NGN’s Best of 2013 (and 2014 Preview): Movies

American Hustle was one of 2013's most critically-acclaimed films.

American Hustle was one of 2013’s most critically-acclaimed films.

I hope all of you had a lovely end to 2013 and a fresh, fun, and hopeful start to 2014. May all your resolutions be beneficial and all your days full of learning, laughter, and love.

After ending 2013 with a look at the year that was in television, I’d like to kick off 2014 with a look at the world of film. It’s time to reflect on the performances and movies that made 2013 such a memorable year, and it’s also time to look ahead at what movies we have to look forward to in the coming year.

Top Five Female Performances of 2013:

1. Jennifer Lawrence as Rosalyn Rosenfeld (American Hustle) and Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire)
Lawrence’s turns as American Hustle’s charismatic but unstable housewife and Catching Fire’s stoic but tortured heroine were both outstanding on their own, but what was truly impressive was looking at them side-by-side as a testament to her incredible range. For someone so young to have built such an impressive body of work is no small feat, but in 2013, Lawrence proved herself able to rise to every challenge put in front of her as an actress—and I wouldn’t be surprised to see another Oscar at the end of this year’s journey.

2. Sandra Bullock as Ryan Stone (Gravity)
Gravity was literally Bullock’s film—she was onscreen for nearly all of its 90 minutes, and, for much of it, she was onscreen alone. Bullock’s ability to convey the terror of her situation was excellent, but the most captivating thing about her performance was the way she was able to convey both the physical isolation of space and the emotional isolation of grief with such relatable humanity.

3. Amy Adams as Sydney Prosser (American Hustle)
For American Hustle to succeed as brilliantly as it did, Sydney needed to be the kind of woman everyone would fall in love with, and in Adams’s capable hands, she became that and so much more. Adams balanced Sydney’s sensuality, intelligence, ambition, and fierce vulnerability with grace and—even more importantly—with power you couldn’t help but be attracted to.

4. Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers (Saving Mr. Banks)
The way Thompson managed to show the broken little girl underneath P.L. Travers’s icy exterior was nothing short of magnificent. Her harsh sarcasm gave a film that could have been saccharine a nice edge, but it was her emotional journey that gave the film its most winning asset—its beating, beautiful heart. I still find myself tearing up thinking of the emotional range she showed during the scene in which Travers watches Marry Poppins onscreen for the first time, which was possibly the best acting without dialogue I saw all year.

5. Amy Acker as Beatrice (Much Ado About Nothing)
It takes an impressive actor to make me truly care about a Shakespearean character. So the depth with which I came to care about Beatrice proves what an impressive actor Acker truly is. The lines rolled off her tongue like she was born speaking Shakespeare, but it was the genuine humor and gravitas she brought to the role that made this character come to life for me as if she was as real as one of my friends.

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Nerdy Girl Goes to the Movies: Gravity

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Title: Gravity

Rating: PG-13

Cast: Sandra Bullock (Ryan Stone), George Clooney (Matt Kowalski)

Director: Alfonso Cuarón

The Basics: Gravity is a story of survival in a world where life is factually impossible. After being detached from the space station she was working on as part of her first mission, NASA medical engineer Ryan Stone finds herself adrift in space, with a rapidly depleting supply of oxygen. Tethered to veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski, Stone must fight seemingly insurmountable external obstacles to get back to Earth, which mirrors her internal struggle to survive after the death of her young daughter. The way the themes of isolation, birth, death, and survival are developed and reflected in every moment of the film is nothing short of masterful. Technically, this film is like nothing that has ever been seen before, but the reason Gravity is so special—such a masterpiece—is that it never lets its technical achievements overshadow its emotional ones. Anchored by the best performance of Sandra Bullock’s career, this film is about so much more than the terrifying beauty of space; it’s about the struggle for a woman to survive in both a physical and emotional environment that would destroy most people.

