Friday, January 2, 2015

Best Movies of 2014



It was a pretty good year for Sci-fi.  While Interstellar and Guardians of the Galaxy did well at the box office, some of the most effective sci-fi movies were the ones shot on low budgets.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson entertains me with his unique style, and yet I almost always leave wanting just a bit more.  I felt the same way with The Grand Budapest Hotel, but over time, I found myself still thinking highly of the film.  Actually maybe more highly than the day I watched it.  While he might have missed masterpiece status again, he might have also come closest yet with this funny and touching movie.  Add Ralph Fiennes to the list of unjustly overlooked performances.

Under The Skin

There are movies I like and movies I like, and would recommend.  Under The Skin is in that category where someone will ask if I liked it, and I am tempted to say, "yes, but don't see it."

If you like Lynch or Cronenberg, but think they are sometimes a little too easy to digest, then maybe you should check out Jonathan Glazer's, Under The Skin.

What did this mean?  What was the point of that?  It is also likely as simple as a Grimm's fairly tale. But just as unsettling.

Scarlett Johansson had a heck of a year.  Now, box office wise that was not always the case.  But I am impressed with how a person of her Hollywood standing, would do not just Lucy, but this movie as well.

Along with Lucy and Her (2013), she seems to have completed a sort of "what's it mean to be human," trilogy.  And when Her is the most audience friendly movie of the bunch, seems Johansson is due some risk taking props.

I can hear certain friends right this moment, wondering what is wrong with me for even giving a movie like this a look, much less some acclaim.  I get that.  I am all for pure entertainment as much as the next person.  (some of that below)

I'm not pretentious enough to say they are wrong.  I'm also pretentious enough to say neither am I.


Add Michael Fassbender to the list of performances that were unjustly overlooked.  He should have received more recognition, for the last scene alone.

But the biggest triumph of Frank, is to show mental illness in a creative person, and by the end of the film acknowledge it is not romantic, but in fact got in the way.  It is a simple truth not often so well stated.

Begin Again

John Carney struck gold in 2006.  The little known Irish director and former member of the Irish rock band, The Frames, decided to make a film about some musicians.  He recruited lead singer of The Frames, Glen Hansard, to write songs for the movie.  Then the lead actor dropped out. So Hansard reluctantly took his place.  He suggested his musician friend Marketa Irglova as the female lead.  What resulted was a simple movie that two non-actors carried on the strength of their chemistry and songs.  It won them both an Oscar for best original song and was even turned into a multiple Tony winning play.  It would be understandable for Carney to go back to the well again.

Begin Again is not a sequel to Once.  But in spirit, it kind of feels like one.  The faces are better known this time.  Keira Knightley is the female lead.  An actress playing a musician instead of the other way around.  While not having an overpowering voice, she does a fine job with the songs.  (kind of a semi Laura Veirs quality to her singing).

The standout of the film though, is Mark Ruffalo.  He hits every note just right of an alcoholic has-been record executive, who finds some joy again in discovering Knightley's character.  Actually joy is the proper word to describe this film.  Carney has a legitimate talent for conveying true joy in his movies.  I dare you to see this movie and not smile at some point.  And for at least the second time, he ends a movie perfectly.

Begin Again is not quite as special as Once, though I think your opinion on that would be influenced by which movie you saw first.  If this movie is not a home run, it is at least a stand up triple.  And if Scorsese can keep making gangster movies and be celebrated for it, might as well acknowledge Carney for making the best movies about musicians.            

Mistaken For Strangers

It's disguised as a music documentary about the band, The National.  Except it's not really that at all. It's a movie about what its like to have a brother who is vastly more successful, and how that manifests itself within a creative family.  The pressures to be creative, and become someone that matters.

You do not have to be a fan of the band to find the story touching and heartbreaking, frustrating, and funny.

American Sniper

Such a divisive film.  And why?  Conservatives were immediately defensive about the film and any critic who might bash it.  Before either critic or moviegoer could even see it.

Some liberals have gone as far to call the subject, Chris Kyle, a "serial killer."  And at least one critic gave it a horrible review while admitting he based his entire review on the trailer alone.  He never bothered to see the movie.

What the film is, in actuality, is neither right wing or left wing.  Its about a man with a gift for shooting a gun.  Who does a job almost none of us could, even if we had the mechanics to do so; and how he must deal with that.

What it is in actuality is one of Clint Eastwood's finest movies, an amazing 6 months after the release of what is generally considered one of his worst (Jersey Boys).

