Happy New Year, friends! Is it just me, or did 2014 come and go in the blink of an eye? Crazy. As a whole, the year was a mixed bag for me -- don’t worry, I won’t turn this into a therapy session (at least, not outwardly) -- but cinematically, it was very solid. I went to the movies 190 times in 2014. That’s actually down from my record-setting total of 209 in 2013, which means that (a) my movie-going tendencies have finally reached critical mass, or (b) I’m getting too old for this shit. Nevertheless, there was some tremendous quality to be found and compiling my Top 10 list was tricky. There were a few no-brainers, while some required serious soul-searching and maybe a coin flip -- but in the end, the common thread is that these ten films all affected me on deeply emotional, personal, visceral and/or fundamental levels (and/or flat-out entertained the shit out of me). And here they are....
10. SONG OF THE SEA -- This slice of animated goodness from Tomm Moore is a beautiful film that feels fresh and modern yet instantly timeless. Drawing upon old-time Irish folklore and themes of family, fear, death and the limitless power of storytelling, it is the tale of two siblings, Ben & Saoirse, who live in a lighthouse at the top of a cliff with their father. Following a series of unfortunate events, the children eventually embark on a wondrous quest when it is revealed that the little girl may be the last of the mythical Selkies and a link to their late mother’s past. The animation is vibrant and rich, mixing fantastical images with real-life Irish countryside. The story is gloriously imaginative, overflowing with heart and tear-jerking emotion and characters that ring true (as a big brother, myself, I know from experience). With this and the Oscar-nominated THE SECRET OF KELLS under his belt, it may be safe to say that if Miyazaki is the Japanese Walt Disney, then Tomm Moore is the Irish Miyazaki. You heard it here first!
9. SNOWPIERCER -- 2014 was an excellent year all along the sci-fi spectrum, including such films as the creepy, introspective UNDER THE SKIN and the ambitious, epic INTERSTELLAR. But my favorite was Bong Joon-ho’s bat-shit crazy post-apocalyptic action thriller set entirely on a speeding train that contains the last vestiges of humanity as it hurtles along an Earth that became uninhabitable years before. When the poor folks in the back of the train (led by Captain America himself, Chris Evans) decide to reclaim their way of life, they must make their way to the front, laying waste to the selfish 1% along the way. As they pass through each car, they encounter a different societal class and a series of bizarre, colorful characters (including Tilda Swinton in one of her weirdest performances ever, which is saying something). The violence is insane and over-the-top, the humor is sharp, and the dystopia on display (while perhaps absurd on a practical level) is fully-realized and a welcome change of pace from the recent glut of boring YA carbon copies. It may be the craziest and most wildly entertaining cinematic video game / sociopolitical commentary of all time.
8. ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE -- Depending upon your feelings on Jim Jarmusch, it may be easy to write off this movie as “the one about hipster vampires.” I’ve never been a huge Jarmusch fan, myself, but there is something utterly intoxicating about this film, from the performances of Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton (not to mention Mia Wasikowska, one of the finest actors of her generation) to the introspection and romance that apparently goes along with the existential drudgery of immortality. There’s no real sense of urgency or even much of a plot -- it just kind of exists -- but it’s an intricately-detailed, worn-in world in which I could have happily languished for several more hours. Making a vampire movie is such a slippery slope in this post-TWILIGHT world, but here we have one of the best, most aesthetically-pleasing, and by far the coolest in recent memory.
7. GONE GIRL -- Has there ever been a more perfect marriage of filmmaker and material than this? (Which, of course, is ironic considering the material is about a most imperfect marriage.) I read Gillian Flynn’s novel last summer and was blown away by (a) the crazy twistedness, and (b) the thought of David Fincher wallowing in such a fucked-up situation. Aside from Fincher’s precision filmmaking, you’ve got casting decisions ranging from pitch-perfect (Ben Affleck in the role he was born to play, except maybe for the douchebag at the Fashionable Male) to revelatory (Rosamund Pike, who knew!) to inspired (Neil Patrick Harris was NOT who I pictured while reading the book), another fitting score by Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross, and a sharp screenplay by Flynn herself. It all adds up to an expertly-crafted, deliciously diabolical and more than a little trashy (in a good way) tale that offers quite a bit of food for thought about men, women, relationships and everything in between.
6. BIRDMAN or THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE -- Michael Keaton is a guy who has been great for a long time, but there’s no denying that his career has been overshadowed by his stint as a certain Caped Crusader in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Likewise, Riggan Thomson is haunted (figuratively and literally) by his most famous superhero alter-ego, Birdman, which he attempts to undo by writing, directing and starring in an ambitious Broadway production. What transpires is an offbeat character study and a satirical look at Hollywood, theatre, pop culture, celebrity, criticism, and maybe a few more things. There’s a lot going on and it’s all brilliant, funny, and since it’s directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, tinged with tragedy. It’s also impeccably acted -- Keaton is Oscar-worthy and Edward Norton is great, while Emma Stone raises her game to the next level -- not to mention beautifully-shot and featuring a memorable drum-based score. It’s a film that toes the lines between intimacy, lunacy and pure entertainment and nails it all.