M.V.P. (Most Valuable Performer): Sandra Bullock has been known as many things throughout her career—adorable, funny, sharp-tongued, relatable, and warm. But after seeing Gravity, I think the best word to describe her work as an actress is fearless. Her performance in Gravity is astoundingly brave in its vulnerability, its humanity, and its incredible mixture of strength and weakness. Ryan Stone feels like a real woman—not a superhero. For most of the film, she’s terrified, and Bullock makes that fear almost painfully palpable. We see so much of this film from Stone’s perspective; her voice is the only one we hear for most of it; her helmet is the one we see the chaos through. And in order for Gravity to succeed, the actress bringing Stone to life needed to be someone who could captivate audiences on her own for nearly the entire 91 minutes of the film’s runtime. Bullock is exactly that; she’s utterly captivating every moment she’s onscreen. Ryan Stone is a fascinating character, a woman whose strength manifests itself not in big moments of heroics but in choosing to live rather than give up, despite having every reason to want to die. We see Ryan as a hero because we are able to believe her at her lowest—in the quiet depths of her grief and the panicked extremes of her fear—and at her best. Her hero’s journey is a story of rebirth, and Bullock makes it resonate with an emotional intensity and honesty that should put her at the top of any Best Actress race this year.

Scene Stealer: From the very first moments of Gravity, I was in awe of its score. Steven Price’s work is unsettling from the start, and its hold on my emotions never let up. It made the hair on the back of my neck stand up, it made me hold my breath, and it even made me cry. Price’s score captures the grandeur and danger of space as brilliantly as it captures the grief and hope coexisting in Stone’s character. I don’t normally single out a film’s score as something worthy of intense praise, but this wasn’t any ordinary film—or any ordinary score, for that matter.

Bring the Tissues? I cried way more than I was expecting to during Gravity. Bullock’s fierce vulnerability has a way of getting under your skin and going straight to your heart. When she reveals how her daughter died, I started tearing up, but once she started talking to a man back on Earth (whom she reached while trying to unsuccessfully contact Houston), I started genuinely sobbing. Her loneliness—both in the vastness of empty space and in the grief-stricken life she lived back on Earth—moved me beyond anything else I’ve seen in a movie theater so far this year.

Most Memorable Scene: On a technical level, I’m not sure any scene in any of this year’s Oscar contenders will be more memorable than the opening minutes of Gravity. Filmed in one, unbroken shot, this scene builds spectacularly from awe-inspiring to terrifying. The way Cuarón captures the feeling of weightlessness is extraordinary; it puts you off balance just by watching the action unfold. And that’s all before the debris begins to rain down on Stone and Kowalski. In that moment, the strange serenity of space is turned into sheer panic, and the feelings it invokes are oppressive in their intensity. I felt like I was holding my breath through the entire sequence, and I know I was gripping my armrest with white knuckles. The direction, the sound mixing and editing, and Bullock’s performance all combined to create one of the most visceral experiences of panic I’ve ever felt while watching a movie. It was—at the risk of sounding hyperbolic—breathtaking.

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Nerdy Girl Goes to the Movies: The Butler

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Title: Lee Daniels’ The Butler

Rating: PG-13

Cast: Forest Whitaker (Cecil Gaines), Oprah Winfrey (Gloria Gaines), David Oyelowo (Louis Gaines), Elijah Kelley (Charlie Gaines), Cuba Gooding Jr. (Carter Wilson), Lenny Kravitz (James Holloway), Robin Williams (Dwight D. Eisenhower), John Cusack (Richard Nixon), James Marsden (John F. Kennedy), Liev Schreiber (Lyndon B. Johnson), Alan Rickman (Ronald Reagan), Jane Fonda (Nancy Reagan)

Director: Lee Daniels

The Basics: The Butler is a sweeping portrait of the civil rights movement in America, told through the eyes of Cecil Gaines, who served as a butler in the White House from Eisenhower to Reagan. While the film highlights important moments in American history from inside the White House, the true heart of this film lies in Cecil’s house, where he struggles with an alcoholic but loving wife, a son in Vietnam, and another son making his voice heard as a Freedom Rider and later as a member of the Black Panther Party. This film takes the fight for equal rights—from a sharecropping field in the 1920s to the election of President Obama—and makes it intensely personal. This is a story that needs to be told, and its told through some truly fantastic performances. Yes, some of the presidential stunt casting was unbelievable to the point of taking away from the film, but, ultimately, what really mattered where the performances given by Whitaker, Winfrey, and Oyelowo. This trio of actors anchored the film with performances that were nuanced, powerful, and completely compelling.

