December 31, 2014

The Best and Worst Films of 2014

You still can’t make a good movie without a good story and auteur. But 2014 was the year of the actor. All but one of my top 10 films had at least one standout lead and/or supporting actor performance, and they don’t even include Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler, Bradley Cooper in American Sniper, Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of  Everything, Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game, Timothy Spall in Mr. Turner, Chadwick Boseman in Get On Up and Brendan Gleeson in Calvary, all of them awards-worthy in this or any other year.

While Hollywood casting is still male-dominated, the year also lent the limelight to a notable number of female actors to shine. They include movies that were good—Reese Witherspoon in Wild, Patricia Arquette in Boyhood, Marion Cotillard in Two Days, One Night and Essie Davis in The Babadook—and wanting—Julianne Moore in Still Alice and Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl.

So sizable is the surfeit of top-notch acting turns that even disappointments like The Gambler and Inherent Vice contained Oscar-caliber performances.

Without any elaboration or ado, here’s my annual compilation of the best, worst, pleasantly surprising and most disappointing films.

Top 10 Films
Best Film of 2014: Whiplash—This Sundance darling is a breathless nail-biter that revolves around Andrew (Miles Teller), a young, driven jazz drummer, and Andrew Fletcher (J.K. Simmons, a sure-fire Oscar nominee), Andrew’s sadistic conservatory instructor and personified id. The result is a pas a deux that matches the energy and controlled chaos of its jazz score. The scariest part of the film isn’t Fletcher’s profane proclamation that genius only spawns from immense adversity. It’s our fear that he's right.

2. Foxcatcher—Part fractured American dream, part a study of human frailty and obsession. The film’s Jungian archetypes stand out in sharp relief against its nationalistic backdrop, aided by the trio of terrific lead performances by Channing Tatum, Steve Carell and Mark Ruffalo.

3. The Grand Budapest Hotel—A marriage of classic conventions and director Wes Anderson’s distinctive oeuvre, this film isn’t a story so much as paen to storytelling, and how a memory can morph from tale into fable into myth. At the same time, Anderson’s trademark whimsy is in full regalia, spearheaded by Ralph Fiennes, whose deadpanned farce singlehandedly sustains the film and settles seamlessly into the troupe of Anderson regulars.

4. Birdman—Among the film’s many internal contradictions, foremost is that this an acting master class that skewers the self-indulgent acting process. Michael Keaton and Edward Norton provide Oscar-worthy performances as the leads of a Broadway production teetering on the edge of collapse. Despite a denouement that feels like one flight of fancy too far, the sum of the film’s manic parts makes for a distended yet dynamic whole.

5. A Most Violent Year—Director J.C. Chandor continues his meteoric rise with his third feature film, a bleak drama set in 1981 New York City. The efforts of a mostly-honest immigrant (Oscar Isaac, Oscar-worthy) and his no-nonsense wife (Jessica Chastain, tremendous) to expand their burgeoning heating oil delivery business clash with a corrupt system.

6. Selma—This film about Martin Luther King, Jr. (terrifically portrayed by David Oyelowo) set against the backdrop of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches manages to capture both the grandeur and complexity of the Civil Rights epoch. It’s also an instructive must-see for both sides of the post-Ferguson divide.

7. Snowpiercer—This English-language, South Korean sci-fi film based on a French graphic novel is set aboard a massive train serving as humanity’s post-apocalyptic ark. Society’s prejudices and class inequities persist, from the elite near the front to the maltreated, rebellious dregs in the rear. Among the tremendous cast, Tilda Swinton stands out (as usual).

8. Locke—During a 90-minute car ride down the M1 with a revolving series of hands-free phone calls, writer-director Steven Wright reveals a man whose personal and professional lives are coming undone by the minute. But this film is all Tom Hardy, whose (essentially) one-person masterwork again stakes his claim as today’s most talented movie actor.

9. The Raid 2—This epic martial arts sequel is fueled by ballistics, blades and balls-out action. Oh, and an aluminum bat and a couple of claw hammers.

