In Theaters

12 Years a Slave (Fox Searchlight Pictures)
12 Years a Slave
(Fox Searchlight Pictures)

I am pleased to announce that 2013 has a new #1 film.  The honor goes to 12 Years a Slave from director Steve McQueen (HungerShame), an artistic, thoroughly moving account of Solomon Northup, a free African American living in 1840s New York who was abducted and sold into slavery.  Played by Chiwetel Ejiofor (Children of MenKinky Boots), in an exceptional turn that may at last earn him the attention he’s long deserved, Northup’s struggles grow to epic status under McQueen’s lens without a huge cast or overly ambitious set pieces.  Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Alfre Woodard, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, Garret Dillahunt, Sarah Paulson, and newcomer Lupita Nyong’o are all at their best and help the film exceed its grandiose hype.  Last year around this time, I said that Argo was a potential Best Picture winner you could feel good about. Well, 12 Years a Slave is a Best Picture winner you can feel great about.

Thor: The Dark World (Walt Disney Studios)
Thor: The Dark World
(Walt Disney Studios)

The steaming pile of dung otherwise known as Iron Man 2 convinced me to swear off Marvel films in 2011 and made me think twice before seeing The Avengers. And so, I missed out on Captain America and Thor, both of which I had a lot of fun with when I finally saw them this summer (following the other steaming pile of dung some folks call Iron Man 3).  Now I’m feeling pretty excited about catching Thor: The Dark World, which could very well be the first decent Avengers sequel.  TV director Alan Taylor (Mad MenGame of Thrones) takes over for Kenneth Branagh, leading a story in which Mr. Hammertime (Chris Hemsworth) embarks on a journey to defeat an evil too powerful for even his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins).  Natalie Portman, Idris Elba, Rene Russo, Stellan Skarsgård, and Kat Dennings all return, as does Tom Hiddleston as Thor’s devious brother Loki and reluctant ally, suggesting just how big of a baddie they’re up against.  Fingers crossed.

About Time (Universal Pictures)
About Time
(Universal Pictures)

If, like me, you’re a fan of Love, Actually, Notting Hill, and Four Weddings and a Funeral, you’ll be glad to know that the man behind those and other fine romantic comedies has a new film out this Friday.  Richard Curtis’ About Time stars Domhnall Gleeson (Anna KareninaHarry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) as Tim, a young man who discovers he can time travel.  According to his father (Bill Nighy), all the men in his family have that ability, and though he can’t alter history at large, he can change his own life.  For Tim, that means getting a girlfriend, though when he sets his sights on the lovely but insecure Mary (Rachel McAdams, the reigning queen of time travel), changing his story is easier said than done.  Curtis has said that this will likely be his last turn as a director (Pirate Radio and Love, Actually are his only other credits), but that he plans to continue writing.

How I Live Now (Magnolia Pictures)
How I Live Now
(Magnolia Pictures)

How I Live Now, the latest from Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of ScotlandState of Play), stars Saoirse Ronin (AtonementThe Grand Budapest Hotel) as Daisy, an punky American sent to live with relatives in the English countryside.  While there, she gets chummy with a local boy (Defiance‘s George MacKay) and starts feeling comfortable in her new home…until the UK transforms into a violent military state!  Based on the novel by Meg Rosoff, the trailer suggests energetic visuals (I wouldn’t expect anything else from Macdonald) and the R rating makes an adult take on essentially a children’s struggle seem likely.  Sounds like the makings of a sleeper hit…though I fear with an already crowded art slate of 12 Years a Slave and the film I’m about to mention, it won’t stand a chance.

All Is Lost (Roadside Attractions)
All Is Lost
(Roadside Attractions)

And now we come to All Is Lost.  The set-up is simple: a man (Robert Redford) on his own in the Pacific Ocean fights for survival aboard his sinking ship.  Written and directed by Margin Call‘s J.C. Chandor and increasing in buzz since its Cannes premiere, one would think that those involved would do all they could to make this limiting premise as inventive and engaging as can be, but one would be wrong.  A lifelong Redford fan, I went in hoping for greatness.  I emerged barely able to stay awake.

Fleeing the Scene

The good (to great): Don Jon, Muscle ShoalsThe Counselor, Inequality for All

The mostly good: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2

The ugly: Escape Plan, Carrie

On DVD

The smart and misunderstood Kristen Wiig comedy Girl Most Likely leads the way, followed by the (intentionally) dumb big action of White House Down.  Less wonderful despite their casts and stories are Parkland and Lovelace, though neither perk applies to Grown Ups 2, still one of the year’s worst films.

Mysterious entities include Passion, Brian De Palma’s latest; Ed Burns’ 2012 low-budgeter The Fitzgerald Family Christmas; and James Franco’s As I Lay Dying.  Distribution of Swannanoa’s Most Wanted’s other directorial efforts have been spotty, so while I’d love for this one to randomly pop up on Netflix, I don’t know if that will happen.

On Netflix Instant

A few days ago, you flipped your calendar to a new month and now you’re about to be rewarded.  But, like the giant plastic pumpkin full of candy you and/or your children brought home the night before, not everything is worth consuming (e.g. FlightOlympus Has Fallen, and the appropriately named This Is Not A Film).  I would, however, recommend unwrapping The Addams FamilyBig Top Pee WeeBroadcast News, the Dakota Fanning-led Charlotte’s Web (with Robert Redford as a horse! a much better performance than All Is Lost!), Escape to Witch Mountain (the original, of course), the solid Abbie Cornish indie The GirlHey Arnold! The MovieNational Lampoon’s Christmas VacationThe Polar Express (even though it’s kind of weird), and Say Anything…

And, as with familiar names on packaging some of us have never tried, I look forward to sampling the new Aziz Ansari stand-up special Buried Alive, Bebe’s Kids, Blacula, The Falcon and the Snowman (so I can get the Canibus reference in “Levitibus”), The Ghost and the Darkness, The Great Outdoors, High Noon (major blind spot alert), The Importance of Being Earnest, Last Tango in Paris, Teen Wolf, Twixt (new Francis Ford Coppola sighting!), Urban Cowboy, The Wild Thornberrys Movie, and seasons 1-4 of Dexter.

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