J.C. Chandor’s third film, A MOST VIOLENT YEAR, is a solid American crime drama that harkens back to an old Hollywood style of slow burn storytelling. But what is great about the film is not just the satisfying feeling that you’ve watched a very good film when the end credits start to roll, but that the film’s story lingerings with you (in a good way) weeks after seeing it–that’s a mark of a great film! The film is set in 1981 during New York City’s most violent year. Oscar Isaac, who gives a solid performance, plays Abel Morales, an immigrant trying to ethically live the American Dream by building a business and raising a family while battling corruption. Jessica Chastain as Abel’s wife and Albert Brooks as Abel’s lawyer both give good performances.

GRADE: A

You expect a Tim Burton film to have quirky characters, be visually engaging, and have a story that is “bent,” yet familiar. But BIG EYES is a straightforward true story about Walter Keane taking credit for Margaret Keane’s distinctive artwork. Gone are Burton’s usual partners–Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter–replaced with Christoph Waltz playing Walter and Amy Adams playing Margaret. Both do good work, but I wonder if a different actor other than Waltz, who brings an “unsettling” charm, would have been better if played by someone with a more “relaxed” or “smooth” charm. Ultimately, watching the talented Margaret Keane in an abusive relationship and giving up credit to her work is a tough watch.

GRADE: B-

It is strange to think that a film based on two characters assassinating a living dictator is so over the top that it loses any tangible connection to reality–but that’s what happens in THE INTERVIEW. This makes the terrorist threats over a film that is so farfetched even more laughable. That said, the film does have its funny moments, but James Franco is so hammy and certain situations are so absurd, that the film dovetails into buffoonery rather than what (I think) it wants to be–a satire. This is the same problem I had with the previous Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg directed film, THIS IS THE END. However, under the current strange and surreal circumstances, this film will find a rather large and critical audience.

GRADE: B-

It is tough to adapt a play or a musical into a good film. Why? Because theatre is about the written word and film is geared towards visual storytelling. It’s not that it can’t happen, but it is harder to accomplish. That said, INTO THE WOODS, the film version, isn’t that successful. The story itself borders on clever–bringing several fairy tales into one story–but even that seems forced. The songs aren’t that memorable, but the staging and the costumes are quite fanciful. Rob Marshall, now a three film veteran of musicals (the others being NINE and CHICAGO), has brought together an amazing cast–Anna Kendrick, Johnny Depp, Chris Pine, Emily Blunt, Meryl Streep, James Corden–but even these spectacular actors can’t save this film.

GRADE: C

Andrey Zvyagintsev’s LEVIATHAN doesn’t pull any punches revealing the corrupt government in this small Russian coastal town. This is a far cry from many films that do a slow burn; revealing the corruption methodically, as if this would heighten the drama. But Zvyagintsev reveals the stakes early–Kolya (Alexeï Serebriakov) is forced to fight the corrupt mayor (Roman Madyanov) who is orchestrating the demolition of Kolya’s house. This allows the film to breath in a reality, rather than a dramatic and theatrical manifestation. Aiding the film is perfect casting of people that seem like town locals rather than actors. If there is any knock, it is the film may be too long (140 minutes). But I think you’ll love every minute.

GRADE: A-

SELMA is not perfect, but it is powerful, and should be your first choice when choosing a Christmas released film. Why? Because this is a film about an important moment in U.S. history when disenfranchised African-Americans peacefully protested against institutional racism. Sound familiar? At the center of the film is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) who organized a civil rights march in Selma, Alabama, to force President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to introduce the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to Congress. As for the technicals, Ava DuVernay’s direction is a little unfocused, but gets better by the time we arrive in Selma. Both Oyelowo and Wilkinson are very good, but Tim Roth is miscast as George Wallace.

GRADE: A-

Angelina Jolie’s second directorial effort, UNBROKEN, is severely underrated by critics. This is a very good film about the extraordinary life of former U.S. Olympian and WWII veteran, Louis Zamperini, who endured 47 days lost at sea and over two years in Japanese POW camps, which the film depicts.  The film is about Zamperini figuratively being resurrected from the dead, and Jolie subtly disperses Christ-like imagery in order to reinforce this idea. Even the poster itself gives the impression that Jack O’Connell, who is very good as Zamperini, is being crucified on a cross. If there is one misstep, it’s a scene later in the film between camp guard Mutsuhiro “Bird” Watanabe (Takamasa Ishihara) and Zamperini that seemed odd.

GRADE: A-

The beauty of TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT is that it gets the human day-to-day struggle right, but that is nothing new for the Dardenne Brothers who excel at spotlighting the strife of the European working-class in films that are realistic in tone and un-Hollywood in their construction. It doesn’t hurt that the film is centered around an amazing, unglamorous performance by Oscar winning actress, Marion Cotillard. She plays Sandra, a young Belgian mother suffering from depression, who must fight to keep her job in order to not only save her livelihood, but her soul as well. It is the character’s determination that makes her appealing, but it is her struggle that makes her all too relatable.

