by Krishna Thinakkal, @
Nothing’s really changed.
In 2014, the box office kept shrinking and there seemed to be a new super-hero franchise making loud noises at the theater every weekend just like the year before. But look a little bit deeper, or look at certain big budget hits in a different light and you’ll see that moviegoers were a bit more adventurous this year.
Established indie auteur Wes Anderson had his biggest box office hit and the highest grossing film of the year was a comic book movie, but not Batman or Superman or Spider-Man.
A gun-toting, wisecracking raccoon, a walking tree of few words, Zoe Saldana (kicking ass in green this time) and Andy Dwyer from Parks and Recreation. And it was the most fun I had at the theater this year.
So…apologies to Selma and Inherent Vice…you came out too late for me to see in time for this. Who knows what might’ve been? And Interstellar and Foxcatcher shame on you for forgetting that movies need to make you care, not just impress you.
Anyway…without further rambling…here are the ten movies that lingered in my mind grapes longer than the rest!
The premise is, frankly, insane. After an apocalyptic event, the remaining survivors of earth are huddled together on a train that endlessly circumnavigates the globe. The poor people are in back and the rich people are in front. The poor people want to get to the front and overthrow the rich people.
But accept that and Bong Joon Ho’s Snowpiercer is one hell of a ride. His eye for action is special, moving the camera and his actors around with a balletic grace that belies all the sharp objects flying at vital organs. Each set piece, taking place in different cars of the train, offer something unique. They’re used to build tension, to keep us hurtling forward just like the train moves on relentlessly. But the violence truly serves as an exclamation point to some interesting ideas about class warfare, sustainability, and the necessity of revolt. Assisted by a fine lead performance from Chris Evans (so much more than just Captain America), and a creepy, slimy performance by a barely recognizable Tilda Swinton; Ho crafts a riveting piece of post-apocalyptic science fiction.
John Michael McDonagh writes dialogue with the poetry of a ninja assasin. Full of grace and fluidity but they’ll cut you nonetheless. And there’s no one better at saying Mr. McDonagh’s lines than Brendan Gleeson; as he proved so ably in The Guard.
Mr. McDonagh’s latest finds Mr. Gleeson as Father James, the weary but willing priest of a small coastal Irish town. The catch is that one of the residents of this small coastal Irish town has promised to kill Father James in one week for crimes other priests committed. As he begins a cursory investigation into the town’s flawed, possibly murderous residents and makes peace with his daughter, played by a guarded, wounded Kelly Reilly; Mr. McDonagh’s screenplay explores the nature of forgiveness, sin, redemption and all the other ‘BIG LIFE IDEAS’. He approaches them with acid-burn wit and a cavernously dark sense of humor.
Shot on location in lush greens and the windswept gray of the Eastern Irish coastline, and featuring a warm, generous performance from Mr. Gleeson, Calvary is that unique film that is completely comfortable in its own skin. It is not a slice of our life, or maybe a recognizable life at all, but in the life that Mr. McDonagh shows us in Calvary you can’t help but see that little bit of dark and that little bit of light that we all struggle with everyday.
The premise in and of itself is worth noting. The fictional life of one boy, Mason, and his family during a twelve year period, from ages 6-18, using the same actors and all filmed in real time. That he kept the whole enterprise going long enough to finish the film is a testament to his commitment as a filmmaker.
The end result though is what makes him truly great as a director. Generous of spirit and not afraid of sentiment; Linklater is a filmmaker who encourages emotional attachment to shared experiences, like the cathartic moments that take place during the events of Dazed and Confused. Here his Mason is just a normal boy going through the fairly normal conventions of growing up. But Ellar Coltrane, who plays Mason, grows as an actor during the film as much as he physically grows. His eyes are our eyes into the experience of being young in this country, of all the small turns and seemingly unremarkable moments that come together to create something more profound, to mold you into the person you are. When he puts it all together for you on screen though, what’s left is breathtaking and one of the most remarkable movie watching experiences ever.
Remember when Tom Cruise was the biggest movie star in the world? When anything he released dominated the box office? Then the sofa incident and the Scientology weirdness started to take over the story? I wish Edge of Tomorrow could’ve come out before all of that, when a new Tom Cruise movie was reason enough to go to the theater; because Edge of Tomorrow is one of the best Tom Cruise films ever and the most criminally underseen movie of 2014.
Boasting a witty, propulsive script and a hard-as-nails supporting performance by Emily Blunt as the most badass alien killer this side of Ripley; Doug Liman’s film uses sharp editing, clever pacing and a relentless energy to tell the story of a man blessed enough to live the same day enough times to save it.
And its all held together by Mr. Cruise. He’s always been at his best playing characters who get knocked down a peg or two only to find their true selves and make good. Think Jerry Maguire or Charlie Babbitt in Rainman. His Lt. Cage is no different in that regard. What’s different is the 1000 different deaths it takes and the wild ride Cruise, Blunt and Liman take us on to get there.
Chris Rock’s standup genius is unquestionable. But Mr. Rock’s attempts at translating that genius onto film have led to some of the more questionable moves of his career. That’s what makes Top Five such a pleasant surprise. It fits all of the great qualities of his stand-up; the biting wit, the bracing honesty, and the warm heart hidden under all of it; into one hell of an actual film.
Following in the footsteps of other distinctly New York filmmakers like Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese, the city is as much a character here as Mr. Rock and a revelatory Rosario Dawson, allowed for the first time to display her electric charm and aching vulnerability as a romantic leading lady. We need more of it.
