22 Jump Street
Phil Lord and Chris Miller had one helluva year in 2014, and 22 Jump Street demonstrates how well-deserved that success is. This one manages to bring something unique to the table and expand on the world of it's predecessor in a fulfilling manner. And really, few big-screen duos are as hilarious as Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill.
What appears to be some kind of cacophony of color and toys to sell turns out to be much much more than that. Walt Disney Animation Studios recent resurgence of quality continues wonderfully here, as a tale of tragedy and loss is told in a powerful manner. Toss in one of the years best characters, the adorable chubby robot Baymax, and you've got a cinematic winner.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
The Marvel Cinematic Universe continues to prosper under the watch of directors Anthony and Joe Russo, who bring The Star Spangled Man With A Plan into a political thriller chock full of edge-of-your-seat action sequences and complex characters. The films deft ability to weave in larger and darker themes into it's story without distracting from it's escapist elements is one to admire, to say the very least.
Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes
Caesar's epic journey before there even was a planet of apes continues to be a surprisingly engaging adventure, as this summer blockbuster puts well realized characters above generic explosions. Andy Serkis is incredible as Caesar, while Toby Kebbell surprises as one of the best big screen villains in recent memory, Koba. He's the kind of nuanced and compelling personality that Dawn Of The Planet of The Apes thrives on.
Edge Of Tomorrow
Here's a film that's grown on me substantially since it's initial release, to the point where I marvel at how much this one surprised me. What seems like from the ads to be just another middling Tom Cruise vehicle like Oblivion and Jack Reacher is actually one of the best uses of Cruise in ages. Playing a more cowardly character than usual, he makes for a great person to experience this movies engaging world and characters like a soldier superbly played by Emily Blunt.
Adaptations of young adult novels have gotten a pretty bad reputation, and when they're the middling The Maze Runner, that's understandable. But The Fault In Our Stars transcends any preconceptions to craft an unbelievably compelling romance. Hazel (Shaliene Woodley) and Augustus (Ansel Elgort) have incredible chemistry that matches a weal-realized script that makes the relationship between these two feel incredibly real and devastating.
There's a lot of surprises in Frank, one of them being how well it handles it's characters without turning them into some one-dimensional stereotypes. There's real depth to be found here, especially in Michael Fassbenders turn as the titular character. The film invites the viewer into the world of this band, a world that becomes a great place to stay for an hour and a half. Add in a heartfelt finale all but guaranteed to conquer your emotions, and you've got one of 2014's best, you guessed it, surprises.
The Oscars may not have taken kindly to this adaptation of Gillain Flynn's novel, but that's their loss for not recognizing for one of the years more intense features. David Fincher reaffirms why he's such a well-respected director with this material, while Flynn adapts her own work to the silver screen in a more than satisfying manner. However, the movies true star is Rosamund Pike, whose unpredictability is both compelling and utterly terrifying.
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Jeff Goldblum and a cat. Ralph Fiennes and his sporadic usage of profanity. Tilda Swinton is astounding old-age makeup. These are just a few of the things you'll witness within the glorious cinematic realm of The Grand Budapest Hotel, a feature that somehow manages to be one of the best filmmaking endeavors from one of the best directors working today. It's a feast in every way imaginable, from the amazing visuals to the ending that ties up the proceedings in a bittersweet fashion.
One thing missing from many recent blockbusters (namely Man of Steel, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and the Transformers sequel) is this sense of wonder. These features stumble at creating an inviting world or compelling characters, but James Gunn has no trouble creating hordes of both within Guardians of The Galaxy. Every frame of this movie is overwhelming with visual aplomb and memorable personalities brought to life by a superb roster of actors. Any film that manages to create both an emotionally resonant finale dealing with coming to terms with the death of a loved one as well a scene where a tree dances to the Jackson 5 should be praised as one for the ages as not just a great blockbuster, but a great piece of film.
Coming off the buoyant world of Groot is this story of a woman's journey coming into America, and her endless pursuit of her sister. It's a story told in an appropriately somber manner that's brought to heartbreaking life by Marion Cotillard, a masterful performer whose incredible work here is relentless captivating. She helps enhance this movies atmosphere of solemnity to the point where the movie will stay with a viewer for weeks afterwards.
I've always been obsessed with the past and the feelings of nostalgia, so it was a wonderful surprise to see that Inherent Vice shares my fascination with what has been. Paul Thomas Andersons story may not be the most rigidly structured feature in the world, but that feels appropriate for the era the movies capturing as well as the personality of the stories protagonist, Doc (Joaquin Phoenix). I couldn't help but be swept in the movies excellent cinematography, directing and simultaneous devotion to the absurd (death by freak trampoline accident anyone?) and the wistful.
Sometimes to get a film to really resonate with me you need to have great acting. Or a great script. John Wick actually has both things, especially when it comes to Keanu Reeves as a bad-ass lead who exudes control in any given situation. But maybe Wick's best asset is it's incredible knack for depicting awesome action sequences. Not even a trace of shaky-cam here, just clarity and brutality. Toss in an adorable puppy, and John Wick makes for one helluva ride.
A film centered on LEGO's was met with skepticism from everybody when it was first announced, but almost a year later, such skepticism was very misplaced, to say the least. Phil Lord and Chris Millers extraordinary feature manages to accomplish so many incredible feats within it's running time it can boggle one's mind. It skewers and brings nuance to the "chosen one" narrative, it contains sequences of wonderful humor (LEGO Batman is a brilliant creation and Emmett is overflowing with quotable lines) and has an ending that brings a level of incredible pathos I never could have imagined a film called The LEGO Movie could bring.
