The Top 15 Movies I Reviewed in 2016

List by Derrick Carter

2016 has been a crazy year both on film and in real life. I’ve reviewed just under 200 movies in the course of the last twelve months and for the most part, have fared pretty well in catching cool new flicks as well as crossing many revered classics off my cinephile “shame list.” As a result, my focus in 2016 wasn’t necessarily on catching every new film that graced the big screen and I instead went off whatever the hell I felt like watching/reviewing. Though I didn’t get as many reviews up during 2016 as I have in previous years (for a myriad of reasons), I do feel that For the Love of Celluloid sort of matured over the past twelve months and deeply appreciate the support of anyone who bothers to read my little movie blog.

Apologies if I briefly bore you with a technicality, but my year-end lists will now focus on first time watches in the course of the year and not specifically releases from the year. Without further ado, here are my fifteen favorite first time watches from 2016…

Honorable Mentions: If I hadn’t previously seen RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, THE SHINING, and A CLOCKWORK ORANGE before 2016, then they all would have easily made this list. ANTHROPOID, 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE, ZOOTOPIA, SAUSAGE PARTY, THE NICE GUYS, THE HANDMAIDEN and TRAIN TO BUSAN were all stand-out movies in this rather mixed bag cinematic year. SPIRITED AWAY, UNITED 93, and THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY also barely scraped by in missing this list. So, what did make the list?…


15. LADY SNOWBLOOD: Before getting into how much I love this movie, this film deserves some context. A local cinema pub runs monthly Kung Fu Movie Nights here and a buddy of mine occasionally drags me to them. I’m not a big martial arts aficionado and most of the movies I’ve seen at this pub have been entertaining and undeniably stupid. However, LADY SNOWBLOOD blew me out of the water. This was more than just a martial arts flick being shown in a cinema pub, but rather a beautiful, bloody revenge tale that carefully unwound its plot and sold its bad-ass heroine as someone to root for as she sliced and diced her way to vengeance. Featuring geysers of blood, gorgeous visuals, and a calculated delivery of fun, LADY SNOWBLOOD may likely go down as my favorite martial arts flick of all-time!


14. THE INVITATION: Easily the best horror film that I saw this year, THE INVITATION is brilliant in planting the viewer on the edge of their seat for 100 minutes. The premise is simple. A man goes to a suspiciously casual dinner party held by his ex-wife. Through the course of seemingly mundane actions and a possibly paranoid protagonist, we are taken on a tense ride of two terrifying possibilities. This film does a fantastic job of keeping the viewer flip-flopping on their stance and trying to figure out the dark mystery behind the plot, which fully unleashes itself in a truly frightening third act. Don’t watch the trailer. Don’t read any long plot synopsis. If you want to be scared and appreciate a classy Hitchcockian sense of unease, then definitely go into this film as blind as possible!


13. DREDD: When DREDD came out in 2012, I quickly wrote it off as a RAID rip-off in spite of the comic book source material. Having finally watched the film four years later, I realize just how wrong I was. Though it may resemble THE RAID on the surface, DREDD could not be any more different. This ultraviolent, highly entertaining and fully loaded sci-fi action extravaganza had me laughing and cheering from start to finish. The film doesn’t present its action in a gritty, heavily edited, shaky-cam style as attention to detail and beautiful lenses have been used to portray the gory chaos. I really hope that DREDD 2 eventually becomes a reality, because this needs to be a franchise!


12. DOCTOR STRANGE: The Marvel Cinematic Universe has now been running for nine years and fourteen films. Though none of its installments have failed to entertain me (some far more than others), I wouldn’t call any of them perfect entertainment…until now. Telling the most inventive origin story thus far in the Marvel universe and simultaneously functioning as a mystical adventure, DOCTOR STRANGE is easily the best MCU movie yet! The acting is stellar, making the main character’s transformation from selfish jerk to courageous hero all the better as a result. The effects are mindblowing (not to sound cliché) and deliver some of the most memorable sequences to hit the big screen in quite some time. It’s like a magical acid trip had a baby with a superhero movie and I loved every second of it!