There are some minor quibbles.  An early flashback scene could have possibly been done better. Same with a late slow motion scene.  The fake baby, as has been mentioned ad nausea.  But 2 or 3 scenes out of many, just show how much the rest of it, hit me just right.

I once had a conversation with a soldier who was about to go back to Iraq for another tour.  While he was of course a patriotic enough person, he said that had nothing to do with why he kept going back. He kept going back because you make friends in the military and in war.  And you go back to be alongside and protect those friends.  That, more than any political agenda, is what I took from this film.

So might a few other people, if they are open minded enough to watch more than the trailer.

Above scene done in one take and without rehearsal


David Ayer is becoming one of my favorite filmmakers.  He has so far had a hit or miss career.  But between this and End of Watch, he is on a roll; making incredibly entertaining, violent action films.

It's not Ayer's style to be subtle, (let's show a person's face getting blown off, as opposed to not showing that) and most war films aren't subtle anyway.  But there were a few times, I actually thought he was in this film.

I could nitpick a few things.  The Grady (Jon Bernthal) character annoyed me almost too much (I realize this was the intent).  While he might have been too close to cliche dumb war character, I think when you spend years in a tank, it also takes a special breed of person.  What surprised me the most was Shia LaBeouf's performance. LaBeouf is a jackass.  To the point it can not be helping his career.  (I did not see this film earlier, simply because he was in it)  But when given the right role, he can excel.  This is a prime example.  Pitt gives perhaps my second favorite performance of his (after The Tree of Life).  And Logan Lerman (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) also does another fine job, as the kid trained to type 60 words a minute, now thrust into real War.

What helps elevate Fury a bit, is a set piece between Pitt and Lerman and 2 German women.  Ayer allows this interaction to play out.  Maybe influenced by the (originally cut) dinner sequence in Apocalypse Now or even Tarantino's use of extending scenes.  It is not even a perfect scene, but it hints at something greater.  Ayer seems to be influenced by the right people.  Soon he might be the one people cite as an influence.

10.  The Homesman

This excellent work from director/actor Tommy Lee Jones, deserved more attention than it got.  Challenging, thought provoking, biblical.  The unsung performance of the year just might be Hillary Swank as Mary Bee Cuddy.  A single 31 year old frontier woman no man seems to find good enough.  But who does tasks men are unwilling or unable to do.  In this case, bring three women who have gone mad for different reasons, to a far away church willing to care for them.

Though on closer look, no one in the film might be exactly sane.  Tommy Lee Jones is now two for two as a feature film director.  Having made two films (2006 The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada) that you think on, well after the credits.  Two films that deserved more recognition at the time of their release.  

9.  The Babadook

I generally do not care for straight "horror" movies.  But this film is a bit of a con.  It's dressed up as a straight horror film, while really being something a bit deeper.  To tell you more would be to explain why I liked it so much.  And that might spoil it just a bit.  But there is more to deal with in the world than the boogeyman.  An ending that I did not love in the moment.  Then a few hours later, had already increased in my mind quite a bit.

8.  Gone Girl

Another ending I did not love in the immediate aftermath.  But for such an outrageous movie, I soon realized it had to have an outrageous ending too.  The whole film is batshit crazy.  But that is also part of the appeal.  It is also from start to finish maybe the most entertaining movie of the year.

7.  Locke

To describe the plot of Locke might feel like saying too much.  Just let it unfold as it does.  But it is not really a spoiler I don't think, to say it is nearly a one man show.  You hear other voices, and those voice performances are also well done.  But you only see one face on screen for an hour and a half.  The film stands or falls on Tom Hardy's performance.  That and a darn good script.  Hardy is a great actor whose biggest role has been with his face covered and a robotic Darth Vader sounding voice, as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises.  That seems like such a waste of a great actor when you realize how watchable he is.  Hardy is worthy of being a household name.  Maybe soon enough he will be.  I feel this film will be discovered by people for years to come.  Do yourself a favor and discover it now.       

6.  Blue Ruin

Revenge is usually not worth it.  Also, you might find your targets are not exactly the people you thought they were all along.  Even if they are bad people, what are you?

5.  The Immigrant 

One of the movies I was most disappointed by this year (The Skeleton Twins) was because of a surprising lack of depth in the main character.  The Immigrant has no such problem.  Half way through I thought it was a pleasant enough, well done film.  Then it became something more to me.  The most credit going to director James Gray and actor Joaquin Phoenix.  At the start of the film we think he (Phoenix) is one person.  Then very quickly we see him as something else.  Then he changes yet again to show us yet another side.  Depth of character like this is of course to the great credit of the writing and directing.  But Phoenix proves once again he is a fine actor.  And this ranks amongst his best performances.