As Mr. Rock’s recovering alcoholic movie star Andre Allen takes Ms. Dawson’s New Yorker reporter Chelsea Brown on a guided tour of his youth and upbringing, as you see the different relatives and friends that made Andre Allen who he is, you can’t help but think that you’re seeing what made Chris Rock who he is. What makes Chris Rock as great as he is at his day job.
That it also happens to be the best romantic comedy of the year, contain the most laugh-out loud sex scene I’ve ever seen, and sport some of the most hilarious, inventive use of cameo appearances in a film are only frosting on the cake. The real treat is seeing Mr. Rock hit his stride as a filmmaker.
What happens when the lights go out in Los Angeles? Or do the lights ever really go out? Dan Gilroy’s directorial debut prowls the streets of L.A at night with our resident nut-job of a tour guide, Louis Bloom, played to perfection with a wide-eyed maniacal intensity by Jake Gyllenhall. Bloom is ego and drive gone wild. Driving around Los Angeles shooting extreme footage of car accidents and violent crimes to sell to various news outlets; Bloom begins to manipulate the stories to his benefit which leads to some darkly comic outcomes.
While Mr. Gilroy displays a sharp eye for the city’s twists and turns and the script dives headfirst into the ethical wasteland of mass media; it’s Mr. Gyllenhall’s performance that makes this movie stick. His Louis Bloom is unfettered by a moral compass, an American dreamer who finds that in this country there’s no better way to achieve that dream than to show us all the nightmares lurking around the corner. Even if he makes the nightmares himself.
It speaks to Marvel’s power at the box office that a second-tier, damn near forgotten comic book recently revived by the company in print could not only get a summer tent-pole release at the theater, but become the highest grossing American film of the summer. But it all makes sense when you see what director James Gunn and his creative team did with it.
Bypassing the somber, world-weary super hero cliches that keep hitting the theaters; Gunn’s film is a hyperkinetic visual treat, with a whip-smart script that uses a fairly stock story (powerful object that can destroy the universe falls into the wrong hands, someone needs to save said universe) to introduce the most unique, appealing group of heroes to ever grace the big-screen. From a talking racoon, to a giant walking tree with a limited vocabulary, and a perfectly cast Chris Pratt (its his world now, we just live in it) as a space bandit with a heart of gold; Guardians hits all the right notes. Its the one movie I saw this year that as I was leaving, I just wanted to turn right around and see it all over again.
Wes Anderson’s world is usually his own. One we all willingly wander into to marvel at the whimsy, to witness the fracturing and restructuring of relationships, and the makeshift families he creates. But its all within this letter-box diorama in his head, some deep-cut from a major 70’s artist playing in the background…most probably from a portable vinyl player.
That’s what makes The Grand Budapest Hotel so refreshing.
The performances are all typically great for an Anderson film, with a hilarious, eye opening comedic performance by Ralph Fiennes, as M. Gustave, towering above the rest. You still get the wide angle, panoramic shots, the elaborate set design, and the all too clever script. But by setting his story of a thoroughly professional hotel concierge (Mr. Fiennes) caught up in murderous intrigue under the looming shadow of the Third Reich and all the inevitable sadness; we get something Wes Anderson has never given us before. Dread, a real sense of impending loss. Its a bold move by Mr. Anderson this far into his career, but a necessary one, and one that he sticks with aplomb.
It could’ve been the most whorish cash grab of the year. Major studio joins forces with major toy company and makes a movie about their most popular toy. But luckily the team behind The Lego Movie let Transformers: Age of Extinction make the cash grab. Phil Lord and Christopher Miller had something completely different in mind.
The hilariously inventive script finds everyday Lego construction worker Emmett (voiced by Chris Pratt…there he is again) mistaken for the mythical leader of a revolution against the conformist, repressive world of President Business. What follows is 100 breathless minutes that turn around your idea of what a ‘children’s’ movie truly is, like Toy Story did all those years ago. An expert voice cast that includes Mr. Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Morgan Freeman, and Will Arnett as the most unique version of Batman you’ll ever see, carries the film forward as it soars through all the stylistic loops Mr. Lord and Mr. Miller throw at us. It’s visual flair is matched by a story with real legs. At turns hilarious and inspiring, with important messages about individuality and how individuals can maintain their identity and still be a part of a successful team, The Lego Movie continues to surprise you all the way to a completely unexpected, extremely satisfying end. Everything is, in fact, awesome.
“Meta” is usually a bad thing in movies because in the end “meta” means taking yourself too seriously and complicating things. That is not the case with Birdman. In fact, its the very ‘meta’-ness of this movie that lends it a funhouse mirror reflection of gravitas.
Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thompson, an aging actor who gained his fame playing a super-hero in big budget films (sound familiar? there’s the ‘meta’) but has found himself floundering professionally of late. He decides to write, direct and star in his own Broadway production to establish his artistic and creative bonafides. What takes place next is a backstage hornets nest of a film. The riffs on acting, its uselessness, media culture, its vapidity, and the addictive nature of fame are hilarious and mildly unsettling. And they’re delivered from the best ensemble acting performance of the year.
Director Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu employs Gravity cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki to swirl his camera around a never-better Mr. Keaton, a rejuvenated Edward Norton, the always winning Emma Stone and a surprisingly good Zach Galifinakis. That, coupled with some clever editing, make it look like one long shot that follows the actors around the dark hallways and dank spaces of a dusty theater. Its a Houdini-level piece of film magic, one that forces us to keep our eyes on the hilarious creative destruction happening around them.
What were your favorite movies of 2014? Share with us in the comments section!