Universal via Everett Collection
Lone Survivor isn't a film for the faint of heart. It's a film that beats you down and only lets you up for a few precious moments before the credits roll, but that emotional throttling is what helps make the film such a powerful experience.
Peter Berg's Lone Survivor tells the story of Operation Red Wings, primarily focusing on a group of four Navy SEALs who are sent to the mountains of Afganistan to capture or kill a member of the Taliban. The plan goes wrong, and the team has to fight for their lives to escape the enemy-infested area. The film does a marvelous job of ratcheting up the tension before collapsing into its main action sequence, one that is as thrilling as it is unsettling. The long sequence brings forth memories of the infamous D-Day opening of Saving Private Ryan, except this film's fire-fight stretches out the violence like a medieval torture device. The langourous scene is, at times, hard to sit through. Each moment slips by in coiled tension. It's undoubtedly uncomfortable, and the film makes a point to never make the violence fun or enticing. The action isn't consequence-free, and every bullet fired carries weight, making the scenes brutal and unrelenting because of it. The film takes on the aura of a horror movie that wants you to feel every second that ticks by, and director Berg makes sure that a pressing hopelessness starts to weigh on the viewer just as it does on the soldiers.
Mark Wahlberg is plenty capable as Marcus Lutrell, a member of the SEAL unit that is sent on the mission. The supporting cast plays its parts admirably by believably infusing a diverse set of personalities and values into the soldiers, while still keeping them in tune with the same military culture that governs much of their thoughts and actions. There's a great scene where a difficult decision has to be made, and the viewer gets to see the different directions to which some of the character's moral compasses are tuned. Sometimes the right thing can mean different things to different people when the risk of death is on the table. The real standout in the cast is Ben Foster, whose SO2 Matthew Alexson swirls with barely contained fury. He is darkly intense and has electric screen presence that really starts to manifest when the bullets star flying and things become dire.
Universal via Everett Collection
For all the good will that the film builds up in its first and second act, the final third of the film hits some snags as history demands that the story take itself to a different location, sacrificing some of the tension that it has built up. In the last 30 minutes of the film, there are some odd tonal choices that don't gel with the tension brimming in the first half. A comedic scene involving a language barrier stands out in particular.
The movie makes a point to steer clear of any political judgment, and it doesn't try to lay blame for the botched mission on any one head. And while the film never outwardly states and opinion on the conflicts that America found itself embroiled in during this time period, the searing brutality depicted in the movie highlight that no one should be subjected to the pain that these men were faced with. Made abundantly clear is the soldiers' willingness to drop everything and serve their country the best way they know how. Lone Survivor tries to honor the soldier, but not glorify war.
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Lone Survivor is at its best when it makes you feel the worst. It gives soldiers their due reverence by showcasing the true terror of the battlefield, and while the film does start to sag a bit in its third act, it's still more than worth the experience in order understand the consequences of war, and its toll on the people in the trenches.
20th Century Fox via Everett Collection
I appreciate November. I love a good July. May? I'll take 10 of 'em! But there is no synodic period that I detest more than January. Kicking off every year with a clammy reminder of our extant failures and a piercing underline of forthcoming stresses, January is one month through which many of us can use some psychological padding. As such, we usher in a new wave of movies to distract us from our living traumas and maybe inject a few instances of delight into our conscious thought.
Unfortunately, January doesn't even have the common decency to release any good films. With the exception of Her, hitting national theaters on Jan. 10, this month doesn't have a particularly attractive cinematic slate. As such, we play the catch-up game — holiday films still in theaters, summer releases just hitting DVD, Netflix picks you barely heard of the first time around. But as January is such a delicate time for so many of us, we'd be wise to choose the films most conducive to our psychological state. This is a time for feel-good movies.
