Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Best Movies of 2014

I know this was a really good year for movies because there's several I know I need to see that I haven't yet, and a flawed but very interesting Christopher Nolan film still didn't make the cut. It was a good year for both huge blockbusters and smaller auteur movies, and when both of those happen there's a lot to enjoy.

Best of 2014

10. Godzilla

People complain that the human characters in this movie are boring, and that there's not enough action. To the first complaint, I'd say that I enjoyed watching a big disaster movie where the people actually acted like people, working together with what little information they had to take on an unfathomable threat, and that it's perfectly in keeping with Kaiju tradition for the people to be less interesting than the monsters. To the second, I'd only ask if YOU SAW THAT FUCKING SCENE AT THE END? HOLY SHIT.

9. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

After Tim Burton's remake seemed like it buried the Apes franchise, it was a surprise when Rise of the Planet of the Apes turned out to be a good, well-considered new take on the concept. That meant the poorly-titled Dawn came with more expectations, but I thought it met them pretty solidly. The human characters are a bit eh, which is a bummer when the whole movie is about how both sides of a war have their good and bad points. But the ape scenes in this movie are so good that they made up for it. Andy Serkis and the rest of his mo-cap friends do a tremendous job bringing the developing ape society to life, and Matt Reeves did great work balancing the quieter moments with some tense action. Actually looking forward to the third movie in a reboot of a decades-old campy sci-fi series.

8. Locke

Locke features Tom Hardy driving a car down the highway in England at night and talking with people on the phone. And almost nothing else. It's a premise that sounds like they're using a highly limited scope to cleverly disguise a dramatic life-or-death story, and the events of the movie do have a profound effect on Ivan Locke's life, but really he's just talking to family members and coworkers as he's trying to explain why he will be missing for the next day or so. It sounds mundane, but the smart script and Hardy's tremendous performance (showing off a great new Tom Hardy voice) make it completely gripping from start to finish. It doesn't sound like it will work, but it absolutely does.

7. The Raid 2

While the first Raid movie was a very tight and narrowly focused beat-'em-up, The Raid 2 is something different. It's half balls-to-the-wall hardcore martial arts action like the original, and half epic Asian crime film. It doesn't completely work, because it's just not the most intriguing or original crime movie. It's still great though, because my god does this crew know how to make an action movie. The fights are as brutal as the first time, and probably a step or two beyond that. They sort of step up in intensity and quality over the course of the story, constantly topping what came before when you thought they couldn't. There's just no one else who makes martial arts movies this good. Any fan of this kind of movie has to get on the Raid bandwagon.

6. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

I'm addicted to comic books. I have a whole shelf full of Marvel trades, and I want a whole lot more. What got me hooked is Captain America, specifically Ed Brubaker's run that began with the Winter Soldier arc, so seeing it get adapted to film so successfully was a total joy. The conspiracy thriller storyline they came up wasn't quite as compelling as they wanted it to be, but I was okay with it, because it was peppered with the best action scenes a super hero movie has ever had. Nick Fury's resourcefulness, Black Widow's grace and skill, Cap's surprising speed, power, and fierceness, they're all captured perfectly in battles that help define who they are and push the story forward. It's sort of an Avengers 1.5, and helps with what Marvel is building toward with cinema's most exciting "shared universe". It also gets some credit for kicking off a big change in Agents of SHIELD that turned it into a mostly entertaining show in the back half of its first season.

5. Gone Girl

I have some problems with this movie. Because even if the story and the creators themselves aren't misogynist, it's very easy for certain kinds of people to take the wrong message from its story. I can't truly hold that against the movie though, which just wants to be a totally bonkers and surprising thriller and succeeds at that completely. The cast is terrific, especially Rosamund Pike and Tyler Perry, and if David Fincher (director), Jeff Cronenwerth (DOP), Kirk Baxter (editor), Trent Reznor, and Atticus Ross (composers) want to make movies together for the rest of their lives, I won't complain. I also really love it when a movie can make you unsure of it as it begins and then turn that around into a positive element successfully. This one stuck with me.

4. The Lego Movie

I was unsure of The Lego Movie early on, but it slowly earned my trust until I was completely in love with it for the entire second half or so. Not only is it a very funny and thrilling family adventure movie, it also has tons to say about everything from the importance of being yourself to why we tell stories in the first place. It's a bit odd for a movie based on a building toy that comes with specific instructions to have a message about why you shouldn't conform to everything that's expected of you, but as a wise man once told me, you shouldn't get caught up in relativism. I'm not convinced that Phil Lord and Christopher Miller are capable of making something that isn't awesome.

3. The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson's latest precious art project is one that actually justifies his specific style by putting it up against some real darkness, in this case a sort of fictionalized account of the period leading up to World War II. It felt like he had a lot more to say this time than he usually does, and it all comes across while still being as charming and interesting on the surface level as he always is. It's worth pointing out how good Ralph Fiennes is, because good lord is he a tremendous actor and is this the point when I truly started to realize it. There's tons of his favorite actors all through the movie doing great work, but Fiennes definitely steals the show. You usually don't say that about the lead, but it fits here.

2. Under the Skin

If you collected a random audience and had them watch all of the movies on this list, I'm more than confident this would be the most hated. It's strange, it never explains itself, it doesn't really conform to any expectations of what movies should be. But I was enthralled the entire time. Without explaining too much, it's about a woman who's not what she appears, and lures men to her apartment for unknown purposes. I can't explain much more than that because I honestly don't know much more than that. But it's unique, it's beautifully shot, it's disturbing and occasionally terrifying, and I couldn't take my eyes off it. And it's not affected; all of the obfuscation and strangeness ties directly into the nature of the main character directly. It's small filmmaking at its best.

1. Guardians of the Galaxy

The finest Marvel Studios movie to date features characters most people have never heard of, flying around, making shady deals, and getting in laser gun battles on the other side of the universe. And people say all super hero movies are the same. There's a couple minor characters people may remember from an earlier film, but Guardians is mostly content to stick to new faces and concepts, as its central and titular gang of misfits crack jokes, have growing pains, and eventually work together to try to bring a little good to a galaxy that hasn't given them much in return. The set designs, makeup, and visual effects create a believable and exciting setting, the cast does a great job bringing their unusual characters to life, and the script is stuffed with great laughs and the occasional genuinely touching moment. I'm gushing a bit, but I think Guardians is one of the best summer popcorn movies in years, and the best space opera since the original Star Wars movies. Two of the best new movie characters this year were a talking raccoon and tree. Come on.

Delayed Entry

This is the best movie that wasn't released in 2014 but I didn't see until then.

Inside Llewyn Davis

I wrote last year that I regretted not seeing this, and I wasn't surprised when I did end up loving it. It's not the Coen brothers at their funniest, but it has its share of amusements, and also a great story about a man still struggling to figure out his life after certain events have left him grasping for something to hold on to. Oscar Isaac is wonderful as Llewyn, and the script and direction show the Coens still at the top of their game of creating uniquely wonderful films.

No comments: