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The 10 Best DVDs Released in January and 5 to Avoid

By Dustin Rowles | DVD Releases | February 1, 2012 | Comments ()


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The 10 Best

10. The Whistleblower -- The film itself is not particularly well put together -- it staggers, it lacks momentum, there's an over-hyped sense of paranoia, it's at times insulting of our intelligence, and it fizzles toward an unsatisfactory conclusion -- but the power of the story transcends the filmmaker's efforts. Better news, still, is that the awareness of the atrocities that The Whistleblower is trying to raise are beginning to work. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has seen the movie, and on the suggestion of Kondracki, plans to screen it to top U.N. officials and representatives of governments that supply peacekeepers to U.N. missions. -- Dustin Rowles

9. Paranormal Activity 3 -- The third film, like the second, provides no back-story; there's no exposition. It does offer a few more clues, but the central mystery of what or who is wreaking the evil havoc, or where it came from, remains unsolved. That remains the key to the success of the franchise: If you could figure out what it is, then maybe you could figure out how to stop it. As long as it remains unknown, it can't be defeated. And as long as the filmmakers continue to follow a similar formula, using different but related characters (there is a unaccounted for biological father now, for instance), while building incrementally on the now slightly more developed mythology, Paranormal Activity may be able to drag us along in our shit-stained boxers for five or six more installments. -- Dustin Rowles

8. The Lie -- Calling into work and lying about your grandmother, or your uncle, or a cousin passing away is a rite of passage for everyone who has ever sat in a cubicle, a free pass to get out of a couple of days work. Most employers, or at least the ones who have got a clue, even understand that it's as likely a lie as not, and in most cases, won't bother to follow up. It's kind of a white lie. But what if that lie were bigger? What if, instead of saying your grandfather died, you told your boss that your girlfried or wife died? Or your six-month-old daugther? That'd make you some kind of asshole. That's the untruth that drives the narrative in Joshua Leonard's The Lie, a modest dramedy that -- like some other mumblecore flicks -- takes an extraordinary premise and follows it organically to its natural conclusion. -- Dustin Rowles

7. Higher Ground -- Vera Farmiga's directorial debut, Higher Ground, does something seldom, if ever, done in a film: It takes a non-judgemental approach to born-again Christianity, and explores with actual honesty and sincerity one woman's lifelong relationship with her faith and identity. It doesn't skewer religion; it doesn't depict fundamentalism unfavorably; it doesn't proselytize, mock, or advocate. The movie would be original for that alone, but Farmiga's elegant and honest depiction of these characters transcends Higher Ground beyond a religious movie. It's a superb character film, one that just happens to focus on a character who believes verily in God. It doesn't hurt, either, that in her directorial debut, Farmiga has the benefit of one of the best actresses around in Herself, and Farmiga coaxes one hell of an outstanding performance out of her. -- Dustin Rowles

6. Contagion -- [It's] a beautiful film. ... Yet Soderbergh can't outrun the fact that there's no story, just a bunch of things that happen to a bunch of cardboard cutouts that might be called people. One character is kidnapped and disappears for much of the film, only to reappear at the end and then vanish again, as if Burns never got around to writing the last few pages of the script. (There's also the moment where one character says to another, "I'm going to tell you something, but you can't tell anyone." Did Burns accept some kind of dare to use the oldest line in the book to set up a few sequences of cheap panic?) Characters come and go, and some of them die, but none of it ever connects. Soderbergh only wants us to view the characters as abstractions, temporary meat sacks with which he can illustrate the randomness and efficacy of a modern-day plague. But when there's no one to care about -- no one we really spend time with or learn about -- there can be no understanding or deeper resonance. The disease is just a disease, and its victims are a faceless mass. Contagion was Soderbergh's chance to put a face on suffering, to explore the ways global panic and anarchy affect people on a small scale. But his focus is too small: He's looking through a camera, and he thinks it's a microscope. -- Daniel Carlson

