Tag Archives: J.J. Abrams

“STAR TREK BEYOND” Review (✫✫1/2)

A little short of beyond, actually. 

A wash of sadness came over me as I sat down to watch Star Trek Beyond. This was the last time I was going to see Anton Yelchin and Leonard Nimoy on the big screen, who both tragically passed away earlier this year due to unfortunate circumstance. With both becoming Star Trek staples of their own generations, I knew Star Trek would never be the same with the both of them gone. My sadness grew as I kept watching Star Trek Beyond and realized their final appearances were wasted on a mediocre movie. Surely they deserved a better final outing than this.

The third film in the newly rebooted Star Trek universe, Beyond follows the U.S.S. Enterprise as it traverses on its five-year voyage through space. The crew, while going through amazing and exhilarating adventures, grow restless of their time in space. Captain James Kirk (Chris Pine) isn’t sure if he wants to be a captain anymore. Spock (Zachary Quinto) isn’t sure if he still wants to be in Starfleet. Uhura (Zoe Saldana) doesn’t know if she wants to keep seeing Spock. Bones (Karl Urban) is still a sarcastic sourpuss.

One day, while investigating a distress call, the Enterprise is attacked by a swarm of vicious new aliens. Crash-landing on a strange planet, the Enterprise crew needs to navigate their way back to each other to team up against this mysterious new threat.

The first of the Star Trek reboots not to be directed by J.J. Abrams, Star Trek Beyond is instead steered by Justin Lin, who is most known for the more recent Fast & Furious movies. Watching this movie, and more specifically the action sequences, you kind of get the sense that Lin is pulling inspiration from those movies and shooting it into the veins of Star Trek’s science-fiction. The result is one that strangely works, a Star Trek movie that is an entertaining and unconventional spin on the action genre. In one of my favorite scenes from the movie, Kirk is fighting the villain in a field where gravity is pulling from three different directions. Seeing them fighting, flying, flipping around, with only a few glass frames to support their footing was one of the more exciting sequences not just from this film, but from the previous two as well.

All the same, some sequences were just too silly to fully accept and be entertained by. In one instance, Kirk is driving towards an enemy base using a motorcycle he lifted from a carrier. I’m not bothered by the fact that he’s using a motorcycle. I’m bothered that when he’s using it, dust isn’t coming out from behind the motorcycle, or that it isn’t even shaking from the rocky terrain he’s driving on. The CGI looks so ridiculous in this scene that it feels like he’s riding on a hovercraft than on a rugged vehicle.

In another scene, the Enterprise crew kills an entire armada of aliens by… playing the Beastie Boys? I’m not making this up. They literally pushed play on a stereo and blew up thousands of aliens. If that just sounds ridiculous, imagine what it looks like seeing it on screen.

The cast is fine in their roles and the movie retains its sense of visual style from the previous two movies. The problems come in with this movie’s scripting, which compared to Abrams’ earlier entries, is just a half-hearted effort at making a relevant Star Trek movie. I’m not a simpleton. I wasn’t expecting this to outdo the impact of the first Star Trek, and it didn’t. That one is in a class of its own, standing out both as a reboot and as its own exciting story.

What I do expect a movie to have is intelligence, or maybe more importantly, integrity. For years, Star Trek has pushed science-fiction writing to the limits in what it could achieve narratively. It asked questions, probed situations, presented problems, and provided answers for our Enterprise crew and their many quests across the galaxy. To its fans, Star Trek is more than science-fiction. It is science-philosophy.

You will find no thought-provoking ideas in Star Trek Beyond, and that’s fine. These movies are not automatically required to be outstanding. Even so, can you at least pretend to have some excitement at directing a Star Trek movie? There is not a cell of this movie that you can’t find in its previous movies. Even the villain is so insipid that he made Jesse Eisenberg look more interesting in Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice. What excuse does this movie have to be so stock?

Heath Ledger got The Dark Knight. Paul Walker got Furious 7. Yelcin and Nimoy, unfortunately, have to settle with Star Trek Beyond, a recycled action movie that fails to even be consistent. If we didn’t deserve a better movie, then at the very least, they did.

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“10 CLOVERFIELD LANE” Review (✫✫✫)

You’re not safe inside. You’re not safe outside either.

Whether you love him or hate him, you gotta admit one thing about J.J. Abrams: he knows how to sell a film.

Take 10 Cloverfield Lane as a testament to his skill. When the trailer dropped out of nowhere back in January, nobody knew anything about the plot, characters, or premise of this movie. That’s rare in today’s industry, especially with all of the casting and production announcements circulating daily on today’s news platforms. The fact that 10 Cloverfield Lane’s producers, director, writers, and actors were able to keep it a secret up until now is genuinely surprising, and I think it will pay off for them. It’s built up anticipation for the movie in ways no major blockbuster can do, and it will equally fulfill it’s audience in ways only this movie can supply.

In their excitement, some fans speculated that this movie is a sequel to Cloverfield, a risky yet innovative 2008 monster thriller also produced by Abrams. You would be wrong. 10 Cloverfield Lane is about as related to Cloverfield as Star Wars is related to Star Trek. Same genre, different execution. Much different.

This time around, 10 Cloverfield Lane ditches the nauseating shaky cam from Cloverfield and chooses instead to focus on a few survivors in a bomb shelter as opposed to a collapsing New York City. These survivors consist of Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), and Howard (John Goodman), the last of whom built the shelter in the first place. These three are forced into the shelter after a chemical attack cripples the U.S..

Or so Michelle is told.

Before coming to the shelter, Michelle got into a devastating car crash that left her injured and unconscious. She wakes up chained to a small bed on the floor next to Howard, who doesn’t quite seem all there if you know what I mean. Michelle is left with a difficult decision. Does she choose to trust her instincts, or this man that’s telling her that the world has ended?

The special thing about 10 Cloverfield Lane is that it focuses on its setting and performances to provide suspense instead of an overflow of visual effects. This is not an aesthetic Abrams is unfamiliar with. Ever since producing Cloverfield, he’s mostly understood that it is not spectacle that provides thrills, but rather, perspective. And whether it’s through the eyes of a producer, or through the lense of directing Mission Impossible III or Super 8, he’s always been a filmmaker that’s understood the value of perspective.

Take, for instance, Michelle’s perspective in the movie. Through her eyes, she’s just a prisoner who woke up in someone’s basement chained up to a mattress on the floor. The man who says he saved her life isn’t entirely a friendly guy. He’s old, unsettling, awkward, unreasonable, and demanding, running his bomb shelter like a warden runs a prison. Michelle is understandably terrified with him, but then she’s told that there’s been an attack on the world outside. Now what do you do? Do you try to escape and possibly face death, or do you believe this stranger and confide in the safety of his shelter?

Such psychological dilemmas is what compels the film forward, and director Dan Trachtenberg handles this cast skillfully in the small space that they are confined in. Winstead and Goodman bounce off of each other perfectly in the film, like a cat and mouse locked together in the same cage. Winstead, who’s played the survivors role in quite a few films (Live Free Or Die Hard, The Thing prequel), displays her trauma and distress here effectively without overacting or reaching for an emotion. Goodman is just downright chilling. He’s a man who seems like he has good intentions, but has a dark side to him that he demonstrates with disturbing normalcy. Their dynamic together felt eerily resemblant of Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter from 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs, which also featured a chilling relationship formed more out of necessity rather than comfort.

