The past year has come and gone and we can now look back on the cinematic highs and lows of 2014. At a glance, 2014 proved to be a rather quiet year for Hollywood. There weren’t any mega hits this year (with one or two exceptions), but at the same time there weren’t any massive bombs either. Sure some movies disappointed (Exodus, Sin City, Godzilla), but at the same time, we didn’t see any flops on the level of last year’s The Lone Ranger, or 2012’s Battleship. 2014 actually represented a lot of trends being broken, best represented by a stronger than usual Spring season. Movies like The Lego Movie and Darren Aronofsky’s Noah proved that you could release a commercially viable film in the early part of the year and still be remembered by year’s end. Not only that, but the summer season also proved to be uncharacteristically strong. Sure, none of this summer’s many tent-poles were record-breaking at the box office, but a surprisingly high number of them won critical praise and have remained popular all the way up to the end of the year, appearing on many critics top ten list (including mine as you will see). Couple this with a remarkably underwhelming Oscar season in the fall, and you can see why 2014 became such an unusual year. Though, as unpredictable as it may have been, Hollywood should still feel confident that all the studios had a good if not spectacular year (unless you’re Sony Pictures, for which you’re probably wishing 2014 never happened). But, to show you how I observed the previous year in movies, it’s best that I share my picks for the overall 10 best of 2014, as well as the 5 worst. Keep in mind, even though I saw over 50-plus films this year, there were some that eluded me towards the finale. Unfortunately that includes some highly anticipated titles like American Sniper, Wild, and Selma. For this list, I’m strictly limiting it to the ones I saw in this calendar year.
Before I start my list, here are the movies that nearly made it, but had to be left off. They are, in no particular order, Boyhood, Calvary, John Wick, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, Interstellar, How to Train Your Dragon 2, Fury, 22 Jump Street, Jersey Boys, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Noah, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Nightcrawler, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, X-Men: Days of Future Past, and The Interview. Now, lest’s get to the all important Top 10.
THE IMITATION GAME
Directed by Morten Tyldum
Prestige pictures are pretty much a staple of this end of the year cycle at the movies. Films that try so hard to pluck at the heartstrings of the audience in order to appeal for the coveted Oscar gold. Most of these kinds of movies usually are so superficial that the attempt to garner an Oscar win often backfires. But every now and then, one movie ends up working the formula in it’s favor and actually achieves it’s goal. The Imitation Game is that kind of movie. Much like a similarly Oscar bait-y movie that succeeded years back, 2010’s The King’s Speech, this movie is elevated by two things: a sharp and witty screenplay and a standout performance by it’s lead. The Imitation Game manages to avoid the trap of trying to play things too sentimental, and actually keeps focus where it needs to be. The movie expertly displays the impact that mathematical genius Alan Turing made in ending WWII by deciphering the “unbreakable” Enigma code, and how his engineering skills led to the advancements we see today in modern computers. It also shows the disgraceful way that post-war society destroyed the man purely because of his homosexuality. But at the same time, the movie doesn’t turn Turing into a martyr, which greatly helps to make him a far more interesting and complex character, which star Benedict Cumberbatch brilliantly captures in a very nuanced performance. Sure, The Imitation Game may seem old-fashioned and formulaic, but sometimes following the recipe still yields a satisfying meal.
Directed by Steven Knight
This was one of 2014’s most interesting and unique cinematic experiments. This film centers around a Welsh construction foreman named Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) who spends the night driving from Manchester, England to central London, where he is going to witness the birth of a child he had with a mistress. On the way there, he has to keep all the other issues in his life under control, including the final preparations for an important construction phase in the morning as well as confessing the truth of his infidelity to his family. What makes this movie so remarkable is that the entirety of the film is played out inside of Ivan Locke’s car while he drives, with Tom Hardy being the only onscreen presence for the entire 85 minute run-time. All of Hardy’s co-stars are merely disembodied voices heard over the phone line during the character’s long drive. It may seem like a tedious experiment on paper, but thanks to Tom Hardy’s restrained and natural performance, you become completely engrossed into Locke’s harrowing night. It’s an amazing exercise in restraint and working within boundaries in order to create a true cinematic oddity. Tom Hardy proves once again with this picture that he’s an actor who can just disappear into a role and command a presence as just about anyone, even in something as intimate as this. Who knew that watching someone drive and take phone calls for an hour and a half could make for captivating cinema? It’s proof that are still some fresh ideas in cinematic experimentation out there.
