Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Walking Dead "Chained" - TV Review

It's not Carl's fault there's no one his age in the whole world.
A show's plot should always feel organic. These events lead to these events, which lead to these events... The best shows never feel like they're forcing something to happen just so they can get to this next plot point, which is the one they really believe in. Unfortunately, that happened in this episode.

We only follow two groups in this episode - the Rick & Carl show with Deadly Aunt Michonne, and then Glenn & the Newbies.  Michonne and Carl go on a supply run while Rick stays home to recouperate from his wounds. Timeline-wise, it's still only been 2-3 days since the Governor's final attack. The bonding time between Carl and his new mother figure (big sister figure?) reveals more about Michonne than we've been allowed to learn in three seasons. Back at home, though, Rick has to avoid a band of armed brothers who've picked his house - of all houses! - to poke around and take naps.

I find it interesting that Jeff Kober played the leader. We barely see him, which makes me believe his crew's going to meet up with Rick down the road.

The other storyline was the most problematic one. Abraham, Rosita and Eugene are here. Now what? It just had this lurching quality to it. Glenn wakes up. He freaks out and gets Abraham to stop the truck. Glenn and Abraham fight long enough for Eugene to grab a machine gun and shoot everything including the truck's gas tank when no one else is noticing the approaching walkers. Eugene says he knows how to fix the zombie crisis but won't give anyone the details because it's "classified." And no one presses him on this.

So their tale ends with the five of them (Tara's here too!) walking south to find Maggie and the bus, and we know that it's about 150 miles south of where they are now.

I don't know why they dyed Michael Cudlitz's hair red when his mustache is staying blond. I just hope they make better use of them in future episodes so their presence and actions don't feel so forced.

I also think from now on, as long as they're separated, I'm going to refer to each group Game of Thrones style.  Today we followed House Rick and House Glenn. Hopefully next week we'll see where House Daryl, House Tyreese, and House Maggie are doing. I like Jim Gaffigan's suggestion at changing the opening credits to show us who is where at the beginning of each episode.

Jackass Presents Bad Grandpa - DVD Review

Starring Johnny Knoxville and Jackson Nicoll.
Directed by Jeff Tremaine.


I confess I have never seen a Jackass movie. I've seen an episode or two of Johnny Knoxville and his merry crew back in their MTV days. This movie is odd because it fits a narrative around a series of stunts, so that the grandfather and grandson are actual characters.

A movie like this though lives or dies on how many laughs it can illicit, and this one just isn't that funny. In fact, the part that made me smile most was the closing credits when they show the reactions of people who learn the crazy stuff they just witnessed was part of a Johnny Knoxville movie.

The most memorable stunt is when they have a guy playing the abusive father to the grandson in a bar, surrounded by BACA - Bikers Against Child Abuse. That's when you feel the tension rise and worry for the safety of the pranksters. Most of the time though, you just see passersby act surprised at something they just saw, then move on. It's like they can sense there's a camera hidden somewhere.

But hey, it's nominated for Best Makeup this year, so I can cross another Academy-Award nominee off my list!

Monday, February 24, 2014

Lego Movie #1 again

For the weekend of February 21-23, 2014, The LEGO Movie once again reigned supreme. Neither of the new offerings tempted viewers much, but Kevin Costner's 3 Days to Kill fared a little better than the much more expensive Pompeii.  In fact, 3DTK's opening wasn't that far behind that of Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit from last month.

The biggest surprise to me was how steep a drop the three date movies took in their second week. I don't think I've ever seen a week where three of the four wide releases all drop 70% in their second week. So by that measure, RoboCop has to be feeling lucky.

I'm still baffled that someone actually gave $100 million to a Paul WS Anderson movie. It doesn't matter what the material is. He has never made a movie that grossed over $100 million. He's had some that could have, if he wasn't such a bad director.  People moan about Michael Bay or Brett Ratner, but I'd take 3-5 films each from them before anything from Anderson.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The LEGO Movie - Movie Review

Starring the voices of Chris Pratt, Will Ferrell, Elizabeth Banks, Morgan Freeman, Will Arnett, Liam Neeson, Nick Offerman, Alison Brie, Charlie Day, Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill.
Directed by Phil Lord & Christopher Miller.