M.V.P. (Most Valuable Performer): Without a strong actor taking on the role of Cecil, this film could have felt like a dry history lesson, jumping from one milestone to the next without any real emotional connection. Thankfully, Forest Whitaker gives his performance the quiet strength that we’ve come to expect from such a brilliant actor. Cecil never feels like a caricature or anything less than a real, three-dimensional person. We can feel the toll that years of hard work and suffering have taken on this man, but we can also feel the pride he takes in his job and the life he was able to build for his family. There is a quiet dignity to Whitaker’s performance that could get lost among the more flashy performances to come as “Oscar season” approaches. But his work should not be forgotten or lost in the shuffle because he is able to make you believe in this man and in the values by which he lives his life. It’s a testament to Whitaker’s performance that I found myself crying by the end of the film because I felt like I could understand what the election of President Obama would mean to Cecil Gaines. That ability to make the audience connect so strongly with a character in just a couple of hours is something only the best actors possess.

Scene Stealer: David Oyelowo might be a relative unknown (to me at least), but I walked away from this film incredibly impressed with him. There was such passion in his performance, and that uncontrolled fire of purpose worked so well opposite Whitaker’s more quietly powerful Cecil. The generation gap between Louis and Cecil is a driving force in this film, and it works because you are able to understand both sides of that gap. Whitaker makes you believe in Cecil’s reasons for acting the way he does (the murder of his father being the horrible foundation for his views on acting out too strongly), but Oyelowo also makes you understand Louis’s need to take action and to fight. He’s not just some rebellious kid; he’s someone who wants a better life for his future family the same way Cecil did. He doesn’t hate his father; he just doesn’t understand him. And that kind of universal struggle between generations takes on such a unique life in this film, a life that rings with authenticity because of the honesty Oyelowo gives to Louis’s journey.

Bring the Tissues? If you remain unmoved while watching Cecil react to the 2008 Election Night results, then I’m not sure you were really watching the movie. I was on the verge of tears a few times throughout the film, but that moment is what made me actually start crying because I could feel how much it meant to these characters, especially Cecil.

Most Memorable Scene: The generation gap that fuels the tension throughout the film comes to a powerful head in a dinner table confrontation between Cecil, Louis, Gloria, and Louis’s girlfriend. With Louis in his Black Panther clothing and his girlfriend sporting a huge afro while sitting with the modestly dressed Cecil and Gloria, the contrast is evident before any of the characters even begin speaking. And when they do begin speaking, it erupts into the best scene in the film. A discussion about Sidney Poitier turns from small-talk to fighting words when Louis scoffs at men like him and, by extension, his father. Louis’s inability to understand the pride his father takes in his job finally proves too much for the usually stoic Cecil, who explodes with a force we only see once in the film—but it’s enough.

But the true “scene stealing” moment belongs to Oprah. I know it’s been shown in every commercial and trailer for the film, but the moment when she slaps her son and tells him that everything he is and has is because of “that butler,” I still got chills like I was hearing it for the first time. And I wanted to cheer when she kicked his horrible girlfriend out of her house. I was worried going into the film that Oprah wouldn’t be able to disappear into this role as much as she would need to, but this scene was the moment when I knew my concerns were unfounded.

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Nerdy Girl Goes to the Movies: The Impossible

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Title: The Impossible

Rating: PG-13

Cast: Naomi Watts (Maria), Ewan McGregor (Henry), Tom Holland (Lucas), Samuel Joslin (Thomas), Oaklee Pendergast (Simon)

Director: Juan Antonia Bayona

The Basics: The Impossible offers a harrowing “based on a true story” account of one family’s struggle to survive and reunite in the wake of the 2004 tsunami that caused unfathomable amounts of death and destruction in southeast Asia. Separated from his father and two younger brothers, Lucas is forced to grow up far beyond his years as he journeys with his mother through the wreckage to an overcrowded hospital in order to get her the help she desperately needs to treat her life-threatening injuries. Although its subject matter renders it almost impossible to watch at times, The Impossible is ultimately a beautiful film about the strength of family and love in the wake of unspeakable tragedy. Much of the film’s beauty and poignancy comes from its core cast, especially its incredible group of child actors.

