New in Home Entertainment – February 24, 2015

whiplash

New in Home Entertainment

February 24, 2015

Whiplash
Rated R for strong language including some sexual references
Available on DVD and Blu-ray
So now many of you are saying “did that Farmers Insurance guy just win an Oscar?” The answer is he didn’t just win it – he owned it. His win was one of the most dominant in an actor category that I have ever seen. And deservedly so. Whiplash tells the story of a young and talented drummer (Miles Teller) who is pushed to the point of insanity by his jazz instructor (played by now Oscar winner J.K. Simmons). It is a beautifully frustrating experience that provided not only my favorite performance of the year, but my favorite movie as well. It is a brilliant film that I can almost guarantee you’ll love – if you can make it to the end. A+

Big Hero 6
Rated PG for action and peril, some rude humor, and thematic elements
Available on DVD and Blu-ray
One of my biggest surprises on Oscar night was watching Disney win its second animated feature Academy Award for Big Hero 6. I’m sure they are still partying in Burbank. Based on a little-known Marvel comic and set in the futuristic California city of San Fransokyo, Big Hero 6 tells the tale of a young genius named Hiro who puts together a team of engineering nerds to save the world from a madman who stole his robot technology to use for sinister purposes. Very funny and action packed, it is an absolute blast to watch, whether you’re a kid or an adult. And in the robot Baymax, Disney has officially created one of the most lovable characters in its universe. A
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
Rated PG for thematic elements, some violent action and partial nudity
Available on DVD and Blu-ray
A surprise nominee in this year’s Feature Animated Oscar category is this beautiful hand-drawn story from Studio Ghibli. This tale of a young girl born from a bamboo stock and adopted by local villagers is like a lovely dream. It’s incredibly strange but unbelievably graceful in its telling. Although animated, I think adults are the main audience for this one. While the artistry is quite an achievement, this kind of animation, unfortunately, is lost on most children. But then some of the scenes will have you glad they aren’t watching when they come along. A-
Horrible Bosses 2
Rated R for strong crude sexual content and language throughout
Available on Blu-ray and DVD
The name Oscar should never even come to mind when thinking about this sequel to the very funny raunch com Horrible Bosses This new adventure follows our heroes (played by Jason Bateman, Charlie Day and Jason Sudeikis) as they attempt to start their own company with a ludicrous invention. After they get screwed over by a ruthless business man (played by Christoph Waltz), they, of course, try to get revenge. While there are some laughs to be had here, the entire storyline is so ludicrous and unbelievable that it gets annoying. I love all of the many actors involved and I can appreciate what they bring to the table, but I was taken out of the film by its absolute lack of any sense of reality or organic action. C

New in Home Entertainment – February 17, 2015

LifeItself

New in Home Entertainment

February 17, 2015

Life Itself
Rated R for brief sexual images/nudity and language
Available on DVD and Blu-ray
The primary reason that you are reading this review, written by me, is the subject of this extremely well-made documentary. While most kids in my youth were watching cartoons and wrestling on Saturday mornings, I couldn’t wait to tune into At the Movies with Siskel and Ebert. Roger Ebert was a weird kind of idol to have as a youngster, but his insight greatly enriched my life and his suggestions have led to some of my greatest film discoveries. Covering his lifespan, from his humble beginnings to his tragic end, this movie is one of the most fitting portraits one could possibly dream up. Directed by one of Ebert’s favorite directors, Hoop Dreams’ Steve James, and featuring dozens of people whose lives were touched by the cantankerous critic, the film is is packed with emotion, both happy and sad. It’s easy to give this film, and Ebert’s life, a big thumbs up. A

The Theory of Everything
Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and suggestive material
Available on DVD and Blu-ray
One of this year’s biggest surprises was this quite amazing biopic telling the true story of the life of astrophysicist Stephen Hawking. One would think that a film of this sort would be a depressing and cold picture, but Theory turns out to be the opposite. Thanks to an amazing script and superb direction, as well as two of the best performances of the year by Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, the film evolves into a vibrant tale of life and even a beautiful although bittersweet romance. A

