Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Top 25 Films of 2014

Aw, here it goes...

#25. Godzilla
Director Gareth Edwards proves to be a strong force, and his contemporary imagining of this gargantuan reptile tale is full of technical prowess and careful pacing. Although the story doesn't really expound anything new conceptually, it manages to be more than just another try at resurrecting an iconic monster. The film pays homage to the original version, and it often recalls classics like Jurassic Park and Alien. There have been some complaints about Godzilla's lack of screen time, but the best monster movies always exercise restraint, which makes the creature all the more powerful when it's finally shown in all its roaring glory. Godzilla arrives when it wants to. When Godzilla steps onto the scene, it IS the climax. This film respects the beast.

#24. Inherent Vice
Always one for divisiveness, Paul Thomas Anderson returns with Inherent Vice, a trippy neon noir (yes, neon). Despite its deliberately confusing plotting around a muddled private eye investigation, the film manages to be an enthralling cinematic hoot. It's consistently interesting in its aesthetics, from the oversaturated colors and grainy realms, to PTA's skill at curating vivid shots. There's also a bunch of great soundtrack moments. The eccentric and stylized performances are all groovy, and the amusement comes from the weird and random things the characters do, along with the off-the-wall stuff that comes out of their mouths. The understanding of the plot is less essential and more essentially head-scratching. It's something that should be maddening, but all I could do was smirk.

#23. John Wick 
He's just had his wife, his puppy dog, and his Mustang taken away from him. John Wick is out for revenge, and he hasn't even bothered to change his blood-stained t-shirt yet. We all know that Hollywood has no recent shortage of action thrillers of the assassin variety. But John Wick stands alone. It has its own distinct identity. The premise delivers as much as you'd want it to, and more. The film also lets you breathe, but at the same time, there isn't a moment wasted. And most importantly... It's personal. 

#22. The Guest
After delivering last year's entertaining You're Next, Director Adam Wingard brings on The Guest, another clever and entrancing genre hybrid piece. It's as if Drive got into a car crash with Halloween. It all begins when a mysterious guy shows up at a family's door, and the rest is best kept a secret. But I sill say this: Shit gets insane. There's a lot packed into 90 minutes, but it never feels overcrowded, and none of it overstays its welcome. Although, the family might disagree.

#21. Ernest & Celestine
An unlikely friendship between a mouse and a bear forms in this profoundly cute French/Belgian import. It's a miniature and intimate tale, but the themes of tolerance and breaking boundaries are conveyed gently and effortlessly on a universal scale. The squiggly hand-drawn style animation gives the film the delightful look of a children's book coming to life, and the watercolor hues are alluring in every frame. Quiet and poetic in its approach, the soothing piano accompaniment is a perfect musical touch. Don't let anything stop you from seeing this wonderful film.

#20. Fury
1945 in Nazi occupied Germany. Within the stark settings and drab colors, this WWII film depicts the horrors of war as hell on earth, physically and mentally. "Wait 'til you see what men can do," Grady says. The brutal graphics are shown with immense, disheartening detail. Sometimes it's so intense that it might put knots in your stomach. The camerawork, often functioning from the close viewpoints of the characters, immerses you into the action as bullets fly and bombs explode. Brad Pitt gives an expectedly great performance as a tank commander. And even though it has a tough duty in living up to WWII films of the past, Fury still really sticks with you, and the final frame is one hell of a shot.

#19. Chef
A chef packs it all up and leaves behind his stuffy restaurant to set out across the country in a food truck. Of course, the film isn't just about cooking (even though there are numerous close-ups of delicious, sizzling food). It has some father/son bonding moments, and it brings in topics of handling criticism, bucking expectations, embracing creativity and doing what you love. It's a recipe that delivers a satisfying amount of humor and spirited doses of soul. It's hard to believe that such a gem basked under the radar, especially with a cast like Jon Favreau, Sofia Vergara, John Leguizamo, Scarlett Johansson, Olver Platt, Bobby Cannavale, Dustin Hoffman, and Robert Downey Jr. This feel-good comedy of tasty proportions is generally easygoing and it's incredibly low on conflict, but sometimes that comfort is exactly what one needs.

