December 7, 2013 - 8:23pm
Animated monsters, astronauts and whales are some of the characters in the best movies of the year.

1. Blackfish

Killer whales or serial killers? This documentary follows the history of whales in captivity with the story centering on Tilikum, a SeaWorld animal that killed three trainers and injured several others. SeaWorld shifted the blame to “trainer error” to maintain its shining Shamu image of the whales. You won’t be able to forget the sight of two 12,000-pound orcas crushing John Sillick in front of a terrified audience, a whale repeatedly dragging a trainer to the bottom of the pool as he gasps for air, or Tilikum snatching up senior trainer Dawn Brancheau.

September 29, 2013 - 5:34pm
'Kai Po Che!' which screened on Saturday at the Syracuse University Human Rights Film Festival, overuses montage and only skims the surface of its few merits.

What exactly should a montage do?

It can show a rise to power or a fall from grace, a humorous series of failures or a chain of successes. One thing it probably should not do, however, is perform most of the heavy lifting for a film’s central friendship or relationship.

The feeble middlebrow Bollywood drama Kai Po Che! didn’t get that memo.

September 29, 2013 - 5:26pm
'Intersexion,' which screened Saturday at the Syracuse University Human Rights Film Festival, contains elements that make for a good, moving story, but the subject would be better served in a form other than a documentary.

The problem with many advocacy documentaries is that not enough filmmakers ask themselves, “Does this need to be a movie?” The result is a number of well-meaning but inconsequential films whose messages would be just as well served by a TV special or an article.

September 29, 2013 - 5:17pm
'The Act of Killing,' which screened on Saturday at the Syracuse University Human Rights Film Festival, tells the story of a 1960s Indonesian death squad through some of Hollywood's most beloved genres.

The Act of Killing features one of the most striking openings of the year: a group of women dressed in pink emerge from the mouth of a fish-shaped building, while a man in black robes and another man in drag stand, arms raised, in front of a waterfall.

It’s a beguiling, haunting opening that would be memorably surreal in any film, let alone a documentary about genocide.

September 29, 2013 - 5:07pm
'Off Label,' which screened on Friday at the Syracuse University Human Rights Film Festival, follows no principles of effective storytelling and fails to draw connections between unrelated individuals.

Watching Off Label is like being in a conversation with a reasonably intelligent but digressive person. It starts on a broad topic and jumps from tangent to tangent, trying unsuccessfully to tie them all together until it’s not clear what point it’s trying to make at all. Maybe all of the points. Maybe none of them.

September 13, 2013 - 10:21pm
Eli Roth's 'The Green Inferno,' which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, uses cannibalism to make a point about the naivete of young people.

In an early scene in Eli Roth’s The Green Inferno, college student Justine (Lorenza Izzo) sarcastically questions activist Alejandro’s (Ariel Levy) ludicrous plan to save Peruvian natives from a construction company. Alejandro calls her insolent.

September 13, 2013 - 10:17pm
Michael Dowse's 'The F Word,' starring Daniel Radcliffe, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. The romantic comedy doesn't transform the genre, but it offers a good time.

The F Word, directed by Michael Dowse, is a teenage romantic comedy set in Toronto starring Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan. An amalgamation of earlier films in the genre, The F Word is a love letter to romance and the city. What it lacks in innovation it makes up for in wit and charm.

September 13, 2013 - 10:13pm
Denis Villeneuve's 'Prisoners' changes the meaning of child abduction movies and pushes the detective genre. The film screened at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Prisoners is a perfect film for drama-loving masochists. Grief and injustice dominate the plot as a crude reminder that bad things happen to good people, but the film does so in a way where you cannot blink, let alone go to the bathroom, until the end.

The trailer was an unfortunate false advertisement of the film. It gives little justice to the intellectual thriller of fist-clenching tension, which kept the theater jumping at every unexpected turn.

In other words, be prepared to flinch.

September 13, 2013 - 10:07pm
'Once' director John Carney attempts to create another movie about music, but he can't live up to his own legacy. 'Can a Song Save Your Life?' screened at the Toronto International Film Festival.

John Carney, director of the acclaimed music film Once, attempts to make a comeback with Can A Song Save Your Life?

As the title suggests, Carney’s new movie follows Once in genre but is less gripping and more disappointing.

Greta (Keira Knightley), a heartbroken struggling musician, and Dan (Mark Ruffalo), a recently fired music producer, predictably bond through music and overcome their difficulties in life during the process. 

September 13, 2013 - 9:55pm
Steve McQueen’s '12 Years a Slave,' screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, showcases brilliant performances and beautifully tells the true story of freeman Solomon Northup.

Billie Holiday’s haunting and passionate voice echoes over the song “Strange Fruit.” The 1939 blues standard is a harsh cry and protest against the brutal racism and lynchings that were an everyday occurrence in the United States.

Steve McQueen’s film 12 Years a Slave, depicting the true story of the enslavement of freeman Solomon Northup, echoes Holiday’s seminal song. It is a rapturous meditation upon America’s original sin and, like “Strange Fruit,” is brutally honest and yet tinged with a sorrow so personal and vivid that the film is transcendent.