Nate’s 2014 Wrap-Up of All the Best and Worst and 2014-est of Films
Another year in the books, at least the books that record years (so… calendars?), and another batch of movies to make the most with. 2014 was a year dominated by films I call “good but not great,” perfectly enjoyable films or ones that excel in certain areas but were missing something, occasionally indescribable. It was a boon for science fiction in particular and animated films were uncommonly strong early in the year. There was also a religious revival with several films looking to entertain evangelical audiences. Over the past year I’ve watched over 100 movies released in this calendar year, down slightly from previous years, likely because of my increased workload as a teacher. I invite you, dear reader, to follow along as I review the finest films, the lowest lows, and many of the intriguing and mystifying moments that highlighted the world of cinema.
But before diving into the many highs and lows and everything in between for the year in film, let’s turn back the clocks once more as I take another crack at my top ten list from 2013. Having seen more late releases, here is an updated standing.
2013 Top Ten List 2.0
10) Inside Llewyn Davis (formerly 9)
9) The Great Beauty (new)
8) Blue Jasmine (no change)
7) The World’s End (no change)
6) Gravity (formerly 7)
5) Blue is the Warmest Color (formerly 6)
4) Her (no change)
3) Before Midnight (no change)
2) Short Term 12 (no change)
1) The Wolf of Wall Street (no change)
And now ladies and gentlemen, on with the show.
PART ONE: BEST/WORST FILMS OF 2014
10) The Raid 2
Rare is the movie that I feel I don’t even need to go into great detail rather than just scream, in a fashion suiting madness, “See this! See it!” Such is the case for The Raid 2, the sequel to the Indonesian action film that melted faces with its inventive and brutal action. The original movie had a confined location, a gang-run tenement building, and a simple premise of reaching the top and nabbing the bad guy. When people weren’t punching or shooting each other, the original Raid lagged, but director/writer Gareth Evans has solved the problem with his action-packed sequel. The world expands greatly, establishing the uneasy peace kept by powerful and warring criminal organizations. The plot ends up becoming something akin to The Departed meets A Prophet, following our hero cop from the first movie placed undercover to gain the trust of the criminal overlords and work his way up the food chain. When the action isn’t cooking, you’re still engaged with the story and the suspense simmers in clever ways. The action sequences are impeccably choreographed and edited, have a wide variety of locations for fun, and are bloody intoxicating. This is a movie soaked in adrenaline, and the action sequences will be hard to beat for the rest of the year. Evans finds ways to provide flair for his supporting characters, including a family duo that involves a deaf woman whose weapon of choice is hammers and a guy who prefers a baseball and a bat. The Raid 2 fires on all cylinders so well, so brilliantly filmed, that it puts just about every American action thriller to shame. It doesn’t need to be as long as it is (pushing two and a half hours), and it takes a little while to set up the players, but this is even more of an entertaining rush than the original, because now we get a sense of what Evans and his team can do with fewer restrictions. When Evans gets to Hollywood, and he will, just make sure you give him all the money to do whatever he wants.
It’s an industry satire, a bizarre comedy, a father/daughter drama, an examination on identity and the complicated pulls of affection and admiration, and a stunning virtuoso technical achievement. As a movie, Birdman is hard to pin down or categorize. I’m still wrestling with the debate over whether Birdman is an artistically ambitious romp or a truly great movie. Much like the characters in the film, I’m wrestling with whether I have confused my admiration with adoration. It’s a movie that I feel compelled to see a second time, and maybe a third, just to get a handle on my overall thoughts and feelings. That may be a sign that Birdman is a film for the ages, or maybe it’s just a sign that it’s not as approachable and denied a higher level of greatness by its obtuseness. This surreal showbiz satire is plenty entertaining, darkly comic, and a technical marvel thanks to the brilliant camerawork. The percussion-heavy musical score is another clever choice, naturally adding more urgency and anxiety to the proceedings. Birdman is a strange and beguiling movie, one that deserves to be seen, needs to be experienced, and stays with you rolling around in your brain. That sounds like a winner to me.
