Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Best Movies for Halloween

The Shining. Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
Today, I posted my list of the 50 or so best horror movies to watch this Halloween or, if you will, what I believe to be the Horror Movie Canon.

I'm sure I missed some titles, but I think the piece does a decent enough job of putting together a list of some of the best and most underrated horror movies.

Anyway, here's the story. Please share your thoughts on the comment section below.

Update, Oct. 28, 2014: Yes, I did miss some great titles. Also, add these to your list: Wes Craven's 1977 original version of "The Hills Have Eyes," Don Coscarelli's eerie "Phantasm" and Bob Clark's "Black Christmas" (the 1974 original) and topical "Deathdream."

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Review: All Is Lost

Image courtesy of Lionsgate.
J.C. Chandor's "All Is Lost" is, perhaps, a movie that I admire more than I love, but admire it I do. The picture is a one-man show with Robert Redford at the helm or, arguably, a three-man show if you want to include the pretty incredible cinematography by Frank G. DeMarco and Peter Zuccarini.

All you need to know about the film is that it follows a nameless man (Redford) who is alone at sea on his boat and must deal with an increasingly dire situation after his ship is struck by a floating piece of freight, forcing him to first attempt to keep from sinking and, when that fails, try to survive on a life raft.

However, you'd be wrong to think that "All Is Lost" is another of those tales of survival that celebrate the triumph of human resilience. In fact, the picture shares more in common with Michael Haneke's recent "Amour," which also chronicled a person of a certain age's coming to face with their own mortality.

And Redford pretty much pulls it off, carrying the film with a mostly wordless performance, allowing his emotions and sense of, at first, dread - and then - acceptance of his situation play out on his face.

The film also looks pretty terrific and there are more than a few scenes that I wondered how the filmmakers pulled off, including one in which Redford's boat flips upside down in the water and another involving a rather lengthy storm.

All this being said, I think Chandor's film is a good - but, perhaps, not great - one. I prefer his debut, the critically acclaimed and Oscar nominated financial crisis drama "Margin Call." But I was pretty awed by Redford's performance here, which is one of his best in some time, and the camera work involved. And I like that the filmmakers took a scenario that has been a little played out - the survival against the odds tale - and made it into something you might not expect.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Review: Bastards

Image courtesy of Sundance Selects.
Claire Denis is one of the world's great filmmakers, but she seems to have fallen into a pattern of delivering a great movie or two and then following them with a frustratingly opaque and fragmented one.

For example, she followed the marvelous "Beau Travail" and underrated "Trouble Every Day" with the murky "L'Intrus," which many loved but is among my least favorite of her works. And now, she gives us "Bastards," which follows the elegiac "35 Shots of Rum" and the starkly haunting "White Material."

Those familiar with my taste should know I certainly do not object to the peculiar, the experimental, the occasionally outright nonsensical or what some might refer to as challenging cinema. But Denis' latest is so vague that it's hard to even collect my thoughts on it.

The picture has something to do with a tanker captain named Marco (Vincent London, who might have played a great 1960s Jean Pierre Melville anti-hero) returning home to visit his sister (Julie Bataille), whose husband has died and teenage daughter (Lola Creton) has attempted suicide due to what a doctor describes as severe sexual abuse. When we first meet the young woman, she is walking nude along a deserted Paris street with blood dripping down her leg.

Marco's sister blames her husband's death on a business partner (Michael Subor). Before long, our hero gets entangled with the business partner's wife (Chiara Mastroianni), who has a young boy.

The film looks great, but - as the saying goes - has less filling. Marco goes further and further down a rabbit hole, but it's unclear what he's searching for and even what he finds.

"Bastards" has a throbbing electronica score and some moody sequences that feel as if they were pulled straight out of David Lynch's "Lost Highway" or Olivier Assayas's "Demonlover." But it's a case of - to borrow another cliche - being all dolled up with nowhere to go.

