10. Much Ado About Nothing

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As a guy with a minor in English, who took a class focused on Shakespeare and his works, I am always intrigued by any re-imagining or retelling of the bard’s classics. They can range form awful (Othello) to intriguing (Romeo + Juliet), but none are as well directed and entertaining as Joss Whedon’s foray into the genre. The choice to film in black and white adds enough of an old-fashion feel that the modern wardrobe of the cast is not as off-putting as those in the Leonardo DiCaprio led Romeo and Juliet.

Whedon-verse veterans Amy Acker and Alexis Denisoff shine as the play’s leads, Benedick and Beatrice. The pair bring the perfect balance of humor and emotion that is required in one of Shakespeare’s most well-known comedies. A must watch for those who love the work of Joss Whedon.

9. Pacific Rim

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Pacific Rim is aided by the fact that I had very low expectations for it. I made jokes about the poster and the trailer, and for the life of me, I couldn’t fathom the idea that this movie would be even average. But after seeing more positive reviews than I thought, and hearing my friends rave about it, I took a chance and rented it. And was I glad I did.

Sure, it’s a dumb movie about giant robots fighting giant aliens, but it was one of the most entertaining movies I’ve seen this year. For a film in this genre – at least for me – the No. 1 goal should be to have the audience feel like it was money well spent, and with today’s prices, it’s easier said than done. Against all odds, Pacific Rim did that and made a believer out of me. Also, Idris Elba is a treasure and should get more roles, such as Batman.

8. This is the End

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Ensemble comedies are very hit-or-miss because in most cases, some of the actors are used to being the focus of the film and don’t know when to support another actor. What helps separates This is the End from generic ensemble comedies is that the cast is, from all accounts, good friends so they are more than willing to defer in scenes. It also leads to a lot of great improv moments that enhance the film rather than detract from it.

The famous scene about masturbation involving Danny McBride and James Franco is the best example of how a scene can be improved because two friends are trying to make each other laugh rather than two strangers trying to make jokes they think the audience will laugh at. Despite its lull at the mid-way point, This is the End was one of only two comedies this year to consistently make me cry laughing (the other is higher up on this list), and that is all I ask from a comedy.

7. Drinking Buddies

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Drinking Buddies is probably the biggest outlier on my list this year. It was a film that I only rented because of Anna Kendrick and Jake M. Johnson. I did no research beforehand, and had only a vague idea of the film’s plot.

Almost immediately, I fell in love with the film, and even found myself enjoying Olivia Wilde’s performance more than Kendrick’s. As I had mentioned in my best performances post, Johnson stands out in the movie, which was completely improved – something I didn’t know until after I watched it. For a film without a script, the pacing and character creations are extremely well done. One would think that without structure, the movie would be a mess, but it is far from it. All credit goes to the actors, and especially director Joe Swanberg for controlling the chaos that can come when every line of dialogue is created on the spot.

6. Frozen

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It’s been a long time since Disney made an animated movie musical that I cared about or even felt compelled to see in theaters. I may not have even seen Frozen if it wasn’t for my adorable 7-year-old niece, Ava, asking me to go with her and my sister to see it on a Saturday afternoon.

Fifteen minutes in, I was glad she did. Not only were the visuals fantastic, but the story itself was a refreshing change of pace. Sure, it’s still a fairy tale, but its villain wasn’t as clear cut as in other Disney films. The performance in both the singing and acting departments of Kristen Bell and Idina Menzel carry this film, especially Menzel who shows how special of a talent she is. Frozen is Disney’s best effort with an animated musical in at least a decade.

5. Nebraska

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Nebraska is the definition of a charming film. There are no over the top emotional moments or blatant attempts to pull at your heartstrings. What Bob Nelson does so well is he spreads the emotion throughout the film, and lets it naturally come across in the performances. The climax doesn’t hit with a bang, but rather, a satisfying moment of a culmination of the film’s story.

Bruce Dern is heartbreaking, as a man that is slowly losing his mind, but still aware of the purpose of his journey. As mentioned in a previous post, Will Forte is outstanding in his role as Dern’s youngest son, who goes along with his father’s foolish journey because he doesn’t have the heart to stop him. Forte and Dern have the best chemistry I’ve seen this year because their scenes together are so simple and nuanced that they make you feel their emotions without the need of a monologue.

As with Much Ado, the choice to go with black and white adds a dimension to the film that would be lacking with color.  This was the first film I saw this year that I thought was Oscar worthy, and I believe it should win for Best Original Screenplay because Nelson’s writing was the most integral to the film’s quality. Also, I wouldn’t be surprised if June Squibb pulls the upset for Best Supporting Actress.

