Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

Directed by: Jean-Marc Vallée
Written by: Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto and Jennifer Garner

Award winning Canadian director, Jean-Marc Vallée directs this biopic about Ron Woodroof, a con man who defied the odds, and the law, to get the medicine he needed to survive; and in the process brought hope and peace to many others.  It is a well scripted, if linear, film that unfolds as McConaughey’s Woodroof learns about himself and the world around him at the height of the HIV scare in America.

What I liked:  It’s no wonder the Hollywood machine has been buzzing around the performances of the two lead actors, Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto.  Quite simply, the heart and soul of the movie is in the acting.  Both McConaughey and Leto utterly, and literally, morph into their characters – a scheming rodeo bigot and suffering transvestite.  It is rare that such prominent Hollywood personalities would be unrecognizable but such is the case thanks to Vallée’s brilliant directing and seamless performances from actors who didn’t just lose weight but altered their mannerisms, their features, their voices and even something as simple as a smile. There is a moment at the end of the film where Woodroof, exhausted and achingly thin walks into a room of familiar faces and smiles.   That smile expresses all of the film’s tension, emotion and beauty because it is so clearly Woodroof’s smile, not McConaughey’s.

What I didn’t like:  My only complaint about the film is that there’s nothing new in the telling.  After a mind-blowing experience watching Gravity, Dallas Buyers Club felt a little flat.  I recognize that the two movies are not comparable but I still wanted perhaps more artistic license and vision from a  director who has proven capable of both.

Last thoughts: As usual, Hollywood is placing more emphasis on the physical transformation of the actors than on the performance itself.  Granted, McConaughey is so physically transformed that at times it’s tough to look at his sickly frame but I would hope that if either of them win the Oscar it’s for their performances and not because they know how to diet for a role.

My rating: Between this and Mud, McConaughey has two of my favourite performances of the year.

My IMDb Rating: 8/10     tomato:  94%

Rush (2013)

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Directed by: Ron Howard
Written by: Peter Morgan
Starring: Liam Hemsworth, Daniel Brühl, Olivia Wilde and Alexandra Maria Lara

It’s my firm belief that if you have to start a movie in medias res and go back to the beginning, then your original beginning isn’t strong enough.  This holds true in Ron Howard’s latest film about F1 racing legends, the Maverick Brit James Hunt and his prickly Austrian rival Niki Lauda, where the movie opens at a critical moment only to immediately go back in time to recap.   Ron Howard knows how to create drama, pace and suspense perfectly but there seemed to lack a cohesive narrative thread that would have made Rush outstanding.

What I liked: The movie is as slick as a race car and the racing scenes are wonderfully executed, especially when there is poor weather conditions.  The movie is certainly entertaining. The characters and relationships however are underdeveloped and, frankly, a little wasted; except for Daniel Bruehl who plays Niki Lauda and adds all the heart and soul to this film.   He is brilliant and seemingly reaches beyond the written character, if I am to compare him to Chris Hemsworth’s less dynamic portrayal.  Somehow, while Hemsworth is convincing his character, ironically, lacks the charm to carry the emotion of each short scene, whereas Bruehl’s Lauda grows on us and stays with us.  The best moments of the film come late when we come to respect the rivalry as they do.  I enjoyed that there is no definitive hero and both characters make for a series of well captured scenes but…

What I didn’t like: The film unfolds like a feast of tasty appetizers that never settles into a meal. The story is interesting and there are well-executed moments of real connection and emotion but they never last long enough or fit properly to create a fluid whole.  The camerawork by Anthony Dod Mantle was electric and worked very well in some seems but, again, seemed to piece together different moods or ideas that contributed my overall sense of disharmony.

My rating:  Wishing for an Oscar nod for Daniel Brühl.

My IMDb  rating:  7.5/10     tomato : 88%

Best Television Dramas: Honourable Mentions

Here are two shows that I feel have been somewhat undervalued this summer – kind of like indie films in the wake of Hollywood blockbusters.  They are gripping dramas that have kept me glued to my television long after bed time.  This is what you should turn to next if you’ve exhausted the top ten.

1.  RAY DONOVAN

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My one complaint about this show is that Ray Donovan spends more time fixing his family than the Hollywood starlets that make up his bread and butter.  This show is smart, crass, violent, endearing, melodramatic and highly performance driven.  Jon Voigt will make your skin crawl and you’ll want to be Ray Donovan.

Rating:  Perfect show for bingeing.

Airs: Showtime, Sundays at 10pm.  Only three episodes left of season 1.

IMDb:  Unrated. ??    metacritic:  75%

2.  BROADCHURCH

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This 8-part murder mystery is one of the best shows I’ve seen in awhile (and the most Tweeted about show in Britain when it aired this summer).   It is not only a highly suspenseful whodunnit but also a character-driven piece that is beautifully acted and emotionally resonant.  While the story may not be original (given the number of crime dramas readily available at the moment), the deftly handled direction creates an intimacy between the audience and this small town trying to cope with the murder of an 11 year old boy.  We watch in horror as friends and partners turn on each other, and with suspicion when the press gets involved.  The show is wonderfully crafted with exquisite performances from the two leads who, as mismatched partners, offer something new to an old trope.

