Jurassic Park

Probably the most precedent-setting special effects since the original Star Wars. Effects don’t normally make a movie, but when they make you believe you’re watching real live dinosaurs they do. Spielberg is at the top of his summer blockbuster game with some classic (and much imitated) camera shots, nice balance between characters, and much better pacing than some of his subsequent efforts. Bonus points for one of the classic musical scores of the decade. Only a few cheesy lines and a lack of genuinely poignant moments keep it short of perfection.

Looper

Dark, dystopian and a bit disturbing in places, but easily one of the best sci-fi movies of recent years. The visuals are fantastic and the performances great across the board (not the least of which is Joseph Gordon-Levitt channeling Bruce Willis). A significant switch in story and setting halfway through makes it almost feel like two separate movies, but it’s two very good movies if so.

Rocky Balboa

I’m not particularly a Rocky fan, but what a great, great movie. A couple of the monologues are just slightly, overly monologue’y but you can’t fault their message (I almost choked up during a couple). It’s more a lost-love story than a sports movie, but the final fight theatrics and accompanying slick, broadcast-style presentation should get long-time fans’ blood pumping.

Here’s hoping Stallone has enough sense to not mess with a good thing, as he’s crafted a perfect finale to the series.

Source Code

Very nearly the perfect high-concept thriller. The beginning teases with confusion and intrigue, the middle section really ramps up the story, and the end is surprisingly deep with meaning and emotion. I’m not sure the far-out concept is fully expounded upon, but when it makes for a movie this good who cares.

The Last Samurai

The entire middle section of this film is beautiful in so many ways – the scenery, the cinematography, the music, the subdued but patiently developed character relations – everything. A few bits at the beginning and end threaten to dip into standard war movie fare, but in compensation we get one of the most exhilarating action scenes in modern cinema and several truly poignant moments.

Bonus points for portraying a foreign country without butchering the culture, and for a superstar actor doing a respectable job with the language.

Up

Laugh-out-loud funny at times, surprisingly poignant at others, and charming throughout. Pixar’s animation reaches a new level of expressiveness in the main character Carl, who has both a quirky cartoonish flair and a convincing human quality. In the third act the action gets a bit too far-flung, and a bad guy who becomes not only obsessive but murderous seems a bit much for a family movie, but in all other respects it’s a good story made great by the storytelling and artistry. The stunning sunset shot alone makes it well worth the trip to the cinema.

Up in the Air

A perfectly scripted and acted film, from the just slightly raunchy adult humor to the meaningful life lessons, from George Clooney’s road (air?) warrior to the experienced fling to the idealistic protege. Near the end the movie drags just a bit and threatens to become predictable but then, thankfully, doesn’t.

American Hustle

This is an ensemble film so let’s get down to it. Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper seem a bit out of place in a ’70s film but turn in quality performances, Jeremy Renner is solid, Christian Bale unsurprisingly is brilliant, and Amy Adams – somewhat more surprisingly – is equally so, shifting from manipulative to vulnerable, loathing to empathetic without losing an ounce of believability.

The story takes its sweet time to develop, which during the extended prologue feels novel but by the third act becomes a small bit tiresome. Still, with characters this interesting it’s not such a terrible thing if they overstay their welcome.

Argo

Solid old-school filmmaking with an aptly early ’80s look, from the grainy opening shots to the nostalgia-filled soundtrack and combed-down haircuts. The true story (set in revolutionary Iran) is a dramatic one, and even having a good idea where the ending is heading it keeps you involved, if not quite on the edge of your seat. The cast is fantastic all around, with the sheer number of major characters being the only thing keeping their performances from standing out more. Like Affleck’s previous picture The Town, it’s a well-crafted, eminently watchable effort, though not likely to leave a lasting impression.

Crazy Heart

I’m hardly a country music fan but this is well worth watching purely for the fantastic soundtrack and superbly staged “live” shows, staged from backroad bars and bowling alleys to super arenas. The acting and direction are both spot-on, though a more fleshed-out story would have given it that extra something special.

Edge of Tomorrow

Live. Die. Repeat.

And blast a bunch of aliens along the way.

A cynic might liken the premise to a standard video game; a more optimistic comparison would be to the excellent sci-fi drama Source Code of a few years ago. I’d place it between the two – more substance and much better effects than most games, less intelligence and emotional pull than Source Code… but a lot more action.

Those who dislike the idea of Tom Cruise as a bad-ass action hero can rest assured he plays a more vulnerable and believable character than the trailers convey – with modest amounts of bad-assery to boot. Costar Emily Blunt shows the same gritty resolve that she did for her character in Looper (another recent sci-fi great), along with some bad-assery of her own.

As in Source Code, the ending stretches the time-shifting premise a bit, but any dubious quantum-physical details are easy enough to overlook when the film as a whole is this solid.

Furious 7

Much better than the previous entry, and up there with Fast Five among the best of the series. The abundant fist fights and car chases are as over-the-top as you’d expect but are well shot (if a bit too briskly cut) and pretty damn exciting on the whole. Some of the plot points are ridiculous but there’s always one of those action scenes as payoff, and aside from an occasionally cheesy soundtrack and one played-out character, the dramatic elements are respectable considering the outrageousness that surrounds them.

Kudos for the movie’s handling of Paul Walker’s tragic death in a dignified manner. It’ll be sad seeing the series go on without him, but director James Wan has proven that if that must be the case, he deserves to be the one to have a shot at it.