St. Vincent
Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material including sexual content, alcohol and tobacco use, and for language
Available on DVD and Blu-ray
Now that Wes Anderson has been making films for 20 years, it is inevitable that young directors growing up on his films will create similar products. In writer/director Ted Melfi’s first major league film, he manages to get Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts and Chris O’Dowd to do this lovable, Andersonesque story about a grumpy old man who befriends the young boy who lives next door. What starts out as a predictable raunch com, quickly turns into a deeper film about what its like to be a boy growing up as well as a man winding down. It’s hard to believe that a movie such as this could convert into a heart-warming comedy, but it’s so welcome when it does. B+

The Homesman
Rated R for violence, sexual content, some disturbing behavior and nudity
Available on DVD and Blu-ray
Tommy Lee Jones stars and directs this western about a plain woman (Hillary Swank) who volunteers to escort three women with prairie fever from their homes in Nebraska to a church in Iowa. What The Homesman has going for it is also its downfall: its authenticity. I’ve no doubt that these kinds of things happened, but they are not fun to watch. While it has some interesting and weird twists and turns, its miseries make the viewer miserable in return. C

Game of Thrones: The Complete Fourth Season
Rated TV-MA
Available on DVD and Blu-ray
After the much-talked-about season three of HBO’s hit show based on George R.R. Martin’s best selling novels, there was no telling where season four would go, but the journey has once again been worth the traveling in season four. With an ever-bigger budget and a bolder direction, we are edging closer to a grand finale that I hope is still years away. There are so many unforgettable moments but thankfully all of my favorite characters have managed to stay alive and some of my most hated villains have met their doom. Of course that means more will come to fill their shoes in season five, set to premier on April 12. Winter is still coming. A

New in Home Entertainment – February 10, 2015

nightcrawler

New in Home Entertainment

February 10, 2015

Nightcrawler
Rated R for violence including graphic images, and for language
Available on DVD and Blu-ray
When you are young, sick, twisted and entrepreneurial, the world is your oyster. That’s what young Jake Gyllenhaal discovers when he comes upon the promise of a new profession offering fame and fortune to freelance camera crews who capture crime and accident scenes, as they happen, to sell them to the highest bidding news station. While Jake has done some good work in the past, nothing comes close to his performance here. Gritty and more than ethically dubious, the movie will have you feeling repulsed, appalled and drawn in at the same time. It’s the closest thing to a modern-day seventies film we’ve had since, well, the seventies. A

Laggies
Rated R for language, some sexual material and teen partying
Available on DVD and Blu-ray
Keira Knightly stars in this dramedy about a 28 year old girl who was the life of the party in high school but who has gone nowhere since. With one week to go before her wedding, she decides to lay low by moving into the house of a high school girl she buys beer for at the liquor store (Chloe Grace Moretz). What could have been a nice coming of age, what will I do with my life kind of movie, is lazily converted into a romantic comedy that you unfortunately see coming a mile away. While I love the actors, and even the acting, I could care less for the script. I almost wish they would have focused more on the relationship between Knightly and Moritz rather than horning in on the dad. Either way, the film has some nice moments, but there’s not enough here to interest most audiences. C+

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day
Rated PG for rude humor including some reckless behavior and language
Available on DVD and Blu-ray
Young Alexander (Ed Oxenbould) is in the middle of a life crisis where everything goes wrong that can while his parents (Steve Carell and Jennifer Garner) and siblings are enjoying their perfect lives. After making a wish for a reversal of fortune, his luck changes, as does theirs, creating an eventfully awful experience for everyone associated. One thing Disney has always succeeded at is the family-friendly comedy and this one is par for the course. While predictable and cliched, it is fun to watch for kids and adults alike and will help you appreciate a lack of drama in your own life. B+

