My Favorite Films of 2014

The phrase “Best Films” doesn’t mean much coming from anyone. We all have our opinions and tastes and that’s what makes each critic unique. So below you will find my favorite films of 2014. The Top 10 to be exact.

There were a few other films that didn’t make my list but deserve your attention for various reasons. Tusk for it’s perfect tone, The One I Love for its slow reveal of a bizarre story, and two really cool martial arts films: Die Fighting, and The Raid 2.

I thought each one of the ten below were great films. I hope that, if you haven’t yet, you check some of them out. And please let me know what I missed. There is nothing better than watching a great film that you haven’t seen before.

10) Obvious ChildGillian Robespierre, USA, 84 min.ObviousChild

‘A wonderful and funny take on the one-night stand pregnancy story. Written and directed with a smart and sweet style, its full of truthful moments. The whole thing is anchored by a great performance by Jenny Slate, who manages to be very funny and very real at the same time.

9) Snowpiercer – Joon-ho Bong, South Korea, 126 min.Snowpiercer

Bong has made a habit out of making films that defy genre conventions. His latest continues that trend in telling the action-packed, funny and strange story of a train circumnavigating a frozen Earth in the apocalyptic future. It’s full of social commentary, unforgettable characters and scenes, and many twists and turns. If I had to describe it, which I can’t, I would say it’s like the video game Bioshock on a train.

8) Locke – Steven Knight, UK, 85 min.Locke

A man taking phone calls in a car for eighty minutes. That’s it. But the film is written like a thriller, and as it went on I was compelled by the story and the character that was developing. Tom Hardy fully realizes the potential for the smart dialog and turns the character into a real person. A real person that had real feelings and motivations and had me caring about what happened to him.

7) InterstellarChristopher Nolan, USA, 169 min.Intersellar

I didn’t care about the science behind this. It’s a big film that makes you think about big questions. It’s bold and messy but full of great ideas and lots and lots of scale.

6) Under the Skin – Jonathan Glazer, UK, 108 min.UnderTheSkin

Glazer is one of the most interesting filmmakers working today and this film deserves it’s comparisons to Kubrick. Scarlett Johansson is the perfect choice for this otherworldly tale of an alien seducing and killing men in the Scottish countryside. The style is experimental, yet refined, and contains incredible images that I will never forget.

5) Gone Girl – David Fincher, USA, 149 min.GoneGirl

The idea behind this film is great, but for it to work the director has to pull off a very tricky balancing act. Fincher is definitely the one for the job. His direction is so precise that the idea of Ben Affleck killing his wife or him just being an ignorant jerk are both equally compelling. It’s a complex task but the film works like a well-oiled machine.

4) Grand Budapest Hotel – Wes Anderson, UK, 100 min.GrandBudapestHotel

This film felt like Wes Anderson took all the of the good things he learned from his previous films and combined them into one beautiful and charming movie. The production design is superb as always, and the nostalgic framing and effects work so well for the story being told. It also helps that the film is full of amazing characters and performances from an ungodly amount of incredible actors.

3) Two Days, One Night – Dardenne Brothers, Belgium, 95 min.TwoDaysOneNight

The Dardenne Brothers have a great style. They do not tell you what is going on in the film. The characters talk like they are real people and don’t explain plot points to an audience. While you watch you slowly learn what is going on and who the characters are. To make things even more real they film with a naturalistic style. Natural light, no music. Just great performances by all around, especially Marion Cotillard, who plays a factory worker who has to convince her fellow employees to give up their bonuses so she can keep her job.

2) Big Hero 6 - Don Hall and Chris Williams, USA, 102 min.BigHero6

I think this is a perfect film. The directors, writers and animators know what makes movies great. Beautiful animation, a touching story, imaginative characters, and a unique setting: San Fransokyo, a Japanese American hybrid futuristic city. And what a sense of adventure! What struck me the most was how they understood the concept of a team. These genius lab students turned super-heroes have unique skills and each one gets a chance to shine throughout the film. Throw in the super-likeable Baymax and his fist-bumps, and you really have a winner of a movie.