Everything is awesome about this movie on so many levels. The message, the humor, the subtext, the characters, the creativity... All of it works.

Chris Pratt, who plays the guileless Andy on NBC's Parks & Recreation, brings that same dim-bulb wonderment to the voice of Emmet, a construction worker in Legoland. Emmet is chirpy, positive, and part of a team, a team that Reads The Instructions and builds buildings. The movie has this shrewd animation style that looks like it's a combo of stop-motion and CGI (I'm guessing it's more CGI than stop-motion).

This Lego universe is run by President Business (Will Ferrell), head of the government and most coroporations. Behind closed doors, he's Lord Business! (Think Chancellor Palpatine and Darth Sidious). Lord Business is determined to control everything, and he has a doomsday device called the Kragle which will allow him to usurp freedom forever. Ah, but there's this prophecy that someone called the Special will come forth with a Piece of Resistance and stop Lord Business.

Emmet accidentally stumbles upon the Piece of Resistance, and he becomes the unwitting fulfiller of prophecy. An underground resistance movement hails him as the Special, even though he's not smart or unique in any discernible way.

This movie isn't left- or right-wing, it's probably the most centrist pro-liberty movie ever made. It celebrates community not conformity, knowing when to break out and when to be safe, respect for yourself and others, and above all, it's good to let your imagination run wild.

Part of the freedom of this movie is how much it's able to borrow from others to create something new.  Characters from Star Wars and Harry Potter pop up, and one of the main supporting characters is Batman. The evil micro-managers that serve Lord Business look and behave an awful lot like the squid-robots from The Matrix. (Micro-managers! Ha! Surprised there weren't two henchmen named Sarbanes and Oxley).

It truly is a "whole family" movie. Plenty of laughs for kids and adults. Surely the front-runner for Best Animated Film of 2014, the other candidates sight unseen.

Monday, February 17, 2014

About Last Night - Movie Review

Starring Kevin Hart, Michael Ealy, Regina Hall, Joy Bryant, Christopher McDonald, Joe La Truglio, Adam Rodriguez and Paula Patton.
Directed by Steve Pink.


I never saw the original movie with Rob Lowe, Demi Moore, James Belushi and Elizabeth Perkins. I do remember reading some of David Mamet's Sexual Perversity in Chicago, the original play on which it's based, but that was over 20 years ago, so I still went in not knowing much more than the average ticket-buyer would.

It starts out fine, where we meet Bernie (Kevin Hart) and Danny (Michael Ealy) talking about Bernie's recent sexual conquest, and we also hear the other side from Joan (Regina Hall) telling Debbie (Joy Bryant) her side of the story. It looks like we're going to build on the he-said, she-said aspect of hook-ups. That gets abandoned as the story shifts more into the relationship between Danny and Debbie, the bland couple. Bernie and Joan become the peripheral, off-again/on-again, more entertaining couple.

I'm glad I'm not single. Is this really the order people go in nowadays?
1. Have sex.
2. Move in together.
3. Say "I love you."
4. Kids and/or marriage are still years away.

There are plenty of laughs in the movie, mostly thanks to Bernie and Joan. I wish the ups and downs of Danny and Debbie's relationship didn't feel so forced. And there's something funny going on with movies these days where they're leaving out key pieces of character development. The Monuments Men was a good example of that, and now here's this movie. About a third through, we learn Danny hates his job and wants to pursue his dream. But he never says what that dream is. We see him getting turned down at some job interviews, but we have no idea what kind of job he's applying for. What's his dream? The movie never says, as he later finds a new source of happiness.

I don't mind that I saw it, but it's probably more of a Redbox movie than a pay-full-price affair.

AMC's The Walking Dead - "Inmates" - TV Review

Spoilers ahead.

