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Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The 14 Best Films of 2014

Only about 6 weeks ago I posted my list of the 10 Best Films of 2014 with the caveat that I had not seen many films (especially many Oscar contenders). I openly admitted that the first few films on that list (mainly Veronica Mars, Wish I Was Here, and Fury) would not make my true Best of 2014 List. I still stand by those selections as films you should eventually see one day, but I was correct in that they did not make my final list. I have seen a considerable amount of films over the past few weeks and many of them are worthy on making my final year-end list.

In the end, I think 2014 ended up being a pretty good year for films. We had quality prestige Oscar-worthy films, classic summer Blockbusters, and delightful Indies. We still haven't had that Holy Shit Movie since The Social Network (only Drive comes close) and we certainly didn't get that film in 2014. But the fact that I needed to expand this list beyond 10 films should tell you something about how good and deep 2014 ended up being for movies.

Similar to my 14 Best T.V. Shows of 2014 list, the number of films in relation to the year may seem gimmicky, but I assure you the number of films I will choose to discuss mainly relates to the quality of good films there are to discuss. Before I write a post like this, I type up all of the films I plan to write about into my iPhone. I initially only wanted to do a Top 10 list, but I had considerable trouble narrowing down the list into only 10. I`could choose to leave off films I discussed in my initial Best-Of Year End list, but not only would that be a disservice to certain films, I use these posts as reference points in later years. Eventually, I was able to pair down my list to 13 solid and worthy candidates- none of which I wanted to leave off of my list. I did add a 14th film because "The Top 13 Films of 2014" doesn't flow quite as nicely, but like I said, all of these films are worthy of being considered the best of the best.

14) The Battered Bastards of Baseball
Directed By: Chapman and Maclain Way
Starring: Bing Russell and Kurt Russell
STARS: 3 out of 4

Brief Description: The Battered Bastards of Baseball is a Netflix documentary about actor Bing Russell (who just so happened to be Kurt Russell's father) who gave up acting to create an Independent League baseball team in the Pacific Northwest in 1973- the Portland Mavericks. This is a story that would considered too strange if it were a Hollywood picture but is one of the classic underdog tales. Bing Russell fought both Major League Baseball as well as the general nayseyers to create a sporting experience that affected the larger cultural zeitgeist. While I am personally a sucker for baseball documentaries like Knuckleball! and Catching Hell, if you liked films like Major League then you'll thoroughly enjoy The Battered Bastards of Baseball.

13) The One I Love
Directed By: Charlie McDowell
Starring: Mark Duplass & Elizabeth Moss
STARS: 3 out of 4

Brief Description: The One I Love is a science fiction drama about a couple (portrayed by Duplass and Moss) who go away for a weekend in a rental property in Northern California in an attempt to save their marriage. What they end up finding is a guest house behind the property which has the idealistic versions of their partner living in there. As each partner explores their fictionalized Utopian versions of their own relationship, they not only end up learning a lot about themselves, but about the secrets this house holds. Both Moss and Duplass give wonderful acting performances (I think Duplass in particular who had to essentially play two characters without coming across as two different people) in a film that's essentially an elongated version of a Twilight Zone episode.

12) Interstellar
Directed By: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, & Bill Irwin
STARS: 3 out of 4

Brief Description: I have a weird relationship with Interstellar. On one hand, Christopher Nolan set out to make the exact film he wanted and intended to make. This movie is about the pursuit of knowledge and throughout this 2.5 hour epic, that's exactly what Nolan is exploring. The issue I have with it is that it seems like there's a disconnect between the story Nolan wants to tell and the story the audience needs to see. You need to have an entertaining straight-forward story in order to tell the smarter and deeper story at hand, and I don't think that exists with Interstellar. I think you especially have to contrast that with his former films like Memento, The Prestige, and Inception, which first and foremost have a good surface story as well as an incredible hidden meaning underneath it. I think that's why it feels like Nolan has lost a step.

Anyways, despite all of my Insterstellar bashing that I've just done, it does deserve to make my Best-Of Year End list because despite my problems with the overall story there are moments that are too amazing to forget. Plus, McConaughey and Hathway are superb in the film, the special effects are mind-blowing, and the script truly is brilliant. Having one of the best film robots in history doesn't hurt either.

11) Obvious Child
Directed By: Gillian Robespierre
Starring: Jenny Slate & Jake Lacy
STARS: 3 out of 4

Brief Description: Obvious Child is about an up-and-coming stand up comedian named Donna Stern (Jenny Slate) who struggles dealing with creativity and relationships. It's a film you'll instantly fall in love with thanks to the outstanding performance by Slate. Also, Donna has a one night stand and ends up becoming pregnant and the film is centered around the weeks leading up to her scheduled abortion. I know this film is being labelled "an abortion comedy", but it's more than that. It's about a wonderful three-dimensional character as she honestly and realistically explores her life. What the movie does so damn well is that it doesn't treat Donna's pregnancy as this Earth-shattering event like other movies would make you believe it to be. Donna is pregnant, she's not ready to be pregnant; therefore she schedules an abortion. While Obvious Child certainly takes this situation very seriously, it does so in a realistic context and it's almost used as a plot device to get to know this interesting and phenomenal character that is Donna Stern. The abortion comes secondary to Donna and her relationships and its these relationships that make Obvious Child a delight to watch.