#18. A Most Violent Year
It isn't that easy to come across a great mob film at the cinema nowadays, but A Most Violent Year is that rare well-made crime drama. Amidst the hustle of New York City during the year 1981, Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain play a couple of lovers as well as shady "business" partners. The narrative is compelling and unpredictable, and the cinematography is drenched in shadows, aligning with brutal and conflicting themes on the American dream. The film draws a lot of influence from past mafia genre staples in an effective and inspired manner. It never comes off as overly derivative, and if one is making a mafia film in this day and age, why not refer to the greats?

#17. The Skeleton Twins

Saturday Night Live alums Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader star as estranged siblings in this affecting tragicomedy. Even though humor is often present and there are ravishingly timed jokes, The Skeleton Twins navigates some dark and sensitive places, and it's done with impressive rigor. The film is masterfully toned and emotionally raw, dealing with matters of mental illness as well as life's crushing complications and disappointments. Wiig and Hader give the best performances of their careers, embodying these characters with so much more than just flesh and bone.

#16. X-Men: Days of Future Past
This installment hinges on tricky time-travel leaps, and the cast of characters overflows, yet somehow it all manages to be miraculously fluid. The adroit execution of the story on all parts makes for a stealthily paced, multidimensional experience. Everything culminates in a peak of thrilling arcs and setpieces. Amidst all the dazzle, it's the grounded levels of humanity, developed character relationships, and historical context that drive the film and deepen the experience. There's an ever-present sense of urgency, and the total balance and purpose of every piece propels X-Men: Days of Future Past above the pitfalls of overkill.

#15. How To Train Your Dragon 2
How to Train Your Dragon 2 doesn't quite reach the lofty heights of the first one, but it totally renders itself as a remarkably worthwhile sequel, expanding the world and advancing the story in a natural and compelling way--while also retaining a lot of elements that made the first one so fantastic. The visuals are astonishing, and the sky scenes of Hiccup and Toothless cruising through the clouds (accompanied by the gorgeous musical score) are major highlights. The story even journeys to some unexpectedly somber lengths, launching up some poignancy and tons of heart.

#14. 22 Jump Street
It essentially has the same setup as its predecessor, but it's just as entertaining, bigger, and even more ridiculous. The college stereotypes are played into heavily, and the script hilariously attempts to reconcile with the PC police on several different occasions. 22 Jump Street fully administers the jocular bits, as well as running gags and stocks of quadruple-liners. Schmidt and Jenko's relationship becomes deeper as their gravitational bromance intensifies, reaching beyond the brolar system.

#13. Nightcrawler 
Jake Gyllenhaal goes full-on sociopath, delivering an impressively chilling performance as a crime scene photographer in Nightcrawler, a neo-noir thriller and sleek satire on journalism ethics. The film explores the strange and thought-provoking idea of making a living off of other people's violent and deadly mishaps, while also presenting a disturbing depiction of how the news media craves a drastic story. There are things in this film that probably shouldn't be zoomed in on, and there are lights flashed where they probably shouldn't be. Or should they?

#12. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Director Alejandro González Iñárritu's latest is a strange film that might scare a lot of people away. It's an anti-superhero movie... movie of sorts, revolving around a washed up actor attempting to resurrect his career on Broadway. It's a comedy that's blacker than black. It's metaphysical and philosophical. It's both primitive and ingenious. It's bizarre and whimsical, yet hideously honest. At times it's ambiguous, and other times it's as clear as the sky. It's also a prime showcase for Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, and Emma Stone to all give Oscar-worthy performances. There were times when I seriously couldn't decide whether I liked it or not, but in the end, it won me over.

#11. Captain America: The Winter Soldier 
In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, our hero is welcomed into the 21st century with chaos. This Marvel adventure packs on the exhilarating, well-designed action, but the story firmly hinges on real world issues, making it equal parts conspiracy thriller, relevant commentary on surveillance in the digital age, and a plight for defending freedom. It just might be the most focused entry into Marvel's Avengers movie cannon.

#10. Top Five 
It's the black Birdman. The black Before Sunrise. Chris Rock does everything in this--writing, directing, and starring in this significantly timely passion project. The film revolves around a day in the life of fading comedian, Andre Allen. The film is serio-comic and semi-meta. There's soul-searching, along with meditations on the ideas of breaking one-dimensional molds, dealing with fame, keeping integrity, and handling change. It's a nuanced triumph on all parts, and it's the perfect platform for Chris Rock to wield his sometimes misunderstood brilliance. What's your Top Five?