10. Boyhood—A triumph of artistry over substance, you have to admire director Richard Linklater’s technical triumph in chronicling the evolution of a fictitious Texas family by periodically filming the same actors over a 12-year period.

The Best of the Rest (alphabetically): The Babadook; Fury; Guardians of the Galaxy; Interstellar; John Wick; The LEGO Movie; A Most Wanted Man; Nightcrawler; Two Days, One Night; Wild

The Bottom Rung
Worst Film of 2014: The Identical—Any notion that this might be some offbeat, alt-reality fable about an Elvis Presley doppelganger and his unknown twin brother/impersonator evaporates the moment a promoter actually references the existence of Elvis. What’s left is a shambolic spectacle that smacks of an unfunny parody of Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, itself a parody of rags-to-rockabilly biopics. Amid the clunky, unoriginal dialogue is this insipid gem: “Thank you. And I mean thank you, for everything. And I mean everything, daddy.”

Into the Woods— If you venture into these woods, you’re liable to become a supporter of deforestation. Its jumbled storyline includes unsavory plot turns and some startling misogyny. Its unremarkable Stephen Sondheim soundtrack provides just one memorable song. But mostly it’s just a rapey, murdery mess that’s neither pleasant nor poignant.

Men, Women & Children—Director Jason Reitman conjures this hydra-headed screed against the dangers of our online society, fragile familial relations and modern teen angst. The film comes off as a moribund approximation of rambling Paul Haggis pap, and Reitman a codger howling at the evils conceived inside the Internets and its series of tubes.

Before I Go To Sleep—The title aptly answers when moviegoers would be wise to watch this somnolescent thriller. Director Rowan Joffe’s plodding pacing and grade-school dialogue is risibly distracting. Moreover, the narrative rests on the sort of contrivances that could be instantly resolved with a phone call or characters with an ounce of common sense.

Sex Tape—A couple records their three-hour romp through “The Joy of Sex," but hijinks ensue when the video inadvertently goes viral. This is the unsexiest movie about sex, and that’s saying something considering one of its derriere-bearing stars is Cameron Diaz. The presence of Rob Lowe is as witty as this flaccid farce gets—Google “Rob Lowe sex tape” if you’re too young to get the reference.

Magic in the Moonlight—Also: “How to waste Colin Firth and Emma Stone.” You won’t find a more derivative, unbelievable and utterly boring Woody Allen film.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles—This Michael Bay-produced reboot is an exercise is generic, industrial line sameness. Although officially directed by Jonathan Liebesman, if you played the Michael Bay drinking game and downed a shot for every windblown, zoom-in closeup, you’d be drunk inside the opening 10 minutes. Cowabunga? More like Cowa-bungle.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2—Director Marc Webb provides an unfortunate approximation of Joel Schumacher with this mass-produced, synthetic superhero movie full of genre kitsch and little else.

And So It Goes—For the most part, it’s a script seemingly salvaged from the bottom drawer of a desk purchased at Nora Ephron’s estate sale, as dull as its remarkably unimaginative title. But with the gender and ethnic barbs flying, there’s also an unpleasant elitist streak running throughout.

The Other Woman—Want to conjure sympathy for the wife of a cheating husband? Don’t make her a grating, borderline psychopath. Want to conjure sympathy for the unwitting mistress who feels equally used by this two-timer? Don’t make her a prickly urbanite who is callous toward the feelings of the aggrieved spouse.

Pompeii—If the goal was to make the audience actually root for the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D., then mission accomplished. 

Most Unexpectedly Pleasant Surprises
Big Hero 6
The Drop
Edge of Tomorrow
Get On Up
The Good Lie
Guardians of the Galaxy
John Wick
A Walk Among the Tombstones

Most Disappointing
The Amazing Spider-Man 2
Before I Go to Sleep
The Gambler
Gone Girl
Horrible Bosses 2
Inherent Vice
The Monuments Men

1 comment:

Mr. This said...

Happy New Year Neil! Thanks for the reviews! PGray