nickondras's Movie Ratings - Rotten Tomatoes

Movie Ratings and Reviews

Mighty Aphrodite

"He's playing God!"

Woody Allen seems like the sort of guy who's easily flustered. Huge claim, I know. But his nebbishy demeanor and all-night study-cram verbal temperament strikes me as someone who'd rather step in from the sidelines and do something for you rather than stand idly by and softly mutter to himself. "Mighty Aphrodite" is the first film in Allen's dense creative career which seems to have been at least partially inspired by the breaking of the infamous 1992 scandal surrounding the then-56-year-old's romantic entanglement with a woman more than thirty years his junior. Top it all off with the fact Allen's modern-set script for "Aphrodite" was vaguely drawn from the Greek myth of Pygmalion -- a sculptor who fell in love with a statue he'd chiseled -- complete with an onscreen chorus (led by F. Murray Abraham), and you can imagine the field day critics who often peg Allen's worldview as "condescending" could have with his 1995 Oscar-winning romp.
They aren't exactly wrong, at least in the case of "Mighty Aphrodite", anyway. Allen goes for gold in riffing on culture and class warfare. "Aphrodite" would hardly be a blip if not for her, but the quarter-way appearance of Mira Sorvino, daughter of "Goodfellas" actor Paul, in a breakout role, certainly helps. As the biological mother of the recently adopted son of Lenny (Allen) and Amanda (Helena Bonham Carter) Weinrib, whom Lenny is hellbent on seeking out, Sorvino's Linda Ash -- a porn star, prostitute, and aspiring Broadway actress -- is busty, funny, obliviously tone-deaf and simple, a timid and tender soul almost aside herself in the bombshell body of a grown-up would-be sex symbol. A different approach to the character might have been hammy and loud, but Sorvino -- New York-born and Harvard-bred, with a tall, dirty-blonde, wispily pretty poise -- plays Linda without ever playing her up or over. That's Allen's job, and it's part of "Aphrodite's" shortcomings at not being the quote-unquote "great" movie it could have been.
Where works like "Annie Hall", "Manhattan" and "Crimes and Misdemeanors" feel like high points of a certain mid to late-'70s into '80s era of rambling Woody Allen muse -- and even more recent films such as "Midnight in Paris" and "Blue Jasmine" feel like dazzling singular entities unto themselves -- "Mighty Aphrodite" is of the time nearing the turn of the century where Allen wasn't necessarily taking a sharp turn in terms of style, but was becoming far more generous and whimsical with his stamp. While it can register as light as a feather and too haphazardly off-the-cuff, "Aphrodite" is also clever, thoroughly engaging, and features a best-ever performance from Sorvino. It's Allen's humble gaze that's only intermittently mighty. (78/100)

Her
Her(2013)

Well. I got super gooey and personal in my write-up (because my calligraphy is SO much better than to be termed mere "reviews") of "Short Term 12" (which a lot of people seem to have liked, so thank you!) not that long ago so I can't do the same here in order to stay FRESH and NEW and not self-indulgent and...you know, whatnot. But. I don't know how else to review "Her". I feel as inclined and awkward as a student at the front of the class asked to explain what a certain something means or to solve a math problem.

Key word being FEEL inclined. Nothing on anyone. Nothing on "Her". Everything on me. I don't have to lay out the reasons why "Her" can pretty much be described in every/any positive adjective under the damn sun.

This is a self-professed Spike Jonze love story (it's there on the poster for crying out loud) and he traffics in magic realism. His narratives are a million miles away from actual logic, even though they keenly resemble it. "Her" is set in Los Angeles sometime in the Ikea-proofed near future, in which tweed pants are all the rage, most everyone lives in high-rise apartments and even those who don't nonetheless still share in taking their private lives behind computer screens public via matchbox-looking cell phone screens and Bluetooth ear pieces. So maybe Jonze isn't too far off from the happenstance of today. Actually, like it or not, he's dead-on.

Only he isn't here to sour or condemn. Eternal sunshine burns bright in his worlds. "Her" is a journey with as much catharsis as a honeymoon trip to the tipsy-turvy top of the Himalayas; it's just told -- guided and gentle is its arc -- through the slow-motion snow globe of the ups and downs of a complicated relationship. This one in particular happens to be between a man, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix, who makes like Freddie and quells any doubts as to whether or not he really is the greatest screen actor alive) -- a tender, no less horny in his own right soul who writes other people's love letters for a living -- and his Operating System, Samantha (hazily, dearly dubbed by Scarlett Johansson in a vocal performance that rivals her physical appearance for seductiveness, and demands serious awards attention in an already heated race.)

What makes this outstanding feature hum and click rather than echo the bizarro sentiments of Jonze's pantheon work with fellow trope-fucker-with Charlie Kaufman ("Being John Malkovich", "Adaptation") and that big-budget indie-movie-for-kids I still can't believe he got away with making ("Where the Wild Things Are") is that for the first time in his brilliant career "Her" is Jonze venturing solo as a writer. Maybe that's why it feels like his most poetic and personal submission yet; call it his "Synechdoche, New York", or "Punch-Drunk Love". "Her" has Jonze exploring themes of romantic disconnectedness, though never cruelly vilifying the digital age as a reflection of a reflection.

What he does instead is dare, dazzle and dream, immaculately conceptualizing the modern day notion of what love is, and what it means. The most impossibly intimate, spectacularly funny, thrilling- and vibrantly everything movies of the year, "Her" finds somber, sympathetic symmetry between the sweeping uplift of romantic beginnings and the often inexplicable enigma of their ends. (100/100)

Babe
Babe(1995)

REWATCH: I remember seeing "Babe" for the first time a few years ago and thinking it was overrated; cute but slight. Guess I was even more cynical back then than I am now, because "Babe" is an emotional roller coaster. Not a masterpiece -- its critical acclaim is kind of insane -- but I'll be damned if I didn't feel for every animatronic animal that talked and wobbled in Farmer Hoggett's small-town stable. I'll echo the sentiment that every kids' movie should be this rich and passionate, instead of fake and phoned-in. "Babe" goes to surprisingly dark places from which it doesn't once shy away, and that takes crazy cojones. An unbelievably tender film about childhood's end and adulthood's beginnings, from the mouth of a babe with the gut and grit of a war horse. Some pig indeed. (81/100)

Dead Man
Dead Man(1995)
½

Fucking hell, man. Talk about tightrope grace.

The LEGO Movie
½

If everything is awesome, then nothing is. Right? General movie rule. But awesomeness is evident from frame one of "The LEGO Movie". So much awesomeness. More awesomeness than one can even begin to comprehend on a single viewing. That the best animated film since "Toy Story 3" happens to come in the populist package of what sounds essentially like nothing more than fleeting rationale to sell a plastic product is all the more awesome. Ditto that the project landed in the writing-directing hands of whiz kids Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who spun equal amounts of critical and cheekily commercial gold with the first "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs" and the R-rated big screen reboot of "21 Jump Street".

Why? Because instead of lazily painting by the numbers of corporate Hollywood at large, Lord and Miller make films that run on self-aware humor and visual gags that don't cross into petty deprecation or slap us on the wrist for buying into it. In fact, it's their love for what they're riffing that excels their body of work to infinity and beyond fellow for-hire partner writing teams. More than just save face, Lord and Miller miraculously transform "The LEGO Movie" into something ripe, funny, gorgeously crafted and crazy original, two enviably talented filmmakers who beat-for-beat refuse to tow the box office bottom line and play for any team but their own. That it'll just the same make a killing by appealing to children and grown-ups alike, well. That's just awesome. (92/100)

It's Such a Beautiful Day
½

Beautiful indeed.

Here's how I'd describe "It's Such a Beautiful Day": those Lynchian Salad Fingers YouTube videos meets the first ten minutes of "Up" meets "Fantastic Mr. Fox" meets "Upstream Color".

I was just thinking how 2013 really wasn't a great year for animation (I'm counting "The Wind Rises" as 2014, otherwise I'm sure it'd totally prove my theory wrong.) "Monsters University" was fun; "Frozen" and sequels to both "Despicable Me" and "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs" were each cute to meh. 2012 was considerably better with the likes of "Brave", "ParaNorman" and "Wreck-It Ralph". But I still don't think any cartoon worked as well for adults as it did for kids, and reached as dizzying and lyrical a height as 2010's "Toy Story 3".

"It's Such a Beautiful Day" comes close.

Now given it's three short films combined into a feature, each entry's finish line marked by chapter breaks, the editing here is smooth and eloquent enough around the edges these three pieces truly feel like parts of a grander trilogy rather than burdened extensions with stretch marks. Running just over 62 minutes long, "Beautiful" is still small-time filmmaking -- there's no epic WOOSH -- but it's devastatingly intimate. Director Don Hertzfeldt, who much ado about this series has appeared on many a top 100 best animation directors list, gives you a peek into the wandering mind of Bill, a bummer in a pork-pie hat whose only relation with the outside world is his ex-girlfriend, with whom he meanders on strolls yet is politely rejected whenever he brushes too close.

It's an insular experience. Sounds and bits of dialogue overlap and pile upon one another. The spherical framework of each scene is often set into corners to make room for another happening concurrently. Like Wes Anderson, Hertzfeldt uses these seemingly random bits of fiction to give his story a more omnipresent sense of, well, STORY. Hertzfeldt also provides the film's great deal of narration over odd sequences made to seem spur-of-the-moment and incidental. It's less a guiding light than a flashlight, opining on spiels of death, eternity, romance, age, television; even masturbation.

"It's Such a Beautiful Day" sticks with you because it is such a modern odyssey of the proverbial YOU, human person, stick figure. Instead of solipsistic it's universal, even the bits about yourself you might not choose to admit. Life is short and sad and repetitive and nobody knows what the future holds but it's such a beautiful day and you only ever get older and go deeper into that good night. So yeah. Sometimes all anyone wants is to be forgiven. (91/100)

Cars
Cars(2006)
½

A car's life is like a toy's: hairy, wide-eyed, somehow always grinning. You can beef over the types "Cars" falls into. I did for years. Truth is, for a commercial fairy tale it's one carrying a traveled soul. Leave it to now-Disney animation head John Lasseter to choose to burn his childhood throwback in Gen. X's midnight oil, no secondhand bullshit. Dude's penchant couldn't be more crystal; even though "Cars" gets buried in a lot of hoopla, it keeps on feeding off the crowd.

Perfect segway: blue-balled road warrior Lightning McQueen (voice of Owen Wilson, face almost breaking through) could be called the same. Up against city grill and mustached Chick Hicks (Michael Keaton) and almost-racing vet Dinoco's The King (NASCAR retiree Richard Petty) in what comes to be the Piston Cup playoff, McQueen flips his crew the bird and blitzes his tires in the final lap. Close enough to the big finish, though: between the three, it's tough for judges to give any car official props. Off to Cali for a tiebreaker, and for McQueen and Hicks to bicker over who gets first dibs on that Dinoco sponsorship when the brand's old-timer breaks away.

Wouldn't you know it, the freewheeling McQueen drops from barter Mack (one of many small but memorable roles here by John Ratzenberger) and lands in a corny little town named Radiator Springs, meeting everyone from beautiful Sally (Bonnie Hunt) and Ferrari aficionado Luigi (Tony Shalhoub) to Paul Newman's grumpy once-was Doc and Larry the Cable Guy's tow truck Mater (as in "tuh-mater", without the "tuh"). "Cars" finds life in 'em all, Doc's grudged past and offscreen booze (listen to the purr in his voice -- how else, Mouse Ears?) and Sally's neglected dreams, grown more to the center long as every day is too short.

It's Radiator Springs that shakes up McQueen, that urban troll, always full-frontal. Meet a place in America the very knowledge and psyche of shelf-life. Lasseter doesn't shy away from the pain. Pixar's glow just treats it as treasure at the bottom of the sea, a gentle reminder of home in the middle of a fading haunt. When "Cars" kicks its heels, it only broadens its glory.

RoboCop
RoboCop(2014)
½

I'm not against wham-bam-pow on principle. I'm against it when it's empty. That's partly why Paul Verhoeven's 1987 masterpiece "RoboCop" came as such a surprise -- its violence didn't just sting; its satire did, too. And just the same, it isn't exactly that I'm so much FOR a remake of what I'd call one of my favorite movies of all time; it's more that I'm for the director they tapped to polish the original's ironic stew of low class and high pretension: the dearly gifted Brazilian-born filmmaker José Padilha. Why modify something whose political and corporate commentary might be even more relevant today than it was nearly 27(!) years ago? Because Hollywood is condemned to profit from the past. Dead or alive, "RoboCop" 2.0 was bound to happen. The clock is such a drag.

Yet this "RoboCop" often strays so far from the first, and is visually interesting for so many different reasons it's unfortunate Padilha didn't bide his time doing something original as opposed to the bidding of a "tent pole" (it's only February, so does that term even fit?) name. Still though, he skews under genre labels, and every frame of "RoboCop" you truly feel is part of a vision. I've yet to see his much-praised "Elite Squad" films, though watching "RoboCop" one gets the sense Padilha has a certain eye for teamwork and procedure. Sequences in glass office buildings, shoot-outs inside warehouses (one of the final set pieces, instead of echoing "Call of Duty" and its ilk, is absolutely gorgeous and breathtaking); a world of slight, silver screens and spacial patterns. Calling a remake "practical" sounds off more harm than good, but I mean it as a compliment. The whole thing moves from one area to the next with such loopy, dazzling bravado after a while you forget what movie it is you're supposed to be enduring. "RoboCop" has no right to be this much damn fun.

What else is cool is the casting. Joel Kinnaman is a likeably handsome presence as Alex Murphy, a cop who makes unsuspecting enemies after an undercover stint leaves his partner (Michael K. Williams) injured. One night at home with his wife (Abbie Cornish with a less tomboy babe-itude than the original's Nancy Allen) and young son, his car detonates, leaving him fatally burned and scarred. Enter OmniCorp, whose research lab (led by a surprisingly non-robotic Gary Oldman) is pioneering the U.S. Military with sentient bionic law enforcement in the Middle East. CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton, splendid) has the bright idea of giving his technology a human face by manufacturing what remains of Murphy in the guise of a super-powered, crime-fighting cyborg hellbent on extracting revenge on his conspirators and regaining a normal relationship with his family.

The trouble with "RoboCop" is that -- sort of the adverse of Spike Lee's reboot of "Oldboy" (a movie I actually liked), which willingly obliged to continue calling back references to the source inspiration -- Padilha's film, its ambitions and musings about mortality and blind patriotism wont to break free, feels nonetheless legally confined to foremost be a RoboCop movie. Which is a bummer. At least we got the best possible scenario, short of Darren Aronofsky initially being hired behind the camera. But Aronofsky already had his clout project to make anything he wanted after the financial and critical success of "Black Swan". Looking over box office receipts and lame Metacritic scores, "RoboCop" sadly won't get Padilha or star Kinnaman very far. Even if Verhoeven might be proud, it's his fans they were worried about. (75/100)

The Counselor

The gamble movies like "Killing Them Softly", "Only God Forgives" or "The Counselor" take -- and why, in turn, they're rarely ever universally loved -- is that instead of idolizing the glitz and glamour of the criminal underworld they pull the rug out from under it, advertise it as one thing when it's actually something completely different. The difficulty in writing about movies like this are, I don't want to sound above the uproar, or like I'm the sponsor of reason. I understand why "The Counselor" won't click with people, and why it already hasn't. But in time, movies like "Killing", "OGF" or this, they'll find their audience. Maybe not now, but over time, at least I hope. It's just that in the risk in targeting mass appeal for something THIS bleak, all is lost. See; how awful do I sound right now.

The first thing you notice about "The Counselor" -- novelist Cormac McCarthy's first official foray into screenwriting -- is that it doesn't SOUND like any other film. In the TV world I would compare it to something like "Deadwood", where every word is meaningful, precise and otherworldly. You don't pick up on all of it on a first viewing, or maybe any viewing; I would love to actually sit down and read the full transcript of this. The second thing you notice is actually the first image "The Counselor" opens on -- a sport bike riding like hell past a highway sign that reads "Ciudad Juarez" and into one that reads "El Paso, Texas". Yeah, we're dealing with grey zones. Doesn't take a rocket scientist.

Steven Soderbergh examined the shittiness of the drug trade in what I personally think remains his best film, "Traffic". But "The Counselor" tops it in terms of shear upset. There's something to be said in the way it never once shows its skeevy lawyer-with-no-name -- the "counselor" of the title (Michael Fassbender) -- or really anyone for that matter living up their lives on high (pun intended.) "The Counselor" is a cautionary tale in the Shakespearean sense: don't play games you can't win. Two moments bookmark early and final scenes of "The Counselor": that of the titular protagonist walking calmly and coolly through a party being thrown by Reiner (Javier Bardem) -- a kingpin with a taste for exotic hair and Lady Macbeth qualities in his women (Cameron Diaz's Malkina) -- and later, a shot of the counselor -- drunk, unkempt and alone in a foreign land of similar tones -- walking through a rowdy vigil for a young girl whose life was lost in a crossfire.

I highlight this parallel in particular because, outside of being symbolic of the film as a whole, it's so subtle I don't know if I'm maybe reading too much into it. Which is again, representative of "The Counselor" itself: its surface is shiny, but you better believe McCarthy leaves everyone's hands tied and the audience dry. Scott's film is also impeccably cast. Fassbender, in his second collaboration with Scott after last year's "Prometheus", exudes such an appearance of suave, magnetic collect you don't doubt something's got to give under the skin, be it beauty or pain.

Scott works best when he has solid writing behind him, and McCarthy's script is the best non-sci-fi endeavor he's laid hands on since the Oscar-winning "Thelma & Louise". "The Counselor" will naturally be divisive. Scott knows how to tune out unhappy critics at this point, but I hope it doesn't discourage McCarthy from returning to the screen again. In an industry that shoots down all the pretty horses, that's no country for bold men, "The Counselor" has something you hear all too rarely crash on through the clatter of the Hollywood machine: a voice. (82/100)

Beasts of the Southern Wild
½

Once there was a Hushpuppy and more than once will she enter the forefront of your brain, dazzle and dizzy your thoughts. Sure, it's precious, and maybe not perfect, but "Beasts of the Southern Wild" is a movie that wears more than its ticker on its sleeve -- it shows off its home, friends, family, where it grew up. I'll mind no cries of pretension. "Beasts" bears so much voice and aesthetic it amounts to a batch of new talents just cutting their teeth. Each of them break your heart.

Only Lovers Left Alive
½

It wouldn't have been out of step to cast Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston as aliens -- two actors of abnormal beauty and prissy, snake-like bone structures, a factor seen on ample display in one of "Only Lovers Left Alive's" many gorgeous static shots, in which Swinton's Eve and Hiddleston's Adam (like the story, get it?) lie naked opposite each other asleep. But ageless vampires work, too. Both writer-director Jim Jarmusch's play on creationist theory and send-up of everyone's favorite bloodsucking mythos, it's worth pondering for what purpose he chose to revolve an eternal romance around something supernatural, the very thing which supposedly SEPARATED Adam from Eve and vice versa.

In the film's dual opening shots, the camera slowly focuses in on Eve (the marvelous Swinton in frizzy hair and robe like a Good Witch gone bad) and Adam (Loki's "Thor: The Dark World" split ends intact atop the excellent Hiddleston's reclusive rock & roller), the former in Tangier, the latter Detroit -- cosmic lovers set adrift, drawn together again.

"Only Lovers Left Alive" isn't just Jarmusch's best film since "Dead Man", though I'm a professed fan of each of his intermittent outputs (yes, even "The Limits of Control") -- it's his best, period. I've always found Jarmusch to be a more spirit- and philosophical Wes Anderson; think "The Darjeeling Limited" but lurid, more subjective, and maybe even more methodical (if not exactly Anderson-level dollhouse deliberate) and you're close in imagining his touchy-feely approach.

Yet he makes movies about distance, outsiders, characters not so much against the world as they are reluctantly aligned with it. If Anderson's rich palate celebrates this ironic lack of conformity, Jarmusch does something more industrial by struggling to confound what it all means. He might be accused of navel-gazing, but as a foreigner, what else can one do? (92/100)

Philomena
Philomena(2013)

I hate how certain movie distributors are so narcissistic as to preclude a film exclusively with trailers for the studio's own coming attractions, especially when it's for fucking Harvey Weinstein's vulture company and I'd just given the man who knows how much of my $9 theater ticket price. Also even when I pump myself up in the car by telling myself I attend my local multiplex enough I should be allowed to bring in an outside Starbucks coffee every now and again, I hate putting employees in the uncomfortable position of either telling me to leave it, throw it out, or be kind enough to pretend they didn't see me carrying it in in the first place.

So settled into my seat feeling like the smug, falsely entitled jerk I am, the laughably dull U2-infused "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" trailer and that for some other Weinstein-promoted piece of shit called "One Chance" having finished, I wasn't really sure how if at all I'd appreciate "Philomena". I was never in any rush to see it since I wouldn't exactly call Stephen Frears a maverick auteur. (Not an obtrusive or poor filmmaker, but not so much a visually interesting or entirely prestigious one, either.) And its four Academy Award nominations while shutting out far more deserving movies like "Before Midnight" and "Inside Llewyn Davis" basically soured me to the idea of it on the whole. But thanks to its critical attention and box office success (ya done it again, Harvey) it finally played near enough to me to warrant finally checking it out for myself.

Unsurprisingly, I was wrong.

Easily Frears' best film since "High Fidelity", and arguably his best, period, instead of a miserable tonal clash between self-importance and misplaced, antagonistic energy (see: "August: Osage County") "Philomena" is a totally terrific pairing between optimism and pettiness. The true story it's based on (a world-happy former convent member teams with a world-weary political journalist in an effort to locate the son she was forced to give up) and especially the two leads (the impeccably above-suspicion Judi Dench as the titular Philomena Lee; Steve Coogan as the droll, tag-along reporter Martin Sixsmith) fit the film and characters' opposing philosophical juxtapositions like a glove.

Both actors are outstanding, hitting equally welcome dramatic and comedic beats with supple, memorable aplomb. So does the movie, which Coogan adapted with Jeff Pope from Sixsmith's investigative memoir. Like the recent "Saving Mr. Banks" it's hard not to want to just go with something as meaningfully pleasant and likable as "Philomena". Only in this case -- and though it gets awfully close in the third act -- "Philomena" doesn't completely pin the cause of its protagonist's inner struggle on one singular person or event from his or her troubled past.

It's really a story which deals with how different people choose to react when life faces them with closed doors. "Philomena" isn't without its flaws, but you'd be hard-pressed to find anything about it which doesn't immediately make you want to overlook them for sake of the quiet profundity of the film's harsh, final moments. Its stunning authenticity cuts deeper than you'd think. (79/100)

About Time
About Time(2013)

Richard Curtis has never been the world's greatest filmmaker, and he's teased that his latest, "About Time", felt like enough of a "summing up" to want to retire from directing as a whole. (Though not from screenwriting -- his young-adult adaptation "Trash" with Rooney Mara is set to be released in May.) In many ways he's right. No, scratch that, in ALL ways he's right. I haven't seen nor been very compelled to see much of Curtis's other work beyond 2009's so-so "Pirate Radio", but I'm no less confident in calling "About Time" his best feature to date by far.

Save for the final few frames, I don't think "About Time" is ever "cloyingly sentimental" as his previous films have often been described, nor did I find it emotionally vapid. Its swan song feels like a comeuppance, proof Curtis can do more than pander to a specific brand of demographic. I haven't read reviews for this yet -- dunno if I will at all, this movie's lovely spell just so swept over and transfixed me to have any desire to want to break it -- but I could see "About Time" being lazily skewed as misogynist. Women are delegated as objects of attraction for Tim (played by splendid up-and-comer Domhnall Gleeson), a young man told by his father (the ineffable Curtis regular Bill Nighy in a role he actually doesn't sleepwalk through, even when he's credited and only ever referred to as "Dad") that the men in their family have the power to travel back in time.

Thing is, I sort of want to address this even though I'm not sure it's even a complaint that's yet been made. I generally speaking have seen and read enough to recognize chauvinism in something, but ultimately I am genetically operated to see the world from the point of view of a human male. There's a difference between bias and perspective ("Mud" was the last movie in recent memory to have its gender lines unfairly blurred) and yeah, men are forever doomed to walk the earth misunderstanding and/or confused by the minds of women. A romantic-comedy from the framework of a relatively sweet-mannered dude is nothing new in the cinematic universe, and quite frankly "About Time" isn't trying to reinvent the wheel. I'm not really sure what the fuck the point is I'm trying to make anymore, so I'll get off this topic; I feel like now I'M the one reading too much into things.

"About Time" is really about the relationship between Tim and his father via the tortured cycle of comprehending the myriad ways in which one can fuck up the use of their amazing gift. Granted it's more love story than sci-fi (if plot holes for you are a problem, get the fuck out) but Curtis blends the two very well, and in the end lends their days spent together a very melancholy uplift. "About Time" itself is a little like Tim standing in a dark place, balling his fists and closing his eyes and thinking of a particular moment he'd like to return to. It's a movie that has to click with you on a personal level to register as anything poignant or profound. Objectively it's beautifully-filmed, Curtis and cinematographer John Guleserian capturing in a relaxed golden-green blush the rain, wind and stony streets of Cornwall and London, accompanied by a terrific soundtrack that includes The Cure, Nick Cave, and Ben Folds, among others. Subjectively though, it's surprisingly sincere. Roll your eyes and shrug it off if you must. For me, "About Time" is full of a wonder rarely felt at the movies, a treat whose every moment you savor. I'd say the thought is universal. (78/100)

Whisper of the Heart (Mimi wo sumaseba) (If You Listen Closely)

"Does this sound corny to you?"
"It's a little corny, but you're a violin maker, not a writer."

I can't argue it reaches "Spirited Away" levels of narrative and visual mastery, but just the same I didn't expect "Whisper of the Heart" to hit such an emotional chord in me, given especially how bummed I always am how difficult it is to find a Studio Ghibli production in America which isn't dubbed with the voices of famous English people. No matter; that annoyance drops pretty quickly when your movie is as ingeniously written and executed as "Whisper" is. Ghibli films just have this amazing sense of awe in every frame, this fantastic sense of optical voyeurism and splendid life. I haven't seen "The Wind Rises" yet (hands down one of my most anticipated of the new year), but one of the promotional stills has maybe the most representative image so far of the sweeping feeling incited by their 2D artwork: a character holding onto his hat against the wind and looking to the sky in admiration, at the idea that anything is possible -- if you dream it, it can come.

Which segues nicely into talking about "Whisper of the Heart", the first Ghibli film to be helmed by someone other than original co-founders Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata (though Miyazaki is responsible for the deeply-felt intimacies of the adapted screenplay.) Expected to be the successor to Miyazaki and Takahata, "Whisper" was instead Yoshifumi Kond?'s sole outing as director before his untimely death in 1998 at age 47 of a rare aortic dissection caused reportedly by overwork.

Which, no less tragic, but what a fittingly bittersweet way to go given "Whisper's" central subject matter of artistic struggle and individual passion. Weighty themes for a kids' flick, and even more daunting for one which features a spunky girlhood protagonist. 14-year-old Shizuku (voiced by Brittany Snow in the translation) loves to read and realizes her vice for writing after she meets Seiji (David Gallagher), an older boy who handcrafts violins in the basement of a local antiques shop.

Partially a tale of first love, or at least one's first brushing with the notion of it, "Whisper of the Heart" is more so a film about possession, not unlike "Blue Is the Warmest Color" or "Beyond the Hills" in that regard. Shizuku uses her inspiration to pen a novel based on the fictional history of the shop owner's cat statuette The Baron (Cary Elwes), rushing to finish in time for Seiji's return from an overseas apprenticeship in Italy. During his two month leave, we see Shizuku and her thoughts bloom effervescently, from twee moments of fantasy to recognizing her own merit as a writer comes from the rough edges within. That's what I related to most about "Whisper of the Heart", the fear of trying your hardest and best and it still not being good enough. That it blankets a happy hurt with positive soul and venerate lyricism, and sends you out believing the impossible, is all the more amazing. For the honchos at Ghibli, I can't think of a better sentiment. (83/100)

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

Flimsy and by-the-numbers, but what did you expect from a paperback adaptation? "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit" was initially slated for a December 2013 release date before being pushed back by Paramount to make room for Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street". Box office receipts may prove me wrong (and they have), but I think that was a smart move. People are actually currently PAYING MONEY to see Ice Cube and Kevin Hart sleepwalk through a paycheck, or YET ANOTHER found-footage hell baby movie. "Jack Ryan" feels like just the right amount of sleepy blockbuster holdover to get us through these trying times of January, the worst time for anything anywhere in the world ever. (Trying to be sarcastic there. Doesn't sound it like it, but. Obviously it isn't the worst thing in the world. You can pull and print that.)

There isn't too much to say about "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit". Like the similar Tom Cruise vehicle "Jack Reacher", it's a franchise hopeful with, as Don Jon would say, the pretty woman (Kiera Knightley), the pretty man (Chris Pine in the captain's chair as the titular hero), and everyone rides into the sunset. We know it's fake, but we watch it like it's real life. Understandable. Shit's to the brim with well intention, director Kenneth Branagh also starring as a malicious Russian CEO with plans to crash the U.S. stock market, and an agreeable Kevin Costner as the CIA agent who first propels Jack into action.

If I had a notable complaint, it's that I wish Branagh didn't cast himself as the film's nemesis with an accent like thick soup. He doesn't overplay it or anything, just something about him kept pulling me out. But like the similarly people-pleasing "Thor: The Dark World", or any other comic book movie for that matter, bad guys are only noticeably shallow when the charisma of its central leads isn't there to fall back on. Knightley is eternally welcome in my eyes even when, as here, she's doomed to play damsel in distress, and Pine, as in J.J. Abrams' "Star Trek" movies, proves an affable, intelligently cocky/humble leading man.

Even with its talented cast it isn't much, but Branagh is a competent if only occasionally visually interesting filmmaker. (A certain painting of Napoleon figures into the narrative prominently as some of the movie's more playfully tongue-in-cheek symbolism.) Cheesy, sure. Hammy, yeah. It isn't that hot of a meal on its own but it packs somewhat of a punch as a late-night leftover. (57/100)

Labor Day
Labor Day(2014)

I respect when a filmmaker tries to make something his or her own. Paul Thomas Anderson with "There Will Be Blood" significantly changed the series of unfortunate events in Upton Sinclair's "Oil!", finding the devil and Daniel Plainview in the sinful details of Sinclair's opus by retrofitting its themes of wealth, power and monopoly onto the big screen. Ditto the Coen Brothers with Cormac McCarthy's "No Country for Old Men", Alexander Payne with "The Descendants", Andrew Dominik with "Killing Them Softly", etc. etc.

Think something less novel than cozy paperback -- somewhere between Salinger and "Twilight" -- and you're getting close with Jason Reitman's "Labor Day". By now it's already been through the loop and spit out by critics who called it peachy fluff. They're not wrong. But I'd take a Reitman hinder over an "Awkward Moment" any hot damn September day, even if it means being dragged through the mud. Come off it and give it a chance. It's already halfway there on the laurels of its cast alone. It's 1987. Kate Winslet again shows why she's the greatest screen actress since Meryl Streep in the role of Adele Wheeler, a vacant stare in a dress since the birth of her now 13-year-old son (Gattlin Griffith), both of whose lives are forever changed by the sudden appearance of Frank Chambers (Josh Brolin, excellently channeling his growly hangdog demeanor to equip that of a lost puppy), a recently escaped convict who forces himself upon their home.

"Labor Day" is based on the 2009 Joyce Maynard bestseller of the same name, which writer-director Reitman within its initial year of publication immediately snatched up to adapt. I haven't read Maynard's book, though I can't help but wonder why an A-list whiz like Reitman would have any interest in visually sorting out this degree of melodramatic weepie. My guess is he wanted to infuse a story of a mother through the eyes of her son with mournful Terrence Malick-like transcendence. "Labor Day" isn't much of a feminist piece (and I'm probably putting that nicely) but, quite honestly, this sort of mild-fantasy romantic fiction rarely ever is. And Reitman's built an ace filmography following characters who are broken instead of going out his way to fix them. "Labor Day" is potboiler stuff, but at least Reitman and his actors cook it to something absorbingly sensuous. (61/100)

The Monuments Men

"Ocean's Eight".

No really, I wish I had more to say about this movie, but it's just so...friggin lame. George Clooney peoples an interesting true story with flat, uninteresting characters, whose only motivation seem to be they're George Clooney's friends and decided to do him a favor for a paycheck. Not a total regression for Clooney the director -- it's passionately put together and filmed -- but a disappointing misstep nonetheless, especially considering the extreme, potent potential for something amazing here. Bleh. (40/100)

Cosmopolis
Cosmopolis(2012)

REWATCH: David Cronenberg doesn't so much traffic in transformation as he does in examination, not putting humanity on trial as much as under a highfalutin magnifying glass. And though it's been compared to his pinnacle 1983 satire "Videodrome" I'd sooner relate "Cosmopolis" to what I still consider the man's finest masterpiece to date, 1991's adaptation of William S. Burroughs' erotic mind-melt "Naked Lunch". (Also for whatever it's worth my favorite novel.) In that case, Cronenberg took notes from the literary source in addition to its own author's complicated life, crafting a film which oozed (literally) both style and immaculate substance, an ambitious experiment of corresponding story (Peter Weller as a gonzo, Burroughs-drawn exterminator who becomes high on his own toxic supply) as it is one of profound inspiration. (The final scene, to me, is up there with cinema's most stinging send-offs.)

With "Cosmopolis" he's tried to pin down something even more burdensome than a grossly episodic beatnik book of virtually no narrative foundation. It drew even me -- ME, the smartest and most interesting man in the world -- for a loop when I first saw it in 2012. It's based on the equally controversial 2003 Don DeLillo (diamond-)hardcover, which waxes poetically the tangential tale of billionaire capital asset manager Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson bringing his token lack of expression to the fold of a whiter white-collar bloodsucker), whose 24-hour excursion across midtown Manhattan is interrupted by a city-wide gridlock caused by a visit from the president; women; business associates; and a civil riot skewed from the inside of the paranoid Packer's illustrious chalk-colored limo.

"Cosmopolis" is a contraption stuffed with such purported importance and wistful merit, with icy dialogue that sounds so crisp and distant, it's amazing, then, that in a pre-"Counselor" world critics weren't as up in arms about something so cynical as they were for Ridley Scott's frustratingly articulate pseudo-thriller just over a year later. Like Scott, Cronenberg is a filmmaker apparent for a certain brand of influence who seems to be strengthening his trademark into an almost Lynchian sense of sophisticated deconstruction. But the auteur of old hasn't completely changed. Like Eric Packer's halted cartel, he's only crossed a divide. Welcome to Annexia. (83/100)

The Invisible Woman
½

Patient doesn't mean boring, or dull. Nor does it necessarily mean deliberate. In the case of Ralph Fiennes' "The Invisible Woman", it means exhilarating, heady and beautiful. Intoxicating, even. In just his second outing as director -- following 2011's Bard-mad (or is it the other way around?) "Coriolanus" -- Fiennes proves to be more than just a competent man behind the camera, but a damn unique filmmaker in his own regard, with an eye for visual metaphors and dense thematic layers. Some will describe its beauty as removed. I say it plunges deeper. "The Invisible Woman" nails the perfect tone between brood and farce, slapstick and serious. Dickens himself would hardly have had it any other way.

Except "The Invisible Woman" is a movie inherently ABOUT different ways, or at least apparently. (Nice segue, sort of.) It's whispered Charles Dickens (played here by Fiennes in a performance of especial passion and nuance), confined to a loveless marriage, fell in longing with theater troupe girl Nelly Ternan (the extraordinary Felicity Jones under what should hopefully act as an official career-making spotlight), who'd go on to become his mistress.

Fiction, not so much fact, but quite often elaborate historical invention is what keeps "The Invisible Woman" going, and later sends it out with a poignant, resonant bang. Fiennes gives his all, but it's the Birmingham-born, Oxford-read looker Jones who, despite the film's slippery title, does nothing short of captivate. It's in her prim, sexy-chipmunk expression -- heart-arched upper lip, shy green eyes, girl-next-door preppiness. Fiennes anchors Dickens' soul, but Jones provides his muse.

Also, though they never appear onscreen together, Kristin Scott Thomas and Tom Burke are in this! It's an "Only God Forgives" reunion! (92/100)

Malcolm X
Malcolm X(1992)
½

I don't think "Malcolm X" is a perfect movie, but, like "Schindler's List", or even last year's "Lincoln", it's an important one. Spike Lee and Denzel Washington paint a flawed portrait of a flawed man, that carries all the heated exchange of a racial revolution without -- thankfully -- succumbing to the big theme of the movie -- and all Lee's movies, for that matter -- hype. Lee directs with a fitting amount of tense, handheld urgency, while Washington, not unlike Joaquin Phoenix in "The Master", wears Malcolm with a stern sense of worry, a lost boy struggling with big ideas personal and universal. Even when the filmmakers too sharply turn chronological corners, it's Malcolm's words you can't shake. Their courage stings eternal.

Before Midnight

"We accept the love we think we deserve," said last year's terrific totally-not-another-teen movie "The Perks of Being a Wallflower". On the other side of that spectrum there's "Before Midnight", yet another 2013 movie I've thought about, wrestled with, has grown on me, decayed, sat with me in different ways. Is it or isn't it perfect, etc., etc. That's the mark of a truly great movie, the one you can't stop thinking about. In "Before Sunrise" Celine (Julie Deply) to Jesse (Ethan Hawke) was the French girl on the train he couldn't let get away. You felt for them. In the unlikely but even bigger and better sequel "Before Sunset" she was the girl we saw and wanted him to go back for. Now in "Before Midnight" she's the girl, we see early on, he didn't let go of. Hey, they couldn't just happen to meet again in Greece, could they?

And. Well. They do and they don't. The best thing about "Midnight", the most, I think AMBITIOUS thing about it (though people have argued to the opposite) is how it isn't very feel-good. Sure it has its highs and lows. Richard Linklater's camera is voyeuristic. "Before Midnight" is the first in the series to visit the ugly side of compromise, and yet doesn't shy away from its sometimes both temporary and eternal beauty. As Linklater hovers from close-ups to widescreens to finally pulling away and back, he shows that just because Jesse and Celine are struggling to settle it doesn't mean the movie has to. The strongest parts -- the masterful and oft-praised hotel room sequence, Jesse and Celine noting the end of a sunset's chronology, the final cafe scene, how each character addresses their still-existing relationship problems but in a public eye -- cut like a fucking diamond: hard.

Celine can be a flat-out bitch at points, is a complaint I've read. It's true. Maybe if they make a fourth that movie can lean more toward facing the issues Celine has with Jesse. That doesn't take away from the fact of the matter that "Before Midnight" is the ultimate entry in the trilogy, because it works as its own film for the uninitiated but mostly has a hugely bittersweet taste to those of us who often wonder where Jesse and Celine are today, how and what they're doing at a given moment. It's to the credit of Hawke and Delpy, who, without a doubt, give two of the absolute finest and most experienced performances of the year, fitting raw human nature into a couple who have themselves become characters. And just because it feels like it's improvised it runs so smoothly doesn't mean the shaky vulnerability and tightly wound perfection of the script should go unnoticed. Also there's Linklater, who stays true to Jesse and Celine's story by making the thing feel so damn cinematic. Whatever flaws "Before Midnight" has, they're the best kind: natural. Gentle and uninhibited. Because as this trilogy has proved, from sweet nothings come the most one has to say, about everything. (97/100)

21 And Over
21 And Over(2013)

Cool that "Hangover" scribes Jon Lucas and Scott Moore both penned and directed "21 And Over", the first for the writing duo. If shit wasn't put together so damn well, it'd be easier to call a spade a sexist, racist, been-there-done-that-and wait, we're really going here again? Even after what just-- Seriously?

I repeat -- it WOULD be. "21 And Over" is not a bad movie, but it's a tame and often unfunny one. Which isn't to say that's glaringly noticeable as "21" rants and raves its story of two high school pals attending different colleges -- frat-y Miller (Miles Teller) and book-y Casey ("Pitch Perfect's" Skylar Astin) -- who meet up for the 21st birthday of friend Jeff Chang (Justin Chon) that ends up a night of drunken nakedness and other such debauchery enough young white person privilege could conceivably get one into.

Say what you will about "The Hangover" and last year's "Hangover" director Todd Phillips-produced "Project X" -- they GO there, be it the manic mayhem of teenage apocalypse dreams of the latter or -- and to far greater success -- the still-excellent adventure of the morning after of the former. Or, know what, forget all that -- humor is completely subjective. Rarely is anything universally acknowledged as "funny". Will "21 And Over" please the audience it's going for? Eh. Probably. But it's nothing to blow up your phone. And looking over box office receipts, ain't no one going to return the favor.

All the Pretty Horses

There are certainly worse ways to spend two hours, especially if you're interested in seeing an adaptation with at least glimpses of the great movie it could have been. Also Thorton uses some interesting camerawork here and there and sure knows how to frame character monologues. But ultimately, I'm not even sure I can blame the pesty scissor hands of Harvey Weinstein for the lifeless melodrama of "All the Pretty Horses".

Enemy
Enemy(2014)

"Enemy" is a movie of pet peeves and red herrings, which begin to pile up so indiscriminately trying to hang onto its protagonist's moral compass starts to become a bit akin to exacting a needle from a doomy, droning haystack. Director Denis Villeneuve's official follow-up to last year's excellent "Prisoners" is just as self-serious and ominous as that film, only "Enemy" will keep even more of the audience guessing, and for vastly different reasons and purposes. Not a lot ever happens to history professor Adam Bell (Jake Gyllenhaal), though we aren't given much of a reason to care about what happens to him anyway. Upon watching a DVD a colleague recommends Bell discovers his exact double in the form of a third-rate movie actor, and proceeds to pry into the man's private life.

Adapted by Javier Gullón from José Saramago's 2002 novel "The Double", "Enemy" by design isn't a thriller in the more traditional, crowd-pleasing vein (as traditional and crowd-pleasing as child abduction goes) that "Prisoners" is, nor is it necessarily as good, but it's close; and, in its own way, takes bigger risks than "Prisoners" does. I don't really blame anyone who deems "Enemy" a deliberate dead end. Well, kinda sorta. Maybe a little. Okay, I do blame them.

"Prisoners" was steak tartare whereas "Enemy's" taste spectrum is way less fair-minded and balanced. Critics say they want to see something tempered which takes its time and leaves them guessing, yet give "Enemy" and its ilk the cold shoulder for too carefully biding its laurels on a deeply unsettling mood. I agree, atmosphere only takes you so far.

But a mystery of such existential agony and elegance as "Enemy" -- its smoggy, end-of-the-earth Toronto landscape constructed like a dollhouse maze -- should hardly be put down for its crafty subjectivity. Actually, it ought to be championed, for that and for featuring a tour de force dual performance by Gyllenhaal, his pretty boy complexion covered a good deal by a bushy, almost doctrinal-level beard. His soft-spoken stride and wide-eyed worry and wonder suit perfectly Villeneuve's further studious considerations into the mind of the macho id. "Enemy" is virile dismay on creepy display, with an ending so peculiar and abrupt it'll send certain people up the wall while appealing to others as just another brick in it. Call it judged dread. (82/100)

The Hunt
The Hunt(2013)
½

Probably at least tonally similar to Ryan Coogler's "Fruitvale Station" -- an innocent life is ruined for an irrelevant reason. But Thomas Vinterberg's "The Hunt" doesn't treat Mads Mikkelsen's kindergarten teacher Lucas as a saint; simply someone being punished wrongfully for something he did not do. The movie even lets you in on that in the first twenty minutes when Lucas is accused of molesting a child so as not to shroud his case in mystery. Because it's a character piece, and as "The Hunt" unfolds it also becomes a story about the power and danger of, not lies exactly, seeing as how the student who points fingers at Lucas is never portrayed as a villain necessarily, but the mighty snowball effect small town gossip and jumping the gun can and do have.

Vinterberg and the script he wrote with Tobias Lindholm may occasionally paint in broad strokes, but both are brilliant in staging scenes of confined suspense. (Two in particular, one in which Lucas gets into a fisticuffs with a grocery store deli worker and one in which he attends Christmas Eve mass, are explosive, in physical and emotional force.) And huge cheers yet again to the ever versatile Mikkelsen, who, like the film, is asked to embody the difficult sensations of a man behind glass, who you want to hit back but know shouldn't. The thrill of "The Hunt" is that it reaches deep inside, gets you mad as hell and fires you up. I don't know. To me, that's pretty damn great filmmaking.

Antichrist
Antichrist(2009)
½

There are better horror films out there than "Antichrist", but then again "Antichrist" isn't really a horror film. It's an attack on taste, audience gross-out threshold and the most uncomfortable viewing experience for a quote-unquote "mainstream" (it's got Norman Osborne in it, for pete's sake) movie of the last at least fifteen years. That being said, "Antichrist" is also a philosophical and hypnotic treatise on all of the above, full of dark, biblical imagery pertaining to sex, guilt, violence, selfishness, and the awfulness of man. Perfect? No. Still, there's no other creation like "Antichrist", and that's exactly what it is: an undefinable and inevitable creation. Preferably with scissors.

Blancanieves
Blancanieves(2013)
½

Don't know if it'd be a classic of the silent era, but for that matter I don't know if "The Artist" would be either and I love the shit out of that movie. "Blancanieves" isn't on the level of lush as "The Artist" but it's just as romantic in its own twisted Latin ways. I like how, unlike other "Snow White" interpretations, "Blancanieves" chooses to emphasize different, darker elements of the Grimm brothers story, particularly the the sadomasochistic ways of the wicked stepmother (played by "Y Tu Mama Tambien" and "Pan's Labyrinth" stunner Maribel Verdú.) And once it gets into the bullfighting dwarves of the third act writer-director Pablo Berger's closeups are very reminiscent of "Time Bandits". Plus it ends on a real bummer. Which is fitting, since "Blancanieves" is a movie that's more full-bodied (the late Ebert's word) concept than it is mere gimmick.