So we know Rick, Carl, and Michonne survived the prison showdown but how did everyone else do? Everyone's splintered into groups, which is just fine with me. I hope they don't find each other two quickly. I don't need a "they never see each other again" separation like the Stark kids in Game of Thrones, but it'd be cool if they stretch this out a few episodes.

Group #1 - Daryl and Beth - These are two characters who haven't interacted much, so it's interesting to see how they'll play off each other. Beth's been the younger, slightly more immature sister to Maggie, and now she's with the Coolest Man Left on the Planet, she finds she's the more optimistic one of the duo. She's still reeling from her father's death, but this is a world where everyone is constantly reeling from loved ones' deaths. A narrative choice I really liked about this one is we see them following someone else's tracks and we don't know whose they are or what exactly happened. We see rabbit carcass and smashed grapes but what do they mean? They find some walkers eating the last of some human survivors and Beth has a breakdown. Is Daryl going to harden himself up again, or will he continue to grow as he makes himself Beth's rock.  But then we jump to...

Group #2 - Tyreese, Lizzie, Mika, Judith - We have our answer. Baby Judith is alive, and somehow Tyreese is in charge of all the surviving girls. They are the ones Daryl and Beth are tracking, and we have our mystery confirmation that Lizzie was the one who was mangling the rats at the prison, as she secretly cuts up a rabbit while the others aren't looking. (Dang, that would have been some protein.) There's also a chilling moment when Tyreese runs off to help someone, and Lizzie decides to shush crying Judith by suffocating her. Fortunately some intruding walkers disrupt Lizzie's murder attempt, but no one else noticed that's what she was doing. Lizzie's going to be trouble in the near future. Like serial-killer trouble.

Tyreese comes upon the humans that we know from earlier will all die, and to help him out, Carol shows up!  Hooray for Carol, the mama figure that Lizzie and Mika need.  Tyreese doesn't know Carol had been banished by Rick, and more importantly the why (she killed Karen), so now they're in tow as father-figure, mother-figure and three girls. It's Little House on the Zombie Prairie. And for the first time, we get a glimpse of hope, as they find a map that'll take them to place called Terminus, a train station where apparently other survivors have gathered. Hopefully it's real, although it's more likely it'll wind up being another trap, another Woodbury. And one final note, their group is walking the opposite direction down the tracks as Daryl and Beth.

Group #3 - Maggie, Sasha, Bob - Beth's sister, Tyreese's sister, and... Bob... are trying to figure out what to do next. Sasha thinks they should make camp, but Maggie wants to walk after the bus that held Glenn, whether they split up doing so or not. Bob knows what happens to black people in horror movies, so they all stick together. The bus isn't that far away, and this was an ingenius way of the writers to get rid of all of the extras. Remember in the final episode of season 3, when they took in the poor, the huddled masses, the leftovers from Woodbury? Between the virus and the prison shootout, most of them are dead. The bus is how the rest of them were wiped out. The bus is full of walkers, and Maggie needs to know Glenn is one of them. He isn't, and if they got to know any of the other characters from the bus, they don't show it beyond Bob's one-word eulogy: "These were good people."

Group #4 - Glenn, Tara - Glenn, it turns out, doubled back to the prison to try to find survivors. I guess he and Michonne just missed each other.  He loads up his backpack and puts on some riot gear, but then he sees Tara, who's locked herself in a cage. I was bummed her sister Lilly, the one who actually put the bullet in the Governor's brain, got an off-screen death (or maybe that means Lilly is still alive) but I like that Tara is still alive, still around to deal with the consequences of her actions and put a new flavor into the group dynamics.

And just when Glenn and Tara finish dealing with some walkers, we meet three new characters, who pose almost motif-style to end the episode. My wife didn't like their introduction. I've read the comics, so I was delighted to see them. Abraham, Rosita and Eugene should be around for a while, although the TV show has shown plenty of willingness to stray from the comics, so who knows what their presence will really mean.

