Monday, January 5, 2015

My Top 20 Films of 2014, Part I

2014 was an awesome year for film, don't let anyone tell you otherwise. We had a surplus of good and great movies of all flavors. To not find good movies, you either have to have terrible taste, or else be in need of trying harder to find the great material. This is one year where there was such a spectrum of interesting, engaging films, that there's a lot of variance in people's year-end lists.

When I started compiling my list, I was initially struck by how few films I saw this year that I truly hated. There were a few disappointments, to be sure, but not many outright dogs. There were plenty of films I avoided, mostly out of a sense that it wasn't my thing. I circled back and caught a few of those movies on DVD and most of them we so forgettable it took a look at a list of this year's releases to remember I even watched them. So take a lesson from that - you can still see plenty of movies and not waste too much time and money on outright crap.

(I'm not doing a Worst of 2014 list, but I will say my least enjoyable experience in a theatre this year was SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL for. As I'm sure there were worse movies in release this year, it feels really disingenuous to claim that as the worst movie anyone could have seen this year.)

I made it a point to see a lot of movies this year and as I started taking stock, I realized that my list of favorite and recommended movies could not be contained by a mere top 10. In all honesty, I probably could have gone into the 20s, but at a certain point, a best-of list can be so long as to be ridiculous. I ended up drawing the line at a Top 20 because in looking at the movies represented, you could probably pick any five of them at random and I wouldn't be embarrassed to have them called out as the five best of the year.

These are all ranked, but any such list is going to be comparing apples-to-oranges to some degree. I did my best to figure out where everything fell, but in the end, is there really that much difference between being 3rd and 4th? Or 14th and 15th?

I haven't seen everything, but I've reached the critical mass where I feel comfortable standing on these picks. My yet-to-be-viewed films include THE IMITATION GAME, UNBROKEN, AMERICAN SNIPER and INHERENT VICE. I'm also really bummed I didn't get out to see WILD this weekend, as all indications are it probably would have landed somewhere on this list.

Also, FAULTS probably would have snuck into the high-teens somewhere, but as it's not getting a wide release until March, I'm treating it like a 2015 film. (This is also how MILLUS is listed with this year and how COHERENCE would have been on this list had it not been eventually nudged out.)

Today we'll cover 11-20 and then the Top 10 tomorrow.

11. Rosewater - The story of how journalist Maziar Bahari was imprisoned by the Iranian government on suspicion of being a spy after appearing in a satirical segment of The Daily Show that covered the 2009 Iranian election. Comedian and The Daily Show host Jon Stewart weaves an emotional and thoughtful mediation on torture, coercion and freedom. We see how torture can break a man, and how it doesn't necessarily have to be physical beatings, but just prolonged isolation and deprivation of hope. When Bahari is able to take a small victory against his captors despite being powerless, it's one of this year's most uplifting moments.

12. Captain America: The Winter Soldier - I don't know how coherently this plays to viewers who haven't seen at least the first CAPTAIN AMERICA or THE AVENGERS, but at least unlike most Marvel productions, its connections to the other Marvel films is a virtue rather than the worst thing in the film. (Few things were saddder than THOR: THE DARK WORLD's persistent name-dropping of events in THE AVENGERS, as if desperately saying, "You liked that film, didn't you? We're part of that thing you like!") Part superhero-film, part spy-thriller, CAP 2 uses it's lead character as a black-and-white counterpoint to the shades-of-grey world we live in today, particularly with regard to surveillance and national security. Yes, some of the logistics of the Helicarrier plot are goofy, but the pacing, themes and character arcs make that less of an issue than it could have been. This is also the comic-book movie that proved you CAN juggle a lot of major characters in a comic book film that isn't an AVENGERS-like team movie. Nowhere is that more evident than in the use of Black Widow, made far more indispensable here than she was in IRON MAN 2. (Honestly, the film easily could have been called CAPTAIN AMERICA & BLACK WIDOW, and Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury is also probably put to his best use here too.) I still love the goofy charm of seeing all the heroes rub shoulders in THE AVENGERS, so that's probably still my favorite Marvel movie, but this is a VERY close second.

13. Kill the Messenger - Few things disappoint me more than the total shrug this based-on-a-true-story film was greeted with upon release. Five years from now, people will be asking, "Why didn't tell me Jeremy Renner was so good in KILL THE MESSENGER?" Renner plays a reporter named Gary Webb, who exposes the CIA's role in supplying Los Angeles gangs with cocaine in the '80s, the sales of which went to fund Contra rebels. Webb's moment of glory comes at the middle of the film, and our expectations about the noble profession of journalism are subverted as the second half details a brutal smear campaign that wrongly destroys Webb's credibility, career and marriage.