Darren Aronofsky’s Noah is a labor of love that maintains its artistic integrity amidst special effects, threats of infanticide, and giant rock creatures. Aronofsky has forged a Biblical epic that reaches beyond the pew, providing added surprise and depth and suspense. The man takes the modern fantasy epic template and provides new life to one of mankind’s oldest tales, staying reverent while opening it up for broader meditation. It’s a weird movie, but the silliness is given a wider context and grounded by the emphasis on the human perspective. It’s a dark movie, but the darkness is tempered with powerful feelings and a sense of hope that feels justified by the end. It’s also a philosophical movie, but the questions are integral, the stakes relatable, and the answers hardly ever easy to decipher. This is a rare movie, let alone an example of a Biblical film, that succeeds by being all things to all people. It’s reverent, rousing, thought provoking, exciting, moving, and a glorious visual spectacle of cinema. Aronofsky’s epic is a passionate and thoughtful movie that deserves flocks of witnesses.
7) Guardians of the Galaxy
At this point for audiences, the Marvel name can do no wrong, but really it’s the degree of latitude given to Guardians of the Galaxy, an admittedly weird movie with strange characters, that allows this unique film to shine. Attaching offbeat director James Gunn (Super, Slither) to be writer and director was a risk that paid off tremendously, as Guardians is the Marvel film most entrenched with the particular personality of its creative director. This is a gleefully imaginative film that enjoys wading deep into weirdness, dancing to its adventurous Star Wars throwback beat, always with its focus set on comedy but not at the expense of quality drama or character development. Really, the characters are the focus of this entry into the franchise, and Gunn and his actors do a bang-up job of gathering the team and getting you to care about each and every one of them. In an ordinary superhero film, the archetypes would be ironclad. These are damaged characters, and their formation of an unconventional family unit is deeply satisfying and rather touching. I have seen the film twice and gotten teary-eyed both times. The real star of the film is Chris Pratt (TV’s Parks and Recreation), and what a breakout role he is afforded; he’s like Han Solo’s more juvenile nephew. But like the others, the character is surprising in its depth, with a well of sadness and displacement he still hasn’t processed while he scavenges the galaxy. The plot can be a bit unwieldy at times but pays off better for repeat viewings. This is a world I want to spend far more time exploring and with these characters as my merry prankster guides. With a movie this action-packed, thoroughly entertaining, and gratifying, why come back to Earth?
6) The Boxtrolls
Another delightful film from the creators of ParaNorman, the whimsical Boxtrolls is another stop-motion treasure that plays just as well for children as it does adults. The fanciful world follows the industrious title creatures that have wrongly been demonized as villains. Snatcher (a tremendous Ben Kingsley) has much to gain by stirring up boxtroll fears, and if he captures them all he’ll finally be allowed to join the town’s inner circle of muckity mucks. The world building is confident and well developed, the storyline finds nuanced ways to be touching and deliver serious messages about peer pressure, assimilation, and the ways which we judge ourselves and whether those are even of merit. But the main draw is the glorious animation, so fluid, so lively, and a landscape that makes full use of color and light and shadow. It’s an immersive experience that your eyes don’t want to blink for fear of missing something. The plot is droll and expertly sequenced with its variety of character and comic asides. The vocal cast does a terrific job, notably Kingsley and a hilarious Tracy Morgan. The film can get a little spooky for young children but should still be comfortable viewing. The Boxtrolls is further proof that the animation house Laika is operating at near-Pixar peak levels of brilliance and deserve the benefit of the doubt with any future films.
5) Life Itself
While tears will be shed, do not think of the movie as an elegiac tribute meant to fill your heart with dread for the demise of a great writer and a great man. As the title indicates, it’s a celebration of the man’s life, illuminating a figure that was much larger than his prolific publications (note: not a fat joke). Ultimately, Life Itself is a love story. It’s a love story about two men who go from rivals to close friends. It’s a love story between a man and a woman. It’s also the love story of a man with the movies, a love that he felt eager to share with millions of his readers and television viewers, because in the end (danger: sentimentality approaching) it’s our love and passion that will ultimately outlast us all, and the people we touch are the living embodiment of our legacies. And Roger’s passing has touched many. As fans, those who grew up with him, I think we all felt like he was partly ours. Life Itself is a touching, engrossing, invigorating, and fitting tribute to a man larger than the movies. It’s like watching one of your heroes ride off into the sunset; eternally grateful for those years they had on Earth to inspire.