So for our final six episodes of the season, we have a nice road-map. More than one group, I imagine, will find their way to Terminus, and the show should be able to hop around and keep the action moving. Rick, Carl and Michonne are our Group #5, so they can pick and choose air-time easily. For my money, Steven Yuen and Laurie Cohan are getting better and better as Glenn and Maggie. The show started off not great with its female characters, but Maggie, Michonne and Carol are all interesting, and Sasha, Tara and Beth can still turn out that way.

I like the comic-book way how characters rarely change clothes or even hairstyles. Sometimes, just once, I'd like Daryl to slick his hair back.

It remains like Lost to me. Not the best show on TV, but still one of the most must-see addicting.

Dirty Wars - DVD Review

Starring Jeremy Scahill.
Directed by Rick Rowley.


This is one of the five nominees for Best Documentary Feature of 2013. It has important subject matter. It also can't get out of its own way to tell the story.

This is about the endlessly expanding Global War on Terror. Or it's about heroic journalist Jeremy Scahill stopping at nothing to find the truth. (Cue patriotic music as Cahill stares chin-first into the sunrise.)

There's plenty of good material here, the most important question raised being: why does the "Kill List" get longer and longer? At the beginning of the Iraq War, there are a deck of cards. Now there are thousands of names on that list. Why?

Scahill is a journalist for the left-leaning The Nation, so you can imagine he was never a fan of Bush, but he also shows how in some ways, Obama is worse when it comes to the War on Terror. Why is it okay to assassinate US citizens? How did we get to this point?

Scahill narrates, and director Rick Rowley is just as enamored with showing Scahill push a pin through a newspaper clipping as he is interviewing Afghan children who survive a bombing.

So I would recommend this movie in spite of itself. It shed new light on JSOC, and it could help raise awareness to how our military-industrial complex will only keep growing. But at the same time, if it actually wins Best Documentary, I'd be upset.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Weekend Box Office - Feb 14-16, 2014

Once again, The LEGO Movie ruled all at the box office, but that didn't mean other titles couldn't find some breathing room.

The three 1980's remakes had varying levels of success. Sony tried for counter-programming by opening RoboCop on the weekend of Valentine's Day, to middling success. Fortunately it's one of those movies made for its foreign appeal. It's already made $69 million overseas.

The much cheaper About Last Night remake (that turned Jim Belushi into Kevin Hart) further cemented the idea that Hart is a star. Endless Love had a big Friday but dropped off drastically on Saturday.

Winter's Tale had a confusing trailer and received terrible reviews, and there's no such thing as a successful live-action movie where Colin Farrell gets top billing (his biggest hit was Total Recall's $58 million, which had a $125 million budget).

Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone - DVD Review

Starring Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi, Jim Carrey, Olivia Wilde, James Gandolfini, Alan Arkin, Jay Mohr, Brad Garrett, Gillian Jacobs and Zachary Gordon.  Directed by Don Scardino.


Seemed like a clever trick to cast Diary of a Wimpy Kid's Zachary Gordon as a bully right off the bat.

This is a talented cast that should have yielded funnier results. Every few years we get a Death to Smoochy disaster, and this was 2013's.

Steve Carell stars as Burt, a once-popular Vegas magician who refuses to alter his act with his partner Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi). He's become jaded, but worse he's a selfish, vain jerk. It seems like they're going for a Ron Burgundy style humor, but Burt is so unlikeable, we're rooting for his downfall.  It eventually comes, as his ego costs him his job, and a new magician Steve Gray (Jim Carrey) is rising in popularity near him. Gray is a Criss Angel-type mentalist, and he's the best part of the movie.

Meanwhile we watch actors like Buscemi, Wilde and Gandolfini go to waste. Director Don Scardino has a lot of experience with TV comedy (30 Rock, 2 Broke Girls), but it just doesn't translate to the big-screen.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

AMC's The Walking Dead - "After" - TV Review

I bought the Walking Dead Compendium Volume 1 after Season 3, and there are lots of differences between the comics and the TV show. Up to this point in the comics, for instance, Dale and Andrea are still alive, and Merle & Daryl Dixon were creations solely for the TV show. Volume 1 ends right at Season 4's midseason finale, so when I bought Volume 2, I didn't have any idea where it was going to go.