As fabulous a piece of film as it is, you might not be able to handle 12 Years a Slave when you're struggling with our own emotional fragility and are seeking a feature with which to unwind during dinner. Inside Llewyn Davis might be a tremendous work of art, but it's not going to do you any favors in the serotonin department. Luckily, 2013 gave us plenty of flicks that were both high in quality and in their propensity to provoke smiles. Here are a few suggestions, separated by the exact sort of feel-goodery they instill...
FOR LAUGHTERCarefree, comedic feel-gooderyThe most base and primal breed of feel-goodery comes in the form of comedy. Not romantic comedy or dramatic comedy or coming-of-age comedy... just plain "for the LOLz" comedy. Sometimes, the only emotional weight a movie needs to foster is its ability to incur laughs. So, if you're feeling particularly somber and need to float some extra oxygen up to the brain, here are a few movies that made us laugh the hardest in '13:
The HeatHumor of the boisterous sort — slapstick, insults, outrageous situations, Albino people. Not a lot of weight, although the unlikely friendship arc grounds it in some substance. Not too much, though, don't worry.
This Is the EndDescribed as "the closest thing 2013 gave us to Ghostbusters" by Da7e Gonzales on the latest episode of Fighting in the War Room (worth a listen for some terrific 2013 movie suggestions), the apocalypse comedy from Seth Rogen and company does have something to say about friendships and social groups... but that won't get in the way of its employment as a distraction from your real life woes.
It's a DisasterAnother apocalypse comedy, with even more (at least on the surface) to say about friends and relationships! But all of the ostensibly weighty material — divorce, breakups, infidelity, death — is handled with feather weight. Delightful from beginning to end.
Computer ChessThis little-seen oddball mockumentary is the funniest movie I've seen all year. Set at the dawn of intelligent electronics age in the 1980s, we see weirdos take to an annual convention compete with one another in the design of the premier chess-playing computer device. It does not sound particularly interesting, maybe, but is insistently riotous.
[*Note: The World's End, while a fun and funny movie, is excluded from this "feel good" list because it is a far more depressing story than many of us can handle in the throes of January.]
Fox Searchlight via Everett Collection
FOR TEARSSweet, sentimental feel-goodery Sometimes, the release of depressive chemicals via your tear ducts is exactly what you need to make for a more relaxing evening. We don't mean Act of Killing-style tears (although that movie is more likely to actually to trigger an emotional response via your digestive tract), but tears of the soft, sweet, regrettably sentimental variety.
FrozenA Disney animated story about the tenable bonds of sisterly affection, being your own hero, and accepting and loving who you are regardless of what society has to say about it? The movie is more than likely to touch on something important to you.
NebraskaAlexander Payne's latest film might not exactly make you bawl, but there's a good chance you'll grow misty at watching a sad sack son reluctantly bond with his increasingly senile father as they make a spontaneous trip to the former's Nebraska hometown.
The Kings of SummerIn-family issues and introductions to love are approached in the coming-of-age dramedy that is as funny as it is sweet. The movie might even convince you to call the parent you've been fighting with, or reminisce over some of the dumb things you did with your best pal in middle school.
FOR CAMARADERIE"You're not alone" feel-goodery Sometimes, all we really need to feel better is to know that we're not alone — that other people (fictional characters or otherwise) are going through the same perils that we are, and are coming out of their messes all right.
Frances Ha2013's forerunner in the speaking-to-a-generation game. The titular Frances is every one of us aimless 20-somethings (especially those living in New York). She wants to channel her passions, maintain her cherished but one-sided best friendship with roommate Sophie, and find herself. It's an emotional ride, but one from which you'll walk away feeling a bit more validated.
Enough SaidIn a new relationship? Going through a breakup? Single? Married? Enough Said seems to understand each of these unique, funny, sweet, sad experiences quite well. Always real, but never too heavy!
The Spectacular NowThis is a risky one, because it packs quite an emotional punch when it cuts to the core of teenaged everyman Sutter (Miles Teller) and his festering self-hatred. But the character's experience with facing and conquering his demons might instill a new sense of self-worth in those who relate all too well to his plight.
