The Secret Life of Walter Mitty wants desperately to be liked. Where other films tell hard truths, Mitty puts things nicely. When Mitty is about to tell a joke, it hastens to warn us before we're tricked. The movie doesn't want to surprise us—it just wants a smile, a pat on the back, and an invitation to the next birthday party with the guys. We're all friends here, right?
It’s been scolded as patriotic combat porn, then praised as the “most extraordinary war film since Saving Private Ryan.” Both assessments are absurd. Lone Survivor is, instead, a routine war film made memorable by a single, near-flawless action scene. You might as well sleep through the first 30 minutes, because when the gunfire finally starts, you won’t be able to blink.
You’ve got plenty of excuses for passing on Her, a playful, surprisingly earnest sci-fi romance by Spike Jonze. Take the silly premise (a lonely man falling in love with his operating system); add some uncomfortable, man-on-machine innuendo; and swirl it together with a mopey, listless Joaquin Phoenix. No one will blame you for picking Mr. DiCaprio over Mr. Phoenix, or for choosing con artists over cyber sex. No doubt, you can skip Her and have a genuinely pleasant evening. You’ll just be missing one of the three best, most insightful films of 2013.
Shakespeare's Rosalind would be happy to know her question has finally been answered. After a hundred books, a thousand articles, and four centuries of scholarship, The Wolf of Wall Street--a steamy, jittery, drug-addled festival disguised as a movie—is indeed "too much of a good thing." Leonardo DiCaprio may die before winning an Oscar, but he's solved a 390-year-old mystery. Not even the Academy can take that away from him.
“Your intellect may be confused, but your emotions never lie to you.”
Roger Ebert would have liked Inside Llewyn Davis. It's classic Coen brothers: quirky characters, not much plot, and hey-look-at-me symbolism as eager as a high school English paper. But most of all there is raw, Oscar-friendly emotion. From the very first guitar chord—sad as a stray dog at dusk—to the final, vulnerable performance, the Coens make transparent plays for our hearts and our tear ducts.
With con artists, a broken marriage, and a top-heavy cast, you might expect American Hustle to plod along with a certain dignified seriousness, meandering through hours of art-house-style commentary on the plight of the human race. Instead, the film is joyous, hysterical, snappy, and carefree. (Take that, Academy Awards.) The story tumbles along both pleasantly and purposefully: director David O. Russell (previously, Silver Linings Playbook) lingers, then cuts, then scrambles, then stops, coaxing out laughs before forcing viewers to hold their breath. It’s the sort of tight control that feels at once finely-tuned and entirely natural.
Watching the first Hunger Games film was like watching your geekiest friend finally land his first date. You couldn’t help but feel proud for the guy. He made the dinner reservations with relish, bought a brand new suit, then called the girl just to say hi. He even ran a few prepared jokes by the boys, and you actually laughed once. You always knew he had it in him.*
Creating a film based on a popular young adult book series is a thankless job. Sure, the studio will make millions, but not before everyone whines about all the things the movie did wrong. The books' fans will decry missing plot lines, rushed scenes, and miscast characters. Professional critics will read the book first, then declare the 114-minute movie "too tidy" or "oversimplified" compared to the 384-page novel. A popular film blog will even write an obnoxiously specific post highlighting "27 key things the movie left out." I haven't even mentioned the unfamiliar public, who will sit through two hours of geek-speak, mistake every obscure reference for poor writing, and exit the theater convinced their series-reading friends have wasted weeks of their life on fictional garbage.