Posts Tagged ‘Best of 2014’

I’ve put this off long enough.

I love movies — I assume that much is clear. And I love recognizing good movies. There are few things that warm my heart like a friend telling me that my recommendations prompted them to seek out a new film.

Ranking movies, however, is torture, and especially this year was tortuous. But as Shakespeare said, brevity is the soul of wit, and a list of 10 films is much more digestible than an incessant profusion of cinephile fandom.

So here are my Top 10 films of the year, beginning with number 10. And bear in mind that almost every day I’ve changed my mind about the ordering of the top 3 and will likely continue to do so after I push “publish.”

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10. Wild

A good character study is hard to come by these days, but Wild paints an engaging and at times hypnotic portrait of a woman putting the pieces of her life back together after being shattered by grief. The movie, set in the isolated, wandering expanse of the Pacific Crest Trail, tracks Cheryl Strayed as she battles the elements and her inner demons through California and Oregon. Wild jumps between beautiful vistas and moments of tense menace as Cheryl encounters both man and nature on her quest, while giving us a glimpse into our heroine’s mind through scattered glimpses at her past.

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9. Nightcrawler

Nightcrawler is, in a word, intense. As a morally ambiguous video-journalist capturing the nocturnal evils of Los Angeles, Jake Gyllenhaal creates a character that is a volcanic cluster of manic energy barely contained by a smiling, steel-eyed shell. But Gyllenhaal’s performance, incredible as it is, is only one of the many triumphs on which Nightcrawler can hang its hat. Director Dan Gilroy fashions a pulpy, lacerating examination of our blood-soaked craving for carnage media, making the audience complicit in morally ambiguous attempts to get that perfect shot of a crime scene or traffic accident’s aftermath. The movie starts on edge, stays there, and culminates in one of the most thrilling car chases ever captured on film, underlined by a pervasive sense of unease, and curiosity.

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8. Life Itself

It’s hard to love movies without loving Roger Ebert, the celebrated entertainment journalist who approached film criticism from the perspective of the American public rather than the self-aggrandizing intelligentsia. His reviews were sharp, witty and thoughtful, offering constructive criticism when needed and effusive praise when deserved. And in Life Itself, we get more than some two-dimensional portrait. We see the fight against alcoholism, the petty squabbles with his on-screen partner Gene Siskel and the moments of depression as he battled the illness that took his voice and ultimately his life. But throughout his life, he remained a champion of film as an art, or as he described it — in one of my favorite quotes — as an empathy machine.

And for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.”

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7. Gone Girl

Can you ever really know another person? That’s the question at the heart of Gone Girl, David Fincher’s twisty, and twisted, adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s bestseller. At the heart of the story is the failed marriage of Amy and Nic Dunne, a pair of New York City journalists turned Southern suburbanites whose professional and emotional resentments toward each other reach a critical, and deadly breaking point. Fincher’s moody pallete, showcased in films like Se7en, Zodiak and The Girl With the Dragon Tatoo, proves perfect for Flynn’s tale. It’s a seedy tale of heroes and villains where every character is a little of both. If you haven’t seen the movie you’ve probably read the book, and if you haven’t done either then you’re just doing it wrong.

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6. Interstellar

There’s only a handful of American directors with the industry chops to attempt a movie like Interstellar — a mega-budgeted original work of science fiction that would rather play with space-time equations than laser guns and explosions — and thankfully Christopher Nolan is one of them. Having earned his keep with the Dark Knight franchise, Nolan was given the keys to the kingdom to make his 3-hour epic about love, family, wormholes and 4th-dimensional extra-terrestrial beings.

For some, it was a little long in the tooth. For me, it was a hypnotic roller coaster ride, beautifully shot and elegantly constructed, that I never wanted to end.

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5. The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson only knows how to make films one way, and that either works for you or it doesn’t. The director’s hyper-stylized whimsy and dollhouse set design exists in a world that is pseudo-fantasy and often surreal. With Budapest, Anderson created one of his most expansive worlds, largely centered in a luxury hotel but more broadly in fictional pre-WWII Europe, and populated it with some of his most colorful and winning characters, none more so than Ralph Fiennes’ dedicated concierge Mr. Gustave H. It’s a film filled with humor, thrills and a fair amount of melancholy sadness, all placed within a visual masterpiece.

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4. Snowpiercer

American cinema has long been fascinated with the end of the world, but few post-apocalyptic stories have created a vision of the end as simultaneously bleak, bizarre and fascinating as Snowpiercer, the graphic novel adaptation directed by Bong Joon-ho. In a world covered in ice, the last remnants of the human race inhabit a train perpetually circulating the globe, divided into a very literal caste system with the affluent and comfortable occupying the front — near the engine — and the huddled, starving masses populating the back — or “foot” as the deranged villain played by Tilda Swinton explains. The conditions lead to revolt and a slow and steady push to the front of the train, with each new car providing Bong Joon-Ho with an opportunity to create a fully encapsulated micro-world for our heroes to explore and fight through.