1) Whiplash – Damien Chazelle, USA, 107 min.Whiplash

A film about the price of excellence. Miles Teller plays a young jazz musician trying to be the best at his craft. Not just good, but the best. And J.K. Simmons, in the most unforgettable performance of the year, is just the man to get him there. He’s the mythologically legendary conductor who runs an ensemble with the best musicians in the school. Watching him drive Miles Teller to musical heights and personal lows is thrilling.

The editing and music are amazing and tie together perfectly. And it all builds through some powerful turn of events and into a dynamite ending. Chazelle directed the hell out of that ending. After the film was over, I just had to lean back and take a deep breath because I was spent. Now that is the sign of a good film.

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Butt-Numb-a-Thon 16: BNAT 16 Candles

sixteen

Every year Harry Knowles of Aint It Cool News puts on a 24 hour theater event for his birthday. He programs a mix of old films and not-yet-released films, trailers, shorts, live appearances and other fun things.

The films that were playing were not known to the audience in advance, so going is sort of a leap of faith. Especially if you live far away from Austin, Texas.

The whole thing goes down in the Alamo Drafthouse. It’s a great theater. Stellar projection without a bad seat in the house.

I was lucky enough to get a ticket this year. Was it worth it? Yes, I can whole-heartedly say that it was a great experience. The crowd was great and it was fun to watch movies in the atmosphere that was generated.

But the films are what it’s all about!

1) Hooper - Hal Needham (1978)

Hal Needham is one of the greatest stunt men who ever lived and he uses all his knowledge directing this gem. Burt Reynolds stars as an aging stunt man who feels like he still has something left to prove.

The film is full of stunts and actions scenes that you won’t forget. Including a bar fight to end all bar fights. It’s not only action, either. It’s full of so much charm that you can’t help but smile throughout.

2) Kingsmen: The Secret Service – Matthew Vaughn (2015)

Wow. This film put the theater into fits of joyous hysterics. Matthew Vaughn has been making great films for awhile now. He has managed to bring a mix of slick big-budget production values, indie spirit, and a fun off-kilter sense of humor.

This story of a secret agent organization is brilliantly fun. It’s aware of tropes, and in fact uses them to its advantage. Colin Firth and Samuel L. Jackson are great, and the tent-pole scenes are unforgettable. Highly recommended.

It didn’t hurt that Samuel L. Jackson stopped by to intro the film.

3) The King and the Mockingbird - Paul Grimault (1980)

This film was started way back in 1938 and finally released this year in the USA. It was a long road for this animated feature.

The premise is enchanting, and the imagination and the animation are great. But the film has pacing issues and suffers from variations of quality and tone. It’s a very interesting film oddity that influenced a lot of animators over the years, but it just isn’t that great as a film.

4) Inherent Vice – Paul Thomas Anderson (2014)

Paul Thomas Anderson is a remarkable director. That doesn’t mean his movies are always great, but they are always interesting. He has a handle on writing and directing like no one before him.

This reminds me of The Master in that it has great writing, great characters, great scenes, and a really weird ending. But the peices don’t seem to come together. Still, the film was really good and I think another viewing might reveal it to be even better.

5) The Interview  – Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (2014)

Lots of fun! Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg were in attendance. King Jong Un banners were unfurled and confetti rained down when they appeared.

See my review here.

6) 1941 - Steven Speilberg (1979)

Speilberg’s follow-up to Jaws and Close Encounters is a huge mess. The amount of acting talent on the screen for this film is unreal, but it’s over-long, over-wrought, and just… a mess.

I think Speilberg was given too much leeway and too much budget. Good comedy comes from the finding it at that moment, but if each scene is structured like a big-budget action film, there isn’t room to let that comedy breath.

Still, there are some memorable bits, but they are surrounded by too much rubble.

7) Captains Courageous - Victor Fleming (1937)

The classic book is put on screen with vim and vigor in this Victor Fleming adaptation. All of the acting is great, especially Spencer Tracey as Manuel.

The film has a sense of adventure, and the script really sets up the story well. A real classic in every sense of the word.