Three Colors: White (Trzy kolory: Bialy) (Trois Couleurs: Blanc)
½

Krzysztof Kieslowski's "Blue", first in his colors trilogy, did anything but swing at low-hanging fruit. It's a great film. Don't shrug off "White" for indulging in the simple pleasures. There's beauty here; just not all of it is bleak. Also Julie Delpy. Talk about porcelain doll.

The Long Day Closes

Give or take an R, it'd be easy to relate Terence Davies with Terrence Malick. Both are masters of elegiac camerawork and understanding the complexities of nature and memory. Davies especially, though, excels at capturing a specific region. His features have Ken Loach's day-in-a-life/life-in-a-day authenticity and texture. The only other film of Davies' I'd seen until now was 2012's "The Deep Blue Sea", and one thing's for sure: you know a Davies shot when you're endlessly entranced in one. Immaculately layered as a dense, ambient, bird's-eye card shuffle of the childhood of one eleven-year-old Liverpool lad Bud (Leigh McCormack), "The Long Day Closes" has some of the most perfectly constructed framing of any movie I've probably ever seen. I guess Davies wants you to feel the slow-bake of boyhood and lazy weekend afternoons.

Another major theme outside of a great slice of coming-of-age tale is entertainment and how people would bide their time in the 1950s. Radio dramas, sparse film dialogue, gospel and pop songs all appear on the soundtrack. There's a real sense of togetherness here. Bud's family sings a lot, his mother (Marjorie Yates) in particular, and singing as much as cinema haunts "The Long Day Closes". Davies has such a unique imagining of era and place and how they compare to eternally universal emotions, it's beguiling. And yeah, like Malick the intimacy in his escapism is meant to evoke subjectively as well as objectively. Crazy to think Davies kind of made his "The Tree of Life" more than a decade before Malick did his, or at least so impeccably partnered the razor-edge social realism of the French New Wave with a more poetic, precise and personal Hollywood Mulholland drive. Nothing bereft of a masterpiece. (100/100)

The Thin Red Line
½

All art is about the need to connect. Until "The Thin Red Line", twenty years past Terrence Malick had two features to his name, 1973's "Badlands" and 1978's "Days of Heaven", in which Malick used his godlike camera eye to peer deep- and thoughtfully into the magnificent troubles of two triangles of characters. In 1998's "Thin Red Line" he juggles a herculean amount. Malick's always worked in huge arcs, so he doesn't struggle much with the minutiae. Each different narration in "The Thin Red Line" is concerned with the trust and power that allows war to happen, where murder -- the ultimate sin, it tells us -- can be committed scot-free, and is even rewarded.

How can the powers that be, that MADE being, also allow to exist the powers that destroy it? All the voiceovers clash with this idea in mind, and it's grippingly beautiful. This is the movie that put Malick back on the map, by being totally not rushed and ambitious as fuck. There are certain moments where Malick loses focus in the sweeping 170-minute runtime, but that's nitpicking a thin line that feels oh so bold. (93/100)

Prisoners
Prisoners(2013)

Let's stop pretending Oscars mean anything. Movies made exclusively as bait for awards can go screw themselves. That "Prisoners" is all-around phenomenally acted, shot (Roger Deakins <3), directed, written and scored shouldn't cloud anyone's atlas as to its menacing, shattering power. Comparisons to "Zero Dark Thirty" are apt. Ditto those to "Zodiac". "Prisoners" is the whole bloody affair, so of course there will be bitching French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve and writer Aaron Guzikowski (his second feature after fucking "Contraband", of all things) chose not to bitch out on the uber-torture and violence in their story of lives physically and emotionally torn apart. Those who like their morals clean, cut and dry should look the other way now.

Otherwise prepare not for a whodunnit -- though that's the movie's populist appeal (I am naturally so much better than to be drawn into such trivial drivel) -- but a child abduction thriller that's only procedural in the neutral ambivalence of its filmmaking. "Prisoners" is a movie at the forefront of too many pseudo-Fincher serial killer flicks that's smarter than to assume the cliches it knows its audience already sees coming. What makes Villeneuve's film seem so startlingly new is the way in which it shakes -- and keeps shaking -- the ground of everything that comes before it. It's not that "Prisoners" is anything too shocking; it's just a drama handled so perfectly and without wincing it's unfortunate it gets a smidge contrived by its 153-minute end. Minor nit-picks; I could say the same of the start of "Zero Dark Thirty", when Jessica Chastain's Maya gets a sudden and unexplained taste for vengeance. Still though, in a movie so deep, dark and searching the last few parts and especially final shot ring sort of hollow in the wake of its first, like, three-fourths.

Who's to be extra-specially commended here is Hugh Jackman as dad Keller Dover, whose daughter and daughter's friend disappear (are kidnapped?) one rainy Thanksgiving afternoon. Jackman gives a wholly original performance of brutal, brooding intensity, that also isn't without feeling. "Prisoners" is true to its title in offering us a grim, methodical take on obsession and what brings a man to break. But perhaps why the film so layered is its juggling of individual characters who Villeneuve isn't afraid to follow as they commit acts individually, alone -- against law, the world and even themselves -- down a rabbit hole of pulp fiction vulnerability. (84/100)

Blue Jasmine
Blue Jasmine(2013)
½

Enough cannot be said: Cate Blanchett gives the winning performance of her career in Woody Allen's bruised, complex "Blue Jasmine". She and it are a tour de force. As the titular Jasmine, a New York housewife before her promiscuous Bernie Madoff-type ex (played beautifully by Alec Baldwin) kills himself in prison, Blanchett pulls out all stops; she's sexy, crazy, funny, and she's losing her mind. Allen -- whose last true wowser was "Midnight in Paris" two summers ago -- holds her brilliant beast on a leash while letting her roam. It's Blanchett's performance, but it's Allen's movie, his best in at least a decade. The two ignite sparks. You don't know what's coming, what's HAPPENING for the first hour. That's because for the first time in forever, while Jasmine weeps, Allen's tearing apart cinematic convention by telling "Blue Jasmine" out of order, to seem just as broken as she is.

And at every turn, too. Who'd of thought of Andrew Dice Clay in a drama? Or the genius Louis C.K.? Allen draws blood out of each part in his "Streetcar Named Desire"-riffing universe, from the wonderful Sally Hawkins as Jasmine's low-class adopted sister Ginger (Hawkins deserves just as much praise as Blanchett does here, simply adorable without being annoying), whom Jasmine's temporarily living with in San Francisco, to Bobby Cannavale as Ginger's grease monkey boyfriend Jasmine ardently disapproves of and Peter Sarsgaard as her maybe rebound; even Clay and CK, as Ginger's ex-husband and new lover, respectively, are broadly hilarious without being two-dimensional.

What could have been a half-assed homage with Allen filling in the vapid blanks (he's made a movie every single fucking year, I'm not saying I'd blame him to take it easy), "Blue Jasmine" is instead a stinging character study about the pains of narcissism and the perks and downers of a being a middle-aged wallflower. With its fractured narrative, gorgeous lenswork and cinematography (by Spanish sharp shooter Javier Aguirresarobe) "Jasmine" is adept at turning its protagonist's pretty little day-to-day upside down. It's fitting what comes to mind now when I think of the movie are the jazzy beginnings of the omnipresent lullaby "Blue Moon", as a metaphor for Jasmine's failure to launch. The world is whatever mood she's in. It and we are her faithful followers. Her oyster. Right now, she's having a hell of a week. (94/100)

Gravity
Gravity(2013)
½

I'd describe "Gravity" as ninety tense, lyrical, nightmarish minutes, yet no one or two or even three labels can fit it. Alfonso Cuaron has purposely fashioned "Gravity" to be a first-hand (or as close to one as you can get) experience. It's a hell of a trip and then some. He's made four masterpieces in the last fifteen years, and "Gravity" is no exception; it's just the most exceptional. It'd be moot and no fun trying to describe it. Just know if you love movies, or even if you don't (don't know how you came across this, but whatever) "Gravity" is that rare beast that satisfies on all fronts, fires on all cylinders, is arty and ambitious while also being absolutely, unabashedly gripping from start to finish.

Also Sandra Bullock gives by far the greatest performance of her career here, heightening anxiety and sympathy from literally nothing but icy cold silence.

Believe the hype. "Gravity" is the whole heavenly shebang. And see it in 3D, because trust me, not even James Cameron has jack shit on the wondrously nauseating textures of this. (93/100)

The Act Of Killing
½

Some killers go into hiding, and most, more often than not, stay there. Others want to be caught. In Indonesia, they're revered. From 1965-66, following a failed military coup d'Ã (C)tat, the country's new leadership upped gangsters from the ticket-scalping black market to punishing with torture and death anyone suspected of being a "communist", pretty much an all-encompassing code word for those with views against the government. From those killings a popular right-wing paramilitary group was spawned, orbiting even federal ministers, that proudly and publicly promotes everything from voting fraud to genocide.

The person held most responsible for this radical change is named Anwar Congo, as much a protagonist as any in Joshua Oppenheimer's incredible documentary "The Act of Killing". Oppenheimer asked Anwar and his friends in the mafia to make a film about why they did what they did, intertwined with such comically absurd scenes as men in drag dancing alongside showgirls next to a giant constructed fish to recreations reflecting the afterlife in which a medal is awarded to Anwar by those he's murdered for "killing me and sending me to heaven." I'd call it the funniest spoof of filmmaking since "Tropic Thunder" if Oppenheimer didn't trust his audience enough to see something more, something horrifying, in his film's 159-minute runtime.

"The Act of Killing" is as shocking a movie as I've seen in a long time, that the sudden darkness the anonymous-filled credit jump sends you into will incite inner if not audible gasps. There's no narration except when Oppenheimer's voice engages the men, and what title cards there are are few. It's a hypnotic vision. Oppenheimer is smart enough to -- borrowing the style of exec producers Errol Morris and Werner Herzog -- let his subjects tell the story, make their movie, found such a relationship with them in aiding their creativity. It would have been easy for Oppenheimer to leave "The Act of Killing" as surface-level images literally on the cutting room floor.

There's a moment in the movie when Anwar, appearing on a talk show, puffs his chest at his country's trail of dead, repeating the idea of "gangster" coming from the meaning "free men". Those behind the camera watch him smirk and laugh in awe. "How is he not haunted?" Fret not, because "The Act of Killing" definitely is, a masterpiece about the headspace taken when the act of killing becomes a law of nature. (92/100)

Nebraska
Nebraska(2013)
½

Alexander Payne is a journeyman, but with "Nebraska" he comes home. More than his five previous features -- the satirical "Citizen Ruth" and "Election" and the lyrical "About Schmidt", "Sideways" and "The Descendants" -- "Nebraska" is the most resonant he's yet drawn to crafting his first true masterpiece. Bob Nelson's refreshingly unpretentious script wins by keeping it simple, and discovers larger truths about family, heritage and aging by staying small. In an ingenious bit of player portrayal, regular Payne casting director John Jackson set a bevy of relative unknown or under-the-radar actors in major parts to give "Nebraska" a credibly personal authenticity.

Bruce Dern -- a steadily-working third man for film and TV since the 1960s -- gives not only one of the best lead performances of the year as down-on-his luck Woody Grant, a soft-spoken coot who convinces his son ("SNL's" Will Forte, his baby face lent a slightly-curdled sense of grownup distinguishment that should hopefully spell a promising line of future dramatic roles) to travel with him to Lincoln, Nebraska in order to claim a million dollar Publisher's Clearing House check that's as gimmicky and false as the old man's teeth -- "Nebraska" is likely to be Dern's watermark. He stands beneath the limelight -- lean, bespectacled, wispy white hair -- with the burdened weight of a lifetime of buttoned-down stoicism. Like the movie, he brings the depth and detail of the background to the foreground. At 77, it's a star-making performance.

And "Nebraska" is the flavorful love letter of a modern auteur. If Payne coasted on the shoulders of giants before, this is the movie, at least for me, that finally sells him as a pure and original storytelling voice. It speaks volumes how instead of highlighting the glory daze on the lips of seemingly every senior in Woody's life like a last picture show, he decided to finally catch up with the small-time residents of Hawthorne, NE, closer to the ends of their lives than the beginning. Only instead of a swan song "Nebraska" is a movie of kickoff and comeuppance. Landscape and invigoration. Payne is one of the most emotionally evocative filmmakers alive. (91/100)

August Underground

I have no more faith in humanity.

Not even interesting as an obscene underground artifact. Just a dull, tedious, surprisingly inoffensive piece of faux snuff that makes "Trash Humpers" look like "Gravity"-level production values by visual comparison. Quite possibly the worst film I've ever seen.

But I watched all 71 minutes of it, so go ahead and judge if you must.

I came out less alive than when I'd entered. Which I guess is true of any movie (LOL because time/space) but it's felt especially here. So thanks, Fred Vogel. (0/100)

RoboCop
RoboCop(1987)

REWATCH: The future didn't have flying cars, or time travel. Instead it had widespread poverty. Crime small-scale and corporate at large. NSA spying. Politics as celebrity and vice versa. Mostly it's baffling the '80s had Paul Verhoeven's masterpiece "RoboCop" when even by today's standards it's surprisingly spot-on in its satire and wicked commentary. It also represents the opposite of everything that's wrong with most mainstream action/sci-fi movies today. You feel every lick and lash of violence in "RoboCop". Not just a timely concept or gimmick, Verhoeven's film is a true landmark for pairing story with spectacle instead of clobbering its audience with either moral heavy-handedness or waves of cheap computer effects.

Unlike his ludicrous follow-ups -- "Total Recall", "Basic Instinct", "Showgirls", "Hollow Man", "Starship Troopers", etc. etc. -- "RoboCop" isn't a buffet of mock filler and melodramatic cheese. Believe it or not, it's high art. Yeah, really. Punchy, prescient, and damn entertaining, "RoboCop" -- like "Blade Runner" and "The Terminator" -- remains a cultural touchstone both for its visual aesthetic and forward-leaning parable of strategic militarism as rampant bureaucratic consumerism. Of course it was remade as something sexy, sleek and modern. Hollywood always buys in bulk. "RoboCop" didn't have to predict that. (95/100)

The Impossible

REWATCH: I was listening to Marc Maron's WTF interview with Harry Dean Stanton the other day and when asked what the best thing is a director could do, Stanton replied it's to leave the actors alone, which I think is an incredibly fascinating tip. When I think of great actors or actresses, I think of those who bring their A game to every movie, big or small, and take their craft so seriously they're willing to collaborate while also do their own thing in bringing a character to life, or at least making his or her journey interesting.

Naomi Watts has to at least be in the top five greatest screen performers alive today. What I love most about the movies she picks is that in addition to delivering drop-the-mic pantheon depictions for established auteurs like David Lynch, Woody Allen and Peter Jackson, she'll also take risks in working with rising indie stars like Laurie Collyer ("Sunlight Jr."), Anne Fontaine ("Adore"), Rodrigo García ("Mother and Child") and "The Impossible's" J.A. Bayona.

This is one of her most physical roles to date, braving it all in a way -- like Sky Ferreira on her recent record cover -- that isn't supposed to turn you on. She plays the matriarch of a family consisting of her husband (a fine, fierce Ewan McGregor) and three boys (an astounding Tom Holland as the oldest) that's pushed to the limit when swept up in the 2004 Thailand tsunami. It's a punishing portrayal: authentic, alive, and awe-inspiring. I can't imagine anyone else but Watts in the part.

It's nice to watch this movie a year or so apart from the (also white) people who thought they were doing other races a favor by incessantly bitching that Bayona and writer Sergio G. Sánchez gave a serious foreign crisis a Caucasian face. Which, yeah, that complaint still pisses me off. It isn't a filmmaker's job to have an agenda, it's to tell a story. Sure, the script might not be as up to snuff as the resonance of the images. But "The Impossible", even in a post-"Gravity" world, still works as a mighty fine piece of achingly pretty visual poetry.

And Spanish maestro Fernando Velázquez -- an oft Guillermo del Toro associate who also came together with Bayona on 2007's del Toro-produced "The Orphanage" -- provides one of the most emotionally wrenching film scores I've heard in a while (used to pretty much the opposite effect of Hans Zimmer's for "12 Years a Slave", flourishing whenever something goes right for the characters as opposed to the inverse.) If only all disaster movies gave you such a feeling of separation instead of cool disconnect. (79/100)

Faust
Faust(2013)

Big, weird, bold, wonderful, literary, challenging and alive are all adjectives that can be attributed to Alexander Sokurov's "Faust", arguably the most important adaptation of Goethe's story concerning a man who sells his soul to the devil since F.W. Murnau's benchmark 1926 silent film of the same name. But if that description is too vague and fragmented to wholly imagine, think Tom Hooper should he decide to go completely against the grain of Hollywood prestige pictures, amplify it by a thousand, and bathe it in acid. Sokurov's "Faust" isn't easy on the eyes -- shot in 4:3 ratio by a wandering, slightly inebriated lens, it puts hair on the chest of the classic German tragedy, and follows more so the rhythm of its own visual narrative than it does recite a by-the-books reading.

All the better. "Faust" absolutely won't work for everybody; it in effect puts the viewer in the awkward position of acting midwife to a creation being birthed from hell. It sprawls, bites, burns and consumes entirely the respective landmark works from Goethe and Murnau by riddling the tale's "characters" (and I use that label loosely) in the bleak, fathomless bottom of an atmosphere of unquestionable, unwavering evil, and does it all with a slimy, toothy grin. You'll either laugh at its pain, or be hopelessly anguished by the ripping snort it seems to be having on behalf of itself. (79/100)

Songs From the Second Floor
½

One of the many ironies of Roy Andersson's sublime "Songs from the Second Floor" is that though its characters only vary mildly on the age spectrum -- later-life to elderly to gaunt-looking to literal walking dead -- they each have the same stern-white expression on their face of someone who's just seen death. It's another that the narrative is essentially founded on a seemingly fruitless traffic jam, whose grim setting writer-director Andersson oft returns to, either directly or occurring concurrently in the background of a different scene, as the movie's basic mission statement of accidental existentialism and absurdity.

It's an allegorical comedy about capitalism and an inexplicable apocalypse, told via a series of unrelated vignettes with the through-line of a furniture salesman (Lars Nordh, far-fetched and grumpy as if he were Harry Potter's more reserved, forgotten uncle), one of whose two sons is told he's recently burned down his place of business, while the other wrote poetry to such a point of insanity he was expelled to a mental asylum.

"Songs from the Second Floor" is a movie I can't imagine working in any other medium but film. A museum photo or painting exhibition maybe, but Andersson constantly juggles the addition of a new visual gag across whatever length of his singular, still frame. The players regularly quote the poetry of César Vallejo, specifically "Stumble Between Two Stars", a ballad to commonplace human misfortune. The remaining list of auteur influences, I could go on. "Songs" isn't very comfortable viewing, that's for sure. But for cinephiles like myself Andersson's surrealist masterpiece feels essential. It's almost like Don DeLillo by way of Pier Paolo Pasolini. (91/100)

Punch-Drunk Love

REWATCH: I'd call "Punch-Drunk Love" an incomparable masterpiece if only every film Paul Thomas Anderson has made since "Boogie Nights" (can you believe I've still not yet seen "Hard Eight"? So dumb of me) wasn't an earth-shattering, life-changing, perception-altering not strictly cinematic, but cultural and artistic event. Sure there's Scorsese and Bergman and Wilder, and Lynch and Kubrick may have gotten to me first in terms of warping my fragile little mind as to how the medium of film can be twisted and hell-bent into emotional resonance that transcends the mere frame of image...look, put simply, my mouth has, since Marky Mark tried to one-up Jake LaMotta's priceless mirror monologue at the end of "Raging Bull", been proudly wrapped around P.T. Anderson's skyscraper-sized cock. He may have inherited some of his more voyeuristic intentions from his own filmmaker heroes, but Anderson constantly packs so much of a punch with SUCH impressive, vibrant and original skill, he's sort of like the "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea", "Nevermind", "Exile on Main Street" AND "Pet Sounds" of the movie world all in one. Never forgetting to feel, to excite, to sweep with substance in addition to style.

And oh, that style, both directorial- and writing-wise. I don't think I could ever truly choose a FAVORITE PTA film, though "Punch-Drunk Love" is at the very least, if not THE best, one of the greatest romantic comedies of all time. It's both the logical follow-up to the blissful rapture of the third act of "Magnolia", and a spiritual precursor to 2012's so-far new decade watermark "The Master". And yet I would argue "PDL" remains Anderson's most personal exercise to date. If "Boogie Nights" was his dick-swinging ode to the '70s heyday of Scorsese and Coppola; "Magnolia" his Altman-skewering mosaic; "There Will Be Blood" and "The Master" his Huston-inspired, literary-rich tales of caution and complexity, well then that makes "Punch-Drunk Love"...well, what DOES that make "Punch-Drunk Love"? It has to be the man's strangest and zippiest screenplay (at a relatively scant 95 minutes long it's by far his shortest film.) I want to say it owes a lot to Jim Jarmusch, yet...the exact point of reference I can't quite put my finger on.

My guess is like Sofia Coppola's "Lost in Translation" or Spike Jonze's recent "Her", "Punch-Drunk Love" derives most of its anxiety-ridden set pieces and surreal, dream-like visual lyricism from the three-course relationship meal of loneliness, first love and finally and unfortunately breaking up and struggling to make amends. Obviously that's all incredibly personal, but it's well-known Anderson and Fiona Apple were romantically linked at an elongated point in the mid-'90s. Like "Magnolia", "PDL" is a movie about the inexplicable. "PDL" is structured to almost register as a brief, clear adjustment among analog static, elliptical but familiar enough to...

Gah, I don't know. So much could be written about this movie by people far smarter than I. All I can say is it still leaves me speechless. Like the best of sweet nothings, if you listen closely, let the beautiful ambiance wash over you, you'll find "Punch-Drunk Love" has just about everything to say about everything. (100/100)

The Master
The Master(2012)

The thing about "The Master" is, you know Paul Thomas Anderson by now. He's the virtuoso responsible for the culture shock of "Boogie Nights", the omnipresent seer in the sky over the biblical, non-linear chaos of "Magnolia", the dude behind the relaxed and lovelorn "Punch-Drunk Love". Last we found him rooting around in the dark with a milkshake-drinking prospector named Daniel Plainview in "There Will Be Blood". So no freaking way, no matter how awesome "The Master", his latest endeavor, turned out, it could live up to the insane hype of Anderson's existing high honors. Well, I'm here and happy to give it high praise. He pulled it off and then some. "The Master", written, directed and co-produced by the 42-year-old maestro, is a new masterpiece - blistering, frustrating, and violently funny, the daring and soul-stirring work of a beautiful mind that's constantly mesmerized by never turning off or willing to turn down. He forces you to step up. "The Master" is a fever dream of color, images, and light that hit you in the gut like either a swan dive or a second coming. Think for yourself.

And think for yourself you have to do, a lot, because "The Master" is nothing if not what you make of it. So screw those who blocked Anderson from helming it because it too closely towed the line of Scientology's humble beginnings. He's said himself, that's only the backdrop. Did they even read the thing? As the movie rolls on, the curtain of controversy falls away, in the relationship between damaged Navy vet Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix, back from the weirdo doldrums of 2009's faux-doc "I'm Still Here" with a titanic performance of nervous hellfire), home from World War II; and spiritual leader Lancaster Dodd (a stellar Phillip Seymour Hoffman, in his fourth collaboration with Anderson), who talks the game of a prophet while running a house with his wife Peggy (Amy Adams, great) for faithful followers of The Cause, Dodd's guide to obsession by way of reincarnation, rebirth, and hypnosis, the idea that there are others out there, just like us, and we need to find them because we know them from somewhere within.

Unless Dodd's just in too deep to admit to even himself his pile of BS is big enough to fail. He's gone so far as to hide the book's sequel in the Arizona desert before being coaxed into digging it up. And you see it in Hoffman's face that Dodd's Cause is one less a rebel, more a pasty, frightened man whose search for one to call Lord falls empty on him. "If you find a way to live without a master, without any master, let us know. You'd be the first person in the history of the world," sooth Dodd to Freddie when he has such doubts. Because in every PTA work, there's the human ring of friendship in odd places, the special kind of hurt that comes with realizing even fake families can be broken apart. And "The Master" is a special kind of hurt.

Before we meet the seafaring Freddie screwing a woman made of sand his pals made him for a last blitzkrieg hurrah, Anderson gives us the image of the ripples of water as Dodd's yacht, the one Freddie's soon to stumble upon, drunk, lost and open, sails away. We start and stop on that shot, which is fitting, since the lush vibrancy of "The Master's" skeleton - cinematography by Francis Ford Coppola DOP Mihai Malaimare Jr., dynamic score by Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood - reigns over you. Try washing it off. "The Master" is a hypnotic puzzle about the celebration of life's privilege to do whatever wherever with whoever, and also the surreal feelings and fears of past and future lives haunting history like phantoms, waiting to decry the latest chapter and move on.

Humanity needs masters to follow for the same reasons we need movies like "The Master"-- they make us think inward and around us, ponder, and ultimately choose to move with them or beyond them. This is film at its most encompassing, transcendent, and alive. Anderson again proves he's the rarest brand of auteur. He doesn't only find his own heart in his work; he often makes us believe in others. By that regard he's the most defiant filmmaker since Stanley Kubrick. And "The Master" is one shit-ton of movie fireworks. As its worship steers to war, it contains multitudes. (100/100)

Stories We Tell
½

A near-perfect documentary. I'm virtually speechless. Manages to be sweetly personal and intimate without being solipsistic. Because what starts as a movie about the stories we tell becomes one about how story contradicts itself, how it affects one another, and, really above all, memory and what a living thing it is. I can't think of anything too negative to say about it. The past gorgeously and quietly impinges on the present. But perhaps what's so special about "Stories We Tell" is how natural and easily it brings up war stories, and presses nostalgic and poetic at old wounds that forever heal themselves as connections. (92/100)

Post Tenebras Lux

Look. You don't have to like "Post Tenebras Lux"; it levels with you early on its campy freakiness. "FUCKING WHAT" is all I kept thinking to myself watching it -- and by the end, audibly said -- and that's about as much a review as writer-director (I guess there was a script?) Carlos Reygadas wants and would expect from any given person. You thought "To The Wonder" played like a Terrence Malick parody? Try "Lux" on for bizarro size. You're in or you're out. Something this abstract and avant garde, there's not much of a window for even standalone appreciation but doesn't connect.

Okay, naysayers out? Huddle up and listen close. I loved "Post Tenebras Lux". I love pretty much all movies like this; tough to seek out, and even tougher to comprehend. "Lux" puts "Upstream Color" to shame in terms of knotty mosaics. Or at least I think. It basically boils down to whether or not you have, not only the patience to watch this, but how much enjoyment you derive from seeing random strange images, "characters" you have to describe in quotes, and scenes that repeat and overlap as visual paradoxes unto themselves. Pretentious? Yeah, I guess. The better it sits with you the more you'll want to lick that phrase, though.

"Post Tenebras Lux" translates literally as "after darkness light". I don't know if there should be a comma after "darkness". That's maybe too much of a segregation. And Reygadas, he's anything but classifiable, the keeper of his own crypt of optic, unforgettable rhythm. (84/100)

American Hustle
½

"People just got over Watergate and Vietnam, and youâ(TM)re going to shit all over politicians again?"

"American Hustle" really shouldn't work. Smashing together the star-studded casts of 2010's "The Fighter" with last year's "Silver Linings Playbook", you'd expect "American Hustle" to have its con-artist mold ("Hustle" is loosely based on the Abscam political scandals of the 1970s) lazily cut out for it, as one-dimensional as its terrible one-sheet (see: above left) and that boss-of-it-all, cheekily patriotic title.

Damn the torpedoes. "American Hustle" is so juicy and entertaining a flick as has been released this year it quite frankly deserves the much-lauded buzz. To paraphrase Amy Adams' bombshell Sydney Prosser as to what it is she finds so appealing about Christian Bale's schlubby, sausage-fingered con artist Irving Rosenfeld, director Russell -- rewriting Eric Warren Singer's original script for each character to only slightly resemble their real-life counterpart -- frankly doesn't give a shit what anyone thinks of him. No hiding it, "American Hustle" is the most stylistically Russell-y movie Russell's ever made. He means for the look and voyeuristic scope of his features to properly reflect the inner emotional turmoil of the headcases at each of their respective centers.

Which is why "American Hustle" glides as well as it does. It's crazy, sexy, daring, and laugh-out-loud funny. Russell doesn't just reflect daggers; he goes so far as to draw their ire. (90/100)

Fruitvale Station
½

Movies like "Fruitvale Station" are the kind that start out hyped up. Nothing can match it. Then the backlash starts; it's all fuck the police and little else. Really? Don't let the attention take away from the breathless jolt Ryan Coogler's "Fruitvale" is, the work of a writer-director going places. He's got the talent, the ambition and the soul. So does his film's stop-loss heart. It's simply devastating. Michael B. Jordan deserves every accolade he can get for playing Oscar Grant III, who was gunned down by an Oakland BART officer on New Year's Day 2009 at the age of 22. "Fruitvale" chronicles his final 24 hours.

What's incredible about Jordan's performance is how he infuses Oscar with not only life, but REAL life, a father to just the most adorable kid (a spitfire named Ariana Neal), boyfriend to a girl understanding but reprimanding of his screw-ups (Melonie Diaz) and a mama's boy whose prison time and hot temper has distanced him from her. (Thought Octavia Spencer was good in "The Help"? Here she's gut-wrenching.)

It's an oversight to sell "Fruitvale Station" as something that'll make you weep till you're blue in the face. It's so much more than that. Coogler doesn't look to Oscar for sainthood or martyrdom. Just a normal dude who suffered under the weight of his troubles but not because of them. His struggle is what hits you, but the naked truth of his fall is what gets to you. (87/100)

Django Unchained

Man, "Django Unchained" has the shear epic weight of a filmmaker's work following up ten years downtime. That it's only three years separating the Nazi brouhaha of Quentin Tarantino's masterful "Inglourious Basterds" and the over-the-top characters and carnage of America pre-Civil War of the giddy and brilliant "Django Unchained" only testifies to the man's inimitable authenticity. Sure, "Django" runs super-long with multiple, multiple endings and shots that could either have been cut out or cut short, but don't be so quick to shout over its voice with calls of graceless exploitation.

Is "Django" fun? Holy shit, yes. And, being Tarantino, most of it is fun for fun's sake. Poking history with a stick can be tricky if it the vision doesn't just suit it. Same's true for "Django" as it was for "Basterds". Let it also be said that across three hours, "Django" never once feels as if it's beating a dead horse, especially when Leonardo DiCaprio up and steals the thing midway through as mustache-twirling plantation owner Calvin Candie. His performance -- jocular yet with an inner, spoiled rage -- is the sort of craft you don't hone by just showing up.

What "Django Unchained" has to say about slavery is in the excess, huge shots of enormous homesteads, gunfights that can span out to either seconds or an extensive camera roll. As in all of his films, Tarantino demonstrates his wholesome embrace and adoration of a culture by picking it apart, word for word, and often blowing it up bit by bit. If by the end you still don't get that racial oppression is seriously not okay, m'kay, get your head checked. Otherwise the sinful details of "Django" are plenty to get lost in. (96/100)

Olympus Has Fallen

"Die Hard" without the humor, characters that can't rise above paper-thin, a nonsensical conflict and a star with as much acting range and shitty romantic comedies under the belt as Katherine Heigl for a protagonist, "Olympus Has Fallen" still finds room in its two-hour runtime to drop enough ballistic carnage to send a hot-air balloon into space. And we know "2012" and "Independence Day" director Roland Emmerich's similarly-titled "White House Down" won't handle this subject matter with any more post-9/11 delicacy. America? Fuck no. But at least it got me out of the house. (19/100)

The Amazing Spider-Man

In director Marc Webb's swift and flashy reboot, Spidey doesn't let his freak flag fly. No sir. His indie senses are tingling. Why else snatch up a filmmaker whose only other feature work is 2009's "(500) Days of Summer"? Oh, wait. 'Cause previous franchise helmer Sam Raimi wouldn't shut up and do the big studio machine's bidding. Whine all you want about the Pandora's box of villains in "Spider-Man 3", the real fight was off-screen. So five years later here's Webb and his fitting name with "The Amazing Spider-Man", which I'd sooner say jumps through hoops if the cast weren't miraculous. You wouldn't tag handsome Andrew Garfield a geek up-front, but his Peter Parker is turns terrifically squirrely and brooding. And the never-not-stellar Emma Stone as the pencil-skirt chick he's crushing on Gwen Stacey sends out sparks. When they're together, the true-life couple melt "Amazing" into gold.

Throw in a big, slimy baddie in the form of one-armed Dr. Curt Connors' The Lizard (Rhys Ifans), a science test with the best intentions (Connors wants to regrow lost limbs), the "you don't understand!" heat on Spidey's tail (Denis Leary is tops as NYC's police chief) and a loving aunt and uncle (Sally Field and Martin Sheen as Peter's are ardently authentic), and here's a blockbuster you can hang your hat on. It's got it all short of being "The Avengers". But most of "The Amazing Spider-Man" is so by-the-book it's almost dishonest. I guess rushed exposition is better than over-exposition. See it for Garfield and Stone, who coyly kill. They make otherwise standard fare look like it's pulling out the stops, and take it to heart. (60/100)

The Great Gatsby

No, Baz Luhrmann, you can't repeat the past. Dude has a tough time recreating it, too. If there's one problem with "The Great Gatsby", it's that everything about it feels fake, from the hip-hop music and Lana Del Rey supervised by exec-producer Jay-Z to Luhrmann's overly-frenetic camerawork and the showgirls across every room. Don't even get me started on the non-issue that is "Gatsby's" use of racial segregation after World War I.

But hey, I'm kind of jumping the gun here. For the most part "Gatsby" is a fine acting affair with a more aware respect of the source material than Luhrmann's cheesy (and that's putting it nicely) "Romeo + Juliet". It's almost a wonder Leonardo DiCaprio would want to ever again be associated with Luhrmann after starring in such titanic (see what I did there) tour de forces as "Catch Me If You Can", "Inception" and "Django Unchained", not to mention his impeccable work with Martin Scorsese over the last decade. Jay Gatsby, hustler and playboy extraordinaire, is too juicy a role to pass up. And DiCaprio -- coming off his should-have-been-Oscar-winning best-ever performance as "Django's" mustache-twirling plantation owner Calvin Candie -- is easily the reason to see "Gatsby".

Also stellar are Carey Mulligan as Daisy, the girl Gatsby left behind before the war, and Joel Edgarton as Daisy's rich and arrogant husband Tom Buchanan. Less so is Tobey Maguire as Daisy's cousin and Fitzgerald stand-in Nick Carraway. He's the audience surrogate, sure, but Maguire, well, has never been too interesting an actor, especially when against the otherworldly DiCaprio and Mulligan.

"The Great Gatsby" is a step way up from the punch line musical of "Moulin Rouge", and it's evident Luhrmann is getting better at letting story speak for itself minus his leaning toward spectacle aesthetic. However the latter still haunts "Gatsby", as well as an overall detached sense of intimacy as Luhrmann and co-writer Craig Pearce don't seem to have scrapped a page from F. Scott Fitzgerald's book. Their film never really gets to be its own thing. And a lot of major plot points if you don't know them ahead of time just seem to happen without reason.

It's not a great "Gatsby", but it has a clear affliction for the old-timey showmanship of the time, and it well-suits the style. "It'll do" sounds more negative than anything else, but that's how I felt about "The Great Gatsby". Fitzgerald knew how to align a star-crossed romance between two people doomed by a simulation of the American dream. Luhrmann, he has trouble. But it'll do. It does. (63/100)

White House Down

Maybe it was my bottom-of-the-Sarlacc Pitt-level expectations. Or maybe it was just Channing Tatum in a tank top. Either way much to my surprise, I did not completely despise "White House Down". I actually even kind of liked it. I know. After a while I gave in to its utter stupidity, something which I NEVER let a movie off the hook for asking the audience to submit to. Roland Emmerich doing a satire of the prototypical modern disaster movie he himself helped pioneer shouldn't work. Thing is, I don't really credit him so much. I think this is coolly filmed and all, but Emmerich is no auteur or visual innovator. He's like the teetering-polarity bastard child of Michael Bay and Brett Ratner.

No, I think "White House Down" is scribe James Vanderbilt -- go-to comic book/action/murder mystery ("Zodiac", goddamn) screenwriter since the early 2000s -- letting loose and poking fun at Hollywood's back-catalog of thrillers whose stakes often tower at DEFCON 5, where tent pole studios hire stars like Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx to dupe us into thinking bigger is better because it's more expensive. Not true. I watched this from the comfort of my home and not on the big screen where it probably should have been seen, if at all (though last summer's box office receipts prove my theory wrong), but like Baz Luhrmann's "The Great Gatsby" I'd imagine "White House Down" is an efficient-enough time waster for when it's hot outside and every movie theater has supple AC ventilation.

Again, there's no getting around this is all incredibly dumb. But at least it isn't "Olympus Has Fallen" self-serious. Which, yeah, most things sound significantly better in comparison to Melissa Leo getting her face beaten to a pulp. If bullshit could ever be considered cosmopolitan, it's "White House Down". (58/100)

Melancholie Der Engel

There's no rating proper I could give "Melancholie der Engel". At the same time, it's an absolute, fully-realized vision of filth, an orgy of depravity and perversity. Yeah it's torture porn, with plenty on both ends, but it's also not torture porn, at least through the lens of director/co-writer/cinematic sadist Marian Dora. It's philosophical, scenes of rape, masturbation and murder inter-cut with pigs being bled dry, insects being squashed, naked dolls, nightmarish carnivals and loads of fierce biblical imagery. That's a knock to its lyricism and power as all-out gross-out promenade.

"Melancholie der Engel" is not a quote-unquote "good movie" in any traditional sense. Its symbolism is ham-fisted, it's too often dull and repetitious. Look, this is so so SO not for the casual viewer. But if you like your horror extreme and depressing, "Melancholie" works as shear spectacle: 160 minutes and crammed full of everything savage under the sun. For whatever it's worth Dora's film is an endurance test, less everything-but-the-kitchen-sink provocation than a movie whose audience is one willing to come to it in search of something without any type of bar. Dora sought to capture outright hell on screen. And for that, it's a bloody, ugly, violently original epic. Not your conventional masterpiece, but whatever is?

Upstream Color

Shane Carruth does sci-fi as science fair project: when it works, we're wowed. And Carruth gets to the wonder by putting his leaning toward detail, care and cutting out loose ends without forsaking the immediate rewards of emotion and character. His brilliant 2003 debut "Primer" punched up the bugs of Hollywood time travel with only a shoestring budget and the inside of a garage. Having starred in, written, directed, photographed and scored "Primer", it also marked the versatility of a new indie talent.

It took a decade for Carruth to follow it with "Upstream Color", but it was worth it. Even more so than his previous feature, "Upstream" is a film of tragic beauty, incorporating psychological themes of nature, technology, relationships, loneliness and paranoia through the kaleidoscopic lens of Terrence Malick. Starring Carruth and Amy Seimetz as two people helping each other to understand the experimental testing both involuntary underwent, it's a symphony of ideas, of things and people coming together while learning to give up and let go. It's a wholly original and undeniably beautiful experience that pulls you into the mystery of an event, its aftermath and side effects, by pushing the sky away and rewriting the rules. (95/100)

12 Years a Slave

My one holdout going into "12 Years a Slave" wasn't its director, Steve McQueen, a filmmaker who in every regard deserves the title "visionary". It was screenwriter John Ridley, whose past credits include "Undercover Brother" and "Red Tails" (remember it? You and no one else.) Another big 2013 film whose script was also a reservation for me was "Gravity's" by Alfonso Cuaron and his son Jonas. But in that case Cuaron is such a herald he was able to twist, tweak and fine-tune even the most melodramatic aspects of that space adventure into something literally out of this world. And though Ridley's script is chill and all (groovy even) judging from his previous work my guess is McQueen is a good filter. Adapting from Solomon Northup's 1853 memoir of the same name -- the wicked tale of a free black man (played with a flawless mix of rage and eternal disbelief by Chiwetel Ejiofor) drugged, kidnapped and sold into slavery -- "12 Years a Slave" is a tale that inherently idles between beauty and pain, sweat and tears.

McQueen's two preceding features -- his near-masterpiece "Hunger" and his flat-out one "Shame" -- found redemption ironically in their protagonists' own self-infliction, the way out of twin tunnel-vision nightmares in the bleak acceptance that nothing was, and ever could be, the same. So maybe it makes sense to hold out on "12 Years a Slave" -- it's McQueen's first feature where the demons swelter from the outside world, getting under its center character's skin to the diminutive point of second-nature survival. It cuts so figuratively and literally to the bone without ever becoming blind to the bloodshed. Like "Gravity's" Dr. Stone, we don't need a bubble of personal history to shadow Northup in order to feel for him. And we ultimately don't get any later history at all -- his date, place and cause of death remain unknown. Twelve years of torture doesn't have to be the means to an end. Because "12 Years" -- the greatest film ever made about American slavery in the capital-s South -- is powerful and haunting enough to blister open the discussion of possible new beginnings. (97/100)

Inside Llewyn Davis

What's bullshit is the idea that they don't make movies like they used to anymore. What isn't is that Joel and Ethan Coen don't make movies like anyone else. Maybe more so than any other filmmaker out there -- okay, sans Tarantino -- their works have a certain Wizard of Oz-like je ne sais quoi to them, a veil of all-seeing prestige, a room of props and puppet strings the door to which is crept open JUST ENOUGH to let in a slight hint of light, just enough to let us in on the eternal joke of life: death.

Only the Coen brothers don't quit at "just enough". All the way back to their rapturously bleak 1984 debut "Blood Simple" you'll find a wavy trail of bread crumbs that don't exactly lead anywhere, but also don't exactly break away either. They instill the notion into the viewer that nothing is as simple as it seems, and that there can be no clean getaways. With their marvelous new feature "Inside Llewyn Davis" the Coens may have come closer than ever before to fanning the flames of their idealistic passive-aggression: the strive and struggle, hurt and heartbreak, of being forever almost famous. For a pair so figuratively conspiratorial, it's certainly the farthest they've reached toward a sentiment so damningly universal.

"Inside Llewyn Davis" is also one of, if not their very best yet. Folk music courses through the veins of the Coen brothers' previous efforts, because their movies are all essentially about PEOPLE. Their rep for fine-tuned casting is on ample display in "Llewyn", which casts "Drive's" Oscar Isaac in the title role of a beatnik folk singer in the beatnik generation, the respective stars of which don't exactly align. The world seems and looks stonewalled, cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (who, oh wow, also shot Alexander Sokurov's splendid recent "Faust") blanketing but not burying 1960's New York City in crisp, grim colors and the equal lack thereof. (Regular Coen costume designer Mary Zophres deserves just as much credit as Delobonnel for style choices here.)

The staging of "Llewyn Davis" is further kept alive and moving by the acting. Isaac is a flawlessly adept performer, a character actor for much of his career whose sleepy eyes and large features are mainly covered by Llewyn's unkempt facial hair. He lends the rocker a doggedness that feels understated and soulful, the sparse brand of wisdom that comes from an elongated period of time on the road. If he wasn't one before, Isaac gives a star-making performance. This is his show, and he quietly commands it.

And what would a Coen brothers movie be without a merry cast of secondary personalities? Carey Mulligan shines as Llewyn's ex Jean, now in a professional and private relationship with songster Jim (a lean, restrained Justin Timberlake.) Fitting the bill as well is Coen favorite John Goodman as a wealth- and sickly but still big-mouthed troubadour Llewyn meets along the way.

As always with their movies, the Coen brothers' "Inside Llewyn Davis" boils down to the singularity and exclusivity of its images. Makes sense, considering what inspiration they must have found in the immortal record sleeve of Bob Dylan's second studio album, "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan", on which a young Dylan huddles beside a woman as they trek down an icy city street. The film takes place in 1961, two years before the disc was released. It's amazing then, for a movie set during a cultural rising of the tide, one focused on the increasing prominence of the creative individual, "Inside Llewyn Davis", even by today's standards, feels like a grieving artifact already ahead of its time. (96/100)

I'm So Excited!
½

Eh, I don't blame Pedro Almodóvar for wanting to dip his toe in the fountain of youth and make a movie that harkens back to the screwball farce of his earlier film work, especially after going the chiller distance and exploring his darkest material to date with 2011's "The Skin I Live In". I just hope "I'm So Excited!" isn't a permanent regression. Maybe it's because I'm such a fan of the dude, but where most critics saw Almodóvar on autopilot (see what I did there?) I like to believe "I'm So Excited!" has some sort of point it's trying to make, even if it is among a flagrant mess of hot wind and camp.

That's Almodóvar for you, baby: shameless. I don't need a kiss on the mouth and a call in the morning. I just wish "I'm So Excited!" made like "Wolf of Wall Street" up in the air and went buck fucking wild. Spoiler alert: it doesn't. But it's colorful, masterfully directed and gleefully phantasmagorical, like a 1980s airline passenger safety video percolated through mescaline-tinted beer goggles. (66/100)

The Broken Circle Breakdown

No getting around it, "The Broken Circle Breakdown" is a tear-jerking account of perilous romance and the harsh, twisted hand of fate. It'd be unfair to dub it off the bat a dismal paperback take on "Blue Valentine". But it'd be equally cruel not to warn beforehand those out there looking for a cinematic love story to forget about the everyday problems of ordinary life. Like an oncoming storm, the intimate human relationship of Felix Van Groeningen's film is one often impeded by inexplicable cosmic penalty and punishment, almost like if Lars von Trier directed "Once".