All of this builds to a well-paced, tense, and uncomfortable film driven almost entirely through performance, which is a very special thing in today’s industry. My biggest regret is that given the talent and the uniqueness involved with this production, it has to undercut its own success by throwing a CGI action spectacle in the third act of the film. While I won’t spoil it by saying what exactly happens, I will say it’s a severe shift in genre by the time the third act rolls around. We go from a tensely-wrought suspense-thriller to what is typically considered a Hollywood blockbuster. In making that transition, the film loses a part of its spirit and what makes it special from other thriller films.

“But it’s science-fiction,” you might argue with me. Yes, but did it need to be? Damien Chazelle made an incredible, heart-racing thriller in 2014’s Whiplash, and that was a film about the sharp rivalry of two passion-fueled musicians. Chazelle also worked on the script for 10 Cloverfield Lane, and I’m convinced that Howard’s uneasy presence originated from Chazelle’s ideas. The studio should have followed in his lead. The creepiest scenes in this movie remains to be from the tension between the characters and for what they can or can’t do to each other: not some supernatural force that threatens these people from outside the shelter. A quick rewrite of the ending and a few reshoots could have shifted this picture from a good movie to a great one.

All in all, 10 Cloverfield Lane is an effectively creepy film that you just wish would follow through on its intentions. The movie draws a line between fearing what is reality and what is fiction, and at looking at that line, isn’t it reality that seems more scary to us? That’s the thought that stuck with me when I left the theater. Well, bomb shelter.

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“CLOVERFIELD” Review (✫✫✫)

Turn the camera on.

Why is it when we think of monster movies, we remember the larger-than-life creatures more easily than we do the main characters? For instance, we don’t remember Ann Darrow as easily as we remember King Kong. We don’t remember Hideto Ogata over Godzilla. It’s simpler to remember Frankenstein’s monster rather than Dr. Frankenstein himself. And it’s easy to see why too: the monsters are more interesting than their human co-stars are. We all know someone like Ann, Hideto, or Victor because they’re all human beings, just like us. King Kong, Godzilla, and Frankenstein’s monster have never existed and can never exist. Perhaps that’s why they fascinate us so much: because they play on fantasy rather than reality.

Let Cloverfield, then, be the monster movie to flip the genre on its head. Not only do we not know the name of the monster that is tearing apart New York City, but our focus is poured almost entirely into the human survivors. It’s just as well too. Cloverfield is one of those rare movies that blends entertainment with art, method with innovation, fantasy with reality.

So yes, if you happened to miss the highly talked-about teaser trailer before the movie’s release, Cloverfield is another monster movie. There’s a big baddie, there’s a city, and chaos and destruction ensues. That’s how far the similarities extend. The difference in its approach this time around lies is its execution. While King Kong and Godzilla are framed and staged on a massive scale as monsters clobber each other and throw each other into buildings and landmarks, Cloverfield instead focuses on a smaller scale as found footage off of a New York City regular’s camcorder. This New Yorker is named Rob (Michael Stahl-David), and he is accompanied by his friend Hud (T.J. Miller) and his lover Beth (Odette Annable), of whom he has a complicated past with. Great time to have relationship problems, isn’t it? In the middle of a destroyed New York City while a monster is obliterating everything in sight.

Here is a movie that succeeds more as an experiment than it does as a film. Cloverfield is a movie that takes genre conventions and throws them out the back window, taking any direction it wishes as it propels its humans through the chaos of a quickly collapsing New York City. The risks it takes both pays off for itself and then doesn’t. Most of the time, the movie’s intentions shine clear and have a strong payoff for its audience. At other times, it’s shaky and unstable, much like this movie’s handheld shooting method.

I’ll start with the positives. First of all, it’s different. That much is a compliment you don’t hear too much nowadays in corporate Hollywood, which pushes out sequels and remakes like the happy meals at McDonalds. Yes, Cloverfield’s overall premise has been used and reused, but it’s originality comes from its forced perspective towards these human characters. Here’s a question for you: out of all of the horror movies you’ve seen, how many characters have you been able to relate to on a personal level? No, I’m not talking about relating to them in the sense that they’re running away from giant monsters or psychotic axe murderers. Sure, we like to root for Ellen Riply in Alien or Sally in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but take them out of their own movies for a second. How many of them can you relate to as people rather than as movie characters?

Cloverfield is one of those rare movies that understands its characters before it understands its visual effects. This is in credit to both screenwriter Drew Godard and cinematographer Michael Bonvillain, who both understand that for this story to work, we need to relate to the characters as regular people rather than as survivors. Them taking the time to change their focus and build on exposition works. After a very brief introduction, we understand who these characters are, their motivations, and their relationships to each other. When they die, it’s genuinely heartbreaking. It means something when they’re killed, as opposed to being just another number for the monster’s kill count. Because of our investment into Rob, Beth, Hud and others, we’re scared for them and with them as they’re running through a violently torn apart New York City, desperately searching for the people they love most. By making that the focus, Cloverfield works not just as a horror or monster movie, but also as a tragedy. Such deepness is rare for disaster pictures nowadays, but Cloverfield pulls it off well, unlike most of today’s big-budget blockbusters.

Of course, with this “found-footage” method of shooting, it also raises some problems for this production. For one thing, there is not a single steady shot in the movie. The camera is always shaking back and forth, which didn’t bother me as much, but I know it will cause motion sickness for some unfortunate viewers. Another problem is that with this shaky-cam method of shooting, some of the action flow is incoherent, or sometimes, lost altogether in a tense disaster scene. Most of the time, Bonvillain handles the camera well enough to capture important moments, like to focus on the tail of the monster or on a character when they are wounded. Sometimes though, Bonvillain’s method of shooting exceeds his talent on the camera. For instance, what do you see during a chase scene? A lot of the camera rocking back and forth between the motion of a character’s legs as they’re trying to get away.

The sad part is that Bonvillain is almost powerless to do anything about this. Making this a steady shot would do nothing to convince us that this was really happening, considering the camera is being supposably held by a movie character that A) Doesn’t know how to shoot, and B) Is in the middle of a literal disaster. But then again, the shakiness doesn’t do any favors for our eyesight either. You’re screwed either way.

I’ve repeatedly went back and forth on this movie, bobbling the pros and cons around in my head, trying to decide on which element beats out the others. There’s good cases to both sides. We identify with our heroes as people rather than as movie characters, and that humanity makes their crusade all the more important to us. The sense of mystery, eeriness, and hopelessness plays out perfectly like an H.P. Lovecraft novel. The scares and the thrills are all there. That much the movie has going for it. On the opposite end, though, we have a shaky camera that makes people want to vomit, a few genre cliches that the movie can’t escape from, and a pathetic, lackluster ending that just suddenly cuts off and leaves an empty, unfulfilled feeling for its desperately hungry audience. I have no problem whether a character lives or dies for the sake of drama, but when you’re stuck not knowing, that’s just dangling a hook in front of your audience that they’re never going to reach.

I’m giving the movie a thumbs up for one reason: it tried. It experimented. It did something different, and it partially worked out for itself. That’s a thumbs up not for the movie itself, but for the movie-making business.

