Sunday, February 22, 2015

Top 15 Films of 2014

As I did with last year's Top Films List, I'm posting my personal favorite films from 2014 list today on Oscar Sunday.  I don't feel the need to rush and finish a Best of the Year List at the end of said year, especially when there are more films I need to see and consider.  The extra time to catch up is quite nice, but even with six extra weeks there are things I still haven't seen, including NightcrawlerSelma, Interstellar, Force Majeure, Ida, The Overnighters, Citizenfour, Enemy, Foxcatcher, American Sniper, Wetlands, The One I Love, Listen Up Philip, We are the Best, and others.

2014 was a good year for movies.  These were my favorites.

TOP 15 FILMS OF 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel
Picking a favorite film of the year is sometimes difficult.  This year there were a lot of contenders,  and I struggled a little bit with this, but in the end I feel that The Grand Budapest Hotel was one of the most entertaining and well crafted films of the year and has potential to be an all-timer.  This may very well be Wes Anderson's best film, as everything in it is running at peak-Anderson levels; the characters, the cast, the humor, the darkness, the violence, the cinematography, the turns of events, the layered story structure, everything just hums with excellence.  This one is a real treat.

Under the Skin
Ostensibly a difficult film (it took me two viewings to fully fall under its spell), viewers who give themselves over to the very specific rhythms of its images will be rewarded, as there are some rather stunning visuals and special effects work, as well as a particularly unnerving film score, contained within this art-house/science fiction hybrid.  Starring a perfectly cast Scarlett Johansson, director Jonathan Glazer has delivered a thoughtful, challenging, and beautiful sci-fi film, one worthy of further dissection and admiration for years to come.

The Guest
From the filmmakers of last year's home invasion thriller You're Next comes this immensely enjoyable film, one that I watched with a big, stupid grin on my face.  This movie delivers on so many levels; the action, the mystery, the dread, the music (that Mike Simonetti song that plays in the bar scene is KILLER!), the humor, the visuals, the acting, everything just pops and is spot-on.  Dan Stevens is magnetic in the lead role of David, somehow pulling off the impossible task of playing a character that is the hero of an action movie and also the villain in a horror film.  The rest of the cast is also great, I particularly loved the younger brother, Luke, and all of his perfect reactions to the stuff David tells him.  The Guest definitely has its influences, namely the early films of John Carpenter, The Terminator, and Halloween III: Season of the Witch, but it manages to wholly be its own thing, and that thing is a completely engaging and entertaining action-thriller-horror film!

Blue Ruin
A wonderfully staged and executed revenge thriller, one of the best I've seen in quite some time.  It's tense, bleak, and brutal, but also finds time for moments of quiet heartbreak, thanks to an excellent lead performance by Macon Blair.  Don't sleep on this one.

This is one of those big idea science fiction films that uses its silly premise (in the future, the last remnants of humanity reside on a super fast train that travels around the ice-covered, uninhabitable world) to comment on and work as an allegory for things that are happening in society and in the modern world around us.  In addition to that, it's a kickass action film with some great visuals.  Director Bong Joon-Ho delivers all of the style and personal flair found in his South Korean films (this was his first English language picture), and Chris Evans delivers a great lead performance, subverting and using his Captain America charm to great effect.

Everything you've heard is true; Richard Linklater's Boyhood is excellent.  The gimmick of filming over the course of 12 years works, imbuing the characters with extra depth, and the way the film breathes and moves makes for a breezy almost-three hour watch.  Patricia Arquette gives a great performance, brave and raw in its honesty, and she absolute deserves the Academy Award.

Starry Eyes
2014 was a good year for genre films, and when it came to straight-up horror films, Starry Eyes was without a doubt my favorite.  Alex Essoe gives a strong lead performance as a young actress trying to make it in Hollywood, willing to do whatever necessary.  This movie works very much as a metaphor for the perils of ambition and for the terrible, horrible things that await Young Hollywood.  Invoking thoughts of early Polanski and Cronenberg, this film is disturbing, uncomfortable, and brutal in its violence, while handling its imagery beautifully with plenty of doses of whatthefuckery, and, not to mention, it has a GREAT synth score.  Basically, it has everything I look for in a great horror film.

Intense and gripping, this is a must-see for all the drummers and jazz musicians out there.  This is a fantastic study of the competitive spirit that is within an individual as they pursue personal perfection and how that competitiveness must smash through roadblocks like self doubt and the challenges of being mentored by an egomaniac and borderline sadistic teacher.  J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller are both excellent, this one grabs you and doesn't let up!  Oh yeah, and all movies should end with an epic drum solo like this one.

The Babadook
Here's a creepy good one out of Australia.  This is a smart film, working on many metaphoric levels, basically dealing with the damaging psychological effects of repressed resentment and guilt and with suppressing that dark parental urge to sometimes want to murder your annoying child.  Essie Davis gives a standout performance as the tormented mother, bringing a weary sympathy to her character that helps later during darker moments in the film when the evil entity enters her house.

Inherent Vice
While I may not be 100% sure what was going on at all times in this movie, I still enjoyed the ride.  This is a difficult film to get a narrative grasp on, which might be due to its faithfulness to the source material (I've not read Pynchon's novel), as characters mumble and speak endlessly at one another about things that happened offscreen in scenes that are long, single takes (actually, those scenes are mostly great).  I loved the look of the film, the fuzzy/grainy texture to it.  It's very authentically '70s, in look, style, design, and in those long takes.  Joaquin Phoenix nails his role as Doc Sportello, he's great.  Josh Brolin is great too.  The way he eats a banana is hilarious!