The life of Roger Ebert is one filled with tragedy, triumph, and of course, movies. Life Itself centers itself on the good and the bad of Ebert's life, looking at him from his earliest days of writing all the way until his final days in the hospital. Depicting how much of an impact this one man had on so many peoples lives makes one grateful for people like Roger Ebert, who brought so much joy to our lives, and powerful films like Life Itself.
Love Is Strange
I never would have thought in a million years that John Lithgow and Alfred Molina would make for a compelling big-screen couple, but my God, does this movie prove that to be true. As a recently married duo who have been together for decades, the two navigate through recent struggles (unemployment, lack of a home) in an incredible fashion. The amount of tender and potent poignancy that this film, which is so full of truth and beauty, creates is nothing short of astonishing.
Meet Louis Bloom. He sets high goals for himself, he's persistent, and his motto is that if you wanna win the lottery, you have to make the money to buy a ticket. He's also a psychopath who acquires power through filming footage for a local Los Angeles news program in this insanely compelling feature that makes for an incredible feature film debut from director Dan Gilroy. It's story of depravity is engrossing on it's own merits, but it's taken to the next level by Jake Gyllenhaal's extraordinary performance as Louis Bloom. He has this unsettling presence that put me constantly on edge, especially in his phenomenal dialogue heavy scenes.
In a year full of terrible films made by those of the Christian faith, Darren Aronofsky's Noah separated itself from the pack by placing story and characters above all else. Talking the well known story of Noah and crafting a film that takes cue from influences ranging from Stanley Kubrick to Ray Heryhausen is a risky move, but it pays off in dividends as the various influences fuse to create a tale powerful in it's scope, visuals and storytelling.
"What happens when a man stands up and says enough is enough?" Martin Luther King Jr. inquires at one point in Selma, a query full of the kind of eloquence and profundity that abound in this feature. An incredible cast led by David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr. bring nuance to the story, which narrows the scope to simply following Dr. King as he and his followers protests in Selma, Alabama. Narrowing the film's focus to this single event is to the films benefit, as it emphasizes both the impact Dr. King had on everyday citizens and the scorn and abuse directed at those fighting for civil rights. It's a riveting story whose every frame exudes intelligence and gravitas.
The Skeleton Twins
Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig have excellent chemistry, as their amusing skit with movie quotes during this years Golden Globes ceremony reinforced. The two take that chemistry to a whole other level with The Skeleton Twins as they play twins whose lives become intertwined after years of being distant. Wiig is terrific, but it must be said that Hader is the movies true MVP, managing to turn a potentially aggravating character into one capable of executing exceptional poignancy and humor in the same scene, The film similarly manages to deftly handle a complex tone that adds a sense of realism to the proceedings, one of the movies many attributes that makes it stand out from the pack.
This turned out to be a really divisive motion picture, with early critical raves giving way to numerous moviegoers dismissing the film as overdone nonsense. There's no denying that Snowpiercer is an unusual story, but it is one told in a riveting fashion with an excellent cast, a captivating world and a "throw-caution-to-the-wind" attitude that's hard not to be swept in. Come for Tilda Swinton as a delicious malicious baddie, stay for Allison Pill as a gun-toting schoolteacher.
Under The Skin
Another divisive sci-fi film, and again, I must say I find myself on the side of the movies defenders. Under The Skin is pretty much the definition of unorthodox, with very little dialogue entering the movie, instead relying on gorgeous visuals to tell it's tale of Scarlett Johansson as some kind of otherworldly life form who consumes human men. Johansson is incredible here, balancing between control and vulnerability in her character, and is a major part of why I couldn't tear my eyes away from Under The Skin.
There's something wonderful about discovering a new director, one whose full of talent and remains in your mind for weeks afterwards. There's also something wonderful about seeing a kind of incredible quality acting from an actor you've known for ages. Whiplash accomplishes both tasks unbelievably well; Damien Chazelle directs the film with a flair that matches the intense atmosphere of the feature, while J.K. Simmons, always a constantly awesome presence in entertainment, delivers a terrifying performance full of rage, anger and compulsion. Those two alone would make Whiplash a film wroth remembering, but an incredible script (also handled by Chazelle) and a terrific turn from Miles Teller as the lead just push this film to another section of quality.
X-Men: Days of Future Past
The X-Men have had their ups and down in film, but this is certainly one of their most incredible moments yet. This sequel to the similarly excellent X-Men: First Class combines the young and old cast members of this gargantuan franchise for an exciting and thoughtful entry that allows time for both ruminations on how much we can affect the future of others and awesome robot vs. Wolverine action.
And now for my favorite movie of 2014...
I'm the billionth person to claim that Boyhood is the best movie of 2014. Why is that you may query. It's incredibly simple: Richard Linklater has created a film that is a fascinating look at our existence, at how we as human beings grow from day to day. This is a film not driven by a thousand dramatic contrivances, but rather by simple camping trips, bad haircuts and college visits. Ellar Coltrane is fantastic as Mason, the lead who we follow for twelve years, but it isn't just him that the audience watches grow. Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke as his parents also manage to become different people over time; this is as much their story as it is Mason's.
I've seen some detractors claim that people only praise Boyhood because of it's monumental achievement of being filmed over twelve years. It's true, that's an impressive feat. But Linklater never uses that accomplishment as an excuse for shoddy writing or poor characters. Even separated from it's length of filming, Boyhood remains a phenomenal film that sweeps one up in it's world of normalcy and shows the wonder and horrors lurking beneath. It shows how those seemingly simple everyday events affect us in the long run, and it takes a masterful filmmaker like Richard Linklater to demonstrate that truth. Seeing it unfold within the world of Boyhood is beyond remarkable and serves as a reminder of why cinema is such a monumental tool for storytelling.
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