[*Note: Before Midnight is just as earnest a portrayal of romantic relationships as Enough Said, but if you're in a delicate position, that third act will tear you apart.]
Magnolia Pictures via Everett Collection
FOR INSPIRATION"The world is full of beauty" feel-goodery Okay. You've had your laughs. You've had your cries. You've learned that there are others out there like you. Time to get INSPIRED.
Short Term 12The powerhouse of the troupe. This movie will get to you, and in a way that won't spare any pangs. But in the end, there's something really touching, beautiful, and uplifting about Short Term 12. Perseverance and partnerships are venerated in this must-see (maybe after you stockpile your mental state with a few comedies, though).
20 Feet from StardomYou, too, can achieve your dreams... or at least come relatively close, as this energetic documentary about back-up singers teaches us.
The Way Way BackSmaller scale inspiration: break out of your shell. Get a summer job. Learn how to swim. Meet Sam Rockwell.
AND THE RESTMiscellaneous feel-gooderyNot really laughers, tear-jerkers, calls to arms, or particularly relatable... but generally pleasant movies of remarkable quality.
Prince AvalanchePaul Rudd (with a mustache) and Emile Hirsch do highway repair in the wake of a massive forest fire. Meanwhile, they talk about stuff. Sex, poetry, nonsense. Lots of fun.
Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus and 2012An odd movie, and one that is contingent on your enjoyment of a douchey Michael Cera. But it's an interesting, and visually sharp, ride.
Room 237Do you like movies? Wanna watch a movie about movies? Well, here you go!
Hope these help!
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WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Claire is an attractive CIA operative and Ray is an M16 agent who simultaneously leave their Governmental spy activities in the dust to try and profit from a battle between two rival multi-national corporations both trying to launch a new product that will transform the world and make billions. Their goal is to secure the top-secret formula and get a patent before they are outsmarted. While their respective egomaniacal CEOs engage in an unending battle of wills and one-upmanship Claire and Ray start out conning and playing one another in a clever game of industrial espionage that is even more complicated due to their own long-term romantic relationship.
WHO’S IN IT?
Reuniting Closer co-stars Julia Roberts (as Claire) and Clive Owen (as Ray) turns out to be an inspired idea. They turn out to be the perfect pair oozing movie-star charm and electricity in this elaborate con-game that might have been the kind of thing Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant might have made in the '60s (in fact they did in Charade). Roberts with that infamous hairstyle back the way we like it and Owen looking great in sunglasses prove they have what it takes to navigate us through this ultra-complex plot in which no one is sure who they can trust at any given moment. They play it all in high style and the wit just flows as the story skirts back and forth during the period of five years. The supporting cast is well-chosen with juicy roles for Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti (out of their John Adams duds) as the two CEOs going for each other’s throats. Giamatti who sometimes has a tendency to overdo it is especially slimy here and great fun to watch.
Big-star studio movies today rarely take risks and often talk down to the audience but in Duplicity writer/director Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) has crafted a complicated con-comedy that requires complete attention at all times just to keep up with the dense plot’s twists and turns. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a New York Times crossword puzzle and Gilroy and his top-drawer production team deliver a glossy beautiful-looking film that’s easy on the eyes hitting locations from Dubai to Rome to New York City.
Like any good puzzle it sometimes can be frustrating putting it all together and Gilroy’s habit of taking us back in time and then inching forward gets a little confusing even with the on-screen chyron pointing out where we are at any given moment. Stick with it though and you will be well-rewarded.
A scene near the end where the formula must be found scanned and faxed in a matter of minutes is sweat-inducing edge-of-your-seat moviemaking and it provides the ultimate opportunity for Roberts and Owen to take the “con” to the next level. Another where Roberts uses a thong to try and trick Owen into admitting an affair he never had is also priceless and gets right to the heart of the game-playing.
GO OUT AND GET POPCORN WHEN ...
Never. Stock up during the coming attractions. If you miss a moment of this entertaining romp you might never figure it all out.