Every year, Hollywood loves to release many of their best films during November and December, and with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences just recently announcing their Oscar nominations, right now is a great time to catch lots of these nominated films in theatres.
Let's look at all of these specific pictures currently playing in Phoenix movie houses.
“Amour” 5 / 5 stars (Five nominations, including Best Picture; Playing at Harkins Camelview 5) - A loving elderly couple, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintigant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) - who have been through decades of ups and downs - suddenly find the most difficult portion of life right in front of them. Writer/director Michael Haneke spends most of his camera time in their Paris apartment and captures what could be the final chapter of their lives, as we agonizingly watch the laborious struggle Georges and Anne endure. The film isn’t completely dark as Haneke shows us glimpses of better times, but it’s his comparison between then and now which heighten the story’s powerful message.
"Argo" 5 / 5 stars (Seven nominations including Best Picture; Playing throughout the Valley) - Director Ben Affleck stars as CIA agent Tony Mendez who led a dangerous and unorthodox mission to rescue six Americans hiding from Iranian revolutionaries during the 1979/1980 Iranian Hostage Crisis. In this completely fascinating picture, Affleck blends high levels of anxiety and tension with a surprising amount of humor and also adds footage from the actual crisis for gravitas and perspective of America's infamous ordeal. Alan Arkin and John Goodman shine by playing an unlikely pair of Hollywood movie makers who are critical pieces to solving this complicated hostage puzzle.
"Django Unchained" 5 / 5 stars (Five nominations, including Best Picture; Playing throughout the Valley) - Quentin Tarantino's Spaghetti Western - under the backdrop of the pre-Civil War South - is his most brutal and violent movie yet, but it's also his best film since 1994's "Pulp Fiction." Jamie Foxx stars as the title character, and he, along with Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Samuel L. Jackson offer extremely memorable performances under Tarantino's unorthodox guidance. (click here for my full-length review)
"Flight" 3 / 5 stars (Best Actor and Original Screenplay nominations; Playing at Arizona Center AMC) - Director Robert Zemeckis captures a frightening spectacular airplane crash where pilot Whip Whitaker's (Denzel Washington) miraculous actions saved 96 lives, but his movie is really about the crushing problems associated with alcoholism. Washington delivers a great performance as a man coping with the disease, but the screenplay feels entirely familiar and the movie - running 2 hours 19 minutes - just plods on too long.
“Hitchcock” (Not reviewed) (Best Makeup/Hairstyling nomination; Playing at Harkins Camelview 5) - Director Sacha Gervasi explores the relationship between famed director Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) and his wife, Alma (Helen Mirren), while he films the 1960 thriller, “Psycho.”
"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" 3.5 / 5 stars (Three nominations including Best Visual Effects; Playing throughout the Valley) - Peter Jackson's first installment of the classic J.R.R. Tolkien tale works, but sitting through the nearly three-hour journey is a workout. A group of dwarfs and Gandalf (Ian McKellen) recruit a hobbit, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), for a difficult excursion to reclaim the land of Erebor. Lots of trolls, orcs and goblins create plenty of problems for our heroes, and after a while, the fights become a bit tiresome. Good thing some familiar faces (from "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy) find their way on screen. Spend the extra money and see "The Hobbit" in the special HFR 3D format. It's worth it.
"The Impossible" 5 / 5 stars (Best Actress nomination; Playing throughout the Valley) - The movie's title refers the impossibility of knowing who survived the 2004 Tsuami in Thailand, and who did not. This is the Belon family's story, as the disastrous tidal wave swallows up Maria (Naomi Watts), Henry (Ewan McGregor) and their three children while they were vacationing at a breathtaking resort in paradise. Director Juan Antonio Bayona's brings mind-boggling special effects to the screen and Watts, McGregor and the child actors demand our attention.