5. The Guard -- Don Cheadle is (as always) excellent, and Fionnula Flanagan is similarly great in her few scenes as Boyle's equally vulgar mother. But this is Gleeson's film, and he's excellent, from the moments of quiet reaction and reflection to the serious but bitingly undercuting comedic barbs. Writer and director John Michael McDonagh is the older brother of Martin McDonagh, the writer and director of In Bruges, which also starred Gleeson. Unsurprisingly, the two films share a similar tone, aesthetic and sense of humor. I'm loathe to further compare the two films, as The Guard comes out the the loser, lacking the depth and story of McDonagh the Junior's film. But that's not to take anything away from The Guard -- the plot may not be anything new, but the dialogue is consistently sharp and amusing (as long as you don't mind the accents and excessive vulgarities) and Cheadle and Gleeson are excellent. It's simply an enjoyable 90 minutes, a fine directorial premiere for McDonagh the Senior. -- Seth Freilich

4. The Ides of March -- The source material for The Ides of March traces its roots to the 2004 election, but co-writer and director George Clooney has made a movie very much about life in 2011, with the shine off the presidential apple and people on both sides of the aisle wising up to the awful truth of political compromise. It was just a few years ago that he poured his heart into Good Night, and Good Luck, a gorgeous and searing indictment of small-minded politics that felt like a call to something greater in all of us. Yet The Ides of March is a much darker film, a sad and quiet reflection on the cost of doing business in a world guided by men willing to kill each other for the chance to lead whoever's left. Clooney spoke out in summer 2006 about his hopes that Barack Obama would become president, saying, "If Senator Obama became 'Presidential Candidate Obama,' it would be the most electrifying thing to happen to the Democratic Party since [John F.] Kennedy." Yet the grim realities of the past few years about the nature of the sausage factory have tempered that optimism for some, and Clooney's film is a reflection of that journey from starry-eyed hope to a steely determination to survive. It's a story about a politician who sounds blessedly different from everyone else but who turns out to have the same pathetic vices shared by everyone who ever ran for office, and it's impossible not to feel as if Clooney's working from a place of personal disappointment as much as (or more than) external analysis. -- Daniel Carlson

3. Moneyball -- Bennett Miller's Moneyball is unquestionably a great movie. What makes it more remarkable is that not only is it a great movie, but that it's a great movie despite its being about a subject that few other than hardcore baseball fans and purists care about -- or even know about. It's a remarkable achievement, to take a subject as dense and complicated as Billy Beane's statistical, small ball approach to baseball (based on Bill James' theory of sabermetrics) as outlined in Michael Lewis' book Moneyball, and not only parse it out so that it's understandable for the average viewer, but that it's enjoyable for the average viewer. Moneyball is at its heart a baseball movie. In some ways, it feels like one of the grandaddies of baseball movies, a perfect example of why we watch the game and why they play it. It's a plot- and character-driven piece that examines the fragile psyches of its players and personnel, humanizing them with an honesty that exposes the good and the bad about the sport, its people and its history, traditions and troubles. It's a slow-burning picture that rarely resorts to cheap, overwrought finales. It's at times extremely funny, but it always maintains a serious -- sometimes desperate -- tone, but doesn't descend into maudlin theatrics. The performances of Pitt, Hill and Hoffman are uniformly excellent, and they, Sorkin's dialogue and Miller's keen directing combine to create a powerful, intricately designed film about the world of baseball, and perhaps more importantly, baseball's place in our world. -- TK

2. 50/50 -- The worst descriptor one could use for 50/50 is "that cancer comedy," for no other reason than because it oversimplifies what is a stunningly poignant, moving and occasionally devastating film that deals with one of the most dreadful diseases known to man. Of course, the hook is that 50/50 is also incredibly funny, bordering on hysterically so at times, yet the humor is so wry and bittersweet that it creates an emotionally jarring picture that, even when you're laughing at loud, always feels like you're waiting for the next gut punch. And I mean all of that in a very, very good way. 50/50 is a testament to the best kind of filmmaking. It's a brilliant run through a complex emotional issue that manages to touch upon all of the incumbent feelings of dread, sadness, joy, humor, desperation, and happiness. It's one of the funniest, most intelligent movies of 2011, and certainly the most affecting. It's a heartbreaker at times, but it's also filled with a peculiar sense of winsome joie de vivre that makes it all the more engaging, and made it unquestionably my favorite movie of the year so far. And seriously, fuck cancer. -- TK