This week's episode was very faithful to the comics, and as such, I really enjoyed it, and I'm excited for where the TV show's going to go from here. Carl's younger in the comics, and Chandler Riggs is obviously aging faster than the timeline for the show (we're about two years in, timeline-wise).  The character of Carl has evolved and I'm really enjoying it. I've seen a lot of Carl hate online, especially for his bratty behavior this week, but it makes sense for me. Carl's pissed, and teenage boys who are pissed lash out. I like butt-kicking zombie-shooting Carl. He's in a world where a normal childhood will never happen. The boy shot his mother in the head, for crying out loud.

By the end, Carl realized that he's not as tough as he thinks he is and he still needs his dad, and it ended on a hopeful note not only for Carl and Rick discovering they're not alone, but for Michonne to realize she's not going to go back to her unfeeling Season 2 self.

The Walking Dead's never been a perfect series. Season 2 required some endurance, but it all paid off in Season 3, and now I'm excited for where the rest of Season 4 is going to go.

In other TV viewing of mine:

Syfy's HELIX - I've watched the first episode, and I liked it enough to keep watching. It's further down my queue for priority, but I'm intrigued enough to see where it goes. The series takes place in a disease-research facility in Antarctica, where a new, deadly contagion may be on the loose. Billy Campbell (The Killing) stars.

Starz's BLACK SAILS - This felt like Deadwood at Sea more than anything. I like the idea of a young John Silver as part of the crew, and I imagine his path will eventually become the front-front of the series, but this show belongs to Toby Stephens (Die Another Day) as Captain Flint.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Weekend Box Office - 2/9/14

The LEGO Movie is the first big hit of 2014. Phil Lord & Christopher Miller had previous success with Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and 21 Jump Street, and now this. This should make them 3 for 3 in getting sequels made to their movies.

The Monuments Men did okay, considering it opened opposite a juggernaut.  Vampire Academy had bad reviews and poor visibility.  Next week there's Winter's Tale and three 1980's remakes (RoboCop, Endless Love, About Last Night).

It's going to be another good year for animation. Three of the top eight are animation.  (Has to hurt for Jack Ryan to get out-grossed by a throwaway flick like The Nut Job.) Frozen has passed $900 million worldwide.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

The Monuments Men - Movie Review

Starring George Clooney, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville, Bob Balaban and Dimitri Leonidas.
Directed by George Clooney.


This is an odd movie. All the ingredients are there to make a classic, a WWII heist thriller, a race-against-time, Over the Hill Gang type yarn. It just felt like key developmental elements were missing.

The Monuments Men was a real group but it was much larger than what the movie portrays. I understand narrative purposes for narrowing it down to eight conglomerate characters, but somewhere in there, director and co-writer Clooney forgot to make most of them characters.  Sure, Bill Murray, John Goodman and Jean Dujardin are good actors, but it's as though those men were told to just show up and "act" without anything to work with.

"George, what's my motivation?"
"Be more Bill Murray-ish."
"Thanks. Thanks for that note."

The opening scenes play like a "We're getting the band back together" montage like this is a sequel to something. Things like this made me wish someone besides Clooney had directed it, someone who could have stepped back and noticed these little problems.

The actual quest of the men is something we grow to care about.  Watching Nazis set fire to art brings the same visceral reaction of the books burning in The Name of the Rose, or the scrolls burning in Agora. Some much history lost.

The actors that come off best, mostly because they have something to work with, are Cate Blanchett as a French secretary working for the Nazis but really helping the underground resistance, and Downton Abbey's Hugh Bonneville as a recovering alcoholic who sees this mission as a redemptive chance to do something with his life. Kind of cool to see Lord Grantham hanging out with two of the Ocean's 11.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit - Movie Review

Starring Chris Pine, Kevin Costner, Kenneth Branagh, Keira Knightley and Colm Feore.
Directed by Kenneth Branagh.