Years ago, aspiring filmmakers dreamed of big visions in their heads. They experimented, they failed more times than they succeeded, but they took steps towards creating their visions, and their reward was seeing their beautiful, breathtaking ideas playing on the big screen. Filmmakers these days lack that creation or that aspiration, and they prefer piggybacking off of other people’s creations just for the big buck. The creators behind Cloverfield need to be honored not necessarily for their movie, but for their aspiration to create. They sought to make something all their own, and whether you like it or not, that’s exactly what they did.

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Oscar Nominations Turn To The Dark Side

Another year, another time to gripe about the Academy Awards.

Nominations came out today, and while most of them are well-earned, there are obviously a few movies, actors, and filmmakers who were clearly snubbed for reasons we’ll never know. In previous years where I’ve written about the Oscars, I would build up to an infuriating rage about the Academy for not recognizing deserving filmmakers in either one category or another. Perhaps the biggest snub as far as nominations I’ve ever experienced is when The Dark Knight wasn’t nominated for best picture in 2009. Or when Ben Affleck wasn’t nominated for best director for Argo in 2013. Or when The Lego Movie wasn’t nominated for best animated feature just last year. I don’t know. Roll the dice and tell me which is the worst. There’s lots to pick from.

This year, I’m a little more relaxed in my frustration. No, I don’t care less. The anger has just exhausted me, and in venting my emotions towards the Academy and their repeated negligence year after year, I’ve become so tired about it that it took away from my energy towards appreciating the year’s best films. So this year, I’m going to calmly state my perceptions towards this year’s Academy Award nominations. I will keep my cool for most of these, but there are a few nominees where it will be just impossible to keep my self-control in check.

For best picture, we have the hot-blooded true-story/comedy The Big Short, the British period-drama Brooklyn, the Steven Spielberg-directed Bridge of Spies, the ridiculously overblown Mad Max: Fury Road, the intelligent and funny sci-fi survival film The Martian, the brilliant and ambitious The Revenant, the indie dark horse Room, and the journalism drama Spotlight. Most of these pics are among the year’s best and deserve to be up here, though I haven’t met many people who have seen Room or Brooklyn. The biggest snub here is not one individual picture, but rather, the Academy’s capacity for potential.

Ever since the Academy announced its proposal for a max of 10 best picture nominations in 2010, they’ve never fulfilled that maximum capacity, minus the year where The King’s Speech won best picture. Every year since then has strayed slightly shy of nine best picture nominees, up until last year when they dropped it down to eight. It is unfair to do this to the movies. There are plenty of other films that are more worthy of a nomination than some of the other nominees on this list, especially including Sicario, Straight Outta Compton, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. No, I didn’t expect to see these movies on the list, but that’s not the point. These were movies that had a clear and visible reaction from the public. To not notice them by snubbing them of a nomination is absurd and unnecessary.

For best director, we have Lenny Abrahamson for Room, Alejando Gonzalez-Inarritu for The Revenant, Tom McCarthy for Spotlight, Adam McKay for The Big Short, and George Miller for Mad Max: Fury Road. Again, these are well-deserved nominees, although I’m surprised to see that Ridley Scott was skipped over for directing The Martian. Then again, however, so was Dennis Villanueve and J.J. Abrams skipped over for Sicario and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, so maybe it’s not so surprising to see great directors get snubbed at the Oscars.

For best actor, we have Bryan Cranston for Trumbo, Matt Damon for The Martian, Leonardo DiCaprio for The Revenant, Michael Fassbender for Steve Jobs, and Eddie Redmayne for The Danish Girl. This is the category that by far pisses me off the most. Great actors get snubbed for great performances every year, but there is absolutely no reason why Johnny Depp should be forgotten for his mesmerizingly evil performance in Black Mass. His performance was not just the best of the year: it’s a competitor for best of the decade, with every ounce of his appearance erasing into this sick and wicked man who doesn’t have a shred of decency in him. With all of the other nominees, you can at least see the actors’ resemblances behind the characters they portray (Yes, DiCaprio purists: that includes good ol’ Leo too). With Black Mass, there was absolutely no indication that Johnny Depp and Whitey Bulger were the same person. The only way this category could be even more ransacked is if DiCaprio doesn’t win the Oscar come awards night. Cross your fingers that doesn’t happen.

For best actress, we have Cate Blanchett for Carol, Brie Larson for Room, Jennifer Lawrence for Joy, Charlotte Rampling for 45 Years, and Saoirse Ronan for Brooklyn. Okay, call me out here for lack of gender equality guys: I have not seen any of the films in this category. Yes, I know, I’m a horrible person, critic, writer, throw anything at me what you will. However, it certainly doesn’t help that three out of the five nominees were limited releases, so cut me some slack. I will say that with her recent Golden Globe win, Larson is currently the leading contender for this category. We’ll have to see how the rest of awards season plays out first, though.

For best supporting actor, we have Christian Bale for The Big Short, Tom Hardy for The Revenant (which is very well deserved), Mark Ruffalo for Spotlight, Mark Rylance for Bridge of Spies, and Sylvester Stallone for Creed. One complaint people have had with this category is the lack of diversity, with all of the nominees being tall, handsome white guys. However, I have to ask the dissenters: have you seen all of these performances? The biggest misses are the inclusions of Jason Mitchell from Straight Outta Compton, Will Smith from Concussion, or Idris Elba from Beasts of No Nation, and you could probably have switched one of those out for Rylance considering he was pretty one-note throughout Bridge of Spies. The rest of the nominees, however, are rock solid. No complaints from me as far as this selection goes.

For best supporting actress, we have Jennifer Jason Leigh for The Hateful Eight, Rooney Mara for Carol, Rachel McAdams for Spotlight, Alicia Vikander for The Danish Girl, and Kate Winslet for Steve Jobs. Again, there’s a lack of diversity here from tall white women, but what other actresses would you put in their place? Can you name another ethnic actresses from this year that put on performances as unique and memorable as the ones here? If you can, please reply with those performances below, because I honestly can’t remember any.

And finally, we end on the screenplay categories. For best original screenplay, we have Bridge of Spies, Ex Machina, Inside Out, Spotlight, and Straight Outta Compton. For best adapted screenplay, we have The Big Short, Brooklyn, Carol, The Martian, and Room. Both categories are guilty of snubbing not one, but two great screenplays. Those scripts are The Hateful Eight and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, albeit for very different reasons. For the horrible year that Quentin Tarantino had to go through to bring The Hateful Eight into film, he delivered a very funny, witty, and memorably grotesque experience that can only be brought to life through his writing. Do I even need to explain why Star Wars belongs here? J.J. Abrams succeeded doing in one movie what series creator George Lucas couldn’t do in three: he breathed new life and energy into the science-fiction epic, providing noteworthy original content while at the same time paying homage to the classic characters and mythology that we came to love from Star Wars. Abrams continued Lucas’ epic story with seamlessness and creativity, and to not reward him and writers Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Ardnt is disrespectful to them and their vast accomplishment.

You can click here to see the full list of nominees. In the meantime, I’m going to be staring blankly at the nominations sheet until I can decide who the Academy is going to snub next on awards night.

– David Dunn

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Top Ten Films of 2015

2015 was the year of change.

As I sit here, thinking about how this year ends and the next one begins, that’s the thought that keeps coming to my mind. I’ve changed this year. Not just me, but everyone else this year. People changed after terrorists attacked the city of Paris twice in both January and November, killing more than 140 people in total. People changed when business mogul Donald Trump announced his campaign for presidency in June, and as voters continued to debate the upcoming elections and how important it is to elect the right leader for the future of the U.S. People changed when war raged on in Syria, consuming over 200,000 lives as they died trying to escape their reality and come into Europe or the United States.