Force Majeure
Rated R for some language and brief nudity
Available on DVD and Blu-ray
In Swedish and English with English subtitles
This Canne Film Festival award winner follows the life of a young family on a ski trip where the father undergoes a serious analysis of his priorities, courage and very manhood after being exposed to a deadly-looking avalanche. The film plays like a psychodrama, but due to the very nature and discomfort of all involved, it ends up being a wildly funny comedy through its effective use of supreme discomfort. The acting is seriously good by the small but talented cast and I really enjoyed the presence of the creepy but caring ginger-bearded friend played by Game of Thrones’ Kristofer Hivju. A-

New in Home Entertainment – February 3, 2015

dearwhitepeople-600x400

New in Home Entertainment

February 3, 2015

Dear White People
Rated R for language, sexual content and drug usage
Available on DVD and Blu-ray
When I was in junior high I went to go see Spike Lee’s School Daze and to this day I still remember how uncomfortable I was in that theater. Part of the reason was the culture shock and part was I was sitting next to my mom in a mostly black theater. After seeing an interview with writer/director Justin Simien on the Colbert Report concerning what I incorrectly thought was a similar film, I immediately reflected back on that discomfort and chose not to see or review the film while it was in theaters. This being a light week for DVD releases, I decided to check it out in the privacy of my own home and I’m glad I did. The film follows a group of black and white students at an Ivy league school dealing with modern race relations where white students think racism is over and black students think it is changed but just as present as in the days of their grandparents. The film, while slanted away from my thinking, is thoughtful and thought provoking. Making fun of films by filmmakers such as Tyler Perry, the movie attempts to be, in my opinion, a black film as much for whites as it is for blacks. That’s a difficult task, especially considering that it will most likely be interpreted very differently by both. Making the movie even more interesting is that it explores stereotypes of whites and blacks while both exploiting the stereotypes and tearing them down at the same time. Overall, it is a well-written, well-directed script with an extremely talented cast that left me in a much more comfortable (although still challenged) state than Spike’s film from 1988. Then again, things might have been different if I had also watched this one with my mom in that same theater (which is now a gun range of course). A-

Dracula Untold
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of warfare vampire attacks, disturbing images, and some sensuality
Available on DVD and Blu-ray
Luke Evans (The Hobbit) plays the man who would become Dracula and what lead to his infamy and curse. One of my fondest memories of Bram Stoker’s Dracula by Francis Ford Coppola was the history of Dracula. The stylized recreation has stuck in my mind for more than 20 years now. So I was excited to see a full-length feature based on this myth. Unfortunately, the project was tackled by filmmakers with poor vision who were unable to do the story justice. There are many faults to this such as miscasting, overuse and misuse of effects and too flashy of a production. More than any of its other faults, though, is creating a PG-13 universe. A vampire film with so little blood is simply lame. I guess they wanted to bring teenagers into the fold but what a waste here. C-

New in Home Entertainment – January 27, 2015

the-interview-sony-pictures

 

New in Home Entertainment

January 27, 2015

The Interview
Rated R for pervasive language, crude and sexual humor, nudity, some drug use and bloody violence
Available on Netflix and VOD. DVD and Blu-ray coming February 17
I’m so relieved. I finally got to watch The Interview last night on Netflix and I’m still alive. I’m even more relieved that I liked the movie. This raunchy comedy follows James Franco and Seth Rogen as they attempt to assassinate North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un. A month ago the film got more press, good and bad, than perhaps any other holiday project in history. But when theater chains across the country decided to chicken out of showing the movie, Sony was forced to exhibit in smaller chains and VOD only. As of this week, the film is available for Netflix subscribers. While its not the most hilarious thing you’ll see this year, it does have some very big laughs. Sure Franco is a little miscast and many of the jokes aren’t particularly funny, but overall the movie is entertaining and politically savvy. B