Denis is a wonderful filmmaker with a style and mood all her own. But "Bastards" is a bit too spare to leave much of an impression. Here's to hoping that, in typical fashion, her next few works are great.

Review: The Counselor

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox.
You'd think that a film directed by Ridley Scott, written by Cormac McCarthy and starring Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz and Brad Pitt would result in something possibly extraordinary - or, at least, pretty damn good.

Alas, "The Counselor" is not as bad as you might have heard, but that's not saying it's all that good either. The film is alternately thrilling and ludicrous as well as overly violent and, on occasion, a bit jumbled. You may not remember exactly which character double crossed the other or why the titular figure, who is known only as "Counselor," is in the mess he's in, but I doubt you'll ever forget the scene in which Diaz has sex with the windshield of Bardem's car. Seriously.

McCarthy is one of America's greatest writers and the plot of "The Counselor" sounds like something he would cook up - shady characters in the southwest, many of whom will meet violent deaths, wrestling with intrigue and talking about Big Ideas. However, it would appear that adaptations of McCarthy's work - namely, the Coen Brothers' remarkable "No Country for Old Men" - seem to play better than screenplays written directly by the author.

The film has that trademark opacity that mark his novels, but work substantially less on the big screen than they do on the page. It's no wonder that McCarthy's masterpiece, "Blood Meridian," has taken so long to be made into a film. In "The Counselor," characters sit around talking about those aforementioned Big Ideas, such as greed, death, capitalism and the nature of good and evil. But the film's characters are a bit underdeveloped and the film's story, which has something to do with the Counselor getting mixed up with a particularly sadistic Mexican cartel, never quite gels together.

Scott is a fine director and all of the actors here are typically quite good, but the film feels more like a bunch of ideas in search of a narrative, rather than a movie. That's not to say there's not some stuff to chew on. Bardem is likely the standout among the cast, although Rosie Perez makes her bit part as a prisoner count.

And, this being a Ridley Scott film, the cinematography is often beautiful and, this being a Cormac McCarthy screenplay, there are a fair share of zingers and memorable lines. And, like I said, that scene with Diaz gives all new meaning to the term auto erotica. But I'd just hoped for much more. "The Counselor" isn't a bad movie, but it could have been a great one.

Review: Blue is the Warmest Color

Image courtesy of IFC Films.
There's been a lot of talk about "Blue is the Warmest Color" since it went on to win the Palm d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival and, unfortunately, much of the discussion has centered on the picture's semi-graphic sex scenes between the two female leads, Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux.

The real story is the intense, naturalistic performances by Exarchopoulos and Seydoux, neither of whom are particularly recognizable to me, despite that they have both been acting in films for the past four or five years. Regardless, I'd bet that their names will become a lot more familiar now following their star making turns in Abdellatif Kechiche's movie.

At the beginning of the film, Adele (Exarchopoulos) is a bright high school student who loves to read. At school, she listens to a lecture about love at first sight and regrets in terms of a French novel that she is reading, even though both themes will come into play in her own life.

Adele appears to be sexually frustrated and her coupling with a young man from her high school does little to ease her tension. But when she spots blue-haired - and older - art student Emma (Seydoux), she becomes fixated, eventually following her to a gay bar, where the two strike up a conversation.

Emma wants Adele to pose for her and Adele agrees. It's not too long before the young women's friendship becomes much more. Yes, there are some fairly graphic - and, in one case, extremely prolonged - sex scenes in "Blue," but the real heart of the story, which runs just a little over three hours, is the relationship between the two women and how it grows and, eventually, changes over a period of several years.

There are some particularly adept juxtapositions in the film, including one in which Emma, who is openly gay with her parents, takes Adele, who is about as closeted as one gets, to meet the parents and the four of them talk about food and culture. Then, Adele takes Emma, posing as her tutor, to meet her own parents, who end up lecturing the both of them about the importance of having a job and a rich husband.