14. Edge of Tomorrow - I still don't think the ending totally tracks, but that's about my only problem with this Tom Cruise/Emily Blunt vehicle that finds Cruise trapped in a GROUNDHOG DAY-like timeloop in the middle of an alien invasion. It's both smarter and funnier about time travel than the marketing indicated and Cruise again proves why he's one of the last TRUE movie stars. Dare we hope that Blunt's against-type performance here as a total badass signals a future for her as a major action star?

15. John Wick - JOHN WICK shows that just because an idea is old, doesn't mean it's dead. Break it down to its barest essence and it sounds like one of those script's you'd pass by for fear of it being generic: "A retired hitman is drawn back into the trade on a crusade of vengeance. Brutality ensues." The brilliance of the film is the way that first-time director Chad Stahelski moderates the tempo. For every intense, non-stop action sequence where Keanu Reeves takes out a small army of goons, there's a moment where the film takes stock of the stakes and allows characters to react to the fallout of the action orgy. There's actual emotional engagement here, and it's another case of a director using Keanu's occasional blankness to good effect.

16. 22 Jump Street - At this point, I need to stop being amazed when writer/directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller totally stick the landing on something that seemed destined to disappoint. This sequel sends Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum undercover in college (where they are admonished "just do the same thing as before.") The script milks the meta-humor exactly long enough to keep from wearing it out and even manages to freshen up old bits like "sleeping with the boss's daughter." Ice Cube thankfully has more to do in this one (give this man his own vehicle!) Honestly, the rest of the movie could have been mediocre and the ending credits gag would still make this a must-see, as we're taken on a tour of about a dozen future sequels for the franchise.

17. The Theory of Everything - While I still have some script issues with this one, you can't deny that both Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne give amazing performances as Jane Hawking and Dr. Stephen Hawking. Redmayne especially, as he's forced to spend must of the film bent into a misshapen position, immobile and limited in every possible way that one could communicate emotion. That barrier presented Anthony McCarten with an unusual challenge when the time came to write one of the film's most emotional moments, the break-up between Dr. Hawking and his long-supportive wife. Though it feels like other moments bend over backwards to make both of them squeaky-clean in the separation, that moment is powerful, raw and honest.

18. The Fault in Our Stars - If this had a fall release date, would we be hearing Oscar buzz for Shailene Woodley? She gives an expectedly-moving performance as a teen fighting cancer who finds love with another cancer survivor. I've never read the John Green book which is adapted here by THE SPECTACULAR NOW's Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber, but the film hits the right emotional beats by really understanding its teen characters. Neustadter & Weber really understand how to craft real people whose emotions can drive a scene, without having to rely on plot to provide all the urgency and heavy-lifting. That's got to be tricky when dealing with source material that is able to get inside both characters heads, something impossible to truly pull off in a visual medium. It definitely says something about their writing that fans of the novels generally come away satisfied with the screen translations. I once briefly met Neustadter and he jokingly suggested I give (500) DAYS OF SUMMER another chance. I'm thinking I might actually have to do a "second opinion" post about that sometime in 2015.

19. Neighbors - We need more of these. An original comedy idea with a premise that seems low-concept, but excels thanks to strong character. A married couple with a baby moves in next to a frat house and clashes with the college kids. The smart move is that the frat boys are allowed to be real people, likeable people, and not one-dimensional stereotypes. The couple - played by Seth Rogan and Rose Byrne - also are fleshed out more than you'd expect rather than just getting stuck playing dofusses mad at those damn kids. Expecially refreshing is the fact that Byrne's character is a total participant alongside Rogan rather than being relgated to a "nagging wife role." (The film even has a meta joke about that.) I'll always cheer for a film that doesn't fall back on the most dumbed-down execution.

20. Millius - Would you enjoy the experience of sitting down with a number of titans of filmmaking as they all share tall tales of a larger-than-life peer? Then rush off to Netflix and look up the documentary MILIUS in their streaming category. The real-life Bill Brasky in question is John Milius, the Academy Award-nominated screenwriter of Apocalypse Now. He's also the writer-director of Conan the Barbarian and Red Dawn. It would be a crime to spoil many of the great stories offered in this documentary. Though many tales paint him as a force of nature, there's also little doubt that few have a way with the pen as he does. When a producer needs someone to write "bigger speeches" to convince Sean Connery to sign onto a film, Milius's name alone sways the actor's opinion. When Milius is on his game, the pages seem to flow out of him like water over Niagara Falls. And when the writer falls on hard times, you feel the weight of that tragedy.

Come back tomorrow for the Top 10!

1 comment:

  1. Nice additions of John Wick and Neighbors, two great films you're not going to see on very many Top Lists!