“12 Years a Slave” (R, 134 minutes, Fox): Intense, unflinching, bold in its simplicity and radical in its use of image, sound and staging, “12 Years a Slave” in many ways is the defining epic so many have longed for to examine – if not cauterize – America's primal wound. But it's also a crowning achievement of a filmmaker, Steve McQueen, whose command of the medium extends beyond mere narrative and its reductive, sentimental snares to encompass the full depth and breadth of its most expressive and transforming properties. The film, already winner of a Golden Globe, earned nine Oscar nominations, including best picture, best director, best actor (Chiwetel Ejiofor in the title role), best supporting actor (Michael Fassbender), best supporting actress (Lupita Nyong'o) and best adapted screenplay (John Ridley). Contains violence, cruelty, some nudity and brief sensuality. DVD extras are two making-of featurettes, “The Team” (McQueen and his creative partners) and “The Score” (with composer Hans Zimmer). Also, on Blu-ray, “A Historical Portrait” documentary about how the film was conceived and the book that inspired it, featuring readings by Ejiofor.
“The Grandmaster” (PG-13, 108 minutes, in Mandarin and Cantonese with subtitles, The Weinstein Company/Anchor Bay): Director Wong Kar-wai's visually opulent, characteristically moody film, based on the life of Ip Man, is not an action flick, although it has more fight sequences than most of his films. The martial artist, best known in the West as Bruce Lee's teacher, has been the subject of many movies. Wong emphasizes his usual themes, including duty, exile, solitude and unrequited love, and this is a familiar assignment for Tony Leung, who plays the central character. The story opens in 1936 in southern China, where kung fu aces from the north arrive to test their methods against the local style known as Wing Chun. Southerner Ip faces the northern champion, Gong Yutian, in a contest that's more philosophical than physical. Defending her father, the beautiful and impulsive Gong Er (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon's” Zhang Ziyi) also challenges Ip in a fight that turns erotic. Contains violence, profanity, cigarette and opium use. Extras include an interview with Bruce Lee's daughter, Shannon Lee; featurettes “The Grandmaster: From Ip Man to Bruce Lee” and “The Grandmaster: According to RZA;” behind-the-scenes footage.
“Hours” (PG-13, 97 minutes, Lionsgate): Paul Walker, in one of his last films, portrays a frantic new father in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In his quiet, workmanlike way, he creates a stirring portrait of paternal devotion. When the New Orleans hospital staff and all other patients are evacuated, Nolan Hayes (Walker) struggles to keep his newborn daughter alive after he is left alone to tend to her malfunctioning ventilator. The baby's mother (Genesis Rodriguez), who has died in childbirth, appears in flashbacks and as a ghostly apparition. Nolan also rushes around the abandoned building looking for medical supplies, growing increasingly desperate as time passes. As it does, Walker's performance — along with the film — gets more and more engrossing. Contains brief violence, drug abuse, mild sensuality, some crude language and mature thematic material. Extras include Safran's “All I Feel Is You” music video and a public-service appeal for Walker's charity, Reach Out World Wide, with footage of relief efforts in Chile and Haiti (after earthquakes), Alabama (tornado) and the Philippines (typhoon).
Also: “Oldboy” (Spike Lee's remake of the Park Chan-wook cult classic starring Josh Brolin and Elizabeth Olsen, Sony), “Girl Rising” (documentary profiles nine impoverished girls from nine countries, including Cambodia, Haiti, Ethiopia and Sierra Leone, who overcome nearly impossible odds to achieve their dreams, Cinedigm), “The Last Days on Mars,” “1000 to 1: The Cory Weissman Story,” “Wicked Blood,” “A Cross to Bear” (a Dove family-approved film, RLJ/One Village Entertainment), “Cold Comes the Night,” “Children of Sorrow,” “The Visitor” (1979, Italy) and “Snowflake the White Gorilla” (animated).
Television Series: “Oliver Stone's Untold History of the United States” (four-disc set of Showtime documentary series), “Bible Secrets Revealed” (History Channel miniseries), “Agatha Christie's Poirot, Series 11”³ (mystery series starring David Suchet and seen on PBS and A&E, in original British broadcast order, Acorn Media), “Ancient Aliens: Season 5, Volume 2”³ (History), “Noah and the Great Ark” (three History documentaries), “Dora the Explorer: Dora in Wonderland!” (Nickelodeon), “Doctor Who: The Time of the Doctor” (Christmas special, BBC), “The Vikings: Dark Warriors” (History),” “The Venture Bros. Season Five” (Cartoon Network), “Mr. & Mrs. Murder” (Australian crime-comedy series, with extras, Acorn Media), “Monsters: The Complete Series” (1988-90, Syfy), “Teen Titans Go!: Mission to Misbehave Season 1 Part 1”³ (DC Comics), “Thomas & Friends: Spills & Thrills” and “Rawhide: Seventh Season, Volume One & Volume Two” (1964-65).
“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” (PG-13, 146 minutes, Lionsgate): Whereas for some of us the idea of kids killing other kids for pleasure and political expedience reeks of cynicism and downright perversion, fans of “The Hunger Games” should find “Catching Fire” a superlative advancement of the franchise. Director Francis Lawrence (“I Am Legend”), taking the reins from Gary Ross, smoothly steers the characters through their latest course of depredations and abuse, allowing plenty of moments to simply sit back and groove on the eye candy. Everyone hits their marks with gusto and believability in “Catching Fire” — even Liam Hemsworth, who has next to nothing to do as Katniss' hometown squeeze, Gale. But the engine of the entire operation is Jennifer Lawrence, who in Katniss has found a character that chimes perfectly with her own persona as an earthy, blunt-speaking ingenue suddenly thrust into a world of celebrity and media-fueled idol worship. Contains intense sequences of violence and action, some frightening images, thematic elements, a suggestive situation and profanity. Extras include commentary with Francis Lawrence and producer Nina Jacobson; deleted scenes. Also, on Blu-ray: a nine-part, feature-length “Survivng the Game” making-of documentary.