The World’s End (R, 2013, Universal)
For all the jokes we endured a year ago about Mayan calendars — remember that? — it was 2013 that became the year of the surprisingly good end-of-the-world comedy, and it couldn’t ask for a better closing act than the one it gets. “The World’s End” borrows its name from the final pub in small-town Newton Haven’s famed Golden Mile — a route dotted by 12 pubs and, occasionally, a group of fools determined to drink a pint at every one of them in a single evening. The night Gary (Simon Pegg) tried and failed remains the best of his life, and 20 years later, with only his age having matured, he’s determined to finish the mile with the four friends (Nick Frost, Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan) who accompanied him. Small problem: They’ve grown up, one is sober, and none remember Gary terribly fondly. Worse news: Gary’s attempted reclamation of past glory commences around the same time it becomes apparent most of Newton Haven’s citizens have been body-snatched by what appear to be robots in human form. Why? “End” has reasons, and like everything else it has, those reasons are a grandiose brew of spectacular and stupid. “End” takes one legitimately funny and sweet movie about getting old and growing up, adds a completely crazy movie about the possible end of humanity, douses both sides in beer and mashes them together with as much joy and abandon as a child crashing cymbals for the first time. The result is, of course, bedlam. But never during the course of that bedlam does either design lose itself. Why should great action, great comedy and great friends be mutually exclusive entities? They shouldn’t. And in the hands of those rare individuals who get it and know how to express it, they aren’t.
Extras: Three commentary tracks, deleted scene, outtakes/alternate takes, six behind-the-scenes features, two features about in-film Easter Eggs, storyboards, trivia track, stunt/rehearsal footage, storyboards/animatics.
Bridegroom (R, 2013, Virgil Films)
When Tom Bridegroom fell off a roof during a photo shoot, doctors could not save him. Nor, sadly, could Shane Bitney Crone — his partner, best friend and the most important person in his life — see him at the hospital or even safely attend his funeral, much less plan it. No need to explain why, because by this point, we all know why: Without the rights granted to heterosexual couples who marry, Shane stands on the outside looking in as the person he waited his whole life to meet is laid to rest by a family that froze him out of the process. We all know this story because abstract, hypothetical versions of stories like Shane and Tom’s are bandied about in arguments between politicians and talking heads whose connection to gay marriage often ranges from peripheral to purely philosophical. But the reason those abstract stories exist is because the real ones do, too, and “Bridegroom” tells the story of Shane and Tom — where they separately came from, how they met, what they meant to each other, and what Shane’s life has been like since losing Tom — in incredibly personal detail. Without lecturing or going big picture, and simply by being what it is, the story conveys what a lifetime of lectures, hypotheticals and cable news nonsense could not remotely match. When Shane challenges every married couple to feel for each other as he and Tom felt for one another, no argument to the contrary stands a chance.
Extra: Public Service Announcements from DoSomething.org.
All is Bright (R, 2013, Anchor Bay)
The dreary Christmastime movie has become so prevalent at this point that genuinely happy Christmas movies have become the new novelty. But in the time it takes freshly paroled safe cracker Dennis (Paul Giamatti) to make the on-foot trek from a Quebec prison to his former wife’s (Amy Landecker) house, only to discover she told their young daughter he had died instead of gone to prison, there’s something about “All is Bright’s” bleakness that feels just a bit different. The pace is a little odd. The soundtrack, and even the rhythm of the soundtrack, is curious. And while the fake death announcement could be played for dark laughs, “Bright” plays it straight instead … while letting the slightest breeze of bone-dry dark comedy sneak in and make itself at home. While Dennis tries to go straight and his former and possibly future partner in crime Rene (Paul Rudd) tries to do right by him after effectively stealing his wife, “Bright” holds its note, going darker than most wannabe-dark Christmas movies, getting there without the help of irony or calculation, and occasionally finding the funny or incredibly sweet underside of the heavy, dull ache it carries from scene to scene. It’s almost empirically contradictory to say a movie this deeply embedded in bleakness isn’t a downer, but “Bright” lets just the right kind of light in to make this contradiction not merely possible, but harmoniously so. For all who both dread the holidays and hold out hope for them to deliver on their magical promise, there is at least one movie this year that completely understands. No extras.