5. THE BABDOOK -- An erratically-behaving child, a single mother at the end of her rope, and the most terrifying pop-up storybook of all time... these are the ingredients in Jennifer Kent’s jaw-dropping slice of psychological horror, which is both her filmmaking debut and an instant genre masterpiece. On the surface, it sounds like a joke: What the heck is a Bababdook?? But I assure you, this is a terrifying creation that looks and feels like something half-remembered from a childhood nightmare. The film is a slow-boiler that relies heavily on atmosphere, imagination, meticulous world-building and the power of its two lead performances. The remarkable Essie Davis taps into the dark side of motherhood with unflinching rawness, while young Noah Wiseman is as sympathetic as he is chilling. This is a deeply unsettling film that burrows deep into the psyche while also delivering some of the most legitimately scary horror imagery of the past couple of decades. YOU CAN’T GET RID OF THE BABADOOK DOOK DOOK.
4. SELMA -- It’s hard to believe that Ava DuVernay’s masterful dramatization of the 1965 Alabama march is the first full-fledged mainstream biopic of Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s also hard to believe that it is just as relevant now, 15 years into the 21st century, as it would have been 50 years ago. Sigh. But even if we did live in a post-racial world, this would be a potent piece of cinema that paints a vivid portrait of an integral moment in history. David Oyelowo commands the screen with fiery passion -- he uncannily embodies everything that made MLK great, as well as what made him human. Tom Wilkinson and Tim Roth, as LBJ and George Wallace, respectively, are just as great, and their game of political cat-and-mouse is often shocking and infuriating. The film is unflinching in its portrayal of the violence of that fateful day, which makes it hard to watch at times, but overall this is a film that perfectly captures the mindset of its time and place. The most important film of the year and a must-see.
3. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY -- It’s almost as if Marvel is messing with us at this point, isn’t it? Like, someone got drunk at the holiday party and said, “Hey, let’s take this weird, lesser-known property about an intergalactic superhero team that includes a talking raccoon and a walking tree and turn it into a hit, y’know, just because we can!” Well, it worked, because as great as the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been so far, James Gunn may have given us the best of the bunch -- a thrilling space opera loaded with heart, wit, and most importantly, fun. Chris Pratt is now officially on the path to unfathomable superstardom. And wouldn’t you know it, the aforementioned tree is a more soulful character than most humans. And the raccoon is a hilariously disgruntled badass. And Dave Batista, of all people, delivers a perfectly deadpan (and purple) comic performance. And Zoe Saldana continues to assert herself as a sci-fi force to be reckoned with. And somehow, it may all tie into the Avengers and God knows what else?? Oh, Marvel -- just take my money now.
2. THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL -- Wes Anderson took his game to a new level with MOONRISE KINGDOM a couple of years ago, but he may have officially reached cinematic transcendence with this -- the most deliriously joyous movie-watching experience of the year. The visuals and sense of whimsy, of course, are on point, as is Anderson’s forte -- the movie looks and feels like a delicious & meticulously-organized box of candy within another box of candy. But there’s also a sense of wistfulness and depth of humanity that Anderson has never really tapped into before. Ralph Fiennes gives a perfectly nuanced, eminently quotable comic performance as M. Gustave, the proud concierge of one of the world’s premiere luxury hotels, the Grand Budapest, located in the fictional war-torn Republic of Zubrowka, somewhere in Europe, sometime between world wars. Along with his loyal lobby boy (Tony Revolori, a revelation), the pair embark upon a rapturous journey filled with intrigue and oddball characters (including such Anderson mainstays as Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman and Edward Norton -- and for the third time on this list, Tilda Swinton). Utilizing a nesting doll storytelling technique, complete with alternating aspect ratios depending upon the time period, and driven by an ebullient, relentless score by Alexandre Desplat, the film contains layers upon layers of historical fiction, romance, mystery and madcap zaniness -- it is by far Anderson’s richest film, and quite possibly his best.