Where it touchingly provokes is in the tragedy of its bruised emotional turns. Also helps the camerawork by Groeningen is potent and gritty while staying natural enough to never become overbearing. If some of the grim narrative beats feel familiar, it's the genuineness and authenticity with which "Broken Circle's" fractured recounting is woefully designed -- loaded memories flooding dizzily back, hapless and haunted, as its tale of past events bloom and the circle remains unbroken. (84/100)

At Berkeley
At Berkeley(2013)

I'm quick to jump the gun that in terms of objective AND subjective quality "At Berkeley" is the "Tree of Life" of documentaries, but I think it's more analogous to being the "Gravity" of documentaries -- this is arguably the most YOU ARE THERE (i.e., YOU GIVE A SHIT ABOUT WHAT'S HAPPENING) account of real-life filmmaking I've ever seen. It's also hands-down one of the most visibly exhausting this side of "Shoah", and doubles as a comprehensive pamphlet (or, clocking in at just over four hours long, more of a field guide, or a brick) without ever towing the line of intellectual-porn propaganda.

Go ahead, roll your eyes at the above and dub it and/or me pretentious. But just because Frederick Wiseman's film is challenging and not Frederick's of Hollywood (LOL had to do it) doesn't mean it should be ignored. Actually, it deserves to be seen by any- and everyone. If ever there was a movie that gets you excited about the prospects of education, "At Berkeley" is it. An unbelievably dense yet picturesque novel-as-film with all the widescreen weight of a coffee table book -- its original 250 hours of footage directed, edited and produced to the nines by the legendary 83-year-old Wiseman -- certain people often (wrongly) forever stick to the ancient adage that "they don't make movies like they used to anymore." Yet with "At Berkeley" at least, that's precisely the sentiment it left me with. (95/100)

Prince Avalanche

I'll be blunt -- *rolls up* -- I haven't seen a lick -- *licks paper* (I'm sorry, it was right there) -- of David Gordon Green's much-acclaimed early work. What I can say though about "Prince Avalanche" is something sure to be echoed by even the non-experienced: that writer-director Green's warm, funny and touching film about two southwestern traffic line painters sure beats the formula fuck out of the lazy studio likes of "The Sitter" and "Your Highness". However it isn't a complete regression. "Avalanche" hits with the kind of goofy profundity of both halves of Green's career, the (insert brilliant, articulate, incisive adjective to describe "George Washington", "All the Real Girls" and "Snow Angels") with a Malickian version of "Pineapple Express" and the dirty ingenuity behind HBO's mean classic "Eastbound & Down".

He struck gold by casting Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch in two of the actors' best performances to date. "PA" conjures up a lot of images of the road (duh doy) as a super-duper obvious metaphor for life and moving on and savoring the little things and forming and keeping relationships and being there for others or whatever. It's dreamy and endless but it's also -- well, less an end. "Prince Avalanche" is of course more about the journey than it is the destination. I know, such biting criticism. Sometimes Green'll just toss in sequences of kids chasing around chickens or interactions with women who may or may not be real simply for the sake that it looks cool.

And well, it is cool, aided by a fantastic score by Explosions in the Sky and David Wingo. It's also without a doubt the most personal thing the dude's done in forever. "Prince Avalanche" feels next to his heart. If you've ever lived a day, it'll come close to yours, too. (83/100)

Mud
Mud(2013)
½

I don't know what to say about "Mud" other than to let it wash over you. If not as immediately unshakeable a Nichols work as his debut "Shotgun Stories" or the masterful "Take Shelter", "Mud" is still as personal as they come. Not to mention gorgeous -- shot by Nichols collaborator Adam Stone, "Mud's" sun and swamps feel more tanned than muggy and suffocating, like the look of the thing is just another layer of its southern heart. It wouldn't be too much of a stretch to lend that description to Matthew McConaughey's performance. In the role of Mud -- a bronzed, lovelorn fugitive who's stowed himself away on an island off the Mississippi River -- McConaughey is both guile and hulking, dimwitted and dangerous; the perfect embodiment of the imperfectness and contradictions of fathers, love and growing up.

Plus a 99% on Rotten Tomatoes. Nothing to shake a stick at. (92/100)

In a World...
½

What a flat-out really good movie "In A World" is. Such a unique and interesting, totally not cynical look at an evidently fierce and competitive sector of the Hollywood power industry (movie trailer narration), starring, written and directed by the ubiquitous Lake Bell. There isn't much anything out there quite like "In A World", and though there's tonal meandering every now and then as well as obvious narrative padding (and not LOL because it happens to have a female protagonist) featuring a bumpy romance between Rob Corddry and a no less terrific Michaela Watkins, Bell takes total executive command here, crafting a touching, funny, surprisingly skillful debut behind the camera. It's as much a film about the voiceover industry as it is one about a voice. (76/100)

Adore
Adore(2013)
½

I wanted to like "Adore". I still really want to. But I just can't. Judging a film purely on what it does right, there are too many moments in Anne Fontaine's film that are soapy, dull, obvious, and trashy. Check Nicolas Winding Refn's recent take on Oedipal misanthropy "Only God Forgives", which for all its shock and awe was ultimately a movie about futility. I understand I'm one of a handful of people who saw meaning in that film. Fine, I guess. "Adore" at least seems more ready-made for mainstream audiences, if it wasn't so unexceptional. Fontaine takes 111 minutes only to completely regress away from everything "Adore" had until then built up to, and leave it to the audience to take away anything deeper.

Naomi Watts and Robin Wright fill their two mothers with devastating emotion, and there are genuinely compelling scenes and accomplished camerawork tossed around here and there. Also props to Fontaine's "Coco Before Chanel" cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne and composer Christopher Gordon for giving the New South Wales beach where the movie was filmed a lush beauty you get lost in. But "Adore" -- unlike the similarly-themed, haunting sex drama "Y Tu Mama Tambien" -- never strays far from the comfort of the womb, opting for fickleness where there should be shame.

All Is Lost
All Is Lost(2013)
½

"All Is Lost" is no gimmick. I can't speak for the rest of the moviegoing public (for that is indeed what I am member of) but going in I assumed all was already lost for our lone nameless yachtsman (Robert Redford, terrific in a role that requires complex but thankless simplicity.) So why bother? I'll tell you why. Better yet let J.C. Chandor's sophomore writing-directing feature do it for you. By not spelling out Redford's protagonist's backstory outside of a few sentences of mystical narration, Chandor pits a single man against the sea, but also -- which is what makes it so surprisingly good -- the cruelty of nature, the assumption that the universe does not give even the tiniest shit about you.

"All Is Lost" is a relatively neutral film, dialogue-free, light on the musical score (by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zero's Alex Ebert); basically the answer to everyone who macked on the narrative excess of "Gravity" (needlessly, but that's neither here nor there.) What it also is is one of the best films of the year. I haven't yet seen "Margin Call", but surely it couldn't have heralded a followup like this. Not saying it's Chandor's "There Will Be Blood" or anything, but it makes abundantly clear he's a talent who stays true to story and character first. And in the 77-year-old Redford he got something of a revelatory performance, his very best, in a movie with no guiding light of morality or sympathy save for the amazing instinct and perseverance to if not live at least survive.

Also there's a solitary "fuck" belted for the ages that's sure to have Harvey Weinstein angrily balling his scissor-hand fists. Shithead. (91/100)

The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty
½

I respect "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty". I admire the spirit, energy and shear unfiltered AMBITION of "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty". I even kinda liked "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty". I just, and it pains me to say it, but this is a movie that has virtually nowhere to go but, well, virtually. As in daydreams. And I'll give it that it's up-front with what's real and what's not. But for something that admits to acting out in fantasy "Walter Mitty" feels way too grounded, and consequentially way too dull, way too drab, way too fluffy and way too light. It's weird Ben Stiller in his fifth directorial outing still seems unsure about the whole enterprise of sincere and quote-unquote "serious" filmmaking. His best try to date behind the camera, "Tropic Thunder", had a rhythm; "Walter Mitty" has a lot of air.

But it's from Stiller's frustrating degree of aspiration in turning a James Thurber kernel of a short story into a romantic epic of personal journey and revelation. Though "Mitty" gives the impression of having been spit- and snowballed plot-wise to the point of not really having any sort of a bar to clear for itself at all. Still though, "Walter" definitely falls on the more prestigious half of Stiller's unfortunately studio caper-heavy career. Working with Noah Baumbach on "Greenberg", something must have rubbed off on him.

Additionally, for whatever it's worth, Kristen Wiig also happen to be my dream girl <3 (54/100)

August: Osage County

"Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" I get, but certainly there had to have been more simple prestige pictures to make than an adaptation of Tracy Letts' acerbic three-hour stage play "August: Osage County". It'll get flack for being loud and rude -- look at the awards-glutton backlash toward "American Hustle". Not to compare the two, because David O. Russell is an undeniably better filmmaker than John Wells. Or if not necessarily better, at least he DOES something with the camera. Wells was both the most and least perfect choice to direct the screen revival of "August". While the exhibition as a whole can often feel one-note and placid, Wells also doesn't get in the way any of the story's organically pressurized structure of bleak, bitchy caginess.

Nor does he his ingenues. I don't mean to chew out Wells as much as I have; it's just putting so many freaking talented people in one movie together and having Letts write the script, even the tiniest kernel of what could potentially go right would have its own beguiling gravitational pull. Needless to say everyone's at the top of their game here. MVP's: hands down Julia Roberts in I would argue one of her best performances (she can act as more than ear-to-ear golden radiance when she wants to) as the standout strong-willed divorcee of the dysfunctional Weston family, the myriad branches of whose family tree gather in the Midwest when their soft-spoken patriarch (Sam Shepard) commits suicide.

And also of course, MVP might as well be an acronym for Meryl Valued Player at this point. Being a huge fan of Letts and screeching black comedy in general I'd jump at the opportunity should it ever arise to see "August: Osage County" in all its traditional Broadway glory. But it'd be tough to shake the thought of Meryl Streep in the funereal drag and witchy charcoal wig of Violet Weston: wife, mother, dowager cunt-ess.

This is Streep's Norma Desmond role -- the overly dramatic dialect, shrill behavior; drunk ruminations on history with the blood-dry paleness of a lifetime's worth of failures and regrets. You may be able to find movies that are more sweepingly MOVIE than "August: Osage County" -- or even more visually interesting reworkings of Tracy Letts scripts and plays (I'm looking at you "Bug" and "Killer Joe") -- but in Streep you'd be hard-pressed to find more of a movie star, and in "August" more of a performance. (63/100)

Our Children
Our Children(2013)

It's an all too common trope for a movie to begin with its end before flashing back and building from the story's initial outset of events. But in director Joachim Lafosse's stunning domestic drama "Our Children" it's to remind us of the irreversible. In 2007, a Belgian woman named Genevieve Lhermitte (dubbed Murielle here and played with the utmost conviction by Émilie Dequenne) slit each of her five children's throats with a knife stolen from a grocery store while her husband was visiting family in Morocco. (She was subsequently charged with first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.)

"Our Children" opens with Murielle in a hospital ward weeping burial plans. What happens next describes the prior buoyant relationship between her and Mounir ("A Prophet" and "The Past's" Tahar Rahim) and his surrogate father André (Niels Arestrup, also of "A Prophet"), a physician who lives with and financially provides for the quickly married couple. Though Lafosse isn't so much interested in the HOW of the events as he is the WHY, and even then the reasons are more ruminative than explanatory or demystifying, and despite that Lafosse -- who wrote the loosely-based script with Thomas Bidegain and Matthieu Reynaert -- largely sticks to the facts of the matter, though issuing Murielle and Mounir four kids instead of five.

I wouldn't have it any other way. So much as I am someone who can easily stomach anything in the gore range of "Antichrist" and "Salo" to the relatively obscure gross-out masterpiece "Melancholie der Engel", the "Blue Valentine"/"-Is the Warmest Color"-type emotional devastation of "Our Children" -- and this just might have been kicking in the caffeine I'd ingested both beforehand and throughout my specific viewing -- I found to be particularly draining. For that I want to champion especially Dequenne as the grieving first bride and then mother. It takes a certain dens- and virtuosity to play seduced and abandoned with as much fragile sympathy as she does. (One scene in particular that has Murielle breaking into tears during a love song she hears driving on the radio, guided in one motionless take, though the film as a whole missed the Oscar shortlist, should have nonetheless been submitted as the pièce de résistance of a separate highlight reel.)

Given the present themes of patriarchy and family life I can only imagine how Danish director Susanne Bier would have handled similar material, or, given "Our Children's" tricky grisly subject matter, the Parisian auteur Jacques Audiard of "Prophet" and "Rust & Bone" fame. But Lafosse chose to turn this into a movie, and it's the feature that should unofficially announce him as a filmmaker to be put on the map. This is a masterful rendition of real-life happenstance, told visually with the always peeking eye of a liable onlooker. We along with the film wonder, from the male-dominated perspective of our cultural delusion, if the postpartum depression of Genevieve Lhermitte could have been helped, and if five lives could have been saved. (83/100)

Spring Breakers
½

Where does Harmony Korine bite off the nerve to bitch? That no one's understood across the consistently narrow-minded mumblecore that is his body of work. "Spring Breakers" doesn't dodge that streak. So why the hell was there so much fuss about it? Because the marketing would have you believe it's Disney chicks doing the nasty in ways exclusively hard-R. Not exactly.

This is the weirdest film at least in my movie-going lifetime I've ever seen get a major theatrical release. The good news is that "Spring Breakers" is nonetheless Korine nonnegotiable. I think his preceding stuff is a mixed bag of misplaced ambition, but this is the movie that truly sets him apart as a filmmaker, with nary a shot wasted and nothing not perfectly precise. Like "Post Tenebras Lux" "Breakers" is about the juxtaposition of dreams and nightmares, especially how often they impinge on one other. "Breakers" is so impeccably layered with slow motion, inverted camera angles, grainy color contrasts, scenes told in reverse with lucid voice-over; it's enough to be sickening. It is. It's also loud. Very. But it works more fluidly than anything Korine's ever tried to marry before. It might even be his first masterpiece. I have no idea how "Spring Breakers" got made, but I'm mighty glad it was.

#JamesFrancoOscar2014 (90/100)

To The Wonder
½

I've wrestled with a lot of movies so far into 2013 -- "The Place Beyond the Pines", "Upstream Color", "Spring Breakers", "Side Effects" -- but none more so than Terrence Malick's scrappy followup and pseudo-companion piece to his 2011 masterpiece "The Tree of Life", "To the Wonder". It's been booed at Cannes (but really, what hasn't been?) and sent up shit creek by critics and fans alike. Do I prefer "TTW" over "TOL"? Hell no. I have in my short life been part of few celebratory movie trends as the latter so incited. It's as great a movie as Malick has ever made.

But to be fair, "To the Wonder" isn't as ambitious as "The Tree of Life". Its Ben Affleck love triangle -- that starts in France with single mom Olga Kurylenko and moves to Oklahoma with Affleck's old flame Rachel McAdams -- is more in the vein of abstract wheat fields of Malick's second feature "Days of Heaven" than the three-hour opuses with which he's really made a name for himself as a true master. In hindsight "To the Wonder" still won't be seen as staggering, but it's very much a Terrence Malick film, awash in lightness, darkness, and a sense of godlike fury that borders on the religious. Plot-based or otherwise, at the core of Malick's visions of grace and form set against canvases prone to savagery and characters to spurts of violence -- be it streaked with veins of stars, the veins of drug addicts or the drive-through window of a Sonic restaurant -- is a sense of shear, unshakable cinematic discovery. Malick's films have always cultivated the struggle of giving yourself up to a higher power. "To the Wonder", perhaps more than any other Malick work to date, feels open-ended and unfinished, maybe because it's asking you to let go, and get lost, and to connect.

At one point in "To the Wonder", someone says "Life's a dream. In dream you can't make mistakes. In dream you can be whatever you want." Not WHOever -- WHATever. Attuned to sound, vision and feeling.

Shitheads. (89/100)

Short Term 12
½

2013 was a big year for me. I graduated high school. People with whom I've shared eight-plus years of my life I no longer see on a regular basis. I got my driver's license. Everything I'd been fearing about growing up and moving on has begun to take shape, and I feel like my life now is supposed to mean something, but I'm not sure what. I have the most amazing parents in the world, three beautiful siblings who love and would die for me in an instant and I them. I live a modest life that not only caters my obsession with film but allows me to discuss/vehemently defend movies and other various pieces of pop culture with equally strident individuals I've come to know as not strictly peers, but friends I feel I can be real with about anything when I don't have anywhere else to go (Mark Zuckerberg, I promise you.)

This prelude isn't to relate my troubles to the serious cases of abuse drug-affiliated and/or domestic of teens who enter into halfway housing. Again, a day doesn't go by where I don't stop and thank my lucky stars I was blessed or whatever enough to end up in the situation I am; I just put pressure upon myself that I'm not succeeding/trying hard enough to make it up to my parents for raising me to be the, I'd say kind and decent and unable-to-accept-any-form-of-flattery person I am today. I want to say I emotionally sympathize with struggling youth who also see the outside world as a big and scary place that's fit to swallow you whole, but at the end of the day, it physically isn't the environment from which I come.

When Nelson Mandela died last month, I wrote a brief something on Facebook in quasi-memorial to his passing about how much I appreciate the people in this world who sacrifice their lives in pursuit of making it a little bit of a better place than it was before. One of the many delusions I mentally wrestle with is the metaphysical marriage between art and activism. Both try to relate universal truths about moral- and humanity. Art requires a willing audience though, a third man; activism puts you right in the shit and hands you a mop. Do we need more writers or poets in the mainstream any more than we need more lawyers or business executives? I'm not saying talent isn't too indelible a thing to waste and act like I don't seek out and let form a personal connection to emerging musical acts and bands. This divide is just something that fascinates me.

I've said this somewhere previously, but I call bullshit on movies being about escapism. No amount of metallic clank and CGI clobber can shrug off story having to mean something; ANYTHING. The best works of art get at larger points of society and/or the plight of the singular spirit, blending fact and fiction to the degree the lines blur, stop making sense, give up the ghost or whatever your cheeky not-so-critical reference.

As you've probably made like Jennifer and garnered if anyone's even read this far (that last pun was most likely also the last straw) I didn't want to write a quote-unquote "professional" review of Destin Cretton's phenomenal "Short Term 12"; I've been waiting to see this movie for so many months now you can find troves of those anywhere. But just how much "Short Term" spoke to my sensibilities should be enough of a reason to warrant an immediate recommendation. Or if you're still on the fence, take Vampire Weekend's word for it -- no spoilers, the lyric "all you who change your stripes can wrap me in the flag" has never been more apt or literal. You'll know what I mean.

Also JGL, I loved "Don Jon", but nobody puts Brie Larson in the corner. Nobody. (89.100)

Safety Last!
Safety Last!(1923)

I've seen Keaton and Chaplin (granted, not as much as I should have of either) but I've never seen any work of Harold Lloyd, so I'm not sure how indicative "Safety Last!" is of his other films. Starts as a workplace sitcom (a very rich and funny one at that) but the real star of this thing is the final set piece, in which Lloyd climbs a twelve-story building like a slippery stress reliever; I kept imagining at every turn Chloe Grace Moretz's awe-stricken face (can't find a good "Hugo" pic of this instance to link to but you know what scene I mean) whenever his shoe would drop, look down at the ant-sized bystanders, or open a window to reveal a stir-crazy pit bull at the leashed and frothy ready.

"Safety" is gimmick done right, full of splendid imagery and physical comedy at its most well-orchestrated and precise. The still everyone relates to this movie is of Lloyd dangling from the giant clock hand, but there's also a few shots of two separate people tangled up in fishing net wire, grasping and struggling to find their way out, that's equally as representative of what a tough, knotty task it to this day is to marry real-life action anxiety with huge laughs of slapstick relief. "Safety Last!" utilizes nearly all aspects of cinema -- from every moment's careful framework to the bouncy, humble organ music -- and it's just about perfect.

All on YouTube right now! The Internet, you guys. Continues to amaze. (96/100)

Drinking Buddies

I don't know jack about Joe Swanberg other than he makes mumblecore horror and is one of the dudes in "You're Next". So I put off seeing "Drinking Buddies" for a while because, frankly, as much as I love all involved, I didn't really have much interest in seeing indie ideals clash with the more mainstream sensibilities of a working-class comedy. Turns out I was -- as I so often am -- dead wrong. Swanberg perfectly marriages the quiet moments of something smaller with an agreeable cast of game faces and humor smoothed while rough enough to feel real. There's no gags in "Drinking Buddies" per se, but still I weirdly found myself laughing at the little conversations these characters would go into with each other. I truly felt in the moment.

Like recently with "The To Do List" (I love you if you actually saw it), "Drinking Buddies" is a movie ultimately I think about how sometimes sex doesn't have to mean anything (though there's nary any in its 90 minutes) and friends can just be friends and still go through rough shit with each other like any ordinary couple. Olivia Wilde nails being basically every guy's dream tom-girl, and yet you root for her because she taps into so much more. And Jake Johnson -- so good in "Safety Not Guaranteed" -- like "Drinking Buddies" itself, keeps up appearances before dovetailing into more of a messy, emotional punch. It's like a grittier "Your Sister's Sister". Which, I mean, most movies are, but. You get me. Maybe. Hopefully.

Let's watch Swanberg go places. (80/100)

Lone Survivor
½

You're potentially setting yourself up for bullshit when you market your movie as being "based on a true story". Peter Berg's "Lone Survivor" doesn't exactly help itself much by bumping up after the title credits a separate frame that reads in huge, bold letters BASED ON A TRUE STORY. So cry foul if it's your pleasure. I'm willing to admit I misjudged a movie, and that's precisely the experience I had with this. Seeing the trailer before "Nebraska" the other day again reminded me just how flatly it was cobbled together. And knowing this was the new film from Berg, director of "Battleship", now begging to be taken seriously, only added further insult to apparent PTSD-inspired injury.

"Lone Survivor" isn't perfect, but here's where it wins -- instead of conceptualizing war as a video game, it draws it like a card game: one shot, you lose, you're fucked. The battlefield isn't sexy, even if the heroes are. (Just saying, even with the needlessly bushy beards Mark Wahlberg, Eric Bana, Ben Foster and Taylor Kitsch are all far from ugly-looking. What? It's nearly 2014, deal with it.) Gone is the post-9/11 hysteria of the War on Terror, here are the bros still toughing it out. (The same-named book by Marcus Luttrell and Patrick Robinson based on eyewitness events of a fatally compromised Navy SEAL operation was first published in 2007.) They're cut (yeah they are, wink-wink) kinda cookie-cutter -- some have wives they miss, fiancees; no adorable dogs, unfortunately. This we see before Wahlberg's Luttrell, Kitsch's Michael P. Murphy, Foster's Matthew Axelson and Emile Hirsch's Danny Dietz enter the limelight of the line of duty to capture or kill a notorious Taliban leader inside an Afghan village in 2005, before the title "lone survivor" begins to come into play.

It should be noted, the acting here is excellent across the board (Foster in particular is outstanding), if the writing has them come across as hokey or overwrought at times. Even then, the defiantly emotional, no less towering score by the utterly amazing Explosions in the Sky ("Prince Avalanche" was no mere fluke) lifts them and us up like a motherfucker. No joke, "Lone Survivor" is a bitter pill to swallow. But thankfully the combat here isn't a one-sided die roll when it comes to those who fall victim to senseless enemy violence on either side of the territorial divide. It's a visual idiosyncrasy (i.e., occasional annoyance) that Berg's camera is never close-mouthed or stops moving, but just because the action happens lean and fast doesn't mean it doesn't still leave a bruise.

Also, a bloody log you see in the first act... (73/100)

Young Frankenstein

Satire doesn't have to be cynical (I'm looking at you, Farrelly and Zucker brothers of the world.) Mel Brooks' "Young Frankenstein" manages to at once act as over-the-top, immature spoof of Warner Bros horror movies and joyous homage to the notion of old Hollywood showmanship and what makes movies great. Even if not riotously funny, this is comedy with dog ears, stained pages in a schoolboy joke book that Brooks elevates not only to the big screen and brings to an audience, but like the best of his work it's a welcome cheer to the fact that THIS can be a profession, and that with a little risk, creativity and BALLS -- what knockers! -- pop culture is never really dead -- it's just always waiting to be brought back to life.

And Everything Is Going Fine

Just such a...mesmerizing movie, with Steven Soderbergh -- quite the minimalist himself -- providing no subtext, no narration, no epilogue or outside talking heads. "And Everything Is Going Fine" is a movie constructed in a way so as to have Spalding Gray describe his life in his own words via archival monologues, a la "Stories We Tell" only they aren't recreations (the only thing I think that prevents the latter from being absolutely perfect.)

I feel like I'm tripping on my writing after hearing shear talk for ninety minutes. That's because "Everything" is a verbal journey. It's also all MOVIE, and quietly sorta perfect. It brings you to tears without manipulation. I'd call it Soderbergh's best ever but my hesitation is in that...well, it feels strange to call it HIS movie when. You know. Whatevs. Let it be. Just see it.

Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma (Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom)

If not a perfectly straightforward adaptation of the Marquis de Sade's masterpiece (though I'm so in love with the book I don't know if there ever could be one), "Salo" is nonetheless a delightfully fascist piece of work. Yeah, I really just said that.

The Wolf of Wall Street

What other 2013 movie has so many drugs either up or just on the coke-sniffing surface of so many asses?

"The Wolf of Wall Street" is in many ways akin to "Gravity" in terms of not knowing what the fuck to say after having seen it, yet basically they're pretty much polar opposites in terms of befuddling structure. "Gravity" is a simple yet lyrical ninety minute adrenaline ride that leaves you breathless, where "Wolf" is a three-hour roller coaster into the mouth of madness, one that leaves you stricken, sickened, saddened and stunned. What it doesn't leave you is exhausted. A whopping 179-minute runtime and no scenes of graphic lesbian sex? Don't bitch. I could have stomached the whole original reportedly woozy four-plus hours. Hell, I would have been more than happy to. When you're dealing with diamonds, you cherish whatever carat you can get. And "The Wolf of Wall Street" is a goddamn gem mine.

Martin Scorsese, 71, has said recently he isn't sure how many more movies he has left in him given the contemporary factors of age and the state of motion picture funding both independent and studio. I couldn't think of a better maybe (but, fingers crossed, hopefully not) swan song for one of the world's all-time greatest filmmakers. "Wolf" isn't merely a regular opera. The current definitive film about our struggling financial times -- the monetary mobsters with an invisible trail of dead in pursuit of the equally intangible bottom dollar, those who really control how we live now -- "The Wolf of Wall Street" is a straight-up Wagner of debauchery, by turns alluring and repulsing, hilarious and depressing, and finally decorated with a black, bleakly funny overtone of pain and gain that stings like a pissed-off eel in an ocean of economic crooks and kibitzers.

Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter ("The Sopranos") have concocted a monumental cinematic achievement. Revolutionary? It might again kick up a national discussion of America's carnal obsession with greed and the greedy-greedy who chase it. But for the most part "Wolf" goes down as a deviously devised, all too resonant headstone to the rise and steady decline of epic ambition at the movies. So, for that matter, does Jordan Belfort. Here he lies, in one of the best films of the year. It certainly feels like one of the most hungry. Like a wolf. This is America. We laugh till it hurts. (96/100)

No
No(2013)

Muddy, broken, small, exclusive. And that's just the lo-fi camerawork "No" director Pablo Larrain decided to use in portraying the 1988 referendum to either oust or re-elect Chilean military dictator Augusto Pinochet after international scrutiny to push the question of his power onto the people. Now, let's talk how to sell a vote. First you need a spearhead. That's ad exec Rene Saavedra (the chameleon Gael Garcia Bernal), hired by the NO campaign for his experience in the art of big corporate gimmicks.

That's right -- "art". Advertising comes from money, and so does politics. Both are in the business of leaving you chopped and screwed. Heavy stuff, yeah? Nope. In the hands of Larrain and screenwriter Pedro Peirano, "No" is big on laughs, huge and hardcore, lining serious culture shock with jovial '80s elegance, media influence, and the need for compromise under political impasse. It lacks the urgency of recent-period pieces like "Milk" or "Argo", but "No" still works as what strategy goes into getting something stuck in people's heads. So the whole thing's fixed. What matters is how much can be covered up if the scandal is catchy. (83/100)

You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet!
½

Man, before popping this in, I had no idea director Alain Resnais was also the dude behind such influential classics as "Night and Fog" (1955), "Hiroshima Mon Amour" (1959) and "Last Year at Marienbad" (1961). It makes me wish I liked his most recent, "You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet", more. I would never have guessed this was the work of a 91-year-old master. Now I feel like a true piece of shit.

I wanted to rate this a tad higher because Resnais uses some impressive long takes throughout "Nothin'", highlighting especially the facial expressions and hair of his actors as they go on long spiels about life, love and death, but then the ending happened and I was just completely soured to the whole enterprise. Really truly, I'm sorry, but I thought the wraparound here was downright atrocious. Considering we're barely ever introduced to any of the characters -- a group of friends who gather at the home of a recently-deceased acquaintance and end up reciting a late reading by the former playwright, a loose interpretation of the Greek myth of lovers Orpheus and Eurydice -- the final twist is completely unbelievable, which is, you know, whatever, but without spoiling it, it's irritating mostly for just being plain fucking shitty of the person involved.

And the script by Resnais and Laurent Herbiet -- inspired by dramatist Jean Anouilh's "Eurydice" and "Cher Antoine ou l'Amour raté" -- is stuffed with so much painfully pretentious, strenuously jokey dialogue I'd say I understood at long last how detractors of "The Counselor" felt watching that particular film, when actually I'd more so relate "You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet" to the drunken redundancies of Paolo Sorrentino's outstanding "The Great Beauty". Where that movie's peaks and valleys serve a larger point about life imitating art and vice versa, this one's just feel hopelessly remiss. Or, in other words, as with most things, Arcade Fire did it better.

But again, I'm probably in the minority. (52/100)

Naked Lunch
Naked Lunch(1991)

Cronenberg's masterpiece.

Caesar Must Die
½

Julius "Counselor".

Kinda grasping for what to say about this slim 76-minute take on Shakespeare's timeless tragedy (one of my personal favorites) by celebrated Italian brothers Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, which here uses the conceit of having the performance workshopped by federal inmates. A sparsely developed, grimly neo-realist pseudo-documentary (though not without its often bleak beauty and impressive camerawork), "Caesar Must Die" has all the ambition of a high school stage reading, yet it manages to peer deeper into the incarcerated mindsets of cellmates doomed by society to play the part of prisoner, in the film's singularly cruel and ironic twist of fate.

This theme isn't always handled in the most subtle of ways -- a final sequence has a detainee blatantly addressing the camera to extol his poetic plight -- but for the most part "Caesar Must Die" is a deeply cutting satirization of the Roman penal system, and still yet one which doesn't skimp on the human toll that goes into keeping up appearances. (73/100)

Saving Mr. Banks
½

First off, "Saving Mr. Banks" would never be made if it wasn't branded cookie-cutter by the Disney Company. Just the facts. And really, while more refined than it would be in less guided hands, the flashbacks to early-1900s Australia during the central through-line setting of 1960s Los Angeles I still think begins to take effect way too early in the movie, and subsequently far too frequently (though the bookends, no spoilers, are sublime, whoever's idea it was to give the film a patented circular structure.) Point is, no matter how much vetting "Mr. Banks" had to go through to get made, it's such a damn great story it was worth the ringer, warts (mouse ears) and all.

My big problem with "Saving Mr. Banks" before even going into it was the incestuous notion of a mega movie studio crafting a shameless love letter to its own PR, with Tom Hanks portraying the middlebrow caricature of Walt Disney while ignoring the darker edges of the man's biding habits and baffling personal beliefs. "Mr. Banks" is still guilty of this, no doubt. There's a scene where Disney and P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson), in a key turning point to further convince Travers sign over the film rights to her numerous "Mary Poppins" novels, stroll through Disneyland with its namesake extolling the virtues of the park with seemingly blatant abandon. Not exactly poetic justice.

But maybe it's me who's jaded. No, it's for sure me. Me, me, me. On the fit of tears over the behind-the-scenes of the devising of a copyright? For a movie where every character has a motivation for every little something they said earlier in the narrative that returns like a verbal puzzle piece lifted from Screenwriting 101? Okay, I wasn't actually on the fit of tears; "Saving Mr. Banks" just truly, honest to God sticks the landing in wrapping up all the various plot threads with precisely the right measure of sugary spoonful (had to do it!) No but really, it is shocking John Lee Hancock is the same man who directed "The Blind Side", that more glaring pimple on the ass of the Academy Awards' recent track record. Also those screenwriters -- relative newbies Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith -- sure must have studied that manual hard, because their final product is punchy and terrific.

Who owns "Saving Mr. Banks", though, is the divine Emma Thompson. Her Travers is primly-coifed with a particularly inexhaustible complexion of eye-rolling and lip-biting, thin skin and cold heart (but it's getting warmer). There was nary a moment in "Mr. Banks" where I couldn't imagine the two Brits, Travers and Thompson, arguing over something or other and for the whole charade to quickly devolve into a shrieking theater troupe mirror exercise. Hanks' Disney is ideal, but Thompson's missus is batty. Would Travers have had it any other way? Who knows. What I can say for sure is "Saving Mr. Banks" has a genuine pulse beneath its spit-shiny surface, and it's a hell of a nerve-wracking time seeing Travers' blue jasmine chip away more and more at every delicate moment deciding if and when to let the right one in. (68/100)

Wuthering Heights
½

I could go either way in excusing the flaws of Andrea Arnold's "Wuthering Heights", praising its unquestionable visual beauty and ubiquity while ignoring the weirdness and inconsistency of the ultimate work. In a day when every third movie out there is a remake of '70s horror or a grim imagining of a campfire fairy tale, Arnold updates the 1847 Gothic novel by Emily Bronte -- sister of Charlotte, and her only published labor -- with a messy rawness and passion for bygone idyllic charms, which she meets with a neoteric sexual soul, one stuffed with bleak and haunted images that do nothing short of stir.

This Is the End
½

If "Cabin in the Woods" is the arty, cheekily self-aware horror-comedy deconstruction, "This Is the End" is the one that adds shit jokes, Satan's CG'ed cock, the arm from "127 Hours" and Emma Watson swinging an ax. What, you want it to kiss you on the mouth, too? (85/100)

Out of the Furnace

From the cold open of "Out of the Furnace" -- director Scott Cooper's sprawling, ambitious, ultimately much more complex sophomore effort behind the camera -- you know it's going to be a way darker journey than the one taken by Jeff Bridge's liquor-stunk country singer in Cooper's Oscar-winning "Crazy Heart". Think how Lee Daniels followed up "Precious" with the gritty neo-noir "The Paperboy", only, well. "Furnace" is a lot better. Like a lot. Okay, maybe that isn't too great of a comparison, actually.

Anyway, "Out of the Furnace" opens to a slow fade-in on a drive-in movie theater, in just the first of the film's mesmerizing long takes. (Did "Crazy Heart" have even one??) Rust belt drug dealer/fight club runner/all-around sadistic prick Harlan DeGroat (played by the fantastic Woody Harrelson with his regular, almost effortless amount of sick cool) sits in a car alongside a date, before she starts heckling him for the liquor bottle at his right hand. He asks calmly before asking not-so-calmly for the hot dog he doth protest she's picking at, and proceeds to shove it gagging down her throat. A man in the next vehicle over approaches the window to see what's going on, gets in a fist-fight with Harlan, is beaten to a pulp, Harlan kicks his squeeze out on top of his thus far second seen victim (there are assuredly many more) and drives off.

This jarred me initially. It sets up "Out of the Furnace" as the exploitation movie it isn't. It also presents it as the clean-cut revenge movie it isn't. Cooper's film leaves a nasty taste in your mouth, though not because of the violence on screen. It's a thriller which -- and get this -- draws stakes from the inner emotional torments of its characters rather than in meaningless visceral bloodshed. Christian Bale is so talented an actor he could easily have sleepwalked through the part of Russell Baze, a Pennsylvania steel worker whose fuck-up brother Rodney (Casey Affleck in fine form) has a seemingly lifelong debt to a crime ring of miscellaneous exports. But then why take the gig? Bale excels here, giving a magnificent performance equal parts grace, loyalty, regret and bitterness. Whatever he is, he's no-bullshit, and spitfire to boot. Like the rest of "Out of the Furnace", his soulful blues brother sticks with you.

I don't know if this'll make much of an awards splash or have even a remote pulse at the box office, especially something so punishing opening on over 2,000 screens right out of the gate. "Out of the Furnace" ain't perfect, and it isn't exactly the crowd-pleaser I'd expect "American Hustle" to be. Cooper may bite off more than he can chew, but he certainly leaves a mark, and "Out of the Furnace" announces him as a filmmaker to not only watch anymore, but who feels as if he's closer than ever before to having fully arrived. Its deafening swing hits you where you live. (79/100)

Rush
Rush(2013)

I'm on board not understanding the whole deal with Ron Howard. He's one of the few people ever to successfully make the jump from child actor to director, let alone anyone high-profile. But he's never been regarded as a quote-unquote "great" filmmaker, which is a shame. Screw the "Dilemmas" and "Da Vinci Codes", stuff like "Apollo 13" and "Frost/Nixon" is proof the guy can still relate populist pulp with artistry when his heart's in it, and "Rush" is certainly the best example of that to date. It feels, looks and SOUNDS flat-out like a machine; gorgeous, episodic and by other means no-bullshit. I think the aspect of "Rush" I love most is how operatic and in-tune the writing, directing and scoring is. I only use that term "operatic" if I can actually see a movie working as a play minus the action set pieces, and with "Rush" I totally could.

Unfortunately this also means Howard and screenwriter Peter Morgan occasionally forsake character development for density, and stay true to their film's title in being so in-the-moment and entertaining their story lacks memorable nuance. Regardless Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brà 1/4hl both deliver terrific lead performances as rival Formula One dragsters circa mid-'70s, balancing Morgan's token bromantic sparring without cheesing or hamming it up. Like I said, it's all taken very seriously short of "Prisoners"-type claustrophobia. But as a slick torpedo of a racing movie, orchestrating the glamour and grit of life at a crossroads around the bend of every corner, "Rush" thankfully never loses the human intention behind being driven. (80/100)

Don Jon
Don Jon(2013)

Perfect? No. Great? Mm, debatable. But it's no faint praise to call "Don Jon" a very good writing and directing debut for Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Making a movie about porn addiction that's ultimately about addiction to what porn represents takes guts and agents of shields to deflect prejudiced naysayers. What "Don Jon" really tackles is how at the center of our current society of custom preference there's a toxic ego pool of narcissism that's screwing with our perception of actuality. Its surface may be slick but its message is anything but sugarcoating. Expect nothing less. Just don't go in with blinders on that "Don Jon" is some sort of Brazzers takedown. Jon Martello (also played by Gordon-Levitt) is merely a reflection of a society that traffics in fantasy, and cousin, business is a-boomin'.

Like the similar Gordon-Levitt vehicle "(500) Days of Summer", Jason Reitman's splendid "Young Adult" or this past season's "The Spectacular Now" the second half of "Don Jon" is where the movie truly comes into (LOL) its own as a character piece, and though it starts to run out of steam by the time Julianne Moore enters the picture as Jon's voice of relationship reason it also sees Jon shaking his pussy habitual some and getting at things within himself without requiring lubrication.

"Don Jon" isn't anything super biting, but it also doesn't rub one out just to rub our noses in it, either, and kicks off the wonderful Scarlett Johansson's 2013 winning streak (preceding the cerebrally celebrated festival favorites "Under the Skin" and "Her") as Jersey girl love interest Barbara, a cock tease who wants her partners to be empty-headed arm candy. So does Jon. But only opposites attract when love is a two-way street. As culture clash comedy we can all relate to, "Don Jon" also doesn't try to get us off or thinking by being a blue-balled buzzkill. (78/100)

The Great Beauty

It's impossible to shake the hulking shadow of "La Dolce Vita" in making a movie about a writer waxing nostalgic through the haunted streets of Rome. "The Great Beauty" doesn't try. Like Fellini's magnum opus, Paolo Sorrentino's vibrant ode to The Eternal City is as voyeuristic and searching as it is a wholly definitive vision, equal parts question and answer. Yeah it's full of contradictions. So's life. "The Great Beauty" never stays on one thing too long; one character, one party, one emotive mood. That's why even clocking in at two hours and twenty minutes it remains a magnificently entertaining and rewarding watch, and doesn't feel like a cinematic ploy, an inherent obstacle to overcome. Or maybe it is. No matter. Point is, "The Great Beauty" doesn't miss a beat. You'd have to strain hard to not be impressed by it. It's the most landmark portrait of modern Italy since "Gomorrah". Fellini would be proud. (84/100)

Computer Chess
½

One of the weirdest, quirky-in-a-good-way, oddly charming movies of 2013, "Computer Chess" might come off as extremely random at times in the way shots are staged and its various subplots progress, but really it has the razor-sharp blink-and-you'll-miss-it wit of both the U.K. and American "Office". "Computer Chess" takes the lay of the '80s and its prenatal Silicon Valley-type cast of characters, but the reason why the comedy works as something wholly genuine is because writer-director Andrew Bujalski turns neither them nor the chess tournament around which the film revolves into nerd-chic convention. While definitely a movie about the game of its title, "Computer Chess" works ultimately as a culture clash between man and machine, and the ways in which the former relates human elements to the latter. Its controlled-amateur feel perfectly fits the film's focus of potential as remarkable idea. (86/100)

The Grandmaster

It should be noted, the movie I watched was "The Grandmasters", not "The Grandmaster". (Yet another movie chopped and screwed by Harvey "Scissorhands" Weinstein and pushed onto the American mainstream who probably could give a fuck about Asian cinema to begin with .) So yeah, not reviewing the U.S. cut because I'm like, SO above that. I didn't really have any interest in seeing a work of art slaughtered (see: my being so much better than that) so I did a little digging online and torrented the Hong Kong edition because no way was I shelling $50 on Amazon to get the Blu-Ray. Just a preface because I honestly never pirate media willy-nilly; only when I virtually can't see something otherwise will I do it. I like to support art and artists. Can you hear me from atop this pedestal? Maybe if I lowered my chin a bit.

In other, more profane words, I'm a rude bitch, nigga, what are you into?

The review: I borderline loved Wong Kar Wai's "The Grandmaster" (let's just call it that.) It reminded me very much of "Once Upon a Time in the West" in terms of its sort of elliptical storytelling and the codes and ancient sayings both written and unwritten these characters seem to live by. And that, above all, is what Wong is interested in: tradition, and how traditions often collide (the movie boils life down into being both "vertical and horizontal") and the movement of bodies and varying styles of martial arts. The one term that came to mind watching "The Grandmaster" was "picturesque". All of it feels like a bunch of different scenes and pieces of a story mushed together, while Wong takes his time and paints and stages spectacular fights on luxuriously beautiful sets. (Philippe Le Sourd did the cinematography, and Wong got financing from the Chinese government to make this. That doesn't come as surprising or upsetting -- there isn't much controversial here or that I feel had to be watered down -- but it's worth noting because this movie looks absolutely GORGEOUS.) Ultimately "The Grandmaster" to me was just flat-out great, truly epic yet also with a lot o f moments of subtly and intimacy. The lack of symmetry to the thing might throw some off, but man, or should I say YIP Man (LOL), I totally dug the hell out of this. (83/100)

This is, again, regarding the Chinese cut. Because again, to quote a Tame Impala song this time, I got to be above "it".*

*It = the critical mass.

Diana
Diana(2013)

Yeah, I know. Poor Naomi Watts. Poor beautiful, successful, talented Naomi Watts. 2013 has not been kind to you.

Look-- I'm probably this movie's sole sort-of defender. Still, I'm not going to go all "OGF" or "Counselor" crazy about the 8% it has on Rotten Tomatoes (no less unearned) and the whopping 36 it has on Metacritic (ditto). I feel kinda flustered at how much I liked this, too. Not because I think "Diana" is uber-soapy or anything, even though it totally is. Just feel my opinion can't be trusted since I admired its production so much when it's so clearly been panned and swept under the metaphorical rug.

So yeah. Tune out if need be; even I don't listen to me.

I think the critical backlash to "Diana" comes in the unfortunate aftermath of the recent biopic sloppiness of 2011's "The Iron Lady" in addition to this year's "Lee Daniels' The Butler" and "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom". Here's the difference though: 2004's "Downfall" proved Oliver Hirschbiegel was a filmmaker with new-found spikes, even if his next project, 2007's "The Invasion", was as shitty and mainstream a sci-fi dud as they come. Nonetheless, when he wants to be I think the dude's a way bigger talent than "Iron Lady's" Phyllida Lloyd, "The Butler's" Lee Daniels and "Mandela's" Justin Chadwick combined.

Discrediting his other works outside of "Downfall", if I were theoretically told he'd never made another movie since 2004, "Diana" seems almost like a spiritual follow-up/companion piece to that aforementioned film. Where "Downfall" played like an operatic tragedy, magnificent while never succumbing to bloat, "Diana" is considerably more rushed and choppy. Make no mistake, this won't win any awards for editing. (Well, I mean, like it was going to win any awards to begin with.)

The whole thing hums against the screen with a dreary sense of significance, unfurling a scrappy, doomed romance with untethered, ambitiously philandering abandon. I tried not to go into "Diana" with blinders on, and if not a note-perfect swan song, it's certainly at least a flawed portrait of a similarly frustrated and semi-charmed life cut too short. (58/100)

Frances Ha
Frances Ha(2013)

Prime Woody Allen (whatever that means) painted New York as something arching; joyous but dark. So does Noah Baumbach with "Frances Ha", his best directorial effort since 2005's "The Squid & the Whale". It could have been fast-talking and flat, jaded by an empty, over-privileged wit. Good thing -- GREAT thing, even -- is that it doesn't. Like TV's "Girls", the big-city struggle of "Frances" is scary and true, and Baumbach and Greta Gerwig -- who co-wrote the script with real life partner Baumbach and is seriously good in the title role -- relate the constant post-college try of 27-year-old dancer Frances to a question of how to make it as an artist, or just make it, period, when daily life is treated as more and more of a hassle.

