his sake, I only hope the writers get it right next time!


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