The Judge
Rated R for language including some sexual references
Available on DVD and Blu-ray
In this newest courtroom drama, Robert Downey Jr plays a big city attorney who upon returning home for his mother’s funeral, is forced to defend his father (Robert Duvall), who happens to be the town’s judge, for killing a local man. Wanting so hard to play like a Grisham movie, Judge might overreach at times, but the acting is excellent from the talented cast, and any misgivings of the script or story are ultimately forgivable. If it weren’t for the 141 minute running time, the film might have been a bigger hit than it ended up being. B

Coherence
Unrated
Available on DVD
This warped little ensemble piece follows a group of dinner guests who, on the night of a comet passing, discover that their neighborhood is full of houses full of the same exact guests, having the same dinner party. It is an unusually complex film that you just kind of try to forgo logic and just sit back, hoping you are still sort of with them at the end of the ride. At ninety minutes, the weirdness doesn’t rot your brain and honestly, its pretty fun. It might be even more fun with a couple glasses of wine on board. B+

Kill the Messenger
Rated R for language and drug content
Available on DVD and Blu-ray
Based on a true story, Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker) stars as Pulitzer Prize-winning Journalist Gary Webb, who upon uncovering CIA secrets about drugs in South America and the U.S., puts his career, himself and his family in danger for messing with the wrong people. I really loved the first half of the movie. Watching the little guy go against the powers that be and win is a rush. But then the powers that be make their move and the rest of the film gets long and absolutely depressing. It becomes such a challenge to watch that you just want to give up. While the truth can make for great stories, it can also be quite miserable as well. While I feel this story does need to be told, I have to think there is a better way to tell it. C

New in Home Entertainment – January 20, 2015

lucy

New in Home Entertainment

January 20, 2015

Lucy
Rated R for strong violence, disturbing images and sexuality
Available on DVD and Blu-ray
This unexpected box office hit from Fifth Element writer/director Luc Besson follows Scarlett Johansson as an unfortunate young woman who is accidentally given an overdose of a powerful drug which allows her to go from using 10% of her brain to 100%. As you’d expect from the visionary French director, the film is highly stylized and full of fun action. But also as expected, the film is full of scratch your head moments that could have been easily fixed had Besson just done some simple research or had a better advisory team. I don’t mind a filmmaker using a little creative license here and there, but there are way too many moments that have the ability to take you out of the film, which I personally find inexcusable. If you find yourself saying too many times, “that wouldn’t happen like that” or “why would she possibly do that?” then there is too much distraction to make this a solid piece of entertainment. C+

Annabelle
Rated R for intense sequences of disturbing violence and terror
Available on DVD and Blu-ray
One of the side stories of the wonderfully frightening 2013 horror film The Conjuring was that of a doll named Annabelle, which is based on a real doll, still located in the Warren’s home today. Here the story goes back to the early seventies where a young couple are haunted by a doll after a cultist bleeds her soul into her. While a bit hair raising at times, Annabelle remains largely unscary and unfortunately a bit dull. Unlike The Conjuring, the film lacks the authenticity it needs to make it a horrifying experience. Whereas a lot of these types of films just make poor decisions which lead to failure, the poor decision here is making the movie. I really don’t think there’s a story worth telling and that the whole project is a desperate attempt to capitalize on the success of its predecessor. D

The Boxtrolls
Rated PG for action, some peril and mild rude humor
Available on DVD, Blu-ray and Blu-ray 3D
This stop motion animated gem follows a group of trolls who wear boxes (thus the name) and the little boy they adopt when his life was in danger. It’s a nonsensical adventure set in a crazy universe, and it absolutely works. Sure it’s ugly to look at, but it’s a marvelous ugly that you can’t take your eyes off of. It might be a little much for the young kids, but for older children and adults it is terrific little fantasy. While it didn’t get much love at the box office, it did latch onto an Oscar nomination – something The Lego Movie could not accomplish. A-