People all around the world changed as tragedy struck it again and again. It is years like these that remind me that we need the movies now more than ever. Not just to comment and bring exposure to the different realities we don’t know about, but also to escape from them when we need to.

It is times like these where I am overjoyed that the movies decide to change with us. To not only bring us stories that we don’t know about, but also to give us emotions of insight, joy, angst, tragedy, anger, sadness, and hope as we see these characters growing and changing, just like we are.

A few notes I want to point out before going into this year’s top 10 list. First of all, this is my top 10 list, meaning not every critically acclaimed movie from the year will be on this list. Movies such as Steve Jobs and The Martian, for instance, were highly regarded by critics and audiences everywhere. Neither of those are in my top 10. If you want to see movies like those in your top 10 list, go to RottenTomatoes or iMDB. Or better yet, make your own and comment below. Either case does not affect me. Top 10 lists are supposed to be celebrations of your most cherished movies of the year. Not everyone will share your views, and indeed, you might disagree with one or two entries on this list.

And as another disclaimer, I have not seen every movie released this year. The biggest I have missed, perhaps, is Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s The Revenant, which is NOT a 2015 release despite claiming it is on Wikipedia. It’s doesn’t get a wide release until Jan. 9, and as such, I will not be able to review it in time for this year, which sucks, but it’s Inarritu’s own fault. So sorry if a movie deserved to be on this list but couldn’t be. I’m only human.

Before we get into my top 10, I want to start by announcing my special prize for the year. For those of you that don’t know, the special prize is a honorary recognition I give to a limited-release film that was not heard about or seen by many moviegoers, but deserves just as much recognition, if not more so, than most of the movies on my list. Last year, that honor went to the Roger Ebert documentary Life Itself. This year, it goes to Bill Pohlad’s music biopic Love and Mercy, which tells the wonderful yet heartbreaking story about Beach Boy’s singer Brian Wilson, his battle with mental illness, and his overcoming of drug abuse and childhood trauma. Pohlad, who also served as a producer for The Tree of Life and 12 Years A Slave, debuts as a strong filmmaker all his own, not only understanding and implementing the visual art of storytelling, but also accurately appealing to the aesthetics of this complicated and personal biography. Actors Paul Dano and John Cusack are exemplary at portraying Wilson at different points of his life, and do well at showing how much this talented musician struggled with himself at any time period of his life. A small-budget summer release that squeaked by unnoticed by most, but is just as deserving to be seen as any wide-release blockbuster out there. Four stars.

10) Creed

Creed lives and exists in the shadows of its predecessors, but just like it’s main hero, it breaks away from the mold and builds a legacy all of its own. Adonis “Donnie” Creed (Michael B. Jordan) is the illegitimate son of Rocky Balboa’s (Sylvester Stallone) rival, Apollo Creed. When he decides to step into the ring himself, he enlists in the help of the Italian stallion to train him and become a fighter all his own. Writer-director Ryan Coogler, who is most known for 2013’s Fruitvale Station, approached this not as a sequel to a popular franchise, but rather as an intimate, personal story about one fighter’s deep aspirations. Jordan and Stallone demonstrate great chemistry with each other, even challenging the dynamic between Rocky and Mick in the original film. A hot-blooded sports drama through and through, let alone one of the best Rocky films, if you can call it that. Three and a half stars.

9) Avengers: Age of Ultron

A summer blockbuster that aims to outdo the original and misses it only by a hair, which is not a bad thing. The Avengers team up this time to take on the wickedly manipulative artificial intelligence Ultron (James Spader), who was created by Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) to protect the Earth from super human threats. When Ultron goes rogue and become obsessed with human extinction, it’s up to the Avengers to stop him. Spader as Ultron is the best super villain performance I’ve seen in a Marvel movie to date. He doesn’t behave or talk like other androids. He is fluid and life-like, chaotic and radical in his thinking, acting more like a psychotic child rather than a logically driven A.I. Everything else in the movie lives up to the expectations you had from the first movie. The action is unique, visually complex, and eye-popping. The story is layered and intelligent, with characters bouncing witty and thought-provoking dialogue off of each other in perfect dynamics. The people over at Marvel continue to surprise me and make me believe in its cinematic universe. Let’s hope they can keep this up for the next 11 movies. Three and a half stars.

8) Concussion

A provocative sports drama that refuses everything we love about sports. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) is a brilliant pathologist who, after performing an autopsy on a notable football player, discovers a lethal disease that is caused by repetitive physical trauma to the brain. Now teaming up with doctors and scientists to defend his findings, he prepares to take on the NFL and reveal the problems the league has been hiding for a long time. There are many people who will not want to see this movie due to their love and commitment for the sport. Yet, it is these same people that need to see this movie the most. Writer-director Peter Landesman, who was previously criticized for his 2013 political thriller Parkland, finds his niche here in a story that not many people knew about, or maybe didn’t want to know about. Smith is exemplary as Omalu, and from the movie’s most bravura scenes to its most tender, he hits every emotional note spot-on, all while not breaking his Nigerian accent. An unconventional, nail-biting thriller that demands to be seen and heard. Three and a half stars.

7) Mad Max: Fury Road

Never before has a movie broken so many many rules and get away with it. On a desolate and deprived planet Earth, former patrol officer Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) is on the run from the tyrannical warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). When he gets caught up in a conflict involving Joe, road warrior Furiosa (Charlize Theron) and all of Joe’s wives, he needs to team up with them to escape the desert and free the women from Joe’s cruelty and control. There is no plot in this movie, only the resemblance of one. The plot, however, is not what matters. What matters is the spectacular, eye-popping action and explosions, and even a few moments of softly implied feminism in the picture. Hardy replaces Mel Gibson’s role well with hardened machismo and stiffness to his gesture and voice. Theron demonstrates great versatility, being firm and uncompromising in one moment, and emotionally exhausted and stricken in another. A film that’s politically driven and female empowering, all while being ridiculous and absurd in the most gleeful of ways. Three and a half stars. 

6) Paper Towns

The second of John Green’s novels to be adapted to film, with the first being last year’s The Fault In Our Stars. Quintin “Q” Jacobsen (Nat Wolff) is a regular high school student with regular friends, regular parents, regular life, and regular post-graduation plans. The one thing that isn’t regular in Q’s life is Margo Roth Spiegelman (Cara Delevingne), the girl on his block that he’s been in love with since they were kids. One day, after Margo completely vanishes, Q discovers clues Margo left behind for him to discover. Now convinced that Margo wants him to find her, Q starts piecing all of the clues together to find out where she has gone to convince her to come home.

It’s hard to look at this movie and not relate it to our own experiences in high school, in first love, in friendship, and in self-discovery. Wolff plays his role convincingly without overdoing it, portraying all of the joy, excitement, angst, ambition, and confusion a teenager has during his high school years. The supporting cast is just as essential in making John Green’s ordinary characters extraordinary. A genuine, funny, and passionate film that delves into both the truths and fantasies of growing up. Three and a half stars. 