1. BOYHOOD -- For the second year in a row, Richard Linklater tops my list -- an unprecedented achievement! What is there to say about this magnum opus, 12 years in the making, that hasn't already been said? The film is a perfect portrait of life, touching upon moments both trivial and profound, but no less important to the process of growing up. Bursting with nostalgia and authenticity, it's the kind of film that might elicit a different reaction from each individual viewer depending upon his or her own experiences. With the BEFORE Trilogy, Linklater has already proven himself to have an incredible grasp on the concept of time and how it relates to his characters and life in general. But in BOYHOOD, we're literally watching Mason (Ellar Coltrane) grow up before our eyes, seeing the nuances of his childhood and how they might contribute to the man he will become. We root for him and root for his family, however imperfect they may be at times, because there's something (even if it's a miniscule detail) in there that reminds us of ourselves. BOYHOOD is a remarkable cinematic achievement that required both incredible vision, skill, patience, and a whole lot of luck -- it is the culmination of Linklater’s genius, personally life-affirming as both a movie lover and a human being, and the very best movie 2014.
Other Noteworthy Titles (in alphabetical order):
Big Eyes. Big Hero 6. Begin Again. Calvary. Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Cheap Thrills. Chef. Citizenfour. Dear White People. Edge of Tomorrow. Enemy. Force Majeure. Foxcatcher. Frank. A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. The Homesman. Horns. How to Train Your Dragon 2. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1. Ida. Inherent Vice. Into the Woods. Interstellar. Kill the Messenger. The LEGO Movie. Locke. Love is Strange. Maidentrip. Mood Indigo. A Most Violent Year. Most Wanted Man. Indigo. Nightcrawler. Noah. Nymphomaniac. Obvious Child. The One I Love. The Skeleton Twins. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. The Theory of Everything. Top Five. Tracks. The Trip to Italy. Two Days, One Night. Under the Skin. We Are the Best! Wetlands. What If. Whiplash. Wild. X-Men: Days of Future Past.
And now... the Bottom 10:
10. MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN -- This is supposed to be cautionary tale about the sociological perils of the Internet, I guess, but it’s so damn stupid, awkward and misguided, it makes you wonder if Jason Reitman has ever turned on a computer in his life. How is this the same guy who made JUNO and UP IN THE AIR?!
9. TRANSCENDENCE -- It’s been a long, sad decline for Johnny Depp over the past decade or so, but he may have finally bottomed out with this lame, empty LAWNMOWER MAN wannabe. This also marks the directorial debut of famed cinematographer Wally Pfister, who might not want to quit his day job.
8. TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION -- It pains me to include this here, because I’m on record as an unabashed fan of the first three films. But this one tried even my patience, and for the first time, my inner 8-year-old was not entertained. Not a single stand-out moment. Mark Wahlberg actually made me miss LaBoeuf. And such an egregious misuse of the Dinobots! This should’ve been a slam-dunk guilty pleasure but Michael Bay fucked it up.
7. EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS -- A train wreck of biblical proportions that fails in just about every way a movie can fail (even aside from the questionable casting decisions, how do you screw up the parting of the Red Sea?!). Ridley Scott may have made some of the greatest movies of all time, but he’s also ended up in my Bottom 10 three times now (see also: ROBIN HOOD and KINGDOM OF HEAVEN)... I don’t know what to think anymore.
6. THE GIVER -- The book may be the granddaddy of the young adult sci-fi dystopia, but the movie is way too late to the party. There’s nothing here that we haven’t seen a hundred times over the past few years, and unfortunately it doesn’t do any of it particularly well. Dull, drab, uninteresting and a rare waste of Meryl Streep’s presence.
5. BLENDED -- Another year, another Adam Sandler movie in the Bottom 10. The only thing that saves this dreck from being ranked lower is the undeniable chemistry between Sandler & Drew Barrymore. But other than that, it is really, really bad and borderline racist. Nice work, AWESOM-O.
4. AS ABOVE, SO BELOW -- I actually had high hopes for this because, in theory, a horror movie set in the Paris Catacombs sounds perfect and long overdue. Unfortunately, this found-footage schlock wastes the innately creepy setting, relying primarily on a bunch of arbitrary, not-at-all-scary nonsense.
3. TAMMY -- I want to like Melissa McCarthy, I really do, but why is she making it so difficult? This is an absolutely brutal comedy... completely unfunny and embarrassing to watch. Surely McCarthy can do better than this? Or maybe she can’t. (Susan Sarandon should be ashamed of herself, too, but I suppose she’s earned the right to slum it.)
2. A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST -- I’m cheating a little here because I didn’t see this one in theatres, but it’s just that bad. Stunningly unfunny, tasteless (in a bad way) and a blight on the resumes of all involved (really, Charlize?). Seth McFarlane continues to be a rancid hemorrhoid on the asshole of humanity and must be stopped.
1. I, FRANKENSTEIN -- There’s so much wrong with this movie, in which Frankenstein’s monster gets involved in an ancient war between gargoyles and demons, I hardly know where to begin. It’s like they just picked random plot details out of a hat and mashed them together while drunk. Awful dialogue, lousy effects, phoned-in performances from great actors (come on, Aaron Eckhart and Bill Nighy) and utterly devoid of a sense of humor... it is a dull, incoherent mess on every level. This is the kind of lazy, lowest-common-denominator bullshit that will hopefully serve as a prime example of how NOT to kick off a potential movie franchise. Oy, Frankenstein....