11. THE BREAKFAST CLUB: Yes, I know. I hadn’t seen this movie before and was only pressured into watching it by a co-worker who kept bugging me about it. After finally caving in, I discovered why this John Hughes classic has so many fans and is widely considered to be one of the best films to come out of the 80’s. Revolving around five fleshed-out characters and skewing teenage clique stereotypes (that still exist to this day), THE BREAKFAST CLUB is equally funny as it is insightful. The film is a perfect balance of comedy and drama, resulting in an emotionally involving and beautiful story about how people are alike in spite of their differences. Maybe, in a world that’s so divided by differences and labels, we should all just kick back, watch this movie and remember that we can get along. I’ll never forget about this movie. Get it? That’s a reference to the song that plays during the end credits. Whatever, let’s move on…


10. THE PEOPLE V. O.J. SIMPSON: AMERICAN CRIME STORY: Yes, I know this is technically a miniseries, but you know what? This is my list and I don’t care. THE PEOPLE V. O.J. SIMPSON is better than damn near every true-crime film I’ve seen in my lifetime. Featuring a bevy of great acting talent and more than guaranteed to push a few buttons on every viewer, this 10-part miniseries stays true to the facts and relives the “trial of the century” in painstaking detail. I was addicted to this show when it aired earlier this year and have since binge-watched it as a complete cinematic experience. When paired with ESPN’s excellent five-part documentary O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA, there isn’t much left to be examined about the O.J. Simpson case. If you are the least bit intrigued by true crime, then PEOPLE V. O.J. SIMPSON is a must-see!


9. DEADPOOL: Though this year had more than its fair share of disappointing superhero flicks, 2016 still managed to deliver two spectacular comic book movies. I loved DOCTOR STRANGE, but DEADPOOL might just be one of my favorite superhero movies of all-time (next to the DARK KNIGHT trilogy). This rowdy X-MEN spinoff did everything in its power to be entertaining as hell and milked the R rating for everything it was worth. Because of DEADPOOL’s massive success as an R-rated money-maker, I truly hope that more studios will realize older audiences will pay to see great R-rated movies on the big screen too. Not everything needs to be accessible to younger viewers and every demographic, DEADPOOL was refreshingly bonkers and the most fun I’ve had in a movie theater since MAD MAX: FURY ROAD!


8. ON THE WATERFRONT: Another title that I crossed off my shame list this year, ON THE WATERFRONT never seemed that appealing to me. Sure, I had seen Marlon Brando’s contender speech out of context and heard the basic premise, but none of it sounded particularly special. This movie isn’t about a corrupt union and poorly-treated dock workers though, instead it’s a story about broken souls and a long walk to redemption. Marlon Brando’s performance is breathtaking as he disappears into the role of a tough guy with a soft heart. This film progresses naturally and doesn’t cheat out on its dangerous stakes, resulting in some very tense moments. The final minutes are unbelievably emotional as a simple dockside walk becomes a test of willpower and ultimately sums up the entire film. ON THE WATERFRONT is an emotional, brilliantly acted, and spectacularly written piece of art that deeply moved me!


7. ANIMAL HOUSE: Here’s another movie I crossed off my shame list during 2016. I had never seen ANIMAL HOUSE before, though I was well aware of its reputation. No hyperbole, this film changed the face of movie comedies and opened the door for crass humor to hit the big screen in gross-out fashion. This movie has plenty of hilarious scenes and quotes, but taken within the film’s context, they become ten times funnier. The dark sense of humor in areas had me cackling while the many sex jokes easily contributed to the likes of AMERICAN PIE and SUPERBAD further down the line. Also, John Belushi was a comedic tour-de-force to be reckoned with. With jokes about sex, death, horses, chainsaws, beer, racial differences, impressions of zits, and much more, ANIMAL HOUSE truly is one of the greatest and wildest comedies of all-time!