4) The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Grand Budapest Hotel is Wes Anderson at his best, pared down into a quirky crime caper anchored by a hilariously verbose scoundrel and his protégé. Naturally, the technical merits of the film are outstanding, from the intricate art direction and set dressing, to the period appropriate costumes, to the camerawork by longtime cinematographer Robert Yeoman. The movie is a visually lavish and handcrafted biosphere, a living dollhouse whose central setting ends up becoming a character itself. The trademark fanciful artifice is alive and well but this time populated with interesting characters, a sense of agency, and an accessible emotional core. The faults in Anderson’s lesser films have been fine-tuned and fixed here, and the high-speed plotting and crazy characters that continually collide left me amused and excited. It’s the mixture of the melancholy and the whimsy that transforms Grand Budapest into a macabre fairy tale of grand proportions. If you’re looking for a pair of films to introduce neophytes into the magical world of Wes Anderson, you may want to consider Grand Budapest with Moonrise Kingdom (Royal Tenenbaums if they need bigger names). In the end, I think Anderson more than identifies with his main character, Gustave, a man enchanted in a world of his own creation, a world better than the real one. Who needs the real world when you’ve got The Grand Budapest Hotel?
Without question, Selma is one of the finest films of 2014. It is powerful, resonant, nuanced, political, immediate, and generally excellent on all fronts. It’s a rarity in Hollywood, namely a movie about the Civil Rights movements without a prominent white savior. This is a film about the ordinary and famous black faces on the ground fighting in the trenches for their freedoms. With Selma, we get a battleground that allows us to explore in both micro and macro MLK, the man. The courage of ordinary citizens in the face of violent beatdowns and police bullying is effortlessly moving and often heartbreaking. There isn’t a moment where I didn’t feel that director Anna DuVernay (Middle of Nowhere) was taking the easy road or pulling her punches. The screenplay respects the intelligence of the audience to sift through the politics and the arguments. It’s the twentieth-century, and yet the struggle for equality frustratingly repeats too many of the same battles. It’s this historical and contemporary context that gives Selma its extra surge of relevancy, of reminding how far we still have to go, reminding the world that MLK’s work is by no means complete and that it is up to the rest of the populace to fight for the kind of country that he spoke of in his “I Have a Dream” speech.
Whiplash is a rare film that feels blisteringly vibrant, coursing with an insatiable energy, powered by performances of intense dedication and with a script packed with bubbling conflict. It’s a small movie that manages to knock you off your feet, from the caliber of the performances to the caliber of the musicianship. I didn’t know if this movie could live up to the hype post-Sundance, and I was a little apprehensive at first, but I fell completely under the sway of writer/director Damien Chazelle and his storytelling. The smooth edits, the clean connect-the-dots plot points, the room for ambiguity and nuance, the stellar final act, it’s everything a movie lover could ask for while still never forgetting to entertain. At the start it looks like the film is going to be a student-mentor study, and it does become this, though in a fascinating yet psychologically disturbing manner. The film raises some very intriguing and open-ended questions over the self-destructive nature of ambition. In one perspective it’s a story of perseverance and utilizing every setback, every humbling humiliation to push oneself further then what was possibly known. On the other hand, it’s about a young man who struggles for the unforgiving tough love of an abusive father figure who molds him in his image. Chazelle’s explosive finale also sticks with the ambiguity. It is no doubt an ascendant moment for Andrew but the implications are left for you to interpret on your own. This is a powerful movie that packs many a wallop but also raises interesting ethical questions about the drive for accomplishment, whether personal attachments are hindrances, and chiefly whether the ends justify the means, especially if those ends could be considered cruel and abusive.
And the best film of 2014 is…..
It’s a dark dystopian allegory about class warfare, it’s a stunning sci-fi action movie, it’s a parable about humanity, it’s a stylish thriller that puts most of Hollywood to shame; it’s many things, chief among them, an incredible movie. Snowpiercer is a stirring action movie that keeps your eyes glued to the screen, but it does an equally impressive job of building its world and adding dimension to its storytelling. Its dark sense of humor and political and philosophical subtext provide an even richer texture to this strange, bleak world. Stylish, intelligent, rewarding in surprising ways while still being thoroughly entertaining, with tremendous technical attributes such as production design, Snowpiercer is a sci-fi flick that borrows from many but creates its own unique and enthralling landscape. Rare is the movie going experience where you sit at the edge of your seat, completely taken in by the creativity of the artists at work, transported to somewhere new and exciting, and you dread the approaching end credits. Snowpiercer is an experience that’s hard to describe beyond an unrelenting checklist of positive, glowing adjectives. Simply put, it’s movies like this that make going to the movies special.