#9. Obvious Child 
First-time Writer/Director Gillian Robespierre brings on Obvious Child, a wonderfully fresh and subversive romantic comedy about an amateur comedian who's just gotten pregnant from a one night stand. Jenny Slate is uproarious and Robespierre's script is lively, unfiltered, and efficient--bringing laugh after laugh, and piling on squirmy conflicts in a brisk 80-minute runtime. If you're in need of a comedy that is both daring and heartfelt, Obvious Child is the obvious choice.

#8. The Babadook
Jennifer Kent's awesomely titled Australian horror tale shakes the haunted house genre. The story revolves around a mother and her son as they try to ward off a creepy phantom intruder in their home. It's one of the more visually arresting horror films in recent memory, but the primal story at the center is what really captures you. The characters are well-developed and the narrative is chilling in tone, yet warm at its heart. It taps into those childlike fears (being afraid of the dark, checking under beds, and opening closet doors), as well as parental worries. It skillfully mixes horror with poignancy and grief, and there's a concentration on what lurks just beneath the darkness. The Babadook is allegorical, representing a deeper terror that is more grounded in reality than we'd like it to be. It's a nightmare that might not ever leave, and you can only do your best to keep it at bay.

#7. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Opening up about a decade after where Rise left off, Caesar is now caught between a hostile standoff as internal conflicts on both sides render the harmony as elusive. The film spends a lot more time developing the dimensions of the apes, rather than the humans. And that's probably for the best, because the apes deserve to be the stars this time around. The battle sequences pack a punch because of the motives driving them, our investments into the characters, the intense stakes, and the stellar camerawork. Moral complexities arise and the template possesses all the makings of a Greek tragedy, but with sci-fi grandeur, gun-toting apes on horseback, and less poetic language. 

#6. Whiplash 
The conflict crashes and bangs in Whiplash, a film about the extreme lengths of dedication and competition. It focuses on a young jazz drummer (Miles Teller) and his ruthless perfectionist teacher (J.K. Simmons)--the type of instructor that makes you nervous for the other characters whenever he walks into a room. It all unfolds like a hostile sports movie, as Neman practices until his forehead sweat drips into the bloody crevices between his fingers. Simmons and Teller give two magnificent performances and engage in some of the most heated head-to-head scenes of the year--an element that this year's Foxcatcher could've benefited from. Within the lively editing and confrontational direction, the tension builds and eventually hits the fan in an energetic crescendo.

#5. Gone Girl
David Fincher's latest is cemented into the upper echelon of contemporary mystery/suspense extravaganzas. The narrative doesn't just gradually escalate with subtle nuances, and it doesn't just stack on twists, misdirections, and reversals--it packs fucking wallops. Its slyly humorous and cynical dialogue, interesting characters, and WTF story warrant immense intrigue at every turn. And aside from exploring the darkest corners of a marriage gone wrong--way wrong, it's also a strenuous exercise in multiple methods of conning and deception. Gone Girl gives a whole new meaning to the phrase, "There's two sides to every story." There's probably a lot more than that.

#4. The Grand Budapest Hotel 
The Grand Budapest Hotel is very much like a multi-layered pastry, visually and storywise. It's concocted with both sweetness and tartness--a constant swirl of melancholy and comic idiosyncrasy. It revolves around Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes), the eccentric hotel concierge, and Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori), the new deadpan Lobby Boy, whom Gustave takes under his wing. A chain of events involving a death will, a murder accusation, and a stolen painting causes all hell break loose. It's a completely unique viewing experience, and technically, it's Wes Anderson's most Wes Anderson-y film thus far. “You see? There are glimpses of decency in this slaughterhouse that we used to call humanity, and what we aim to provide in our simple, humble, dignified… oh, fuck it.”