6. TRAINING DAY: Though it was released fifteen years ago, TRAINING DAY still seems frighteningly relevant in today’s world. Showcasing a dark underbelly of corrupt cops and street gangs, this film takes place in the space of 24 hours and sunk its hooks into me from start to finish. Ethan Hawke is a naïve protagonist (that’s kind of the point of the story) and we are forced to follow in his footsteps as he stands alongside one of my new favorite cinematic villains. Denzel Washington’s character is a beast and delivers one of the greatest movie monologues (for my money) of all-time in Detective Alonzo Harris’s street-side closing speech. Grim, gritty, and suspenseful the whole way through, TRAINING DAY is one of my new favorite movies!


5. ARRIVAL: A beautifully crafted and mature piece of science fiction, ARRIVAL’s true brilliance didn’t fully hit me until the closing credits began to roll. This film takes the alien invaders trope and spins in a mature, realistic direction. Though this has already been done in films like CLOSE ENCOUNTERS and CONTACT, I guarantee that it hasn’t been executed in the complex and thought-provoking manner that ARRIVAL delivers. Seemingly innocuous scenes take on whole new meanings when you realize the story’s true nature. The ending also guarantees that you won’t be able to watch this film in the same way upon a second viewing, much like Christopher Nolan’s THE PRESTIGE becomes a completely different movie once you’ve been wowed the first time around. ARRIVAL is a science fiction masterpiece and continues director Denis Villeneuve’s winning streak.


4. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD: Despite stemming from a book that’s required in many classrooms and existing for decades as a beloved classic that’s cherished by countless film fans, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD somehow never made its way across my eyeballs before 2016. However, I now count it among the most emotional dramas that I’ve ever seen. This film tackles hard-hitting issues through the innocent eyes of a child in a coming-of-age tale crossed with a courtroom drama. Gregory Peck’s performance as Atticus Finch is outstanding and the rest of the cast put in stellar work as well. This profoundly powerful film deeply moved me and left me on the verge of tears with its beautiful conclusion. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is a masterpiece!


3. THE REVENANT: The film that finally won Leo an Academy Award, THE REVENANT is an amazing cinematic feat that was created by both madness and brilliance. Did Leo look like he just puked when biting into a buffalo liver? That’s because he did. Do these cast members look like they’re freezing their asses off? That’s because they are. Does it seem like these are real locations? That’s because the director shot in natural light and proceeded to put his cast and crew through a hellish outdoor shooting experience. Production accomplishments aside, THE REVENANT remains a riveting tale of revenge and survival in harsher than harsh circumstances. This film is a gritty, unforgiving, and awe-inspiring piece of cinematic art that has blown me away twice at this point and will continue to do so many times in the future. Also, this movie may have given me a fear of bears too.


2. THE LOBSTER: The best love story I’ve seen all year belongs to a twisted dystopian dark comedy about a guy who’s forced to choose between finding a romantic partner or being turned into an animal. Sound weird? Oh boy, it is! Besides being strange all the way around, THE LOBSTER is also a wonderfully unique flick that’s equal parts charming and disturbing. This cinematic world felt like Terry Gilliam made a movie with David Lynch. The feelings this film gave me are almost impossible to properly describe as there really hasn’t been anything like it before. It’s a romance like no other and if you have a penchant for weird arthouse cinema, then I highly suggest that you watch THE LOBSTER at your earliest convenience…preferably with a significant other who’s also into awesome cinematic oddities.


1. HIGH-RISE: So if you thought THE LOBSTER was an odd choice for this list, then brace yourself because I can see people flat-out hating my number-one pick. HIGH-RISE is one of the few movies to be adapted from the work of British science fiction author J.G. Ballard. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because David Cronenberg adapted his work into twisted romantic thriller CRASH. That’s the level we’re at here, folks. HIGH-RISE is a grim, darkly hilarious and disturbing tale about a high society that devolves into a bloody class war in the space of a forty-floor apartment building…and I absolutely friggin’ adored this film! I’ve watched it four times within the space of the year and plan on revisiting it many more times in the future. The stylish visuals, colorful characters, twisted story arcs, oddball humor mixed with darkly disturbing content, a suffocating atmosphere, and shocking social commentary blew me out of the water. I love this movie so much that I actually listened to the DVD commentary. It’s the first film to make me do that in years! Though it’s definitely not for everyone (see THE LOBSTER’s divisiveness and crank it up to 11), HIGH-RISE is my favorite movie of 2016 and makes me hope for more big screen adaptations of Ballard’s work.