THE YEAR IN REVIEW!
A Few Titles That Just Missed the Top 10: Full disclosure: INTO THE WOODS was actually in my Top 10 for a brief time. I wrote the paragraph and everything! But ultimately swapped it out for SONG OF THE SEA. I may regret this, though, as Sondheim’s twisted fairy tale earworms continue to pervade my consciousness. A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT is the first-ever Iranian vampire western and another extraordinarily unique addition to the genre. Jonathan Glazer’s UNDER THE SKIN is haunting sci-fi in which Scarlett Johansson dominates the screen and the senses (and, oh yeah, gets nekkid). Jessica Chastain is a goddess and Oscar Isaac does his best Pacino impression in A MOST VIOLENT YEAR, or as I like to call it, BIZARRO GODFATHER II. John Lithgow and Alfred Molina are tremendous in LOVE IS STRANGE, an artful and authentic New York love story. NIGHTCRAWLER is a tremendously bleak send-up of modern journalism and Jake Gyllenhaal is as incredible as his character is loathsome. Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons clash in a mesmerizing battle of wits in the ultra-intense WHIPLASH. INTERSTELLAR may be flawed but it is nevertheless a fascinating and immersive sci-fi experience. With INHERENT VICE, Paul Thomas Anderson failed to three-peat as my #1 movie of the year, but still delivers the second-best L.A.-set offbeat stoner post-modern-detective noir of all time (but it’s no LEBOWSKI). And then there’s NYMPHOMANIAC, which actually clung to the Top 10 for some months before getting bumped out -- Lars von Trier, you are a madman.
A Few Titles That Just Missed the Bottom 10: WINTER’S TALE is a hot mess that probably only came to fruition because everyone involved owed Akiva Goldsman a favor and he cashed in for his directorial debut. EARTH TO ECHO doesn't stir up nostalgia for E.T. and STAND BY ME so much as make you wish to God that you were watching those films instead. TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES managed to get the characters’ personalities right, but is an otherwise brainless, lifeless and useless reboot. OUIJA feels like it was made for a generation of kids who have never heard of a Ouija board, let alone played with one... which I suppose it is (God, I’m old). I literally forgot what THE OTHER WOMAN was when I saw it on my 2014 movie list, and then looked it up, and then remembered... it’s terrible. For a saucy story starring Elizabeth Olsen and Oscar Isaac, IN SECRET is remarkably dull. And the less said about the ROBOCOP remake, the better -- I would not even buy it for a dollar.
Guilty Pleasures: This category is always a bit of a misnomer because there are very few films that I actually feel guilty about enjoying. That being said, I can easily see HORNS becoming a movie that I devour from time when I’m in a gleefully nasty mood (see also: THE DEVIL’S ADVOCATE). INTO THE WOODS is a damn near perfect musical but it may be slightly embarrassing to admit just how often I’ve listened to the soundtrack over the past couple of weeks. THE TRIP TO ITALY is nowhere near as brilliant (or quotable) as its predecessor, but give me Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon and their dueling Michael Caine impressions, and I’m a happy camper. MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT may be slight Woody Allen, but that’s better than no Woody Allen at all. Lastly and most deliciously, there’s Jon Favreau’s CHEF, a lovely, feel-good film that is the cinematic equivalent of comfort food. It might just find its way into my regular rotation so I can salivate over the New Orleans and Miami food porn on display... mmmm, beignets and Cubanos.
Pleasant Surprises: I don’t think there’s a person alive who didn’t immediately take a cynical stance when THE LEGO MOVIE was announced -- but somehow, Messrs. Lord & Miller not only found a way to make it work, they made one of the best animated movies of the year (and further evidence of Chris Pratt’s burgeoning superstardom). Tim Burton hadn’t made a good movie in over a decade but BIG EYES put an end to that streak, which made me very happy because I didn’t want to have to give up on him (probably no coincidence that Johnny Depp was nowhere to be found). And THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY PART 1 was approximately a billion times better than its source material -- those folks continue to wield some serious movie magic, turning a good-but-not-great trilogy of books into arguably the second-best young adult movie series after POTTER.