The film's sex scenes may be intimate, but so is the rest of the picture. Kechiche follows Adele through her daily life in the classroom, in which she is, at first, a student and then later a teacher. There is a great sequence during which Adele cooks the food for a party Emma is throwing for her artist friends. Adele appears to feel nervous and out of place, despite that Emma's friends appear to be pretty welcoming toward her. The film perfectly captures the experience of being thrown into a new group of people and all the excitement and nervousness that entails.

I'm not going to give away any of the story, but I can say that two particular scenes late in the film that are emotionally grueling display the many talents of Exarchopoulos and Seydoux. Both actresses have now spoken out against the intense process Kechiche required on the set of his film, but it's clear that this process has led to a movie that feels entirely lived in. A scene in which the two women get into a rather dramatic argument doesn't feel like two actresses playing their parts, but rather two people actually fighting.

"Blue is the Warmest Color" is a pretty amazing film. It takes a series of fairly simple concepts - a first love, a coming of age story, a coming out story - and turns them into something epic, which is likely how any one of these types of stories feels to the person living them. It's a warm, funny, heartbreaking, sexy, brilliantly acted, completely alive movie.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Review: Carrie

Image courtesy of MGM.
Kimberly Peirce's remake of Brian de Palma's classic adaptation of Stephen King's debut novel, "Carrie," is faithful enough to its source material(s), but a bit unnecessary.

First things first: Both Chloe Grace Moretz and Julianne Moore provide solid performances as the titular figure and her religious fanatic mother, even though it's difficult to replace Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie.

The remake is set in modern times, so poor Carrie's humiliation not only takes place in the locker room and classrooms, but also on YouTube, where her fellow classmates post a particularly traumatic incident in her life.

Otherwise, Peirce's film is pretty by-the-book: Carrie is the daughter of one Margaret White, a believer of some truly intense fervor who locks her daughter up in the closet to pray and reminds her that she was conceived through what may have been a rape.

Carrie doesn't fare much better at school, where popular girls smirk at her unawareness of menstruation and young men treat her as cruelly as teenage boys can often do. It's only a kindly teacher played by Judy Greer and, eventually, one of the popular girls who gets a conscience who have toward Carrie any kind intentions.

You know the story. Or, if you don't, I won't give it away. Let's just say things don't go well at the prom.

Peirce's previous films also dealt with young characters with difficult situations, including the haunting "Boys Don't Cry" and the pretty solid back-from-Iraq drama "Stop Loss." While I can see why "Carrie" drew her interest, I'd much rather see the director return to her indie roots.

This remake is not a bad film and, in fact, it's much better than remakes of, say, "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" or "The Last House on the Left." But it doesn't have much of a better reason for existing in the first place.

Review: The Fifth Estate

Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios.
I remember there being some discussion several years back about how effective a movie about people sitting around in front of computer screens would play for an audience. Of course, the movie in question at that time was David Fincher's "The Social Network," which was my favorite film of 2010 that went on to get robbed by the Academy Awards.

Now, we have Bill Condon's "The Fifth Estate," which tells the purportedly - and I say that due to its subject's insistence that it does not tell the full story - true story of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his squabbles with then-partner Daniel Berg (Daniel Bruhl). The film's subject matter is inherently interesting - and yet, the film feels as though we're watching people doing a lot of sitting in front of computer screens.

And whereas Mark Zuckerberg's alleged loneliness and outsider-ness made for a compelling psychological profile that drove Fincher's film, Assange's "back story," if you will, is not as convincing in explaining why he comes off as a well-intentioned egomaniac.

Part of the problem is that Assange is only marginally fleshed out and that the filmmakers have given just enough evidence for both sides of the argument on the man's worth that they appear to take no side at all. In other words, what do the writers and filmmakers think about Julian Assange? Yes, they make it clear that he's brilliant and, sure, he comes off as pompous and self important. But as to whether he should have leaked documents that put lives at risk, the film is frustratingly opaque. You could make cases for both sides of the argument, but this film does not.