2016 was a pretty insane year in a lot of different ways. Many movies disappointed me in the theater, but I still saw plenty of good and great films. I also crossed many titles of my cinephile “shame list,” though I still have many more to eventually get through. Here’s hoping for an even better 2017!


Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 8 hours 19 minutes

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Starring: Cuba Gooding Jr., Sarah Paulson, Sterling K. Brown, John Travolta, Courtney B. Vance, David Schwimmer, Nathan Lane, Kenneth Choi, Bruce Greenwood, Chris Bauer, Selma Blair & Steven Pasquale

AMERICAN CRIME STORY is the more mature true-crime cousin of FX’s AMERICAN HORROR STORY. This is a new anthology series wherein each season will examine a notorious American crime (hence the not so subtle title) and they picked a doozy for the first season: the O.J. Simpson murder trial. This “trial of the century” was a double-homicide case turned national sensation. A car chase interrupted the NBA playoffs, broadcasts of the trial resulted in a media circus, tabloids took sexist jabs at the main prosecutor, and racial tensions across the country became even more tense. The whole trial is a fascinating story and makes for equally fascinating television. If THE PEOPLE v. O.J. SIMPSON is any indication of the quality in store for AMERICAN CRIME STORY’s future seasons, then this has just become one of my favorite TV shows!

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On June 12, 1994, Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman were brutally murdered. The key suspect in the case became football player/actor/Nicole’s abusive ex-husband O.J. Simpson. This was a black celebrity being tried for the murders two white people in Los Angeles, a city where the Rodney King riots had taken place two years earlier. State prosecutors seemed to have an open-and-shut case (with mountains of evidence against O.J.), but Simpson had a dream team of lawyers who weren’t afraid to divert attention away from the actual case at hand by any means necessary. The trial became less about the murders and more about media, elaborate conspiracy theories, racial tensions, police corruption, and celebrity status. You get to see this all play out in painstakingly detailed fashion.

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“I already know the ending of this trial,” you might say, “what could possibly be gained from watching this show?” I would respond by pointing out that THE PEOPLE v. O.J. SIMPSON goes through every fascinating bit of the trial. We see the initial investigation, the forming of O.J.’s legal dream team, just how much the prosecution screwed up in presenting evidence, drama among jury members, the public’s reaction to the case, the race card being played time and time again, and the ultimately heartbreaking verdict. This miniseries keeps a level hand as to whether or not O.J. committed the crimes, even though it’s based on Jeffrey Tobin’s book THE RUN OF HIS LIFE (which works under assumption that O.J. Simpson murdered Nicole in cold blood). We are given evidence for the possibilities of O.J. being guilty as sin (something I believe), but also enough wiggle room for the assumption that he might not have committed the crimes (something that other people might believe). It was an undeniably difficult tightrope to walk, but AMERICAN CRIME STORY does it well.

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Besides going through the courtroom drama and murder proceedings, this show also holds up a mirror to mid-90’s America in order to explore ugly truths about racial tensions and media sensationalism. It’s scary how relevant this show is to our current times and how certain things still haven’t changed much. It’s not brought up to an over-the-top degree, but the Kardashian children occasionally pop in and their portrayal is less than glamorous (young fame-seeking whores). It’s an apt reminder that we’re still living in the country the O.J. Simpson trial created. Every time you see a Kardashian “news story,” you’re looking at a direct result of post-O.J. America.