1. Drive -- When the lights came up at the end of Drive, my hands were still shaking, and the knot in the pit of my stomach had yet to untie itself. I can't remember -- honestly -- the last time I was so utterly engaged with a thriller, so wowed by an action film, so seduced by a brand-new universe. Nicolas Refn's slim, tight, riveting ride is just about perfect, from the glistening world of a broken Los Angeles as seen through Euro-pop lenses to the frenetic, awe-inspiring chase scenes that reinvigorate the genre. What makes the film work is Refn's confidence in his ability to do more with less. Modern action films so often seem content to do the opposite: They're titanic, massively constructed objects that achieve so much less with so much more because they trade away story for a series of exhausting sequences designed to force you into feeling a kind of confusion that the filmmakers hope will translate as excitement. You are asked to trick yourself into thinking you had a good time, or at least that you saw something coherent. Yet Refn knows that catharsis only comes after tension, and that true suspense requires devotion and patience. He's a master at making little moments count for everything, and by dialing the action down to human levels, he makes it that much more amazing. A single slap becomes a shocking act of violence; a gunshot sounds like a cannon blast; a car chase turns the world on its end. Refn knows just how to grab you, and for every one of Drive's 100 glorious minutes, he doesn't let go. -- Daniel Carlson

5 to Avoid

The Big Year -- Indeed, the problem with The Big Year is the exact problem the marketing attempted to work around: It's a movie about a bird-watching competition. It is not secondary to the plot; bird watching is not used as a backdrop to tell a larger story. It's simply a movie about a bird-watching competition, about three men who race around for a year to identify as many species of birds as possible in North America. The winner gets ... bragging rights. There is a nod toward self-discovery, but really, even that's incidental to the hundreds of species of birds that are on display. -- Dustin Rowles

The Thing -- The problems with The Thing are twofold. One problem is the material itself, and the other is due to a combination of blunders from Matthijs van Heijningen and writer Eric Heisserer. As far as the material itself is concerned, Matthijs van Heijningen is certainly free to call it a prequel, but it's a damn remake. With the exception of the discovery of the creature itself and its ship, and the introduction of scientists from elsewhere, the story is virtually identical. It swaps a male protagonist for a female one, throws in a handful of Norwegian actors, but fails to really bring much else to the story or examine any additional history of the creature or its origins. Instead, it simply follows in the footsteps of Carpenter's film without bringing much new to the table. It's as much a mimicry as the creature itself, except it throws a handful of minor new parts to differentiate itself, but only slightly. The Thing isn't so much a prequel as much as it is simply the same story in a new setting. -- TK

What's Your Number? -- What's Your Number? is a marketing plan writ large, built entirely around an advertising strategy. There are absolutely no emotions, no jokes, and no developments in What's Your Number? that you cannot surmise from the trailers. In fact, in the case of some of the cameos, their entire scenes are in the TV spots; in one case, a cameo gets more screen time in the trailer than the film. Moreover, there is not a single authentic moment in the movie; in fact, there's not even a well-executed manipulative moment. They can't even get mawkish right. It's a terribly written, terribly edited film full of likable people doing unexceptional, unremarkable work. All in all, yet another tedious, unendurable film on Anna Faris' filmography. It's time for Ms. Faris to step aside now and let someone else with huge potential actually demonstrate it onscreen. -- Dustin Rowles

Abduction -- Think of Abduction this way: There's The Bourne Identity, then way below that is Mark Wahlberg's Shooter. Then there's 50,000 feet of crap. Underneath that is Liam Neeson's Unknown. Dig another 100,000 feet until you hit a liquid-y orange-and-brown ooze and there you will find Abduction, a movie so bad it shouldn't be allowed to call itself a movie. It should be called bad performance art for troglodytic, subhuman Caucasian bed-wetting females with a predisposition for shirtless, roundhouse-kicking dildos. There's a reason Taylor Lautner was nearly replaced after the first Twilight movie: He's not an actor. He's a pair of abs attached to an inbred two by four. There are park statues with more range than Taylor Lautner. The kid is about as versatile as a blood clot and as charming as a yeast infection. -- Dustin Rowles

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