That's not to say that "The Fifth Estate" is without its pleasures. Cumberbatch, who provided some solid supporting work in "12 Years a Slave," inhabits the man as well as the screenplay allows. And the subject matter itself is quite harrowing. And there's a subplot here involving Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci as Department of State workers attempting to handle the media following Assange's release of highly classified documents that is pretty interesting throughout.

But the picture could have been a whole lot more. "The Fifth Estate" poses some interesting questions on the state of 21st century journalism and what exactly is important for the public to know. But anyone can pose a question. It's making the case for your answer that tends to prove more riveting.

Review: 12 Years a Slave

Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.
Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave" is an often horrifying experience to which many viewers may not want to subject themselves. But like Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List," it is a film that all should see.

And like that aforementioned film, viewers will not only be affected by the raw emotion of its story, but also by its incredible artistry and, in the case of McQueen's film, the bravery of its performances.

McQueen began his career as a film instillation artist before moving on to features, which include the haunting Bobby Sands picture "Hunger" and the provocative sex addiction drama "Shame." But "12 Years" puts him in an entirely other class.

Here is a film that I'd have to imagine will be the movie about slavery just as "Schindler's" is the most significant about the Holocaust and Paul Greengrass' "United 93" is - at least, in my opinion - the best about the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

At the film's beginning, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free black man - and musician - living in Saratoga, New York, with his wife and two young children in the 1850s. The horrors of the Civil War and the slave trade seem far away from Northup's doorstep.

Two white men arrive to enlist Northup to perform a concert in Washington D.C., where he is then drugged and sold into slavery under the name Platt, first being auctioned and sold to a plantation owner known as Mr. Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) and, later, to a violent man known as Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), whose wife (Sarah Paulson) is nearly as dangerous as the plantation's owner.

During his stay at the first plantation, Ford is taken by Platt's intelligence - of course, not knowing that he is, in fact, a free man from the north. Platt argues with a fellow slave named Eliza (Adepero Oduye, in one of the movie's terrific supporting roles), who has lost her two children, about what he describes as Ford's "kindness," referencing the fact that the plantation owner gave him a violin to play and shows him favor. Eliza's response puts things a bit more in perspective.

At this first plantation, Platt draws the ire of a nasty overseer named Tibeats (Paul Dano), who is angered by the slave's intelligence, which is clearly greater than his own. A fight between the two leads to one of the film's most horrific - but brilliantly executed - sequences during which Platt has a noose around his neck, standing on tiptoes for an entire day, attempting to balance on the mud beneath his feet so that he does not choke to death.

Ford tells Platt that he is impressed by his intelligence, but that "no good" will come of his staying on at the plantation. So, he is shipped off to work for Epps, a vicious sadist who takes pride in the horrific violence he unleashes on his slaves and quotes scripture to justify it. His wife is equally as evil, taking out her anger on a young slave woman (Lupita Nyong'o in a performance that has Oscar written all over it) who has attracted the attentions of her husband. It is at Epps' plantation that the real heart of "12 Years" lies.

There's not a single wasted performance in the film, from Ejiofor's remarkable lead role to Fassbender, Paulson, Nyong'o and Cumberbatch's excellent work. And the film, despite that it's often so difficult to watch, is frequently filled with beautiful images and powerful shots, from a torrent of red berry juice washing around on a plate, serving as a symbol of the blood shed by Platt and his fellow slaves to a long take of Platt joining in a hymn during a burial ceremony.

And the film's screenplay by John Ridley makes the language of 1850s America come to life, whereas it could have sounded stilted in the hands of a lesser filmmaker. And, as critic Glenn Kenny recently pointed out in an essay, the film's dialogue is often remarkable because of what the film's characters are implying, rather than outwardly saying.