Sad Disappointments: Man, I am so annoyed about TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION. I’ve bent over backwards to support these films over the years, and all I wanted in return was some badass Dinobot action in this installment. But no... Michael Bay fucked that up in dismal fashion and has now officially lost my goodwill. Meanwhile, THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 was a bloated mess that makes Raimi’s SPIDER-MAN 3 look like, well, Raimi’s SPIDER-MAN 2. Angelina Jolie nailed the role of MALEFICENT but the movie was yet another “reimagined fairy tale” misfire. Lastly, while I hate to talk trash about anything Muppet-related, there can no denying that while their 2011 cinematic revival was glorious, MUPPETS MOST WANTED was a disappointingly “meh” follow-up. Among other things, Jason Segel’s infectious enthusiasm was sorely missed!
Underrated: There were a few films in 2014 that I liked a lot while the general public / critical community did not. First and foremost is BEGIN AGAIN, John Carney’s follow-up to ONCE. While it doesn’t quite live up to that lofty standard, it’s a lovely film, bursting with heart and sincerity and catchy tunes and likeable performances -- sure, it’s a little (okay, a lot) schmaltzy, but it still made me swoon hard and smile big. I also loved WHAT IF, a charming, snappy rom-com starring Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan and their irresistible chemistry. Haven’t heard much about KILL THE MESSENGER, a compelling and relevant journalistic cautionary tale featuring a great performance by Jeremy Renner. Jake Gyllenhaal pulls double-duty in ENEMY, a dose of mind-fuckery that stews in one’s psyche for a while. Bearded Tom Hardy commands the screen in LOCKE, a taut, fascinating one-man character study that came and went way too quickly. David Wain’s THEY CAME TOGETHER proves once again that of all the Paul Rudds in the world, Paul Rudd is the Paul Ruddiest. And lastly, can we please stop railing so hard on ANNIE? It’s not a good movie, but it’s sweetly cheesy and Quvenzhané Wallis has legit screen presence.
Overrated: Maybe I’m missing something, but THE RAID 2: BERANDAL has received some of the most mind-boggling praise I’ve seen all year. Yes, it’s fun, especially when it involves hammers and/or baseballs. But it’s also bloated and messy and at two and a half hours, long overstays its welcome, especially when compared to its lean, mean and far superior predecessor. Meanwhile, UNBROKEN is competently made and occasionally rousing, but overall, it’s surface-level, cliche-riddled fluff that never digs deep into its subject. I didn’t necessarily dislike the film, but I will feel very resentful when it inevitably scores a slew of Oscar nods. The same might be true for the tedious AMERICAN SNIPER, which does nothing to detract from the notion that Clint Eastwood is the most boring director working today. Lastly, I’m going to include THE INTERVIEW in this section, because it’s an amusing but ultimately forgettable comedy that got blown waaaaaaaaay out of proportion.
One Last Time: Now I'm going to talk a little about THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES and this trilogy in general. Look, I fully acknowledge that these are flawed films that don't come close to the glory and grandeur of THE LORD OF THE RINGS. In some ways, they teeter closely on the edge of fan fiction that tries too hard to connect the two trilogies. But guess what? I DON’T CARE. Throw me into any incarnation of Peter Jackson's Middle-earth for a few hours and I will wrap it around me like the comfiest cinematic snuggie and revel in its warmth. This final installment is actually the most streamlined and focused of the HOBBIT films (indeed, it clocks in at a relatively brisk 2:24). Legolas finally gets a legit awesome moment that justifies his presence in the trilogy. There's at least one serious geekgasm moment when a particular triumvirate of badassery lay the smackdown on a particular team of nine. The titular battle is huge and epic and peppered with just enough emotional oomph. And of course, the filmmakers and actors all treat the material with Shakespearean reverence, which definitely helps. If Peter Jackson announced tomorrow that he came to terms with the Tolkien estate and was going to make THE SILMARILLION or THE CHILDREN OF HURIN or expand the story of Isildur or delve into Galadriel’s backstory or any number of random Unfinished Tales, I would do fucking cartwheels. But if this is indeed the end, it is a fitting end indeed -- and I, for one, look forward to a six-film, 24-hour Middle-earth extended edition marathon sometime in the near future.
Animated Goodness: In a Pixar-less year, anything goes in the animation world, and the other guys all stepped in to fill the void. SONG OF THE SEA, as discussed, is my favorite of the bunch. The new Golden Age of Walt Disney Animation continues with the wonderful, cuddly and fun BIG HERO 6 -- I want to live in San Fransokyo more than anything in life. HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 may be one of the best animated sequels ever -- a thrilling, harrowing adventure packed with emotional depth. THE LEGO MOVIE proves that, indeed, everything IS awesome. THE TALE OF PRINCE KAGUYA is yet another exquisite triumph from Studio Ghibli. And the stop-motion geniuses at Laika gave us the gorgeous and very enjoyable THE BOXTROLLS. (Unfortunately, I did not see THE BOOK OF LIFE at press time but I’ve heard good things....)