 4.  Nightcrawler

It is a bit of a toss up which movie is more insane; Nightcrawler or Gone Girl.  But start to finish this is great entertainment anchored by another solid Jake Gyllenhaal performance.  Reminded me of Drive, one of my favorite films of a few years ago; but with more social commentary.

3.  Ida

A beautiful film.  Beautiful in its simplicity while still being profound.  Before taking her vows to be a nun, a woman raised in a convent is told to meet and spend time with her aunt.  The aunt tells her she is actually Jewish.  This starts the two on a journey that is road picture as well as coming of age and self discovery and buddy film.  All in about 78 minutes time.  

2.  The One I Love  

Nicolas Sparks meets Spike Jonze.  Your favorite romantic comedy meets Inception?  It's as crazy as it sounds and I understand totally if it doesn't work for you.  It worked for me, though.  In part, for its mere audacity.

From the moment I put this on my list, I assumed it would drop back a few spots.  But I found the opposite to be true.  It stayed with me more than almost any movie I saw in 2014.

1.  Birdman or (the unexpected virtue of ignorance)

"This is about being respected and validated, remember?  That's what you told me."

Often I go back and forth with what movie to put at #1 when I make these lists.  Often I double-guess the film I put here.  That won't happen this time.  See previous post for more if you like.

But to sum up:  For me, easily the best film of 2014.

Biggest Disappointments:

Boyhood:   Without a doubt the movie I came out of thinking, "what am I missing?"  What almost everyone is hailing as Linklater's masterpiece, I found to be one of the least enjoyable movies I saw all year. There is no payoff.  While I believe that was partly the point Linklater was making.  (All lives are simple but meaningful)  It doesn't make his movie any less boring.  Especially at almost 3 hours.

The mere fact of how he filmed this (over 12 years, same actors), seems to be clouding people's minds with what is actually on screen.  Gene Siskel said his criteria for liking a movie was if you could take these same actors and just listen to them talk to each other for 2 hours.  What would be more interesting?  I would be very interested in seeing a "making of," documentary on Boyhood.  I have no doubt that would be more intriguing and even much more emotional.  (The main actor literally grew up with these people.  How would it not be?)

But for people clouded by the mere hook of how the movie was done, let me suggest watching the 7 Up documentaires instead.  Can we go back and give that more awards, and let this Boyhood, be forgotten?

Noah:  This movie was a bit of a theological debate among some of my friends.  Should people of the Christian faith even see a movie, made by an atheist, about a central character of the bible?  I came down on the side of, "I need to see it before I can criticize it."  I saw it.  And while there were some things towards the end I could debate from a Christian point of view, what was the very easiest thing to say about this movie, was that it was kind of hokey and silly.  A strong beginning gave way to just a strange and even at times, boring movie.  Boring being the last thing Aronofsky usually is.

The Monuments Men:  Not a bad movie exactly, just a mediocre one.  And when you have this kind of talent on screen, it feels like such a letdown.  As a director, Clooney seems to be working in reverse.  Most of his best films coming early and his simplest and weakest movies coming later.

Unbroken:  To read or not to read?  The book, "Unbroken," is one of the best non-fiction works I have ever read.  While I knew the movie version would not have near the amount of detail, I figured the story is so great, how can they screw it up?

                I guess they didn't completely.  But also, Jolie rarely distinguishes herself here as a director.  It is a great uplifting story, but blandly told.

The best part of the film is the very end when the real Louis Zamperini is shown.  Reminding us the real man deserved more than this unimaginative re-telling.  

The Skeleton Twins:  This pains me to write more than any of the rest.  I like both Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig.  I respect that Wiig seems to do what she wants in a lot of ways.  And there are good things about this movie.  Both of their performances to begin with.  But as different as this film wants to be, it can't help but feel like just another depressing indie minded movie we should all share our feelings about at our local coffee spot.

Hader and Wiig play brother and sister; both suicidal.  Hader's misery seems more thought out.  Wiig seems to be depressed because well, she is.  Which is actually even accurate to some degree, but then when her husband (Luke Wilson) is a nearly perfect human being, you don't really root for her in any way, once she treats him poorly.

Then they throw in dated movie stereotypes, like Hader (he is a gay man in this film) wearing a dress. Oh and when Wiig is at a depressed moment, Hader does a silly lip sync and dances around the living room, making everything better for just a moment.  That might have worked in a comedy skit or another film, but is totally misplaced here.  Just because your actors come from improv and can do something, doesn't mean you should make them.

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