Directed by David Fincher
I already talked a lot about this film in my review, but it’s worth restating just how much of an impact a director like David Fincher leaves on cinema in general. In less capable hands, Gone Girl could have turned into a soapy, ham-fisted murder mystery that we’ve seen done a million times already. What Fincher manages to do, however is to really delve into the larger themes that author Gillain Flynn intended to address in her best-selling novel, which is the tabloidization of news media, the competitiveness between genders, and really the darker side of human nature itself. With all the many twists and turns that this story takes, it’s clear to see why Fincher chose to tackle this rather unconventional story. There’s so much going on under the surface, and unraveling every thread is part of the fun of watching this movie. It also marks a career best performance from actor Ben Affleck, who perfectly captures the complex nature of a very flawed individual. However, his role is overshadowed even more by a breakthrough performance by actress Rosamund Pike as the titular missing person. This is one of the most talked about and widely debated movies of the year, and with good reason. With this film, David Fincher once again proves why he is one of the great artists and storytellers working in cinema today. Only he could have managed to get a great performance out of Tyler Perry for one thing. And if that’s not the mark of a master director, than I don’t know what is.
EDGE OF TOMORROW
Directed by Doug Liman
Proff positive that I’m not the greatest forecaster when it comes to movies. I highlighted this film as one of my “Movies to Skip” in my Movies of 2014 preview, based on what I saw as a really unremarkable and lousy ad campaign. But, once I saw the actual movie, my whole perception changed and I’m just as surprised as anyone to see it here on my top ten list. Essentially, I believe the pitch for this movie may have been ” could we take Groundhog’s Day and turn it into an action movie?” Well they did, and it is awesome. Director Doug Liman actually makes the outlandish premise behind this movie, about a military officer (Tom Cruise) forced to repeat the same losing battle in a war with an alien race hundreds of times until he finally succeeds, work remarkably well and with surprising creative finesse. Cruise once again proves that he can carry an action thriller with a charismatic but never false performance. Emily Blunt steals the film, however, playing the ultimate warrior in this seemingly un-winnable battle. Her chemistry with Cruise helps to elevate this story above most other action thrillers and it’s their combined energy that you’ll remember long after the movie is over. Also, the film is just a refreshing departure from most action fare, letting the gimmick of the movie flow naturally within the story, as opposed to overwhelming it. It’s just unfortunate that the movie was saddled with such a poor marketing campaign. It’s a movie that deserves a whole lot more and will hopefully get the recognition it’s due in the years ahead.
THE LEGO MOVIE
Directed by Phil Lord & Christopher Miller
A movie that came out so long ago, that you’d think it belonged on last year’s top ten. But, that just goes to show just how memorable this movie was in 2014. Directors Lord and Miller have proven themselves to be one of the best pairs of humorist in today’s media. Along with their live action effort, 22 Jump Street, they’ve achieved remarkable success making movies that should never have worked in the first place turn into bona fide classics. I’m sure that when most people learned there was going to be something called The Lego Movie, their first thought was that it was going to be nothing more than a self-aggrandizing 90 minute commercial for the LEGO company. Thankfully, what we got instead was an animated comedy that not only pleased audiences of all ages, but was also insightful and heart-wrenching as well. I loved what the movie had to say about creativity and how it defines us as individuals, and how society as a whole functions on everyone’s own creative contributions. I’m also sure many people were surprised by the fact something like The Lego Movie could even make them cry. But overall, it also proved to be the most consistently imaginative and hilarious movie of the year. Beautifully animated and filled with a cast of delightful characters from all corners of pop culture, The Lego Movie was much more than a commercial. It was a celebration of imagination, embodied perfectly on the shared experiences that we have had through different generations of playing with LEGO’s. And the movie also gave Batman a song, which was spectacular. Everything is awesome in this animated gem.