M.V.P. (Most Valuable Performer): I know that Naomi Watts is the one getting so much of the credit and recognition for her work in the film, and there’s no denying that her performance is one of the best I’ve seen by an actress this year. However, this film belonged to young Tom Holland.

Just 16 years old, Holland acted with a maturity and depth far beyond his age. This role required him to do so much without words—to show fear and the struggle to compartmentalize that fear with just the slightest change in his expression or the way he carried himself. The naked vulnerability he showed is such a rarity for an actor that young. His panic felt real; his grief felt real. And ultimately his relief felt beautifully real as well. Holland had incredible chemistry with the younger boys playing his brothers as well as with Watts and Ewan McGregor. In many ways, his performance was the glue that holds the film together; his were the eyes we saw the story unfold through. I walked out of the theater genuinely upset that Holland didn’t get any award-season recognition for his revelatory work in this film, and days later I still stand by that assessment. His was one of the most incredible performances I saw all year, not just from a young actor but from any actor.

Scene Stealer: Once again, Ewan McGregor gave a performance that left me sobbing into my hands in a movie theater. And once again, he’s getting criminally little recognition for it. Henry’s journey to reunite his family is the most inspiring part of the film. His inability to give up on his wife and son gave the film a layer of love that’s palpable and heartbreakingly genuine. That steadfast faith could have led to a one-note performance, but McGregor wasn’t afraid to show the emotional turmoil behind Henry’s resolve to find his family. There’s a scene in the film where he’s given the chance to make a call back home, and the way the scene evolves into a gut-wrenching breakdown made it one of the most devastating in a film loaded with devastating moments. It was hard to watch Henry’s façade shatter in such an unflinchingly painful way, but it was right. No one can be strong forever in the face of so much tragedy. Every emotion McGregor showed the audience was so visceral it was as if you could reach out and feel it—his desperation, his guilt, his anxiety, and his incredible love for his family that gave much-needed warmth to such a heavy film.

Bring the Tissues? If the sobbing I heard (and participated in myself) throughout much of the movie is any indication, then yes. You’ll cry with sadness, and you’ll cry with relief. The moments that will make you cry might be up for debate, but one thing that’s not up for debate is this: You will cry, and you will cry hard.

Most Memorable Scene: The Impossible is a film that could have almost been unbearably sad—if not for one scene filled with such pure joy, love, and relief that it made all of the tension and heartbreak of earlier scenes worth the tears. Watching Lucas reunite with his little brothers filled me with such a sense of hope. Once again, Holland stole the show in terms of his reaction. The way he kissed and held the little boys felt so beautifully real, so earned in terms of the emotion of the moment. And the catharsis only intensified watching Henry gather his lost son into his arms. In that moment, I forgot I was watching a movie and truly got lost in this father’s love for his oldest little boy. As the scene continued and Henry was reunited with Maria, I held my breath the entire time. When he took off the oxygen mask to kiss her, it felt more romantic than any fairytale kiss I’d ever seen. It was the very picture of the idea that love is meant to last in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. As Henry held Maria, whispering that he was sorry if he let her down, I cried so hard I lost every bit of eye makeup I had on. And it was worth it.