4. The World’s End

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The World’s End is my favorite of the Cornetto Trilogy, and it all has to do with Simon Pegg. Pegg’s turn as, King, that arrogant friend that is a bad influence on your life and you secretly hate him, is the best performance of his career.

Like the two films before it, The World’s End is split up into one movie during act one and a completely different film for the rest of the run time. It begins as a Hangover-like film that will be about the crazy antics of four friends on a quest to complete a silly goal they set 20 years ago, and finishes as a movie about them fighting against robots and an unseen great power. Pegg, Nick Frost and Martin Freeman are the cornerstones of the film, but its Paddy Considine and Eddie Marsan that are the glue keeping the film together. As I’ve always said the key to a great film is the talent of its supporting characters – this will be a theme for the rest of the list. Marsan and Considine give the film that extra boost when the film could easily fall into a lull, which is an essential element of a truly great movie.

3. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

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I could explain this placement by writing Jennifer Lawrence 100 times, but I doubt you’d want to read that.

To say Catching Fire, and the Hunger Games series so far, has exceeded my expectations would be an understatement. After surviving through the Twilight Saga, my opinion of anything labeled Young Adult was tainted, and I saw the first movie as a very skeptical viewer and I was pleasantly surprised. So I walked into Catching Fire with a little more enthusiasm, and was blown away by the film. Not only does Jennifer Lawrence shine, but Josh Hutchinson and Woody Harrelson elevate their performances to a level that the movie could be taken as a serious force. It is the one thing that impresses me the most with the first two films is that the casting choices and the acting talent of everyone involved is light years ahead of any other film involving a book written for teens.

The best description of the film that I have heard is that it is the Empire Strikes Back for young teens. Personally, I would eliminate the young teens part and say for this generation. Everything in this movie is like a well-crafted piece of art, and it is probably much better than people are giving it credit for.

Once again, the casting in this film is perfect because all of the new character fit in the universe and bring something new to it. Jena Malone gives her best performance since Saved! and proves that when she is given good material (i.e., not Sucker Punch) she can be a force on screen. But the biggest coup was getting Phillip Seymour Hoffman signed on to play the role of the Game Maker, and another important role going forward. I can’t wait to see him verbally spar with Donald Sutherland; nor can I wait for Mocking Jay Part 1, which is already a must see for 2014.

2. The Wolf of Wall Street

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The Wolf of Wall Street is as ridiculous as it is amazing. For the most part, I suggest you read Anthony’s review to get a deeper sense of just how good this film is, and why you should see it.

All I will say here is that I think Leo should win Best Actor and that’s even after praising Christian Bale in my favorite performances article. To be fair I hadn’t seen this film yet. DiCaprio’s greatest asset in this film is that he is so charming and likeable that you forget how reprehensible of a human being Jordan Belfort is. There are moments in the film where you start to feel bad for him, but then he does something so terrible that you immediately remember he’s a bad dude. I think that is one of the toughest things to do as an actor.

As for Jonah Hill, I enjoyed his performance, but I don’t believe he should have been nominated for Supporting Actor. I really think there was at least one better performance that is not nominated: Jeremy Renner in American Hustle.

Yet, the breakout star is Margot Robbie, whose Coffee Talk-esque accent is both hilarious and adorable. But it is the argument scenes with DiCaprio where her talent really shines. It is the first time when an actress does full-frontal nudity and it’s not the first thing that’s remembered about their character.

While The Wolf of Wall Street at times leans in the direction of softcore porn, it is still the most entertaining three-hour movie you will ever watch.

1. American Hustle

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David O. Russell is on some kind of roll. The Fighter was in my top-five of 2010, Silver Linings Playbook just missed it in 2012, and American Hustle has claimed the top spot on my list this, and is my choice (as of right now) for Best Picture. His best decision was blending the cast of those two previous movies into one supercast. A collection of stars this big hasn’t been seen since Damn Yankees formed in 1989. All kidding aside, there a good chance that three of the four best acting winners will come from this film (Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence), and it wouldn’t be a shock.

American Hustle is a film that is made by its performances more than its script. The five actors that populate story are all top-shelf. Their non-verbal acting portrays more emotion than any word from their dialogue. On top of that, it is the king of casting its small roles properly, with no better example than Louis C.K. as Bradley Cooper’s FBI boss.

American Hustle is a throwback film that harkens back to the great thrillers of the early-90s crime films such as Goodfellas and Heat. It is well-acted, well-directed, and well-written, and that combination is the same formula as last year’s Best Picture winner, Argo. I smell a repeat this year.

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