Foreign Correspondent: As always, I didn’t see nearly as many foreign language films as I should have, but the ones I did see were almost all worthwhile. First and foremost is the aforementioned Iranian vampire western, A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT -- a gorgeous, haunting and wildly entertaining debut from director Ana Lily Amripour. MOOD INDIGO combines Michel Gondry’s whimsy with Audrey Tautou’s cuteness with delightfully weird results. Sweden’s FORCE MAJEURE is a deeply uncomfortable yet awkwardly funny look at men, women, traditional gender roles and the frailty of the human spirit. The Daredenne Bros. join forces with Marion Cotillard to deliver a compelling morality tale about perseverance, selfishness and sacrifice in TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT. HONEY is an Italian, dreamily-shot observation on the topic of assisted suicide (starring the gorgeous Jasmine Trinca). THE BLUE ROOM is a very effective French murder mystery with multiple levels of intrigue. WETLANDS, the story of a German girl obsessed with bodily fluids, lives up to its billing as the grossest movie of the year (but also one of the funniest and certainly the most German). WE ARE THE BEST! is a brilliant celebration of friendship between three young '80s Swedish punk rock girls (the exclamation point is well earned). Francois Ozon delivers a simmering tale of sexual awakening in YOUNG & BEAUTIFUL. Lastly, Cédric Klapisch completes his excellent Trilogy of Xavier in satisfying fashion with CHINESE PUZZLE.
What’s Up, Docs?: I’m going to have a lot of work do when the Oscar nominations are announced because my uninformed ass did not see many docs this year. Of the ones I did see, CITIZENFOUR, a startling account of the Edward Snowden situation, is by the far the best and most important. LIFE ITSELF celebrates the life and legacy of the late, great Roger Ebert and serves as a reminder of how much we miss him and always will (actually, maybe that’s more important). ART AND CRAFT is the portrait of Mark Landis, one of the greatest art forgers of all time and an all-around weird character. And FINDING VIVIEN MAIER is a fine introduction to a fascinating artist and even more intriguing attempt to connect the dots of her mysterious life. (I’ll be better next year and see more docs in theatres, I promise....)
Horror Haven: I’ve already talked at length about THE BABADOOK and A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT, by far the two best horror films of the year (and both written & directed by women making their feature debuts, which is pretty cool). I love Joe Hill’s HORNS and was a little worried about how the twistedness and dark humor would translate to the big screen; fortunately, Alexandre Aja and Daniel Radcliffe knock it out of the park. OCULUS is surprisingly effective, with lots of atmosphere and twisty-turny goodness. CHEAP THRILLS is a nasty, disturbing, hilarious piece of work about desperation and degradation. THE PURGE: ANARCHY is bloody and fast-paced with just enough satire to be effective. Unfortunately, ANNABELLE fails to live up to standard set by THE CONJURING despite some fab production design and built-in iconography. PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: THE MARKED ONES is not very good but does some crazy things with the series mythology to the point where I still find myself looking forward to more. And I will mention OUIJA and AS ABOVE, SO BELOW one more time just to remind you to avoid them at all costs.
Obscure-ish (or not) Indies: THE ONE I LOVE is a weird, provocative, Charlie Kaufman-esque look at love and marriage starring Mark Duplass and Elizabeth Moss. THE SKELETON TWINS is a funny, emotional, smart sibling dramedy but the fine-tuned chemistry between Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig makes it truly irresistible. Bloody yet understated, BLUE RUIN is more than your average revenge thriller. Jason Schwartzman portrays one of the year’s most fantastic assholes in LISTEN UP PHILIP, a fine film with an even better ‘70s aesthetic. BEFORE I DISAPPEAR is a feature-length adaptation of the Oscar-winning short film CURFEW; it’s somewhat darker and less magical than the source material but still worth seeking out (or maybe I’m biased because I’d love to go on an AFTER HOURS-esque NYC adventure with my own niece). Jenny Slate tackles life's awkward messiness with raunchiness, honesty, poignancy and lots of laughs in OBVIOUS CHILD. FRANK is a supremely quirky but no less endearing story of artistic genius and frustration (featuring Michael Fassbender in his most unlikely role). DEAR WHITE PEOPLE may not be the second coming of DO THE RIGHT THING but it is a funny, sharp, sensitive satire on race relations and identity in general. Brendan Gleeson towers over a motley crew of memorable characters in CALVARY, a bleak parable of faith & fate. And who would’ve guessed that Woody Allen and John Turturro would have such great chemistry? Well, they do, and FADING GIGOLO is highly entertaining as a result.