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Nerdy Girl Goes to the Movies: Les Misérables

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Title: Les Misérables

Rating: PG-13

Cast: Hugh Jackman (Jean Valjean), Russell Crowe (Javert), Anne Hathaway (Fantine), Eddie Redmayne (Marius), Samantha Barks (Éponine), Amanda Seyfried (Cosette), Aaron Tveit (Enjolras), Daniel Huttlestone (Gavroche), Helena Bonham Carter (Madame Thénardier), Sacha Baron Choen (Thénardier)

Director: Tom Hooper

The Basics: An adaptation of the hit musical (which itself was an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s mammoth novel), Les Misérables tells the story of the people of France in the decades following the French Revolution. The story centers on Jean Valjean, a man who served 19 years as a prisoner for stealing a loaf of bread before starting a new life with a new identity after breaking parole. During the course of the film, Valjean finds himself the caretaker of a dying young woman’s daughter, Cosette, while always trying to stay one step ahead of Javert, a relentless officer of the law. As years pass, Cosette grows up and falls in love with the revolutionary, Marius, one of a group of impassioned young men who stage an uprising that is met with tragic consequences. While not a perfect adaptation, Hooper’s vision manages to actually improve upon the source play by making the big musical moments profoundly personal and all the more heartbreaking. Anchored by brilliant performances from both seasoned veterans and new faces, Les Misérables is an emotional tour de force.

M.V.P. (Most Valuable Performer): Without a strong actor in the role of Valjean, no version of Les Misérables can survive. Thankfully, Hugh Jackman is more than up to the task. His singing is predictably strong, but what especially struck me throughout the film were his eyes. He manages to convey so much depth of emotion in the slightest change in expression, giving a nuanced portrait of one of the most iconic characters in modern musical theater history. Valjean is a complex character who undergoes huge moments of spiritual and personal transformation as well as physical transformation, and Jackman shows each stage in this character’s development with perfect balance. He was powerful when it was necessary, but he was also equally compelling in quieter moments, which made his Valjean feel extraordinarily raw and real for a character from a musical.

I was going to save Anne Hathaway for the “Scene Stealer” portion of this review, but there can be no denying that she stands alongside Jackman as the most valuable member of this cast. I was a bit skeptical because of just how much praise she was getting, but I can honestly say that she lives up to the hype and then some. There is no way that words—even the most eloquent—can describe her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream.” It’s a truly transcendent moment; I felt afraid to breathe as she sang—that’s how transfixed I was by her performance. Done in one take with the camera focused on nothing but her emaciated, tear-stained face, this song is the epitome of all that is good about this film. It’s achingly raw—her eyes are wild, her nose is running, her tears are audible in every note sung—but it’s impossible to look away. There’s a moment near the end of the song where it looks as if she’s having a panic attack while singing, and I’ve never felt more gutted by a performance in a musical. And that’s exactly how I wanted to feel, how I needed to feel in order for this film to have the impact on me that it had.

Scene Stealer: I had never heard of Eddie Redmayne before going to see Les Misérables, and now I can’t imagine the film without his performance as Marius. I know this is a word that tends to get overused in reviews, but he’s a revelation in this film. His Marius isn’t just the lovesick schoolboy of some versions of this musical. There’s a passion, strength, and depth in Redmayne’s performance that makes you care about this character and truly feel all of his joy and then all of his pain. There’s a tragedy to Marius’s arc that can sometimes get lost in his seemingly happy ending, but Redmayne never lets you forget that this is a young man who will forever be haunted by what happened on the barricade. The way his entire demeanor changes from confident and strong to broken and guilt-ridden absolutely broke my heart. His “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” is all I could have asked for from my favorite song in Les Misérables. It was sung beautifully and with an honesty of emotion that only a great actor—perfectly cast in this role—could have delivered.

Bring the Tissues? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. I can’t even count how many moments made me cry—from “I Dreamed a Dream” to “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” and numerous moments in between (“A Little Fall of Rain” is especially heartbreaking in its beautiful, tragic intimacy). However, nothing in this film made me cry as hard as the conclusion. The intensity of sobbing it reduced me to can best be described as “Toy Story 3 levels of emotional hysteria.”

Most Memorable Scene: It’s impossible to pick just one. The most memorable moments in the film—the ones that have stayed with me long after I left the theater—are scenes that took Tom Hooper’s decision to have the actors sing live and use it to elevate the songs to new levels of emotional impact. The first such moment is Valjean’s impassioned “Who Am I?” Jackman sells Valjean’s crisis of conscience in this song with a depth and power that’s all the more affecting because it truly feels like he is examining his soul rather than singing to the back of the house. The way it begins quietly, almost as a whispered conversation with God, makes the crescendo even more stunning.