This is the epitome of the standard, competent spy thriller. Jack Ryan (Chris Pine) is a Cold War hero moved to the 21st century, where Russians are still the main bad guys. This doesn't reignite the franchise any more than the Ben Affleck-led Sum of All Fears in 2001.

But it is in the hands of director Kenneth Branagh, who has shown he knows how to add a little fun to tentpoles. Ryan's origin, recruitment and training are all handled efficiently. When we get to the main case, when a lot of the suspense is happening on computer screens and thumb-drives, the pacing and direction are still tight. Branagh's got that Putin dead-eye stare down, and Costner's a fine mentor for Pine.  I didn't have a problem with Keira Knightley's acting but her character didn't feel consistent.

Pine's good, and I wouldn't mind seeing another installment, but based on the box office, I think that might not happen. It needed to gross $170 million worldwide to justify a sequel and today is when it passes $100 million.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Place Beyond the Pines - DVD Review

Starring Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Ray Liotta, Dane Dehaan, Emory Cohen, Bruce Greenwood, Mahershala Ali, Harris Yulin, Ben Mendelsohn and Robert Clohessy. Directed by Derek Cianfrance.


Ryan Gosling's been playing a lot of screwed-up guys lately. It must feed some need inside him. I picture him with a summer cabin with a torture room in the basement.

Here he plays a desperate father who turns to bank robbery to provide for his son.  His path will eventually cross with Bradley Cooper, a cop with a young son of his own.  We see their story for the first two-thirds of the movie, and I enjoyed every aspect of that.

Then it flash-forwards sixteen years to follow the sons, and we see how the choices of the fathers have affected their sons, and here's where the movie went a little sideways for me. It puts together some events that felt too contrived, and it took me out of the movie. There's a real cinema-verite vibe going on with it, and overall I liked it. I just thought the last third weakened the power from the first two acts.

Monday, February 3, 2014

American Horror Story: Coven - TV Review

If you're to judge a series by its season finale, then AHS: Coven was one pretty lame season. Like previous years, it was uneven but with plenty to enjoy, but I felt satisfied with the first two editions. The finale was fitting for the first one and perfect for the second one. Coven felt like the writers ran out of ideas a couple episodes too soon. The finale was a mess. With so many character who died and came back to life, the actual deaths had no impact. It was great to see Jessica Lange, Angela Bassett, Kathy Bates, etc., act off of each other. I just hope for next season they have a little better idea of what the end game is.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Weekend Box Office - 2/2/14

For the weekend of January 31-February 2, Ride Along has managed to stay on top for the third week in a row.  As we speak, Kevin Hart is furiously being edited into 300: Rise of An Empire, and he will now be Electro's sidekick in The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Not really, but he seems ready to take that Melissa McCarthy step into stardom. The next Chris Tucker is here.

As far as new releases go, audiences didn't care about Zac Efron's Awkward Moment or to see how Kate Winslet celebrated Labor Day.

I think The Lego Movie is set up to open huge this Friday, and The Monuments Men will be a strong #2.  Vampire Academy will bomb.  Then next week we have three 1980's remakes opening. About Last Night (starring Kevin Hart) should have the biggest opening, RoboCop will open flat, and I can't really tell if anyone's intrigued by Endless Love. Never saw the 1981 original with Brooke Shields (and young Tom Cruise and James Spader in small parts), and the preview looks pretty generic now.

Seven of the top seventeen movies this weekend are nominated for Best Picture of 2013.

RIP Philip Seymour Hoffman 1967-2014

Philip Seymour Hoffman, 46, has died from an apparent drug overdose. They found a syringe in his arm and an envelope containing what they believe is heroin. We'll know more in the next few hours and days.

Seems like such a waste. He's been to drug rehab on at least two prior occasions.

He won the Oscar in 2006 for his work in Capote, and he's been in films as varied as Twister, The Big Lebowski, Boogie Nights, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Magnolia, Red Dragon, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, Along Came Polly, Doubt, Moneyball, The Master, and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. He's supposed to be in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay I & II, and I'm sure we'll hear soon if he'd finished his scenes or not, if they'll have to do some creative editing, or if they'll just replace him.

