Sunday, January 18, 2015

Top 10 Films of 2014

(Honorable Mention)

25. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
24. The Skeleton Twins
23. John Wick
22. Noah
21. Obvious Child
20. Still Alice
19. Locke
18. Joe
17. Enemy
16. American Sniper
15. A Most Violent Year
14. Gone Girl
13. Mistaken for Strangers
12. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
11. X-Men: Days of Future Past


Blue Ruin

     Blue Ruin is a unique American revenge story, a low budget edge-of-your-seat thriller that is as simple as it is tension-packed. Dwight Evans (Macon Blair) is a vagrant who lives out of his car near the beach--he's scraggly and bearded. Once day, he receives a certain bit of news that causes him to clean himself up and return to his hometown with the sole intention of murdering a specific person who wronged him in the past. There's not much to complain about when it comes to Blue Ruin: the directing and visuals are stellar (especially on such a low budget), it's undeniably taut at only 90 minutes, the thrilling unease is felt throughout, and the progression of the story is fast, moving from violent standoff to violent standoff until a satisfying and grim conclusion.



     Director Bennett Miller is a sucker for interesting, true-life stories: his past works include a film about the complicated character Truman Capote, and he explored low-budget baseball with Moneyball. Foxcatcher, his new film, slips into the same categories: it contains real-life drama, intriguing characters, and an extremely peculiar story: it focuses on Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) and his uncomfortable relationship with mega-millionaire Jon du Pont (Steve Carell, prosthetic face and all), a team-up that turned raw and violent and ended in a tragedy. The stars of the film are the atmosphere--the dark, smokey scenes that set the chilling mood--and the acting: Carell is great in a transforming role, and Tatum continues to show that he's not just a meathead with no talent. Another solid entry in Miller's genre of True-life tension. 


Edge of Tomorrow

     Tom Cruise is a god-damned movie star, and anytime anybody doubts him, he stars in an entertaining action (typically with a sci-fi tinge) film that ends up being super fun: see Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Oblivion, etc. It's no different with this year's horrendously-titled film, Edge of Tomorrow (adapted from the incredibly better-titled Japanese light novel "All You Need is Kill"), directed by Doug Liman. It's an action-packed and (actually) thoughtful mixture of Groundhog Day (yes, the Bill Murray film) and Source Code: Cruise dies over and over again in a huge Normandy-style battle with Aliens, progressing further and further each time as he starts getting certain things right. It's like a charismatic first-person shooter video game with heart, humor, and an exhilarating performance from Cruise.



     Jake Gyllenhaal's been on a roll lately, with last year's Prisoners and now Nightcrawler, a showcase for a sociopath character named Lou Bloom who lives on the outskirts of polite society, flying around the city at night, trying to film grotesque crime scenes to sell to the morning news stations. It's up there as one of Gyllenhaal's great roles ever: he's so damn creepy and weird that it's impossible to take your eyes off of him. As Lou's business grows, he begins to gain more notoriety from the news stations, and he begins to make more and more money for the crazier stuff that he films. It's this turning point, when Lou's self obsessions meet up with his realization that he can push the boundaries of society's morals, that Nightcrawler becomes something special, spiraling out of control until its surprising conclusion.



     Snowpiercer is so damn weird and strange that it's impossible to ignore. This is a movie that's in my top 10 of the year, yet after watching about 15 minutes of it I could have shut it off. I couldn't tell if it was intentionally trying to be hokey or if the acting was just terrible: but once the lower-class caboose of the perpetual motion train breaks free of their metaphorical chains, Snowpiercer becomes one of the most entertaining and surprising films of the year. The direction, from South Korean master Bong Joon-ho, is vivid and original, and the action is violent, absurd and shocking. But the best part of Snowpiercer--unlike the protein gelatin blocks that the train's passengers eat--is how fresh it is. It's unlike anything else that was in cinemas this year: the incredibly different and unexpected sets, the peculiar plot twists, the ultra-stylistic action. And like the number 1 film on this list, it's a great example of a non-American director showing us how fun films can be if you can just let loose.