I’ve already said all I could put into words about Hathaway’s “I Dreamed a Dream.” Redmayne’s “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” was a moment of nearly equal emotional power for the same reasons—the naked vulnerability, the tears, the way the song builds from quiet loss to desperate pleading. And Redmayne and Samantha Barks’s duet, “A Little Fall of Rain,” is perhaps most successful at using the medium of film to add new power to the music of Les Misérables. The gentle intimacy between the two actors could not be achieved by projecting like in live theater or by using a pre-recorded track. You feel immersed in the tragedy of this moment because it’s happening right in front of you—from the way Barks’s voice believably fades as she nears her death to Redmayne’s strained delivery of each lyric, as if Marius is trying but failing to keep his grief at bay until she’s gone.

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Nerdy Girl Goes to the Movies: Silver Linings Playbook

Title: Silver Linings Playbook

Rating: R

Cast: Bradley Cooper (Pat), Jennifer Lawrence (Tiffany), Robert De Niro (Pat Sr.), Jacki Weaver (Dolores), Chris Tucker (Danny)

Director: David O. Russell

The Basics: This unconventional romantic dramadey tells the story of Pat Solitano, a Philadelphia native (and Eagles fan by birth) adjusting to life with his parents after spending eight months in treatment for bipolar disorder. Though Pat was hospitalized following the discovery of his wife’s affair and his subsequent attack on man she was cheating with, Pat still hopes to win her back (despite her restraining order against him). But along the way, Pat meets his match in Tiffany, a young widow facing her own struggles with mental illness who shows him that life is a lot like dance—all you need is the right partner. Featuring brilliant performances, an unflinching directorial style, and a script filled with humor and heart, Silver Linings Playbook is the kind of movie Hollywood doesn’t make nearly enough—a genuinely feel-good story about love in all of its forms and all of its messy glory.

M.V.P. (Most Valuable Performer): In order for this film to work, both Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence had to turn in strong performances, and, lucky for us as viewers, they delivered the best performances I’ve seen from either of their careers in Silver Linings Playbook. Cooper was the one I was most worried about, having only known him as the lovable best friend on Alias and the arrogant pretty boy in movies like Wedding Crashers and The Hangover. Needless to say, he exceeded my expectations tenfold here. There was something so vulnerable in his portrayal of Pat, a fear of himself and his illness that only a brave actor could bring to the surface. Cooper captured every nuance with detail and care; we believe that Pat is a man who could brutally beat another man, but we also believe that Pat is a man who is capable of immense amounts of goodness as well. Pat could have been an obnoxious caricature of a bipolar man obsessed with a wife who clearly doesn’t love him. But thanks to Cooper’s depth and fearless emotional honesty, Pat is instead a character that we care about and care for immensely, the broken but beautiful soul of this movie.

Cooper needed a true match in order to bring out the best in his performance, and the filmmakers found that in Lawrence, who should find herself at the top of the Best Actress Oscar race for the excellent work she did in this film. The maturity she brings to her scenes is astounding. She’s by turns laugh-out-loud funny, radiantly charming, and brutally sad, and she balances every facet of this complex woman with a dexterity that I’ve rarely seen even in the most seasoned actresses. In order for this film to succeed, we have to believe that there is something inherently lovable in these two characters, and we have to see them recognize that something in each other. Cooper and Lawrence are resoundingly successful at achieving both of those aims.

Scene Stealer: Robert De Niro shines at Pat Solitano Sr., a man plagued by his own demons but trying his best to help the son he clearly loves. De Niro gives a warmth to this character that adds another layer of authenticity to the film. Pat Sr. is a complex bundle of neuroses, anger issues, and helplessness in the face of his son’s bipolar disorder, and De Niro finds the humanity in that bundle and brings it to life with a captivatingly understated kind of power.

Bring the Tissues? If you aren’t made of stone, then the answer is a resounding yes. I found myself getting intensely choked up on many occasions throughout the film. I was especially moved by any scene in which Lawrence showed the cracks in Tiffany’s bristly exterior. And the beautiful release of emotions I felt at the conclusion of the movie was itself worth the price of the ticket.