Jimi: All is By My Side
Rated R for language including sexual references, sand some drug content
Available on DVD and Blu-ray
I’m not sure what exactly happened to the theatrical release of this biopic following the life of famed rocker Jimi Hendrix, but after watching this blu-ray, I was quite confused about the its lack of traction. So many biopics have been released throughout the last few years, and yet so many of them miss the boat. Not this one. Writer/Director John Ridley creates here a terrifically entertaining flick that really spells out what it must have been like to have been around Jimi in the early days of his career. It is thrilling, funny, touching and completely engaging. OutKast’s Andre Benjamin is amazing as the rock god and he should have gotten a lot more love for this role than he did. My only gripe is that the movie cuts off before Jimi heads to America to become the legend we know today. A

Rudderless
Rated R for language
Available on DVD
William H. Macy directs this Once-like musical about a man whose life is torn apart after a tragedy involving his son. Years after going off of the grid, he discovers a box of demo tapes his son made and attempts to get to know him better through his music. Overall, I really like the idea of the film. The music is really good, and the story is touching. The story could have been so much better though had it just been tweaked in a few areas. Also, while Billy Crudup and Anton Yelchin do a great job, Felicity Huffman phones it in and Selena Gomez’s character should have been cut entirely. B-

New in Home Entertainment – January 13, 2015

Gone Girl

New in Home Entertainment

January 13, 2014

Gone Girl
Rated R for a scene of bloody violence, some strong sexual content, nudity, and language
Available on Blu-ray and DVD
Based on the best-selling novel by Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl follows the world of a husband (Ben Affleck) who is under suspicion for killing his wife (Rosamund Pike) when she goes missing. Twisted and sadistically funny, Gone Girl is masterfully directed by David Fincher and written for the screen by Flynn herself. What I loved most about Gone Girl is that I KNEW which direction the film was going in, until I discovered how wrong I really was. When a film takes you completely by surprise and then blows you away, its hard not to fall in love with it, even when the material is this dark. A

The Two Faces of January
Rated PG-13 for some violence, language and smoking
Available on DVD and Blu-ray
Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst are a couple traveling through Greece in the 60’s when they run across a young, semi-distrustful tour guide played by Oscar Isaac. When Mortensen gets in trouble at his hotel, Isaac comes to the rescue to help them try to escape Greece. While I enjoyed the production, or rather their reproduction of 1960’s Greece, the film is one of the least thrilling thrillers I’ve seen this year. One of the biggest problems is that its hard to feel empathy for any of the characters, so when bad things happen, who cares? It’s a shame too, because all three of the actors are fantastic and worthy of much greater material. C-

Men, Women & Children
Rated R for strong sexual content including graphic dialogue throughout – some involving teens, and for language
Available on DVD and Blu-ray
One of my favorite writers/directors in recent years is Jason Reitman, who has come on the scene strong with Juno and Up in the Air. This time around he takes on relationships between a host of deeply flawed characters living in a world of social media. Starring an impressive ensemble cast, the movie ultimately fails due to their not being a likable character in the entire script. While some are better than others, pretty much everyone is a turd in the punchbowl, and I for one quickly grew thirsty for something else. D

Black Sails: The Complete First Season
Available on DVD and Blu-ray
Some of my favorite guilty pleasures from recent years have come from television shows based on historical bad guys like gladiators, vikings and now pirates. This ambitious and well-crafted show from Starz creates a fun world based on pirates of old that is as naughty as it is violent. While I’m assuming its not in the least bit realistic, it is a lot of fun watching the action-packed drama unfold. And it doesn’t hurt that the production values are first rate. I can’t wait to see how they continue things in season 2, starting January 24. B+

New in Home Entertainment – January 6, 2015

xxhawke 1

New in Home Entertainment

January 6, 2014

Boyhood
Rated R for language including sexual references, and for teen drug and alcohol use
Available on DVD and Blu-ray
For twelve years, Texas filmmaker Richard Linklater filmed a fictional movie about the life a young boy (played by newcomer Ellar Coltrane) who we get to watch as he grows up to be a man. Not only is the movie a brilliant portrayal of a life’s journey, but it also serves as a wonderful vision of growing up in Texas. Filmed around Houston, Austin, San Marcos, Big Bend and other familiar spots to most of us, the film serves as great nostalgia both for our childhoods and our state as we are given points of reference most of us will easily recognize. While it was probably the most talked-about movie in Hollywood in 2014, it is surprising that it took in only about 24 million at the box office. Then again, its disc and streaming take should be a significant improvement, especially after it brings home a bucketful of awards this coming season. A+