Living on the edge can still be like facing down a cliff, or up a mountain, but it can also be dulled by permanence. I guess you learn to love the little things. "Frances Ha" is nothing if not in tune with its own crazy, genuine warmth and feeling. It manages to be a tenderly introspective character piece without pushing away the audience. Call it lyricism, and one of the year's most memorable films. (95/100)

The Selfish Giant

Beautifully filmed for something set against a landscape of such grim, desolate cruelty. Echoes Ken Loach in its intimate portrayal of disgruntled, poverty-stricken English youth, only it leans more toward bitter before eventually becoming bittersweet. People are awful to those around them in "The Selfish Giant", as writer-director Clio Barnard poses the question of whether that anger is innate or if it comes from a life of struggling to make ends meet via the situation on this earth in which you've been put. Perfect opening and final shots. Love the accentuation on the sky and stars above, surprised no character ever once dropped to his/her knees at a particularly anguished moment and yelled "WHY?!?!?". A film and filmmaker to watch. (84/100)

Magic Magic
Magic Magic(2013)

Sebastián Silva's "Sound of My Voice" to his own "Crystal Fairy's" "Another Earth", "Magic Magic" was one of two Silva works to premiere at Sundance this year, and it's the edgiest, weirdest, most provocative piece of art he's yet to produce. Which is to say, it's damn frustrating; in a good way to some, maybe not so much to others (especially the abruptness of the ending.) But everything up to that point operates as a token going into the third act, where the totally-not-quirky grimness and sadistic nature of the characters in "Magic" come back haunted, only they're fatally plaguing the wrong person. Without spoiling anything I'll just say it doesn't end well. "Magic Magic" could have been a cut-and-dry metaphor for abortion, but Silva leaves all the meaning of his story open water for chilling interpretation.

Silva is a new protege. And Juno Temple, no stranger to upsetting third acts herself (see: "Killer Joe"), makes you sympathize with her protagonist's debilitating mindset. She comes off as kind of weak and bitchy early on, but that goes away as the tension erodes. How? With, get this, mood. As in "Crystal Fairy" Silva uses the environment -- weather, animals, local natives, etc. -- to create atmosphere that feels familiar yet alluringly out of place. You'd get out if you didn't already feel sucked in. "Magic Magic" is cinematic ambiance as subversive omen. (80/100)

The World's End
½

REWATCH: Edgar Wright makes genre spoofs that instead of drumming up the classics so flawlessly intertwine their influences to the point of acting as vein-coursing celluloid adrenaline. "Shaun of the Dead", "Hot Fuzz" and "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" each demonstrated the unique way he sees the world as a playground to be reckoned with. But "The World's End" proves he's the most innovative and skillful comedy director working today. It uses the conceit of sci-fi to get at larger truths of human self-destruction.

Most importantly though, it's a hell of a ride. Simon Pegg gives his best performance to date as fear-loathing fortysomething junkie Gary King, who gathers his merry crew of high school drinking buddies (Nick Frost, Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine and Eddie Marsan) for an increasingly haywire pub crawl through their sleepy English hometown. Comedies perennially get the shaft when it comes to highbrow awards, but Pegg's Gary -- an overgrown, under-cooked Gothic Shrinky Dink -- is one of the most memorable movie creations of 2013.

More than the two preceding entries into Wright's so called Cornetto Trilogy, "The World's End" deftly balances character and belly-laughs, story and one-line zingers (pick your poison: "What the fuck does WTF mean?"; "We'll always have the disableds"; " We're going to see this through to the bitter end. Or... lager end", as well as further immortalizing Primal Scream's "Loaded" into a full speakers-blown party anthem.) Loosely-related or otherwise, "World's End" sends the series, and the audience, out with a stinger.

Some have said the epilogue is a bit of a mess. Not really. Or if it is, it certainly isn't much of one. Not enough to pull any of the punches the film's already landed, or to shepherd off any of Wright's faithful followers. His smashy-smashy egg men. At least in Wright we have a leader dizzily free from cinematic convention. That's why I'll follow him anywhere: he isn't afraid to make the movie equivalent of getting loaded and having a good time, and still yet for it to seem actually SIGNIFICANT. (88/100)

Le passé (The Past)
½

REWATCH: Still, I think, one of the most moving movies of the year. First watch I compared the wife-in-coma-bringing-everything-to-a-head to Alexander Payne's "The Descendants", which "The Past" is like kinda, but I think exclusively in that regard. Rewatching it I think this shares way more with the likes of Almodovar, specifically "Talk to Her" (which, hey, also has women in comas!) But really, "The Past" has just the same amount of melodrama as "A Separation", only without the inherently political obstacle course of the "separation" of that monumental achievement. The divorce between Marie (Bà (C)rà (C)nice Bejo) and Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) that kicks off "The Past" doesn't hang as heavy over the rest of the film as "A Separation's" does. It's really a movie about time and transition.

"A Separation" announced the arrival of not only a new auteur, but a new country (Iran) whose cinematic output now demanded equally unique attention. That doesn't mean "The Past" should be treated as a fleeting work. To call it gossipy is missing the point. Where "A Separation" aimed for the head, "The Past" shoots for the heart. The mark is dead-on, the vision stunningly realized. It's Drama with a capital-D, but the substance is no less grade-A. Even if "The Past" does feel momentary (it doesn't) it's only because its dutifully bleak tension is something rare, enlightened, and, above all, alive. (87/100)

Frozen
Frozen(2013)

"Frozen" is truth in advertising -- the throwback heart of "Tangled" meets the off-kilter humor of "Wreck-It Ralph". Not as good as either of those, "Frozen" is frustratingly bogged down by Disney canon cliche. Still though, it runs on fighting spirit; lovingly animated and voiced, if dulled somewhat by a fairy tale slightness. But it's sweet and empowering where it matters. In bridging the failure to communicate between princess sisters Anna (Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel), "Frozen", like Pixar's "Brave", feels authentic and unique in its gender message. Call it royal reconciliation. (62/100)

Blue Is The Warmest Color

We may unfortunately have had to pay it due mind in the media, but don't let the controversy surrounding "Blue Is the Warmest Color" skew your views of the film itself any. I can't lend voice to whatever occurred between actresses AdÃÃ,¨le Exarchopoulos and Là (C)a Seydoux and director Abdellatif Kechiche in making "Blue", but I can certainly breathe a sigh of relief there was a damn great movie to be fought over in the epic ordeal after all. Hardcore lesbian action. An NC-17 rating. A sprawling three hours of flirty, ephemeral airs. "Blue Is the Warmest Color" isn't a slab of smooth granite; it's a rock, meaning jagged emotional daggers and all. Only instead of being stagnant it still moves, without a hint of redundancy or boredom. And with the sublime Exarchopoulos at the center -- walking a tough, fine-lined sexual tightrope as AdÃÃ,¨le, a high-schooler who becomes fiercely attracted to older, blue-haired art student Emma (a downright marvelous Seydoux) -- "Blue Is the Warmest Color" dances splendidly to the beat of love and life, but speaks ultimately to the profound intellectual consequences of the narrative event.

Kechiche never drops the ball. Once. The remaining runtime acceding the buzzy moments of lovemaking (the most electrifying I've seen in recent memory) has AdÃÃ,¨le and Emma's relationship tested by time and age. Flashes of where Xavier Dolan's otherwise rapturous "Laurence Anyways" lost me from earlier in 2013 came to mind. But unlike that film, which looked to impress above all but the entirety of whose parts failed to really connect, "Blue" is hot to the touch. Exarchopulos and Seydoux give two of the most incredible performances of the year, in a movie that defines the notion of filmmaking as a form of artistic expression. Don't berate Kechiche for holding you close to the fire. First romance may not always be true, but his movie is, which burns brightest by taking it slow. (96/100)

Gomorrah (Gomorra)

What I loved most about "Gomorrah" is how wonderfully it takes its time and is so completely unhurried in expounding and expanding on the density of its gritty, gorgeous sprawl. I've heard Danny Boyle say about his favorite movie "Apocalypse Now" that the reason he adores it is because it isn't perfect. Hell, if that film isn't perfect, no way "Gomorrah" could possible be. Too bad, because I loved it. Take after long, crackerjack take director Matteo Garrone wants you to feel not only the tension but the quietness, the downtime and the heaviness of the thought and decision-making process that goes into enacting urban warfare. Turns out that's a huge, 137-minute task. The best mob mosaic of its kind since "Amores Perros" "Gomorrah" is a wholly first-rate crime flick, and the rare one that isn't interested so much in detailing physical acts of killing as it is in exploring the mindset of violence being something that's deceptively homegrown. It's got all the guts and unflinching grimness of a burned-out star.

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues

Movies like "This Is The End" and "The World's End" proved bigger doesn't have to mean dumber. Not only the two best comedies of the year, they're two of the best movies of the year, period. Add to that list "Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues", all the more impressive for wringing two hours of witty laughs from the normally blockbuster-bland PG-13 rating. Why wait nine years to release a sequel? I don't need a reason to watch Will Ferrell relive his best screen character ever alongside the riotously game Paul Rudd, Steve Carell and David Koechner.

Unlike "Kick-Ass 2" (a movie ) you don't have to distance the awesome memory of the first "Anchorman" to dig the next chapter. Because for every riff or sketch that doesn't work there's another immediately following it that's twice as quotable as the last. The "Anchorman" movies are also at their core about something: the changing face of news media from the point of views of four ignorant, sexist pigs. It'd be gross if Ferrell and two-time director Adam McKay, who also wrote both movies together, didn't give the premise a goofy sense of heart.

Maybe this sort of off-brand improvisational humor isn't everyone's cup of tea, and that's fine. But while "The Legend Continues" at points feels like a celebration (the third act here has so many unexpected highs, whatever you do don't let it be spoiled for you) don't confuse its unbridled enthusiasm for a shallow victory lap. "Anchorman 2" is a passion project through and through; it just also happens to be a gimmick that sells, baby, sells. But the movie only stays classy because its spot-on satire hurts so good. Rock on. (81/100)

Pieta
Pieta(2013)

Lacks some of the gut-punch of Park Chan-wook or Bong Joon-ho, but Kim Ki-duk's Golden Lion-winning "Pieta" is just as lyrically demented as anything out of Park's "Vengeance" trilogy, and handled with an equal amount of masterful complexity as Bong's so-far watermark "Mother". Certain critics will defy as sadistic sacrilege "Pieta's" theme of violent, purportedly biblical regression (the title refers to a religious artwork in which the Virgin Mary sorrowfully cradles the dead body of Jesus.) Let 'em bitch. Writer-director Kim isn't a filmmaker who lets the status quo be. In somberly piecing together a fraction of a particularly fucked-up family tree, "Pieta" doesn't shy away from the still-wet blood on the leaves. (78/100)

Mother (Madeo)

Easily one of the best this year. Bong Joon-ho's "Mother" is as thrilling as it is tongue-in-cheek, capturing an increasingly strange atmospheric tone as it continuously scales past plot point like something from Stanley Kubrick. It's hardened; tough to sit through. Joon-ho has crafted a movie even better than "The Host", going about "Mother" with a refreshing change of pace. Psychological, dramatic, hilarious -- Joon-ho may have created a new masterpiece.

What Maisie Knew

Is a movie still considered "indie" if it stars Julianne Moore, Alexander Skarsgård and Steve Coogan? Doesn't matter. They and the rest of "What Maisie Knew" are great. But who anchors the film is youngster Onata Aprile as the title six-year-old, scrappy and believable as her life revolves around the whirlwind divorce of her parents (Moore and Coogan), both of whom treat Maisie with a somewhat compulsive and removed affection. A tonally convincing exercise capturing the throes of a domestically bittersweet makeshift, "What Maisie Knew" does just about everything right.

It's crazy daring (and damn difficult) to build your film from the perspective of a child (Aprile is absolutely perfect), yet directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel and screenwriters Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright -- updating for today a late-19th century novel by Henry James -- turn what could have been a hollow take on the dysfunctional day-to-day of a singular little girl into a movie of haunting multitude and feeling. Shrugging it off as white people problems is about as deadpan as one can get. I'd say it ends on the note we as an audience want it to rather than where it realistically should, but that's just nitpicking since I can't think of anything too wrong with it. "What Maisie Knew" is something special and hard-won, transfixing and subjective while never not profoundly universal. (80/100)

Europa Report
½

Somewhere between "Sunshine" and "Firefly" in terms of brainy tone.

Obviously without the panoramic budget of something like "Gravity", Ecuadorian director Sebastián Cordero makes belt-tightened use of airship claustrophobia in writer Philip Gelatt's story of six astronauts who discover more than they bargained for on a privately-funded exhibition of Jupiter's fourth-largest planetoid. "Europa Report" plays like a hybrid talking head documentary/found-footage horror film, wringing tension from its characters and atmosphere -- the creaks, groans and rocky container of their vacuum-sealed vessel (choice line: "There's so little space in here and so much out there.")

A galaxy quest by people who seem to actually know about what it is they're spitballing, the narrative nonetheless begins to lose its heady, wordy steam by the final 25 minutes or so of this barely 90-minute movie. Neck-and-neck with "Elysium" in regard to brevity, though "Europa Report" has Sharlto Copley in a performance considerably toned down from the abhorrent heels he portrayed in the former as well as the back half of Spike Lee's recent "Oldboy", in addition, of course, to there being a fracking lot of sweet-ass moon ice. (70/100)

The Congress
The Congress(2014)
½

Kafka on acid.

Miyazaki meets Mickey Mouse.

Ari Folman's "The Congress" borrows themes from seemingly every major sci-fi and animation of the last century -- from "Last Year at Marienbad" to "The Trial" to "Blade Runner", "Waking Life", "The Matrix", "Spirited Away", etc. I could go on, but I don't want to make it seem like "The Congress" is derivative or overwhelming in any of its beautifully myriad ways, shapes and forms. Frankly I think the reason this didn't make as big a splash as it should have at Cannes in May is because critics a), aren't looking deep enough, and b), have most likely only experienced it once. It isn't that Folman -- following up his Oscar-nominated 2008 quasi-documentary "Waltz with Bashir" -- is without a point; it's that the goal of "The Congress" is to make us think for ourselves. It's a movie swirling with so much caution it's easy to mistake it for being soul- and/or humorless.

Spoiler alert: it's neither. What it is is bendy, twisty, elaborate filmmaking by a huge directorial talent. Like "Upstream Color", "The Congress's" ultimate dispatch is not one of intellect (though that's here in plenty); it's heart. So if and when you tear up it's out of sentiment and not from scratching your head. Prepare for it to be majorly misunderstood.

Also Robin Wright is a national treasure. Yeah, I'm just now realizing this. (87/100)

Drug War
Drug War(2013)

A few generic narrative hiccups and under-cooked character moments aside, "Drug War" finally makes way for one of the most breathless action set pieces of the year, and certainly 2013's best crime procedural overall. In laying out but cleverly only ever hinting at the devious political strategy behind the scenes of both sides in the narcotic legal divide, on the red streets of China or St. Elsewhere, "Drug War" feels like a new genre classic -- violent, witty, worldly filmmaking. It isn't to be forsaken multiple reckonings. (82/100)

Leviathan
Leviathan(2013)
½

You'd be hard-pressed to find a movie as wildly experimental as "Leviathan", if I can even call it a movie. It's so unhinged in regards to a traditional narrative, characters, dialogue, etc. My guess is the more some might try to describe it in words the more they'll come up short and lose the traction brought upon by this movie's images and atmosphere. It's here, in this gloomy darling of a cinematic puzzle, that you begin to unpack the bare-bones meaning of "Leviathan's" nonspecific first-person shaky-cam, the cinematic dimension to its hundreds of flopping fish heads, and the parallels in the way directors Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel choose to shoot seagulls as unassailably mortal in the face of high waters as the film's aquatic life are, the storm of their flocks echoed and engulfed by the ocean's rhythm of black waves and attracting rain clouds.

"Leviathan" is metaphor as music, its elongated sense of the setting fishing vessel's rust and groan equal parts mechanic drone and horrific human scream. Opening with a quote from the book of Job alluding to the mysterious creature the bible tells of creation as point of reference to man's environmental ineptitude -- and plunging us into utter darkness, only faintly making out the dim color splashes of a hulking sea craft -- "Leviathan" intently, intensely, step by step takes us through the daily lives of a single set of stricken-looking North Atlantic piscators. Consisting of shoegaze questions such as the origins of life and the strange passage of death, "Leviathan" is a beast of a film that in highlighting the nuance of every naturalistic frame comes together as something uniquely, provocatively individual. (87/100)

Only God Forgives
½

The movie in Nicolas Winding Refn's backlog "Only God Forgives" will most be compared to is 2009's "Valhalla Rising". It's true. In its own weird, unforgiving manner "Valhalla" was Refn's introduction to a hellish new world by way of -- well, the hellish New World. More so than the "Pusher" trilogy and the punch-drunk black edge of 2008's satirical "Bronson", "Valhalla" has stuck with me as the work of an artist throwing daggers at and stitching together the searing swirl of filthy images in his head. Or at us. The brat. Your call.

But the marketing of "OGF" is riding high off the financial and critical success of 2011's "Drive", the movie pretty much everyone agrees was Refn's flat-out masterpiece; pulp minimalism that lifted you up when it gleefully (and violently) exploded, especially in a certain sequence in an elevator. "Only God Forgives" drags you back down to hell. Thai boxing club owner Julian's (Refn muse Ryan Gosling) brother Billy (Tom Burke) rapes and kills a sixteen-year-old girl. Punishment is served by Lt. Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), known as the "Angel of Death". Julian and Billy's mother, Crystal (a blossomed and bent Kristin Scott Thomas), is called in to collect the body and dole out further vengeance toward her son's killers.

All of which sounds a shit ton more straightforward than "OGF" actually is. If "Drive" is Refn's "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy", then "Only God Forgives" is his "Yeezus" -- hardcore, divisive, fucked-up, strikingly realized and even, when it has time, occasionally gorgeous. An all-in-all assault. A bold and rewarding one, but an assault nonetheless. Those looking forward to a repeat of "Drive's" pristine precision of getting away clean will want to look in the other direction in the first five minutes. The difference between "Only God Forgives" and "Drive" is that here Refn wants to make you eat it. It'll be too much for some. Which only figures it'll mean even more to others. (90/100)

Heat
Heat(1995)

One of the most smartly crafted, slyly delivered heist films I've ever seen. Michael Mann takes a genre under his wing and burrows sensitivity and ambition beneath a spitfire setting of urban hell. With paced camera movement and a quiet misdemeanor, "Heat" packs bad cop/bad cop intensity, each passing minute serving further proof of a filmmaking master's honed ability to not only make you sit on the edge of you seat, but to have you practically jumping from it.

In the Fog
In the Fog(2013)
½

Has a lot in common with last year's bountiful imports "Once Upon a Time in Anatolia" from Turkey and "The Turin Horse" from Hungary, in that Russian writer-director Sergei Loznitsa's "In the Fog" is, if nothing else, PUNISHING AS ALL HELL to watch, and more than a bit of a slog to sit through. Easy to see why this didn't go over well with audiences in its native land (though ruskies of all people should theoretically have fallen hard for its pessimistic theatrics.)

That being said, I think there's something to be admired in a film so disinterested in any sort of payoffs. Loznitsa opens "In the Fog" with one of many exquisitely excruciating long takes, following a row of P.O.W.'s during WWII being lead to their deaths by hanging, before finally settling the camera's gaze away from the action as we hear necks break against nooses and the movie bumps up the title card. It's wound with a suitably grim fuse, as "Fog" jumps gracefully out of narrative order to give us glimpses into the lives of a rail worker (Vladimir Svirskiy) and two soviet officers (Vladislav Abashin and Sergei Kolesov) preceding and succeeding the means to this gruesome ultimatum.

Taking visual cues from the likes of Andrei Tarkovsky, Alexander Sokurov and even Romania's Cristian Mungiu, it's hard not to be impressed by the shear aesthetic ambition of Loznitsa's sophomore feature. "In the Fog" may be hard to love, but it's equally tough to shake. (77/100)

Elysium
Elysium(2013)

It is what it is.

Star Trek Into Darkness
½

Let's get it out of the way: "Star Wars" is in damn fine hands with J.J. Abrams. Not that "Star Trek Into Darkness" was meant to serve as proof or anything, but this guy now has control of two franchises notorious for their rival fan bases. (Right? That isn't a stretch, is it?) Abrams knows worlds, though, or at least he does with "Star Trek Into Darkness". Complaints of it not being "as fresh" as his novel 2009 reboot, well. In "Star Trek" (2009) he did do nerd chic as grandiose, camera-flare blockbuster, and it worked. In its years-awaited sequel Abrams if not necessarily building on anything he hasn't already created continues to richly explore said world's sonic walls, expertly balancing story, character, suspense and humor without ever having things feel the least bit contrived. In other words, everything "Iron Man 3" should have done and didn't.

It also helps that "Darkness" has a great villain in the increasingly flawless (if that's even, like, possible) Benedict Cumberbatch, playing an unbreakable, power-hungry ex-Starfleet commander who may or may not be named Khan. But Cumberbatch lends such a voice of warmth and menace to every role ("Tinker Tailor Solider Spy", BBC's "Sherlock"), he hardly needs a title. And like Joss Whedon did with "The Avengers", Abrams draws the real conflict from the relationship of the Enterprise's leading men: Chris Pine's playboy Captain Kirk and Zachary Quinto's cold, mechanical Mr. Spock. If "Star Trek Into Darkness" isn't as vital and new as its predecessor, it's fiercer, funnier and gloomier. There's a certain sinister element here, the same as in Abram's unfairly discounted "Super 8" -- that isn't cynicism, but a sense of universe and community, collaboration as belonging, that in working against one another plunges us all into the darkness.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
½

Seeing trailers for both "Vampire Academy" and "Divergent" before "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire", I was once again reminded: screw the love story. It's what's bogging female heroines down, especially female heroines as badass as Jennifer Lawrence's Katniss Everdeen.

That's all. "Catching Fire" still improves on last year's "The Hunger Games" in virtually every regard -- it's harder, better, faster and stronger, not to forget smarter. Director Francis Lawrence more wholly realizes if doesn't exactly re-imagine the rich potential "HG" OG director Gary Ross slyly introduced. But if "The Hunger Games" was all business, "Catching Fire" is where the supposed quadrilogy becomes art; it's the "Prisoner of Azkaban" of the series, Lawrence and a tight script by Pixar honcho Michael Arndt and oft Danny Boyle collaborator Simon Beaufoy tweaking aspects of the titular first entry just enough to give "Catching Fire" a special stinger of its own, while also further building on the world of "Hunger Games".

Helps also both features have such a no-bull linchpin in the dynamo Lawrence (she's fantastic), as well as A-list newcomers like Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright and an especially spitfire Jena Malone joining returning performers Donald Sutherland, Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson, and Stanley Tucci. Perfect? Of course not. But what it lacks in subversion it more than makes up for in spirit and ferocity, not unlike similarly bloated blockbusters "Thor: The Dark World" and "Pacific Rim". "Catching Fire" has way more patience than either of those films though. The first hour might ignite detractors. And then so will again the final shot. To call it less of a mess than "The Hunger Games" sounds like faint praise. I'll say this: by taking risks, in terms of spectacle, subject matter and emotion, "Catching Fire" is a vastly superior sequel. What's the opposite of a swan song? (75/100)

Gloria
Gloria(2014)

I saw a preview for "Gloria", a film I'd never heard anything about, before All Is Lost" last month (a few months ago?) and immediately dismissed it as claptrap fluff. Turns out I was wrong! Would never have guessed I'd like this more than "Enough Said". Where that movie has a sugar-sweet vibe and is (maybe too) generous with its characters, "Gloria" is more specific, by turns emotionally jarring, attenuated and complex. In that director Sebastián Lelio's film speaks universal volumes about self-discovery in individuality during the back half of life. (This would make a weirdly perfect double-feature with "The To Do List".) Also Paulina García, in every frame of "Gloria", is absolutely radiant as the slaphappy title broad on the lookout for love. Yeah the ending is weak and super slippery with its symbolism, so much so it had to have been earmarked as a final ovation (you'll know what I mean). But that's forgivable. "Gloria" still feels like a dime a dozen. (80/100)

The Place Beyond The Pines
½

"The Place Beyond the Pines" is more than a great film, because it hits you as something truly, really, honest to God special. In making a movie about boys and men, director Derek Cianfrance follows the generational divide between two opposing families into their fatal eclipse. He doesn't waste stock searching for meaning. From start to finish "Pines" has it, is full of it, and is a breathless masterpiece because of it. I can't believe this movie exists. Unless you're made of stone, "Pines"'ll work over and take a piece out of you, and that's maybe why it feels so essential. (92/100)

Also no one as much of a shithead as A.J. could ever be birthed from the marvelous Rose Byrne. I wish she was my wife. <3

Oldboy
Oldboy(2013)
½

Why chop and screw the Korean masterpiece "Oldboy" for American wholesale? I'd be the first to admit I had my doubts. Well, maybe more befuddlement. But we haven't known Spike Lee as anyone to shudder his directorial instincts, and for better (and/)or worse his take on Park Chan-wook's modern Asian classic stays true to Lee form, while also clearly relishing what made the original "Oldboy" so good the first time, its human toll of consequence and bleakness. But audiences like payoffs to think for them, so "Oldboy" (2013) is doomed to fail, already critically, probably box office-wise. *sigh*

To quote Erik Kohn of The Playlist's wonderful way of putting it, "Oldboy" (2013) is less a remake than it is a remix. It's got all Spike's trappings: the lengthy, panoramic camera shots; both the descriptive AND visual obsession with identity (dude's got a flair for mirrors.) "Oldboy" is a total aesthetic knockout, a colorful tale of revenge partnered with twists, kinks and tricky optical illusions. Of course it doesn't ape Park's primer. But it's a suitably slick, if baggy, genre exercise when it isn't acting as a morally heavy-handed video game. (Oh hai Sharlto Copley!) To me, that's enough of a reason for being. (67/100)

Dallas Buyers Club

Knowing the number of stars who at one point circled the role of "Dallas Buyer's Club's" Ron Woodroof -- an HIV-positive Texas electrician in 1985 who starts smuggling in from Mexico and selling experimental drugs to those in need -- only further exemplifies just how snug Matthew McConaughey wears Woodroof's scrappy, scrawny skin. Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, Gael García Bernal. All two hours of "Dallas" you can't imagine anyone other than McConaughey up there with his dirty drawl, cowboy complexion, wiry clothes-hanger stance. We've seen characters like this before -- think Joaquin Phoenix in "The Master", Christian Bale in "The Fighter" and "The Machinist" -- but watching McConaughey it's like something illusory and unique. Woodroof is McConaughey's most grounded, and best, performance yet in a recent two year turnaround full of them for the guy. (Hard to believe indie darling "Mud" was also released earlier this year.) You do more than feel for Ron's moral transformation from asshole pariah to asshole angel -- you remember him.

If the density of the writing in director Jean-Marc Vallée's "Dallas Buyer's Club" -- by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack -- can't keep up with McConaughey, the rest of the actors do. Like McConaughey, Jared Leto also lost a significant amount of weight to play Rayon, a drag queen junkie who goes into pill-pushing business with Ron. Leto is revelatory not only because it's been four years since we last saw him on screen (this year's long-shelved "Mr. Nobody" notwithstanding.) And Jennifer Garner -- also absent from cinema as of late -- brings a real feminine grace to an otherwise uber-generic role as Dr. Eve Saks, who takes especial umbrage to Ron's claim FDA-approved HIV drugs are doing more harm to patients than good.

There isn't too fine a point put on anything in particular in "Dallas Buyer's Club", but there also aren't any moments of manipulatively overemphasized emotion. Like "Rush" the narrative decision to take huge leaps in time for sake of better distinguishing key events in Ron's story can sometimes be off-putting. But no matter how much "Dallas" tries to cram, McConaughey and Leto match it by nailing every nuance. As blue collar heroes go, they more than rise to the occasion. (78/100)

The Spectacular Now

I should have seen it coming that James Ponsoldt and screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber ("(500) Days of Summer") would make a perfect teen movie by way of not sticking to any of the genre's tropes. "The Spectacular Now" is damn great because, first of all, it isn't a love story. Well it is, only not in the way you're probably thinking. Sure every bit of Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley's shared acting prize at Sundance is earned back and then some, breathing life into their roles as two people in that vulnerable limbo of young adulthood when the future seems fit to swallow you whole. "The Spectacular Now" sure does. The twist is it's secretly a movie about demons, more specifically when you drown out your sorrows to the point you're staring yourself in the face. That's what got me about "The Spectacular Now". By looking down the loose ends between dazed and confused, "Now" is a dark, aching, heartwarming reminder of the places -- both literal and metaphorical -- life in the moment can and can't take us. (81/100)

Also that soundtrack, it should be noted, unreal.

Something in the Air
½

One regret: wish I'd seen this over the summer as opposed to now.

All right. Well--

First thing about "Something in the Air" you need to shake is, it isn't really about anything. Now, that's a pretty huge threshold to clear; I get why some would be apprehensive about digging it, and I was too, for LONG stretches. It's basically a mosaic of struggling to pair art with commerce in, not just a changing world, but in changing, well, people. As in growing up, and being forced to conform. Sounds so hackneyed, I know. But like "Blue Is the Warmest Color" -- where that great movie so flawlessly captured the spirit and nature of being in love -- writer-director Olivier Assayas' drama, looping sporadically around a rowdy team of youths in the aftermath of France's nationwide worker protests of May 1968, bottles gloriously a sentiment of unrest and confusion, and does it all with romantic gusto to boot.

One time, in singing the praises of Terrence Malick's way-underrated "To the Wonder", a friend of mine said to think about the rest of your life when you're thinking about that film. I'd say the same applies here. It's no coincidence Assayas begins with the visual stimulation of political revolution and sex, and successively details the voyeuristic fallout of that initial passion and excitement. "Something in the Air" is honestly a work of such bittersweet breadth as I've ever seen before, if ever before at all, and in Assayas' rich filmography of outbreak and heartbreak, it's the closest, most sweeping example he's yet provided of bringing an historical canvas to devastating life. (76/100)

Crystal Fairy
½

What a weird-ass movie "Crystal Fairy" (or "Crystal Fairy & The Magical Cactus and 2012", if you're nasty) is. Say what you will, but it stays true to the funky-ass chick at its heart, the titular (in more ways than one) character played to hippie perfection by Gaby Hoffman. You never know what she's gonna do next, be it fight a bunch of middle-aged women in a town square, grope a desert plant or worship the carcass of a rabbit. She's not "Crystal Fairy's" only weapon -- Michael Cera is as much the film's protagonist as anyone. And what a character Jaime is, one that Cera plays like some kind of miserly asshole wild card.

And yet the real success of writer-director Sebastian Silva's Chilean road trip to acid trip "comedy" is, well, first of all, you can't stick it to a single label. It's all over the place. That could be a complaint. One late third-act reveal especially is more of a shrug than anything else. Okay. "Crystal Fairy" nonetheless really surprised me. Because for a drug movie it never takes the form of fairy logic and drops the ball by externalizing a high as akin to something anyone across the board can understand. "Crystal Fairy" isn't bug-fuck nuts, and not a whole lot happens, but if I absolutely had to strip it down to its basics I'd sell it as an art house frolic through a land of beaches and narcotics that has more in common with Henry Miller and Jim Jarmusch than Jodorowsky or a Road Runner cartoon. It's got its sentiment and pretensions in all the right places. (77/100)

Blackfish
Blackfish(2013)

"What the fuck is that?"
"I bought an Orca. I make a lot of money."

-"We're the Millers", 2013 American "comedy"*.

It wouldn't be fair to compare "Blackfish" to the documentary of the year, "The Act of Killing", so I'll at least stack it against "The Conjuring". When this was released a few months ago the same weekend as that film I kept reading how "Blackfish" was a horror movie of more or equal measure. Obviously the two are incredibly different, but just a point of reference for me going in. Another thing is, I absolutely adore the poster for "Blackfish", because at first glance I couldn't tell what the hell it was supposed to be a picture of. Only upon closer examination do you make out the shape of a killer whale and the artist's gorgeously sinister use of steely blacks and whites, with the title "Blackfish" a sort of grey area.

"Blackfish" is an undeniably muddled movie, but it's also a churning, 83-minute head rush that just might shake up national opinion regarding captive marine life. It's a tad unfortunate director Gabriela Cowperthwaite chose to pair terrific archival footage with a lot of CNN newsreel, because "Blackfish" is a much smarter movie than to leave issues cut-and-dry the way TV talking heads do. I love how the movie's sole guiding hand is in the form of a killer whale named Tilikum, who's responsible for three individual human deaths and yet still performs at SeaWorld to this day. Cowperthwaite's focus on the darkness of aquarium water seems to relate the point that these are still wild animals from wild places, no matter how much corporate pop culture artifice we lend to them. Like Werner Herzog's "Grizzly Man" without the dry humor, the discomfort of "Blackfish" is in the guilty acceptance of how choosing to be part of nature means never being safe. (79/100)

*Piece of shit.

Like Someone in Love

Every bit as sexy, weird, haunting, enchanting, gorgeous and hypnotic as Abbas Kiarostami's last film, "Certified Copy", "Like Someone in Love" is a painting, a work of art -- you look closer and closer, you step away from it and come back, you ask questions, different perspectives and opinions. And sometimes, man, there's just nothing there. Kiarostami tries you in that. It's there in the lovely and wandering stares of beautiful college student/call girl Akiko (Rin Takanashi) and her elderly client Takashi (Tadashi Okuno).

Even more transfixing and melancholy are the dashboard shots from inside Akiko's taxi or Takashi's car as either/or travels from the Tokyo city to its suburbs, taken from the neon illumination of the city's peopled squares to the neighborly intimacy of its outskirts with a romantic longing, that certain emptiness of wanting to love something or someone so badly and missing everything that isn't in front of you. The ending is sudden, but it perfectly fits the rest of the movie's puzzle of cold, insinuated meaning. (81/100)

Stoker
Stoker(2013)

"Stoker" is the sort of stoic, creepy, unsettling fairy tale Tim Burton and Guillermo del Toro no longer have the balls nor ambition to make. That being said, it isn't "Oldboy" or as memorably bleak a Chan-wook Park film as anything from his terrific "Vengeance" trilogy. Now THAT being said, "Stoker" does have Matthew Goode's best performance as well as finely done jobs from Nicole Kidman and indie it girl Mia Wasikowska (seriously, how awesome is she?) as teenage India. The script could use a little more punching up, but "Stoker" is fascinating in Park's removed attention to detail; by which I mean there's a vague curiosity in India's empty stares, and rather than pamper her point of view with the ignorance of an audience surrogate, it's handled with maturity and a dignified naivety, and also isn't without a soul. (82/100)

The Bling Ring

Oh, I get it: it's the high-minded "Spring Breakers". Leave it to Sofia Coppola to bum out the trashy fun of seeing good girls go bad. Only don't make the mistake of checking your brain at the door. "The Bling Ring", Coppola's fifth feature as writer-director and not one to miss, won't unfortunately be able to avoid comparisons to Harmony Korine's vibrant, art house-forsaken maybe classic. And, I admit, it isn't as immediately entertaining as "Breakers" is, either.

Fret not. "The Bling Ring" may sound like too inspired a tale on the surface (see: "Pain & Gain"), but rather than rest on its in-the-moment laurels Coppola views the artifice and danger of celebrity culture as something that outlives even the film's most extreme examples. From her lovely debut "The Virgin Suicides" to 2010's "Somewhere" Coppola's demonstrated again and again her skill at plunging the gaps between words with depth and care. She's never made a movie that doesn't feel special, to us and to her, and in safe hands.

Emma Watson, Taissa Farmiga and Leslie Mann are all insatiable highlights, as people either corrupt by crude ideals or just wanting to play house at night when the spotlight's off their idols. But as "The Bling Ring" shows fame and flashing lights never stop when you want to live on the shoulders of giants. It takes work to look this good. (83/100)

Laurence Anyways

I've heard critics say three hours is too far gone in telling a simple love story. They're right. But "Laurence Anyways", the third feature written and directed by 24-year-old Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan, is not a simple love story. It's one fraught with tangles and eruptions and heartbreak. In charting the ten-year relationship of on-again, off-again couple Laurence Alia (Melvil Poupad) and Fred Belair (Suzanne Clément) as both steadily adjust to Laurence's decision to live life as a woman in the decade leading up to Y2K -- and in soundtracking the film with choice cuts from the '90s likes of Depeche Mode, Visage and Craig Armstrong -- Dolan touches on everything from the everyday ecstasies and turmoils of domestic partnership, sexual liberation, ignorance, parenthood and age. Round of applause to Poupad and Clément, who harness the storms raging inside their heads without shutting us out to the raw feelings of passion, uncertainty and regret.

Four stars is I think ultimately what I'm gonna give "Laurence Anyways", if not now then sometime in the near future. It's a big movie, and like all big movies it has its peaks and valleys. Dolan is an incredible talent who very soon is going to more expertly match his heart-on-sleeve ambition with something that's more reined in. Not that "Laurence" is a bait and switch. Under all the flaws and temptation, or maybe even because of them, is a brilliant, beautiful beast. (83/100)

Captain Phillips
½

In Captain Richard Phillips -- head of a U.S. cargo ship when it was hijacked by Somalian pirates in 2009 -- Paul Greengrass saw a story of heroics, courage and dedication that happened to take the remarkable form of someone who lived to tell a perilous tale. In "Captain Phillips" -- director Greengrass' best, most tense feature since "United 93" (and just maybe his best, period) -- we get a flat-out great movie whose technical wizardry knows no bounds (unless it's "Gravity" space.) Speaking of comparing things to other things, "Phillips" shares a thing or two with the current terrorist-movie watermark "Zero Dark Thirty" in terms of having long sequences that draw you in by using bloodcurdling silence. Greengrass and screenwriter Billy Ray take us through the token event step by step, guiding the narrative seamlessly through land, open water and seacraft and turning each into set pieces of different but equal creak-and-groan horror.

While also a film of action it's one of thought and life-saving and -sparing decision. Just like while "Captain Phillips" is a director's movie (Greengrass in full, consciously stifling swing, ramping up suspense from the real time heat of every YOU ARE THERE moment) it's also one of graceful, human acting. The ever-stupendous Tom Hanks as the titular naval commander gives what has to be his most well-rounded performance in years in the film's final fifteen minutes alone. And newcomer Barkhad Abdi plays lead hijacker Muse with a perfectly buzzy gear shift that ambles from smartest to smarmiest monster in the room while remaining oddly empathetic. The two-plus hour run time never ails it any. You need to feel as swept up and exhausted as Captain Phillips for "Captain Phillips" to leave you breathless instead of choking on air. (85/100)

Dogville
Dogville(2003)

A watchdog wails at the entrance to the runty mountain town called Dogville, but the real dogs are the town's civil inhabitants. Danish auteur Lars von Trier lies in dead heat with German writer-director Michael Haneke when it comes to who can craft Lynchian nightmares the rawest. What has the chops to be the former's most sweeping feature yet -- in which a pretty, stepford-looking blonde on the run from a group of nondescript mobsters washes up on the tight-knit communal plateau of Dogville, Colorado -- actually turns out to be his least cinematic, a story told in nine specific chapters and filmed entirely on a soundstage, the physical roofs of huts and barns only occasionally seen via overhead angles complete with fairy tale narrations by a suitably droll John Hurt. The rest of the three-hour runtime is told unflinchingly through handheld digital camera. The end result is one of the most disorienting at-home movie experiences I've ever witnessed, though also...well, charmed isn't exactly the right term. (Semi-charmed?)

Von Trier, like the aforementioned David Lynch or Haneke (probably others too, I'm just not THAT cultured in film history I guess), essentially coordinates narrative and visual devices to register as particularly meaningful dreams. Each of his opuses thus far -- from "Breaking the Waves" and "Dancer in the Dark" to "Antichrist" and "Melancholia" -- share similar moral foundations of good being consumed by evil; innocence by arrogance. Another key theme in his panache is man's perception and subsequent treatment of women. In "Dogville" the porcelain Hollywood beauty Nicole Kidman plays Grace, whose instinctually refined personality traits run a diffuse ripple through the bleak, black tensions of the movie's titularly urbane municipal.

How "Dogville" succumbs to the primitive second natures of this barely peopled town should remain unspoiled, but what von Trier finally twists his latest masterpiece into is, fair warning, somewhat of a subjectively cruel joke. Don't take his word for it though. "Dogville" is a parable, meaning, like the best of them, the uncertainty of its social commentary should be chewed over and contemplated rather than rejected and spit out as soon as the reel cuts off. "Dogville" may be done with by then, but the chilling mystique of its agonies and ironies linger on. (94/100)

Bastards
Bastards(2013)

I don't mean to sound misogynist comparing a female filmmaker to a male one, but "Bastards" is Claire Denis's "Mona Lisa", or her "Only God Forgives" -- smoldering, hypnotic, abrasive, disturbing. It's fit to stand academic dissection years from now, because it's sure to still be discussed, maybe especially so then. Dreary, ambient, and one of Denis's best. (84/100)

Graceland
Graceland(2013)

Gets a tad contrived towards the end, and the secondary acting is amateurish at times (though lead Arnold Reyes is outstanding), "Graceland" is, for the most part, a lean, mean, efficient thriller about the knotty ways political corruption compromises the moral justification of everyday people forced to operate under its spell. Sleek and stylish without losing its edge or focus, writer-director Ron Morales' film, like the sexual deviance of the linchpin congressman belying its central kidnapping conflict, feels, bewitchingly, like an unflinching pebble broken off from a greater, scarier rock. (78/100)

Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa

When I reviewed "Jackass 3D" in 2010 I made the naive mistake of -- basically because I was (am) a pretentious twat -- trying to derive some sort of cultural meaning from its stunts and shenanigans. (Yeah, I know, right. God, I hate me.) Of course that isn't to say I don't on many levels respect what the "Jackass" guys do as daredevil art, but do movies really have to be? Art? That "Bad Grandpa" has more than a few can't-breathe funny set pieces is nothing to be dismissed. And Johnny Knoxville -- who inversely was the most insufferable thing about the already insufferable "Fun Size" and "The Last Stand" -- returns to what he's best at here opposite "Fun's" scene-stealer Jackson Nicoll, and neither miss a cringe-worthy beat.

That said, there's still no looking past how we've sort of outgrown "Jackass" at this point. "Bad Grandpa" isn't the hangover (or "Hangover") "Machete Kills" is, and I'm sure as hell up for whatever Knoxville and the crew inevitably do next, but still, for an R-rated movie this is unfortunately tame; maybe it really is age. What I think is the funniest sketch -- when 86-year-old Irving Zisman (Knoxville) takes grandson Billy (Nicoll) on a sandwich run through a supermarket -- is nonetheless cut short just as tensions come to a boil for the cameraman to yell cut and make peace by explaining the whole thing was a joke. They also do this behind the curtain thing a lot alongside the credits, in addition to flaunting an unused(!) Spike Jonze in old lady makeup.

I've already written too much. You're in or you're out, and with "Bad Grandpa", quite frankly, I was happy to discover I don't regret seeing it, with a packed house to boot. It begrudgingly coheres, if nothing else. (56/100)

Yup, still hate me.

Wadjda
Wadjda(2013)

It's unfortunately been-there-done-that for foreign movies of a certain kind -- with the aim of using a simple narrative as showcase to the alienating flaws of their home country -- to have their protagonist's goals revolve around the possession of a bicycle (see: the landmark "Bicycle Thieves", last year's outstanding "The Kid with a Bike".) But that isn't "Wadjda's" fault. The tandem at the center of its kid lead's desires, like the film itself, is more so a representation of a rite of passage than anything frivolous or forgettable. "Wadjda" is written and directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour, Saudi Arabia's first-ever female filmmaker, and the first to ever shoot a movie entirely on location in a nation that views cinema as something sinful. She clearly means business, and yet her feature debut strikes as anything but.

"Wadjda" is told with elegant simplicity -- not as intent to rock the cradle as the film-heard-'round-the-world Iraqi drama "A Separation", but a punchy work of heartbreak and humanity nonetheless. Al-Mansour lucked out in casting a newcomer as spunky and compelling as Waad Mohammed is in the title role, a girl who enters a Koran recitation competition in order to buy a bicycle with the prize money. She's funny and fierce, not to mention strong and individual, and you'd root for her to stand out if only she weren't in a place where women are meant to be seen (barely) and not heard, or themselves drive cars or any other sort of vehicle. The danger is inherent. But Al-Mansour doesn't rest on her Saudi laurels. Rather than being one-note "Wadjda" is a film of complex emotional moments, that Al-Mansour handles with utmost care.

One could argue she does too much telling and not enough showing. But when she does induce the latter -- like in scenes laying out the colorful relationship between Wadjda and the young son of a politician from a different neighborhood, that jumps from playful rivalry to sly flirtation -- she gives "Wadjda" shades of grey and, not unlike "A Separation", a longing (and lasting) sense of uncertainty. It speaks truth to power by questioning the very morality on which we base societal ideals. (83/100)

Cape Fear
Cape Fear(1991)

"Cape Fear" has the fatal attraction of one of Hitchcock's classic "wrong man" scenarios, only the twist here is it's actually the right man Max Cady (Robert De Niro) is literally killing to find. After serving fourteen tortuous years in a federal corrections facility, serial rapist Cady seeks to avenge his sentence by bugging the living fuck out of defense lawyer Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte) and the rest of his immediate kin, wife Leigh (Jessica Lange) and daughter Danielle (Juliette Lewis), fueled by the suspicion Sam withheld evidence that could maybe have led to Max's acquittal.