Most Memorable Scene: I’m not sure it gets better than Lawrence going head-to-toe with De Niro as Tiffany rattles off all of the Philly sports victories that have occurred since she and Pat started spending time together. That scene is only made better by watching Pat’s face as it starts to dawn on him just how special this woman really is.

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Nerdy Girl Goes to the Movies: Argo

Argo

Title: Argo

Rating: R

Cast: Ben Affleck (Tony Mendez), Bryan Cranston (Jack O’Donnell), Alan Arkin (Lester Siegel), John Goodman (John Chambers), Victor Garber (Ken Taylor)

Director: Ben Affleck

The Basics: In the middle of the Iranian hostage crisis, CIA exfiltration expert Tony Mendez is tasked to come up with a plan to bring home six U.S. embassy workers who escaped to the Canadian ambassador’s residence. Mendez, with the help of friends in Hollywood, devises a plan to enter Iran under the guise of scouting locations for a film, giving the six trapped Americans cover identities as his crew. Argo somehow manages to give a true sense of suspense to a story in which the ending is already known. Its tight direction, breathless pacing, and solid performances make it the first real contender of the early Oscar-buzz season.

M.V.P. (Most Valuable Performer): Ben Affleck is enjoying a career rebirth as a director, but Argo also reminded me what a great actor he can be when given the right material. Tony Mendez is the glue that holds this film together, and Affleck wears that responsibility well. His performance is wonderfully understated; there are no theatrics, no “badass, tough guy” moments. Instead, there are quiet scenes where a close-up on his face speaks volumes about the incredible strain this man is under. Mendez has six lives in his hands, and that is never lost on the audience because Affleck makes certain it is never lost in his performance. He moves and blinks and breathes as if the weight of the world is on his shoulders, and that’s because—in a very real sense—it is. The humanity that he gives Mendez is exactly what is necessary to make us care about this man’s fate as much as we care about the fate of the six he’s trying to extract. The scene where he unsuccessfully attempts to call his wife and son before getting on the plane to Iran broke my heart, and that’s all because of Affleck’s eyes. This is the kind of film that could be undone with an overblown performance at its center. Instead, Affleck’s quiet power and undercurrent of humanity keep it perfectly grounded.

Scene Stealer: Alan Arkin is brilliant in everything he does, and he was the perfect casting choice for veteran producer Lester Siegel. His sharp sense of humor and biting line delivery are like a breath of fresh air in this very tense film. While his character mostly provides much-needed relief from the suspense, he never takes over the film with his performance. He maintains a level of gravitas that shows that even this fast-talking Hollywood suit understands the urgency and importance behind what he’s being asked to do. I wouldn’t be surprised to see his name on the Best Supporting Actor Oscar ballot once again this year.

Bring the Tissues? This isn’t really a tearjerker, although I did find myself a little choked up when the plane carrying Mendez and the six Americans left Iranian airspace. The genuine feeling of relief was palpable, and a lot of it had to do with the fact that each actor played their reactions uniquely—some with hugs, some with tears, and some with silence. Also, the final scene of Mendez coming home to his wife and son was incredibly moving without being cloyingly sentimental.

Should I Stay or Should I Go? Stay through the first part of the credits to see photos of the real people and events put side-by-side with their cinematic counterparts. It’s a great reminder of how much care Affleck took to show the reality behind such a fantastic kind of story.

Most Memorable Scene: While the airport scenes are probably the most taught and suspenseful in the film, the most memorable scene for me boils all of the tension in the entire film into one breathtaking sequence. When Mendez is driving the six to the bazaar to maintain their covers as location scouts, they run across a demonstration in the streets. As their van slowly works its way through the angry, violent mob of Iranians, the tension is so high I found myself holding my breath. The lack of dialogue besides the chanting and shouts of the protestors adds to the feeling that even the audience has to be silent and still while watching—an experience I’ve never had so intensely during a film before. Affleck does a masterful job of keeping the camera tight on the people in the van and their reactions to the mob surrounding them, giving the scene a claustrophobic kind of intensity that only a very strong director and group of actors could achieve.

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