Get on Up
Rated PG-13 for sexual content, drug use, some strong language, and violent situations
Available on DVD and Blu-ray
In his followup to his multiple Oscar-nominated film The Help, Tate Taylor tells the story of the notorious R&B artist James Brown. Zipping back and forth around time periods in Brown’s life, the film is easy enough to follow, but tends to meander quite a bit and fails to make interesting any character besides Brown himself. That being said, Chadwick Boseman is dynamite as Brown and its hard to imagine a better performance of the iconic figure. It’s a performance worth watching, even if the rest of the film is not. B-

The Trip to Italy
Unrated
Available on DVD and Blu-ray
This sequel to 2010’s The Trip once again follows actors Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan as two friends, this time traveling around Italy discussing its unbelievable cuisine. Three of my favorite things in the world are travel, good food and laughter and this film makes for the perfect combination. It is a joy to watch the extremely cynical and sarcastic duo let loose, although some of the drama I found extremely distracting. For example, while probably realistic, the infidelity introduced into the script makes the characters, who are playing themselves mind you, almost too fallible. I wish they had toned much of drama from the scripted portions of the movie and just left us with more Italy, food and laughter. A-

The Guest
Rated R for strong violence, language, some drug use and a scene of sexuality
Available on DVD and Blu-ray
While highly praised by critics and audiences, this indie slipped into and out of theaters with little fanfare. Unfortunately the poster only shows a good-looking actor (Dan Stevens) wearing a backpack and holding a gun, and doesn’t give a clue about what the audience should expect. Once you get watching you discover that this is a demented Bourne Identity-like tale with a twisted edge and a lot of bad behavior. Sure it’s a total B movie with good production values, but it’s also well-crafted and a lot of fun, in spite of its story-telling flaws. And Stevens is terrific as the good guy/bad guy houseguest with questionable intentions. B

Dinosaur 13
Rated PG for mild thematic elements, language and brief smoking
Available eon DVD and Blu-ray
I have been extremely impressed with CNN’s launch into the feature documentary market over the last couple of years and this newest entry, while not perfect, is unforgettable. Exploring the discovery of Sue the dinosaur and the controversial events following her excavation, Dinosaur 13 is an upsetting yet enlightening view of modern paleontology and the U.S. government’s overreach and abuse. While it does have a made-for-tv feel to it, that doesn’t make it any less powerful. B+

The Best and Worst of 2014

The Best and Worst of 2014

By Danny Minton

I have heard from a lot of people that 2014 was a great year for movies. While I usually agree with that statement on any given year, I will admit that 2014 was a bit of a disappointment for me. Typically, my top 10 is full of films I really loved and there would be many in my honorable mention category that I had to toil over to not include in the big list. This year I liked a lot of movies, but I can’t say I’m completely head over heals with any but a few. That being said, I think that should you check out any of the films in this list, you will be glad you did. They are an entertaining bunch indeed. For my list, I tend to include the films I enjoyed the most, and not necessarily the intellectual best from the year.

whiplash

1) Whiplash (in theaters). Music has always been a passion of mine and as a former jazz musician myself, I have an understanding of what separates the good from the great and the great from the legendary. In Whiplash, J.K. Simmons (who will win the Best Supporting Oscar for his role) is a jazz instructor who sees potential in a young drummer played by Miles Teller. In an attempt to try to create a legendary drummer, he proceeds to break the kid down bit by bit, driving him to the point of insanity. By doing this he breaks the audience down as well as we become the young prodigy, hoping desperately to overcome and satisfy the teacher. This is masterful filmmaking with performances that will be talked about for years.

guardians-of-the-galaxy

2) Guardians of the Galaxy (available on DVD and Blu-ray). This relatively little-known Marvel title surprised the world this summer, becoming the top-grossing film of 2014 and creating a new franchise for us to fall in love with. The newest addition to the A-List actor community, Chris Pratt, leads a team of unlikely galactic heroes, including a talking raccoon and a walking tree, to fight a power that could threaten the entire universe. The film is so well-written it is scary and is as funny as it is exciting. To top it off, it is fairly kid-friendly to boot.