Honorable mention: A Most Violent Year, The LEGO Movie, Mr. Peabody and Sherman, Edge of Tomorrow
The impact of Annabelle will depend directly upon your good will concerning The Conjuring and what your law of diminishing returns is with a creepy doll. To be abundantly clear, the Annabelle doll is one creepy looking thing. But how much can an audience take of a creepy looking doll that doesn’t have any articulation or expression? This small prequel has proven to be a smash at the box-office, so where does Annabelle go from here? Another prequel seems unlikely considering the events of this movie cover the birth of the demonic doll and lead directly to the prologue of The Conjuring, where this spunky little doll met her match with the married paranormal investigators played by Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson. The real Annabelle is encased in a glass prison. The only direction seems to be forward, with Annabelle breaking free of her prison and having a night on the town. Maybe she can locate Chucky and that Twilight Zone doll. I just hope future adventures with Annabelle, and its box-office grosses almost assure there will be, veer away from the overload of uninspired genre clichés. There’s not enough effort on display to warrant this solo side project for a creepy doll that mostly just remains creepy. Annabelle the film could have used less of Annabelle the doll. Then again an unblinking and silent doll was still the most interesting character on screen.
9) The Legend of Hercules
It’s as if director Renny Harlin watched Gladiator and said, “Yeah, I can do that but much worse.” The plot is almost exactly a rip-off of the 2000-Best Picture winner, having the godly Hercules besmirched and thrown into the arena, where he must build a name for himself in gladiatorial combat and work the support of the crowd in order to gain his vengeance against a jealous tyrant with daddy issues. If that wasn’t enough, the visual aesthetic is very much a CGI-heavy mélange of 300, with the super stylized slow-mo action standing in the way for plot. A sword-and-sandals epic should not be on the verge of putting you to sleep, but Hercules goes there. Kellan Lutz (Twilight) might have the right build to fill out the character but he’s too limited as an actor to do much beyond the fight choreography. The only reason to see this movie is if you’re trapped on an airplane and it happens to be on. Who would have thought that the flawed Brett Ratner-directed Hercules movie would look even better?
8) Rampage 2: Capital Punishment
Rampage was one of the better-received films from director Uwe Boll, with several critics and members of the public declaring it his best work, something that could actually be qualified as “good.” Despite tracking Boll from the beginning, I could not count myself amongst their numbers. I found Rampage to be a rather empty exercise in shock violence that grew tedious and misguided as it continued. A sequel to an intellectually empty and violent film minus meaningful subtext or commentary was not exactly what I would have requested. I fear Boll thinks that there is a level of audience attachment to his spree killer that simply doesn’t exist. He’s not an anti-hero, he’s not a revolutionary, he’s not even an engaging character by any generous metric and that’s because he’s just a stand-in for tedious ideology. He’s a mouth and a trigger finger, and that’s all Bill is, in no compelling manner. I worry that Boll will continue to insert Bill into new settings, have him round up some innocent people, and then we’ll watch him sputter for an hour about whatever cultural and political misdeeds are currently bugging Boll. I worry that the promise of “Capital Punishment” inherent in the title will really just lead to a third Rampage film with this promise actually, finally, followed through. Generally, I just worry that the world will have to suffer more abuse from further appearances by Bill, the world’s most irritating psychopath who loves to hear himself talk. The scariest part is that some people will actually think this is good.
7) I, Frankenstein
Why wouldn’t Frankenstein’s monster (henceforth referred to as Adam) be the focal point in a war between heaven and hell? And why wouldn’t the angels really be gargoyles and live in cathedrals? And why wouldn’t the demons be trying to get their demony hands on Dr. F’s book on reviving the dead? And why wouldn’t we jump ahead 200 years to modern-day, where “Adam” should be a rotted corpse? Transparently an attempt to replicate the surprisingly enduring Underworld franchise, this secret supernatural war is a lame monster movie disguised as a lamer superhero film. It’s also absurdly idiotic in just about every capacity, as if no department had any communication with one another. Aaron Eckhart grumbles and trudges his way through this awful mess but you can feel his disdain for the entire enterprise. It’s not even deliciously campy, choosing to try and re-envision the classic monster in a modern and realistic setting. The action sequences are mundane when they’re not incoherent. I, Frankenstein feels like a movie version based upon the video game of some other source material. It’s loud and inept and campy but mostly outrageously dumb. I can’t wait to watch someone else in Hollywood recycle this cheap plot setup for a desperate supernatural franchise (“Okay, the Creature from the Black Lagoon finds itself in the center of a war between centaurs and…”). When people talk about the dregs of Hollywood, and the echo chamber of stripping away creativity, let I, Frankenstein be a prime example of the worst of us.