A Tale of Two Biblical Epics: 2014 was the year when a couple of big-name filmmakers decided to try their hands the good old fashioned Biblical epic... and the results were, er, mixed at best. I’ve already discussed EXODUS: GODS & KINGS, a misfire on just about every level and one of the great failures of Ridley Scott’s career. Which leaves Darren Aronofsky’s NOAH as the winner by default -- but actually, it’s not half bad. In fact, I liked it a lot. It’s audacious, ludicrous, earnest and visually-impressive. Plus Russell Crowe sports a badass beard. And since it co-stars Emma Watson and Logan Lerman, it’s fun to think of it as a prequel to THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER... or maybe that’s just me.
Testosterone-Driven Action: There were quite a few of these in 2014 and some of them were actually good! Surprisingly, the best of the bunch is JOHN WICK, an extravaganza of blood and vengeance (and humor) set in a nifty, stylized NYC underworld -- an unexpected return to form for Keanu Reeves. I actually enjoyed POMPEII, wherein Jon Snow romances Emily Browning and does battle with the most infamous of all volcanic eruptions (let’s face it, sometimes you just need a cheesy disaster flick). THE EXPENDABLES 3 brings the goods and improves upon the last installment, thanks in no small part to an extra-maniacal Mel Gibson. FURY is highly effective war porn in which Brad Pitts snarls his way through war-torn Germany in a tank. It’s not likely, but Andy Serkis is certainly worthy of the first-ever mo-cap Oscar nod for DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, a smart, intense, entertaining sequel. I didn’t love Gareth Edwards’ GODZILLA because it needed more Godzilla, but there were flashes of the great monster movie it could have been. INTO THE STORM has paper-thin characters and plot but the disaster porn on display is absolutely on point. HERCULES doesn’t take itself seriously at all, which helps -- plus the Rock is always cool and the film really pushes the boundaries of the PG-13 rating. Lastly, Liam Neeson brings the right amount of gravitas to A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES, a film that weirdly revels in its ‘90s setting (and was partially shot in my neck of the woods in upper Manhattan!).
Eva Green is a Perfect Specimen: She really, really is. Neither 300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE nor SIN CITY: A DAMN TO KILL FOR is particularly good, but Eva’s fierce, flawless presence (and, let’s be honest, frequent lack of clothing) makes both memorable. So much so, in fact, that the SIN CITY poster was forced to be edited after it was determined that you could almost, kinda, maybe see the vague shadow of areola. That, my friends, is power. (Note: Eva was also in movies called THE SALVATION and WHITE BIRD IN A BLIZZARD in 2014, which I have not yet seen, but will be added to my Netflix post-haste.)
Scintillating Sci-Fi: Lots of good sci-fi in 2014. SNOWPIERCER leads the pack in terms of intelligence, insanity and sheer entertainment value. I really liked EDGE OF TOMORROW, a surprisingly well-crafted, clever and fast-paced adventure with a sense of humor -- Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt kick ass and have tremendous chemistry. Scarlett Johansson completes her own sci-fi trilogy (which began in 2013 with HER) with the kick-ass LUCY and mind-bending UNDER THE SKIN. Brit Marling and Mike Cahill join forces again in I ORIGINS, a wobbly but thoughtful treatise on life, love, science and faith. THE ZERO THEOREM is a bit all over the place but full of manic, dystopian, visually-stimulating Terry Gilliam goodness (plus: Tilda Swinton raps!). Also, it occurs to me that I haven’t mentioned CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER and X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST anywhere in this explosion of words, so I’m just going to throw them in here -- they’re both awesome additions to their respective cinematic universes.
Young Adult Dystopian Overload: This shit is getting out of hand. THE HUNGER GAMES remains the crème de la crème of the genre (and MOCKINGJAY PART 1 is arguably the best franchise sequel of the year), but once you get past that, the pickins are slim at best. I love Shailene Woodley, but DIVERGENT is a movie that I could easily forget if there wasn’t another one coming next year. (Woodley actually pulled YA double-duty in 2014, also starring in THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, which of course is not sci-fi but pretty meh in its own right.) I already mentioned THE GIVER, which may have been a groundbreaking book in 1993 but made a shitty movie in 2014. THE MAZE RUNNER is actually relatively solid in execution but still more of the same impractical dystopian nonsense -- and they’re making another one of those next year, too! They’re really churning these sons of bitches out... and who knows how many more potential franchises are waiting in the wings? MAKE IT STOP.