The-Grand-Budapest-Hotel

3) The Grand Budapest Hotel (available on DVD and Blu-ray). Wes Anderson has always been one of my favorite filmmakers. His light and airy yet richly complex style sparks a creativity in me like no other filmmaker does today. In his newest creation, his typical all-star cast is led by Ralph Fiennes who plays an Eastern European hotel concierge from days long past who is wanted for murder and on the run from the cops. While darker than his usual fare, the journey is pure bliss from start to finish. While Rushmore is and probably always will be my favorite Wes Anderson film, this one is a close second.

boyhood

4) Boyhood (Available on DVD and Blu-ray January 6, on iTunes now). If I had to guess who will be the big Oscar winner this year, I would place my bet on Richard Linklater and Boyhood. For 12 years Linklater filmed a story about the life of a young boy, played by newcomer Ellar Coltrane, for a couple of weeks at a time. When he finished, he had a sprawling epic narrative where you literally get to watch a young man grow up before your very eyes. Helping to put our own lives in perspective, Boyhood is more of an experience than a movie.

gone-girl-1

5) Gone Girl (available on DVD and Blu-ray January 13). I love it when I think I know exactly the direction a film is going to take, to the point where I’m even internally cocky about it, and then I discover that I am incredibly wrong. This movie, based on the book by Gillian Flynn and directed by David Fincher (Fight Club) humbled me in that way. Telling the story about a beautiful and intelligent wife (Rosamund Pike) who goes missing and the husband (Ben Affleck) who is accused of her murder, Gone Girl throws you for one loop after another until you are exhausted and eerily satisfied.

nightcrawler

6) Nightcrawler (in theaters). Handsome leading man Jake Gyllenhaal turns creepy in this film about an ambitious young man who attempts to capture violent footage as a freelance reporter for a local Los Angeles televisions station. This is a gritty and dark tale with a twisted sense of humor and a relentless breach of moral and ethical standards. It’s like a modern day 1970’s film.

How to Train

7) How to Train Your Dragon 2 (available on DVD and Blu-ray). I really loved the first Dragon and was excited to see where writer/director Dean DeBlois and his talented team of animators would take Hiccup and Toothless. In this newest journey, Hiccup and his childhood friends are young adults faced with a malicious dragon master who wants to steal their dragon cohabitants and destroy their village. While the first film was big, this one pulls out all of the stops and throws in a mind-boggling amount of action and plot. And the animation is a real step forward, providing some of the most amazing cinematography we’ve seen in theaters this year.

blue ruin

8) Blue Ruin (available on DVD and Blu-ray). Since the rise of independent filmmaking we’ve trained ourselves to expect less of micro-budgeted films. We expect, with good cause many times, that a film with an ultra-low budget won’t look good, sound good, or have reasonably good acting. But every once in while you get a film like Blue Ruin which tells the story of a man who is desperate to seek revenge on the man who killed his mom and dad, but lacks the skill or mental capacity to carry out that revenge and the subsequent consequences. The beauty of the film is that the hero is so easy to empathize with that we become quickly hooked and glued to his plight.

THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES

9) The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (in theaters). Now that Peter Jackson has taken us all the way to the end of the tale of Bilbo Baggins and his quest to help the dwarves reclaim their mountain home, I for one am glad he took on us on this long but well crafted journey. I was one of the many questioning why we needed three films, but this exceptional third chapter shows that Jackson knew what he was doing all along and audiences will be the better for it. We have been there and back again and well-entertained in the process.