Rating: Keep in mind, I have yet to watch The KIlling or Top of the Lake, but this show will feel new and different.  It will make you angry, make you laugh and break your heart.

IMDb:  8.2       metacritic: 91%

1. Breaking Bad

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Of course it is.  No television drama has been talked about more this summer than Breaking Bad.  Since its August 11th premier, social media has been bombarded with references, quotes, images, theories, opinions and recaps of the show’s fifth and final season.  So much so, that it is the only drama on television that invites celebrities onto a panel to talk about episodes right after they air (Edit note – I was mistaken.  Apparently AMC does this for all their dramas).  From what I can understand, the craziest part of the frenzy is that it is well deserved, with each new episode topping the last and not a second of air time wasted in this crime thriller about a former chemistry teacher who starts a meth lab.  I’m not sure if I’m disappointed with myself that I stopped after the first season or if I’m excited that I have four seasons to catch up on and witness how great television is made.  Guaranteed this series will go down in history.

Rating:  Now it all makes sense.  No other television show has consistently improved over the course of its run.  In fact, most shows dip here and there and have a hard time living up to their first season.  Not so with Breaking Bad.  From its first season ranking of 74%, the drama has consistently climbed to 85%, 89%, 96% to this season’s whopping 99% ranking – nothing comes close on this list.

IMDb:  9.4     metacritic: Season 1, 74%

2. Orange is the New Black

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I’m pretty sure the final two entries on this list of top ten dramas on television will come as no surprise to anyone.  I was first introduced to Orange is the New Black through my Facebook feed.  After it premiered on July 11th in its entirety (thanks to Netflix), friend after friend updated their status as they completed season 1 in less than a weekend.  The show, based on the real life experience of a young woman who was incarcerated for 15 months on a drug related charge, has grabbed everyone for its intelligence, wit, emotion, character development and authenticity.  I’m actually less surprised by its success than the lack of hater-backlash, which inevitably happens to any trend.  I have yet to hear a negative word about this show other than ‘it’s good’ rather than ‘it’s amazing!’

Rating: This is the second Netflix show with only one season under its belt.  Still, Metacritic rates it at a 79%, which is well below the highest rated show in the top ten, but higher than House of Cards.  Interesting.

IMDb: 8.6    metacritic:79%

4. Homeland

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I was hooked on the first three episodes and then wasn’t too keen on the direction I felt the show was taking so stopped.  Clearly, I’m alone; and worse, I’m the jackass at the dinner party that blocks their ears when Season 1 comes up in conversation, pleading with my eyes for the conversation to stop because even with my ears blocked I can hear everything.  I get it;  the show is a must-see.  Why I never got back on board with this superbly cast and well-written spy thriller that has raked up a ton of hardware is beyond me, other than to say please see nos. 5, 7 and 8 – and there are only so many hours in a day.   Expect a review soon.

Rating: Highest we’ve seen so far.  Metacritic has a 91% positive rating for Season 1 and a 96% for Season 2.  What to start first? Walking Dead or Homeland??

IMDb:  8.6      metacritic: Season 1, 91%

5. Game of Thrones

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This is another one of my favourite shows and was happy to include it on the list.  What started as a big budget fantasy drama, largely supported by fans instead of critics has developed into everyone’s favourite water cooler conversation.   Season three ended with such a devastating blow (or at least one episode before the finale) that fans are still discussing it months after it went on hiatus.  This medieval fantasy world about seven families vying for the Iron Throne has everything: character, wit, performance, treachery, betrayal, violence, nudity, unpredictability and impeccable editing and design.  I envy those who have yet to watch, because waiting until 2014 for the next episode is torture.  May Season 4 live up to the hype!

Rating:  It seems, it took a minute for critics to get on board.  Season 1 provided the floor plan for where we are today and the show’s Metacritic score has soared from 79% in its first season to 90% after it’s third.

IMDb: 9.4       metacritic: Season 1, 79%

6. Walking Dead

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I have no idea how I missed this show.  I heard about it for the first time after Season 3 came to a close in March.  Granted, despite great casting, a fantasy drama about a small group of people clinging to life in a world of zombies is not really my bag, but the ratings are high and everyone I’ve talked to  loves it.  Quite honestly, I’m disappointed with myself.  Look for a Can You Tell A Story review before season 4 gets underway in October.

Rating: This is the second AMC show to reach my top ten.  Metacritic rates season 1 at 82%.  Not bad.

IMDb:  87%      metacritic:  Season 3, 82%

7. Sherlock

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Ok, so this one might not be on the tip of everyone’s tongue, but with season 3 premiering in the fall (or so I thought. Rumours have it premiering in Jan. 2014) I had to include this on my list, because it’s one of my favourite shows.   After Season 2 ended with a “WHAT JUST HAPPENED?” cliffhanger, Sherlock fans have been waiting with baited breath for this thrilling, funny, intelligent, fast-paced, character driven drama to return to the air.  Seriously.  If there are rumours about a release date then I can’t be the only one watching.  If you haven’t watched seasons 1 and 2 now is the time to catch up.  Guaranteed it will grab you.

Rating: Metacritic has season 2 ranked at 92%, the best we’ve seen on this list so far.

IMDb: 9.2       metacritic: Season 1, 85%