Of all the Master of Suspense's not-so-humble imitators, the one Martin Scorsese's "Cape Fear" -- remaking J. Lee Thompson's 1962 film of the same name -- most resembles early on is Brian De Palma. In a beguiling sequence set at Sam's luxurious home, as the adult couple confront one another, Scorsese switches between a medium shot of Leigh talking and another when Sam does that appears as if the camera is inside the bathroom mirror, making the image accurately reflect "Cape Fear's" haunted atmosphere of the decidedly distant past impeding on the present. And in Sam's relationship too -- it's implied later on that outside of preeminently sending Max away, he also married Leigh as satisfying the means of making her repress the memory of his own prior infidelities.

Symbolism abounds in "Cape Fear", as do larger questions -- was Sam exactly misguided in imprisoning Max, the big bad wolf encroached upon their comfy, domestic fairy tale? To protect his family, will a man hipper than most to the legal ramifications of taking the law into his own hands risk working around the judicial system he knows is broken? In my nearly post-2013 mindset (time's a bitch, ain't it) I'd relate the subdued feeling of "Cape Fear" to something akin to "Prisoners", and begrudgingly overseen by the targeted economic vise of "The Counselor". But never mind that. Point is, "Cape Fear" is a damn effective thriller, even on the occasion it opts for bluntness, bloat and cliche over a more narrow lethal precision. Scorsese presents the film's dual sides of noble and sinful sadism as a mask, not evil Max's but that of the dowry Sam; the sinking realization that the criminal interrogation room only stays one-sided for so long before festering comes home to roost. (84/100)

The King of Comedy

Though Martin Scorsese took a break between "Taxi Driver" (1976) and "Raging Bull" (1980) to make the jazz-influenced "New York, New York" (1977) and the Band concert documentary "The Last Waltz" (1978), 1982's "The King of Comedy" feels like the perfect bookend to his aforementioned "Taxi"/"Bull" Kazan-esque morality plays. And even, give or take a few pounds, Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) -- a zealous talk show host in the hangdog vein of a leather-skinned Johnny Carson ripoff -- could pragmatically come off as the very same stand-up lounge lizard for whom we left Jake LaMotta at the end of "Raging Bull".

But Scorsese, now 71 years old in 2013, has fashioned a rich career out of never settling, always trying to one-up himself. "The King of Comedy" is a blistering, fairly depressing look at the near-impossibility of making it in show business, yet the film comes off as effortlessly edgy, hilarious and subtle, when ultimately its message is something bleak and disheartening. "King" is the work of a filmmaker with genuine passion for what he's skewering, and it's one of the greatest Hollywood satires ever made while the story itself is set in NYC. It just goes to show how well Scorsese and the late screenwriter Paul D. Zimmerman understand the worrisome silver lining to America's all-consuming intoxication with celebrity and media culture: better to be king for a night, than a schmuck for a lifetime. (100/100)

Breathe In
Breathe In(2014)

Is it a bitch getting out of Sundance? I don't know. Does not ever really being theatrically released at all beat being later dismissed as faux-festival fluff? Either way, "Breathe In" got royally fucked when it came to distribution. I can see why this movie would never expand to any place outside a handful of metropolitan janitor's closets, but it could have at least had a nice home on VOD. It's very akin to Lynn Shelton's "Touchy Feely", in that it by design favors an atmosphere of insular and ordinary. In less kind words, "Breathe In" opts for a moody sense of vague wandering over the foundation of an actual plot. Your call whether or not it's aimless.

Drake Doremus had a nice little debut feature with 2011's "Like Crazy", and he follows it up with a sort of "Lolita"-meets-"Martha Marcy May Marlene" that's less narratively ambitious or terribly experimental than that description sounds. I don't fault the guy for trying, especially when he casts game players like Guy Pearce and Amy Ryan as a quiet couple who take an English exchange student ("Like Crazy's" Felicity Jones) into their New York home. Everybody is fine-tuned enough to Doremus' enterprise of total character solipsism, but by the thirty-minute mark I have an inclination a good number of audience members would already have walked out. The first hour of this 96-minute film is DREADFULLY slow; only in the final twenty minutes does it look like "Breathe In" is going anywhere, and even then it ultimately really doesn't.

Doremus is talented, but he's by no means an auteur. Pearce and the lovely Jones form a halfhearted romantic bond that'd be weightier if the movie they were in was actually ABOUT anything. If you can seek it out, or have any interest to at all, you'll probably get at least something out of "Breathe In". Its trouble beyond that is its tonally confused footing has it ring as barely a flash in the pan. (61/100)

Blue Caprice
Blue Caprice(2013)
½

There's no getting around that "Blue Caprice" was released the Friday before the recent shooting at a D.C. Navy Yard. Awful coincidence. "Caprice" doesn't deserve the blunt or the blame. Because it's very good, short of being great. It offers no easy answers -- no answers at all, really -- and shows you the life of the mind of the two people responsible for the 2002 Beltway sniper attacks, as each cope with their share of bullshit. But dad-of-divorce John Allen Muhammad (an outstanding Isaiah Washington) and lost boy Lee Boyd Malvo (ditto Tequan Richmond) wouldn't call themselves like you and I. The bitter, forceful, commanding John accuses the general public of being blind to society's house of cards. Enter rain clouds, sinister music and other types of ominous foreshadowing and you could say director Alexandre Moors isn't too skilled at acting coy.

Or maybe just not yet. Like David Lowery's similarly imperfect "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" I got to give "Blue Caprice" to Moors if only as an impressive expose of his evident talent at knowing what to do with and where to put the camera to build ultimate tension and emotion. Does he oversell it? Yeah. But with "Blue Caprice" he wants you to see that terrorism is human after all. Heavy is the troubled hand.

Beyond The Hills
½

Get back if you were put off by Romanian writer-director Cristian Mungiu's landmark 2007 debut "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days". His follow-up "Beyond the Hills" is an even bigger thing to handle -- more spacious, ambitious, drawn-out and indulgent. If that's not your cup of tea, so be it. But for those prepared to face questions without easy answers -- maybe even without any answers at all -- "Hills" is a stoic, graceful achievement from a filmmaker in his prime, one that works in whispers; scary and scared, knowing and ignorant, the all-powerful preying on the fearful, burdened shoulders of the weak. (92/100)

What's Eating Gilbert Grape

Lasse Hallström, how you've fallen.

It's a testament to how good "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" really is when taken into consideration all the awards-bait schmaltz in director Hallström's acceding body of work. "The Cider House Rules", "Chocolat", the straight-to-DVD "Hachi: A Dog's Tale", last year's twee, pretty much forgotten "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen". "Gilbert Grape" stands tall above these sort of bittersweet works because, well, there's a show-don't-tell intrigue you sense something is truly eating at its titular shy protagonist (Johnny Depp), and even beyond that, the rest of his Iowa siblings as they struggle with raising autistic eighteen-year-old Arnie (Leonardo DiCaprio, deservedly Oscar-nominated) and reassess both their personal and professional lives when their obese mother (Darlene Cates) becomes a shut-in after the suicide of their father.

It isn't that "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" is all that cinematic or stylish; actually, it's its lack of showmanship that makes sure no one actor overwhelms the moment to shine of another. (DiCaprio is so outstanding here and Gilbert so withdrawn it's amazing Depp's exceptionally downplayed lost boy doesn't get swallowed whole immediately.) The film has a rich, roughneck, almost Bogdanovich-like authenticity to it. It's slow-moving and melodramatic in certain aspects, but the script by former playwright, first-time screenwriter Peter Hedges is ultimately rewarding enough to forgive the story's occasional corniness. "Gilbert Grape" is less Broadway extension than it is soap opera, yet it's told with such fiery detail and tormented heart the viewer is finally left with the feeling of turning over the last page of a great book: the events foretold, effect still lingering, like a haunted high-wire act. (80/100)

Sexy Beast
Sexy Beast(2000)

Jonathan Glazer's "Reservoir Dogs".

Though not without its flaws, "Sexy Beast" is an all-around richly conceptualized, dutifully executed Lynchian neo-noir. Not having yet seen "Birth" or next year's "Under the Skin" (2013 freaking flew by) judging from "Beast" Glazer seems to brazenly partner metaphor with materialization, Ray Winstone's gangster grief from a golden life of hustling taking the retributive form of Ben Kingsley's psychopathic kingpin seeking Winstone's ex-recruit for a bank heist. Only instead of haunted, and if it doesn't run quite as flawlessly as the well-oiled machine of "Reservoir Dogs", "Sexy Beast" is a debut feature all the more memorable and promising for its pulpy, narrow, even arrogant precision. (84/100)

Charlie Countryman

Well-intended and evidently passionate, but ultimately vapid and meaningless. I don't hate "Charlie Countryman" by any stretch, especially when there's such rich potential for a great movie here; it's just unfortunate that while the magic-surrealism of the storytelling is OCCASIONALLY forgivable as an incredibly helpful narrative device, when that gimmick flops, it really flops hard. (That ending, buddy, goddamn.) It's remarkably shot, scored and directed, but still, that only takes a vision so half-realized so far. Something to be said in a movie that wears its overt symbolism, coy hallucinations and most importantly heart all over its sun-dappled surface, but not much.

I'll say this: maybe now that "Transformers" is over (at least for him anyway), with this and next year's "Nymphomaniac" in the can Shia LaBeouf has finally found greater purpose exploring his strengths as an actor without the unwelcome heat of the spotlight. Ironically, Charlie seems to be the only part of "Charlie" that rings somewhat elusive instead of just stoned. (41/100)

The Way Way Back
½

Jim Rash and Nat Faxon won their Oscars writing "The Descendants" with Alexander Payne. At the awards ceremony Rash mocked Angelina Jolie by sticking his leg out and pouting. Just one of the many examples of the expert blend of sharp, witty comedy and heart that doesn't come out too sugary and glossy put into "The Way, Way Back", Rash and Faxon's directorial debut. Not to sound like a hypocrite here, but the movie gets most of its big laughs from relatively safe places. Doesn't make it any less true. It's refreshing, honestly. And Sam Rockwell, again used to crazy good effect (see: the criminally underrated/misunderstood "Seven Psychopaths"), draws comedy blood as a lovably ne'er-do-well water park employee. His performance is so focal, in fact, that it's hard to keep up with him. The rest of the cast mostly does.

Steve Carell is genius playing against his awkward, "Office"-y type, and Toni Collette is radiant in all of her "Little Miss Sunshine" glory. The movie opens sleepily on the heavy eyes of divorce-stunted fourteen-year-old Liam James. Rash and Faxon use his character as less an audience surrogate, but a wallflower into the second half of the film, when both come together and blossom into something that's funny as hell without suffocating its ensemble or forgetting itself. I won't cop to "The Way, Way Back" being perfect. I will, though, to falling hard for its messy, prodigal charm. Rockwell is grade-A. You won't be able to wait to go way the hell back.

Like Crazy
Like Crazy(2011)

Not nearly as dark as "Blue Valentine" yet also not as stylistically idiosyncratic as "(500) Days of Summer", "Like Crazy" is a love story told with elegant pencil-skirt simplicity and presented with the cold shoulder of what amounts to a twee sort of tragedy. It goes the route of being bittersweet over the polarities of either overjoyed or mercilessly dreary, making the point it's HOW you live with someone else rather than forever fretting over WHY you're with that person to begin with. There's something haunting in its assuredly melancholic tone. On the surface it carries all the weight of a radio staple pop song, when really its message is deeper, more experimental, if a tad too, well. Insubstantial. At least compared to the arrowhead daggers of the narrative's otherwise rough, improvised edges. (83/100)

Museum Hours
Museum Hours(2013)

"Museum Hours" is a difficult movie to put into words. Where "Blue Is the Warmest Color" and "The Past" are about faces, Jem Cohen's film is about voices, i.e. thoughts. ("Only God Forgives" is the only movie I can think of that's about hands.) It's also very expressionless, which means it'll be divisive and/or misconstrued. But it's such a rich experience, an essential work for anyone who cares about cinema, even if you don't end up liking it much at all. Yes, even if you end up feeling it's redundant and indulgent. Or, yes, unnecessary.

Writer-director Cohen isn't trying to come off as glib or pretentious, or to piss you off. He's not even trying to compare his film to the artistic masterworks on apparent and often elongated display. Like I'd imagine Alexander Sukorov's yet unseen by me "Russian Ark" to be, or if Sofia Coppola decided to make a drama in the manner of those set-abroad by Woody Allen, "Museum Hours" aims to fascinate by using philosophy, discussion of possible previous fashions of livelihood, and, above all, ideas, incorporating quiet importance in every constrained frame.

A key theme: art that's "timeless", while also carrying time with it. Another, even more mind-blowing: everyday existence as a landscape -- everything occurring concurrently; life happening alongside death; various points of view around an event as uneventful as an old woman traveling a short path before disappearing behind a large hedge. Sounds ridiculous, but you're swept up in the charm. I love movies you have to magnify and distinguish to remotely begin to understand, and like fellow narrative provocateur "Stories We Tell", "Museum Hours" seems to be about exactly that, albeit in a mystical, beautifully frustrating way.

The Limits of Control

Jim Jarmusch is a journeyman. He's a major blind spot for me (I've seen only this, "Broken Flowers" and "Dead Man") but judging by the works of his I am versed in, he deserves to be ranked among the greats. Is "The Limits of Control" his masterpiece? Nah; "Dead Man" takes that title. Doesn't mean I don't think it's totes perfect. "Limits" is sort of like Jarmusch's watered-down version of a Wachowski movie -- he wants you to notice patterns in the narrative, symbols in his characters, to "use your imagination", as someone early on advises our oft-silent criminal protagonist (played with utmost patience and loftiness by Jarmusch frequenter Isaach De Bankolé, whose large, stern features guide the movie's lush, slow-baked pace.) Jarmusch has such a fondness and openness for characters of different cultures and ethnicity. "Limits" would crash and burn if he were at any point demeaning.

Plus freaking Boris did the soundtrack.

Would make an awesome double billing with "Holy Motors".

Let's go "Only Lovers Left Alive".

For a Few Dollars More (Per Qualche Dollaro in Più)

There goes the neighborhood. And the idea that guns are best in single barrels. Take pride in continuity of the fact that Sergio Leone settles for nothing less than the very best, to dig his teeth in the girth of a genre he knows and loves, and that he stores his biggest ideas for. The times start getting nailed down in "For a Few Dollars More", the stellar sequel to '64's heavily-influenced "A Fistful of Coins". The offspring of early-20th century tech geeks are tossing up new design innovation for weapons, and folks are finally wizening to the often limitless financial potential in a lifeless body when you aim sharp enough to drown their tell-tale hearts, like hippie freaks reading their munchies for foreign paranoia.

In a new branch of the Western woods, Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name comes to run smack into a bounty hunter named Col. Douglas Mortimer (Lee Van Cleef) shaking up residents in hot pursuit of bandit El Indio (Gian Maria Volonte). One beef: the Man's tracking the same scent. A team-up? Why not -- Mortimer keeps a mind for the impending, while No Name the storied traditional. So the latter (referred to in this film as Manco, meaning in Spanish "one-armed") breaks from jail an Indio crony and ever so dangerously slips into the gang as they prep a bank heist in El Paso, once mission impossible for the crew. It's all blueprint for a crackdown on Indo and his $10K government DOA; ditto for the godfather's gang, among whom include a young Klaus Kinski as a Mortimer left-standing jonesing to spill the beans on their charade.

But besides all that, what's the harm of dabbling in some foul play? Oh yeah, there's also the conscience rumor that Mortimer or No Name might use their undisclosed knowledge to over the shoulder finish each other off. It gives "For a Few Dollars More" a sense of dread that makes "A Fistful of Dollars" look innocent in comparison. Because in Leone's massive West, retribution sways in the endless shrapnel autopsy for blood like we're in Chinatown and there's no water. Mortimer and No Name masquerade on the same side in the creation of the tri-state's new vocational border, eyes peeled not for the obscurity of a gunshot but in the humane schizophrenia nearest the trigger. As usual, if shit were to blow, it wouldn't end at the tip of a single finger -- you're prey to a whole fistful.

A Fistful of Dollars (Per un Pugno di Dollari)

Maybe it was cheating watching the capper to Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood's "Dollars" trilogy "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" before any other film in the series. The one that opens the curtain, "A Fistful of Dollars", felt to me more like a look at the past, carnage precursor to the final sunset-, horse-ridden saddle of Eastwood's Man with No Name. Think that makes Leone's Kurisowa homage any less incredible? No way. "A Fistful of Dollars" is a black comedy fit for the gods, when sarcasm melts the endgame.

Also seeing "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" as antecedent, I might have been biased in calling this Man with No Name just an ultimate loner drifting town to town spewing brimstone and deeming blue-eyed babes worthy -- but an apology never once comes his way. I'll acknowledge complaints of the ignorant saying thrice was twice too many for a rebel's sentimentality. "A Fistful of Dollars" could be seen as kick-off to all the makings of antihero that later fly in Eastwood's dude, the atonement he seeks for his mule's spook caused by gangster John Baxter (Wolfgang Lukschy) and company a peek up the red dress of his nameless soul.

Of course shit goes down. This first villain (Baxter, mind you) is at war with the resident Rojo clan led by Benito (Antonio Prieto), reeking hell on the economy of their boozy boondocks. Like innkeeper Silvanito (Jose Calvo) tells him, this puts the Baxters on one side, Rojos on the other, and No Name "right in the middle". The Man finds life on the top easy to live when rolling out gun shells on your own abandoned empire. Everything looks different from a class elevation, even the higher-ups.

Leone grabs a "Fistful" of coins and passes them for full-blown bills. Right and left, he fans the rich rain at the expense of the Man with No Name; the "Dollars" trilogy might as well exist as redemption for whatever fuck-up he got into as precedent. Who cares when it's all played for hilarious, bitter Eastwood fantasy? Crawling with ancient urban dread, "A Fistful of Dollars" is a no-bullshit orgy of the West with debt to pay and dust to settle. Following suit to Ennio Morricone's masterful score, Leone and Eastwood craft a woeful tale of the times of a revisionist cowboy, whose secrets haunt the border of life and death. They vibrate under dirt and liquor bottle of a senior terminator's saloon-ready ramblings.

Before Sunrise

You don't have to be in love for "Before Sunrise" to hit and hurt. And it does, plenty. It's a celebration of impulse and ambition, a Kiarostami-like rumination on love and relationships, and that muses and wanders its dreamy little head into the pantheon of cinema as something true, changing and affirming.

Before Sunset

"Before Sunset" -- maybe even more than "Before Sunrise" prior to it -- is one of the few films I've maybe ever seen that's so honest and joyful it blatantly defies criticism or definition. Each work is something special, "Sunrise's" in-the-moment romance sans any technological distractions, "Sunset's" nine-years-in-the-making morning-after. Both constant conversations of celluloid of which you feel every minute, in the absolute best possible way.

I'm spoiled seeing "Sunset" only a day after watching its predecessor for the first time. I wonder what'd it be like to live your own life for nine years after making such an identification with these characters, and then coming back to them. That's maybe the greatest pleasure of "Before Sunset": it so wondrously REMEMBERS American traveler Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Frenchwoman Celine (Julie Delpy, even more beautiful now than ever before. Well, "now" being 2004. Let me just...punch her name into Google along with "2013"....)

And oh my God, I know I say it a lot with things, but it hurts. Really, you can watch "Sunrise" and "Sunset" back to back and still perfectly sense the years of nostalgia and remembrance between these two people. And by playing the film out in eighty sun-kissed, lyrical Paris minutes director Richard Linklater (as well as Hawke and Delpy, with whom he wrote the script) lets every inch of "Before Sunset" breathe on its own and speak for itself, like a newborn unto the world. It's a mystical place, full of regrets, but at least they'll always have Vienna.

World War Z
World War Z(2013)
½

Starts fine. Plunges you right into the action within about ten, fifteen minutes, then gradually goes from mild to mediocre and bloated. Its zombie plague is such a faceless and broadly-painted evil all the FASTFASTFAST camerawork and editing is even more evidently futile when there's virtually no sense of stakes whatsoever. "World War Z" doesn't really do anything wrong per se, I guess. Brad Pitt is affable here and its script is certainly more ambitious than those of most mega-budget blockbusters. Also the plane outbreak scene's pretty cool in theory. Still, can't believe THIS of all movies had a hard time getting made. Just adds further insult to the box office injuries of the arty "Killing Them Softly" and "The Counselor". THEY'VE BEEN THROUGH ENOUGH ALREADY. God.

Renoir
Renoir(2013)
½

"Cinema is not for the French."

Every frame of "Renoir" is golden, warm and gorgeous. I love how the title misleads you into thinking it's only about the world-famous painter -- and 88-year-old Michel Bouquet, presence of stage and screen since 1947, is quietly perfect in the patriarchal role; like a French Robert Duvall -- when really "Renoir" is about his son, filmmaker Jean Renoir's relationship with his father, and how his father skews art: meant as uplifting and everlasting, workmanlike and constant, while outside a war raging against men refuses to die.

Gilles Bourdos' film is a bit long in the tooth and very slow-moving, yet surprisingly the story never stagnates for too long a time before moving on and exploring something else. "Renoir" is more a canvas than it is a narrative, a surface unassuming for the already initiated. Not a lot happens, but it's memorably bittersweet, all the way into the final take, which has the senior Renoir gazing wistfully out the window at a mother teaching her child to walk as his eldest has just returned to battle and he's confined to a wheelchair. It's a perfectly haunting image of beauty aghast in the flesh.

Pi
Pi(1998)
½

Darren Aronofsky makes movies about obsession plagued by conflicting desire. Like Christopher Nolan's "Following", David Lynch's "Eraserhead" and Nicolas Winding Refn's "Pusher" "Pi" is a landmark debut that if winded with too short a fuse to QUITE be an out-and-out masterpiece would certainly herald Aronofsky and composer Clint Mansell (how lucky to form such a bond so early on) as twin talents to watch.

How I Live Now
½

Like a flirty hybrid of star Saoirse Ronan's two other films from 2013 -- the icy teen romance of "The Host" meets the girl-power fantasy of "Byzantium" -- which as it turns out actually isn't a bad thing at all. "How I Live Now" could do without the contrived love story that bookends it (with her telekinetic[?] cousin to boot) but as a flashy punk-rock experiment (noted musician/producer Jon Hopkins provides the lofty, quietly mesmerizing score, and the opening credits are some of the most memorable I've witnessed in quite some time) it's refreshing to see a YA movie like this that favors mood over pandering narrative, and that instead of demographically skewing too broad or specific feels rebellious for letting its creepy, desolate look suck you in just the same. Like "Lore" on acid.

Thor: The Dark World
½

Maybe it's just because I had such loooooooooow (LOW) expectations for it going in, but "Thor: The Dark World" really surprised me. Its villainous narrative is way too busy when, like when it comes to most Marvel nemeses, it's ultimately much ado about nothing. But the movie's real pleasure -- and what makes it feel a little bit less like it's first and foremost a product -- is the acting. I've heard complaints of how inessential it was to bring back every single character from the first "Thor", but I found everyone from Kat Dennings to Stellan Skarsgaard to the ineffable beauty Natalie Portman to be surprisingly game in their roles, Portman especially.

It's mainly though because her expressions inherently lend each part she's given a quietly fractured gravitas ("Black Swan" is such a masterpiece, isn't it you guys), because Jane Foster otherwise is painted as basically the root cause of all "Dark World's" havoc. And the final, FINAL stinger (three endings, Marvel? Really?), while sweet, is pretty sacrosanct. "Thor: The Dark World" is most charming when it stays small and self-aware. The Whedon punch-ups are evident yet graceful. Um. Am I forgetting anything? Oh yeah -- Loki FTW!

The Limey
The Limey(1999)
½

Like the very best of Steven Soderbergh, "The Limey" is a magnificent cinematic exercise, all the more frustrating for the script's thin third act when it's SO CLOSE to being perfect. Where Paul Thomas Anderson tries time and again to ape his stylistic masters (and time and again generally does) Soderbergh is more akin to someone like Quentin Tarantino in the way he structures narratives as conceptual games, of red herrings, show-stealing supporting characters, brilliantly choppy editing and razor-sharp dark comedy. "The Limey" bites off just enough as it can effectively chew, a playfully grim and aesthetically dazzling noir that's also ultimately a rather lyrical treatise -- however slight -- on age, relationships and life on the outside. It's all very professionally done, when in actuality its final note of sentiment toward its protagonist is anything but ordinary.

Slither
Slither(2006)

Neat little throwback to creature-feature horror that's more "Tremors" than it is "The Thing". Pretty stiff ultimately, with basically all of the humor misplaced and/or inopportune and a lot of the dialogue ranging anywhere from cringe-worthy to embarrassingly bad, especially in the final stretch. Still, cool idea, so-so execution, that's also in parts unfortunately misogynistic. "Super" was an improvement narratively-speaking, if not a vast one. Worth seeing for the practical effects alone. Hope James Gunn is able to translate this sort of geeky enthusiasm for character and genre but on a larger scale with next year's "Guardians of the Galaxy".

War Horse
War Horse(2011)

I like it. You know. It is what it is.

A Hijacking
A Hijacking(2013)

Even though "A Hijacking" precedes the release date of "Captain Phillips" by a few months, before popping in the disc I found myself thinking, if that film is so good, do we really need this one? Turns out we do. While I believe "Captain Phillips" is the slightly better movie (it's the seat-gripping sensation) "The Hunt" co-writer Tobis Lindholm's "Hijacking" actually left me with more to chew over after the credits roll. Where "CP" was designed as a beat-the-clock sea thriller -- and where some critics made the claim that film was "all business" -- "A Hijacking" highlights the shear banality of the same ransomed corporate process. And in chronicling the title event in huge, random time leaps "A Hijacking" becomes something way more abstract than the heroic HR of "Captain Phillips": its grit is something world-wearied.

Mr. Nobody
Mr. Nobody(2013)
½

Ambitious. Big and flawed, but so ambitious.

Metropolitan
Metropolitan(1990)
½

Memorably witty, wittily memorable and ultimately pretty charming, Whit Stillman's "Metropolitan" is a satire that skews from riffing on the young adult melodrama of John Hughes to the regular adult melodrama of Woody Allen, without ever feeling like it has contempt for the style of either one of them. It's also gorgeously obsessed with words. Usually having characters that won't shut up is a bad thing, but here it only further accentuates "Metropolitan's" wicked, ace, canvas-like scripting. It pokes fun at the entitled proteges of New York City's urban aristocracy and yet treats these specific examples as anything but prototypical; human even. It's a comedy of manners with something deeper blistering under its preppy, porcelain skin, something akin to the universal: the prolonged anxiety of social inadequacy.

Damn amazing debut. Can't wait to see Stillman's rest.

Persepolis
Persepolis(2007)
½

At first its straightforward approach jarred me compared to the heavy experiment of something like the 2008 animated Israeli pseudo-doc "Waltz with Bashir", but "Persepolis" is a true testament to the power in staying small, illustrating a fairly standard autobiography of a young Iranian woman's life through her own eyes rather than the marginal outlook of her home country's archaic religious policies. And because of that it grapples with issues surprisingly personal and complex, though no less rare in the movies, mainly the various pubescent stages of its female protagonist beginning from childhood as she struggles with the highs and lows of romances, onset depression and the particular doom and gloom of her family's revolutionary past. The animation style is beautiful, smoky and haunting -- think a black-and-white "The Simpsons" with a more picturesque depth of feel -- and further goes to accentuate "Persepolis's" central focus on the eternal reflection of a political war waged in shadows.

Enough Said
Enough Said(2013)

Commendable for Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini's rocking performances alone, even if "Enough Said" is more sitcom cinematic than anything else. Writer-director Nicole Holofcener occasionally touches on moments of quiet intimacy -- Eva and Albert sitting on the latter's back porch picking at weeds while fretting over a kiss, Eva sending her daughter off to college, and the fly-on-the-wall commentary from both Eva and Albert's daughters in general. Still though "Enough Said", while entertaining, falls flat in the wake of greater-idea relationship movies such as the "Before" trilogy and "The Kids Are All Right". It goes so far to skew toward an older audience its humor borders on stuffy, yet thankfully never smug. And where the juxtaposition of the lead characters' personas -- the champagne-bubbly neuroses of Eva meets the carefree, able-minded (if not able-bodied) Albert -- should seem goofy Louis-Dreyfus and the late Gandolfini play it all off with the very lightest touch of cougar town culpability.

The Heat
The Heat(2013)

Lacks the witty control of "Bridesmaids" (and just the same a lot of the memorably LOL moments) but man, is it ever fun to watch Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy go at each other like a couple of pros. If I were to really dissect it there's a lot of broad overkill here, but that's only because everyone in and behind "The Heat" is trying so fucking hard to be so fucking funny all the fucking time (fuck) you can't doubt its perseverance nor its well intent. Of course that only gets a movie so far, and "The Heat" -- not an unusual complaint when it comes to comedies -- sags heavy in the middle.

Still, Paul Feig is a competent director of action when the production doesn't go crazy on the VFX (sorta happy "The Monuments Men" is being pushed to next year if its digital brushwork is truly this lame), and he understands a good collaboration with McCarthy means sitting back and letting her do her tough chick, brass-knuckle thing. With this and "Gravity" Bullock's had a banner year for picking projects with actual pedigree. If she really is America's sweetheart, I'm totally on board.

Passion
Passion(2013)
½

Should have been called "Brian De Palma's Passion".

To some it'll play like a retrospective, a highlight reel stronger as shear evidence of a filmmaker's particular skill set than it does anything standalone. There will be blood from the impatient. But meanwhile there will be just as much passion from stalwarts of the director's extraordinary talent for making soap operas seem Hitchcockian; even occasionally Shakespearean. "Passion" is cheesy and more than a little ridiculous, with an ending that's less a culmination than a convoluted kiss of death, but the way it jumps midway from office space intrigue to murder mystery, and so boldly and shamelessly at that, is a bit akin to De Palma cutting the head off a snake.

It helps also that he gets great performances from Rachel McAdams and the always game (even when it leaves her sour) Noomi Rapace. "Passion" is pretty silly the more you think about it, but it's a fairly accomplished thriller by a restless auteur who might sell his potboiler plot short but never does us. Until, again, that ending.

Elena
Elena(2012)

Premiering in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival and going on to win the Special Jury Prize...gah, that's already starting out with a bloated mouthful. Listen: I didn't know anything about "Elena" going into it. Watching it I couldn't tell where it was going to go and what point it was trying to make with the density and coldness of its images, like it was always ramping up to something greater but never does, instead opting for a glacial, naturalistic pacing and long-take camerawork. Now finally having seen it, I still couldn't say I have a complete handle on what it is it's trying to say.

The most beguiling aspect of Andrey Zvyagintsev's drama, what gives it its intriguing edge, is that there's a sense of something trapped, secret, hidden -- the same way Romanian writer-director Cristian Mungiu's two phenomenal features "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" and "Beyond the Hills" do. The fatal decision "Elena's" titular character makes midway through is fittingly only half-justified but no less despicable; there's just something in the icy air. "Elena" does occasionally stagnate in terms of plot momentum and depth but it's the mystical, "Vera Drake"-esque attitude of the thing that allows you to open up to its quiet cruelty while allotting enough emotional reserve that by its end you detect a certain, particularly punishing change in the dead Russian weather.

Plus the aura of Phillip fucking Glass on the soundtrack. Word up.

In the House
In the House(2013)

It's somewhat fitting that in the more quiet moments of "In the House" on the soundtrack there's the sound of a single estranged, melancholy piano note that reminded me of the equally spare backing instrumental to Kanye West's "Runaway", with the line about toasting douchebags and assholes. Every character in François Ozon's film is a total prick in one way or another, or that's at least how Ozon chooses to portray them. Why the present tense? The through-line of "In the House" -- a snooty French (is there any other kind?) high school teacher Germain (Fabrice Luchini) tutors a student Claude (Ernst Umhauer) in writing a gossipy story about the secret lives of a fellow classmate's family -- often takes the form of whatever tension or lack thereof currently unfolding in Claude's ongoing investigation. Thirty minutes in I found myself looking for "In the House" to relate some sort of conflict, and lo and behold Germain in reading the latest installment of Claude's story comments, verbatim, "You need conflict."

This dual narrative trick works mostly for Ozon, and "In the House" speaks wonderfully to his penchant for flavorful dry humor and -- wait for it -- bourgeois hypocrisy. Yet what I've described as could-be pretentious drivel is actually way smarter and more self-aware than it should be. Of course occasionally the whole breaking the fourth wall thing and having Germain metaphysically enter the reenacted telling of Claude's story as a critical observer feels too big for the movie's britches, and a lot of "In the House" plays like a particularly cinematic after-school special. I wonder what Pedro Almodovar would do with similar material, given his keenness toward amping up the melodrama of Shakespearean farces to the point of being operatic. Regardless, Ozon's "In the House", while sometimes TOO exact in what it's trying to do, is a very witty, sarcastic and absorbing comedy-cum-meditation on reality versus literary idealism.

The Purge
The Purge(2013)
½

Nothing wrong with a highbrow thriller that loves its dystopian twists and turns. People went ape-shit over the lame YA kicks of "The Hunger Games". So "The Purge", while never at any point making me mad, just seemed like such a missed opportunity to take advantage of an R-rating and do social commentary as something damning and perverse. Too bad all it is is humorless. Would have been totes excellent as a twenty-minute student film, because even at eighty minutes writer-director James DeMonaco's sophomore feature feels like it's pushing it. "The Purge" could have been worse. DeMonaco cracks an awesome concept, and having the gorgeous Lena Heady to look at is a plus. But ultimately its political inclinations are just a load of pretentious crap.

Carrie
Carrie(2013)
½

If you had asked me at the beginning of 2013 which remake was in better hands, that of "Evil Dead" in those of some first-time unknown or "Carrie" in those of Kimberley Peirce, my bet would have been on the latter. After helping Hilary Swank win her first Oscar in her phenomenal 1999 debut "Boys Don't Cry" she's made the unseen by me 2008 PTSD drama "Stop-Loss" and literally nothing of note since. A recent New York Times magazine piece on Peirce noted this was due to the usual, no less unfortunate lack of studio ambition nowadays to finance anything that isn't already a pre-existing brand name executives don't have say over from day one. I know, sucks. My rating the 2013 "Carrie" as low as I am doesn't come from a grudge against anyone involved, or with blinders on as to Brian De Palma's 1976 original being the one and only, and any other is sacrilege. "Carrie" isn't the worst movie you'll see in 2013, but that doesn't escape the fact it's among the least essential.

The issues start with that this "Carrie" wants to be a straight-up horror movie. It's rated R except there's no cursing, a sense of violence real and/or disturbing, or nudity. De Palma works in genre, more so now but also very much then, and his take on the Stephen King novel worked fabulously by really hitting. But to forget completely about the De Palma version -- despite screenwriters Lawrence D. Cohen (who also wrote the '76 "Carrie" as well as various other ten plus-years ago King adaptations) and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (a producer on TV's "Glee") following the layout of the original nearly beat for beat -- this "Carrie" is never even remotely scary, nor does it even make the attempt to be, and yet seemingly for this purpose it finds fit to sacrifice character development-cum-humanity and reality, both universal and personal.

The two best things about "Carrie" happen to be also two cases of miscasting on the part of the leads, Chloë Grace Moretz as the marquee name and Julianne Moore as her Jesus-unhappy mother. Moretz is a crazy-good young actress, one of the best out there today, who's built a terrific roster playing characters who don't take bullshit for an answer (see: her so-far watermark portrayal of Hit-Girl in both "Kick-Ass" films and in Martin Scorsese's "Hugo".) Don't call it quirk. For this reason and the reason that, well, she's really attractive even by standards other than Sissy Spacek's skeletal stares in De Palma's version, no matter how much she strains to play prey, you don't for a second doubt Moretz as a game predator. And Moore, another actress who's at the very top of her class in terms of best-ever, just frankly looks bored. Why not, when "Carrie" walks all over both of them.

Peierce's film is only occasionally laughably bad (it is for sure just that in parts though) but in no way, shape or form does it update "Carrie" for the modern age give or take a Google search, YouTube window, Tim Tebow reference or youth-pandering, "Warm Bodies"-level overload of indie pop/rock on the soundtrack. What it definitely does is suck.

Moon
Moon(2009)

A masterpiece.

The Departed
The Departed(2006)

A don-like masterpiece. The best film Scorsese's made since "Casino" and that he's made since, that feels most like a newly-minted classic, and is an ample showcase of Scorsese's cultural and aesthetic prowess as someone still making movies with the energy and ambition of a filmmaker years younger than him.

Side Effects
Side Effects(2013)

Not since "Looper" have I seen a script so air-tight and bulletproof, and -- paired with Soderbergh's usual flair for muddy, vacuum-sealed directing and an ass-kicking, drop-the-mic performance from the outstanding Rooney Mara -- not even the haywire nature of the third act is enough to derail "Side Effects". Hell, it might ultimately even make it what it is.

Escape From Tomorrow
½

Purposefully weird-cum-nonsensical doesn't always work in a film's favor. It does, however, in the case of "Escape from Tomorrow", the first movie ever shot (secretly) in Disney Parks, Orlando. Which is why "Tomorrow" hits best and draws you in most when it's only slightly off-kilter before going full bonkers in the final third. As a surreal family vacation through the eyes of one seriously unstable husband and father (Roy Abramsohn) "Escape from Tomorrow" plays like a special hour-long episode of "Louie". Disneyland itself is really just a backdrop to the perverted dysfunction at hand. The last half hour doesn't totally deprive the movie of its odd charm, but it starts to forsakes rhyme or reason for hammer-and-nail blatancy. Its twists don't add up as any sort of indictment, nor do they reach a particular emotional peak.

That being said there's a lot of fun in watching "Escape from Tomorrow" go from eager smile to crooked grin as every mouse-eared nuance gets a skeezy underbelly and hidden double meaning, even as it leans away from commentary and toward the absurd. There's no describing it; there's only mistaking or misconstruing it. Which there will be plenty of. Moore, judging from his debut, is clearly a filmmaker with balls. And with "Escape from Tomorrow" -- less citation than satire, and not unlike the origins of the Disney brand itself -- he's built a brilliantly entertaining caricature that's both bratty and bizarre. Small world.

El Aura (The Aura)

Occasionally a little TOO blunt in spelling out just how fucked each and every character is (the one scene in particular involving car trouble on a highway also -- random connection(?) -- smacks of a similar sequence in Kubrick's "Lolita") but that's self-professed nitpicking a movie this gripping and realized, and makes so excellent a point of showing and never telling that its 133-minute runtime goes by like a bone-chilling breeze.

It's slightly humorous that Netflix categorizes this under action and adventure. Which it is, but only in the sense that "No Country for Old Men" is action and adventure. Just don't expect fucking "Rambo" and you're green to go.

Submarino
Submarino(2010)

Another Danish flick in the same eery vein of Derek Cianfrance's "The Place Beyond the Pines" -- with Jakob Cedergren and Peter Plaugborg in the Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper roles, respectively -- Thomas Vinterberg's "Submarino" hits with just as much blunt force as that previous film. It's hard to watch at times, and even harder to stomach afterwards. Like Vinterberg's only months-old "The Hunt", "Submarino" has enough emotional trauma to tranquilize a horse (or dog, in the case of "Hunt".) But it's none of it contrived. The title refers to the method of torture in which a person's head is held under water until the very brink of death. All tragedy all the time, "Submarino" lives up to its namesake in hell and horror. What's great about it is how it manages to outshine the cruelty and heartlessness of the Copenhagen underworld, emerging as a kind of fucked-up miracle.

Rundskop (Bullhead)

As tough to stomach and sit with and yet as operatic as "Un Prophete", my one gripe with Michaël R. Roskam's "Bullhead" is that it's too damn long. This movie is so fucking brutal it could have been cut some. That being said, for a debut feature, "Bullhead" is insanely good-looking, directed, scored (by Raf Keunen) and shot (by Nicolas Karakatsanis) all fantastically. Even when the story wears thin it's ultimately what Roskam does with the material that helps his movie get under your skin. As bleak as it is (and it is indeed very bleak) "Bullhead" feels oddly voyeuristic. And it'd be criminal not to mention the extraordinary Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts as Jacky Vanmarsenille, a roided-out cattle farmer with mob connections that prove fatal. Schoenaerts, so good also in "Rust and Bone", is an actor to watch, and Roskam a director. But that's not to say "Bullhead" isn't hauntingly singular.

United 93
United 93(2006)
½

Greengrass doesn't shoot "United 93" shaky-cam documentary, dramatization, or dream -- and yet, there's an omnipresent feeling of something either too right or too wrong. It goes from innocence to all hell in a switch. "United" is both awe-inspiring in terms of powerhouse storytelling and technological technique, and, even watching this more than ten years after the 9/11 attacks, that everything about "United 93" still doesn't seem real. And check that final scene, twenty minutes before the airline's set to crash-land in a Pennsylvania field, the sweep of the brutal sentiment that those aboard still alive are already dead. It's a shot that sinks its teeth and doesn't let go. It will haunt you for the rest of your life.

Room 237
Room 237(2013)

It's basically a 102-minute rumination on some of the greatest movies ever made by the greatest director to ever make movies, equals parts hammer-thrown challenge to what's perceived as normal cinematic obsession and the scary thrill of art as unfathomable beast.

Zero Dark Thirty

"Zero Dark Thirty" gets away with a lot. It is a movie of time, of pacing, patience, and unbeatable, unbelievable tensions. Frills and other such bullshit don't even make it past the gate - the movie opens flat-out on a minutes-long black screen beneath the sounds of screams, sirens, and eventually silence of audiotapes from September 11th, 2001. Jump two years later and there's our eyes and ears for the rest of the film in Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA officer sent to the U.S. embassy in Pakistan to work with someone whose mission right then is to squeeze information from a captive with potential ties to a Saudi terrorist system. We're with Maya in exciting a nerve of discomfort when her compatriot feels necessary to strip him down soiled pants and all before being choked into a dog collar and led to cramp inside a small wooden box. But in "Zero Dark Thirty" even the most gruesome torture tactics aren't lost on any one individual fighting for or against God and country - he's all our prisoner in the War on Terror's if-you're-not-with-us-you're-against-us philosophy, and any lead is proof enough it's worth it to reap what we sow. Good and bad.

"Zero Dark" was written and directed by Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow, respectively, both of whose "Hurt Locker" took home six Oscars in 2010, including best picture over the biggest movie in the world at the time (and of all time), James Cameron's "Avatar". From 2003 to 2005 Maya's confidence and beleaguered obsession grows roots in scrambling to connect alien suspects to who's predicted to be Osama bin Laden's go-to courier from wherever he's hiding out. I don't want to spoil too much, only to say Boal's script spans major attacks, disasters and all sorts of bombings with impassioned nuance, and each highlight, if later revealed for partial clues, also checkpoints and renews the maddening vertigo and impartial anxiety of the senses at the center of everything. Like I said at the beginning, "Zero Dark Thirty" does get away with a lot - half-formed characters and relationships, distracting cameos. That's nit picking. Its heart of darkness is in the tireless Maya, Chastain with whiz-bang spunk. The story's corners are testament to the hardship and ferocity of a case so big stopping or slowing down could permanently dismiss yet-unexplained pieces as idyll fevers and mirrors.

"Zero Dark Thirty" is also strong evidence for Bigelow's being a new master. This is filmmaking with guts and rings, valiant and magnificent, that's also ultimately a character- (and, do note dearly, female-) driven piece concerning the morality and consequence of directive anger and retribution in the wake of raw public sentiment. It's also a movie about a woman who dared bear the weight of fatal attraction. Her distress stirs true for all of us, but especially to those to whom sacrifice can sometimes strike less as star-crossed than forlorn.

Even the Rain (Meme La Pluie)

Really gets at the turmoil and even moral compromise that goes into making a feature film, the hypocrisy of ignoring the immediate issues of the world around you for sake of pursuing art. Cool theme. "Even the Rain" is like a hybrid mix of Fellini, Malick and Almodovar, with modern master Alberto Iglesias' subtly gripping score to highlight the wet, leafy, gorgeous Bolivian cinematography by Alex Catalán. The movie is basically a running commentary of itself. That could come off as pretentious if the story and filmmaking weren't so generously simple, all the way up to the Hollywood ending. If not a film of tension "Even the Rain" is thankfully very much one of detail and ideas, handled with sympathy and care without ever delving into parody.

The Virgin Suicides

Sofia Coppola made her pretty masterpiece with 2003's "Lost in Translation"; before that, in 1999, there was "The Virgin Suicides", based on a wistful novel by Jeffrey Eugenides. Yet Coppola, for all of her lush imagery and quiet camera work, to me, has but only in brief reputation opened her heart in such a way as with "Virgin Suicides", relaxing the sensibilities of a director like Cameron Crowe.

Following four sisters by the names of Lisbon in 1970s suburban Michigan after the suicide of their youngest, Coppola stretches the landscape in such a careful way it wouldn't matter what the characters are saying or doing: it's just the being there that gets caught in your throat. And "The Virgin Suicides" is something that will stay with me for a long, long time. It makes you melt on every kindred level, and if you took Giovanni Ribisi's narration away the film would feel even emptier. "The Virgin Suicides" gets more lax and loving with every lick and shine by admiring both the Lisbon girls in huge anticipation of America in the 1970s as damaged renegades with the same broken dream.

Somewhere
Somewhere(2010)

Sofia Coppola worked a dazzling mix of tragedy and recluse of sudden friendships in "Lost in Translation". With her fourth directorial effort, "Somewhere", the script is...well, just as teasing. What we're left is a washed-up Hollywood actor played by Stephen Dorff, and the distant connection with his 11-year-old daughter, Elle Fanning. Its incredibly quiet style is either for you, or it isn't. While Coppola the director as usual has fun bringing out the worldly emotional explorations of a single area, "Somewhere" is never heavy. She captures all the Zen, all the minute broken atmosphere of Dorff's character (Fanning, really, is a tiny portion of the movie.) But it's up to you how much it all resonates. With me, it did a lot.