He seems to have a hard-living look about him. Even in his 30's he looked like he was 50. Drug addiction's a scary thing, and unfortunately when you have money, it's an easier beast to feed.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

My Top Ten Films of 2013

I haven't seen Rush, Before Midnight, Enough Said, 20 Feet from Stardom, and some of these other films making top-ten lists, but of the 101 films I have seen, these were the best.

Just Okay:

Despicable Me 2
The Heat
Lee Daniels' The Butler
Monsters University
Pacific Rim
Star Trek into Darkness
This is the End

Good but not in my top 20:

All Is Lost
August: Osage County
Blue Jasmine
The Croods
Dallas Buyers Club
Ender's Game
The Great Gatsby
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Inside Llewyn Davis
Iron Man 3
Out of the Furnace
The Place Beyond the Pines
Side Effects
Thor: The Dark World
Warm Bodies
What Maisie Knew
The Wolverine
The World's End

Honorable Mention:

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty - I almost put it in my Second Best Ten list, but I can't get over how distracting and blatant the product placement was for E-Harmony, Papa John's and Cinnabun. It felt like Ben Stiller was striving for something that would be artistic yet mainstream, which is what makes that aspect so disappointing. Otherwise it's beautiful and makes me want to visit Iceland.

My Second Best Ten
(11-20, alphabetical):

Blackfish - This indictment of SeaWorld is tightly paced and a disturbing examination of how such confining captivity helped turn an orca into a serial killer.

The Conjuring - The best scary movie in a long time.

Her - Quirky, offbeat look at what our technology-saturated near-future may look like, about a man who falls in love with his artificially-intelligent operating system. It's as if Joaquin Phoenix never took two years off to pretend he was crazy.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire - Francis Lawrence wound up being the right director to pick and carry the ball that started with Gary Ross. It's more focused, the action's better, the world's a little more realized, and even though the second book isn't as good as the first book, the second movie is better than the first movie.

Lone Survivor - A movie that's pro-soldier without being pro-war. This true story gives us a you-are-there feel to an Afghan operation gone wrong, with an unflinching look at just how hard it is to kill a man.

Philomena - What could have been a BBC TV-movie is elevated by the performances and chemistry of Judi Dench and Steve Coogan. It's not as simple as it may seem on the surface.

Saving Mr. Banks - It has more gravitas than the marketing would suggest, with several flashbacks to Colin Farrell as P.L. Travers' loving, fatally flawed father. It's not just about the conflict of collaboration and protecting an artist's vision, but about forgiving those we love. Emma Thompson should have been nominated for her work as Travers. Yeah, it took liberties with Travers and Walt Disney, but for what it actually is, I was touched.

The Wolf of Wall Street - This 3-hour tribute to amorality keeps growing on me. Martin Scorsese is in prime Goodfellas mode, but instead of mobsters, we follow brokers, who can be just as heartless and dangerous. Leonardo DiCaprio is ferocious in the role of Jordan Belfort, a remorseless s.o.b. who lied and cheated his way into millions of dollars. Good luck to the ClearPlay filter people keeping this longer than an hour.

World War Z - The undead overrun cities like over-angry army ants in this new take on the zombie apocalypse. Brad Pitt makes for a fine host with whom we want to globe-trot, and rather than bursting open for a third-act climax, it tightens into one of suspense, which makes the whole movie better.

You're Next - It may look like a typical home-invasion thriller from afar, but the filmmakers have more in mind, with sibling rivalry that doesn't pause even as people start dying, and one character who isn't who she seems once push comes to shove.  One of the funnier movies I saw last year.

And now...