"12 Years a Slave" is an unforgettable film - and one that should launch McQueen to the top of the heap of directors to watch. Although we can never truly know whether a film captures the essence of an era that has only been captured through the printed word, I'd have to say that McQueen has done just that in this movie. This is a difficult, extremely powerful and truly remarkable film.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Review: Machete Kills

Image courtesy of Open Road Films.
Just because a film aims to be bad does not give it a pass. Robert Rodrigue's "Machete Kills" is a sequel to 2010's "Machete," a somewhat forced feature length film of the director's clever fake trailer of the same that accompanied 2007's vastly underrated double feature, "Grindhouse."

If the original trailer was witty and entertainingly ludicrous, then its full length result was a bit labored, if moderately amusing. But this sequel, which features a cast full of wasted talent, is leaden, gory for the sake of being so and not particularly fun.

Danny Trejo resumes the titular role as a Mexican badass who was once a federale but is now, as one character puts it, the living embodiment of revenge - in this case, for a woman he loves who is killed at the picture's beginning.

There's no point in going through the various plot elements of "Machete Kills," but suffice it to say he is sent to his home country by the president (Charlie Sheen) to retrieve a very dangerous man (Demian Bechir) who threatens to launch a nuclear weapon at the United States.

There are a myriad of villains played by Cuba Gooding Jr., Antonio Banderas, Lady Gaga, Sofia Vergara, Amber Heard and Mel Gibson, all of whom barely register.

There are guts galore and blood splattering all over the screen throughout the course of the film's seemingly epic - or, rather, endless - hour and 45 minutes.

In fact, the only enjoyable moment in the whole enterprise is the opening trailer - "Machete Kills Again... In Space," which - God forbid - also threatens to become its own feature film.

Robert Rodriguez is responsible for his share of entertaining low budget mayhem, from his "Grindhouse" contribution "Planet Terror" and "Sin City" to the first two in his "El Mariachi" trilogy. But "Machete Kills" falls flat. It's an unnecessary sequel to a movie that didn't necessarily need to exist in the first place.

Review: Captain Phillips

Image courtesy of Columbia Pictures.
Paul Greengrass' "Captain Phillips" is a tense, often claustrophobic, political thriller that aims to make sense of the complicated world in which we live. In fact, the film's lead, Rich Phillips (Tom Hanks), has a discussion on that very matter during the picture's opening sequence as he drives with his wife (Catherine Keener) to the airport.

Phillips will travel to Africa - Oman, specifically - and take charge of a massive cargo ship, the Maersk Alabama, which will make its way down the coast through Somalia and, eventually, to Mombasa. For those unaware with the real life story of this voyage, Phillips and his crew will be visited by Somali pirates, who, first, board the ship before later taking the captain hostage in a dinghy.

Greengrass has carved a successful niche for himself as a director of intense political thrillers that happen to be based on true incidents, such as the powerful "Bloody Sunday" and the remarkable "United 93," as well as others that might as well have been based on true stories, such as the Iraq War drama, "Green Zone."

His latest makes use of the style of camera work that he employed in his "Bourne" films, but the cinematography is used here less as a means of jarring our senses amid frenetic action and more to create a sense of tight quarters, in which the story takes place.

After the opening sequence during which Phillips and his wife discuss the changing nature of the world and their children's role in it, Greengrass gets down to business. Phillips and crew board the ship and, several minutes later, the captain spots two blips on his radar.

During a tense sequence, Phillips and crew attempt to ward off two boats full of Somali pirates with radio tricks, hoses and ship maneuvers. The pirates board the ship and Phillips does his best to keep his crew hidden. Eventually, the Somalis take $30,000 from the ship and Phillips along with them. As you might know from the real encounter, Phillips and his captors were involved in a standoff with the American military, who surrounded a dinghy carrying the captain and four Somalis.

While "United 93" played out in a documentary format, giving little characterization to the people in the film - a bold, but necessary, move - and appropriately did not involve politics whatsoever, "Captain Phillips" includes some subtle, but effective, ideas.