Put simply, there’s just nothing like Snowpiercer, which avoids stereotypicality at every turn, subverting expectations and leaning, full-tilt, into bonkers banana land. It may not be the best movie made this year, but I would say it’s the first thing you should make sure to see.

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3. Whiplash

“There are no two words in the English language more hamful than ‘good job’.”

So goes the mantra of Terence Fletcher, the sadistic music instructor played to perfection by J.K. Simmons who berates his students into excellence in Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash.” Fletcher’s latest target is Andrew (Miles Teller) a drummer who just might have it in him to be one of the greats if he can push himself hard enough, or be pushed hard enough without breaking.

In Whiplash, first time director Chazelle creates a haunting story of master and pupil that vibrates with crashing intensity. Under his direction, Teller’s drum solos have more energy than even the most expensive Michael Bay action sequence. It’s an incredible feet for a young filmmaker, that suggests very interesting things to come and all but certain Oscar nomination for J.K. Simmons.

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2. Boyhood

Filmed over the course of 12 years, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is a triumph of filmmaking that sees a family age and evolve literally before your eyes. Setting aside the technical achievement of the film’s existence, which can’t be ignored, Boyhood is more than just a gimmick. The story told, through the eyes of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) is a beautiful, natural, soft-spoken thesis on life, from childhood fears to first crushes to the precipitous approach of adulthood. It’s a bold, daring project, that highlights what film is capable of as a storytelling medium.

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1. Birdman

You could talk a lot about the incredible performances in Birdman, from A-list stars like Edward Norton and Emma Stone to against-type casting like Zach Galifianakis to the central role of Riggan Thomson played to droll perfection by Michael Keaton. You could talk about the meta-commentary on fame, with a former superhero franchise actor making an artistic comeback by playing a former superhero franchise actor attempting an artistic comeback.

You could talk about the technical wizardry of the film, edited to look as though it was filmed in one continuous sequence, or the way it uses visual tricks to play with its surrealist elements, tip-toeing between what is real and what is imagined in the delirium of Thomson’s decaying mental state.

You could talk about the soundtrack, an at-times cacophonous jazz riff of percussion instruments that perfectly captures the frantic not-quite-right mood of the film.

You could even talk about the story, which revolves around the staging of a Broadway play and which gives you a peak into the interworking of the NYC theater world.

But really the only thing you need to talk about, and what ultimately makes Birdman the best movie of 2014, is how it’s just so much darned fun to watch.

 

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Putting together a top 10 movies list is never easy. There’s always too many films and a nagging sense of betrayal as I’m forced to drop titles from the running, let alone the hair-splitting agony of figuring out which film to christen as the ultimate champion for the year. I try to alleviate this with my honorable mentions, which helps, but there’s always at least one more movie I want to recognize.

So a few years back I started naming an 11th best film, an honor reserved for a big-budget, mainstream, popcorn film that excels above the too-frequent mindless bilge produced by the Hollywood tentpole machine. Sometimes there is no such film, but this year it was an obvious choice.

Without further ado, the 11th best film of 2014 was…

4222808-captainamericaCaptain America: The Winter Soldier

To criticize comic book adaptations of being formulaic is the lowest of hanging fruit, but the genre rivals romantic comedies for their paint-by-numbers predictability. 1. Introduce hero doing something heroic. 2. Introduce love interest. 3. Introduce villain being evil. 4. Send hero after villain. 5. Place love interest in peril. 6. Introduce complication that suggests hero will fail/villain will succeed. 7. Have hero and villain punch each other really hard. 8. Hero emerges triumphant, saves love interest. 9. Sunset, ride off into.

The first Captain America followed this pattern, giving us the milquetoast Steve Rogers who, after an injection of magic juice, went on a two hour Nazi-punching campaign. Spoiler alert, I guess, but the ending had villain Red Skull vanishing into a ball of magic space light while Rogers plunged into the arctic so that we could fast forward to the movie we really wanted to see, The Avengers. It didn’t exactly leave me chomping at the bit for more of the star-spangled Cap.

But Winter Soldier was no phoned-in creation of redundancy. It took the loose threads left by The Avengers, namely the super-secret spy organization S.H.I.E.L.D and pulled while the connective fabric of the Marvel Cinematic Universe unraveled. The result was a comic book movie that was more political thriller than rock ’em sock ’em cacophony, complete with a who-can-we-trust paranoia and a ripped-from-the-headlines criticism of the modern security state.

After TWS, nothing in the MCU feels the same. Promos and chatter suggest the remaining films of Marvel’s phase 2 and some of Phase 3 (including the next Captain American installment) will continue and expand on the fissures created by Steve Rogers’ second outing. The result is an invigorated curiosity in the behemoth multi-film extravaganza that is The Avengers that makes me look at the never-ending slate of new films with cautious optimism, rather than creeping boredom.

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We’re just a few weeks away from 2015 which means it’s Year-End-List season. I’m still fine-tuning my Top 10 Movies but as always there’s more great films than I know what to do with and it behooves me to give credit where credit was due.