Marie Antoinette

Turns out a Sofia Coppola period piece doesn't look like homage or play like satire. One of cinema's resident masters uses a lustful, bushy paintbrush that she only seems to again, in her third directorial outing, be dictating from her rocket-shipped throne among the stars. Her dad might be movies' ultimate godfather, but she's her own beast. Take "Marie Antoinette", a rambling and confused depiction of the queen of France in the years leading to the French Revolution. I mean, yeah, I guess it's technically a biopic -- but Coppola's Antoinette -- played by Kristen Dunst with sex, roar, and longing -- is a dreamy doll she (Coppola) stops in translation, right before pageantry and gossip come to drown her in a stormy wave of first-world problems and virgin suicides.

But still, it's slow going. If a Strokes or Cure song here or there from the film's amazing soundtrack is more than enough to trip you out of the world, look closer or jump ship. Either way, you're not seeing it right. This "Marie Antoinette" is a portrait of the artist as an irreligious teenage girl. Good thing it's from a rebellious filmmaker known to feel the beat. Long live her.

Hell in the Pacific

Judging from "Hell in the Pacific" and the only other work of his I've seen, the searing masterpiece "Deliverance", John Boorman seems to make movies that play off the traditional ideals of masculinity -- territory, loyalty, etc. -- and see how men act and react to perilous situations that strip them of humanity and down to their most vulnerable. "Pacific" is pretty bare bones when it comes to plot or dialogue (or a satisfying ending) so the lion's share its success is in Boorman's naturalistic direction and the equally strong performances by Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune as two marooned officers hailing from either side of the Japanese-American divide. The disclosed setting is one that can and does shift from peaceful to high stakes of life or death. It's no "Deliverance", but "Hell in the Pacific", a movie of imagery and feeling, is also quite often a work of patience and mystical ferocity.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2
½

Phil Lord and Chris Miller, you are missed. In their hands "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2", like its predecessor, probably would have had the sarcastic wit that's trademarked all of their work. But so long as you can accept that "Cloudy 2", while an immediate continuation (eight minutes after the events of the first, apparently), is an entirely different movie, it's straight, silly, color-soaked fun. Not to sound condescending or highbrow. It's got that "Despicable Me 2" roundness where virtually every little thing that happens has to have a goofy reaction or lame joke made by one of the characters. Also, it isn't just a little sappy, and when it really piles on the sentiment the movie feels especially unearned and not so earnest.

That's a double-edged sword, though, because on the other hand it's a very good thing there's never NOT something going on at least visually in the world of "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2", and those flourishes are more than enough to keep the whole thing together and afloat. This is the filmic version of playing with your food, albeit on an epic, "Jurassic Park"-level scale. Bigger doesn't always mean better, though, and a lot of the humanity of the first has here been forsaken. Essentially the way "The Dark Knight Rises" was more of a superhero movie than "The Dark Knight" "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2" is a more traditional storybook kids film than the first "Cloudy". But the cool factor of this one comes with strings attached.

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind

It's basically the game show golden age's answer to "Network's" newsroom of diminishing integrity. You wouldn't expect a work from a Hollywood A-lister to be so bleak and slow-burning, but that's I think what I love most about "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" -- it's crafted so as to be just as paranoid and unlikable as the D-grade TV mogul at its center.

In the Mood for Love

It isn't a filmmaker's job to define. The best they can do is give themselves up to their ghosts. And on that front -- and every front, really -- "In the Mood for Love" is a dense, longing masterwork whose sensation you nearly fall into.

Gimme The Loot

It speaks volumes to "Gimme the Loot's" totally not showy, completely un-flashy humbleness -- the same sort of elements that go into falling in love -- that writer-director Adam Leon chose to leave his name for last in the movie's closing credits. I'm sure a lot of "Loot" was improvised, but that isn't to forsake Leon's talent as being something to watch; nor is it to ignore the shear standalone excellence of his debut feature. A white guy whose previous credits include production assistant on two films by Woody Allen (who doesn't get much whiter), Leon is strikingly adept at layering language and everyday urban city culture while also able to cross out the static and bullshit to tell a singular story.

"Gimme the Loot" is Spike Lee meets "Exit Through the Gift Shop". You don't have to know -- or even care -- jack about street art for "Loot" to hit a chord. Even the deaf would be head over heels for the physical energy of the lead performances by Tashiana Washington and Ty Hickson, two actors that marriage the spontaneity and sophistication of body motion and words to get at the heart of New York City's fight moves of rush, noise and swagger. They play graffiti artists out to tag the Mets' Home Run Apple to spite a rival crew that paint over their work. "Gimme the Loot" is cinema that feels in-the-moment and alive. Don't make the mistake of looking to it for any larger point, because blink and you'll miss appreciating it as a great movie, gritty and real without ever seeming bleak, because it flat-out no question is.

In the Heat of the Night

What put "In the Heat of the Night" in my mind is -- second time in a week I'm gonna reference this movie -- seeing "Lee Daniels' The Butler" in August and hearing David Oyelowo's character call Sidney Poitier the white man's version of a black man. He's not exactly right, but he's not exactly wrong, especially in "Heat of the Night", where Poitier's Philadelphia-originating homicide detective Virgil Tibbs is the elephant in the room of a small Mississippi town full of horrible racists unafraid to address him, and commit even worse "and then some".

What's most admirable about Norman Jewison's multiple Oscar-winning film is how ugly it paints its characters and setting; I'd say the movie lacks style, but really it's just because nothing is dressed up, everything in the open and for the violent taking of the violent. Virgil is the closest "Night" comes to someone to root for, even if he's so jaded he's become more than a bit stiff. Poitier wears the guard well. The murder mystery at its center only adds sweat to the rest of the film's already vicious human tension. "In the Heat of the Night" is ample evidence of social commentary still being biting even after all these years.

Insidious: Chapter 2
½

James Wan is one hell of a talent, with an even directorial hand able to move fluidly from the trapped anxiety of shaky handheld to the more ominous spookiness of a grander haunted house setting without losing aim or insight. Summer's "The Conjuring" was the most successful of these endeavors, made on the cheap while recycling the best parts of his previous projects, and loved by critics and wallets alike. So it comes as a surprise that "Insidious: Chapter 2", while finely filmed, should find itself ever so disjointed and plagued by the very workmanlike rigor that defines the majority of Wan's artistic process.

Stiff acting, wooden dialogue, cheesy makeup, stupid twists and scares. There's the making of a much more compelling movie here. It's so incredibly rote, soft-spoken and blandly knowing of itself I just wished it would end after too short of a while. It speaks volumes that the only couple in the back of the theater with me during my showing literally chose to start fucking rather than pay the least bit of attention to the laughable everything that was onscreen. "Insidious: Chapter 2" has all the cash-grab crappiness of another "Saw" sequel, and I thought -- not in vain, I hope -- that that part of Wan's career was way over by now.

Kick-Ass 2
Kick-Ass 2(2013)
½

Balls to the wall is right. Matthew Vaughn's "Kick-Ass" came, appropriately, like an ass-kicker to a genre hellbent on formula and franchise blueprints. It was fun, loud, rabid, and a modest financial success. That's the best a buzzy hard-R superhero movie could hope for. Still, the concept of a sequel to "Kick-Ass" struck me as like making a sequel to "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World": it's out of the minute-to-minute headline lexicon, so why bother?

Thankfully, instead of going the whole "Community" season four route and broadly re-purposing an already awesome thing to suit the lamestream masses, "Kick-Ass 2" is exactly the movie even the least ardent optimist would expect: shit-kickingly noisy, if inconsistent in tone. What surprised me the most though is how, though only produced by Vaughn and the first "Kick-Ass" co-screenwriter Jane Goldman (this one was both written and directed by "Cry_Wolf's" and "Never Back Down's" Jeff Wadlow -- not exactly the highest pedigree, I know) "Kick-Ass 2" hasn't lost any of the fighting spirit of the original.

Even though it unfortunately plays by some of the rules of a more standard action movie, I never stopped smiling or felt like "Kick-Ass 2" was a labor of product and not love. That's the worst I have to say about it. Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the titular hero and the ineffable Chloë Grace Moretz as foulmouthed bastard Hit-Girl are literally killer. Christopher Mintz-Plasse scores again bringing brat royal to rich-ass boy villain Red Mist. And Jim Carrey is nearly unrecognizable as leader of a justice league underground Colonel Stars and Stripes. "Kick-Ass 2" is like the "Bruno" to "Kick-Ass's" "Borat"; it's more predictable, but only in the sense that you're not sure if they can pull off the same trick a third time.

Lovelace
Lovelace(2013)

You don't want a movie that reflects the '70s. You want a movie that lives it. What I guess I liked about "Lovelace" is that it doesn't rest on its retro laurels, which is good, because that's probably still yet the stiffest aspect of a film set in a world on the edge of a sexual revolution. Who am I to say what a movie "should" be, so in one sense "Lovelace" makes good on its promise of being about Linda Lovelace and not Linda Boreman, the good-girl-gone-bad behind the fame name. It's kind of ironic to have a character make the claim of porn being "fake" -- how it "isn't enough" to just point a camera at girl A and boy B and let 'em go at it -- when that's pretty much all "Lovelace" does, cast great actors in tiny roles or cameos (Chloë Sevigny's appearance as a TV reporter is so slight she's hardly even worth mentioning) to do their best with a script that's light on drama. It's a neat trick the movie does by chronicling the heaven of "Deep Throat's" celebrity before turning back and showing you the hell behind the scenes. But, like I said, it's all Lovelace the personality and no Boreman the human.

At its worst "Lovelace" is guilty of exactly what "Lee Daniels' The Butler" is guilty of, having these huge emotional outbursts over a swelling score, when in reality the catharses on screen are unearned. Even its elliptical storytelling is more than a little spotty, not wink-wink clever enough to call it pretentious but not mighty enough to say it's exactly the most earnest. At the risk of sounding pretentious myself, I felt somewhat like a movie producer by the end of "Lovelace": dig the girl, Amanda Seyfried, the only reason one should see "Lovelace", though she's squandered. I even love the guy, Peter Sarsgaard as Linda's violent, sleazy husband/keeper Chuck Traynor, an actor whose crazy-calm demeanor totally relishes the role of a sociopath. After that, I could take or leave the rest. There's barely any sex in "Lovelace", which is either what sets the movie apart or what kills it from cutting deep. The tragedy of Boreman (Marchiano up until her death in 2002) is scary, but all "Lovelace" feels is scared.

Also Sharon Stone is in this as Linda's mother, and she's -- talk about stiff, first off -- remarkably horrible. Like, it makes me want to revisit what I consider her career high "Casino" to see if it's just Scorsese's choice directing that made her look good there. What the fuck indeed.

The Conjuring
½

The truth in "The Conjuring" is that it could have been contrived: "Mama" meets "Insidious". Been there done that. James Wan's film isn't going to change any minds because it doesn't break any new ground. But it's a solid genre picture, the kind that Wan, love him or leave him, carves with economic efficiency and slow, steady camerawork that wouldn't feel out of place in some sort of moody 1970s porno. It's all played with a straight face, and it has way more character and style to it than Wan's previous "Insidious". I just wish "The Conjuring" more expertly paired its old-timey morbidity with something that, you know. Lived a little. Just because we already know it's creepy doesn't mean we have to see every scare coming.

Exotica
Exotica(1994)

Innocence is lost in "Exotica", the same way the high-art strip club it's named after keeps its eyes wide shut in pretending it's a galleria that sells amusement and not sex. You never know who's watching. Atom Egoyan's 1994 film has the slow-baked camerawork and dovetail storytelling to imitate the likes of Tarantino, Solondz or P.T. Anderson, except it foreshadows the major watermarks of all those filmmakers. "Exotica" should be respected for its originality. It works operating on the level of seedy mystery, strange and intoxicating images that suck you in with their weirdness. I'd say the distractedly late-'80s, early-'90s character style of the thing dates it some, but really its off-color look only adds to the mosaic nature of Egoyan's kaleidoscopic wet dream. "Exotica" is exotic, no doubt about it, and it's also exciting. A mystical masterpiece, it damn near knocked me out. As it should.

Get Shorty
Get Shorty(1995)
½

I like to imagine the stories that make up the universe of Elmore Leonard as existing in tandem to one another. It seems like they do, anyway, the love affair Hollywood has with his work being what it is. Even when a project can't be traced back to him nowadays his influence runs far, deep and wide. One thing Leonard doesn't -- didn't (R.I.P.) -- is play the fool. So I can't believe anyone would ever trust the otherwise total sellout hands of director Barry Sonnenfeld. Because "Get Shorty" is ample proof that by 1990 (when Leonard's book was published) after years of dealings in the movie business he knew too well how the tired game was played. But Sonnenfeld's film has the loose, omnipotent suave that his best characters do, the kind that like to ride high while acting removed.

Quentin Tarantino made the watermark screen adaption of a Leonard piece with "Jackie Brown" by relating Leonard's filmic writing style with his own respective cinematic taboos. They really tied the room together. I can't help but see "Get Shorty" as a sort of rounder version of that great film. Still though, "Shorty" is groovy, and holds amusing turns by Gene Hackman, Rene Russo, James Gandolfini (as basically the Bob DeNiro heavy from "Jackie") and John Travolta in all his Vincent Vega glory. So even if "Get Shorty" wasn't by Sonnenfeld, it'd nonetheless be impressive.

Lee Daniels' The Butler

Lee Daniels hates being put in a box, and because he doesn't fit, he fights it. He followed the Oscar-winning "Precious" with the trashy, down-down-South noir "The Paperboy", in which Nicole Kidman notoriously took a piss on Zac Efron. The piss was further tried to be taken out of "The Butler" when Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong -- loosely adapting a "Washington Post" article about real-life White House servant Eugene Allen -- when the two couldn't get their film financed. (There's a listed nearly forty producers.) Then Warner Bros. made the case a 1916 silent film called "The Butler" already existed, forcing the Weinstein Company to add Daniels' name to the front of it and the MPAA granting it be "75% the size of 'The Butler'." Plus there's its insane celebrity ensemble in different celebrity makeup as 35 years of presidents, vice presidents and first ladies. If you aren't hellbent, this spells disaster.

Thankfully "The Butler" drops the act of stuffy melodrama and chooses to focus on the transcendent meaning of civil rights and family. Awards bait it's not. History lesson? No way. The revised poster has the movie's full title in what appears to be crayon, and "The Butler" at its best feels truly that personal and inspirational. It'd take the rest of this review to highlight all the people in this film, so I'll talk about the three people who make "The Butler" the crazy enjoyable mess it is: Forest Whitaker as servant Cecil Gaines, Oprah Winfrey as his wife Gloria and David Oyelowo as their activist son Louis. Whitaker terrifically tows the line of the expressionistic order someone who, growing up on a white man's cotton field, was taught to hold everything in and never to speak out; Winfrey makes you wonder the actress she could have been after "The Color Purple" had she not become, well, Oprah; and Oyelowo's character portrays the chaos of growing up and acting against your parents while still figuring out what the world means to you.

Mostly "Lee Daniels' The Butler" avoids the trap of being preachy. Not that it's Tyler Perry; like Spike Lee, Daniels is a storyteller, not a cultural figurehead. Which is why when, especially in the final few scenes, when "The Butler" feels like it's saying President Obama's election and subsequent years in office (Allen died in 2010), while -- don't get me wrong -- a surefire victory for minorities, also became a culmination of the racism and discrimination brought out of ordinary people during Cecil's lifetime. As "The Butler" says early on, there's no tolerance for politics at the White House. And for the most part, aside from the cameo overload and plot predictability, "The Butler" is almost a miracle of what sticks when the world is against you, and against itself. Cecil lived alongside history. But like "Forrest Gump", "The Butler" is about the effect on what's closest to you being what matters most.

The Believer
The Believer(2002)

There are so many movies like "The Believer", so what makes this one special? That it stars the Gos? That he's such a live-wire, one of the few actors of his generation so interesting to watch do absolutely nothing because it's how he channels and compresses the rage behind his cool expression that makes him such a pretty boy case study? He's a perfect fit for a movie always ready to explode, about how the want to rebel against nothing leads only toward criminality and intolerance. I'm thinking Alan Clarke's "Made In Britain", Andrew Dominik's "Chopper", Danny Boyle's "Trainspotting", Shane Meadows' "This Is England" and maybe the granddaddy of them all, Mike Leigh's touchstone "Naked". All razor-edge satires, tongue in cheek but whose revolutionary ideals cut clear through rust and bone. I don't mean necessarily good ideals. It's what the auteur at the helm does with their on-edge protagonist that makes for works turns wicked and inspiring, or more importantly how they communicate with them, and how they finally communicate to us.

Henry Bean does that with Ryan Gosling in "The Believer", a strange little film about an ex-Jew (sorta?) white supremacist Danny (Gosling), a youngster with a lot of sensitivity and misplaced anger. His crudeness could come off as ignorant in the wrong hands. It isn't here. Bean won the Grand Jury prize at Sundance in 2001 and has since then made just one movie of note in 2007 with Tim Robbins about a guy who there rebels against his neighborhood's noisy car alarms. Fuck happened? Gosling seems to like to reunite with directors he's worked with before, so here's to the off chance him and Bean get together and make something as memorable a watermark as "The Believer" again. It twists into kind of a muddle by the finale, though with an incredible final shot, but the rest of "The Believer" couldn't be tougher or more thought-provoking.

The Runaways
The Runaways(2010)

Really liked it when it when came out. Granted I didn't know much about movies then as I do now (kind of a genius), but still pretty underrated.

You're Next
You're Next(2013)
½

Adam Wingard's "You're Next" shouldn't be uttered in the same breath as the empty-calorie celluloid studios nowadays get away with calling scary. In other words it's the real genre purge (wink wink) because it actually feels touched by human hands beneath the animal masks. "You're Next" sat on the shelf for two years after premiering and gaining distribution at TIFF in 2011, so it's no surprise it wasn't finally released theatrically to much fanfare; its niche audience had already sought it out by then. But rather than the horror-cum-dark comedy reinvention time forgot, "You're Next" plays by its own rules, even though they're still the rules of many home-invasion films before it. Oh well. If you like it hot, nobody's perfect.

Speaking of hot "You're Next" would probably be a lesser film without its lead bombshell, Aussie scream queen Sharni Vinson, who commands the screen by, well, being the last chick standing after a family reunion is broken up by a clan of delinquents in disguise who decide to draw blood. And of course the attack isn't as cut and dry as you'd think. By casting a bunch of relative unknowns and indie horror filmmakers, the thrill of Wingard's and screenwriter Simon Barrett's "You're Next" is never knowing what body is going to drop, and when. Why? Does it have to have one? It's a hell of a lot of fun, like Thomas Vinterberg's "The Celebration" meets the psycho depth of "The Last House on the Left". I'll leave it by saying "You're Next" has one of the most chillingly fitting titles of the year. And, if only for the unpretentious novelty of the thing and maxim babe power of Vinson, you'll leave it cheering.

We're The Millers
½

Olivia Wilde: 1. Jason Sudeikis: 0.

Offensively inoffensive for a hard-R. Also YouTube would have immediately removed that video Emma Roberts posts of Kenny's swollen dick, and that's the least of its worries regarding logic. Cool premise, I'll give it that, but damn. I guess this is the sort of warmed-over you get when four different people work on the same screenplay.

Man of Steel
Man of Steel(2013)

It's not "Man of Steel's" fault it's coming pretty late in the summer movie season. It is its bad, though, that for a reboot of a franchise looking to right its wrongs it still rings as all too deplorably familiar. We've been here before. Like, not even in the past few years. Like in the past few MONTHS. Henry Cavill has a hardy tenor and build to match Superman's suit and Michael Shannon is a cool-ass Zod, but then there's Amy Adams (best ever in "The Master") in a thankless role as no-bullshit reporter/forced love interest Lois Lane and Russell Crowe carrying over all the enthusiasm of his performance in "Les Miserables" as Cavill's Krypton dad.

Zack Snyder's a talented dude, and producer Christopher Nolan, whatever part he played in this, seemed to have reeled his hyperactive style way the fuck in. But note, guys: never task David S. Goyer to write something solo without the assistance of Nolan. He's like Damon Lindelof that way. The dialogue is so generic it's atrocious and "Man of Steel's" 2 1/2 hour running time is pumped mostly with pretty, spacey air. The movie's beautifully grim look is being marketed in comparison to Nolan's "Dark Knight" trilogy, but unlike those films, no box office number can maintain "Man of Steel's" future relevancy when things are this dismissively dumbed down.

Also, a town called Smallville has a Sears, IHOP, 7-11 AND a U-Haul? Really?

The Kings of Summer

"The Way Way Back" had the style and star power without forsaking the brain or the heart. It's one of the best movies of the summer. Jordan Vogt-Roberts' "The Kings of Summer" is a little stickier, but ultimately maybe even sweeter because it seems like such a personal film for the guy. It'd be sacrilege to call "Kings" the poor man's "Moonrise Kingdom". It isn't anywhere near it in terms of quality, but there's a scene in the middle here where I thought for a split second that's what this movie was going to become. I was sort of wrong? You see all of "Kings" coming and going but, when you least expect it, it hits you where you live.

"Kings" often takes how its boyhood protagonists feel about certain things -- girls most prevalently -- and externalizes it in brief dream sequences that Vogt-Roberts films CRAZY well, polished without delving into parody, that makes him a talent to watch in the future. And he rounded out for his cast some of the funniest (and most attractive, Alison Brie) people working today. The heartfelt reaction to "Kings" from audiences is deserved. We're all still THAT kid in a way, with dreams and courage and love to share; that kid torn between life being a fictive world that's solely theirs and the reality that it's everyone's. Deem it DOA if you must, because it doesn't exactly forget the coming-of-age mold. For the rest of us "The Kings of Summer" is a bottled, riotous reminder to stop just living and start ruling.

Also can we all please agree Nick Offerman is the next Bill Murray?

The Seven Year Itch

No one's saying "The Seven Year Itch" is Billy Wilder's best film -- it's too on-the-noise -- but man is it ever fun. Just a good time of a movie, rip-snortingly Wilder. As for Marilyn I think her career bests are in "Some Like It Hot" and "The Misfits", but she does solid work here playing into type. And I actually thought Tom Ewell was pretty great in the lead. Dunno how well Walter Matthau would have fit into the role, but Ewell lends sex-starved Richard Sherman a neurotic intensity -- less Woody Allen stutter than Jack Lemmon egotism -- as opposed to someone like Matthau's reclined droll. All in all a totally successful comedy, the kind of play-turned-movie that's lost none of its stride.

Some Like It Hot

Some like it hot, but most like it funny, and director Billy Wilder's vivacious screwball comedy has plenty of laughs on tap. For one thing Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon are made to craft female alter egos of themselves and high-tail it to Florida after catching wind of a massacre organized by gangsters. It's on the expressway there the both of their jaws drop at the sight of gorgeous singer Sugar Kane, and Curtis's Joe and Lemmon's Jerry decide to pose as a pair of incoming crooners (and not ice cream brand owners, as their monotonous names would lead you to believe) in Sugar's traveling falsetto.

The heartwarming traits of "Some Like It Hot" are somehow able to tower above the dark atmosphere at hand without ever bursting its bubble and ruining the fun. Curtis and Lemmon seem like old hands at their none-too-convincing skewer, which is the sort of character dedication that gives "Some Like It Hot" a giddy perplexity. There's a scene early on when Joe and Jerry (or "Josephine" and "Daphne", respectively) are meeting Sugar for the first time, and she admits that, well, she isn't exactly too bright. That'd be an easy gag to push, huh? However Wilder buckles on Joe, Jerry and Sugar's intellectual goings-on to hone an arching moral which can only be made clear midst continuous giggles: keep a straight face, 'cause hey, buddy, it's the only one you got.

The East
The East(2013)

2011's "Sound of My Voice" made notice of a twisty new talent named Zal Batmanglij, only it had the unfortunate timing of being released the same year as Mike Cahill's similar sci-fi "Another Earth" (they aren't that similar but you know what I mean), which also introduced the world to the striking talent and lethal beauty of Brit Marling. That duo of Batmanglij and Marling returns in "The East", only it's in the guise of something more conventional and confused. Seriously, this movie is so frustrating. At its most lukewarm it brought to mind "The Company You Keep" from earlier this year in its lack of focus or edge. Instead of honing in on the hypocrisy of the corporate elite the East group is rallying against -- or the equal hypocrisy of anarchist groups as a whole -- "The East" turns its eye to the gossip and politics within their individual cartel. And in that, it too broadly glosses over its governmental elements as a sort of blank, faceless evil.

Now that being said, the through-line of ecoterrorism seems exactly right a theme for Batmanglij to play with, and "The East" in its high points is a thriller, but in a more heady, complicated sense than anything run-of-the-mill. It isn't trying to be a documentary or a perfect culmination of all its ideas. Marling is a reliably provocative lead who gets at the heart of her undercover intelligence operative's turbulence and conflicting desires, and gets you caught up in it too. Alexander Skarsgård and Ellen Page as The East's ringleader and fatal troupe member, respectively, give solid turns. "The East" may only sputter toward being more than the sum of its parts, but its fragile, pained soul is transcendent. It's a bitter pill to swallow and even harder to sweat out.

Tuesday, After Christmas

"Tuesday, After Christmas" is to be admired for its totally un-showy long shots in which Radu Muntean's actors just talk to one another, and Muntean draws conflict from language and reaction. We don't even really see much of the girl Raluca (Maria Popistasu) with whom Paul (Mimi Branescu) is having an affair in comparison to his partner Adriana (Mirela Oprisor), especially once the eventual secret's out. In the first scene of "Tuesday" we see Paul and Raluca post-coitus in bed one either gloomy morning or gloomy afternoon, when she makes him promise to quit smoking after the holidays. But by the few weary final frames it's Paul who's left to his own devices, in a movie about consequences catching up with time, and vice versa. You'll for sure be thinking about "Tuesday, After Christmas" long after then.

The Celebration (Festen)
½

As dysfunctional as "Arrested Development" before things take a turn for the "Breaking Bad", Thomas Vinterberg's "The Celebration" is less melodrama than it is bone-dry comedy. Families don't seem to work as well unless they have every single member, and yet family reunions WOULD go a hell of a lot better give or take a few people. The twist is so mindbogglingly dark it's damn near comically absurd. The muddied look of Vinterberg's experimental landmark is enough to get lost in. It's beautiful after a while, all the way into the credits. So's the movie. I loved it.

The French Connection

I tell ya, "The French Connection" is one of those of-its-time movies where the real true star of the thing is its look. William Friedkin is as much a presence front to back as anyone else here, his nifty, shifty camerawork a quietly dazzling thrill across every frame. The whole movie feels like a ride, a pendulum swing. Of course Gene Hackman is also pretty incredible as Popeye Doyle, a cop crooked yet compelled enough to call him determined. Coming so early in the golden age of 1970s cinema it's surprising just how little the "The French Connection" offers in terms of easy answers. But that's testament to its searing scope and vision, and reveals "Connection" as a pitch-perfect police procedural with still yet a hell of a lot more on its mind short of being able to say it has an agenda.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
½

Pitch-perfect fantasia used with acute timing and sensational editing. "Scott Pilgrim vs. The World" is often "everything but the kitchen sink", however director-co-writer Edgar Wright tosses a balance and chemistry to each character. He adds a special kick in the head to Bryan Lee O'Malley's manga series of graphic novels, all the while creating a sheen of his own. The brilliantly tongue-in-cheek brouhaha is over-the-top, loud, and insane. "Scott Pilgrim" strobes an aura across a visual playground nothing short of game-changing bedazzlement.

The Loneliest Planet
½

Oh, there will certainly be blood marked against "The Loneliest Planet" from audiences wanting the perfect getaway of Alex (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Nica (Hani Furstenberg) -- visiting Georgia the summer before getting hitched -- to come attached with more, preferably pulpier strings. Praise Julia Loktev's film all you'd like -- poignant, original, shockingly cognizant -- it's not for everybody. Hold on; I never said worthless. It's tough not to read into this art house wanderlust of pastoral imagery concerning the pain of passage, instinct, and what it means to be human, especially with two actors at the helm who couldn't be more open and engaged. Sleepy but never bored, one could call "The Loneliest Planet"; alive with the kind of kick you get from dreams where the water's too cold or distant mountain too high. But something's definitely up.

What gives the second half of this movie its honesty, darkness and gritty charm is a moment-long hot flash that seems like forever, because it's the first time Alex and Nica shot together has a joint feeling of watching two naked people scared and alone left to their own devices. It's some of the most quietly devastating film 2012 can shake a stick at, in a beautifully realized work that should be noted and appreciated both for its narrative invention and reflection on the difficulty of relationships. "The Loneliest Planet" brims dizzily with idea and understanding -- unforgettable, irreversible, and that haunts like no other.

Mister Lonely
½

Harmony Korine doesn't come easy to most. It's not that he's a bitter pill to swallow; you just never know if he's being serious or fucking with you, or both. This year's "Spring Breakers" is the closest he came to mainstream notoriety. To critics the rambling randomness of his 1997 debut "Gummo" was where his foray into pissing people off first began. "Mister Lonely" fits somewhere between these two ends, toting more of a through-line like "Breakers'" but with the provocative (or pretentious) scattershot imagery and empty, wandering camerawork of "Gummo".

The thing is it kind of works, at least I think it does. Korine can't ever go too long without trying your patience by, well, going too long, but mostly it's worth it because it actually leads somewhere. "Mister Lonely" is wonderfully shot and dreamlike, with more than a few talented character actors (Diego Luna, Denis Lavant, Werner fucking Herzog) always at its disposal. "Lonely" may not be much more than a trippy ride through an island of misfit toys, but for all its avant-garde kitsch Korine explores the highs and perils of life lived skin deep with outrageous soul.

Withnail and I
½

Probably a masterpiece in the vein of Mike Leigh's "Naked" and Alexander Payne's "Sideways", that's raunchy on the surface but uses the aid of a foggy English backdrop and plenty influence of smoke and spirits to showcase two friends' insecurities with each other, themselves, and the way in which the world seems to work around them. And when the movie's funny, which is often, the humor only highlights the film's double-edged sword -- that fame can be a bitch even when you're far from it.

Touchy Feely
Touchy Feely(2013)

A massage therapist who grows a sudden aversion to touch. Lynn Shelton has made small-time magic with simpler. See her previous two films "Humpday" and "Your Sister's Sister" for dramedy (shit word, but it fits) that's heart-on-sleeve and true, from a gifted writer-director who uses gentle ambience and characters you feel for to get the emotion of her work to stick with you. She believes in touch. And I believe in "Touchy Feely", a solid third feature from Shelton yet that lacks the grounded control of "Humpday" and "YSS". "Touchy Feely" is REALLY specific, a movie I saw on VOD I can't IMAGINE actually watching with an audience. Its quirk is that it lacks quirk. Except it doesn't take itself too seriously. It's so searching and spacey it doesn't quite know WHAT to take itself as.

A slim 88 minute meditation that feels searching without going anywhere, the power in "Touchy Feely" -- and also it's saving grace -- is how it personal it feels; basically an uninterrupted set of crammed, overlapping and unfinished vignettes, like a mixtape consisting strictly of nine-minute slices of shoegaze from different experimental bands. Shelton wrote, directed and edited "Touchy Feely" herself. That something born from a bedroom on an early morning or late night -- or at least shifts tone like it was -- could seem so agreeable let alone welcoming is to the credit of Shelton. "Touchy Feely" may not always meet the potential of its high concept and cast, but you root for it.

Killing Them Softly

I don't know, dude. I could be completely off base and this movie is nothing more than a crushing hammer of heavy-handedness, yet, I also think that's the point. It's a movie meant to feel extremely, magnetically brutal, and to piss a lot of people off. I've thought about few movies from 2012 long after I saw them more than "Killing Them Softly". It's maybe the new "Burn After Reading". I know, really going out on a limb here, guys.

Flandersui Gae (Barking Dogs Never Bite) (Flanders' Dog)

I hate animal violence in movies. Joon-ho Bong knows this; it's just one of those things people agree is flat-out not cool. Staying true to its title, "Barking Dogs Never Bite" is a total play on this: hinting at or implying dog death but only rarely delivering on showing it to us. It's a neat trick Bong squeezes laughs out of like hell. Because it is indeed a comedy, commenting on and exploring the weird lives and hobbies of lower-class characters in and around a South Korean apartment complex in the same darkly quirky vein of Akira Kurosawa's "Dodes'ka-den". While not as finely polished as his masterpiece "Mother" or the masterful monster movie "The Host", "Barking Dogs" may leave you baffled, but Bong knows how to get you off. Using subtle camera tricks and trippy, dreamy flashbacks with deeper meaning to them than you might think, it's nothing short of a treat, with Bong expertly and narrowly matching the sour with the sweet.

The Sweet Hereafter
½

This is the kind of gut punch you get when a director is willing to blindfold himself and follow where a story's going and what it means, rather than getting clammy and spending two hours feeling around. "The Sweet Hereafter" is one of my go-to films when I think of what has the power to break me. And Egoyan uses that hand, sparingly, and with that, he gives his movie more than a heart -- he allows it to speak.

Easy A
Easy A(2010)
½

"Easy A" doesn't take High-School-Teen-Comedy etiquette for granted, then again it isn't too much trying to stand out. With dialouge as jittery and fast-paced as the movie seems to pass before your eyes, it's date-night fun from a knowing screenwriter who lets us in on the joke. Not so much did director Will Gluck do with the enormous crapfest "Fired Up", with characters so shallow it seemed as if anything was actually happening there was no friction or characters embodying it.

"Easy A" casts the charming Emma Stone as a self-prescribed super-slut, willing to pretend to screw nerds who'd otherwise have no place left to go but down. Forget scenes where "Easy A" seems to throw too much at you at once or when it relies on unnecessary culture references to get by. Stone is a fierce leading lady with the chops to never let anyone overpower her on screen. It's quietly mean and often self-referential fluff, portraying high school life as "make-the-best-of-a-bad-situation." There aren't scenes of woe, nor intolerance tossed to the side, at least whenever Stone's on camera. Which is, thankfully, a lot.

A Band Called Death
½

Fine. "A Band Called Death" isn't anything new. (See: last year's terrific "Searching for Sugar Man", the near-perfect "Anvil! The Story of Anvil"; others.) But what it lacks in originality it makes up for in spirit. Real death hovers over "A Band Called Death", that of guitarist David Hackney, who pioneered the punk band Death with his brothers Bobby and Dannis after seeing an Alice Cooper show in the early '70s.

David was the trio's real fighter for authenticity. Much of the beginning of the movie is about how tough a sell it was to record labels for a band to be billed as "Death", something with the internet and shit nowadays is almost inconceivable that a group named after the negative end of mortality would ever run into that sort of problem. Still David refused to change the name, and his brothers stuck by him, before the other two siblings turned to recording reggae, R&B and even Christian music under various aliases. David died of lung cancer in 2000 after a serious bout with alcoholism. One of his brothers called him a "genius type", and that ultimately the demons got to him.

The best parts of "A Band Called Death" are those in which Bobby and Dannis, in rediscovering years later David's passions -- through anger, family and tears -- come to better understand their brother as a person through his decisions as an artist, as more than someone they simply felt the need to stand alongside out of commitment. "A Band Called Death" is both heartbreaking and -warming because it stands alongside him, too. It's almost fitting that his unfortunate demise occasionally robs the movie from being able to go deeper, grander and darker than death.

Kærlighed på Film (Just Another Love Story)

I'm reminded of a negative review I once read for "Stoker" (a film I actually like quite a bit) -- what compels a story? Or what makes a story compelling? Is a compelling story enough, or is what you do with it? I say this on the heels of "Just Another Love Story", a movie that sticks to its title in -- similar to "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" and "Seven Psychopaths" -- its obsession in its tributes, homages, and every other play on the word. "Love Story" is a film noir, and it has all the trappings. Writer-director Ole Bornedal has a Tarantino-y Hans Landa sort of grin: isn't this all just so exciting?

Short answer: fuck yes. It's exciting as hell, even if the suspense of something icy, violent and foreign isn't your shit. It so happens to be mine. Cheers to Anders W. Berthelsen's lead performance. "Just Another Love Story" may be a tad TOO melodramatic, but so what if it has a little kooky fun. I had a killing. The black comedy is in the tale of mistaken identity, but the punishment is in the fall. Meaning even if you laugh at its pain, you can still feel it.

Sucks to know Bornedal's last work of note was "The Possession".

Little Big Man

Is "Little Big Man" post-modern because it wants to reinvent the wheel (in the wise words of the late, great Roger Ebert: "to spin an epic in the form of a yarn"), because it takes place at the tail end of when the Wild West was won? Or because it wants to have its cake and eat it too?

Gah. This movie is so frustrating. I want to love it for Arthur Penn's peerless staging and ambition, but for some reason I just ended up really liking it. Don't get me wrong, please-- "LBG" is a damn fine flick, even flat-out terrific, the sort of epic on which Hollywood would sooner wipe its ass with millions of dollars as opposed to billions than take a leap of artistic and cultural faith. Dustin Hoffman is perfectly cast as the opaque faux-Indian white man Jack Crabb, a showcase Hoffman at every corner delivers with wry humor and neurotic, fish-out-of-water empathy. And Faye Dunaway, as Hoffman's unhappily Christian foster mom, will take your breath away, both in terms of beauty and the Southern-belle devastation with which she plays her character.

"Little Big Man" kind of goes on too long, starts to repeat itself, and just loses steam in general with narrative inconsistencies and a sour final beat that left me more puzzled than emotionally winded. But the masterful Penn tells it all with such deep wonder. He so finely entrances us with Crabb's bravado because he, too, we feel, isn't quite sure what to make of it himself.

Harry and Tonto

"Dear Advertisers, I am disgusted with the way old people are depicted on television. We are not all vibrant, fun loving sex maniacs. Many of us are bitter, resentful individuals who remember the good old days when entertainment was bland and inoffensive." -Abe Simpson.

Drive
Drive(2011)

At the head of "Drive" there's straight blackness before the camera swings across the floor of a motel room, outlining everything but our protagonist, whom we hear dealing a job on a cell phone in the corner. "Taxi Driver" in reverse, we think.

Hold up. It's daytime now, the Hollywood stunt driver whose obscurity is highlighted as played by the stoic Ryan Gosling, and this one brooding scene edges smoothly into the Driver's real boogie nights. It's a peek at his nine-to-five. The Driver's kicks come under moonlight as the dude who warms the getaway car for bad guys. Surely he'd be swamped in sweet talk if he didn't establish his shadow role in these scandals to these dicks' bosses beforehand. Driver won't talk. He won't carry a gun. His theory: no weapon, no cry. Hell yeah he's been down this road many a score and found hard times getting off. Each chance he's drawn in there's a little piece of humanity missing than the last time.

It's a bit that could get old quick, but director Nicolas Winding Refn as well as Gosling -- who hand-picked Refn to make "Drive" once Hugh Jackman couldn't see enough in the project for him to stick around -- turn box office on its ear by morphing "Drive" from forgettable vanity to shear outlaw art, the sort of charm once attributed to Michael Mann and Jean-Pierre Melville. Refn, of "Bronson" fame, kills it in every raw, unflinching shot. And Gosling doesn't just bleed potential -- he owns Driver with subtle nuance.

Know who else digs a clean slate? Driver's neighbor Irene (no flaws from Carey Mulligan), a mom whose husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) was thrown in jail for dealing drug connections. His release on the heels of a maybe-affair between Driver and Irene should spell conflict. Instead he seduces Driver for help in paying out Cook (James Biberi), the one holding the end of his leash, so as not to bring his wife and kid harm.

I've said too much already, so I'll let it be at noting terrifying turns from Ron Perlman as the boss of it all and Albert Brooks the honcho even he must answer to. Both give "Drive" a looming sense of authority that hits hard. So does the movie, a masterful L.A. noir about staying deterred by staying indifferent to the actions around you, no matter how entangled in it you seemingly become. Driver knows he can act in spirit by letting reaction pass over him like storm clouds. Adapted by Hossein Amini from the book by James Sallis -- and with a pulpy score (props to "Contagion's" Cliff Martinez) and soundtrack you'll want to immediately take home with you -- "Drive" is all visceral awe that gains deeper context as the narrative goes on, background ticks of film reel switching like a stopwatch that goes almost textually described in the silence in which Refn's movie flares.

The subject matter of "Drive" isn't new, but it also isn't spoon-fed. Here's a mainstream oddity fueled by sex, violence and a deep love of cinema to lube the edges. Like Bruce Springsteen or Jeff Bridges in "The Last Picture Show", "Drive's" true ideals lie in the dream of the eternal search for clarity in ripping out the brakes and just leaving shit behind. Don't worry, trouble will find you. That's the case anyway for Driver, the scariest superhero ever put to screen. This gun's for hire.

Hell Baby
Hell Baby(2013)

It's not that "From the creators of 'Reno 911!'" isn't a ringing endorsement. It's that "Hell Baby" -- written and directed by "Reno's" Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant -- is smarter than a tagline that drudges up the name of a fairly great but all but forgotten late-night cable comedy show. And yet Lennon and Garant have since then painted an altogether different kind of hell on screen in penning such shamelessly unremarkable crap (to say the least) as both "Night at the Museums", "Herbie: Fully Loaded" and "The Pacifier". "Hell Baby" is a return to roots of sorts. Casting a slew of funny people (Kumail Nanjiani, Rob Corddry, Rob Huebel, Paul Scheer, Keegan Michael Key; OTHERS) I can't deny "Hell Baby" its moments of inspired lunacy. It's filmed well by Lennon and Garant, scenes aren't without a lot of color and space, mostly avoids easy humor and shit jokes. Hell (wink), the always lovely Riki Lindhome has a fairly lengthy nude scene as a Wicca flower child that instead of gratuitous I honestly laughed harder at than anything in "Wanderlust" combined.

Where most movies drop the ball in their third acts, "Hell Baby" actually hugely ramps up after a deathly slow first hour. Lennon and Garant don't just let gags run on and on and give their actors room, but an exorcism sequence in extra-special particular is so off the wall and crazy instead of cringe at its goofiness you actually feel the movie's smile, and do so along with it. Of course then the final staging device goes too long, finishes with a proud piece of toilet humor and rips its ending beat straight out of "Scary Movie 3". Oh well. "Hell Baby's" a cool enough time, and sure beats the dead weight of Lennon and Garant's cynical studio works, but for two guys making merchandised millions in the wake of Hollywood's burning money, I couldn't help but gawk at "Hell Baby's" reason for being.

The To Do List
½

Baby, sex ain't perfect no matter how much you try it. (Trust me, I know. Film isn't the only field I'm a complete expert in.) Love isn't perfect either, and there's a lot of it in "The To Do List", Maggie Carey's writing-directing debut. It's what saves the movie from feeling ever too slight, Carrey's intimacy and attention to detail.

And speaking of personality Aubrey Plaza is the definition of it. See her artful irony on TV's "Park's & Recreation". And last year's underrated (or overrated, depending on your thoughts) "Safety Not Guaranteed" proved she could lead. "To Do List" does it again. Despite the script's letups, she's a doll. Carey hammers the message that sometimes sex is just sex; it's hard for everyone and you shouldn't let it come between you (phrasing.) But Hollywood like-likes love stories. Forget convention. "The To Do List" is good, but Plaza's the kind of girl you go back for.

Sabrina
Sabrina(1954)

There's love in the air in "Sabrina", but there's also more than an air of man's shittiness and uncertainty floating around in there, too. Which makes Billy Wilder's film more than just a strings-attached Hollywood love triangle. Not that it's not NOT that; everything's still ultimately wrapped up in a neat little bow, even if it stumbles some in pulling together all its sometimes surprisingly dark stops. Still it's wonderful how "Sabrina" starts out as one thing and then becomes another. In that regard it isn't unlike Steven Soderbergh's "Side Effects", and not just because Audrey Hepburn looks kind of like how Rooney Mara looks now and I'd sure dig fucking both of them, maybe once time travel and line-skipping technology is invented. Okay, but also not NOT because of that.

Princess Mononoke
½

In a word: panoramic. "Princess Mononoke" is a canvas, a sheet constantly unrolling, never repeating, introducing such new and inventive and interesting ideas; it creates a world in which anything can happen, yet that also isn't without rules. As front-to-back gripping a Miyazaki work as I've ever seen before, and that he's ever done.

Jack Reacher
Jack Reacher(2012)

It's a comic book movie -- really, it is; like "Justified" meets "Sin City", though not as bold or terribly inventive or interesting as either of those. But it's an archetype "Jack Reacher" mostly works in falling back on, and it's hard to dislike it for it, especially with the ever-likable Tom Cruise in regular glossy, game form. His titular character, though -- a former Army sniper turned untraceable drifter -- is, like most of "Jack Reacher", just that: slippery, two-dimensional, generic action movie fare.

It looks great, "Usual Suspects" screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie solid in highlighting the little things, like Cruise's hand gently pushing a stick shift into gear, and pacing a particularly breathless chase scene in the middle of the film with a feverish gusto. The great cinematographer Caleb Deschanel helps in livening the thing by giving it a cool, bright polish without bringing the grounded, gritty feel up from earth. It's just...in a movie so intent on protecting the innocence of its victims and the cold (but well-meaning) badass at its center, it lacks, I don't know, that KICK that makes you feel the engine running. (See: the sharp-witted intensity of "Justified".) McQuarrie does a damn fine job of staging pain and gain buildup, but "Jack Reacher" never really explodes.