5) Straight Outta Compton

One of the most compelling films I’ve seen this year. Straight Outta Compton follows the story of Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), Eazy E (Jason Mitchell), MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.), and how these five men grew up in the streets and eventually formed the iconic hip-hop group N.W.A. The parallels this movie draws on is ingenious, and director F. Gary Gray is exemplary in realizing the African-American struggle in a poverty-stricken neighborhood. What’s most captivating is the fact that the movie isn’t pro-police or anti-police or pro-gangs or anti-gangs. It shows the ugliness of every side of Compton, whether it exists on a badge or on a bandana. A great film that sets out not to show who’s right or wrong, but simply what is. Four stars.

Note: While among the year’s best, it’s important to note that ‘Straight Outta Compton’ deserves every syllable of its R rating and then some. F-words fly out like bullets from an uzi. Nude and scantily-clad women flock to rappers in herds, and in some cases engage in explicit sexual acts in public. Police and gang members also equally engage in very violent confrontations. This is your warning. If you hate hip-hop, you will hate ‘Straight Outta Compton.’ 

4) Sicario

A permanent, chilling, and disturbing portrait that remains with you long after you’ve left the movie theater. FBI agent Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt) is recruited for a special op with CIA officer Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), who tells Kate they’re going to bring down the Mexican cartel. As Kate digs deeper into the pursuit of its leader, she soon discovers secrets darker than any drug lord or government official can hide from her. This is a nearly perfect film in which all of the elements form together into an excellent scope of filmmaking. The cast is brilliant and could catch your attention just by reading their lines. Director Dennis Villeneuve evokes a sense of hopelessness and desperation from its setting. The cinematography by Roger Deakins captures the aesthetic perfectly, while editor Joe Walker cuts skillfully in between angles and shots to help construct coherent ideas in the viewer’s minds. Sicario is Spanish for hitman. I don’t know what disturbs me more: knowing who the Sicario is, or who are the people that he’s hunting. Four stars.

3) Spotlight 

A necessary film that makes you think about the people that you don’t normally think about, the problems that you don’t think exist, and the secrets that you don’t think are being hidden behind prayers and confession booths. Based on the Boston Globe story on the 1990 Church abuse scandal, Spotlight follows the investigative reporting team that discovered that the Catholic church was covering up for priests that had sexually abused children at their parishes. When they find out how big the problem really is, they work to get to the bottom of the story and hold the people accountable for the grave sins they’ve committed. Featuring an all star cast including Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James, Liev Schrieber, John Slattery, and Stanley Tucci, Spotlight is a movie that uses its actors not as the foundation for its story, but as the catalysts to show how urgent this epidemic really is. Writer-director Tom McCarthy, who was raised Catholic, juggles this behind-the-scenes story with real people’s traumas and emotions in mind, resulting in a portrait that is genuine, astounding, mind-blowing, and heartbreaking all at once. Not the best film of the year, but easily the most important. Four stars.

2) Inside Out

Another colorful Pixar masterpiece that uses reality as its springboard for creation and fantasy. The emotions Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Anger (Lewis Black) make up 11-year-old Riley Anderson (Kaitlyn Dias), who just recently moved with her family from Minnesota to San Francisco. As Riley goes through the changes in her life, her emotions go through a roller coaster of an adventure to make Riley’s life a happy, sad, fearful, disgusted, and angry one. The animation reaches out to you in vivid detail through its vibrant colors and ambitious landscapes, creating a beautiful universe in Riley’s expansive mind. What’s most meaningful, however, is its story. Writer-director Pete Docter (Monsters Inc., Up) uses the human psyche as his narrative playground, telling a thoughtful story on the emotions we experience and how they all make up who were are. Like the wacky emotions in Riley’s curious little head, Inside Out is a uniquely original force to be reckoned with. Four stars.

1) Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Are you really that surprised? Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a sheer blast of nostalgia, meaningful and joyous from it’s opening scroll credits to when John William’s score crescendos in the last shot. Taking place 30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi, Star Wars: The Force Awakens follows a new group of misfits as they suddenly get tangled into this intergalactic conflict involving heroes and villains both old and new. J.J. Abrams revitalizes George Lucas’ cherished sci-fi series for a new age, updating it with creative and interesting characters that makes this a strong story on its own, not just a strong Star Wars story. The cast is exemplary, with newcomer Daisy Ridley shining the most out of the whole group. We’ve seen an updated Star Wars for a modern audience before, and that was in the lopsided and disappointing prequel trilogy. Now we have The Force Awakens, and it’s so good that it’s eligible to compete with the original. Four stars.

Honorable mentions go to the smirkingly funny and genuine Trainwreck, the thought-provoking sci-fi drama Ex Machina, the intelligent and maddening The Big Short, and the disgusting yet wickedly genius western The Hateful Eight. All of those deserved a placement on this list, but unfortunately, did not deserve it as much as others. They are still among the year’s best.

Thank you to my readers for experiencing 2015 for me. I look forward to the changes we will go through in 2016, as I do with the movies.

– David Dunn

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“STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS” Review (✫✫✫✫)

J.J. Abrams: the spiritual successor to George Lucas.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a sheer blast of nostalgia, meaningful and joyous from it’s opening scroll credits to when John William’s score crescendos in the last shot. We’ve seen an updated Star Wars for a modern audience before, and that was in the lopsided and disappointing prequel trilogy. Now we have The Force Awakens, and it’s so good that it’s eligible to compete with the original.

It’s 30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi. A new sith named Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) has arisen and is bent on taking over the galaxy. His pursuits lead him towards a troup of misfits who have become acquainted almost by sheer chance. A scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley) lived on the desolate planet of Jakku before she got entangled into this conflict. Finn (John Boyega) was a Stormtrooper who defected for reasons unbeknown to us. BB-8 is a spherical droid who wants to get away from Kylo Ren for reasons also unknown. What is known is that these three figures have something that Kylo Ren wants, and he won’t stop at nothing until he has fulfilled his destiny.

It’s hard to talk about this movie without giving away any spoilers. One thing I will say without giving too much away is that the story is exemplary, and is reminiscent of the adventure and intrigue that made Star Wars iconic in the first place. The screenplay, written by Toy Story 3 scribe Michael Ardnt and polished up by Star Trek director J.J. Abrams and The Empire Strikes Back writer Lawrence Kasdan, is an active synergy of the old and new, incorporating elements that we are familiar with while at the same time introducing original content all their own. This is not just a strong Star Wars story. It’s a strong story, period.

For me, that was my biggest concern going into the theater, and the biggest relief coming out of it. This was the first Star Wars movie where its key subjects would not be featured. Yes, we have references to the older films, but we don’t have Darth Vader. We don’t have Yoda. We don’t have Obi-Wan. We don’t have any of the key figures that linked the whole series together, minus R2 and C-3PO. How would the movie hold up on its own?

Very well, as it turns out, and the new cast members do a great job servicing their roles and making them memorable on their own. Driver is menacing and malicious as Kylo Ren, an egotistical and maniacal presence that reflects both the chilling imposition of Darth Vader and the deepening paranoia of Episode III’s Anakin Skywalker. Boyega is both humorous and likable as Finn, a reformed spirit who is just trying to find new meaning and purpose in his life. Out of the entire cast, however, I am most impressed with newcomer Daisy Ridley. This is the first time she has acted in a feature film, but you wouldn’t have been able to tell that based off of her performance. She is both heartbreaking and intriguing as Rey, equal parts fascinating, sympathetic, and compelling as this character whom is a complete mystery to us. Even by the end of the film, we still don’t understand everything about her, and that’s the point. We’re not supposed to understand her history; we’re supposed to understand her. Ridley did an amazing job at bringing this character to life, and out of anyone else from the cast, she made me most excited for her journey in the future installments.