What’s interesting about 2014 is that there’s been a lot of great films, but they’ve mostly been front-loaded to the Summer and Fall seasons. Instead of the usual gluttony of Oscar contenders dropping like a tidal wave in December, most of the late releases have been overlooked by the critics academies and professional publications that have already made their selections.

There’s still some buzzy films out there I have yet to see before sticking a fork in my Top 10, but I would not surprised if the temporary list I made a month ago stays largely intact (the Top 5 is all but locked in. No spoilers).

But until then, here’s a few other movies that didn’t quite make the cut, but deserve to be seen.

*Note: The term “Best” in the following categories actually means “Best that isn’t on my Top 10 list”

13917-3Best Rom-Com: Obvious Child

Obvious Child is a classic story of boy meets girl, girl has an abortion. The movie generated some controversy – largely from people who hadn’t seen it – because it dared to go against the Hollywood norm of carrying unwanted pregnancies to term (see: Juno, Knocked Up, Junior, etc.).

But the movie isn’t really a movie about an abortion. It’s a star-making one-woman vehicle for the hilarious Jenny Slate, populated by light and breezy supporting characters who fill the screen with humor and pathos. Instead of most rom-coms that take a small issue and blow it up to absurd proportions, Obvious Child takes a big, BIG, issue, shrinks it down and sets it slightly off to the side.

lego_aBest Cartoon: The Lego Movie

Longtime readers of Wood’s Stock will remember that I don’t really do cartoons. But even my hollow tin chest felt a tiny heartbeat during this nostalgia fest that perfectly captured the nonsensical Lego wonderlands of of my 1990s childhood. This is the only setting where we will ever get Batman and Gandalf in the same movie. Enjoy it while it lasts.

X-Men-Days-of-Future-Past-Movie-Review-Image-5Best Superhero(es): X-Men: Days of Future Past

We have officially entered the point of diminishing returns for comic book adaptations. By and large, the climax hinges on who can punch the hardest (see: Thor: The Dark World, Man of Steel, etc.) and the movie is spend chasing down a All Powerful Thing That Will End Everything Because Movies (see: all of Marvel phase 2).

All of that helps make the geek-stravaganza in DOFP so satisfying, because if watching an army of adaptable robots fight a rebellion of mutants with ice, teleportation, magnet, telekinetic and super speed powers doesn’t entertain then why do we even go to the movies? I can see a family drama on the stage, but I need cinema to bring fantasy to life (see: Spider-man: Turn off the Dark).

Fed-Up-MovieBest Documentary: Fed Up

There were a lot of very informative docs this year, but I always give bonus points to a film that either changes the way you think about a subject or the changes the way you live your life. I saw Fed Up in January at the Sundance Film Festival and I’m still checking the nutritional labels of the food I buy at the grocery store.

For all the talk about the obesity epidemic, Fed Up paints a clear villain attacking U.S. waistlines: sugar. Kill sugar and we win the war, and sugary sodas are the tobacco of the 21st century.

You may not agree with that assessment, and there’s valid data to suggest the problem isn’t that simple, but good luck watching Fed Up and not thinking twice about that extra large coke the next time you go to McDonald’s.

One-I-Love_-The_web_1Best Head Trip/Best Indie: The One I Love

I can’t even describe what makes The One I Love great without giving away it’s twisty, head-scratching plot, suffice to say that Elizabeth Moss and Mark Duplass give fascinating, multi-faceted performances as a couple whose flame is waning.

It’s amazing what the film is able to do with what is essentially two characters. Ted Danson makes a brief appearance as the couple’s psychiatrist before they head out for a romantic trip, then spend the rest of the film bottled up in isolation with only the ebb and flow of their emotional well being to keep them company. Also, a WTF third act twist that pulls the rug out and sets it on fire.

o-THE-FAULT-IN-OUR-STARS-facebookBest YA: The Fault in Our Stars

I wasn’t as enamored with TFIOS, book or film, as most, but I still have to acknowledge quality when I see it. John Green has crafted an interesting look at young love that sidesteps most pratfalls and offers some genuine insight into humanity. Sure, the male lead is unbelievably perfect and sure, the stakes leave a little to be desired but it’s hard to not crack a smile with lines like this: “I fell in love the way you fall asleep; slowly, and then all at once.”

john_wick2The 2014 Wood’s Stock Balls To The Wall Award: John Wick

You could argue that John Wick is just a mindless shoot-em-up, and you wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. The plot is as bare bones as bones get: a retired assassin sets out on a revenge rampage after his beloved dog is killed. There’s no grand speeches. There’s no scenery chewing. There’s just John Wick, a silent, brooding Keanu Reeves, doling out cold justice against a veritable legion of underworld toughs.

And yet John Wick’s bloodbath isn’t a cacophonous onslaught. It’s operatic action sequences are filled with a certain, ineffable beauty and it engages in world building that evokes the suave of old black and white noir. It is not a franchise film, but I would love to see a few more corners of the John Wick universe.

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