Directed by Bong Joon-Ho
In my list from last year, I named Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium as my worst movie of 2013. This was mainly due to the lack of originality in it’s presentation and the unsubtle and ham-fisted way that it delivered it’s social commentary. Korean director Bong Joon-Ho tackles similar themes in his action film Snowpiercer, but delivers it so much more effectively. Like Elysium, the story takes place in a not-too-distant future where mankind is forced to adapt to a changing and unforgiving world. But, instead of overpopulation, the scourge on the planet is climate change, and Earth has become unlivable for mankind after a deep freeze has covered the planet. The only survivors exist on a perpetually running train that circumnavigates the planet, and tensions over the years have risen due to the gap between the “haves” at the front of the train, and the “have nots” in the back of the train. Joon-Ho’s film clearly has a Socialistic bent to it, but’s it still is engaging to watch even if you don’t share it’s worldview. The characters are all complex in the right way, with the heroes not being entirely pure and trustworthy, and the villains not entirely evil. Joon-Ho works with an English-language cast for the first time here and he gets some truly outstanding performances out of stars like Chris Evans, John Hurt, and Tilda Swinton. Also, the production design of this movie is amazing, giving character to each new section of the train that we visit, leading us on a great journey as the characters make their way to the engine room. It’s proof that you can make social commentary work in science fiction again, and also make it transcend beyond it’s message.
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
The always unpredictable P.T. Anderson delivers yet another quirky entry into his already impressive filmography. I should note that if you’re expecting something more dramatic and meditational like his last two films, 2012’s The Master and 2007’s There Will Be Blood, then you might come away from this movie disappointed. Inherent Vice marks a return to the quirkier side of Anderson’s style, probably best featured in his earlier dark comedy classic, 1997’s Boogie Nights. And it’s a return that I greatly welcome. Truth be told, I haven’t read the Thomas Pynchon novel that this movie was based on, but Anderson’s presentation leads me to believe that it’s a fairly faithful adaptation. Set in Los Angeles during the waning days of the counter-culture movement of the 60’s and 70’s, the movie follows the adventures of private detective Larry “Doc” Sportello (a stellar Joaquin Phoenix) as he tries to unravel the mysterious disappearance of a Southland real estate tycoon and how that connects with a shadowy organization called the Golden Fang. The plot meanders deliberately and doesn’t really resolve in the end, but that’s not really what P.T. Anderson intended for the film. This, more than any other movie on this list, is more about the journey than the destination, and I credit Anderson for making the journey a whole lot of fun. The overall vibe of the film is like a mixture of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) and the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski (1998), and it includes the best of both worlds in that regard. It’s not a movie for everyone, but it certainly hit all the right notes for me and was an easy pick as one of the year’s best.
Directed by Damien Chazelle
Who knew that attending music school could be such a harrowing experience? This little indie surprise may not seem like much on the surface, but after seeing it, Whiplash proved to be one of the most intense movie experiences of the year. It follows the tumultuous story of aspiring drummer Andrew Nieman (Miles Teller) as he begins his training at the best music school in the country. His confidence is soon tested once he runs into the ruthless Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), who pushes his pupils to the brink of insanity in the pursuit of absolute perfection. Over the course of the movie, we see Andrew push himself harder than he is physically possible in order to win the approval of a truly heartless individual, even to the point of drumming until his fingers are bleeding. It’s a movie that is going to take you for a ride in the most unexpected ways and it absolutely took me by surprise when I first saw it. Miles Teller certainly cements his status as a rising star with his memorable turn here. But the movie mostly belongs to veteran character actor J.K. Simmons, who delivers the performance of a lifetime as the ruthless Fletcher; a terrifying presence so intense, that he makes R. Lee Ermy’s drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket (1987) seem humble by comparison. Simmons will almost certainly be in the running for the supporting actor Oscar this year, if not already standing as the clear front-runner. Overall, the experience of this movie is something you have to enjoy for yourself. It perfectly encapsulates the lengths some of us will go to become the best at something, even if it means compromising our own well-being in the process.