The key to the film is the relationship between Phillips and Muse (Barkhad Abdi), the skeletal leader of the pirates. During two exchanges - one in which Phillips asks whether fishing and taking hostages is a viable way to live and another when Muse talks about robbing a Greek ship - Greengrass puts the story of the Maersk Alabama in a wider context about the current state of the world and the U.S.'s role in it.

And it should be mentioned that Hanks gives one of his best performances, certainly his finest work in more than a decade. The actor displays some serious gravitas throughout the proceedings, especially during a scene in the film's finale as he is treated by a doctor who is searching for signs of stress. I'd be shocked if Hanks doesn't have some nominations in his future.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Review: Runner Runner

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox
It's not that Brad Furman's "Runner Runner" is a bad movie. It's just by-the-numbers and fairly uninspired. It's a movie about taking risks that takes none of its own.

In the film, Justin Timberlake plays Richie, a graduate student at Princeton University who can barely pay off his student loans. We are told he had a previous career on Wall Street, but was then screwed over when his company went belly up.

Richie gets the shaft again after losing all of his money in an online poker game, but he recognizes that he was cheated and, like any of us would naturally do, boards a plane to Costa Rica to track down one Ivan Block (Ben Affleck), the mysterious operator of the website who has made millions through online gambling and is persona non grata in the United States.

Block seems to lure Richie into his operation, giving him a high-powered position and feeding his ego. Block is a manipulator and Richie - surprisingly, for a guy who is supposed to be pretty smart - is easily manipulated.

It must be the money that draws Richie in because it's not Block's charisma. Affleck plays the heavy for the first time and while his over-the-top portrayal is often amusing, his character is not as enigmatic as the screenwriters appear to think he is.

Richie is approached by an FBI agent (Anthony Mackie), who wants him to feed information about Block's enterprise. And wouldn't you know that a girl (Gemma Arterton) is involved who may or may not be trustworthy? And then, of course, there's Richie's dad (John Heard), a gambling addict whom Block uses as a bargaining chip at one obvious point. No cliche is left unused.

That's not to say that "Runner Runner" is that bad of a film. There are few surprises, but it handles its material with a certain level of professionalism. If that sells you on seeing it, you might possess a certain risk taking quality that the film itself is lacking.

Review: A Touch of Sin

Image courtesy of Koch Lorber Films
Jia Zhang-ke's "A Touch of Sin" is a brutal and unsettling omnibus film that tells four stories of the links between violence and materialism in modern day China.

For those unfamiliar with Zhang-ke's work, the director is one of the nation's most lauded filmmakers, whose "Platform," "Unknown Pleasures" and "Still Life" comment on globalization and alienation in the China of the 21st century, often employing long takes and a documentary style approach to filmmaking.

"A Touch of Sin" marks a notable change of pace for the filmmaker, first because of the relentless violence included in its four chapters, but also because of its stylized photography and occasional drift into the realms of the surreal.

In the first - and most powerful - chapter, a man named Dahai (Wu Jiang) is fed up with the village chief and local boss, who have obtained wealth through selling off collective property for which the villagers have not seen a penny. Dahai confronts the authorities, threatening to expose them, but is mostly written off as the village fool - that is, until he is attacked violently by one of the local boss' goons.

In a startling turn of events, Dahai removes a shotgun from his closet and enacts his revenge. Although the plot of this first sequence may sound like your standard Hollywood revenge fantasy, the violence is approached from a realist standpoint, making it all the more disturbing.

In a second - and not as successful - tale, a young man named Zhou San (Wang Baoqiang) returns to his home along the Three Gorges region after having gunned down three boys who attempted to rob him. His family acts distant, very possibly because they figure he is involved in some shady dealings.

Zhou putters around, spending time with his son and wife before engaging in the film's second shocking act of violence that includes a robbery.