Do I need to go into the film’s visual and sound effects? They were the groundbreaking features of the very first movies, and they’re stronger than ever in this motion picture. Part of that is because Abrams takes a note out of George Lucas’ old playbook, reverting to practical effects and detailed costuming to bring authenticity to this universe. He still uses CGI, but he doesn’t rely on it. He only uses it when he absolutely has to, when X-wings are firing at TIE Fighters or when lightsabers are clashing against each other. Everything else is created through elaborate art direction and set design, while the CGI is used to compliment the visuals rather than serve as them. The result is the most visually authentic out of any of the films yet.

I have one gripe, and one gripe alone, and that is that there are plot elements that eerily mimic the storyline of one of the original films. I won’t spoil it by saying which one. I will say that even in the face of that criticism, The Force Awakens still manages to make itself unique and special in a series that is already unique and special by itself. We said goodbye to this universe a long time ago. Rejoice as we are once again reunited with the galaxy from far, far away.

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Boycotting #BoycottStarWarsVII

The dark side doesn’t refer to skin color.

A social media campaign was started yesterday to protest the highly anticipated science-fiction film Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The movement is called #BoycottStarWarsVII, and it’s campaigning against the film for being “anti-white” by casting a black actor in the film — British actor John Boyega.

They must have forgotten that Darth Vader was voiced by actor James Earl Jones in the original trilogy.

And that Billy Dee Williams portrayed Lando Calrissian in The Empire Strikes Back.

And that Samuel L. Jackson was a Jedi knight with his own awesome purple lightsaber in episodes one through three.

I cannot look at this campaign and honestly believe that this was a serious effort to start some controversy about Star Wars. The whole thing reeks of a conspiracy spawned from the Internet hell called 4Chan.

Regardless of its authenticity, #BoycottStarWarsVII is bringing up a serious ongoing issue in modern-day Hollywood: politicizing our entertainment.

In 2013, back when it was announced that director J.J. Abrams was on board for this project, he made it clear that he wanted a racially diverse cast for the film after attending a few Emmy awards television ceremonies and seeing they were completely whitewashed.

“It’s just unbelievably white,” Abrams said. “I just thought, ‘We’re casting this show, and we have an opportunity to do whatever we want. Why not cast the show with actors of color?’ ”

My question is this: Why should race even be a factor in the first place?

James Earl Jones wasn’t cast as the voice of Darth Vader because he was black. He was cast because he had a deep, imposing voice that perfectly fit the role. Williams wasn’t cast because he was black. He was cast because he had charisma that mixed well with Harrison Ford’s Han Solo. Jackson wasn’t cast because he was black. He was cast because he’s a certified badass.

None of these actors were put into their roles because of their race. They were put there because of their talent. Why should we put down Boyega by questioning him about either?

Movies are supposed to bring us together as a people, not tear us apart. Let’s boycott the stupidity of #BoycottStarWarsVII by going to the movie theater together Dec. 18.

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“MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: ROGUE NATION” Review (✫✫1/2)

More like a city, or a gated community.

I’m really starting to get sick of these action movies. I know, I know, how do I get sick of action? Well, have you ever seen a television episode over, and over, and over again to the point where it frustrated you just to look at it? That’s where I’m at with these action movies that are getting recycled summer after summer after summer.

I was really hoping Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation wasn’t going to be another recycled action pic. Truthfully, I wasn’t expecting it. The film is at a 93% from critics on RottenTomatoes, while users rate it at a 91%. Metacritic users rate it an 8 out of 10. Cinemascore polls it at an A-. Everyone around me seems to be fervently enjoying the action romp that is Mission Impossible. Everyone, that is, except me.

So what happened? Simply put, I think audiences were expecting something different from me. I’ve seen four of these movies now before watching Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, and with each one, I got something different. The first Mission Impossible pitted a younger Ethan Hunt against two opposing spy agencies, along with the gravity of seeing his entire team get killed on a deadly mission. The third Mission Impossible found Hunt breaking out of retirement to rescue his wife, who was held captive at the hands of a cruel terrorist threat. The fourth Mission Impossible found Ethan dealing with his wife’s death after the events of MI3. We won’t count Mission Impossible II, because that’s not a real Mission Impossible movie.

With Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, Ethan Hunt (once again, portrayed by Tom Cruise) is pitted against both his own government and yet another secret spy agency named the Syndicate, comprised of insurgent IMF agents labeled as either missing or dead. That’s it. He has no personal investment in the story, no driving emotional force that focuses on him and him only. At one point in the movie, one of his closest friends gets kidnapped by the syndicate and he starts freaking out about it. Right. How many times did someone get kidnapped in your other movies, Ethan?

His supporting characters includes most of his crew from the fourth Mission Impossible. Ving Rhames is back as Vincent, returning once again to help Ethan Hunt since their first mission in the original Mission Impossible. The comedic relief Benji is once again portrayed by self-employed funny man Simon Pegg. Jeremy Renner returns as William Brandt, acting as Ethan’s voice of reason against all of his crazy ideas of stunts. Considering Cruise does all of his own stunts, I think Renner needs to be his voice of reason off-screen as well.

The first thing you need to know about Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation is that the visuals do not disappoint. The one thing every movie in the series is most known for is its spectacle, and Rogue Nation keeps the tradition going strong. In one fight scene early in the film, Ethan was fighting a swarm of syndicate agents while handcuffed at both his wrists and ankles. In another, he’s quietly struggling against a sniper on top of a German opera production while the performance is still going on. My favorite is probably when he has to hold his breath under water for six minutes in what is essentially an underwater hard drive as he switches out two data disks. It’s important to note, Cruise actually trained with a diving specialist in order to hold his breath under water for three minutes. The sequence we see in the film was actually shot in one take with no edits.

The stunts we see in the film are impressive to say the least. The danger with a fifth entry, however, is that I’ve been impressed four times already. Whatever stunts are to come, I’m already expecting. And since I’ve seen these crazy stunts in four movies now, the effect is dulled before I even see it.

For instance, the big stunt people were excited for in this movie specifically was a sequence where Cruise is holding on outside of an airplane while it is taking off. Impressive as it was, it was the very first scene in the movie. Since I’ve already seen the trailer, I know Cruise survives this sequence, otherwise why would we even have a movie? How am I supposed to feel tension and excitement in a scene where I already know what’s going to happen?

The cast is appropriate, but ineffective. They serve the same roles they’ve done from other movies and that’s about it. How is Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt? The same he’s been for four movies now. How is Jeremy Renner? About as good as he was in Ghost Protocol, except now he’s less interesting because he doesn’t have the investment and guilt he had in Ghost Protocol. Pegg is the same. Rhames is the same. The only characters that are different are the new characters, which includes its baddie played by Sean Harris and its discount Bond girl played by Rebecca Ferguson. Again, what do these characters have to offer that we haven’t seen before? The late Phillip Seymour-Hoffman did a better job manipulating and pushing Ethan past his limits in the J.J. Abrams-directed Mission Impossible III than Harris did in this movie. And Ferguson? Did she not see Emmanuelle Béart in her brilliantly deceptive performance in the original Mission Impossible?