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The media circus isn’t the only thing that PEOPLE v. O.J. SIMPSON nails, because we get loads of scenes that examine racial tension. There is a particularly powerful scene wherein Johnny Cochrane is falsely pulled over and handcuffed in front of his children, but keeps his cool. This small moment demonstrates that the black populace were indeed being horribly mistreated in the streets of L.A. (again, Rodney King just a few years earlier). Other areas of the country were just as bad (if not, worse) and it’s understandable that a “win” was needed to feel justice. Unfortunately, that “win” had to come in the form of O.J. Simpson. More rock solid examinations of racial tension arrive in the jury episodes (near the end of the season) as we watch these people interact with each other and base assumptions solely on color of skin. It’s a touchy subject, but AMERICAN CRIME STORY covers it even-handedly and with a level-head.

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I’ve mentioned the historical content and deeper areas that O.J. SIMPSON covers, but have yet to mention the performances. To be blunt, they’re brilliant across the board. Sarah Paulson is sympathetic, but equally frustrating to watch as prosecutor Marcia Clark. Sterling K. Brown is great as Christopher Darden, a black face for hire in the prosecution’s eyes and a man who wants to convict a murderer in his own eyes. Kenneth Choi is a dead ringer for Judge Ito and actually managed to come off somewhat likable.

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As far as O.J.’s defensive dream team goes, John Travolta plays a diva in Robert Shapiro and Nathan Lane is perfectly slimy as F. Lee Bailey. David Schwimmer isn’t exactly known for his acting prowess, but he’s surprisingly fantastic as Robert Kardashian. His complete arc through the season offers one of the most quietly powerful scenes during the finale. He’s only outshined by Courtney B. Vance’s Johnnie Cochran. To me, there was no Courtney Vance in this series, it was just Cochran brought back from the dead! Vance is perfect! He captures the rage, determination, and underhanded ethics.

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Finally, there’s Cuba Gooding Jr. as O.J. Simpson. Though he might not bear an immediate resemblance to the titular criminal, Gooding Jr. captures the arrogance, mental instability, and anger present in the real-life O.J. It’s funny though, because Cuba Gooding Jr. isn’t exactly the focus of this series. He’s actually overshadowed by the legal teams duking it out among one another. O.J. doesn’t get to do much but sit in his chair and occasionally yell at his lawyers. After the first few episodes, Gooding Jr.’s screen time is significantly shortened, but that actually makes for a more interesting show as a result.

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Parts of THE PEOPLE v. O.J. SIMPSON were definitely exaggerated for the sake of ratings (a bar scene between Christopher Darden and Marcia Clarke is clichéd, F. Lee Bailey has an enemy juror nicknamed “the demon,” etc.), but this show also sticks true to the facts on a lot of fronts. It’s unapologetically grim, harsh, and depressing…but also, extremely well-written, carefully detailed, driven by stellar performances, and packs many powerful (frighteningly relevant) punches. THE PEOPLE v. O.J. SIMPSON is one of the best true-crime television miniseries to ever hit the small screen and I’d also argue that it’s better than most true-crime films too!

Grade: A+


Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 10 hours 39 minutes

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Starring: Lady Gaga, Kathy Bates, Sarah Paulson, Evan Peters, Wes Bentley, Matt Borner, Chloe Sevigny, Denis O’Hare, Cheyenne Jackson & Angela Bassett

Ever since its 2011 debut, AMERICAN HORROR STORY has been a monumental success for FX. The fourth season set records and the same thing happened with HOTEL’s first episode (serving as FX’s most watched telecast). While the series has had its ups and downs throughout the years, this fifth season initially seemed to step back into the darker ideas of the first season. The overall story is not nearly as campy as COVEN or FREAK SHOW and begins with the same tone as MURDER HOUSE and ASYLUM. This can also be seen in one of the fifth season’s big plot points (ghosts being stuck inside the property where they died) being relocated from the first season of the show…to this hotel. That’s not to say that this is up to the same quality as MURDER HOUSE or ASYLUM though, because it’s not. This is actually my least favorite season of AMERICAN HORROR STORY thus far. It begins with such promise and then gets lost in a big patch of oddball WTF territory during the last six episodes.