Guardians of the Galaxy
The best of the summer blockbusters!  Funny, action packed, big weird science fiction stuff, cool comic book nerd stuff, some nice emotional moments, and a thumping soundtrack.  Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, and Dave Bautista are all great, and that talking tree and raccoon are pretty cool, too.  Great popcorn movie fun and further proof that Marvel Studios knows what they're doing.

John Wick
John Wick is a B movie with A+ action choreography.  Keanu is in full badass mode and shoots a ton of people in the head while on his path of vengeance.  The nightclub scene is a highlight, as is the cast, mostly in small but crucial roles (Dafoe, McShane, Leguizamo).  My only major complaint with the film is some of the musical choices, as parts of the score and soundtrack are decidedly not cool '90s guitar rock.  The Marilyn Manson song that is used, not once, but twice(?!), is incredibly distracting in what is otherwise a tight revenge-action movie.

Gone Girl
A horror film for married dudes.  This is a good, pulpy thriller, even if some of the third act shenanigans don't hold up to narrative scrutiny.  David Fincher doesn't fool around when it comes to filmcraft, so you can count on the movie looking great and moving like clockwork.  The score is really good, as are some of the performances (particularly the sister).  Rosamund Pike plays one of the best villains of the year.

The entirety of this movie is Tom Hardy driving in his car and talking on a speaker phone, dealing with work and life problems for 90 minutes, AND IT IS ABSOLUTELY RIVETING!!

The Raid 2
Narratively this is more dense than the first one (honestly, I got lost a little in what was going on) but the action scenarios are top notch.  The prison yard rumble!  Prakoso!  Baseball Bat Man!  Hammer Girl!  Yes, Yes, and YES!!

the next ten:

-Captain America: The Winter Soldier - This spy adventure action thriller is one of Marvel's best!

-Joe - Nicolas Cage gives a wonderfully understated performance in this great David Gordon Green film.

-Obvious Child - A very funny romantic comedy about abortion.

-Only Lovers Left Alive - Light on the vampire stuff but heavy on the Jarmusch.  I liked it.

-Dawn of the Planet of the Apes - I am very pleased with the way these new ape movies are turning out.

-Coherence - A low budget sci-fi head trip, full of general unease and tension that slowly ramps up.

-Edge of Tomorrow - Watch Tom Cruise die a bunch of times!  I just wish the aliens weren't so generic.

-Finding Vivian Maier - A solid documentary about an undiscovered, eccentric street photographer.

-Noah - I admire the boldness of such a film; the "creation sequence" is one of the best scenes of the year.

-Jodorowsky's Dune - The amazing story of the greatest movie never made.

and. . . . .
The Most Overrated Film of the Year:  
Okay, here's the thing...sure, we all love Michael Keaton, we can all agree on that, but Birdman, on a whole, isn't that gripping or compelling or interesting of a story (and honestly, Keaton is merely only okay in the role).  I actually found parts of it to be a slog.  This is the kind of movie that actors and Hollywood types and entertainment people love to fawn over because it speaks to and strokes their egos.  However, the script has no subtext as everything is pure surface level, delivered in literal and obvious manners (lots of characters proclaiming and exclaiming who they are and what they mean) that rob the film of any true depth or emotion.  The themes of this movie are very easy to extract, which might be another reason for its popularity: it's a dumbly written movie that convinces people it is smart because of how it was made, because how it was made is what is truly impressing (and fooling) people about this movie.

Birdman is filmed in such a way that it appears to be a single, fluid, continuous shot.  While this is impressive and the cinematography should be congratulated, it is just a gimmick.  This movie is all gimmick, and I realize I used that term while talking about Boyhood up above, but in Boyhood's case, the story is served by the gimmick, it enriches the narrative.  In Birdman, the gimmick is the story, it's what people talk about, it's what impresses them, but strip away that artifice and you're left with something a lot less interesting.

Birdman isn't a bad movie, I don't want to totally trash on it, but it is nothing more than average and it definitely might not be deserving of all the high praise it is getting or a potential Best Picture Oscar tonight, even if it is the kind of movie, in the tradition of Argo and The Artist, that Hollywood likes to congratulate itself on making.

**UPDATE**  So of course Birdman won Best Picture.  Ha.

The Worst Movies I Made the Mistake of Watching in 2014:

-The Amazing Spider-Man 2 - An amazing spider-mess.  This movie spider-blew.  And so on. . .

-Need for Speed - Ugh.  I appreciate the real car stunts and driving, but jeez, this movie is terrible.

-Robocop - The only interesting thing in this unnecessary remake is the fact that there is an action sequence set to Hocus Pocus by Focus.

-Bad Words - This is so bad it makes me wish I watched Teen Wolf Too instead.  Serious question:  is Jason Bateman actually funny?

-The Monuments Men - Monumentally weak!

-The Interview - Notable for the controversy surrounding it, but not worthy of it.


*One other note: I've noticed Ben Wheatley's A Field in England pop up on a few people's Best Of 2014 Lists, but I can't agree with that.  Not that it isn't a great movie (it is spectacular) but because, even though it saw American release in 2014, it actually was released domestically in England in 2013, and I like to abide by domestic release dates when dealing with foreign films.  Otherwise it would be in my Top 5 (it really is spectacular).

Well, there you go.  What do you think?
Agree?  Disagree?  What were your favorites of 2014?

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