Home Video Picks & Passes 03.09.14

12 Years a Slave (2013) PICK

Gravity (2013) PICK

Thor: The Dark World (2013) PASS

Two of my top picks of last year come to home video, along with one you can probably pass on.

My No. 2 film of 2013, 12 Years a Slave is Steve McQueen’s powerful, brutal adaptation of the memoir of Solomon Northup, a free-born New York native, husband and father, who, in 1841, was kidnapped and sold into slavery. Incredibly, it’s the first major fact-based film about the slave experience in America.

As Northup, Chiwetel Ejiofor is riveting, from the dignity and warmth of his scenes with his family to the horror and bewilderment of what befalls him. In keeping with the setting and circumstances, religion is appropriately mixed, misused to support the status quo but also pitted against it in a conscientious abolitionist and, in a potent scene, nourishing and strengthening the slaves as they sing a spiritual.

Brilliantly directed and visually dazzling, 12 Years is hard to watch, but it’s an invaluable witness to the experiences of countless men, women and children whose stories will never be told.

Right after 12 Years in my favorite-films list of 2013 is Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón’s action thriller in space, starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as astronauts on a space walk gone terribly wrong. From the elaborately choreographed 13-minute opening shot to the even more brilliant second shot, the film is a series of technical challenges both for the characters and the filmmakers.

Given the dearth of religious awareness in many Hollywood tales of crisis, it’s refreshing to see a St. Christopher icon and watch Bullock caught between spiritual longing and lack of religious grounding. Literally awesome, Gravity uses nothing more exotic than the mesmerizing effect of weightlessness and the inexorable elegance of physics in space.

On the skippable list: Thor: The Dark World could be called Thor: The Bland Hero. Imagine Superman without a tragic back story, moral conviction or a worthy Lois Lane.


Caveat Spectator: 12 Years a Slave: Much harsh content, including vicious abuse and cruelty; a brief sexual encounter and scenes of sexual abuse (no nudity); nonsexual nudity (e.g., a slave-market scene); profane and obscene language. Mature viewing; discretion advised. Gravity: Much intense peril and brief graphic, disturbing images; brief strong language; a sequence in which the heroine strips to modest underthings (close-fitting tank top and shorts). Teens and up.