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The setting is the Cortez Hotel. This historic landmark is a prestigious upscale place where customers can crash for the night in peace and comfort…assuming they don’t wind up dead or someone’s meal by the end of their stay. You see, the Cortez Hotel is home to a wild cast of characters, some more bloodthirsty than others. There’s Sally (a ghostly prostitute who slays unfaithful men), James March (an undead serial killer who originally constructed the hotel as his murder castle), and The Countess (a vampire who resides in the penthouse suite and picks off men every night with her immortal lover). When stressed out Detective John Lowe checks into the hotel to investigate a serial killer known as the Ten Commandments killer, he sets off a chain of events that will change the Hotel Cortez forever.

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The big problem with HOTEL is that the plot is extremely scattershot. This has always been somewhat the case with AMERICAN HORROR STORY (after all, the best season featured a combination of serial killers, demonic possession, and aliens), but it’s stretched to an annoying degree in this fifth outing. The tone is all over the place and it doesn’t seem like HOTEL ever truly finds its focus for the space of all twelve episodes. That’s not to say that showrunner Ryan Murphy doesn’t go balls-out in his approach though. The body count for this season is among the highest of the whole series (the show isn’t above slaughtering a room full of children either) and the sex scenes are pretty extreme for FX. This show fully pushes the basic cable TV-MA for all its worth. There were moments where someone casually walking by my TV screen could reasonably think that I was watching a softcore porn and it just happened to feature vampires.

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Speaking of which, Ryan Murphy (who once stated that he wanted AMERICAN HORROR STORY to be wholly unique in its horror) relies heavily on vampires in this season. This undead bloodsucker storyline sadly overshadows the more interesting plot threads occurring between the rest of the characters, which includes one of the show’s best creations yet. This comes in Evan Peter’s James March. Peters has played good/anti-hero characters in MURDER HOUSE, ASYLUM, COVEN, and FREAK SHOW…but drastically changes gears for HOTEL. Based on H.H. Holmes, James March will probably be the best role that Evan Peters will ever receive in this entire series. Using upbeat body language, over-the-top line delivery, and a quirky attitude to his advantage, Evans’s March is the kind of guy who gets pure joy out of being evil…and it’s a blast to watch.

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The same cannot be said about the rest of the cast. Denis O’Hare is good as transsexual bartender Liz Taylor, who receives a story arc mid-way through season that’s far more dramatically mature than anything AMERICAN HORROR STORY has given us before. It squanders this though by making Liz Taylor into a melodramatic mess in the latter half of the season, especially in the laughably bad finale. Kathy Bates doesn’t have much to do as the hotel’s desk clerk and overbearing mother to the Countess’s lover. Sarah Paulson is good as Sally, but then (much like Liz Taylor) also becomes an over-the-top cartoon character of sorts (becoming addicted to social media). Angela Bassett shows up to bring what she can to an on-and-off revenge plot. Wes Bentley is okay as the drunken detective, but his character’s storyline takes a rather unbelievable clichéd turn about halfway through the series.

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The most talked about performance of this season is definitely Lady Gaga’s role as the Countess. Frankly, I found her to be a bit bland and wooden in the part, but that also lends to her character being a cold vampire who preys on other people’s emotions as well as their blood. Unfortunately, the Countess’s storyline almost plays out like a soap opera with vampires. We go through mini-plotlines involving many of her lovers (both past and present) and “children.” I found myself caring less and less with each new character. It certainly doesn’t help that nothing much comes out of the Countess’s many lovers as opposed to simply a rising body count for the sake of having a body count.

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This season did not seem to balance the right mix of darkness and campiness. As a result, it comes off as a wildly uneven, goofy, and melodramatic mess. To give you a perfect example of what I mean, the best episode revolves around an undead serial killer dinner party and then we get a ridiculous looking killer baby that appears to have stepped right out of IT’S ALIVE. Not everything is a complete waste though, because the visuals (and two-story set) look impressive and an awesome soundtrack perfectly suits the gothic atmosphere. However, the many plotlines are scattered all over the place in a bad way. I didn’t care about many of the characters. Certain plot twists seemed contrived or clichéd beyond belief. Finally, HOTEL caps it all off with the worst finale in the series’ run thus far. Overall, I’d say to skip HOTEL and stick with the first four seasons (even COVEN is miles more enjoyable than this one). Hopefully, they can turn this series around with the rumored Slenderman-based sixth season.