I caught myself saying one thing over and over again during the film: “I’ve seen this before.” For a movie series that’s lasted past five films, that’s not a good thing. Funny, this movie is written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie, who is responsible for writing The Usual Suspects and Edge of Tomorrow and directing Jack Reacher, all films with their own unique interest and personality. Now he has made Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, and like Ethan’s assigned missions, his movie blew up in my face after it gave me what it was supposed to.

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“MISSION IMPOSSIBLE III” Review (✫✫✫)

Your mission, should you choose to accept it. 

Finally, we can forgive Tom Cruise for the disaster that was Mission Impossible II. This is the perfect example of a solid action movie, a film that has suspense, excitement, romance, and intrigue: a Hollywood blockbuster that has a nice balance of everything you can ask for. There is a moment in Mission Impossible III where we feel for Ethan Hunt not as another movie action hero, but as a human being, who has emotions and worries that any other normal human being would possess. The way Cruise portrays him in this movie is very realistic. Think about it: if you were out there, stealing nuclear devices, kidnapping black arms dealers, and saving the world every ten seconds, wouldn’t you be worried about your wife who knew nothing of your double life back at home?

Apparently now retired, we catch former IMF agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) as he is happily engaged to Julie (Michelle Monoghan) a nurse who is studying to be a doctor. For once, Ethan is experiencing a sense of normalcy. He’s experiencing what it is like to be a husband, and what it is like to love. No explosions, no excitement, and no lives at risk. Ethan, for once, is just a normal guy who is in love with a beautiful woman. He is experiencing happiness.

Happiness for Ethan, however, doesn’t last long, and he soon finds himself shoved right back into the profession he wants to retire from. When told by his superior, John (Billy Cudrup) that Ethan’s apprentice, Lindsey (Kerri Russell) was captured and tortured by criminals while spying on black arms dealer Owen Davian (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), Ethan feels that he has no choice but to go back into the field so he can save his friend from certain demise.

This film, like the other Mission Impossible movies, sports strong performances. The cast is just as strong as any other movie, and I think you can argue that they are the strongest in this one. Cruise, for instance, doesn’t play a paragon of an action hero. Here, he plays a human being, flesh and blood, emotion for emotion, merely molded to look like an action hero. Despite his skills and experience, he can’t be everywhere at once. He can’t be with his wife and take care of her and go off to save the world at the same time.

At some point, whether he’d like to or not, he has to leave one world in order to take care of the other.

I however, wouldn’t leave Julie alone with a creep like Davian for a second if I had known he would pay her a visit. This dude seriously scares me. Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who is a very skilled actor, is perhaps the subtlest in this movie, and plays a ruthless criminal who is just plain mean, evil, cruel, and antagonizing. I have met few antagonists who are as patronizing and as threatening as this guy is. Here is a guy that puts many other movie villains to shame, including those in the first Mission Impossible. Here is a guy who scares you just by staring bleakly into your eyes. He doesn’t need to speak to you: his eyes do all the talking, the eyes that say that he’s going to kill the person you love most, and he’s going to do it in front of you while you’re watching.

This film doesn’t go as deep into those politics of things as some may like it to, but I don’t think it is necessary. Mission Impossible III is fun. I say that as a simple statement, but there is nothing simple about this movie. This movie has earned the title of Mission Impossible from the stunts and visuals alone. I can easily name eight scenes on the top of my head that truly impressed me. Perhaps the most memorable moment for me was an assault between IMF agents and trained ex-military assassins on a bridge near New York. This scene was nerve-wracking, exciting, and worrisome for multiple reasons. Perhaps the biggest is because everything was happening all at once.

Cars were blowing up. Pieces of the bridge were falling apart. Innocent people were caught confused and afraid in the crossfire. Agents were getting shot. Assasins were breaking a prisoner out of an armed jeep. And here is Ethan, running around, avoiding gunfire and explosions, trying desperately to grasp the situation and take control of it. The reason this movie is so successful is because, like the other movies in this series, they push the limits of what they can achieve. There is not a single moment in this film where a thrill is wasted. It’s all there, and it is just as effective as it was in the first Mission Impossible.

The action overwhelms the plot a little bit in the third act of this movie, but other than that, the film is almost perfectly balanced. Director J.J. Abrams and screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman have found a nice combination involving stellar action sequences, funny dialogue, memorable characters, and heartfelt emotion. Have I mentioned before how I hate emotionless action movies? I have no complaint with Mission Impossible III. Its heart is in the right place, and it knows its characters as well as its action. That’s a rare treatment for action movies. It’s a treatment that should be given to them more often.

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Top Films of 2013

“Storytelling has gone through a great evolution in today’s culture,” said my pastor on Christmas day sermon, speaking on the technology breakthroughs we’ve made this year through film and television. “The stories that were given to us as a result are for more than just entertainment,” he said. “They were given to us as insight for the ears and for the heart.”

Oh man, is he right. 2013 was one heckuva year for movies, and while I can’t necessarily say that it was better than last year (With The Avengers and Argo and all), it certainly didn’t let me down. Just like any other year in my career, the movies have never dissapointed me.

Unfortunately, if I want to remain “hip” or “relevant” in today’s culture, I have to do the long-dreaded top ten list. Did I mention before how much I hate doing these? While I like highlighting the best films among the year, I hate placing one film over another, like one of them inherently did something wrong to not fight for one spot higher. Can’t we just appreciate the films for what they are and be done with it?

Faithful readers will remember that I had trouble making this same list last year. I was so intent and so focused on rushing my 2012 list out there in a timely fashion that I left out a few notable pictures that I haven’t been given the chance to see yet, including Les Miserables, The Hunger Games and Beasts of The Southern Wild. I eventually re-wrote my top ten list and published it in late February, leaving out movies such as The Amazing Spider-man and Prometheus off of my list.

So what makes this year different from last year? I’m more sure of myself. I’ve given considerable thought to the movies I’ve seen, what movies others have seen and what has made the greater impact on me this year. I’ve also covered more ground than I did last year, and I saw more of the contenders that people will be paying close attention to come awards season. In short, dear reader, I have improved. As a critic, as a writer, and as a media analyst overall.

Keep two things in mind when reading this list. I look at these movies based on their own merit, specific to their genre, why they may or may not appeal to you, and why you should go and see them. I’m not going to judge Star Wars in the same way I judge Schindler’s List, and neither should you. I also have not seen every film released this year, so I sadly can’t give credit to those movies I haven’t seen. That includes movies such as Wolf Of Wall StreetHer, and perhaps most disappointingly, Fruitvale Station.

Despite that, I’m confident that these are my favorite pictures of the year, and that many of them will be your favorites as well. All ten of the movies you are about to see made a significant impact on me this year. They’ve delighted me. Entertained me. Gave me insight on issues I knew little about. But most importantly, they’ve reached emotional levels so personal that it’s hard to find someone who wasn’t affected by them this year.