6) God’s Not Dead
This is such an angry little movie disguised with a misleading happy face. God’s Not Dead is a surprisingly mean little film that hides its purpose under the auspices of evangelism. I expected a pro-Christian message and it has every right to put forward its own viewpoint, but the film isn’t so much pro-Christian as anti-everyone not already following the same limited interpretation of Scripture. This is not an inclusive film that will reach out to those lost sheep. Putting aside the poor filmmaking, the misplaced persecution complex, and the straw man arguments, the most disappointing aspect of God’s Not Dead is the illusion of intellectual rigor. The merits of Josh’s less-than-stellar arguments are not the point, though any person skilled in critical thinking should be able to poke holes in his faulty rationale. The point of the film is to feed into an unjustified sense of being wronged, that even though Christians are a clear majority in our country, that somehow they are under attack simply because others are allowed equal opportunity to share their own valid views and beliefs. In the black and white universe of God’s Not Dead, there is only one way to be happy, to be moral, and if you’re not on this team than there’s no way to achieve anything of substance in your life. Do you see the difference? It’s not that my side is good, it’s the notion that my side is better, that your side is worse. It’s a distinction that adds a decidedly sour note. This is a movie after all where the purveyors of atheism have to be struck down with death. God’s Not Dead is likewise striking ’em dead at the box-office, but you should hold the movie to a higher standard.
5) Winter’s Tale
With Winter’s Tale, there are people who should know better, people that have been awarded Oscars. These people should resolutely know a terrible movie while they’re making it. Maybe they did. Look deep into their eyes. The inconsistent plotting and rules, the corny and overly wistful characterization, the overwhelming silliness of every single moment, Winter’s Tale will spark far more guffaws and derision than plaudits. It’s a movie that bludgeons you with its unrelenting maudlin nature disguised as romantic fantasy. The source material is beloved by some but it all comes across as nonsensical twaddle onscreen. Akiva Goldsman’s screenwriting credits run the gamut from award winning (A Beautiful Mind, Cinderella Man), to big budget to notorious stinkers (Batman & Robin, Lost in Space). It’s hard to judge the man’s talents with such a wide range of quality. However, I can question the finished results of Winter’s Tale and openly wonder what in the world convinced Goldsman to cash in all his Hollywood cache to direct this dreck. I’m almost tempted to encourage people to watch Winter’s Tale just to try and make sense of it themselves, to try and take in 118 minutes of earnest bad decisions. Whether it’s the magic flying horse, the 100-year-old news writer, or the fact that we’re dealing with a bad guy named Pearly, or Will Smith as Lucifer, but sometimes Hollywood unleashes a disaster that begs to be seen.
4) Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas
Saving Christmas is a shoddy evangelical sermon with shoddier theology, straining to fill out a running time, and ultimately being pro-materialism and anti-empathy. Come again? When it all comes together, there’s maybe a total of 40 minutes of an actual movie here, laboriously stretched out. And when I say “movie” I mean Cameron and Christian talking back and forth in a stationary car. This is not a movie. At all. In Cameron’s very narrow perspective, anything associated with the holiday has to be positive. Cameron seems to use the film as a defense of his affluent privilege. He uses the Bible to back up his lifestyle and to defend materialism. Did we forget that part where Jesus said to sell all your possessions and help the poor? The film is packaged as a comedy and a family movie with a spiritually uplifting message, but what’s so uplifting about saying “SPEND SPEND SPEND” is how you show love? Just because Cameron says a nutcracker is representative of King Herod’s foot soldiers prowling Jerusalem for the baby Jesus doesn’t make it strictly so. To call this a movie would be too charitable and I am not in the season of giving. Saving Christmas is a lump of coal disguised as a open-hearted message. Skip this movie and donate your money instead to some charity.
3) Best Night Ever
Being Friedberg and Setlzer’s first straight comedy, it’s fascinating how it fails in a completely different yet similar manner than their normal spoof monstrosities. The problem, among others, with their spoofs is that they are not structured for comedy but merely lame pop-culture references, with the reference standing in the place of what should be a joke. It’s a notable absence of comedy. With their first original work, Friedberg and Seltzer lose the references but forget to replace them with, you know, comedy. I was morbidly curious what Friedberg and Seltzer would set their sights on when not cannibalizing pop-culture in their spoof movies, and now I know. Best Night Ever is just as inept a comedy as their previous spoof atrocities. It irritates me even more that Friedberg and Seltzer could have done any comedy they want, and this is what they delivered, a tacky and too often timid sex comedy that has far too many drawn out sequences in place of actual humor. I don’t think found footage works in the context of comedies. It provides a sense of realism, and the long takes naturally build tension, but these aspects benefit the horror genre, not so much comedy. With comedy you still need to develop setups, complicate them, provide payoffs, and make sure to provide detours from the expected. I never thought I’d write this but these two can just go back to their spoofs. Of course the first request would be never to make another movie again.