Swimming with Sharks
½

I kept waiting for "Swimming with Sharks" to bitch out. It never did. In fact, it might be TOO dark. Or maybe I'm just never happy. "Sharks" doesn't exactly break new ground, but I'd be the last guy to chastise heart, black or otherwise. There's no business like show business, you can say that, and Kevin Spacey's Buddy Ackerman is as ruthless as they come. So's George Huang's movie, a satire unafraid to bite off more than it can chew, and give audiences an appropriately unhappy, if anticlimactic ending. And Spacey is beautiful in "Shark's" bleakness. Heung doesn't stop at ripping the industry to shreds. His point, I think, is in addressing generational entitlement. No character is one-dimensional. The laughs hit and hurt. It's worth getting lost in the fog even if Heung doesn't send out the guiding light to really bring his message home.

Despicable Me 2
½

"Despicable Me 2" isn't an example of the death of movies I've heard it was. Look at "Man of Steel" or "The Lone Ranger" for that. Even if it frequently borders on the too-cute, and rests more on novelty than storytelling, the level of elbow-grease detail "Despicable Me 2" puts into the creation of its hyper-elastic world is cartoonish without being polished so round as to be broad; the mix of sugar high and heart "Wreck-It Ralph" nearly perfected. What it lacks in consistency it makes up for in charm. Steve Carell's put-on accent makes supervillain Gru awkward and lovable to the point of believability, and Kristen Wiig is terrificly adorkable as the spy who loves him. Overall my main worry was overkill. But "Despicable Me 2", like its predecessor, demonstrates that eye candy doesn't have to be dumb.

Plus I just love those fucking Minions. And that unicorn is just so damn fluffy, I want to die.

Byzantium
Byzantium(2013)

Neil Jordan knows evil. And he's met vampires before. But that doesn't mean a lot hasn't changed for the creatures of the night since 1994's "Interview with a Vampire", from the sparkly cash grab of "Twilight" to Tomas Alfredson's genre watermark (I think, at least) "Let the Right One In". Thank God the dude won't have any of the former in "Byzantium". Sure, things get needlessly contrived. But its human moments make it worth it. By which I mean "Byzantium" would be a seafront soap opera if not for the strength of its two leads, and Saoirse Ronan and Gemma Arterton -- as women estranged in blood, lust and eternal life -- are, just that, terrific.

Ronan again demonstrates what a fierce actress she can be when the material's up to snuff (see: "Hanna", "Atonement", "The Way Back"), and let's hope the fact "Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters" somehow scraped up enough dirty money to generate ideas for a sequel doesn't deter Arterton from moving away from the blockbuster shit heaps of "Clash of the Titans" and "Prince of Persia" and more toward her early indie work, particularly the excellent crime thriller "The Disappearance of Alice Creed". Jordan directs both fine ladies in every which manner of adulterous light. The movie turns sticky in a flimsy third act involving a group of undead thugs who go by "The Pointy Nails of Justice" (I'm not kidding), though Jordan's handle on "Byzantium" is firmest and most alluring when he allows the story to work in shades of grey. It may ultimately be nothing to write home about, but Ronan and Arterton play every beat with unnervingly icy passion.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

"Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" lost most of its Oscars to the final "Lord of the Rings" film. Fair enough. But you can't deny its rousing, grand-scale wonders. Epic's one way to describe it. Mighty's another. Staged lavishly without forgetting its rough, hard-worn feel, Peter Weir's film has the tea-stained look of a travel log, dirtied with the mud and blood of multiple vantage points and campfire stories. It sort of makes up for the rest of the plot's lulls and cliches. Plus Russell Crowe is really good. And Weir must have at least modeled some of the shots after "Barry Lyndon", so it's safe to call it Kubrickian. Lot of adjectives. There's a certain disconnect between its sweeping images and its character beats and emotion, but that's not to say "Master and Commander" isn't all too often artful in forsaking the stiff tune of the familiar to step out as its own cordial, thrilling thing.

Pain & Gain
Pain & Gain(2013)

Say this for "Pain & Gain" -- Michael Bay has finally met a story so crazy it exceeds even his sexist, racist, homophobic grasp. Oh, the flourishes are there -- how can they not be? -- and it's what makes the first half of "Pain" so gorgeously inappropriate and the second so misogynist, repetitive and unwieldy. Satire is a fine line to walk. (See: the fucked-up American dreams of "Spring Breakers" or "Killing Them Softly".) Though at least with "P&G" Bay -- as well as screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely -- TRY. That's the ultimate goal here. "Pain & Gain" is a movie that acts unapologetic in the face of recent firearm-related tragedies, cries for equality in marriage and numerous reports of school bullying. I can't blame anyone who calls "Pain" a shot better left in the dark, especially when finding meaning to its big, dumb-guy action movie sensibilities is pretty much equivalent to fighting an uphill battle. But hey man. Worth something if it's still bothering me months after I've seen it.

Pacific Rim
Pacific Rim(2013)
½

It took me a while, but I like it. A lot of the intimacy of the imagery has stuck with me, particularly the Kaiju/Jaeger sequences; even MORE particularly the scale and depth to the picture-like canvas of a father and son as they bear witness to a Jaeger toppling over onto a snowy beach. Ron Perlman takes MVP for vista-chewing craziness, and director Guillermo del Toro for blending his kid at heart wonder with the visionary he's grown up to be. The movie's one glaring problem: overkill. Cut out maybe a half hour and I could say I loved "Pacific Rim". As it is it's a treat sheerly for being overwhelmingly cinematic, and doing so for the most part without losing its sense of spirit in all the fanfare. Nothing Hollywood would understand.

Turbo
Turbo(2013)

You heard it here first: enough hard work and money can make any animated movie look gorgeous. "Turbo" wasn't done on the cheap. And god DAMN does it look good, spit-shined in whites, silvers and baby blues with the dark flush of primary colors gone bad. (Regular Chris Nolan cinematographer Wally Pfister served as visual consultant, whatever that means.) And from the swoosh of the camera as the film opens on the hot tar of a stadium racetrack to the white noise of seeing the image compressed to fit onto a small tube television, "Turbo" is never boring.

But a few beats into its predictable underdog story reveals it's broke nonetheless, the treat of seeing Paul Giamatti as a snail notwithstanding. Every jab it takes at originality is suffused with the sort of purposeful novelty "Cars 2" used to sell toy cars, until the final shot when "Turbo's" you-can-do-it message is as blind- and blandly undermined as the credit punch of "Frankenweenie". Despite the movie's wild-ass premise of a snail entering (and -- spoiler alert to those lucky enough to be so innocent -- winning) the Indy 500 by the time "Turbo" gets there we've already been thoroughly reminded how much of everything we've already seen.

Mama
Mama(2013)

Whoever said Jessica Chastain couldn't pull off punk-rock with flying colors just got their ass handed to them on a platter. The rest of "Mama" is passable fare, visually interesting (there's a dream sequence that really wows) but a script that wears stretch marks on its core relationship drama and chilly, woodsy concept. But, you know. In January it's all Oscar holdovers and, apparently, D-grade Mark Wahlberg thrillers. So I guess "Mama" is decent enough schlock to stew on for 90 minutes.

Beautiful Creatures

My theater STILL didn't get "Cloud Atlas" because of this shit.

Little Miss Sunshine

I've seen movies leave me in tears, but "Little Miss Sunshine" coaxed 'em out of me before shit was even totally said and done. It's a dreamboat of an indie, funny, fierce, and bruising. To all lazy DIY-ers: wake up and learn firsthand from first-time directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris -- comedy can go black without losing heart, and look back without drowning the audience in greedy tear-jerking. Long story short, movies don't get much better than "Little Miss Sunshine". Cherish it. It's a gem.

Pusher II: With Blood On My Hands

Sort of like Nicolas Winding Refn's "The Place Beyond the Pines", meaning that this time with great sex, violence, coke, neon and pornography comes great responsibility. Mads Mikkelsen's haunted face bears the expression of a world wronged and vengeful. Just as hypnotic as the first.

The Inbetweeners
½

Leave it to critics to take the piss out of a good time. Thankfully Damon Beesley and Iain Morris -- writers and creators of the gloriously short-lived UK series "The Inbetweeners" -- don't forsake the raunchy and mutually awkward for the too sweet in lads Will, Simon, Jay and Neil's jump to the big screen. It's the perfect late-night comedy, given you're already a fan. For those of us who found the girl troubles of the four's coming of age more than just new slang trash talk on the show "The Inbetweeners Movie" will leave you with maybe a greater sense of melancholy than you'd expect from a holiday trip that includes perpetual nakedness, old lady snogging and coke lines of shit. When in Rome. Er, Greece, anyway. Best of luck with everything, boys. We're gonna miss you.

Pusher
Pusher(1999)

Like Andrew Dominik's "Chopper", "Pusher" has all the dressings of a noted filmmaker's work. It's just how it's packaged: done up with small-time hoods and hookers, pornography, violence, neon nightclubs, despicable characters; it's so scummy an underworld -- that seedy, druggy playground Nicolas Winding Refn oh so loves to explore -- that "Pusher" seems appropriately out of its element whenever it enters the law and societal artifice of the real world; for one thing, there's SUN. It's not as polished as Refn's later works, but "Pusher" is a damn fine crime film, debut or otherwise. And the look of the thing is so home-made (nice for "cheap", which is nice for "shitty") you feel each passing time interval heroin pusher Frank (Kim Bodnia) asks of drug lord Milo (Zlatko Buric) in paying off his debt like a meter either depleted or temporarily nourished. Povl Kristian and Peter Peter's score wafts through the condemnable tracksuit urbanity like a heartless wind of change.

V/H/S/2
V/H/S/2(2013)
½

"V/H/S" used the handheld- and POV-cam style as akin to "Girls Gone Wild" pornography -- dirty and infectiously shameless. But, as again evidenced in "V/H/S/2", anthology as a genre is really damn hard to pull off. Say this for both movies: they don't hold back, and I think (or at least hope) they've revived the brand as a viable opportunity for up-and-coming directors to showcase slices of their touch and talent in the form of short films. The closers are lucky, 'cause naturally, in wow-'em-in-the-end "Adaptation" fashion, they'll be the ones you most remember, if not how you'll remember "V/H/S/2" as a whole.

It suffers from a lot of the ideas being ultimately only "pretty cool" (which I guess is inherent in the brief time allotted for each short), and the "V/H/S/2" filmmakers still haven't really made enough purpose of the whole wrap-around thing. The movie ends way stronger than it begins -- the final shorts, Gareth Huw Evans and Timo Tjahjanto's "Safe Haven" and Jason Eisener's "Alien Abduction Slumber Party" are the most I-want-to-see-more-of-this tapes here. Adam Wingward's "Phase I Clinical Trials" and Eduardo Sánchez and Gregg Hale's "A Ride in the Park" are economic and inventive, but neither are even remotely scary. I don't know. You dug the first film, you'll probably also dig this. Not a put-down. Just, as it is.

Valhalla Rising

I can almost picture the grin of shit-eating glee on Nicolas Winding Refn's face at the idea of a casual moviegoer's reaction upon seeing "Valhalla Rising". Say this for it: imagine no longer what Terrence Malick's "The New World" might look like as splattered with even more blood and mud, jerked off onto and then filtered through a nightmare. That's "Valhalla" for you. More than that, that's Refn for you. You want hell? He'll give it to you. What sparse dialogue there is is hard enough to cut diamonds. And the live-wire Mads Mikkelsen as One-Eye, a "Django"-istic warrior who kills his master to bum along a team of Christian Vikings set on a crusade to found a holy land, continues to be basically the Danish Michael Fassbender without uttering a syllable, blending with Refn and cinematographer Morten Søborg's storm of brutal imagery without clashing with it, but with the capable nerve and danger to know that he could if he wanted to.

There's nothing groundbreaking here in terms of story, but there's a fever to "Valhalla's" lucid presentation of itself that makes the film feel like a kind of twistedly unique cinematic treat, and yet also the sort of thing that might materialize on the brink of sleep before waking you in a daze of sweat, fear and panic, or the extra definition added to your bedroom's shadows when you turn off the light.

Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present

Well-made if occasionally scatter-brained and precious, unfortunately it lost me in the final act when the movie really started to project a too-messianic spell onto Abramovic. But she's an interesting lady and hugely talented. So, there's that.

Flammen & Citronen (Flame & Citron) (The Flame and the Lemon)

Not a great film -- often repetitive, narratively cliched, overlong -- but the cinematography is beautiful and the filmmaking respectable; ditto the performances by Mads Mikkelsen and Thure Lindhart. If you don't know their names yet, you will.

Efter brylluppet (After the Wedding)

The opening moments of Susanne Bier's "After the Wedding" matches a montage of hot, earthy Indian slum imagery with music by Sigur Ros at their saddest and most prophetic, emphasizing the quiet gaps between every dark, dripping beat. This bit works so well, in fact, that it perfectly both sums up and prepares you for the film's drama-with-a-capital-D emotional turbulence. And like a Sigur Ros song, the devastating arc of "Wedding" plays like the nose of a jet engine always right about to crash before miraculously pulling up, leaving you lifted and alive.

Truth be told "After the Wedding" is a bit too airy, and the movie's two hour runtime could have been tighter. But the humanness of leads Sidse Babett Knudsen, Rolf Lassgård and the years-rising acting force of Mads Mikkelsen -- and, of course, screenwriters Bier and Anders Thomas Jensen -- keep "Wedding" from ever feeling contrived. No spoilers here. If you can, go in cold. Profoundly affecting.

In the Family
½

The second three-hour indie I've seen this week from yet another filmmaker with ambition and talent that stretch from here to the moon.

Ooh, boy.

The "here" is the present-day American South. The moon in this case is getting baby boomer morals to wise up to the twentieth century when gay man Cody dies in a car accident, leaving his lover, Joey (Patrick Wang), to fend off Cody's sister and his outdated will in maintaining custody of the child he and Joey have shared together for six years.

There aren't a lot of surprises in "In the Family", so then why are you glued to the screen for all its 169 minutes? That's writer-director Wang, careful to populate "Family" with, well, just that feeling: love and family and friendship and sacrifice. In its shear number of long, beautiful takes you get the sense of an epic zooming closer and pushing tighter into race relations and fatherhood, no matter how unbroken the camera remains. You also get the sense that, like Xavier Dolan's "Laurence Anyways", Wang is being deliberate in his film's own aesthetic craftiness -- he'll do anything to make an impression. And yet "In the Family" manages to stay gorgeously out of its own way. Call it "Kramer vs. Kramer" given the "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" treatment, but when the results are this profound, anxious and intimate I'm fine with being punctiliously seared. Because to quote another near-perfect film from the last two years, you can force your story's shape but the color will always bloom upstream.

Berberian Sound Studio

Of all the movies Peter Strickland's "Berberian Sound Studio" can and will be compared to, from a point of reference it reminded me of "The Bling Ring": crafted more to impress you than to entertain you. Never in a mean-spirited way, but even at just under 90 minutes I'd say it needed a kick in the ass.

That being said it IS absolutely marvelous from a technical standpoint, and its elliptical storytelling at times feels like you're watching the engineering of a dream. And, know what, fuck it, "BBS" may be purportedly slow, but it's with a heart and purpose. Genre fans best get lost in it, because "BBS's" slow-burn deliberateness -- and its loopy, looping Broadcast score -- is gonna be stuck in your head like a wet match long after you've safely crouched in the distance, eyes shut and hands over your ears, wondering why the bomb didn't go off.

Side by Side
Side by Side(2012)

Pretty much sex for movie nerds. A lot of "hows" of digital culture that doesn't forgo the "why" it's upending projects being shot on film. It successfully engages in conversation not only the mad talented filmmakers Keanu Reeves got to interview but with the audience itself. Because what it's pressing is the question of how to marry art and the rapidity of technology. It can work out great (look at "Avatar") or it could flat-out suck (the "Star Wars" prequels.) Incredibly interesting and never one-sided. Kind of a must.

Lore
Lore(2013)

You almost don't need dialogue for "Lore" to work. Its power is in its images -- technicolor as saturated with cigarette burns. (I'm retiring using the phrase "Malickian".) Like "The Place Beyond the Pines" it's a movie about legacy, the inescapable and the individual. I don't know if the ending is too much of a shrug or just another brushstroke of desert-dry black humor, but "Lore" is harrowing nonetheless. It'll get to you.

Monsters University
½

Pixar has a gift for building worlds of such richness and detail they could inhabit a hundred movies. Here's to that milestone. Watching "Monsters University" I was reminded of what a great idea "Monsters Inc." was for a film, and one that the animation studio handled with the utmost precision and care. "University" does more than rest on "Inc.'s" laurels, though, filling the screen with a bevy of immaculately beautiful character design, crisp texture, color and voice acting.

Did "Monsters Inc." need a prequel? Probably not, at least not in the operatic arc and necessity of the "Toy Story" sequels. And ever since the the turn of the decade Pixar's made questionable leanings away from risky storytelling and more toward practical novelty. (See: "Cars 2". Or, rather, don't, if you haven't.) "MU" isn't a masterpiece but it's warm and heartfelt, and the shear gorgeous look of the thing is worth admission alone. It's less humble than the rest of the film's beginnings.

Grizzly Man
Grizzly Man(2005)

I have two cats I love dearly. I've had others -- most just disappeared, I'd assume eaten by coyotes or foxes. There's tension over territory. There's also tension over mannerisms -- all three animals are pretty similar in how they're built and how they act. I guess that's the lay of the land: rather than get along, the way of nature wins above the way of grace. Every time.

Timothy Treadwell lived among the grizzly bears of Katmai National Park and Preserve, Alaska for thirteen summers, documenting his stay in first-person accounts detailing weather conditions, his opinions on love and sex, but most of all unflinching footage of bears fighting, fishing, and in general just going about, well, regular bear stuff. Treadwell was often at odds with park services in regards to their "Silence of the Lambs"-type don't-approach-the-glass rules when it came down to tourists, etc.

But Treadwell, obviously, was more than a casual viewer of his habitat. Just that, the mountains and rivers became his, or at least he wanted them to. As someone in Werner Herzog's striking documentary "Grizzly Man" opines the only reason Treadwell lasted as long as he did before being mauled and killed by one of these animals was that the bears saw the man as being somewhat off-kilter, and either put up with his antics or ignored him best they could.

Herzog sees the world in Treadwell. He sees the frustration toward his surroundings as on par with Thoreau. The fiercest and wildest thing about "Grizzly Man" is the downright fascination Herzog has to Treadwell's story. That, who knows, maybe Treadwell had it coming putting himself out there like that. Or he just wanted to get away and found a fresh start in the wild. But he didn't mean to kill himself. Herzog doesn't hold Treadwell's anger, fear or bitterness against him.

You wait on edge throughout the entirety of the recordings the movie sifts through waiting for that one thing that pushed either Treadwell or the bear that killed him over the edge, and the audio from the event, while Herzog is shown listening to and describing it, the actual moment is wisely never shared. Because Herzog, the great filmmaker he is, also respected Treadwell as the same. The best documentaries are canvases of insight into people, movements or the environment. "Grizzly Man" peers so damningly inward it's no wonder it feels like it's wrestling with the wrath of God.

Kumaré
Kumaré(2012)
½

The great thing about the otherwise merely "really good" "Kumare" is that there's nothing mere about it. What the doc demonstrates in its story of a New Jersey Hindu who poses as a guru isn't the transparency and hypocrisy of people (this isn't "Borat"), but the guiding nature the best teachers have in teaching their students how to think, and think for themselves. Only thing is is that Vikram Gandhi as prophet Kumare seems a bit unsure of the whole thing, like going into "Kumare" his big idea was sort of one-note. But the filmmakers got lucky in enough of Kumare's disciples being open-minded to the movement's message of being wary not to put too much weight of spiritual ideals on the shoulders of something as tangible as a human being.

On the Waterfront

There's an interview with Martin Scorsese on the Criterion release of "On the Waterfront", which makes total sense. Scorsese is maybe cinema's greatest movie buff, and his characters -- from De Niro to Jack Nicholson in "The Departed" -- very clearly took a page from the burliness of Marlon Brando. And Scorsese, in turn, was clearly inspired by the moral leanings of the films (and real life) of Elia Kazan. "On the Waterfront" isn't an epic, but it's a touching blend of brains, brawn, family and consequences, indebted to its small-time criminals in a big-time and honest way. Try not to fall for Leonard Bernstein's tragically beautiful score. It's so good, in fact, it would have been easy for Kazan to use it as a crutch. He doesn't. But it does help in giving the rest of "Waterfront", a true raging bull of a movie, its disquieting feeling of shame worried sick.

Frankenweenie

Tim Burton doesn't just give you bits and pieces of his childhood in his movies -- more often than not, he gives you the ENTIRE thing, all quirk, character, and "Pleasantville" suburban influence. Check "Ed Wood", "Edward Scissorhands", "Big Fish" â" his best and brightest because they're his deepest and most personal. He's no stranger at giving where he came from a big electric jolt. "Frankenweenie", his latest, comes on the tail end of two critical bombs (and one commercial), reboots of "Alice in Wonderland" (2010) and last year's "Dark Shadows". Burton going high profile with blank checks for budgets sounds mission impossible considering his bizarro stamp. That he's been embraced by popular culture should have been a call from atop the highest hill to write him off as done with experimenting.

But that's something Burton's never lost the balls to do. Even his misfires bear a wizard's marking. Enter "Frankenweenie" into his canon of erratic, a stop-motion feature based on a live-action short Burton did in the '80s about a young inventor cum filmmaker Victor Frankenstein (here voiced by Charlie Tahan) who revives his recently-deceased dog Sparky using a lab table and a lightning storm; all the latest in monster-making technology. When word gets around Sparky's back from the dead fingers point to new school science teacher Mr. Rzykruski ("Ed Woodâ(TM)s" Martin Landau), who preaches this small town's poison of old ideals making way for the new in the droll accent of an outsider. They call panic on Victor's not letting his pet close the loop. It doesn't help Victor lives next door to the town's grumbly mayor, either.

Filmed in black-and-white 3D, even when the story of "Frankenweenie" wears thin Burton and screenwriter John August never let it fall to one dimension. Summer's "ParaNorman" had more of a "Cabin in the Woods"-type kick of a catharsis-- and for a kid's flick, that's extra points for going beyond -- but it's hard to argue with a movie about how heavy hearts equal good things, and that even death can bring life. To some it'll be the precious ramblings of an enlightened Goth. Take it in stride. Like all good things, "Frankeenweenie" just shares being lovable with being frustrating.

Jackie Brown
Jackie Brown(1997)
½

My undying love for Quentin Tarantino will never be diminished, no matter the unlikely day he should make a bad movie. Here's a guy with a huge passion for filmmaking, one I've come to respect and cherish. Though "Jackie Brown" bears the weight of its idealist character being less a female badass than hindering baggage, the screenplay's dynamite dialouge and expertly crafted extensive scenes prove only worthy of a true master. With "Jackie Brown" Tarantino makes good his rep of tossing constructive characters into situations where the little things stand alone.

A Late Quartet

The only movie ever to be threatened by that inessential Dustin Hoffman-directed work I never saw (remember that thing?), "A Late Quartet" actually isn't the senior-priced late night (after 7 P.M., that is) affair you'd think it would be. The problems of a classical music group's struggling relationship to one other spark because they, like the movie, refuse to adhere to happy endings, favoring rather the mournful ambiance of personal and professional bruises. And instead of getting tangled up in prickly pretentious- or laziness Yaron Zilberman's film, what it lacks in ferocity, it makes up for in passion, using characters as instruments rather than devices, and because of it feeling flexibly fine-tuned. (Get it? Because it's about a string quartet.) Didn't deserve to just come and go the way it did.

Behind the Candelabra

Would "Behind the Candelabra" have worked on a big screen? Why not. It probably would have made more sense as a miniseries, though, the way it plays out. Soderbergh is one of the best people in movies today (and now TV I guess) who's still yet to make an undeniable masterpiece, but has never made an uninteresting film. "Candelabra" doesn't break that streak even if it's an unfortunately minor work. Michael Douglas is exquisite as Liberace, and Matt Damon great as his lover. It's a Liberace biopic even Liberace would approve of, and that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Todo sobre mi madre (All About My Mother)
½

Almodovar sure loves his hookers and trannies, don't he.

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Mujeres al Borde de un Ataque de Nervios)
½

Almodovar has never been one to take himself too seriously, and "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" -- while rougher than the darker, more polished and poetic films he was to later make in his career -- is also a fun, funny, fairly realized work where the surrealism and artificiality of its world is part of the charm. More than just a sign of what was to come.

Roman Holiday
½

If nothing else -- man, was Audrey Hepburn ever one hell of a looker. Even in black and white her charm was close to peerless. And, again, another thing I feel I say all the time, but watching "Roman Holiday" reminded me that there's still yet room for movies like it in Hollywood. As in, even today. The last movie to really get this formula (I hate that word) right was "Silver Linings Playbook", a shamelessly traditional throwback to screwball movieland, that was also not afraid to touch on larger and more important themes than a happy ending (even if "SLP" ultimately and unfortunately feeds one to you anyway.) Both films land a big smile on your face without delving to sap, and those kind of rom-coms shouldn't be stoned for it. Life's enough of a bitch already. And as for "Roman Holiday", yeah, I kind of loved it.

Breaking the Waves

"Powerhouse" doesn't even begin to describe the emotional drive of Lars von Trier's "Breaking the Waves". It's more like every variation or synonym of "powerhouse" emphasized times a thousand; a force of nature. Also, like a great piece of literature, "Waves" is a big movie -- 156 minutes, lucidly filmed, grainy. In other words, not easy on the eyes. That doesn't even scratch the movie's sexual explicitness, some of the most graphic and incredible ever put to film. Not to say von Trier uses it for purposes empty or lost. But is it exactly empowering to see the softhearted and unstable Bess (Emily Watson, in her Oscar-nominated feature debut) dole out increasingly brutal sexual favors to strangers for sake of, she believes, saving her oilman husband Jan (Stellan Skarsgaard) from a (literal and karma) coma?

"Breaking the Waves" is a masterpiece. It's one of those films where, I'm not even sure what to make of it. It feels scripture, a religious parable you might find in some sacred text but that challenges both the authority and compassion of God. Watching this, it isn't told in a way that seems to doubt His existence, which is why it wouldn't be out of the question for "Waves" to be shown as part of a clerical curriculum of some sort. Set in the 1970s Scottish Highlands, an omnipresent power seems to be there, but man, is it ever silent. This movie feels so cold, so distant, but by the end, it seems to signal something, the foolishness of the elders of Bess' super-devout church, of man in general, I don't know. The ending could also mean hope, that people like Bess, whose only crime was being "too good" a person, are evidence of earthly powers; of miracles.

Speaking of the movie alone now, I found myself also wondering what happened to Emily Watson. But then before writing this, I guess I never realized what a fantastic career she's had. "Gosford Park", "Punch-Drunk Love", "Synecdoche, New York", even 2011's "War Horse". She lost the Oscar for "Breaking the Waves" to Frances McDormand in "Fargo". With Kristin Scott Thomas for "The English Patient" up that year, too, I don't know who I'd pick. Von Trier is an insane filmmaker and deserves his rank among the best still working today. That he went on to make movies that were good, let alone JUST AS GOOD as "Breaking the Waves" speaks to his mind-boggling talent. It's an epic, a must-see, a lyrical love song that, in showing us the ambiguity of the dark, is a gift of thought, poetry and power. Let it break you. Despite it all, it's a blessing.

Sound of My Voice

Critically speaking, I don't know if Zal Batmanglij's "Sound of My Voice" exactly breaks fresh ground (or that it's even as good as the other Sundance 2011 Brit Marling project "Another Earth"), but it bleeds potential. Which sounds gross. Okay -- it's a REALLY smart psychological thriller, more so than I feel most critics have given due credit. Like "Another Earth" I'll be damned if I won't be pondering what both the specific and vague features of this film mean for weeks on end. And Marling yet again proves herself an awesome new talent, her enigmatic beauty matching perfectly the sober dialect and mannerisms necessary in portraying the role of a mysterious, oxygen-tanked California cult leader. Macro creeps on a micro scale.

Let's go "The East".

We Need to Talk About Kevin
½

The rare capital-I "ISSUES" film not weighted down any by the brunt of its moral message. In layering synchronous acting, directing and music Lynne Ramsay does movie as mood, mood as terror, and terror as more than family -- as individual, back-breaking introspection. "We Need to Talk About Kevin" isn't so much a level chat as it is one whose glassy gaze is apt in always looking away, wondering where things went wrong and being tortured by it, while also still haunted by it. Less a daydream than a waking nightmare, and all the better for it.

Farewell, My Queen
½

I still most prefer Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette movie (though Diane Kruger's pouty prettiness almost matches Kristen Dunst's lovely dreaming head in that film), but "Farewell, My Queen" won me over with its dark beauty, director Benoit Jacquot capturing the end of the French Revolution -- and the power of an era -- mainly in the dusty, empty rooms of the Queen's mansion in perishing flux. The cinematography and acting by Kruger alone is nearly enough to forgive its lack of depth and tension in servant Lea Seydoux's protagonist, but then the non-ending happened in a needless wrap-it-up voice-over. Still, incredibly well-made and for sure worth seeing.

Big Night
Big Night(1996)

Just a super-sweet, personal, more-play-than-movie that in using Fellini-type party scenes draws great banter, sadness, and ultimately a sense of togetherness from its characters. Tony Shalhoub and Ian Holm chew scenery like motherfuckers.

Planet of the Apes
½

"Planet of the Apes" was written and directed by three heavyweights of 1950s, '60s and '70s culture -- penned by Michael Wilson ("It's a Wonderful Life", "Bridge on the River Kwai", "Lawrence of Arabia") and "The Twilight Zone's" Rod Serling and conducted by early TV vet Franklin J. Schaffner (who later went on to make "Patton" and "The Boys from Brazil"), "Apes" is like a perfect crossroads of golden age Hollywood epics and the trippy, ominous sci-fi of "Star Trek", "The Outer Limits" and Serling's classic chain-smoking CBS anthology. And like that masterpiece of a show, "Planet of the Apes" gloriously plays on and up the familiarity of American ideals of the time by going against the grain in nearly every way; a standalone, future-at-your-front-door sci-fi that also doubles as a brilliant sociopolitical allegory, "Apes" still never beats you over the head like, well, a damn dirty ape.

Full Metal Jacket

Apparently we live in a world where "Full Metal Jacket" is considered underrated. Now that's what I call horror.

The Godfather, Part II

The original is a masterpiece of an Warner Bros-inspired gangster movie, one that's epic in scope and power and loving yet terrifying in detail. But "The Godfather: Part II" is almost something else entirely -- less a sequel than a crazy-ambitious, even more operatic companion piece to "The Godfather", and even better. Its dueling narratives are interwoven, there's flashbacks, characters staring blankly into the sea. "Part II" found Coppola playing at the kind of horror that was to come with "Apocalypse Now", as well as the refined suspense and chilling restraint of "The Conversation". (Can you imagine "Part II" and "The Conversation" coming out in the same year? Yeah, the '70s for movies was really THAT good.) I don't know what the hell happened with Coppola as of the "Dracula"-"Jack"-"Twixts" of-late, but man, was he ever one hell of a filmmaker. There was sweat put into his miracles.

Robot & Frank

A treatise on family, parenting and age, one whose Spike Jonze-like sci-fi elements are high concept yet simple enough never to feel absurd or overshadow the great actor at its center. And while "Robot & Frank" is charming in its accessibility, it also manages to present the consequences of leading a life in need of a reset button without ever forgetting to be human.

Now You See Me
½

Gun to their heads, "Now You See Me" is not the work anyone here would really mind all that much having stricken from their record. That being said, "Now" is deliberate in its Vegas-y flash -- none of the layers of a "Prestige" or "Inception", but low-brow and fun enough to almost overlook how it pretty much squanders any potential for complexity for sake of breezy entertainment. What else do you expect from the shithead that let mellow in the cinematic toilet "Transporter 2", "The Incredible Hulk" and the "Clash of the Titans" remake? At least "Now You See Me" is yellow and not brown. Jesus, how did my review come to this.

Sling Blade
Sling Blade(1996)
½

"Sling Blade", despite its title, does not cut easy. It's anything but hack. Fading in on the inside of a sleepy mental hospital day room, the atmosphere feels silent, the carnal chatter of a fellow inmate buzing like a bug, an incessant fly on the wall. And then comes the monologue (oh, the monologue) delivered by Karl Childers (Billy Bob Thorton) on why, as a child, he in fear offed two lovers in coitus, one of whom happened to be his mother. It's in stark contrast to the rest of the film's medium shots -- his speech is seen from overhead, like ample evidence being left on God's voicemail not as to why Karl was just in his cause, but how he's bettered since then.

The directorial debut of Billy Bob Thorton, "Sling Blade" starts out operatic, the monster coming home, and I found myself awaiting Karl to break, for conflict to arise as he reverts back to his blood simple ways. "Blade" very much has a foil -- guy gets out of lockup, guy struggles to keep it together, goes back to the ward -- but it's the slow, methodical nature of it that drives the movie -- and the excellent Freddie Quell-type twig-thin hunchback of Karl, played beautifully by Thorton -- deeper. It brings the movie to a psychological level by shaking the habitual of serial killer films, and of Thorton the celebrity himself. "The Master" in its lyricism, "Psycho" in its small-town panic and "South Park" in its humor, "Sling Blade" is a grab-bag of all of these without losing its edge. In its congenial wisdom and mannered trepidation, it's almost like a down-home horror movie for the whole family.

The Damned United

I'd say it's a movie more about humiliation, rivalries and defeat than it is about sports, but it's also not NOT about sports. Plus a lot of those things are basically what sports is all about anyway. And Tom Hooper again makes England look pretty. So there.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

One consistently funny trip about two careless men in sin city. Johnny Depp is perfect; Gilliam directs with the same odd intensity characterizing the madcap story. Loved loved loved it.

The Last Stand
½

Korean director Kim Ji-woon is a great filmmaker. See his "The Good, the Bad, & the Weird" for a seriously funny rush of Leone swagger and Tarantino splatter. Then check "I Saw the Devil", whose soul and violent lyricism was lost on many critics as exploitative kitsch, in telling the tale of a cop who stared hell in the face and tried to break it. Kim may have blurred the line between good and evil, but he did anything but tow it.

"The Last Stand", his American debut, sounds like fun -- Arnold Schwarzenegger as a winded Los Angeles cop-turned-Arizona sheriff whose hick border town's defenses are tested after an escaped drug lord comes barreling toward the safety of Mexico. Good and evil is again questioned as everyone from a cookie-cutter FBI temper trap played by Forest Whitaker to old ladies in window shop rocking chairs are all quick to pull the trigger on trouble. It's in good fun, and tailored to laughs, but, and I hate to be this guy, but in the wake of recent firearm-related national tragedies, "The Last Stand" really isn't doing cinema any favors in biting the bullet when it comes to blame. Kim's visual style is there -- a great opening tracking shot, live-wire action set-pieces, the film's chronological twelve-hour structure -- but the rest of "The Last Stand" -- excluding a game Arnie -- is a pandersome bore. Kim deserves better.

The Paperboy
The Paperboy(2012)

"Prestigious" is not exactly the term I'd use in describing "The Paperboy". ("Precious", now, that's something completely different. Come on, it was right there.) Prestigious would imply "The Paperboy" is, well, trying to pass off its filth and camp as top-of-the-line art. It isn't.

Of course, that doesn't mean it ISN'T art. I'd much rather see a movie that tries and fails than that doesn't try at all. Lee Daniels' film is dirty, nasty and all-out pornographic in parts. And I liked it. Does it fumble the ball more than once? Yeah. Does its blatant racism TOTALLY pass for satire of the time and not rolling-in-the-mud exploitation? Hell no. But "The Paperboy" gets a bad rep. Sure, Nicole Kidman pees on Zac Efron and Matthew McConaughey is whipped to a pulp by two men in a sleazy motel room. Get off your high horse. There's power in its directness if you can see past the shameless plasticity.

Leaves of Grass
½

"Leaves of Grass" is a much smarter movie than it makes itself out to be, but that just might backpack some of the dark joke the film is built upon. Tim Blake Nelson's comedy, despite the strange choices it makes in terms of violence toward its climax, has a certain something that sticks with you long after. It could be the structural way in which it's crafted or constant reference to philosophical poetry and clear external influences that give "Leaves of Grass" an added spice.It's movies that choose to go as dark as this I consider to be gifts. Forget all of Nelson's hippie jumbo if you'd like. Through it all is Edward Norton in dual roles as Bill Kincaid and his twin brother, that turns "Leaves of Grass" into more than backyard art, and heavy leaning toward hypnotic oasis.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle
½

"The Friends of Eddie Coyle" is...surprisingly complex. It's at once a swan song for the great Robert Mitchum's Eddie Coyle, a two-bit arms dealer for the mob who gives up his clients to the feds in the hope of helping his court case. And yet, it's called the "friends" of Eddie Coyle. Mitchum wanders Peter Yates' film like a ghost, haunted by sleazy Boston bank robbers, a cold New England without sunlight and the term "stand-up guy" hanging over his head like a dreamcatcher.

Based on a novel by George V. Higgins (whose "Cogan's Trade" inspired "Killing Them Softly"), you can see the influence "Eddie Coyle" has had on pop culture, from "The Town" and "Justified" to Tarantino and Sidney Lumet. Because even after Eddie's gone -- to prison or elsewhere -- and the gangsters have found their mole, there'll still be a world of assholes screwing over other dumb, violent assholes. But they're the only friends Eddie's got, all the way up to his immortal final lines from the seats of a hockey game: "Number four, Bobby Orr. Geez, what a future he's got, huh?" Yeah, in a stand-up classic.

Primer
Primer(2004)

It needs more drama and emotion to champion anything beyond twisty, terrific sci-fi -- the versatility's there in writer-director-star Shane Carruth -- but in thinking in terms of the bugs of Hollywood time travel, it's a heady piece that glorifies the sweat, details, words, revising and revisiting that come with swings at pinning a major idea down to earth.

Iron Man 3
Iron Man 3(2013)

Hey man - do I love it? No. How the hell do you top "The Avengers"? Well, first off, I'll say this nugget of noncontroversial information -- "Iron Man 3" kicks the crap out of "Iron Man 2". And for the inevitable sequels, it's also safe to say Stark Industries is safe in the hands of Shane Black. The good: Black worked wonders with Robert Downey Jr. on the brilliant neo-noir head rush "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang", before Downey totally revitalized his career and locked down the new looks of both Tony Stark and Sherlock Holmes. He even made the plot-heavy and studio influence of "Iron Man 2" easier to get through. He's just as effortlessly charismatic here. And Black can still pass a joke during an action scene without it seeming like he's passing the buck and grinding the thing to a damn halt. Speaking of action, he's also really good at filming that.

It's not that "IM3" has a lot of "bad", just a lot of been-there-done-that, as Stark rages against a terrorist organization headed by the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley, excellent in a lovely must-not-be-named twist). Don't get me wrong, a lot of it is done inventively, it's just. I don't know. What do you want from me. Spins its wheels, is the term. Grinds its gears. It goes down smooth, but I wanted more.

Melancholia
Melancholia(2011)

A beautifully bleak masterpiece, a "Fitzcarraldo"-size enormity that in using music, sound, marital uncertainty, depression, end-of-the-world imagery and the bond of two sisters guides us through every beat of Lars von Trier's vision of an internal-made-external hell wrapped in ecstasy.

Marley
Marley(2012)
½

"Marley" is about as ambitious a documentary as Kenneth Lonergan's "Margaret" is a narrative film -- and like the latter, it's a rich, exhausting, ultimately rewarding portrait of emotional connection through music and the power of bringing people together. Of course, brilliant as "Margaret" is, you can't say it isn't depressing as fuck. But, holy shit. We're not here to talk about "Margaret".

Kevin Macdonald had a tricky task in coming at the legacy of an elusive person with "Marley". Rather than outline the caricature of Bob Marley or invade family privacy, Macdonald through eyewitness accounts (family and Wailers band members, etc.) goes for something deeper than the artist himself; to remind us of the peace and unity Marley strived for his whole (too short) life. And also instead of relying on testy political weight, Macdonald handles just about all aspects of Marley's upbringing and career with equal fascination, clarity and respect. In other words everything Bob Marley fought for and sang about in one comprehensive (and for now definitive) epic of one man's message that even long since spoken still today feels just as radiantly everywhere.

This Film Is Not Yet Rated

Cinephiles who take the ingenuity of their trekkie ways very seriously have been rightly pissed at the ratings gamble of the MPAA for years. Beyond the lobbying reign of longtime honcho Jack Valenti, which ran from 1966 to 2004 (he died in 2007), his constitutional baby suggested initially a new Band-Aid for parents too lazy to check in on what their kids are watching. Because of that filmmakers have had their work stifled by Valenti's tireless lobbying of Hollywood's richest movie houses to can liberty groups from shouting in their ear, to dish out plastic garbage with nothing at the bottom of popcorn buckets but meaningless horoscopes that only emphasize blandness yet to come.

If nothing else, Kirby Dick's documentary "This Film is Not Yet Rated" catches you up with footnote highlighters and appropriately-titled song tracks on the bureaucratic giant's history in the biz. It doesn't delve much beyond that, though. There's a few stealthy sound bites from directors like Kimberly Peirce ("Boys Don't Cry") and Matt Stone ("South Park", "Team America: World Police") that'll make you want to open your windows and air your grief, but the tragedy of Kirby's overall broadcast is the seeming monotony with which it treats its issues. Chances are you'll see "This Film is Not Yet Rated" with a waif of reel fandom, and though Kirby seems to recognize this he still too often crams the same headlines on the screen like he doesn't trust that you share his plight. As if. Most of the pleasure is found in pain in Dick's film; that the satire the MPAA waves an R-rated hand to has become the same troublesome reality of films their deadpan jury simply shakes away. As Dick paints it, in Somewhere, USA, there's always time left scrambling for higher-ups to turn to.

Waking Life
Waking Life(2001)

It's no secret I have a hard-on for Richard Linklater's surreal innovations. Wait readers, there's more -- "Waking Life" is inert creepiness that could be described in so many ways, and interpreted with vivid disarray. Linklater's supreme choice for this fable to be animated imitates a dreamy scope that creates a lifelike sense of paranoia well as horror. It blends different filmmaking techniques to necessarily mesh emergences using color and a shaky camera to capture a truly astonishing, haunting picture able to knock you upside the head through a visceral craft of shear amazement, leading its audience into a state of wonderment and awe.

Léon: The Professional

Like a well-oiled machine, "The Professional" is a hitman movie the way "Heat" is a heist movie -- by which I mean it's pretty much a stepping stone to the issues it later takes on. Jean Reno is at the top of his game here as hard-knuckled assassin Leon, a man writer-director Luc Besson doesn't portray as sad or even mopey. He doesn't look up from his weapon with an endless gaze in his eye when he meets 12-year-old Mathilda, a kid who's parents and siblings have been murdered by a pill-crunching coke dealer (Gary Oldman, bloody terrifying).

"The Professional" is white-hot adrenaline, pulling its audience in without much promise, but with an incredible amount of damaged goods. The best without a doubt is then-pre-teen Natalie Portman as Mathilda, her first film role. Her and Reno's banter sometimes seems forced, though Portman takes reign of "The Professional" in an almost unpractical manner, showing off the goods she'd bring to later projects. As Reno's hitman Leon is a man on the verge of his golden days, Mathilda's intense willingness to join his ranks ties along "The Professional" with beguiling overlap.

Oz the Great and Powerful

Good not great. Dig the Raimi-isms, though.

Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang

Can you respect a movie that verbally does all the thinking for you? Or do you begrudge it for getting to have all the fun of getting to connect its own dots? Not when things come as quick and fierce as "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" -- like everyone's image of Hollywood, it loves you and leaves you, in Robert Downey Jr.'s thief-turned-actor's quippy, self-aware, perfectly bitter narration. It's one thing to keep referencing movies past and the absurdity of showbiz and, in turn, life itself, and to be all "Sunset Boulevard"-y haunted by it, but like Tarantino and last year's sorely underrated "Seven Psychopaths", "KKBB" is a movie jolted by it, a winning slice of "Chinatown" deceit infused with black wit, electricity and excitement.

The Sixth Sense

There were a million boring ways for M. Night Shyamalan to turn every trick of "The Sixth Sense" to cornerstone pieces of a larger puzzle that snapped into place. Would have made for great re-watch material, but I'm not sure I'd pass Shyamalan's moody crash course with even a duster in hand. For lack of better words, "The Sixth Sense" emotionally killed me. Through superficial terror and skin-searing tremors, its goosebumps feel those of a hungry artist, slaves in harmony and fear, the way Spielberg could once carve sympathy in the everyday darkness of the human soul.

It isn't, ostensibly, a mystery, but a sort of ageless trivia following a journeyed heartbreak. Found in the adage of struggling mama bear Lynn Sear (Toni Collette) and quiet outcast of her son Cole (Haley Joel Osment, jaw-dropping), the latter starts to receive daily calls from child psychologist Malcom Crowe (Bruce Willis). Split between the redemption of curing Cole and playing house with wife Anna (Olivia Williams), Malcom, as "The Sixth Sense" goes on, may act as hapless newcomer for his patient's sake but with Anna the attitude of a man with a secret. We feel something, too. Lynn's monster dedication to her cub could easily have come in that of normal elementary attention, and there wouldn't have been any doubt that the marks on Cole's wrist were not indeed inflicted by her. They take new meaning only when her anger is versed at the lack of immediate endgame that comes with mental diagnoses.

But is it ever crushing. Shyamalan in (almost) every frame is hidden behind the camera in flawless sobriety, that he might as well be busy weeping behind the scenes. The personal liaison of "The Sixth Sense" will push you just about over the edge, where most of Shyamalan's film seems to have found a supernatural regret. It's not in the completion of the story that brings solitude. The melancholic afterglow is enough to run the train forward without drilling it into the ground. The continuity of existence in lasting love, and belief that the grass is always greener on the other end of memories, doesn't commit to reality, but rather alienates it. It's a theory unto itself, to waste time by spending it, but able also to open the sensation in four eyes wide shut.

