Once upon a time I made it my goal to write a review for every movie I saw each year. Then I moved over to this site, welcomed a child into the world, and found myself with far less time to write and far fewer people interested in my writing that did not include pictures of said child. Regardless, I like writing the reviews and having something to schedule and work toward gets the ink flowing, as it were, and helps motivate me to write other pieces along the way. So this is sort of a compromise. Every month, I’ll put together a collection of smaller reviews for each of the films I saw in the previous month and save the longer reviews for only the most significant films that come along. This way, those of you who don’t care at all about such things can bypass them more easily and hopefully it’ll spur me on to put out more non-movie content through the year.
Selma (David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tom Wilkinson) One Line Synopsis: Martin Luther King Jr. leads a march on Selma, Alabama to secure equal voting rights for African Americans. Ava DuVeray’s MLK drama came awfully late in a jam-packed award season. So late, in fact, that Selma’s Oscar chances were drastically affected by the poor release strategy. Even so, this is an outstanding, powerful film that features one of the strongest performances of the year. Oyelowo embodies Dr. King perfectly, carrying the film through its weaker moments and driving it to excellence at its best. When he is on the screen you cannot take your eyes off of him, which is precisely what Selma requires of him. Grade: A (Still in theaters)
A Most Violent Year (Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo) One Line Synopsis: During New York City’s most violent year on record, an honest business man attempts to keep him life’s work afloat in the face of rampant corruption. This is a hard film to dissect. It is well-made and features a fantastic cast delivering superb performances. And yet, at the end of the day, I’m not completely sure the movie actually amounts to much. A Most Violent Year is a slow-burn of the highest order and while I was far from bored, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop and it never really did. When the movie came to an end, I was left feeling like I’d just seen a very well-made film that didn’t have much to say. I can definitely see why critics have embraced A Most Violent Year but I can’t imagine the average moviegoer finding much to grab on to beyond the strong performances. Grade: B+ (Expanded into theaters nationwide this week)
Paddington (Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Ben Whishaw) One Line Synopsis: A young talking bear from Darkest Peru journeys to London in search of a new family to take care of him. I expected nothing from Paddington, dear readers. No, that’s not true. I expected less than nothing from Paddington. I expected that if I ever saw Paddington, I would have to do some serious soul searching to determine what exactly put me on such a terrible path. But I took Cooper to see “Paddy Bear” (as he puts it), thinking he might only make it through the first 45 minutes and then we’d be able to leave. Instead, we both had an absolute blast. Paddington is fun, it’s lively, it’s far more intelligent than the trailer would ever have you guess, and it’s positively full of heart. It reminded me of a Muppet movie. Cooper loved and I both loved it. Grade: A (Still in theaters)
Whiplash (Miles Teller, JK Simmons, Paul Reiser) One Line Synopsis: A talented jazz drummer butts heads with a fiery music instructor who might drive him to excellence or an early death. One of the bigger surprises of 2014, Whiplash built from its roots as a short film to a Sundance film festival darling all the way into a Best Picture contender. Simmons is almost a lock to win Best Supporting Actor, and rightly so, as his turn as the furious perfectionist hell bent on driving his students to the brink of insanity pushes the film to its greatest heights. But I’m almost more in awe of the precision with which first time writer-director Damien Chazelle brings his feature together. Whiplash is not an easy watch by any means but it’s a tremendous achievement and one that features the best scene of the entire year (the final 20 minutes is one long drum sequence and it is MESMERIZING). Grade: A (In select theaters)
The Railway Man (Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman, Jeremy Irvine) One Line Synopsis: Decades after his horrible experiences in a POW camp, Eric Lomax travels back to Japan to exact revenge on his tormenter. If, like me, you were left unsatisfied with the uneven, stunted experience of Unbroken, then this is the movie for you. The Railway Man is basically the British Unbroken except it actually delivers on the promise of its story. Firth is excellent as the older Lomax whose life has been crippled by his inability to overcome the harm done to his younger self (Irvine) and the crossover between the two time periods is near seamless. This is a much smaller film than its American counterpart but it packs quite a punch and its emotional impact rings true. Grade: A- (Available on DVD/Blu-Ray)
American Sniper (Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller) One Line Synopsis: Based on the true story of Chris Kyle, the most decorated sniper in US Military history. Chances are you’ve already seen American Sniper since it has broken all kinds of records at the box office and will likely go down as the biggest January release in the history of the world. It matter not, then, that I think this movie stinks. That might be a little strong. American Sniper has some tremendous moments and features a fantastic lead performance. Moreover, Chris Kyle’s story is inherently cinematic and worthy of telling. It just needed to be told by someone who actually knows how to tell a story and unfortunately, Clint Eastwood isn’t capable of doing that anymore. Many of the war scenes are well-shot and there’s a tense atmosphere through much of it that works in American Sniper’s favor. But the scripting for this movie is ATROCIOUS and Eastwood doesn’t do anything to pull the script out of the muck. Over and over, he takes the time to beat the viewer over the head with visual and auditory cues for exactly how you SHOULD feel and react to each turn in Kyle’s story. It’s not that American Sniper takes a stand on whether this man was a hero or a psychopath that bothers me (for the record, I believe he was the former); it’s that I felt like Clint Eastwood was standing over me as I watched demanding that I agree with him and that I have the appropriate emotional reaction at the appropriate times. In the process of all this, I lost the actual emotional connection that I would’ve felt naturally if I just would’ve been allowed to think for myself. I get why audiences are responding to this film and I fully admit I am perhaps overly sensitive to and frustrated by the sort of heavy-handed storytelling Eastwood utilizes here. But through the entirety of American Sniper all I kept thinking was how much better it could’ve been if it was handled appropriately. Grade: B- (In literally every theater)