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY
Directed by James Gunn
The year’s big breakout hit, and it’s easy to see why. This is a movie that just has it all; humor, action, amazing characters, and the promise of greater things to come. What makes Guardians so remarkable however is that it comes from an unlikely source. The Marvel Comics it’s based on has a fan-base, but nowhere near as large as some of Marvel’s other titles. And yet, with an assured adaptation by director James Gunn, Guardians went from a C-grade comic brand into an A-lister overnight. It’s amazing to see how well this movie connected with audiences, and for the most part, I believe that it’s largely because of how well they brought the cast of characters to life in this movie. Star Lord charmed us, Gamora amazed us, Drax intimidated us, Rocket Raccoon made us all laugh, and Groot, well Groot just warmed our hearts. Overall, this movie had the best character dynamics of the year, even letting minor characters like Yondu and The Collector shine through as integral parts of the story. Overall, this movie just shows us how successful Marvel Studios has become at bringing their titles to the big screen, and Guardians may just be their crowning achievement; so far anyway. I would actually say that it’s the first space based adventure in a long time to actually capture some of the same magic that Star Wars did many years ago. Amazingly, Marvel has managed to create a viable franchise that can stand well on it’s own, even set apart from the larger cinematic universe, although I am excited to see how these characters will fit within the grander scheme of things. It’s the first time in a long while where the highest domestic gross of the year actually belonged to a movie that deserved it. The classic rock based soundtrack was also delightful byproduct of the film as well. I honestly can’t wait until the next adventure we get to have with this eccentric family of oddball characters.
Which leads us to…
Directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Top honors belong to what is truly the most original and captivating cinematic experience that I had all year. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s career has largely been defined by dark, socially-conscious dramas, but Birdman marks a big departure for him because it’s his first full-on comedy, albeit a very dark one. I’ve already gushed about the remarkable cinematography, and it’s reliance on long unbroken takes, but there’s also a lot more to this movie that makes it a standout film. Michael Keaton delivers a career best performance as a down-and-out actor trying to make a comeback after years away from the spotlight and being synonymous with playing a big screen superhero; a somewhat auto-biographical role for the man who once donned the cape and cowl as Batman. There are also brilliant supporting performances from other heavyweights like Edward Norton, Naomi Watts and Emma Stone, all performing at their highest levels. The Broadway setting also is used remarkably well, making you want to leave and visit the city of New York in a heartbeat. But, with all the style and performances on display, Birdman stands out as 2014’s best film purely because there is nothing else that quite matches it. It takes the medium of film to places that we haven’t seen it go before, and that’s quite an impressive feat for something that was done on a relatively modest budget. Innaritu’s film also marks yet another outstanding entry from a Mexico-bred filmmaker. This along with Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim and Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity (which was my #1 from last year) shows that these “three amigos” went 3 for 3 in this cinematic round, and hopefully the trio continues their hot streak in the years ahead. With groundbreaking cinematography, career-defining performances, and an almost dream-like flow to the narrative, Birdman is easily the best experience that I had at the movies this year.
So, with my choices for the best of 2014 laid out now, it’s now time to share my picks for the 5 worst movies of the year. These may not be the worst movies of all time (although one comes very close), but when compared with the rest of the year’s entries, these stood out as the movies that angered me the most, and represented the worst aspects of the film industry. So, let’s start counting down.