2) Atlas Shrugged Part III: Who is John Gault?
Thank goodness there won’t be any more of these turgid, laborious, and insufferably awful movies that stretch the loose definitions of cinema. Atlas Shrugged Part III concludes a storyline that did not need the bloated, Peter Jackson-style treatment. Mostly because after four hours, the series still fails to justify its film existence. The production values are pretty low, the storyline consists of robotic characters spitting out ideologies rather than dialogue, and the romance between Dagny (our third actress playing the part) and Henry Reardon, which was a focal point for two movies, is casually brushed aside so Dagny can swoon with the mysterious John Gault. The needless subtitle for the film is “Who is John Gault?” and the answer is an innovator who invited the world’s richest CEOs to escape to a magic kingdom of their own. Analyze that hilarious reality. It’s an island of the 1%, but what does being experts on derivatives do when it comes to individual survival in the wilderness? Do these people plant their own vegetables, build their own homes, or do the menial labor they are not accustomed to? Where did they get the materials for all the goods for this libertarian paradise? Nothing about how this world operates makes sense. The entire Atlas world, transported to a near future that still relies heavily on logistics of the past, strains credulity, from the rise of rail to the idea that a copper shortage is crippling the country’s power supply. The entire film is about cognitive dissonance, from the characters, the filmmakers, and Rand herself.
And the worst film of 2014 is….
1) America: Imagine a World Without Her
This is a familiar place for conservative author and filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza, whose 2012 agitprop documentary 2016: Obama’s America was my worst film of that year as well. As a movie, America: Imagine a World Without Her is also a failure. It’s a political polemic that preaches to the faithful, assuaging any feelings of guilt they may have had over the past sins of our country, and yet D’Souza doesn’t even offer a vigorous or even competent attempt to do just that. Unless you are already converted to D’Souza’s worldview, you are unlikely to be persuaded by this crackpot expose. The film lacks corroborating evidence for its outrageous claims and rebuttals, conveniently ignoring a larger context in many cases because it would disprove D’Souza’s disingenuous claims, that is, when D’Souza isn’t inadvertently disproving his own claims. D’Souza’s demonstrably shaky logic disputing America’s past ills only takes a modicum of critical thinking skills to see it for the intellectually facile, dishonest, disingenuous, morally bankrupt rhetoric of a charlatan. The real question is WHY would anyone even posing arguments to mitigate the horrors of slavery and genocide? What morally charitable rationale can even be created to try and argue that these horrors were not as bad as history has thoroughly documented? D’Souza says he wants to take control of the “shame America” narrative, but in doing so he’s whitewashing and mitigating this country’s mistakes just to make, what, his core audience of conservatives feels better? As long as D’Souza keeps making movies, he’ll probably always have a spot saved for him here.
Dishonorable mention: Suddenly, No Good Deed, Let’s Be Cops, Adult World
PART TWO: INDIVIDUAL AWARDS AND HONORS
Best titles of the year: Dear White People, If I Stay, The Imitation Game, Nightcrawler
Worst titles of the year: Laggies, Edge of Tomorrow (especially when the book was called All You Need is Kill), The November Man
Titles that could be confused with porn: Get On Up, The Nut Job, Bears, The Giver
The Best 10 Minutes of 2014: The end credits of 22 Jump Street. For the most meta of movie sequels, it goes full tilt crazy in the closing credits, exhausting the possibilities of its absurd premise and just keeps going. It’s such a ridiculous and ridiculously funny way to end a movie on a high note, and like much of the film, it’s inspired.
Runners-up: Dom Hemingway’s safe-cracking wager in Dom Hemingway; the ending of Whiplash; Kristen Wiig and Bil Hader Jefferson Starship lip synch, The Skeleton Twins.
Best Two-Hour Trailer for a 2015 Film: Mockingjay Part 1
Best Film I Saw in 2014 (that wasn’t released in 2014): The Great Beauty
Biggest Disappointment: Interstellar. This is my first Nolan disappointment, a bloated film struggling to be important and say Important Things about the Human Condition. It has its moments of excitement and awe but more so those moments are surrounded by a lot of dead space. The story is dense while still being undercooked, with too many listless supporting characters that amount to nothing, and easily telegraphed plot turns that are frustrating. Interstellar snuffs out all the intriguing possibilities it has to come back to its sappy father/daughter relationship that never truly feels earned. By no means is Interstellar, Nolan’s space travel opus/ode to Stanley Kubrick, a bad film. Unless you’re a sucker for easy sentiment, it will likely be a disappointment in some way, whether it’s too long, too boring with its science, too cloying with its emotional tugging, or just underdeveloped and overcooked at the same time. Though that one scene of Matthew McConaughey watching 20 years of messages was actually pretty stellar.