8) Million Dollar Mermaid - Mervyn Leroy (1952)

A wonderfully made old Hollywood film. It tells the story of swimmer/actress/performer Annette Kellerman (played by Esther Williams) and her rise to fame and fortune. But it ends up being more about her love-affair with her manager played by Victor Mature.

It’s melodrama, but a good old Hollywood melodrama in the best sense of the word. It’s just a warm hearty helping of nostalgia.

9) Santiago Violenta - Ernesto Díaz Espinoza (2014)

I can’t review this film in good conscious. I am a huge fan of Ernesto Díaz Espinoza’s Mirageman, so I was excited to watch this. But the opening didn’t grab me and I ended up succumbing to sleep (I was very tired by that time). I woke up for the ending, but that didn’t grab me either. I’ll have to watch it all the way through sometime soon.

10) A Christmas Horror Story - Grant Harvey, Steven Hoban and Brett Sullivan (2015)

This horror anthology revolves around Christmas and stars William Shatner. That should be a recipe for a good time. And yes, it was. Nothing special, but it was a solid outing for a horror anthology, which is rare.

This one has santa vs. zombie elves, krampus, changlings, ghosts, and a really cool ending. If you are a fan of the genre then definitely check this out when it’s released next Christmas season.

11) Son of Kong - Ernest B. Schoedsack (1933)

Carl Denham was in a bad place after his disastrous display of King Kong ended up destroying the city. He winds up in some dead-end shipping job, but then rumors of a treasure on that island send him out on another adventure.

There, he meets the titular son of kong, and good old-school stop motion fun ensues. This is more light-hearted than the original, and Robert Armstrong and his lady love (Helen Mack) are likeable onscreen. And the ape is great of course. One of the better entries in the series.

12) Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies – Peter Jackson (2014)

We got to see this in 2D 48 fps. That is probably the best way to see it. The 48 fps is odd, but there is zero motion blur and the clarity is amazing to behold.

The film itself was a fitting finale to the series. One huge battle, some talking and wrapping up of various sub-plots. The series was never great, but this one at least keeps it fun.

Overall, it was a good film to end BNAT on. I just wish the event could have lasted longer! I was having so much fun! I wanted to watch more movies!

Oh well, there is always next year. Will I be there? Yes, given the opportunity I would get tickets in a heartbeat. What’s better than a celebration of film with people who are obsessed as I am?

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The Interview

the-interviewEvan Goldberg and Seth Rogen, USA, 2014, 112 min.

The Interview is a funny film. In Seth Rogen’s and Evan Goldberg’s second directorial outing they tell the story of a hapless TV host (James Franco) and his producer (Rogen) getting the chance to conduct the interview of the lifetime.

Aaron Rapaport produces Skylark Tonight, hosted by his friend Dave Skylark. Their typical lineup includes vapid celebrity-worship programming, but Aaron yearns for something more. After finding that Kim Jong-Un, the leader of North Korea, is a huge fan of their show, Aaron manages to land the titular interview with the controversial dictator.

It comes at a particularly fitting time, as the fictionalized Kim Jong-Un is acting particularly aggressive towards the US. Everyone is dying to talk to him, and suddenly Skylark Tonight has a chance to do something really noteworthy. The CIA is also particularly interested in the interview, and convince the two protagonists to attempt to assassinate the dictator.

What follows is a well-written tale of friendship, journalism, mixed allegiances and broad-but-funny humor. The preposterous plot works because the two directors have the talent to keep things moving and not let them get bogged down in international politics. They keep the story personal to the characters.

The North Korea and Kim Jong-Un pictured in the film are based on reality, but quickly turn into farce. For a film like this to work, you have to quickly establish that even though the story is based on real life, the events and characters are pure fiction.

That line could be tough to walk, but the film does it beautifully. I never once felt like I was too far from reality. Or too close. The tone is kept purely in a zone where the comedy works best. Just look at the laugh-out-loud Eminem scene for a great example of this.

There are some great jokes and dialog here. A lot of it feels ad-libbed, a skill that Rogen and Franco are really good at. And the supporting cast really helps. Everyone is having a great time, and that translates to the viewing audience.