Despite a surprisingly strong performance by Angelina Jolie, this movie takes a legendary fairy tale and it’s classic adaptation by Disney, and deconstructs it into an insulting piece of fan fiction. It glorifies one iconic character to the detriment of the rest of the story, and it only makes you wish you were watching the original animated film instead. It’s strange to see a fairy tale feel so lacking in magic.
4. TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION
This one’s pretty obvious. What was promised as a revitalized reboot of the mega-hit franchise only proved to be more of the same. Once again, the Transformers are sidelined for most of the movie, with director Michael Bay filling the bloated 2 1/2 hour run-time with needless banter between the uninteresting human characters. Even removing Shia LeBeouf from the equation and replacing him with the more charismatic Mark Wahlberg did nothing to help. And the sad thing is, because of the international success of the movie, there’s still more over the horizon for this franchise.
3. THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING
Where The Imitation Game was a formulaic, Oscar-bait movie that actually succeeded, The Theory of Everything is an example of the exact opposite. Based on the life of genius astrophysicist Dr. Stephen Hawking, Theory unfortunately devolves into melodramatic tripe that teaches us nothing about Hawking’s impact on the world of science and instead focuses way too much on his disability brought on by Lou Gehrig’s disease. But probably most insulting are the obvious “Oscar moments” in the movie, and the fact that Hawking’s story gets overshadowed by that of his long suffering wife. Dr. Hawking deserves so much better than this pandering piece of garbage.
2. THE AMAZING SPIDERMAN 2
One of Sony’s many headaches this year, Amazing Spiderman 2 marks a franchise low for the once mighty box office draw. With a ludicrous story-line and too many characters needlessly stuffed together with no real purpose (seriously, why did the Rhino need to be in this movie at all), this was effectively the Spiderman equivalent of Batman and Robin. Plans for future expansion of this franchise have been put on hold after the movie’s mediocre performance, and rumors suggest that Sony may indeed give the character back to Marvel Studios, which is where he belongs. This movie was a studio mandated mess and hopefully it marks the end of Sony’s run with the character.
And the absolute worst movie of 2014 is…
1. KIRK CAMERON’S SAVING CHRISTMAS
Shocking right? I mean it’s only the worst movie of all time according to IMDb’s Bottom 100. But, if there was ever a movie more deserving of that distinction, it’s this un-watchable film. I had to see it through a bootleg copy, because one I didn’t want to give Kirk Cameron any of my money, and two I needed to see just how bad it was. And boy is it bad. The movie seems to exist purely for Kirk Cameron to pontificate his already warped world view (which by the way doesn’t represent Christianity authentically in any way) and more shamefully, he tries to wrap his own beliefs into every Christmas tradition possible. Calling this a movie even does a disservice to cinema in general. It’s a propaganda piece and nothing more. The worst Christmas movie of all time, and easily the worst of 2014.
So, this is my breakdown of the year 2014 at the movies. It was quiet for the most part, but not one that put Hollywood in the red either. I’m certainly happy that so many big summer tent-poles actually delivered this year, showing that Hollywood is filling a demand for quality entertainment on a bigger scale and doing it better than in years past. The year ahead hopes to continue that trend further. What I find most interesting about 2015 is how the upcoming releases are mostly returns to old school franchises (particularly ones from the 80’s). We’re getting a new Terminator, another Mad Max, as well as a return to Jurassic World. Also ahead are not one but two films from animation power house Pixar (Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur) as well as the conclusion of Marvel Studios’ Phase 2 with Avengers: Age of Ultron and Ant-Man. 007 also makes his big return in Spectre. There are also big new films from high profile filmmakers like Robert Zemekis (The Walk), Quentin Tarantino (The Hateful Eight), Guillermo del Toro (Crimson Peak), and Brad Bird (Tomorrowland). And of course, probably the most anticipated new film of 2015 is the return to that galaxy far, far away with J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. Overall, 2015 looks to be a spectacular year with many highly anticipated new films from some of Hollywood’s best talent. And I will most certainly do my best to keep up with it all and continue to share my thoughts with you over the following year.