Saturday, February 21, 2015

Top Ten Movies of 2014

Once again, I must state that this list covers only those movies I've seen to date. I missed a lot of good movies this past year for a number of reasons. Whittling down to an arbitrary ten can also be difficult. And of course, your mileage may vary. But with the Oscars on Sunday, I thought I should get this up.

10. The Judge -- I debated this tenth slot, but ultimately thought I enjoyed this one enough to warrant it. Robert Downey Jr. is a slick city lawyer who has to defend his father, a big time country judge, on charges of vehicular manslaughter. It's a bit old-fashioned, but there are great performances from RDJ and Robert Duvall. Unfortunately, there's also way too much screen time given to a subplot with Vera Farmiga that doesn't really need to be there. The cast makes it a worthwhile viewing.

9. Noah -- The movie that sharply divided critics and moviegoers. If you're looking for a a strict Biblical account, this is not it. It takes a number of liberties (and yes, too many at times). And yet, I felt like even though Aronofsky drastically changed a number of facts, he absolutely nailed the themes of the story, and indeed of the entire Bible. I felt like this movie better understood and laid out the larger themes of damnation and redemption than any of the more overtly Christian movies released this year did. Yes, he invents absurd subplots, but it's all in service of those larger themes: the depravity of man and how there's no one righteous, the agony of hurting your children for the greater good, the power of forgiveness. I certainly don't think it was perfect and it's not for everybody, but taking it for what it is, I found it beautiful. No comparison to the terrible Left Behind remake.

8. Big Eyes -- You might be surprised to see this one make the list. I enjoyed it a lot. It's a fun movie. It's a true story and all, but it's fun. Tim Burton is almost back to form here. I'll watch Amy Adams in anything. While it's not as good as Ed Wood (it's from the same screenwriters), I found it enjoyable and one I wouldn't mind revisiting.

7. The Grand Budapest Hotel -- Speaking of revisiting, we have the Grand Budapest Hotel. I'm a fan of Wes Anderson, and there are a lot of fun goings-on in this movie. I admire the use of different ratios and color schemes for the different time periods. And yet, I found I didn't love it as much as I expected to. The film was a bit more violent than previous Anderson films (but in a quirky Anderson way -- when Jeff Goldblum loses his fingers in a door, they are so clearly fake-looking plastic fingers). It wasn't as magical for me as Moonrise Kingdom, or as quietly charming as Darjeeling Limited, or as bold as Royal Tenanbaums. It's certainly not his worst movie, and there are many good things to say about it, but I remain a tad disappointed which is why it's so lo on the list.

6. Edge of Tomorrow -- The movie no one had any expectations for, and which is becoming something of a cult hit. There's a very vocal corner of the internet that is spreading the word about this movie as much as it can. People stayed away for two reasons: the marketing was confusing or not clear enough, or they hate Tom Cruise. The title is lame (and the DVD rebranding buries it), and you could write it off as Groundhog Day with aliens, but it's smart and engaging. As to avoiding anything with Cruise in it, at least you can watch him die over and over again! Besides, you don't see this movie for him, you see it for Emily Blunt. She is fantastic in this movie. She's had a good year in general with this and Into the Woods (and no love from the Academy for either). She makes the human elements work so well. I find the ending a teeny bit of a letdown, but it's a great ride anyway. If there were ever a movie that compared to playing a video game, this is it.

5. Boyhood -- Shot over twelve years, it's an indie experiment that mostly works. I find some of the sameness gets bland after awhile, but it's fun to track the years by the music, clothes and current events. I consider it the epitome of a great independent film. I don't think it's the best thing I ever saw or anything, but it's very much a Richard Linklater movie and if he never made another one, this would be a fine way to cap his career. Part of me is a little sad that we can't get a parallel film called Girlhood following the sister; that would have made the experiment even more fascinating. Basically, this movie is like a fictional, somewhat improvised version of Michael Apted's Up series.

4. Chef -- There are people who hate this movie. They think it's too cliche or that it's too obviously a statement about art. I'm not one of them; I had a blast. Jon Favreau returns to making a smaller movie after big studio films like Iron Man and Cowboys vs. Aliens. And in a way, this seems like her own personal statement about what happened with Iron Man 2. But beyond that reading, it's a simple movie about a father sharing his passion with his son and how the two of them build something great together. My only real criticism is how much amazing food is made in some scenes and never gets eaten. This movie has been called "food porn" and some of it made me really hungry. If you don't want a hot sandwich after watching this film, I think there's something wrong with you.

3. Gone Girl -- I had pretty low expectations, since this was one of those books that every other woman was reading for a year and a half and I couldn't see how it could be that good. The story itself is kind of pulpy and ridiculous. And yet I found that I enjoyed the movie thoroughly. Apart from a few minor points that I didn't think worked quite well, I was pleasantly surprised. Ben Affleck reminds us all that he actually can be a solid actor, and Rosamunde Pike gives a scene-chewing performance that steals the movie. The campaign to get Julianne Moore the Oscar this year might succeed and that would be unfortunate. There's nothing exactly subtle about Gone Girl, but Pike makes it work so well and I'd hate to see her lose. The supporting cast is strong as well. The slightly anti-Feminist themes tickled me as well. I don't really consider it "misogynistic" as some claim (there was a real debate about this when it came out), but I kind of love that just because the men aren't all great guys doesn't mean that women can't be completely insane. I think the movie preys well on our expectations, suppositions and prejudices.

2. Captain America: The Winter Soldier -- The best of the comic book movies I saw this year. The shocking revelations that shook up the Marvel movie universe really worked for me, even retroactively fixing elements that had been bothering me. Chris Evans is so utterly convincing in how he plays Steve Rogers with a sturdy old-fashioned kind of conviction. There are a few too many twists, some plot threads that don't get enough attention, and a bit too much "because it looks cool" that takes away from the logic of the story, but it succeeds in entertaining without being completely mindless. I think it's one of the best Marvel movies yet, and when it was over I couldn't wait to see Captain America 3. Unfortunately, we've got another few films to go before that and I hope they don't kill the momentum.

1. Birdman -- I haven't liked Inarritu's previous movies so I didn't know what to think when this came out. I also generally dislike "magical realism" and there seems to be a bit of that here. And yet, I still consider it the best movie I saw all year. The whole cast is superb, and the fact that we can carry a bit of their outside lives into their characters makes it work even better. We know Michael Keaton as Batman; we know Edward Norton as a very involved sort of actor. Here Norton is almost parody of himself. Keaton puts so much into his performance. Some have criticized the movie as being just things we've seen before (the actor who wants to be taken seriously for his new project), but it's really not about the story but about how the story is told. The cinematography, with its long takes, is solid. And as someone who's worked in the theater, the craziness behind the scenes rang so true. I don't even care if the movie was making a big statement about critics and art and what not (it feels almost like a satire of Ratatouille in places); I just enjoyed it for what it was. There are a few extraneous pieces, but when it's focused on Michael Keaton it really works.

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