10) Boyhood
Directed By: Richard Linklater
Starring: Patricia Arquette, Ellar Coltrane, Lorelei Linklater, & Ethan Hawke
STARS: 3.5 out of 4

Brief Description: I was absolutely dreading seeing Boyhood. It was over 2.5 hours long and it sounded extremely boring as all you were doing was following this kid around for 12 years. As it turns out, Boyhood is very boring as Linklater's attempt to remove all Hollywood cliches created a very anti-climatic film. Yet Boyhood just works. It sucked me and I enjoyed the experience of watching it- and it is an experience. The risk of filming a child growing up absolutely paid off as you're treated with a time capsule film about what life was like growing up in the 2000's. Maybe it was my sense of nostalgia, or maybe Richard Linklater is just a really, really good director, but Boyhood ended up becoming one of the best films of 2014.

9) Selma
Directed By: Ava DuVernay
Starring: David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Tim Roth, Giovani Ribisi, & Carmen Ejogo
STARS: 3.5 out of 4

Description: Like Boyhood, Selma is another film I fully expected to hate but watched it anyways because it received love from the Academy Awards, and like Boyhood, I really liked this film. Selma is not a Martin Luther King Jr. biopic, but rather it is a film about the struggle it takes to start a movement that just so happened to have Martin Luther King Jr. at the center of it. By focusing around a movement as opposed to a man, Selma was able to both transcend not only the biopic genre but the "white guilt" stereotype to create a tension filled historical drama that you couldn't help but enjoy. Despite Ava DuVernay's race and gender, it is her skills behind the camera that is the reason her Best Director Oscar snub is so egregious.

8) Neighbors
Directed By: Nicholas Stoller
Starring: Seth Rogen, Zac Efron, Rose Byrne, & Dave Franco
STARS: 3.5 out of 4

Brief Description: In my initial list I had Neighbors all the way up to #2. It drops all the way down to #8 for a few reasons: 1) I had the film #2 when I thought that it was a weak year for film; however, it's not actually a weak year and my rankings should reflect that, 2) I liked the film a lot but I don't know that I * loved * it, and 3) In 2013 I had This Is The End as my #2 film of the year. Neighbors is nowhere close to the genius of This Is The End. On a completely unrelated tangent, at what point do we start giving Nicholas Stoller credit for being a very good comedy director? Forgetting Sarah Marshall is amazing, Get Him To The Greek has its moments, The Five Year Engagement is very good- it's just long, and Neighbors  was excellent. I feel like because he runs in this Judd Apatow-esque circle that we credit Apatow and others with Stoller's success.

7) Snowpiercer
Directed By: Bong Joon Ho
Starring: Chris Evans, Song Kang Ho, Jamie Bell, Tilda Swinton, & John Hurt
STARS: 3.5 out of 4

Brief Description: Snowpiercer is a dystopian science fiction South Korean thriller from first time director Bong Joon Ho. In the film, attempts to save the world from global warming has made Earth so cold and unlivable that the remnants of society are living aboard a self-sustaining train that circles the globe. On this train, the poor are stuck like cattle in the very back while the rich are allowed to go anywhere they wish on the train. One of the poor, Curtis (played by Evans), leads a revolt to overthrow the dictatorship that runs the train. It's possible that I'm a sucker for these types of films (The Matrix, Equilibrium), but I thoroughly enjoyed Snowpiercer. I loved the premise, the action was great, and the acting was dynamite. Chris Evans proved he can actually act and Tilda Swinton gives a performance so good that she deserves an Oscar for it. As Bong Joon Ho was a first time director, there are some obvious faults and plot holes, but everything was so good I overlooked them.

6) Nightcrawler
Directed By: Dan Gilroy
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed, & Bill Paxton
STARS: 3.5 out of 4 stars

Brief Description: Nightcrawler should have been a 4 star film, and maybe if someone like David Fincher directed it it would have been, but Dan Gilroy's direction knocks off half of a star. A helluva way to start off a review for a film I enjoyed immensely, huh? Nightcrawler is the story of a sociopath named Louis Bloom (Gyllenhaal) who ends up starting his own videography business and sells stories to news stations. I could wax poetic about how the genius of this film is the statement it makes on the current job climate or the sensational state of the news nowadays, but the reason Nightcrawler is so amazing is because of Jake Fucking Gyllenhaal. Louis Bloom is not an anti-hero, he's a monster, yet you miraculously care and are entertained by his actions thanks to the greatest acting performance seen on screen since Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight. It's a damn crying shame Jake Gyllenhaal did not receive a Best Actor Oscar nomination for this role.