Big-Hero-6

10) Big Hero 6 (in theaters). Frozen left some big shoes to fill but Disney Animation Studios put their best foot forward and created this fantastic super hero genesis story from another relatively little-known Marvel comic. While formulaic in story, there is an original twist on the genre that is exciting to watch. And Baymax has to be one of the most lovable characters to ever be introduced into the Disney universe. Ultimately, Disney once again knocks it out of the park with another family-friendly hit.

Honorable Mention: American Sniper, Belle, Big Eyes, Birdman, The Imitation Game, Interstellar, Into the Woods, Jodorowsky’s Dune, Life Itself, Noah, Selma, St Vincent, Theory of Everything, The Trip to Italy

The Worst

1) Blended. Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore re-team in this awful excuse for a romantic comedy set in South Africa. Contrived and poorly conceived, this is proof that Sandler is trying to dare us to go see his movies.

2) Tammy. Melissa McCarthy and Susan Sarandon star in this comedy that gets so depressing that it forgets to be funny. It’s just a sad road trip movie mislabeled and miserably produced.

3) Think Like a Man 2. Think Like a Man was bad enough, but this sequel, centered around a Sin City wedding, is something I wish had just stayed in Vegas.

4) Need for Speed. Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul competes in a cross-country car race to avenge a friend’s death. Never has a racing movie been so tedious and unexciting.

5) Transformers: Age of Extinction. At first you’re like “oh cool, dinosaur transformers,” and then you realize that that’s just kind of stupid. Of course you have to wait two hours to see them before you can come to this realization. Had the film been an hour shorter it might have been considered a guilty pleasure. At its almost three hour running time, this is just one excessive mess and a monumental waste of time.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

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The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Starring Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen and Richard Armitage
Directed by Peter Jackson
Rated PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images

     I’ve read The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, maybe not as many times as some, but enough to know that the story is about a group of dwarves, along with a wizard and a hobbit, who try to take back a mountain full of gold from the Dragon known as Smaug. But a huge battle? Well, in the book there is only a glimpse of it, so for me, after the removal of Smaug, this storyline didn’t seem like a necessary diversion and central focus for an entire film. And yet it fits.

     In this last chapter, after Smaug is defeated, King Thorin’s heart becomes possessed by the riches of the mountain. When the elves and men come to claim their rightful portion of the treasure, Thorin refuses to share and a large battle seems eminent when suddenly a vast orc army enters to complicate the situation. It’s a grand war full of unexpected outcomes.

     This is where a trust in Peter Jackson needs to be placed. He and his team felt that the story just wasn’t complete leaving it as is and so a huge embellishment was needed, and now that I’ve seen it, I’m glad he was in charge. This is not at all like The Hunger Games or Twilight where two films were made instead of one as a pure money grab. Here, this story felt like it needed to be told and like the overall film wouldn’t have been served correctly without it.

     Production-wise, this film is, as expected, first class. It appears that no expense was spared to make everything look and sound perfect. The special effects, while not as showy as in the second installment, were flawless and exhilarating. The acting was superb by the entire cast, making the entire world seem alive. And once again, Howard Shore created a new and innovative score that doesn’t just remind us of old themes, but rather livens up the movie with fresh and beautiful music.

     As an aside, while I was never bothered by the tremendous lengths of the Lord of the Rings and other Hobbit films, it will be comforting to some that this newest installment is the shortest Middle Earth film yet clocking in at only 144 well-paced minutes.

     I guess what I’m most enthused about with this final Hobbit film is that beforehand I wasn’t excited to watch it but afterward I was extremely excited to talk about it. I love a good surprise and this film made me remember why I love Peter Jackson’s vision of Middle Earth so dearly. It is a masterful creation and a terrific way to close out what I think will be considered to be one of the most underrated and under-appreciated sagas in cinematic history. A