A Gaggle of Great Performances: Sometimes it happens that there are truly great performances that overshadow the movies in which they appear. FOXCATCHER, for example, is a good movie that features outstanding work from Mark Ruffalo, Channing Tatum and especially Steve Carell as a creepy, grotesque megalomaniac. STILL ALICE feels like a glorified Lifetime movie at best -- but Julianne Moore is unbelievably good and probably deserving of an Oscar nomination. Eddie Redmayne is nothing short of brilliant in THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING and single-handedly turns a serviceable biopic into a great one. Marion Cotillard is fantastic in the Dardennes’ TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT (a great film), but arguably just as good in THE IMMIGRANT (not a great film). Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz graciously help Tim Burton snap his shitty-movie streak with their great work in BIG EYES. Bill Murray is so good in ST. VINCENT, it’s easy to overlook all the hokey indie cliches. When Hilary Swank is on her game and the material is good, she's as commanding as any actress alive -- THE HOMESMAN is no exception. If GET ON UP had been released in December, Chadwick Boseman would be a surefire Oscar contender for his electric portrayal of James Brown. And oh, what I wouldn’t give to see Uma Thurman snag a Best Supporting Actress nod for her brief but insanely memorable appearance in NYMPHOMANIAC!
Women Embarking on Epic, Treacherous Solo Journeys of Self-Discovery: This was a surprisingly prolific sub-genre in 2014. The highest-profile entry is WILD, which is a wonderful and absorbing experience and perhaps the best work of Reese Witherspoon’s career (though it’s Laura Dern who really steals the show). However, there were two much smaller kindred spirits that should not be overlooked. First, there’s TRACKS, in which Mia Wasikowska journeys through the Australian desert at a leisurely but enthralling pace. And then perhaps my favorite, MAIDENTRIP, a documentary about 14-year-old Laura Dekker and her quest to sail around the world by herself -- it’s both an epic adventure and an intimate portrait of a real-life badass.
The Year of...: You could argue that 2014 was the year of Tilda Swinton with her work in three of my Top 10 films: ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE, SNOWPIERCER and THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (not to mention THE ZERO THEOREM). Or maybe perennial workhorse Jessica Chastain, who lit up the screen in INTERSTELLAR, A MOST VIOLENT YEAR and THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ELEANOR RIGBY. But no... I’m gonna give the title to none other than the great NY1 morning news anchor, Pat Kiernan, who randomly appeared in JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT, NON-STOP, ANNIE and THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 -- the latter of which is the most fascinating because Kiernan also appeared in THE AVENGERS and IRON MAN 3, thus making him the only true link between the Disney and Sony Marvel Cinematic Universes!
Scores & Soundtracks: I’ve already mentioned that I am borderline obsessed with the INTO THE WOODS soundtrack -- it feels like I’ve had a different tune stuck in my head every day since I saw the movie the day after Christmas (at this very moment, it’s “Your Fault”). Howard Shore paints the perfect musical portrait of Middle-earth one last time in THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES. Mica Levi’s UNDER THE SKIN score is as creepy and unsettling as the movie itself. Alexander Desplat is the most prolific composer on the planet but delivers arguably his best work in THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL -- another one that has gotten steady play on my iPod. The BIRDMAN score is literally all drums, which is cool, but also adds a layer of anxiety that fits the material. Deplat is at it again in THE IMITATION GAME, nicely capturing the film’s intrigue. Lastly, we were given a couple of great mix-tapes: GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY’s Awesome Mix: Volume 1 is an inspired collection of tunes ranging from “Hooked on a Feeling” to “Cherry Bomb.” And BOYHOOD’s Black Album -- a gift from Ethan Hawke to Ellar Coltrane in the film (and before that, from Hawke to his daughter in real life) -- is a perfect compilation of the Beatles’ solo years that is also thematically relevant.
Repertory Revelations: Palace: My New Year’s Resolution last year was to see more repertory cinema and I made good on that vow! The United Palace in Washington Heights had a fantastic New York-themed film series that included MUPPETS TAKE MANHATTAN, GHOSTBUSTERS, THE WARRIORS, MANHATTAN, THE FISHER KING (RIP Robin Williams) and the original KING KONG. I was a card-carrying member of the Museum of the Moving Image for much of the year, which enabled me to see such classics as NETWORK, LOST IN TRANSLATION (oh, that opening shot in all its 35mm splendor), REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (my first time seeing it since 2000 -- it has lost none of its potency), THE ABYSS (also in 35mm), LABYRINTH, THE EXORCIST, POLTERGEIST (on Halloween night!) and perhaps best of all, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY in a glorious 70mm presentation. I made several treks to the Alamo Drafthouse in Yonkers and enjoyed alcoholic beverages and movies such as CASINO, TRON, E.T. (tears were jerked out of my face, as always), and one of my all-time most beloved movies, AMELIE. Plus a bunch of random classics here and there, including A HARD DAY’S NIGHT (on my birthday!), VERTIGO, THE PRINCESS BRIDE, THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, ON THE WATERFRONT and Linklater’s BEFORE trilogy. Not too shabby!
Aaaaand there you have it, folks. Thoughts? Questions? Criticisms? Over-the-top scorn in the form of my own personal Devin Faraci-style hate hashtag (might I suggest #BenSucksCoxNDix)? I can take it! Seriously, though... discuss!