5) The Imitation Game
Directed By: Morten Tyldum
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Kiera Knightley, Matthew Goode, Rory Kinnear, & Charles Dance
STARS: 3.5 out of 4

Brief Description: I love The Imitation Game and I am surprised everyone else doesn't love it as well. I can't believe this film doesn't have a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes because I can't imagine a single person not at least liking this movie. As you have surely seen from the trailers, The Imitation Game is the story of how genius Alan Turing (Cumberbatch) solved the unsolvable Nazi German Enigma code and helped England win WWII. Based upon those previews, The Imitation Game seems like a paint-by-numbers Oscar-bait wannabe, but what really transcends this film into greatness is the hard left turn it takes between the second and third act. I really don't want to give that direction away for those of you who haven't seen the film yet, although if you've been following the Oscar campaign at all this season you can probably guess where the film ended up. In the end, The Imitation Game is a delightful, educational, and entertaining film about the life of a man I'm ashamed to say I had not heard about until this story.

4) How To Train Your Dragon 2
Directed By: Dean DeBlois
Starring: Jay Baruchel, Cate Blanchett, Gerard Butler, America Ferrera, & Craig Ferguson
STARS: 3.5 out of 4

Brief Description: They key to making a good sequel is that it has to be its own independent story that just to happens to use characters from the original film. That's where The Hangover 2 fails because it's just a re-telling of The HangoverHow To Train Your Dragon 2 was so good because it's an entirely different story than the original 2010 film while still having similar themes and tones. HTTYD2 is the story of how Hiccup (voiced by Baruchel) and his dragon Toothless hunt down the pirates stealing his Viking island's dragons. Along the way Hiccup stumbles across his Mother (voiced by Blanchett) who left the island when Hiccup was just a baby. How To Train Your Dragon 2 not only is visually stunning, but it's the story of compassion and the importance family. It's an entertaining story full of heart.

3) Edge of Tomorrow
Directed By: Doug Liman
Starring: Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton, & Brendan Gleeson
STARS: 3.5 out of 4

Brief Description: I did just write a blog post entitled Why Edge of Tomorrow Deserved a Best Picture Oscar Nomination so it only seems right that the film cracks my Top 5. I could describe the actual plot of this film, but it makes no difference. The film is Action Groundhog's Day starring the Action King Tom Cruise and that's all you need to know about it. The brilliance of Edge of Tomorrow is just how smart and original it is. In a film involving time travel, there's almost no plot holes and it's an entertaining thrill ride from start to finish. Not only does Edge of Tomorrow create a new standard for action summer Blockbusters, it puts director Doug Liman's career into perspective. This is a man who directed the best Bourne film IMHO (The Bourne Identity) and the mind-numbingly great Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Liman now has a signature, career-defining film under his belt with Edge of Tomorrow and all of the sudden his resume looks pretty damn good.

2) Guardians of the Galaxy
Directed By: James Gunn
Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, & Lee Pace
STARS: 3.5 out of 4

Brief Description: Guardians of the Galaxy is awesome and we all know it's awesome, yet I'm going to spend my space here shitting on the film just because the only thing it does wrong is something worth talking about- it's misogynistic. The film treats Saldana's character Gamora so horribly in the film. While we're told she's the most lethal assassin in the galaxy, all we're shown is a Damsel in Distress. For being the second lead in this space opera, she's pretty one-dimensional, although this shouldn't come as a surprise considering the other "bad-ass bitches" (Nebula and Nova Prime) are even worse. The most egregious and cringe-worthy moment in the film is where Drax- a character who only says literal statements- calls Gamora a "whore". While that's played for laughs, it's extremely demeaning. She literally does nothing that would warrant that statement, and even worse, the film goes out of its way to paint its male lead as a whore with no negative consequences. My issue is that I don't know what we the non-industry people can do about it? I don't want to ban a film like this altogether because that would deprive everyone of its greatness. I think the only thing we can do is to point it out until it never happens again.

1) Whiplash
Directed By: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Miles Teller & J.K. Simmons
STARS: 4 out of 4

Brief Description: When I wrote my review for Whiplash, I focused heavily on the performances of J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller. Not even half a day had passed between watching the film and writing the review, and their performances were the main things that stuck out to me. Don't get me wrong, Teller and Simmons are so freaking good in the film, but Whiplash is so much more than its acting. Now that I've had weeks to settle and think about the film, I can comprehend and discuss it on a more articulate level. Whiplash is film about doing what it takes to be the very best at something- in this case jazz drumming. Terrence Fletcher (Simmons) is the music director of the best band of the best music conservatory in the country. He expects nothing less than perfection from his musicians which includes his newest drummer Andrew Neiman (Teller). Fletcher gets the very best out of these kids through fear and intimidation by hurling the worst insults imaginable. Whiplash explores the ethics of this process compared to the results that it achieves, and I think it smartly doesn't reveal the answer. What makes Whiplash the very best film of 2014 is the statement it makes upon the current landscape of American competitiveness. We live in a very Politically Correct society where you don't keep score in soccer and baseball games as to "not hurt the child's feelings". Wunderkind Damien Chazelle takes a look at this culture using the opposite perspective to challenge us and to make us better.



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