... my Top Ten

10. FROZEN - Disney Animation has stepped up its quality lately, and this is no exception. It's a full-on musical, and rather than be about a girl, a boy, and a villain, the story centers around two sisters, and the problems that arise when one has the power to turn everything cold. The soundtrack's good, the cast is great (for their voice quality rather than their marquee value), and while we may know where it will "end" end, it takes an unexpected turn or two to get there.  Pixar can be Pixar, but Disney animation has lately rediscovered its own voice.

9. THE ACT OF KILLING - This is one of those documentaries that feels like it could help change the course of a nation's history. Reforms are underway in Indonesia, but this project started years before those began.  Director Joshua Oppenheimer dared get in with some of the mass-murderers from the 1965 uprising that resulted in over 1 million deaths, and had since been whitewashed by that nation. It really felt like what Germany might be like in the 1980's if the Nazis had won.

As these guys were big movie fans, Oppenheimer and his crew took the approach that they'd have the original guys recreate what it was like in 1965, show on film how they killed people. They play along, and at the time to now they saw themselves as Jimmy Cagney, the Godfather, etc. They were gangsters, and they repeat throughout the movie that the word for gangster originated from "free man." To them, gangsterism is freedom. Freedom for themselves to kill whoever they want with no consequence, anyway.

Half of the crew is Anonymous, undoubtedly for fear of reciprocity from the men in power, most of whom have zero remorse and zero conscience about what they did. But good luck to Indonesia.

8. UPSTREAM COLOR - This experimental montage of a film worked for me, as I don't think this story could be told any other way. Writer/director Shane Carruth has gone to strange lengths in this metaphor for connections we have in life. Its elliptical narrative keeps the surface plot ambiguous, and to make it any clearer would damage the effect.

7. FRUITVALE STATION - I can think of no better way of honoring Oscar Grant III's life on film than by just showing a slice of his life, a normal, imperfect man trying to do right by his daughter, not knowing that he has less than 24 hours to live due to a stupid, overzealous cop. Writer/director Ryan Coogler is a talent to watch, and I'm glad this role is going to lead to bigger and better things for Michael B. Jordan.

6. PRISONERS - There's a lot going on in this kidnapping drama, and it's highlighted by strong "wouldn't mind if they were nominated" work from Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal. It's about how far parents will go to protect their children, and Jackman is a brutal force, letting his beastly side come out in scary ways that Wolverine couldn't touch.

5. MUD - This coming-of-age drama in the rural South from Jeff Nichols evokes a Twain-like ability to comment on the complexity of adult behavior through the eyes of trusting youth.  This movie invites you to take off your boots and sit a spell, soaking in the atmosphere while never being dull.  Matthew McConaughey once again gives a good performance as a man being chased by his past, and the film has a lot to say about the power and fragility of love.

4. AMERICAN HUSTLE - David O. Russell's becoming the king of ensembles. After The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, this feels like a capper to a trilogy where he has announced his arrival. Everyone's having fun in this tale of con-artists, politicians, double-crosses and ambition. I enjoyed everyone but was most impressed by Amy Adams.

3. CAPTAIN PHILLIPS - Tom Hanks may have two Oscars for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump, but I think is the best role of his career. Amazed that he missed out on getting nominated.  Director Paul Greengrass's urgent style compliments the tense proceedings.

2. GRAVITY - I hope you saw it in 3D on the biggest screen possible. This isn't a film to watch on an iPad. Director Alfonso Cuaron makes us feel like we're floating in space next to Sandra Bullock.  It's a very basic tale of survival where everything that can go wrong does, but in an age where the quality of television looked like it might surpass film, Cuaron reminds us why movies still rule.

1. 12 YEARS A SLAVE - It may not be one people watch over and over, but it feels like it'll stand the test of time as the landmark cinematic portrait of slavery, just as Roots does for television.  It's faithful to the autobiography of Solomon Northrup (which I read after), a free black man living in 1841 New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the Deep South.  Through the point of view of a protagonist who knows freedom, it allows everyone in the audience to feel the injustice of his plight, of this peculiar institution that was treated as normal by so many, from the otherwise good-hearted and pious (Benedict Cumberbatch) to the demented and cruel (Michael Fassbender).