Didn’t Expect That, Disney: Maleficent is one big analogue for rape. Hear me out. The title character falls in love with a man who likewise tells her he loves her but is just using her to his own advantage. He then drugs her drink and while she’s unconscious has his way with her, leaving her physically disfigured and feeling betrayed. She turns inward, rejects the outside world, and dwells in sadness and seclusion. She doesn’t tell others about her attacker until many years later. The public is quick to blame the victim. And then ultimately, once she feels “whole” again thanks to reaching out to others/support, she is able to confront her attacker and rise above his destructive influence, returning to some semblance of her former self. When looked at in its entirety, does that not sound like an intentional analogy for rape/sexual assault? It’s not so explicit that little kids will walk home asking mom and dad about the persistent nature of “rape culture,” but its presence and articulation is a start.
Too Little Depp: Into the Woods
Too Much Depp: Tusk
Bad Casting Awards: Exodus: Gods and Kings. Whitewashing isn’t exactly a new trend in Hollywood. It’s not like Charlton Heston looked particularly Middle Eastern. However, it’s rather distracting to watch a movie starring Egyptians and Middle Eastern Jews with a Welshman, an Australian, John Turturro, Sigoruney Weaver and Aaron Paul.
Hooray Equality: I’ve read reviews for A Walk Among the Tombstones indicating that our two remorseless killers are a gay couple; if this is true it’s kept very vague for interpretation. In the age of equality, it could be homophobic to declare, in absolutes, that psychopathic killers couldn’t also be gay or lesbian. That would be… wrong?
Thanks Kickstarter: Veronica Mars
No Thanks Kickstarter: Wish I Was Here
Best Time I Had in a Theater in 2014: Watching the lunacy that is Winter’s Tale with my girlfriend in an empty theater on Valentine’s Day. We knew it would be bad, we knew it might be fun, but even we weren’t prepared for this. Two hours of unbridled laughter and derisive comments make the best Valentine.
Least Amount of Godzilla in a Godzilla Movie: Godzilla
Least Amount of “Hercules” in a Hercules Movie: Hercules
Most Gratuitous Moment of 2014: The ending of Nymphomaniac Volume II (major spoilers ahead). During Volume One, I had the unmistakable feeling that all of this had to be leading somewhere. It wasn’t just going to be one woman distilling her life stories over the course of one night. I also figured there had to be a reason for why Seligman would rationalize every one of Joe’s actions, shifting blame away from herself. Then early on in Volume Two, Seligman reveals himself as asexual, a man born without any sexual desire. He argues he’s the perfect person to hear out Joe’s tales of woe, as he can objectively analyze them free from lust and desire and titillation. Then, by the end of Volume Two, Joe as decided to change her ways. She wants to be someone different, someone better. She’s turned the corner. What, a glimmer of well earned hope emerging at the end of a Lars von Trier film? That’s impossible. This natural ending is destroyed thanks to von Trier’s nihilistic perspective; he just can’t help himself. And so, though it makes no narrative sense and seems completely out of character, Seligman comes back to Joe, tries to rape her, and is then shot dead. That’s the end. Every man is a deviant. It just completely undoes Seligman’s entire perspective, as von Trier abandons whatever gains he’s made over four hours for what amounts to a groan-worthy joke. It is without question one of the worst, most misguided endings I’ve seen in a film. It makes the previous four hours feel like a lousy setup for a lousier joke.
Bad Timing Award: The unfunny comedy Let’s Be Cops about how much fun it would be to pretend to be a reckless representation of the law right around the time of Ferguson.
Worst Marketing: The trailer for Paul Haggis’ Third Person which literally spoils the film’s twist ending. Did the marketing department watch their own movie?
Heavenly Casual Wear: The issue with depicting heaven onscreen, or something close to it, is that we can start picking it apart. Just ask Peter Jackson and his miscalculated Lovely Bones. If everyone is young in heaven, as depicted briefly in Heaven is For Real, then do we get a say in what our prime age is? I personally think George Clooney is a more handsome man as he ages than back in his E.R. days. And why does Jesus have to dress in the standard robes and sandals of 2000 years ago? Couldn’t he wear something more casual? Just imagine: Jesus relaxing in the pajama jeans.