The Drop

      The Drop may forever be known as our last glimpse at the great James Gandolfini, but it's an awesome slow burn of a film in its own right, and it's yet another example of Tom Hardy's greatness. Similar stories have been told before: crime in dank, beer-soaked bars, mob money, shady characters, but The Drop shines because of it's two main actors and the nice script based upon a Dennis Lehane short story. The story focuses on a mysterious bartender (Hardy) and the bar owned by Marv (Gandolfini) that is used as an illegal "drop" point by Chechen gangsters. The pace of the film is slow, but could better be described as natural: we follow these characters as the progression of events continues to raise the tension to the biggest drop night of the year: the Super Bowl. The Drop doesn't look to shock or surprise, but it sets you up to fully enjoy the satisfying climax.



     Interstellar continues the tradition of Christopher Nolan films that have an undeniable epic quality and occasional eye-rolling scenes of sentimentality. But I still loved the Hell out of it. It's chock full of science-fiction mumbo-jumbo, discussions of black holes, the space-time continuum, wormholes and gravitational pulls. I don't know how much of this stuff was true, but it doesn't matter: Nolan has again (like with Inception and the The Dark Knight trilogy) created a theater-going experience rather than just a good movie. It's like a nearly 3-hour amusement park ride at the Epcot Center containing famous actors. I didn't stop thinking about some of its scenes and ideas days after I left the cinema. Much of the film takes place in gigantic vastness and space and completely foreign areas and planets, and it leaves the viewer with a sense of awe. But even though the film sets its sights far, far, away, when Nolan can manage to transcend corny sentimentality and touch on real human emotion, that's when Interstellar shines the brightest.



     Micheal Keaton gives the best performance of the year in a Meta-Dramedy about a former superhero (Birdman) movie actor (Riggan) who's now washed up and trying a shot at redemption by writing, directing and starring in a Broadway play. Keaton is the key that locks the film into greatness, but Birdman also relies on its ensemble cast: Edward Norton as the prickish but vulnerable star actor, Emma Watson's just-outta-rehab daughter, Zach Galifianakis' producer friend of Riggan. These actors provide the humor and emotion that fly us into the heart of the story and the satiric wink towards show business culture. And it all fits together perfectly with the seemingly hour-long tracking shots composed by director Alexander Inarritu that make you feel as though your standing on stage or behind the curtain with the play's actors. Birdman is innovative, and you've probably never seen anything like it before.



     Whiplash had been on my radar since its prestigious showing at the Sundance film festival earlier this year, but I didn't expect it to envelop me so completely into it's nervous energy and jazz-music-infusion. It's a fairly simple premise, but one that resonates: Andrew (great newcomer Miles Teller) has just been accepted into one of the best music universities in America. Once we gets there, he catches the eye of an intense instructor who expects nothing less than perfection, a drumming drill-sergeant who is as violent as he is transfixing (J. K. Simmons in a career defining role and one of the best performances of the year). It is an incredibly uncomfortable watch, giving you the feeling of being in a job interview as thinks keep going south far beyond what you ever expected. But what is Whiplash truly about? Having an undeniable talent and going to any length necessary to drum it out of you.


The Raid 2

     Nothing this year could have compared to the exhilaration that was experienced upon the first watch of The Raid 2. It's a 2.5 hour crime epic that contains some of the best actions scenes in just about anything, ever. If you've seen the first film (which you don't need to see to enjoy this sequel, but why wouldn't you?), you know that director Gareth Evans is a master at showcasing the speed and brutality of the martial art, pencak silat: but in The Raid 2, Evans sets his sites on a whole city rather than just one building, complete with car chases and murderous gangsters. The basics of the plot deal with an undercover cop who must infiltrate a dangerous crime organization, and though the plot is much more in-depth than in the first film, the story serves the incredible actions and fight scenes. Like dancers on a stage, the Raid 2's characters glide in an amazingly-choreographed beautiful piece of blood-spurting art complete with bone-crushing beatings and Tarantino-esque style. If only American actions films were this damn good.