Sure, some of the humor is a bit stupid but who cares? It’s all fast and light and lots of fun. And the story does have some interesting turns, especially in it’s (completely fictional) portrayal of Kim Jong-Un. That is a tough performance to make work well, but Randall Park brings much more to the role than you would expect.

Overall, The Interview is fun and innocent and undeserving of any controversy that it has caused. Seeing it with a crowd is the way to go. It’s a shame that people are going to be deprived of an experience so entertaining and uncomplicated. Maybe someday this grapefruit will be real.

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Whiplash

WhiplashDamien Chazelle, USA, 2014, 107 min.

Whiplash is really about one idea: what you have to put yourself through in order to become the best at something. Not just good, but the best.

In this case, it’s jazz drumming. A story is told in the film of Charlie Parker who had a cymbel thrown at him during a recording session when he didn’t play up to snuff. He then went on to practice practice practice and become of the greatest jazz musicians who ever lived.

Andrew (Miles Teller) wants to be one of the greats. Another Charlie Parker or Buddy Rich. He attends a prestigious music school, struggling to be noticed. In his personal life, he is surrounded by people who don’t understand his obsession and how important it is to him.

He meets a girl, and they hit it off, but things get a little awkward during their first date when they exchange stories about their school and their majors. Andrew wants to be a jazz drummer, and chose the most prestigious school to help him accomplish that goal. She is undeclared, and doesn’t quite know what she wants to do and where she wants to go with her life. He just doesn’t understand. They are in two different worlds.

But someone does understand Andrew, and that is Fletcher, the most feared and respected conductor at the school (J.K. Simmons). Anyone who gets into his ensemble, and makes it out, has a good shot at making it as a musician.

The film does a great job setting up the mythology of Fletcher. Even before Andrew gets chosen to join his group, we can feel the tension and excitement that his appearance brings.

The rehearsal scenes are great. Fletcher is a monster who beleives that to forge the next great musician you need to put them through hell. Does Andrew have what it takes to deal with that? To push himself that hard?

The film answers those questions as you watch, but at the same time it doesn’t answer the bigger one: does someone need to sacrafice so much to be great at something?

But that is what makes this film so interesting. It tells the story of Andrew, his drive to become great, and Fletcher, the person who is helping him or standing in his way. And that story is tight, intense and engrossing. But it doesn’t take a stand on that larger question, instead just let’s you think about it.

There are some small imperfections in the narrative, like some things that just happen in order to push the plot forward. But nothing that took me out of the film. For the most part the film is brilliantly executed. A great blend of style and substance.

The music scenes are edited almost like jazz music. Shots of the people, the instruments, the music notes, and the sweat, blood and gristle that go into the music. All cut to the beat. It was a refreshing way to watch musical performances, especially ones that are so integral to the film.

The film has a great ending, which builds upon some twists that did not feel forced, but naturally flowed from what the characters’ motivations and choices were.

And those characters were well-developed. The screenplay and the acting made them interesting and believable, but Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons made them memorable.  They have proven in the past that they can act, and this movie gives them great roles to make their own.

After watching this film, I felt like just sitting back in my chair and finally taking a breath. Maybe it hit me hard because I wish I could be more like Andrew. Or that, against my better judgement, I wish I had a Fletcher in my life driving me towards my goals. Whatever the case, Whiplash is a win on all fronts, and a movie that is in my thoughts long after its final note rang out.

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Interstellar

InterstellarChristopher Nolan, USA, 2014, 169 min.

Interstellar is a big film. Big in budget and big in scope. Directed with Christopher Nolan’s often heavy-handed style, it isn’t afraid to wrestle with some really big ideas and questions. The fact that sometimes it loses doesn’t lessen its impact.

I won’t go into too much detail of the plot, because the marketing did the right thing by only revealing the basics. Earth is dying, and humanity with it. One option, the last option, is to find another world for humanity to occupy. And since there are no suitable candidates in our solar system, we need to look elsewhere, hence the title.