Prince Avalanche (R, 2013, Magnolia)
Peace and quiet. The occasionally friendly passerby. No Internet (because it’s 1988). No boss to report to and no one to even answer to other than his girlfriend’s little brother (Emile Hirsch), who is along for the ride as a mostly willing assistant. Alvin (Paul Rudd) can talk all day long about taking a job repainting a lonely Texas highway in order to send money home to his girlfriend and her child, but one glance at “Prince Avalanche” says a thousand words about the wonders of a quiet life of fresh air and honest work. Being a movie, “Avalanche” inevitably cannot remain this simple. But the might with which it holds on to its initial conviction is as gratifying to those who love Alvin’s adoration of peace and quiet as it likely will be alienating to those who want some big storytelling gesture to rip it all away. (Don’t let Alvin’s funny mustache fool you: It’s a nod to the times and not a sign that this is the kind of comedy for which Rudd is better known.) Though a tangible, pitch-capable story commences, “Avalanche” is most potent as a movie set around big moments instead of inside them. And in a way Alvin cannot even grasp in 1988, it’s a strangely romantic nod to humanity at its most basic, with a couple riddles thrown in that are ripe for personal interpretation. It isn’t for everyone, in other words. But if that initial gratification catches you the right way, rest gratified knowing “Avalanche” never lets go of that feeling.
Extras: Director/crew commentary, deleted scene, interviews, behind-the-scenes features.
We’re the Millers (R/NR, 2013, New Line)
The good news about “We’re the Millers?” The second half is better than the first, and occasionally it’s funny. The not-so-good news? The bar it needs to clear to be the better half is ankle-high, the funniest character is a bit character who appears in four scenes and wears out the bit by the end of his third appearance, and for all the ridiculousness inherent in a story about a nobody drug dealer (Jason Sudeikis), a local stripper (Jennifer Aniston) and two loner teens (Emma Roberts and Will Poulter) posing as a family of squares in order to smuggle drugs into the United States, “Millers” is nothing if it isn’t obligated to hit all the same story checkpoints every middling comedy inevitably hits. The chirping about Aniston’s strip scene was the only reason “Millers” was merely quickly forgotten instead of never remembered at all, and the PG-13 result of that scene pretty much crystallizes the movie’s problem. Encircled by a whirlwind of drugs, kingpins, strippers and dirty cops, “Millers” still fails to find the edge it needs to be the dark comedy it wants to be. If the Millers are daredevils in milquetoast clothing, the movie bearing their name is the complete opposite.
Extras: Extended cut, deleted scenes/outtakes, two behind-the-scenes features.
Violet & Daisy (R, 2013, Cinedigm)
The word “pretentious” is one of the more poorly-used words in 21st century art criticism, slapped on entirely too many works simply because they try to be complex or dare not punctuate their storytelling with something exploding. So it’s time to go to school and watch what happens when actual, living pretense devours a movie from inside out. “Violet & Daisy” is the story of Violet (Alexis Bledel) and Daisy (Saoirse Ronan), whose vocation — contract killers — flies in the face of everything else about them. It isn’t simply a case of pretty faces killing indiscriminately, either. No, Violet and Daisy are practically preschool children in grown-up bodies, operating with a spacey, mousey, often disaffected and relentlessly exaggerated naïveté that is so violently disingenuous as to kill its purported novelty (to say nothing of cuteness) almost on sight. Once a job goes bad — in the most aw-shuckiest way possible, of course — our killers are forced to deal with a target (the late James Gandolfini as Michael) who has enough time and leverage to deal back. It is solely by the grace of Gandolfini and Michael — a man who has made mistakes and accepts his fate, strange as it’s become here — that “Daisy” has anything at all to offer. Even when surrounded by phony characters and phony circumstances and saddled with the kind of dialogue that forces him to play along, Gandolfini brings a level of grace to his character that’s both drop-of-a-pin gentle and larger than life. But Gandolfini’s work alone cannot save “Daisy” from itself, and it’s a testament to the film’s awfulness that he never even has a chance. If anything, a film that merely was lousy becomes almost offensively bad when it moves away from Gandolfini and shows us repeatedly just how steep the drop is from his work to the car crash that nullifies it. No extras.