#3. The Hobbit: The Battle of The Five Armies
The journey comes to a rousing end in Peter Jackson's final Middle Earth endeavor. This one is shorter, faster paced, and more action oriented than the previous Hobbit installments. The war breaks out in brilliantly orchestrated chaos. Jackson's flair for fantasy setpieces is unrivaled, and the sprawling scope of the compositions shouldn't be taken for granted. All of the intimate, emotional beats culminate as well. In a world of dwarves, elves, and wizards, Jackson sure knows how to bring out the human elements of friendship, love, and internal dynamics within each and every one of the forefront characters. With all of that, there's definitely a handful tear-jerking farewells. Yes, the film is the back end of a full story, but it's a very entertaining back end. Yes, at times it's a little cartoony, yet it greatly captures the essence of Tolkien's novel. And yes, this trilogy was doomed to never match the phenomenal excellence of The Lord of the Rings and its potential "greatest films of all time" discussion, but that doesn't mean that The Hobbit wasn't another story worth telling. I'm thrilled that we could go there and back again.

#2. The LEGO Movie 
The biggest surprise of 2014. When The LEGO Movie arrived in theaters in all of its vibrant and snappy glory, it proved to be one of the best animated films of the last 10 years, and it accomplished the difficult task of greatly satisfying both kids and adults. The unique and glitchy animation provides a feast of color and texture that utilizes every speck of frame, and the art design takes full advantage of the LEGO universe. No LEGO is left behind. Each detail is charmingly vivid; if you look close enough you can see fingerprints and scuff marks on the pieces. It all manages to be busy and eye-popping without being overwhelming. While the story is a fittingly fast-paced free-flow of ideas, the action sequences are packed tightly and all of the jokes connect with precise timing. The script is stacked with joyous slapstick, as well as witty and referential humor, making it a fun and high-powered comedy on all fronts. The LEGO Movie is an unlikely hero tale at the center, but it's also more substantive and intricate than expected--working as a postmodern jumble of cinematic icons, a deftly aware culmination of blockbuster tropes, and a sly critique of consumer culture. It delivers a genuinely heartfelt message that embraces imagination and deconstructs the confines of society. Emmet's journey of self-discovery is profound and resonant, and there's a twist that might leave a lump in your throat. Everything is awesome about The LEGO Movie.

#1. Guardians of the Galaxy 
The Guardians of the Galaxy (that's what they call themselves) are an odd group of misfits that embark on a mission involving a powerful orb--with hopes to save the universe. It's yet another addition to the Marvel movie cannon, and it's only fitting that it seemed to be the underdog--the lesser known story of the bunch. In a change of pace, there's an immediately zany and upbeat tone that even unleashes some B-movie antics and tongue-in-cheek camp. The soundtrack features an awesome mix of 70's classics that really pop against the interstellar, futuristic setting (and the songs even hold a bit of weight within the narrative). Guardians is a downright fun time, and it's ecstatic to be here.

The adventure displays more visual splendor than any other Marvel film, especially since the entire thing takes place in the cosmos. The spunky production design, including the creative make-up and costumes, often recall Star Wars and Star Trek, and there's an abundance of nifty gadgets on board. The film flaunts the usual big and colorful action sequences, but this particular entry stands out from other Marvel cinematic adventures because it's easily the funniest and most heartfelt. Stuffed with hilarious banter, gags ("I am Groot!"), and slapstick, the film provokes plenty of stomach-ticklers.

The welcomed sentimentality materializes from Star Lord's backstory with his mother, as well as the dynamic relationships within the group of Guardians. Part of the hype and allure of The Avengers is the fact that it's an ensemble of iconic characters all together on screen (at the same damn time), but those larger-than-life superheroes don't really possess the endearing chemistry of these rag-tags. I mean, there's a raccoon and a tree stump here, and they generate significantly more affinity and intrigue. The story also delivers some unexpected bursts of emotion and surprising scenes of beauty--an attribute that rarely occurs in past Marvel movies.

I am Groot. (Guardians of the Galaxy renders itself as a memorable standalone piece within the Marvel universe. You're not just going to rush on to the next installment--you'll want to rush back to the beginning of this one.)

2014 was a year when Boyhood and Under The Skin garnered almost unanimous praise among arthouse crowds. And I respect those films (one more than the other), but it's been movies like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, The Hobbit: The Battle of The Five Armies, The LEGO Movie, and Guardians of the Galaxy that have proven why cinema is such a stunning medium, while also reminding us that the very reasons for its origins were based around creating versatile magic that couldn't be captured anywhere else. These films are purveyors of that magic.

- Zach

1 comment:

  1. Awesome list Zach :) Great to see Budapest Hotel ranking so high, as well as Gone Girl and of course Guardians ;) I've yet to see things like The Guest or The Babadook but I've been meaning to check them out for a while.