The surface mechanics of the film are where potential problems lie. The direction, the dialog, the cause and effect that leads one scene to another. Some of it at points is a bit wobbly. Nolan has never been a great director. His directorial style is a bit self-important and scene construction is very basic. But he does manage to keep the film exciting and emotional, as well as set up some rollicking set-pieces.

The film does have some impressive images, too, especially in deep-space. But the IMAX cameras always cut away just a bit too soon, or an unnecessary insert is put right in the middle of the shot. But those are minor issues for a film that is concerned with some major ideas.

Some spoilers will follow from this point on, because the film’s ideas are very interesting to think about and discuss. And actually, that is exactly why the film works. The ideas it explores. The questions it asks. These are big hefty things that are presented in a big hefty large-budget production. That is very rare and very interesting to see. Comparisons made to 2001: A Space Odyssey aren’t far off.

I would break down the film into an exploration of three main questions.

How does humanity react when it’s on the verge of destruction? The Dylan Thomas poem “Do not go gently into that good night” is the oft-repeated backbone of that idea. Both globally, as a species, and on an individual basis, humans are raging against the dying of the light.

Professor Brand (Michael Caine), as the last NASA project manager, knows that the plan to save the current members of the human race is impossible. But he withholds that information in order to give a reason for our last astronauts to go on their final mission. One of whom was his own daughter. It’s described at one point as the ultimate sacrifice: destroying your own humanity in order to trick others into saving the species at the expense of the ones who are still alive.

There is also the story of the stranded astronaut Dr. Mann (Matt Damon), described as “the best of humanity”, who selflessly undertook a mission to explore a remote planet, knowing he would never return. When confronted with his very real demise, which is now a fact and not just an idea, he makes a very deliberate choice to save himself.

And of course the main character, Cooper, who chose to give up his family and everything he cares about for the slimmest chance of saving them. And what would he do if he was given a choice to see them again, or save the species but let them die without him?

It made me think about what I will do when my time comes.

At one point during the film, Professor Brand’s daughter, (Anne Hathaway) one of the astronauts, is given a choice of what planet to explore. They may only be able to reach one, and everything hinges on finding a suitable candidate. They are both promising, but one has an active beacon from a previous explorer. The other, where the man she is in love with had landed years earlier, has good data but no signs that he is still alive.

She wants to go to the planet that he is on, even thought he may be dead. Cooper, wants to go to the one where the data is just as good, but the previous explorer is probably still alive. He asks her, point blank, does she want to go to that planet because her lover might be there?

Yes, she admits, part of her does. Would love to see him again. But maybe that love is a quantifiable thing. Something science doesn’t quite understand yet. A real connection through some variation of space and time that allows two people to connect in ways not yet comprehended. Is that what allows her to feel, to know, that his planet is the right one? Is that connection what makes soul-mates?

The idea is explored more in the climax of film. Is a connection like that what allows Cooper to communicate with his daughter? Or does it just allow them to know that communication is possible? Is it even a factor?

The last idea that intrigued me is related to that scene. Where is humanity going? Where do we end up? In the long, long, very long view of our species, what are we capable of? The film posits that humanity of the very far future are the ones that are helping this generation through the crisis of a lifetime. They have learned how to control time and gravity, to essentially manipulate the fabric of the universe.

They know that our species is at a crossroads and needs help, and seeing all possible permutations of the past and future, they give clues that put the people in the right place at the right time for the breakthroughs to be made. For the right people to discover and understand the information needed to save the species.

Will we ever get to a place like that as a species? It reminds me very much of Clarke’s Childhood’s End, and Asimov’s “The Last Question”. Two thought-provoking pieces that examine the next stage of our evolution.

Interstellar is in good company with those big-idea science fiction stories. The ones that ask those big questions. And even if they are never answered, they are ideas that evoke valuable discussion. I watched the film with someone who did not care for it, but we both discussed the ideas in the film for a very long time afterward. There is a lot going on, as evidenced by the length of this review.

Does that make it a good film? It’s another question that will have different answers, depending on who you ask. I believe it does. That’s what art is there for. To provoke discussion, to make us question ourselves, and to give us hope for what the future might bring.

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