We move on to the third - and second best - of the stories in which a young sauna receptionist named Xiao Yu (Zhao Tao, Zhang-ke's wife) carries on a relationship with a married man, is attacked by that man's wife and then enacts her revenge against a group of unruly men at her sauna.

This sequence has its share of surrealistic moments, including a dreamy sequence in a van during which a woman's feet are surrounded by snakes. Xiao Yu's revenge is carried out during a scene that could have been found in one of Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill" films and, very possibly, pays homage to King Hu's kung fu classic "A Touch of Zen," after which Zhang-ke may have titled his own picture.

The fourth story held my interest, but it may be the weakest. It involves a young man who become involved with a teenage girl who works in a brothel after having fled the factory at which he worked. At moments, this sequence is powerful, but a bit inconclusive.

Zhang-ke ends his picture with a scene during which one of the film's characters watches a Chinese opera on a street and the camera cuts to a crowd of civilians as a character in the opera discusses the notion of sin. Zhang-ke's latest may not be his best, but it still has an urgency in its portrayal of characters trapped in a nation that the director hints may be changing for the worse.

Review: Gravity

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
Alfonso Cuaron's "Gravity" is an exhilarating work of visual genius and a rare example of a film that makes a good case for the 3D experience.

The picture, which moves by at a brisk 91 minutes, is a thrilling tale of survival and quite unlike anything I've seen before. And while the film's storyline is fairly simple and, you could argue, routine, the way this story is told is anything but.

The setup is uncomplicated: A small crew of astronauts, led by pilot Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), are sent to fix a Hubble telescope. Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a first-time space traveler, but also the person best equipped to fix the telescope.

The film opens with a gorgeous view of the Earth and, just slightly, we begin to hear voices. A speck in the distance reveals itself to be a space ship around which the astronauts float weightlessly, working on the telescope. As we pull in closer, their voices become clearer.

Stone tells Kowalski that she likes the silence of outer space, but she's not too convincing. Both the seasoned astronaut and the doctor keep up constant banter during the movie's first 30 minutes, most likely to ward off their fear. Kowalski is jokey, rehashing old stories to ground control at Houston (voiced by Ed Harris) and talking about how he wants to break a space walking record set by a Russian astronaut. Stone, on the other hand, is all business.

Word comes from Houston that debris from a satellite that had been struck down by a rocket is heading in the astronauts' direction. From here on out, "Gravity" is a taut tale of survival that rarely lets up.

I won't give away too many details, but suffice it to say that Stone must fend for herself in one agonizingly tense sequence after another. During one particularly stunning sequence, she floats through the interior of a space craft, navigating her way head-first through its corridors, only to end up combatting a fire that breaks out.

In the film's coup de grace, Stone must flee her ship and untangle an escape pod's parachute as a second round of debris heads her way. The scene is a triumph of special effects, but also a great advertisement for 3D, of which I must admit I've become increasingly wary. There are only a few films that have truly utilized 3D to its full potential - I'm willing to include "Avatar," but am much more enthused by Martin Scorsese's "Hugo." Cuaron's film, however, uses the format brilliantly. Watching the picture through 3D glasses actually adds to the experience, which is more than I could say for a majority of 3D films.

And Bullock is her own force of nature. She may have won an Oscar for her performance in "The Blind Side," but her work as Stone is easily a career high for the actress. Bullock has been stuck, for years, in mostly lightweight - some enjoyable - comedies, but her performance in "Gravity" proves she has gravitas.

The film's final sequence gives new meaning to Neil Armstrong's famous quote, "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."

In recent years, it's become a rare thing that big budget special-effects heavy pictures have made it onto my list of the year's best films. As technology has become more advanced, storytelling has seemingly taken a back seat. "Gravity" is proof that blockbuster-style filmmaking does not have to be brain dead. This is a smart, extremely intense, well acted, emotionally satisfying and visually stunning film. For those thinking about seeing it, I'd urge you to see it on the big screen and with 3D glasses.