GRADE: A-

Young children will like it. Teenagers will shun it. Adults will dismiss it. Critics will bash it. ANNIE, with its broad comedic performances–especially by Cameron Diaz and Bobby Cannavale–is a film geared towards a younger audience. That said, I’m not sure that was the filmmakers or even the studio’s intent, but that gives you an idea how far off this ANNIE rendition is from its source material. Quvenzhané Wallis does an okay job as Annie in this updated and re-imagined adaptation, but she lacks a certain “spark” that this character needs. Jamie Foxx’s character, Will Stacks (the new Daddy Warbucks), is, for the most part, reduced to caricature. The film’s music, which has been “updated”, seems more muddied than catchy.

GRADE: C

Mike Leigh’s MR. TURNER will be considered by the majority of the movie going public as too long and tedious (it’s 150 minutes). However, for those with a discerning eye and appreciation of character, MR. TURNER will be a welcome relief from the studio barrage of franchises and silly comedies. The film, devoid of an overbearing plot, is a character study of the salty and eccentric 19th century painter, J.M.W. Turner. Timothy Spall, the lead actor in the film, plays Turner with pure undistilled artistry and verve. Mike Leigh’s direction, as always, is theatrical without the theatrics. And Dick Pope, the film’s cinematographer, brings a saturated richness and beauty that is as integral to the film as Spall’s interpretation of Turner.

GRADE: B+

The first NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM (2006) film of the three film franchise, had a certain child-like charm of inanimate objects coming to life. It even had a sweet, although hackneyed, father trying to prove his worth to his son storyline. But the third installment, NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM: SECRET OF THE TOMB, is missing the magic that made the first film so popular. Even its feeble attempt at incorporating another father/son storyline is forced and, at times, seems like extra baggage. If there is a reason to see the film, it is to see one of the final film performances of both Robin Williams (reprising his role as Teddy Roosevelt) and Mickey Rooney in a cameo role.

GRADE: C

The first 20 minutes of the third and final installment of THE HOBBIT films are the most thrilling action sequences of the entire film. Unfortunately, those 20 minutes should have been the ending of the previous film, THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG. The Warner Bros. and Peter Jackson slice-and-dice one book into three episodic films stretches the drama so thin that we are left with battle after battle of endless video game fighting that is monotonous. This film should have been 30 to 40 minutes of the ending of one film. I hope one day someone takes all three Peter Jackson HOBBIT films and edits them into one 150 minute film. That’s the film I want to see and the one fans of the book deserve.

GRADE: C+

THE CAPTIVE has the tone, feel, and a similar structure of vintage 80s/early 90s Atom Egoyan (co-writer, director, producer) films, exploring such themes as voyeurism, dualism, and isolationism. This familiarity with Egoyan’s earlier work telegraphs what is going to happen, and dissipates any dramatic tension. It does get better, building drama toward the end from an unexpected source—Ryan Reynolds’ excellent performance as a father searching for his kidnapped daughter. Rosario Dawson is good as a Canadian police officer. However, her partner, played by Scott Speedman, seemed miscast, and Kevin Durand’s performance as a child abductor (not a spoiler because this is revealed early on) seemed a bit on the nose.

GRADE: B

Ridley Scott’s bloated 150 minute epic about Moses (Christian Bale) rising up against Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses (Joel Edgerton) is mediocre at best. There are many issues in the film: Bale, who is a great actor, seemed miscast as Moses; John Turturro, who played Seti, got laughs at the screening I attended when he first spoke with his Brooklyn accent; Sigourney Weaver, as Tuya, was reduced to a background prop in many scenes. But the biggest issue is that the film is too long and too boring. It just falls flat. There are some amazing special effects and impressive production design, but it isn’t enough to make this an enjoyable movie going experience.

GRADE: C-

Paul Thomas Anderson is a great director… I would even say he is a modern master. But his latest film, INHERENT VICE, adapted from Thomas Pynchon’s novel, is anything but masterful. People’s defense of the film is that it accurately depicts Pynchon’s style, but that doesn’t make it any more enjoyable to watch—it’s just too long and convoluted. If there is any saving grace, it’s that it is fun to watch Joaquin Phoenix as Larry “Doc” Sportello, a constantly high, free wheeling Los Angeles detective in 1970. There are also other good performances in the film—most notably Josh Brolin and Katherine Waterston—but it is not enough to save this film.

GRADE: C+

Chris Rock’s TOP FIVE is an impressive film that smartly handles modern celebrity, alcoholism, and personal authenticity. Rock, who wrote, directed, and acted in the film, does go for the easy laugh in some scenes, but surprises you with scenes that are sensitive and thought provoking. He has also brought together an impressive cast. But if there is any criticism, it is that Rock, who plays comedienne Andre Allen in the film, doesn’t have the acting chops to become that character—you see only Chris Rock! It doesn’t help that he blends fiction with real life by casting Jerry Seinfeld, Whoopi Goldberg, and Adam Sandler as themselves. That said, you will go for the laughs, but remember the film’s ideas.

GRADE: A-