If you are still reading my inexhaustible bantering, it means you are still interested in my top picks of the year (which indeed is very shocking to me). Let’s begin:

10) STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS

A sequel of excellent caliber, a science-fiction film that not only lives up to its fans’ expectations, but in many ways, surpasses them. After Captain John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) betrays Star Fleet, attacks their headquarters and flees to a Klingon planet, Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) are assigned to track down Harrison and bring him in, but soon discover a dark secret in his past that will change their lives forever. This movie is everything that a great sequel is supposed to be: exciting, engaging, suspenseful, emotive, and reminiscent of the original. It lacks the originality as it’s predecessor, but that hardly matters: the script is brilliant, director J.J. Abrams is great, and the fight sequences are exhilarating. Cumberbatch is irreplaceable. Three and a half stars

9) MAN OF STEEL

An ambitious and action-packed thrill ride giving new energy and enthusiasm to a cherished American franchise. When Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) discovers that he is a descendent of an extinct alien race from the planet Krypton, Clark needs to embrace his superhuman abilities and become the symbol of hope destined to inspire humanity. Directed by Zack Snyder (300), produced by Christopher Nolan (Inception) and written by David S. Goyer (The Dark Knight Trilogy), Man Of Steel is a superhero epic that fires on all cylinders. The cast is great, the visual effects are striking, the story is compelling, and it looks at Superman from a more humanistic perspective, as an outsider trying to fit in to a world where he doesn’t belong. The definition of a Hollywood Blockbuster. Four stars.

Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.8) 42

A gripping, well-written sports story with a great cast to compel us through it. Chronicling the true story of the first professional African-american ballplayer in American history, Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) is asked by baseball executive Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) to play for the dodgers and unite a country through a time of separation. Written and directed by Brian Hedgeland, 42 does a good job switching between emotions, from that of anger and disappointment to that of happiness and endearment. Ford is good as the headstrong and stubborn Rickey, but the surprise performance comes from the little-known Chadwick Boseman, who portrays Jackie so well that its nearly impossible to think of anyone else portraying him. You’re not watching a movie when you watch 42. You’re watching a legacy. Four stars.

7) CAPTAIN PHILLIPS

An exciting account on true events that somehow remains suspenseful, despite knowing how its going to end. Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) leads the cargo ship Maersk Alabama over the pacific ocean when a band of pirates attack the ship, kidnap Phillips, and take him hostage. Now with the Navy and the U.S. Government looking for the pirates at every turn, the quest to find the pirates quickly turns to a race against time to find and save the selfless captain. Paul Greengrass, who helmed the Bourne Supremacy and Ultimatum films, pioneers Hanks through this suspense thriller, and his expert timing combined with Hanks’ heartfelt performance made this film feel very real and fluid. The editing is tight, clean and efficient, cutting in and out at precise moments to give us the most tension and unease.  A convincing portrayal of events that is excellent at orchestrating emotions. Four stars.

6) SAVING MR. BANKS

A nostalgic, heartfelt, genuinely touching film about an author worried about her work similar to how a mother worries over her child. Pamela Travers (Emma Thompson) is the author of her acclaimed series of her “Mary Poppins” books, and her war of the creative rights with Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) is nearing its end. However, after confronting her own past and getting to know Walt a little better, Pamela begins to feel more at ease sharing her story not only with Walt, but with the rest of the world. Written and directed by John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side), Saving Mr. Banks is a wonderful film that bounces in between emotions like a kid does inside a bounce house. Hanks is good as Walt Disney, but surprisingly, he isn’t the highlight performance. Emma Thompson is the driving force behind this biopic, delivering a performance so versatile and demanding that she comes to identify the film entirely through her own character. The most magical moment comes when Ms. Travers watches Walt’s film adaptation of Mary Poppins for the first time. Four stars.

5) RUSH

An unstoppable and uncontrollable rush of energy, excitement, and gravitas, a movie that starts on a high note and simply refuses to let up all the way through. James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) is a hot-headed racer who knows nothing except instinct and winning. Nicki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) is a german racer who knows nothing except business and blunt honesty. Together these two rivals inspire and fuel each other’s ambition to outdo the other and win first place in the 1976 Formula One Season. This is a movie that is compelled by truth and driven by accuracy, pun intended. Hemsworth and Bruhl are perfect as Hunt and Lauda, their edginess and animosity apparent in every scene, never once breaking character. Ron Howard is documenting the film more than making it, and with the help of his screenwriter Pete Morgan and his editors Daniel Hanley and Mike Hill, he makes a biographical picture that is both relevant and exciting for its audience. An incredibly driven film that is entirely, unforgettably awesome. Four stars.

4) THE BUTLER

An earnest, humble film, parts approachable and observant yet equally ambitious and honest. Forest Whitaker plays as Cecil Gaines, a black butler who grew up during the slave era, growed up learning how to be a white man’s servant, got a job at the White House, and continued to serve there for almost 35 years. As he watches history pass him by from President Eisenhower all the way up until President Regan, Cecil recounts how he’s changed as a husband and as a father and what it means to be a free black man in America. Lee Daniels directs an all-star cast through this gripping, emotionally overwhelming story, with actors like Robin Williams, Alan Rickman, John Cusack, Cuba Gooding Jr., Terrence Howard and Mariah Carrey in it just to name a few. The best performances come from Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey as his wife, whose performances at many times carry the film on their own merit. A film that looks into the reality of circumstances and shows them exactly how they were, no matter how tragic or heartbreaking they were. Four stars.

3) THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE

A tense, gripping, and pulsating film crackling with energy and drama. Taking place after their victory at the 74th Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) try to re-adjust to their normal life until President Snow (Donal Sutherland) declares that the 75th Hunger Games will feature all of the previous winners, including Katniss and Peeta. Now shoved back into the horrid games that scarred her in the first place, Katniss must find a way to not only survive the games with Peeta, but to retain her humanity after everything is over. Directed by Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend), Catching Fire is the film that is everything the first thing was except more. The story is captivating, compelling, and deeply emotional. The themes are deep, powerful, and maddening. And the cast is more than exceptional, with Lawrence’s heartbreaking expressions at the center of it all. Not only one of the best sequels of the year, but one of the best movies of the year, period. Four stars.

2) GRAVITY

A film for a generation, a picture so convincing in its approach that its nearly impossible to think that it wasn’t even filmed in space. Sandra Bullock stars as Dr. Ryan Stone, a medical engineer out on her very first space mission with veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). When debris suddenly strikes their station and leaves them astray, Stone and Kowalski need to fight to survive and find their way home back to planet Earth. There is literally not a single technical fault in the film. The visual effects are stunning, eye-popping, and visually-breathtaking. The cinematography by Emanuel Libewski is poignant, curious, and masterfully constructed. But the most credit needs to go to writer-director Alfonso Cuaron, who is so precise with the film’s visuals, story and Bullock’s performance that he makes the film just as emotional as it is anticipative and on the edge of your seat. It blurs the line in between science fiction and science reality, and is probably the best space movie I’ve ever seen. Four stars.

1) 12 YEARS A SLAVE

One of the best films of the year, and among the best on the subject of racism and slavery. Based on the true story of a free man named Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), 12 Years A Slave chronicles his story of being drugged, captured, and sold into slavery for over a decade of his life. Directed by Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame) 12 Years A Slave is this year’s frontrunner of the Oscar for best picture, and it’s very deserving of that title. Not only is it tragic, maddening, and heartbreaking all at once: it is a very diverse and well-made film. The cinematography by Sean Bobbit is lush, broad, and captivating. The soundtrack by Hans Zimmer is slow and dreary, the third of his movies this year to be featured on this list. Ejiofor, however, is the star of this show, with his passionate, tearjerking performance driving us to care for this character and feel what he is feeling. Compels you to experience compassion and sympathy in ways almost no other film can do. Not even with Schindler’s List. Four stars.

Whether you’re a dedicated movie lover or simply a casual viewer, I encourage all of you to see the movies on this list. They did more than impact me: they touched and inspired the people all around me.

-David Dunn

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