Three Colors: Red (Trois couleurs: Rouge)

Each entry is fantastic, but Kieslowski's "Red" is the masterpiece of the colors trilogy, sublime and eternally flawless.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

You'd be damned to find a more defiantly honest movie this year outside of "This Is 40" (surely) than "The Perks of Being a Wallflower". Shamelessly kitschy, sappy, and cliched, still the closest "Perks" ever gets to cloying is in open arms. This is high school as sitcom punk-level dreamscape, but it's about and does more than the limits that sort of stuff'd usually entail. It's not life at forty. And yet if it speaks to you, and you'll know if it does, it gets sad and scary quick, the rocky horror of adolescence and ambiance of infinite love, loss, and happiness. "Perks" is often all at once. One thing it's not is crazy stupid. And goddamn, does it make the flush of hot and bothered feel great again.

Killer Joe
Killer Joe(2012)
½

Scrappy, buck wild and deliriously dark, you almost have to forgive "Killer Joe's" third act shortcomings for being too downright sick in the head to know between what's right and what's so, so wrong. Either way, Friedkin and Letts make rolling around in the mud and getting your neck red -- a full-on NC-17 shell shock -- twisted art. Screw the MPAA.

Oh, and McConaughey 2012.

Take Shelter
Take Shelter(2011)

Arguably a new classic, with Michael Shannon in the performance of his career, the "there's a storm coming" spiel, Jessica Chastain in shorts, and writer-director Jeff Nichols proving "Shotgun Stories" was no fluke. Watch this guy, and watch "Take Shelter", now and often.

House of Pleasures

Someone in this movie cries tears of cum.

La Vie en Rose (La Mome)

AKA a failed attempt to make Marion Cotillard not stunningly, maddeningly attractive.

The Sea Inside (Mar Adentro) (The Sea Within)

It could have flatlined -- a feel-good foreign-language disability drama more concerned with getting an audience than turning them on with ugly truths. But like Amenabar's excellent horror movie "The Others", "The Sea Inside" doesn't go for cheap shots. Melodrama, yes. Family, too, and indulgences and guilt. It mostly fits. Bardem's performance is what ultimately sells "Sea", but the film is smart in that rather than stop at being an intense acting showcase Bardem and Amenabar not only let us see inside Sampedro, but also trust there's something to take away in how we can never exactly feel him.

Anna Karenina
½

Keep dreaming if you like your literary classics served cold. Director Joe Wright is in the business of shutting out all things stale. Not to say Leo Tolstoy's 19th-century masterpiece ever settles for shallow; but if you're going into this "Anna Karenina" don't expect Wright to forgo his directorial intuitions, here a mix shared of sweeping emotion over a pseudo-theatrical base. Either way it never lets style cool or play safe. Wintry, balletic, and tirelessly pictorial, "Anna Karenina" also features a devastatingly fractured performance from Keira Knightley as Anna, as well as one of chilled rage from Jude Law as Aleksei Karenin, Anna's husband and baby daddy who draws short at Anna's lusty falling for the younger Count Vronksy's (Aaron Johnson) Prince Charming.

But it's a tragedy told with such delicacy it wouldn't be hard to overlook the darkness of Tom Stoppard's screenplay and the trivialities of a tabloid aristocracy's suspenses, sent up with showman-like virtue. It's a story of how scandal and anxieties can easily turn to grudge in a movie that dazzles in perpetual motion, leading gracefully into a stickily funny final shot that perfectly summarizes love's cruel vice of not being able to get everything you want.

X-Men: First Class

I wish "The Amazing Spider-Man" had taken a page from this. Emma Stone or no.

This Must Be The Place
½

Like "The Comedy" but with Miranda July's sort of twee moments of enlightenment and profundity, and a great performance by Sean Penn and music by David FREAKING Byrne and Will FREAKING Oldham. Just not perfect. I know; not really a criticism. Sue me.

Keep the Lights On

"Keep the Lights On" is not a love story, but a story about love -- a character study of affairs, addictions and distractions, bathed in yellow light and New York, and conducted by Thure Lindhart's haunted, lightning-in-a-bottle performance.

The Company You Keep

Loads more interesting than "The Conspirator", "The Company You Keep" is still pretty lukewarm considering the white heat of the history it's digging up and at least trying to start a conversation around, what secrets and consequences mean in the grand scheme of a movement, said movement's meanings, provocations, etc. It doesn't really stoke the fire so much as it does swat at the flames, making for a movie about ends justifying the means, and a roll call of people (Redford is characteristically generous with his characters) who only keep arguing to be left alone. Journalism is tricky stuff. "Company" kicks up a lot of things, and it has its moments of enlightenment and intrusiveness, but it's never enlightening ENOUGH, never intrusive ENOUGH. It's fine for what it is, but especially with Lem Dobbs doing the screenplay this could have been a lot more. Sundance kid.

Revenge of the Nerds

Gross, stupid, offensive, creepy, sexist. Among other things. Don't let your personality be easily categorized by others. Entertain a little bit of everything and learn from it. Be a better person. "Revenge of the Nerds" is so close-minded and unfunny, it'd be just as unwatchable if all the bullying and rape here didn't hit so close to home as issues everyone still ignores today.

Fuck, fuck, fuck this movie. Fuck it.

The Sapphires
½

I'd say the filmmakers got lucky with Chris O'Dowd, but come on. "Bridesmaids", "This Is 40", the cup-runneth-over talent showcase that is (or was) "The I.T. Crowd". Dude doesn't disappoint. And with "The Sapphires" he proves he's funny and charming enough to carry what's otherwise a fairly formulaic and contrived...you know what? Screw it. I had fun. "Sapphires" doesn't mean to be a masterpiece, and it isn't -- but you can't diss it for lack of groove. That, it wears proudly and well.

And of course based on the novel "Push" by Sapphire.

Three Colors: Blue (Trois Couleurs: Bleu)
½

Kieslowski means to stun you with sound in the first chapter of his "Three Colors" trilogy, each entry dedicated to a feature on the French flag. And with "Blue", he succeeds on all fronts -- plagued with tragic blackouts, grief, and finally love. I use the word "dreamy" a lot in describing difficult pieces of art, but the emphasis put on the empty and beautiful stares of the incredible Juliette Binoche encompasses that term more completely than few other movies I've probably ever seen.

Fun Size
Fun Size(2012)

My theater didn't get "Cloud Atlas" because of this shit.

Win Win
Win Win(2011)

"Where's daddy?"
"He's running."
"From what?"

I Am Number Four

No matter how spring-like it may feel outside, "I Am Number Four" is here to remind you it's still technically winter, and where there's winter there must be at least one movie produced by the indomitable Michael Bay. Enlisting "Eagle Eye" and "Disturbia" hack D.J. Caruso to direct a silly, simplistic science-fiction-for-teenagers premise, "Number Four" really shows its political strings more so than Bay's own "Transformers" movies. Whatever interesting elements abound in "I Am Number Four" are drowned in wince-worthy dialouge and high school corniness straight out of a CW drama. And Alex Pettyfer as Number Four acts as if he's just dropped out of doing a Hollister commercial to make a movie that keeps true to its title in being an entirely new brand of shit.

Sherman's March

Another one where I respect it more than I actually enjoyed sitting through all NEARLY THREE HOURS of it, "Sherman's March" is during its peaks a meditation-as-essay-as-documentary pretty much on par with the hugely imaginative and cheekily lustful writings of David Foster Wallace, David Sedaris and Dave Eggers. In other words, this movie calls up as many D's as that alien chick from "Total Recall" (NOT THE COLIN FARRELL ONE.)

Cloud Atlas
Cloud Atlas(2012)

I'm sick of hearing gripes that "Cloud Atlas" is a hot mess. As much as I love "The Tree of Life" (favorite of '11), Terrence Malick was just as guilty as Tom Tykwer and Lana and Andy Wachowski. Charges being, challenging the senses with vision, scope, size, and feeling. That's ambition, people. The first ten minutes of "Cloud Atlas" will all but tune out the dead weight of those not willing to lock into the ride.

Not to say "Atlas" isn't mainstream-friendly. Okay, maybe that's asking too much. Still, the guys behind the "Matrix" trilogy and "Run Lola Run" basically combine those two with something like "Tree of Life" or "Magnolia" to make bold, big-ass sci-fi that's as tight and glamorous as it is dreamy and unhinged. What's wild is how even the contradictions keep you on the edge of your seat, and build up enough of them without breaking your faith. "Cloud Atlas" is hundreds of years of transcendence in tens of characters, six stories, and a deep breath. Open your heart. Let the right one in.

Fatal Attraction

The '80s style dates it, but the hot wire filmmaking is still more than enough to keep your nerves on end without having to all but suspend your wit. Also, it's probably bad to say this, but Glenn Close. Great actress, great performance, not exactly what I'd say passes for total temptress. But hey, I hit puberty during a day and age when all it takes to completely lose your innocence is unrestricted internet access and a Google search bar. But her naked, oy! God help her, with the face and the sex and the yelling.

Fitzcarraldo
Fitzcarraldo(1982)

I don't think anything this crazy has been attempted let alone achieved since "Apocalypse Now".

Evil Dead
Evil Dead(2013)

Don't bitch "Evil Dead" goes there, walking the thin blood-red line of an NC-17 rating like a graphic, gory circus act, and never, ever letting up. But seriously, why remake Sam Raimi's much-loved horror satire as anything more than just that? Who knows. Who cares? This movie's great. It's more "Cabin in the Woods" than "Evil Dead" (1981) anyway, even if taking the goofy story seriously was inherently an uphill battle. Shit's full of holes. Go with it. Raimi -- who produced along with Bruce Campbell, star of the original -- clearly wouldn't be turning over in his grave.

And it's not like first-time director Fede Alvarez is spitting on the quality of the first "Evil Dead". Hell, maybe it's a good thing he twists and tears at every corner like cheap plastic -- dude has chops, especially in bleak close-ups of limbs pulling loose and dreamy clouds of rain and fog rolling torrential. In a day and age with teenagers forever around the block for the next "House at the End of the Street", "Evil Dead" in a sweet 90-minute package gets off at plugging into the promise most lazy Hollywood remakes have all but forsaken: that this is the most terrifying film you will ever experience. Period. Is it? No shit. Of course not. That's a gimmick with balls. But, you know. Ambition, kid, it'll kill you in this business. Preferably with a chainsaw.

Chopper
Chopper(2001)

The coolest thing about "Chopper" in hindsight is that writer-director Andrew Dominik isn't just another Scorsese or Tarantino knockoff -- that his affliction for softly padding the shallow psyches of scuzzy, urban criminal types is something genuine and unique. Before "Bronson" there was Mark "Chopper" Read, jailed for kidnapping the judge looking over his best friend's sentencing case, and played by Eric Bana in a dangerous and transportive, deeply fascinating performance.

And Dominik films the movie fast and cheap, the whole thing lensed by a sort of trailing gas station bathroom floodlight, style sped up and slowed down, like when Dominik places the camera next to a dead guy in the parking lot and fast-forwarding the finding and cleanup of the morning after. "Chopper" is funny, too, in the fast, raunchy, British way of never wiping away a smirk that feels too insider-y to be smug. Read apparently hand-chose Aussie comic Bana to portray him. Over-the-top? Sad? Angry? Don't forget incredible, and brilliant. "Chopper" might not reinvent the wheel, but it taps into the same seedy and hypnotic vein the best crime films do -- that is to say, it's intense and unorthodox.

GoodFellas
GoodFellas(1990)

"Goodfellas" feels like the culmination of every Scorsese work in one -- even beyond that, "Goodfellas" is maybe the Scorsese movie that feels the most Scorsese, and a movie that feels more MOVIE than most others out there.

Casino
Casino(1995)

An underrated opus.

Bram Stoker's Dracula
½

There's no doubt Francis Ford Coppola is a talented director, but there goes the theory he can make even the more poor stuff look nice. "Bram Stoker's Dracula" strays from Stoker's supreme concept, instead dangling by a faint string after the 20 minute mark. Characters are either overdeveloped or severely underdeveloped, most times barely getting any screen time. It's not so much a movie of presence, moreover a spectacle given too much room to breathe. At the best of times it traces Scorsese and the homage to classic filmmaking that goes with his tactic, and Gary Oldman is pretty damn great as Count Dracula. At its worst however, it's far too indulgent and way, way too slow. Coppola's "Dracula" is all bark and no bite.

Brave
Brave(2012)

Don't tell me "Brave" plays it too safe. Cliched and maybe even a bit contrived, it's still utterly detailed and pictorial, heartfelt and different. And not "Cars 2".

Ratatouille
Ratatouille(2007)

"Ratatouille" is more than film as feast -- it's a film of both culture and experience. Even as Pixar's seemed to wane in the last few years, you got to admit, it's only because they've cut their teeth on drilling notches to infinity and above and beyond everyone else's bar.

WALL-E
WALL-E(2008)

A masterpiece.

Up
Up(2009)

Only Pixar would ten features in make what may be the most lyrical thing they've ever done.

The Red Balloon (Le Ballon Rouge)

Thirty minutes of shear, unabashed joy. Like most of my orgasms.

Badlands
Badlands(1974)

Few filmmakers can carve their own cult and call it art in Hollywood. Terrence Malick is one of those filmmakers.

The Imposter
The Imposter(2012)
½

A drama-as-doc that manages to be both dark and creepy and also quietly caring for all the same reasons "Compliance" was so -- "The Imposter" baffles you with the ordinary, pulling what you think you know out from from under you, and unraveling its disturbing story like film reel inside a box of old VHS tapes.

Donnie Darko
Donnie Darko(2001)

An intelligent and fiercely disturbing debut.

The Misfits
The Misfits(1961)

It has pacing issues and too much of a happy ending, but you can see why Marilyn Monroe fell for Arthur Miller. That script is almost as in-and-out gorgeous as she is.

Big Time
Big Time(1988)
½

You either love Tom Waits or you think his music is gonzo bullshit. Eh. Same deal with "Big Time" -- gonzo bullshit, and it's brilliant.

Avatar
Avatar(2009)

Ah, maybe it was more exciting as an event, but you got to admire someone who more than a decade ago set out to make the biggest movie ever and succeeded. We know Michael Bay was blushing.

2012
2012(2009)

If this had been pitched closer to 9/11 no way it would have been made. Look, I'm not saying anything.

Carnage
Carnage(2011)

Roman Polanski's private life may be screwy, but as a filmmaker, at least, he's still the fucking man.

Bug
Bug(2006)

This movie is "BUG"-fuck nuts! Get it? No, but really, there's a lot of serious mental illness and domestic violence on display here. And of course loads of black humor, courtesy of one Tracy Letts. The bastard.

War Witch
War Witch(2013)
½

I wrote a review for this yesterday that I immediately regretted after posting it. Not because it was poorly written -- it just felt pretentious, which is a problem that comes up a lot whenever I put heart into doing these things.

But that's another story! Look, if you're reading this, or even know an inkling about "War Witch", odds are you'll get something out of it. The acting is solid, it's filmed really gentle and carefully, and, yeah, parts of it will shock the eye of the amateur. ("Eye of the amateur"? Come on, dude.) Unfortunately this thing is also pretty heavy-handed and pulls on the ol' heart-strings one too many times. This isn't the new "Beasts of the Southern Wild", and yes I'm only comparing the two because both involve impoverished black people. But I stand my ground on its whirlwind power. This Kim Nguyen, she's a fighter.

Blue Valentine

It kills you because it doesn't stop at showing love falling apart -- it shows you love igniting, sparks flying, fire burning, embers glowing and slowly, carefully and unsurely dying out, and what still remains left of the dark.

The Tree of Life

Malick does personal vision with Kubrickian scope. A rapturous masterpiece, and the best film of 2011.

Les Misérables

Still dig it. Ah, eat a dick.

The Comedians of Comedy

Yeah, it needs a better editor to cut some of the slack. Still -- for what it's worth, I can hardly grade this subjectively. These are four of the greatest comics on the planet right now, and there's talent here so knee-jerk and natural you might not get it when you're high.

District 9
District 9(2009)

Why can't we have prawns instead of black people.

Sunshine
Sunshine(2007)

Danny Boyle's "The Fountain". Do it up.

Wendy and Lucy
½

Reichardt's best movie to date. Goddamn, is this sad.

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story

This is what the Dirk Diggler Super 8 in "Boogie Nights" might have looked like if the cameras had followed John C. Reilly.

The Trip
The Trip(2011)

Even when the comedy slows or even, dare I say, exhausts, that "The Trip" genuinely works as an actual film...I mean, not that comedies can't be taken seriously as art. At least, that's what Michael Winterbottom does, and I think he can take partial credit for the Shakespeare-caliber performances he gets from inflated versions of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, two inglorious bastards daytripping the English countryside on a restaurant taste test for The Observer magazine. Because beneath the celebrity impressions and riffs of "The Trip" (and Lord, are they abundant) runs a fairly dark current concerning how much professional envy can define personality. Still a bummer that things lead to basically a non-ending, but hey, that's life.

Also, and I know it's been blogged to death, but Coogan and Brydon's Michael Caines. Priceless.

The Holy Mountain

It's like Dali, Bergman, and Scott Walker got together to cook up a bubble-bubble-toil-and-trouble of fucked-up avant-garde Hare Krishna. All I can say is "The Holy Mountain" is bug nuts and demands to be seen.

Blood Simple
Blood Simple(1984)

It honestly says something about the art of filmmaking when a movie based around incredibly unlikable characters can regardless be birthed a sweat-curdling, country-fried, pitch black masterpiece. And the Coen brothers pushed "Blood Simple" into the world when delivering evil outside that of the studio system was still considered cutting edge.

Too bad the pair NEVER MADE ANYTHING ELSE COMPLETELY AMAZING AFTER THIS. I mean, hot damn.b

Buck
Buck(2011)

It'd help to dig horses before digging into "Buck", but I can't say everything here isn't extraordinarily well-made, soft-spoken, bittersweet, and handled with care. In other words, just like Buck Brannaman himself, and the spirituality in the people and animals he stares down but never looks past.

Vernon, Florida

If this had been directed by Harmony Korine and called "Gummo" critics would not be on its dick so much. Still, credit where credit's due -- not Errol Morris's best film, but if you look at it like a never-picked-up TV pilot (Morris initially scheduled "Vernon, Florida" to cover the area's rep for murder-induced insurance fraud) the more gonzo the town profiles get, the more they're -- not loved, exactly, or taken seriously, but...they're pondered. And that'll do it this far out there.

The Hangover
The Hangover(2009)

Think life's hard? No. Comedy is. Simple material needs talented hands all over to work as something fresh, funky, and fun. What differentiates "The Hangover" from the countless emulations it's inspired since its blowout success, is the danger. The edge. The darkness. The balls. Everything here just happened to fucking show up and come together. The result is that rare beast that doesn't let up from first to final frame. It's earned the rotation.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

The sounds. It was the sounds that got me. The silence of snow falling outside a window, newborn kittens crying, a receptionist coughing, clothes wrinkling as people move about a small room, the cold knock of medical tools rubbing against each other in a leather bag. And all that heightens the fairly simple one-two of the actual performance of an abortion. Because Cristian Mungiu's "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" is one of those ingenious fill-in-the-blanks cases of show-don't-tell, and it'll leave you either incredibly frustrated or profoundly touched by its handling of the complicated emotions of indifference. Nearing the end of communist Romania, Gabita (a gentle, innocent-to-the-point-of-being-helpless, and all the more amazing for it Laura Vasiliu) seeks with the help of her roommate Otilia (an equally striking Anamaria Marinca) a back-alley abortion after the title amount of time to think over a decision. No more tears.

It seems to affect Otilia more, the haggling of finding a person willing to risk jail time for what's considered to be murder (even to the point of doling out sexual favors), the aftermath of cleaning up the mess, physically, spiritually, and emotionally. Mungiu is generous in his long and tracking shots, so not only do we feel like we're THERE, we feel the length, the distorted sense of reality, even -- in a dinner scene involving the friends of Otilia's boyfriend's (Alexandru Potocean) parents -- the anger that the scene doesn't cut off, that someone doesn't stand up and scream or cry, even walk away, because it's only ourselves we're fooling. Yeah. Speechless is right. "4 Months" is a tough movie to watch, even more so to stop thinking about, and that's exactly the point; it isn't made fine. It draws blood if you get too close, but that's the only way to even begin to comprehend its marvelously transfixing spell.

Born on the Fourth of July

Whatever problems I have with the blown-out, overlong stature of "Born on the Fourth of July", what really sets apart this movie's war at home and the actual Vietnam war is the awesome show great job of star Tom Cruise, who goes through hell as real-life marine Ron Kovic, whose below-the-belt paralysis overseas is more than enough to make this good boy go bad against the people and government that lied to him. All guts and no glory. So damn. Good mourning, USA.

The Hurt Locker
½

Kathryn Bigelow is such a good filmmaker I'm surprised she isn't a man.

Jarhead
Jarhead(2005)

I'm remembering an all-dude desert orgy. That can't be right, can it?

Three Kings
Three Kings(1999)
½

"Dr. Strangelove" for jarheads.

Life of Pi
Life of Pi(2012)
½

Okay not what Alan said anymore because he changed his opinions. What a shithead! #RichardParkerForBestSupportingActor2013

Gummo
Gummo(1997)
½

"Gummo" either tells you exactly the sort of filmmaker Harmony Korine is, or it don't tell you shit. Same you'll probably love it or loathe it. Given, just because you're not picking up what it's putting down doesn't mean there's too many layers beneath the surface here. I don't know. No way would I blame anyone for relating "Gummo" to the chewing gum some poor schmuck has to scrape off the art house theater floor before grabbing their check, walking out, and trying until doors next open to forget it ever happened.

I think Korine made exactly the movie he wanted to make with "Gummo", and I respect that. I also -- damn it -- LIKE a lot more of this thing than your casual watcher will. Not saying that makes me special. If anything, far from it. It isn't strictly for "Gummo's" being fucked up content-wise that it stings like hot piss (and the cat-killing, pederasts, nipple tape, and handicapped whores that dance socially around this void can more than attest and comply.) It's that twenty years after the fact, there's still alive some floating tornado particle of the storm that ravaged Xenia, OH, in the air tonight, and unless fate by God's hand, it most likely will be there always.

Let's go "Spring Breakers".

American Beauty

Deserved every Oscar it got. *throws plate at wall*

Fargo
Fargo(1996)

Meet me by the wood chipper.

No Country for Old Men

Anyone who calls the ending crass can argo-fuck themselves.

Zodiac
Zodiac(2007)

Everything it could have been, should have been, and is.

Pan's Labyrinth

Live.Love.Guillermo.

Where the Wild Things Are

Basically the art house "Avatar".

Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind

Stephen King once said something along the lines of you'll never be able to exactly transcribe onto paper what you envision in your head. That's the weird and wonderful thing about art -- it's always, always in translation, to be interpreted, to mean different, imperfect things to different, imperfect people.

That "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" manages to be a tight, unique, personal, thought-provoking stream of consciousness, as well as a big fuck you to the boxed musings of the likes of Robert McKee and Joseph Campbell, leaves it the rare smashup of heart-on-sleeve indie insecurity and the exciting vulnerability of a true artist's prose. I love this movie. I love the performances. I love where it's coming from, how it's executed, the genre-bending juggernaut it deploys without constantly patting itself on the back and giving you a direct map to follow. I love the damn RUSH of the thing, man. It's the twin peaks of passion that blankets and drags you away. Everyone's got to love sometime. And sometimes, it's even made in the dark.

King of California
½

It's a short story, not a novel. There are rooms in the world for movies like this. And if you look at "King of California" like that, it's wistful and wonderful. Especially that ending. Plus fucking Mike Cahill did "Another Earth" a few years later. Love that shit.

Inland Empire

Call it the shreds of an unfinished film. Better yet, call it whatever the hell you want. "Inland Empire" defies definition. It just IS. It creeps, whispers, crawls, shouts, screams, is born, lives, and dies, in possibly the final three hours of film David Lynch will ever again run across a movie screen. Fuck, man. This shit gets under your skin like a shark bite to the stomach. Viva la that. Viva la THIS.

Twin Peaks - Fire Walk with Me

Come ON. Come on. Holy unholy fuck. Goddamn it. Jesus. Bastard in a basket. Son of a bitch whore FUCK THIS MOVIE IS UNDERRATED.

Lost Highway
Lost Highway(1997)

The corner of a coffee table is used as a weapon to kill a man. If you ever look at setting down a cup of joe the same again, someone up there really, really likes you.

Mulholland Drive

Here's mud in your eye. Now here's more. Now here's broken opera singers and diners that hold secrets and blurry POV shots through tears during lonely lesbian masturbation sessions. Are you not entertained? You're fucking kidding me. Are you kidding me? You're kidding me. You son of a bitch. Almost had me going, there.

Bad Lieutenant

Herzog didn't rip off "Bad Lieutenant" -- he gave it crazy life. But Ferrara's film is its own kind of nuts, and Keitel is wondrous in kicking up the eye of his Lieutenant's profanity-packed, racist, gunslinging hurricane. And still the kid's got soul; it's just smashed and running up the walls. Deal with it.

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

This movie is for cops what "Killer Joe" is for fried chicken.

Biutiful
Biutiful(2010)

A big, gorgeous wrecking ball of a movie. Like Jacques Audiard's so underrated "Rust & Bone", its brash vulnerability does more than let it play with fire -- "Biutiful" is like cutting open your arm and holding it unflinchingly over the flames.

Last Tango in Paris

That opening shot of Brando screaming. Holy shit. Talk about one-of-the-best-ever. "MAN".

Rosemary's Baby

Part of the "Shining"-"Exorcist"-"Rosemary's" trifecta of greatest horror movies ever made.

Romeo + Juliet
½

The worst part about "Romeo + Juliet" isn't that Luhrmann doesn't trust Shakespeare enough to provide thrills without shouting the guy when he could whisper -- it's that beneath all the flashy, pandering bombs of clatter, noise, and color, he doesn't even trust himself.

1/2 star because I want to fuck Claire Danes.

To Kill A Mockingbird

Atticus Finch always said do the right thing -- to his friends, children, countrymen; the small town jurors hearing out the prejudiced rape case of an innocent black man in a big world you'll never be able to wholly convince of anything. Just be good. Do your best, and don't shut out the truth. That's it. Or so you'd think because it's as it should be, because even though we can't change the past we can learn from the guilt we take away from it.

The screen version of Harper Lee's "To Kill A Mockingbird" by director Robert Mulligan and writer Horton Foote is less a rallying cry for social revolution than it is a gentle reminder that principle can sometimes come from people and places unanticipated. It also helps the story, spun from the mouths of babes, has all the simple but dazzling wonder of youth and purity, like the townspeople's final muster against the scrappy kid killer at the black heart of Fritz Lang's "M" or the heaven-sent coming-of-age of "It's a Wonderful Life". "Mockingbird" is also less an interpretation of than it is a perfectly-executed pledge of allegiance to Lee's book. Still yet it brings up that limitless great debate -- can an adaptation ever truly be called a masterpiece?

Mona Lisa
Mona Lisa(1986)

It's got that "Chinatown" drive of the fatality of man's attraction to awful, perverted things, and Neil Jordan's "Mona Lisa" only gets better as it gets seedier. What a shock Bob Hoskins was even nominated for an Academy Award. Forget the working girls; his mob-tied chauffeur is the whore with a heart of gold. Because even in uncharted waters Jordan doesn't play by the rules.

Catfish
Catfish(2010)

I don't know what it is exactly, but "Catfish" is still the creepiest movie I've seen in a long, long time.

MacGruber
MacGruber(2010)
½

So hey, this sure was underrated.

Bridesmaids
Bridesmaids(2011)
½

This movie is my Muppets.

Bunny and the Bull
½

For all the non-likability of its leads, "Bunny and the Bull" is an exceptionally well-made debut from a very fine variety behind the best of UK TV.

Unstoppable
Unstoppable(2010)
½

I'd probably like it less were I to watch it again, but hey, it's fun enough the first time around.

Unbreakable
Unbreakable(2000)

Save for the last few frames, this movie is terrific. Shyamalan's last great work before the dude went all Mr. Hyde on us.

Everything Must Go
½

I don't know if "Everything Must Go" is anything incredible or profound, but it's a big hug of a movie that nonetheless smarts like a ton of bricks. And writer-director Dan Rush -- adapting from a short story by Raymond Carver -- is careful not to let things fall prey to indie heavy-handedness, which it so easily could have. It's a movie with the boozy eloquence of a great song, and one about the important step of confronting your baggage in realizing how much it can affect other people. And Ferrell, in a bummed-out, vulnerable performance, is a force of nature.

Also Rebecca Hall. God is a woman and I have seen Her face.

Dr. Strangelove Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

A serious contender for greatest film ever made. That script has all the coffee-on-an-empty-stomach anxiety of something riddled with dog ears, java stains, stogie ash, scribbles, rewrites, and battery acid. I love it so much. Like, so much. I don't think you understand. It's my movie and I want it now.

Quills
Quills(2000)

"Quills" is maybe the first movie in a while I think I like more because of its cluttered handling of big ideas, all the riskier because, if wrongly dealt with, could easily be writ off as towing a tawdry gimmick. All right, you got me, that's bullshit even I can smell a mile away. It's the sort of thing you'll either love because it's a period piece that's also wildly entertaining, or hate because narratively and thematically it's a mess of ambition that keeps pulling out and kidding around when you wish it would go deeper.

And those themes read like characters from a Pynchon novel -- tests of faith, hypocrisy of society, positive and negative influences of literature, suffering, the Catholic church, the scrutiny of creating under pressure. ART. And on top of that there's the glorious Geoffrey Rush as the Marquis de Sade, a fucked-up boundary pusher so over-the-top gross he's like a gag run into the ground so many times that circles back and becomes deliriously funny again. "Quills" isn't a perfect movie, but it throws so much out there it's hard not to connect with SOMETHING. Because even centuries ago words had the power to hit us where we live.

Queen Christina

It might fall head over heartstrings one too many times, but there's a quaint darkness to "Queen Christina", and Garbo -- like Joan of Arc -- so largely enlivens every scene that you walk away from the thing not feeling toyed or duped by a lush Hollywood prestige act but with head spinning from its fateful, infectious wanderlust.

True Grit
True Grit(1969)

Coens topped it but hey, shit doesn't stink.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
½

Fincher took a land mine to the Stieg Larsson book and then covered it in gloom, darkness, style, and sex. It won't be for everyone, but "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" is the rare holiday blockbuster that dares to bruise, bite, burn, and sting. And Rooney Mara.

Black Swan
Black Swan(2010)

Fuck it. Best movie of 2010.

True Grit
True Grit(2010)

The Coens know their shit. This movie is flawless.

Network
Network(1976)

As "Network" rolls forward, Howard doesn't just keep picking up his head to show for the cameras, but to rage tooth and nail against a machine of pop culture and broken pieces, in a movie about language and frequencies but also the flaws and difficulties of how transmission is translated.

Get Him to the Greek
½

Hallways and furry walls, but no cigar.

Sleepwalk With Me

It's openly imperfect, and that's almost completely the charm.

Kinsey
Kinsey(2004)

Cum in ten seconds.

The Apartment

Sad isn't even the word.

Martha Marcy May Marlene

One of THE indie debut features in recent memory that shakes you, turns your head, and imagines and utilizes cinema as a canvas to be painted and integrated.

Deliverance
Deliverance(1972)

The backbone of "Full Metal Jacket"; backwoods, nothing-can-hurt-me fuck-all of "The Deer Hunter"; and the casual closeness and grownup shocks of "Stand by Me". 'Deliverance" has that maddening tick of multiple endings which only feel tacked on and unnecessary in what's otherwise a pulsing kegger of a movie that leans hard against worn story tactics of man against man, man against nature, and finally man against self -- in the face of once again disturbing the natural order of things, and having stared down the bottom of a gun's barrel more than once and lived through it.

Wreck-it Ralph
½

The rare fanboy love fest that's only grown on me. Got to count for something, right?

The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover

The riskiest bit in a film entirely of naughty, risky bits comes in a final scene of confrontation which could easily be assessed as exploitative. It's also the last straw in a movie full of 'em for highbrow Cannes critics more than ready to write off "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover", writer-director Peter Greenaways unabashedly repellent black comedy, and a masterpiece of cruelty, Shakespearean satire, and what constitutes art. Is it grit? Caveat? Intelligence? Nope. It's power. It's saying no to being timid and tame. By that standard "Cook" shatters any and all illusion of cinematic candor. Why pander and spoon-feed what red-hot tensions Greenaway can bite tooth and nail?

Bill Cunningham New York

Hard-hitting? Not exactly. But Bill Cunningham is the kind of joyous craftsman that gives workaholics a good name, when you stop putting yourself into your ambitions and they flow through you.

500 Days of Summer

Zooey Deschanel, you adorable son of a bitch.

Santa Sangre
Santa Sangre(1989)

Art house horror masterpiece, battered in dreamy, seedy passion and served drunk with punchy Spanish style.

Searching for Sugar Man
½

Damn. Did not think I'd like this as much as I did.

The Last of the Mohicans
½

A little too luxurious, a little too romantic, "The Last of the Mohicans" mostly never sours thanks to its being under the blanket of Michael Mann's diffusive direction. However the whole aim here to be intuitively sweeping also means not turning away when the distracted story calls for spice and exaggeration. Okay. But Daniel Day-Lewis as always is exquisite as the sinewy Hawkeye, and Madeleine Stowe is such a lose-yourself beaut you'd have to be heartless or blind to question the dude's tireless (and maybe a little too dreamy) pursuit of passion.

Chinatown
Chinatown(1974)

Rewatched. Just perfect. That camera. Hot damn, Polanski.

The World According to Garp

You'd think it was "Forrest Gump" if the titular character in "The World According to Garp", spoiler, didn't really have a view of the world all that different from the rest of us. George Roy Hill's film does span years, decades even, and it's flawed in the gaps it shakily passes over. That being said, its quirkiness isn't without weight -- "Garp" is a pretty amazing not-that-macho rumination on remembering to fill up your time on earth with all you can before you die, though not out of character with the spirit of Hill's other works.

"Garp" doesn't achieve greatness, but it's so damn sweet I can't hardly bear to say anything bad about it. It's good company for 136 minutes, one with hooks and bends surprising without being dizzy, sentimental but never saccharine, and John Lithgow in a dress. It's a movie that in showing us the many directions of life is just as quick to draw out the undertow to everything. Because turns can also be corners, and they can be sharp.

The Big Sleep
½

A beautiful friendship of procedure mystery, literary witticism, and suit-and-tie, smoking gun noir.

De rouille et d'os (Rust and Bone)

First off, you wouldn't expect the director of 2010's electric gangster flick "A Prophet" to follow shit up with a hard-R love story between an ex-boxer and single dad (Matthias Schoenaerts) and a whale trainer who loses her legs (Marion Cotillard). But the trademarks stand in "Rust and Bone" -- the coldness, the distance, the brutality. It washes over you the way it would stepping into water you mistake for being shallow that immerses itself into an abyss.

All right, you got me, maybe I'm being too fastidious here. But Schoenaerts and Cotillard are mesmerizing as two people inert to thinking only in the sums of their parts. At the very least, it's never not interesting. I like to believe "Rust and Bone" is more than that, though -- it's a movie that takes chances: in pacing, behavior, personality. Just when you're ready to check out something -- or someone -- pulls you back in.

Indie Game: The Movie
½

Basically everything Morgan Spurlock's Comic Con movie isn't.

Barbara
Barbara(2012)

It is a brilliant, deliciously arty movie, if one whose third act ultimately betrays for sentiment what makes the rest of "Barbara" so quietly punishing and indispensable.

L'Enfant
L'Enfant(2006)
½

Being a slightly-cultured American youth, "L'Enfant" ("The Child") reminded me of last year's "The Comedy" as riding a French wave. An eviscerating picture of the repressed desperation that sheds from being suddenly petitioned to grow up, it's also affirming in its amorality because the viewer, like its protagonist, is able to walk away with hope of a second chance.

Little Children
½

Even if "American Beauty" and "Magnolia" got first dibs on wowing the the haunts of suburbia with the extraordinary, the torrential sparks that jump off "Little Children" make it nonetheless a guaranteed shell shock.

Children of Men

What's maybe the most visually haunting movie ever made is just as much emotionally one of the best.

Michael Clayton

This movie haunts you even as it bleeds into the credits -- which is one of the most memorable, necessary cinematic takes I can think of in a while.

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World
½

It's heavy on the schmaltz, but, goddamn, does it hurt.

This is 40
This is 40(2012)
½

No shit this is not a film for people expecting Judd Apatow to have changed style overnight. "This Is 40" captures the writer-director in full, free flowing form. It also seriously addresses white people problems with characters drawn from conflict of interest. But don't get it wrong, there's a weight to "This is 40", and goddamn it, it's honest, painful, true, about something, and comes from somewhere. Age, like the movie -- and like it does to Pete and Debbie -- is a sense of life that does more to a body and mind than keep spitting both closer to the other side. If you take note of it every once in a while it can help you remember to come up for air.

The Sessions
The Sessions(2012)

John Hawkes is one of the coolest actors on the planet, and his smart, funny, and realized performance anchors "The Sessions" when slightness, cliche, and a flawed narrative threaten to dance around its dark grip.

The Kid with a Bike
½

Obviously reminiscent of the French New Wave -- and with an occasional palette cleanser of a score that brings to mind "The Godfather" -- "The Kid with a Bike" is a movie about growing up and the guardedness of reevaluating the kindness of strangers when the trust of those you're brought up to turn to is sabotaged.

Footnote
Footnote(2012)

It's like a Jew-ier "Curb Your Enthusiasm", and just as wittily inventive, even when by the third act it starts to settle.

Silver Linings Playbook
½

"Silver Linings Playbook" is proof the ensemble cast has yet to be all but wasted. There's been a handful of movies this year perfect as acting showcases yet that also strive and concern for more -- the steep first step to alcoholism recovery in "Flight"; the distance and disconnect between Capitol Hill and a civil culture clash in "Lincoln". Chalk up David O. Russell's "SLP" for going beyond the call of duty. For laughs, it does more than get the job done: it's comedy with coursing nerve ends and no tap out of sexual tension and energy. That's Russell for you -- his payoffs come from stress, sweat, and the simultaneous fear and excitement of living life to the fullest, and on the edge.

Definite acting nods should come the ways of Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro, each for playing characters with hunger, crazy and quirk minus one-note preciousness. They hit for the heart. This is a movie about wanting to be loved, by any means necessary, through the lens of two people (Cooper and Lawrence) either stuck looking backward or struggling to look ahead. "Playbook" is about their meeting in the middle, the spotlight and challenge of the moment. A treasure.

Premium Rush
Premium Rush(2012)
½

I didn't check the clock for shit. Fuck a human trafficking subplot. The real thrill's in the city-spanning chase between Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Wilee and Michael Shannon's cop Bobby Monday. Or maybe he was a detective. I don't remember and there's certainly no way in this day and age to find out. But "Premium Rush" is filmmaking up and down, baby, make no mistake; it's just all in the whoosh of the ride. Can't say it goes nowhere.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

I like it, don't love it, but it's regardless a damned fine character piece about not how a kid coming off World War II could come to be known as the world's greatest sushi chef from a ten-seat bar, but how ambition, savvy and spunk helped both he and his dead fish transcend the trend.

The Queen of Versailles

Forget the botox, baby drama and boob jobs -- "The Queen of Versailles" is only dressed top to bottom in the fun material lifestyle of the rich and famous. Look closer, and it's James Wood's "Videodrome" nightmare come to wake in the financial ruin of hell's reality TV.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
½

Films like this are a dying breed. Embrace it, even when it gets cold.

Bad Education

I still think "The Skin I Live In" is Almodovar's best, weirdest cinematic soiree (dig those words there), but "Bad Education" is top dog for darkest. It digs deep, makes a mess, and, as always, leaves the tough questions up to you to tame, even when they're impulses that can't be settled. And note the dick-swinging NC-17 rating, there. Got to love that.

Amour
Amour(2012)

There are a lot of movies out there so immediately satisfying to call good, if not necessarily great. I'm not saying they all have to be as bizarrely spellbinding and painfully essential as the brilliant German director Michael Haneke's already award-winning "Amour", but there's got to be a passion, an ache it brings out and makes us feel. Being as rich and rewarding as "Amour" doesn't hurt, either. It's not the sort of movie you'd expect from writer-director Haneke, known for and skilled at the violence and lauded shock in controversial films such as "Benny's Video", "Funny Games", and "Cache". But there's his mark from first to final stunning frame in "Amour" -- following up his black-and-white 2009 masterwork "The White Ribbon" -- in talk of death, time, past lives, dreams and silent screams in nightmares.

Yet what "Amour" achieves with just the basic setting of a stage play in a story focused on bourgeoisie aged couple Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anna (Emmanuelle Riva), the camera trapped completely in their Paris apartment when the latter receives a stroke that leaves her right side paralyzed, is the stuff a filmmaker hints his entire career at making.

A film wrapped up in The End, "Amour" is a relationship drama the like of which we almost never see, where life, love, free will, and letting go are all parts in the natural flow of a selfless betrothal, especially as Anna slips into dementia and still Georges refuses aid to lighten the load. For their plight, the giftedly emotive Trintignant and Riva are quick to fill your soul. And it's to the credit of resplendent cinematographer Darius Khondji -- no stranger in shooting the City of Lights (he worked on the French comedy "Delicatessen" as well as the last two abroad-set Woody Allen pictures) -- that "Amour" feels just as big, buoyant and culturally haunted confined to a single penthouse as any blockbuster outside the walls.

"Amour" won't be for everyone -- it might even be pegged pretentious -- but that's not to decry its permanent realism as shuttered or imperceptible. It's a resonant, lived-in, albeit difficult piece of cinema. No serious movie fan would expect anything less from the great Haneke. The love in his "Amour" is astonishing. You can't pull your heart away.

The Deer Hunter

"Are you talking to me, Vietnam? Are you talking to ME?!?"

The Passion of Joan of Arc (La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc)

I wanted to call this movie a "modern masterpiece", but it came out nearly a hundred years ago now. Wouldn't make much sense, would it?

Food, Inc.
Food, Inc.(2009)

It's not a perfect documentary, but it shows off what we eat as basically the culinary equivalent of the "Transformers" trilogy.

The Grey
The Grey(2012)

Okay cool so not one wolf could have barked "chaos reigns".

Chronicle
Chronicle(2012)

Buy a fucking tripod!

Ted
Ted(2012)

I don't care who you are; shit's funny right here.

Lawless
Lawless(2012)

"Lawless" plays mostly like a soulful rendition of a Western, never quite transcending the idea it has of itself as stylish folklore. The cinematography, acting, and directing are all rather terrific, but it's disappointing you can't call it out for any richer themes than what's just on the surface. "Lawless" could have been about the principles of savagery, or the corrupt bend of the law in a history of violence. Too bad neither come up for air. There's plenty of it. Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave settle for no-nonsense legend that just gets flatter as you watch it. I guess you had to be there.

ParaNorman
ParaNorman(2012)
½

Meet Norman: he's paranormal. And thanks to the gentle care of the animation genii at LAIKA (of the magnificent "Coraline"), his sixth sense in "ParaNorman" for seeing ghosts and -- naturally -- the settled minds of comfy grownups is about to open a new, richly grim chapter in young Norman's small town. Save the date: after a bearded would-be hobo tells the kid the "curse" put upon Blithe Hollow by a wronged witch is real and time is running out, the evil dead rise only once everyone's deemed Norman's infinite sadness as sanity gone fishing.

But to quote "ParaNorman's" nerd-affirming tagline, you don't become the hero by being normal. You also don't keep what makes you weird and different all to yourself, or think of death as something to fearfully hold onto. What ideas. It takes a bit for "ParaNorman" to find its feet, but one thing you can't call any of it is safe. I'm cool with LAIKA as Pixar after dark. Still a skeptic? Show me another kids movie conceptually designed like Tim Burton meets Robert Crumb, plays like a hellish "Back to the Future", and polishes off with a stomping reprise of the White Stripes' "Little Ghosts". Thought so.

Burn After Reading
½

Scolding the Coen brothers Joel and Ethan for not sitting out a black comedy shooting six different ways is call enough to be a negative target of their next movie. It's deserved if self-centered. Hey, that'd just be timeout for the evil twins of Powell and Pressburger, layers of agenda to knock down the standing pins of annoying idiots. Those who rightly found recurring chuckles in "No Country for Old Men" will be thrilled to hear "Burn After Reading" aims for that demented high bar and clears it big time.

The convoluted ensemble pays off with a hellfire of a cast who meet the Coens halfway in going all out. The movie opens on raging C.I.A. analyst Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) getting sacked to a lower chain of command, sending him blazing to wife Katie (Tilda Swinton), only her it's hard to talk over. Osborne wants to write some sort of book trailing his eventual hands-tied with the feds. Then the camera moves to Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney) and his better half Sandy (Elizabeth Marvel) at that night's mellow dinner party at the Cox residence. It'd be like a failed orgy if Harry and Katie weren't spooning behind the scenes.

Where "Reading" turns outside personality to intelligence is in the slow revelations of superficial gym employees Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) and Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), the latter in ache of a new coat of paint and former hoping to extort money from finding of a syndicate disk traced full circle back to Osborne. An arc cornered this is not, the Coens digging deep into their bag of tricks to pull out a grim woody of a twist you might not see coming. More to 'em, the fearless bastards.

Any later a release date and you could have easily pegged "Burn After Reading" an allegory to the financial collapse of the Lehman Brothers. It's when the cynical pair write character type that momentarily looses the balls from the wall they nail with sharp retribution and warped, dreamy foreign diplomacy. Here's a scathingly funny clown concert that dares tread red water unafraid to enter zones of conspiracy. The loaded clip of acting couldn't even be judged fairly in a top five. The colored unknown to every crisped page leaves "Burn After Reading" marks necessary to stain the willing mind. Long after credits fade the gambit hangs back.

Kramer vs. Kramer

You'll grin big enough to catch the tears.