"Les Miserables" 3.5 / 5 stars (Eight nominations, including Best Picture; Playing throughout the Valley) - A beautifully filmed movie of the classic musical, but not all of the moving parts work in director Tom Hooper's vision. Hugh Jackman shines, Russell Crowe handles his duties, and Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter pull in lots of laughs, but I didn't buy the romance between Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) and Marius (Eddie Redmayne). I was also somewhat distracted because no one even attempts a hint of a French accent, but Anne Hathaway provides the affecting touch this movie desperately needed and saves the picture. (click here for my full-length review)
"Life of Pi" 3.5 / 5 stars (Eleven nominations, including Best Picture; Playing throughout the Valley) - Director Ang Lee presents an extraordinary visual masterpiece in which a teenage boy, Pi (Suraj Sharma), becomes stranded on a lifeboat with a full-grown tiger. With a high "How did he do that?" factor, Lee provides a completely believable narrative for Pi's predicament. Although we care about Pi's well-being, the story drags in the endless ocean which surrounds him in every direction. While Pi didn't lose hope, I did...while looking at my watch. Its PG rating is deceptive too, because the picture is too violent for small children. Despite these criticisms, Lee's film deserves a look from anyone who marvels at movie magic.
"Lincoln" 4 / 5 stars (Twelve nominations, including Best Picture; Playing throughout the Valley) - Daniel Day-Lewis gives a remarkable performance as the 16th President of the United States in director Steven Spielberg's taught and tightly-wound political drama. Rather than delivering a long-winded biography, Spielberg narrows the film's focus on Lincoln's attempt to pass the 13th Amendment through the House of Representatives. Although sometimes mechanically dry, the material also fascinates as we see the inner workings of politics in 1865 aren't much different than today.
“A Royal Affair” 4 / 5 stars (Best Foreign Language Film; Playing at Film Bar) - Mads Mikkelsen is terrific as Johann Struensee, a German doctor who bends the ear of a very dysfunctional king, Christian VII (Mikkel Boe Folsgaard) in 18th Century Denmark. While the arranged marriage between Caroline (Alicia Vikander) and Christian spills into complete disarray, Struensee not only inspires the King to find his voice, but sparks a forbidden romance with the Queen. A very entertaining period piece.
"Silver Linings Playbook" 4.5 / 5 stars (Eight nominations, including Best Picture; Playing throughout the Valley) - Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence give excellent performances and show warm on-screen chemistry as two dysfunctional individuals looking for answers in the wrong places until they meet one another. Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver offer strong supporting roles, but it's Cooper who surprises. He stands toe-to-toe with Lawrence's acting gifts while writer/director David O. Russell's engaging script weaves through the minefields of family, friends and the battles with one's self.
"Skyfall" 4.5 / 5 stars (Five nominations, including Best Cinematography; Playing at selected theatres in the Valley) - Daniel Craig thankfully reprises his role as 007 in an extravagant and exciting chapter in the 50-year on-screen life of James Bond. Director Sam Mendes successfully embraces the spirit of the Bond films and delivers spectacular action sequences and nostalgic nods. Mendes also treats his audience with jaw-dropping background shots we don't normally witness in a Bond picture. Sure, explosions and fight scenes in exotic locations are certainly typical, but I found myself marveling at specific nuances at those specific locales. At times, "Skyfall" is a beautiful film to watch while murder, mayhem and martinis make their mark, and Academy Award winner Javier Bardem is a more-than-worthy villain.
"Wreck-It Ralph" 4 / 5 stars (Best Animated Feature Film; Playing at selected theatres in the Valley) - When a video game bad guy, Ralph (John C. Reilly), wants to wear the white cowboy hat instead, he turns the arcade world upside down. Wreck-It Ralph, a hugely popular and nostalgic (and fictional) game resembling Donkey Kong, is the centerpiece in this new Disney picture, and this engaging look inside this electronic world scores high on laughs and adventure. Not a groundbreaking animated picture, but a very good one.
"Zero Dark Thirty" 5 / 5 stars (Five nominations, including Best Picture; Playing throughout the Valley) - Director Kathryn Bigelow brings us another gripping story from the Middle East, and this time she recreates the manhunt for Osama bin Laden. Jessica Chastain is a tour de force as Maya, an unrelenting CIA agent who spends years piecing together clues to find the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks. The film follows the chronology from September 2001 to May 2011 in a chapter-like format, and it particularly works well when the audience is presented with specific events like "The Meeting" or "Human Error." Along the way, Bigelow offers a film without a filter as she exposes waterboarding and other forms of torture in full view which leaves little to the imagination, but it's Maya's tenacious detective work which brings the biggest results. Jason Clarke, Mark Strong, Joel Edgerton, James Gandolfini, and Mark Duplass costar.
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