Bonkers Bad: Inherent Vice
Bonkers Good: Lucy
Most Ridiculous Plot Element of 2014: I just can’t wrap my head around the world of Divergent. It lacks the clean clarity of, say, The Hunger Games, where the game is kill-or-be-killed and it’s very much a class warfare allegory. In Veronica Roth’s novel, the post-apocalyptic Chicago is divided into five factions but this isn’t a caste system. The different factions are looked at as equals, meant to cooperate harmoniously. So there goes any sort of class conflict when the factions are presented more as lifelong clubs. The design is that branching people off into five groups will somehow prevent the strife that lead to the unnamed war of the past. This doesn’t really make a lot of sense to me. Why would limiting people’s options for careers and lifestyles eliminate conflict? I understand the not so subtle message about conformity and the strength in controlling others, but it still doesn’t hold. Then there’s the notion that a divergent is a dangerous rogue, but it’s not like the divergent are mutants or genetically different. These are just people who don’t fit neatly into one of the five faction options. If you eliminate the conformity obsession, who cares? It’s only an aptitude test in the end, like what you take in middle school that say, “Hey, you like drawing, maybe you’d like to be a police sketch artist” (true personal anecdote of mine). It’s not something that looks deep into the souls of boys and girls and presages their future. It’s an aptitude test for crying out loud.
Runners-up: the explanation of The Maze Runner; the entire premise and development of Sex Tape in modern times; take your pick with Lucy or Winter’s Tale or God’s Not Dead.
Greatest Acting Thievery in 2014: Evan Peters steals the film X-Men: Days of Futures Past. Ignore the silly yet period appropriate outfit. When this character is onscreen the movie has a joyful sense of irreverence. He is instrumental to freeing Magneto and the onscreen depiction of his super speed is the best illustration of the power ever conceived in film and TV. There is a segment sent to Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle,” and some wonderful special effects, which is just so playful, so giddy, and so cool that it very well might be my favorite moment in any superhero movie… ever.
Runner-up: Randal Park as Kim Jong-Un in The Interview; Uma Thurman in Nymphomaniac: Volume II, Martin Short in Inherent Vice.
Effective Gimmick: Locke, Birdman
Unnecessary Gimmick: Boyhood
Best Onscreen Death: Denzel Washington vs. Russian Tough Guys in hardware store, The Equalizer. The climactic act is a drawn out showdown where Denzel uses every part of the hardware store to deadly results. There’s definitely a pleasure in watching Denzel dispatch tough-talking baddies, and that’s what the film delivers, no more, no less.
Best Villain: Koba in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.
Runner’s-up: J.K. Simmons in Whiplash; Tilda Swinton in Snowpiercer; Archibald Snatcher (voiced by Ben Kingsley) and his henchmen in The Box Trolls.
Favorite Line From a Review in 2014: From a review of Philomena: “Be warned, you will walk away from this movie wanting to punch nuns in the face.”
PART THREE: MOVIE GRADES
I have reviews and mini-reviews for almost all of the graded movies.
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Guardians of the Galaxy
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Edge of Tomorrow
The LEGO Movie
A Most Violent Year
Mr. Peabody and Sherman
The Raid 2: Berendal
22 Jump Street
Captain America: Winter Soldier
Dear White People
The Imitation Game
The One I Love
X-Men: Days of Future Past
Big Hero 6
The Fault in Our Stars
How to Train Your Dragon 2
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit
Muppets Most Wanted
The Purge: Anarchy
A Walk Amongst the Tombstones
As Above, So Below
Heaven is For Real
The Maze Runner
A Million Ways to Die in the West
Mockingjay: Part 1
The Monuments Men
Nymphomaniac: Volume I
The Theory of Everything
Under the Skin
300: Rise of an Empire
Nymphomaniac: Volume II
Transformers: Age of Extinction
Assault on Wall Street
Black or White
Exodus: Gods and Kings
The Hungover Games
Into the Woods
Son of God
Three Days to Kill
Walk of Shame
Wish I Was Here
In the Name of the King 3: The Last Mission
Let’s Be Cops
No Good Deed
God’s Not Dead
Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas
The Legend of Hercules
Rampage 2: Capital Punishment
Atlas Shrugged Part III: Who is John Gault?
Best Night Ever
America: Imagine a World Without Her
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