Grade: C-

12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 14 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence/Cruelty, Some Nudity and Brief Sexuality

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Directed by: Steve McQueen

Written by: John Ridley

(based on the book 12 YEARS A SLAVE by Solomon Northup)

Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Garrett Dillahunt, Paul Giamatti, Lupita Nyong’O, Sarah Paulson & Brad Pitt

It’s so easy to overlook the past and pretend that atrocities didn’t happen. Some people say that slavery has been overdone in films, but those who don’t learn from the history are doomed to repeat it. Slavery was an abomination and it sickens me to no end to think that it occurred less than two centuries ago. This was a dark, scary piece of American history. This was a period of time where certain people weren’t considered to be human, based solely on the color of their skin. To make matters even worse, no one was safe from this horrible crime against humanity. It gave cruel plantation owners an excuse to be dehumanize others. 12 YEARS A SLAVE is an unflinching, disturbingly realistic film that is based on a true story that took place before the Civil War, when slavery was at its peak.

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Solomon Northup is a free black man living in upstate New York. Upon meeting some gentlemen, Solomon agrees to travel with them in the hopes of making some extra cash to support his family (a wife, a son, and a daughter). It is in Washington, D.C. that Solomon is deceived. Waking up in chains, Solomon has been kidnapped and sold into slavery. Given a new name and a fake past, Solomon does what he must to endure and survive this terrible ordeal. With prejudice and potential death lurking around every corner, Solomon serves 12 years that are split between two very different plantations. One is run by a Baptist preacher (Benedict Cumberbach from STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS), while the other is run by a cruel drunk of a man (played by Michael Fassbender) and his equally cruel wife (played by Sarah Paulson).

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12 YEARS A SLAVE wisely shows roughly two title cards explaining what the time and place is. This decision pretty much throws us into the disoriented world with Solomon as he struggles to find some footing and retain some of his dignity, along with his life. Early on in the movie, a fellow slave says to Solomon that if he wants to survive, he should try not to stand out. Later on, resigning to his current predicament, Solomon tells a grieving mother (separated from her children) that he doesn’t want to survive, he wants to live. Determined not to let grief and despair get the best of him, Solomon does what he is asked and also finds the courage to stand up when something completely unfair is occurring.

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The production values of the movie are top-notch and the A-list names add even more talent to display. This is Michael Fassbender’s most frightening performance and Benedict Cumberbatch is a marvel as a slave-owner with a touch of kindness. Paul Dano is despicable as an obnoxious carpenter, using the idea of slavery to further his own power-hungry ego. Paul Giamatti and Brad Pitt aren’t in the movie for too long, but when they are they stand out as characters unlike any they’ve played before.

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The real show-stopper is the relatively unknown Chiwetel Ejiofor (who has been in many other films, but isn’t a standout face). It was a smart move for director Steve McQueen (who also directed SHAME and HUNGER) to cast an unfamiliar face in the role of Solomon Northup. If it had been a blockbuster actor like Will Smith, things could have easily gone downhill and become cheesy. Ejiofor gives a performance that feels real and being thrown into his position, we genuinely feel for his actions and understand his motivation to keep moving on and his fear to disclose his true identity to anyone, for fear of repercussions. We never leave Solomon’s side at any point in the movie. This is the struggle of one man through a dark period of inhumane history.

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The film is hard to watch and brutally real, but the experience is a rewarding one. It’s a history lesson that bears repeating over and over. Steve McQueen is not afraid to transport us back to the dark times of slavery and never once does he restrain from any of the honest tragedy of the entire situation. It’s unflinching, heartbreaking, and incredibly moving. Expect to emotional for a long time after the credits have rolled. 12 YEARS A SLAVE is a modern classic, if there ever was one.

Grade: A+

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