Wednesday, January 14, 2015

TOP 10 MOVIE PICKS of 2014

Ever since my first visits to the movie theater with my father as a very young child, I've been a movie lover.  Some of my earliest memories are of movies like E.T. and The Neverending Story on the big screen.  Thirty years later, watching motion pictures is still one of my favorite pass times.  As an annual tradition now, I share my own Top 10 Movies from releases of the previous year.  With cinema in a new golden age, this is no short task as I find myself moving around names of at least 20-30 movies to pick my ten favorites.  This year was no exception so we need to get the general suggestions and rotten eggs out of the way before we move on to the Top 10.

Of course being the fan boy I am, I've got plenty of love for the super-hero flicks despite them not making my list.  My favorite on-screen comics this year included Guardians of the Galaxy (the sleeper hit of the year stealing the overall box-office crown) and X-Men: Days of Future Past (the ultimate fusion of the silver screen X-verse which corrected Fox's continuity with the original trilogy.)  I was left scratching my head at The Amazing Spiderman 2 which was re-cut so many times there were scenes in the trailers which didn't even make the film itself.  I saw the long-awaited Sin City: A Dame to Kill For in the theater on my birthday and it certainly didn't disappoint- if you like the first one, check out the sequel for a juicy helping of the same.  Edge of Tomorrow, adapted from the manga novel All You Need is Kill was in my mind the blockbuster of the summer despite not putting up the numbers to show it.  Overall I have to say Captain America: The Winter Soldier was the most solid of the comic world's releases this year where they did something really special by making an espionage movie which played more like a Bond flick than a comic adaptation.

The biopic is another staple genre of the movie industry.  At this point, its really hard to justify one making my own personal list since I feel this is an much overplayed go-to for Hollywood the past 10 years.  However, for some poignant acting and socially-relevant stories, I'd highly recommend Selma, Cesar Chavez, The Imitation Game, Unbroken and The Theory of Everything.  Many of these will be highlighted for their acting during the awards ceremonies.  One could also lump Darren Aronofsky's Noah into this category as well.  Stylized to the director's eye, I found it visually stunning while others called for his head.

Each year I tend to mention a takeaway or two from one of my favorite veins in the film world, Southern Gothic.  This year, an independent film called Blue Ruin garnered much critical acclaim.  This vigilante story plays like a western but is set in the southeast and features some razor-sharp acting and a great script.  Also, Joe (based on the novel by the same name) is an abrasive coming-of-age story of redemption led by a grizzled Nicolas Cage and a wonderful supporting cast of found actors.  This independent film's cast included Gary Poulter, a local vagrant who died on the streets of Austin just months after the filming.

The world of cinema lost many great actors this year.  For a dynamic last performance, check out James Gandolfini in The Drop which is a fusion of a gangster and a heist movie with Tom Hardy and Noomi Rapace.  As Philip Seymour Hoffman's last roles are played out, don't buy the hype of A Most Wanted Man or whatever computer-generated doppelganger is in store for the last Hunger Games movie.  Instead check out God's Pocket where he helps lead a great ensemble cast in a much over-looked movie.  It's a solid drama with a five star script.

Other suggestions from 2014 worth a sit-down include Filth, Enemy, Starred Up, Words and Pictures, The Rover, Fury, Autómata, The Homesman, Miss Meadows, St. Vincent, Life After Beth, Chef and Whiplash.  Never heard of them?  Just click on the name of any of the movies I've mentioned to read all about it at every cinephile's playground, IMDB.  Now on to the countdown...

[Honorable Mention] Locke 
(directed by Steven Knight)

This slot on my annual list is usually reserved for a film I hope you haven't heard of which I found to be a gem in the rough of the hundreds of movies released each year.  This year's pick is a very unique project.  Filmed over just a week with three different cameras rolling at once, it take place entirely inside of a vehicle.  Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) finds himself at a crossroads with his marriage, job and entire future when a series of events collide through the phone calls which navigate his drive.  Calling from a hotel room to the set location (the car), the rest of the cast give great performances with the use of only their voices.  Check it out for I can assure you it is character-driven high drama with not a single dull moment despite the confines of the set and the screen-presence of only Hardy.

[10] Nightcrawler 
(directed by Dan Gilroy)

"If it bleeds it leads."  Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) finds his calling in life (and art perhaps) when he stumbles into the underground world of L.A. crime journalism,  He is armed with a camera, an eye for the perfect shot and the ambition to alter the little details of each crime scene he films with his own artistic touch.   Gyllenhaal went to extreme lengths in bringing Bloom to life by losing weight and working out all day long to give Bloom his gaunt appearance.  The actor's vision was that of a "hungry coyote," and he certainly brought the thirst out of his role.   This dark ride though the graveyard shift of one of America's largest cities is a vicious commentary on modern journalism and the appetite for destruction within each of us.  Directorial debuts such as this one are often successful in their uniqueness due to being led by a fresh eye and voice- in this facet perhaps the director himself mirrors Bloom (or vice versa.)

[09] Horns 
(directed by Alexandre Aja)

This deeply-dark comedy is adapted from the novel of the same name by Joe King (the master of horror, Stephen King's son.)  After the mysterious death of his girlfriend, Ig Perrish (Daniel Radcliffe) awakes to find a set horns sprouting from his forehead which grow throughout the movie's beginnings.  Both hilarity and horror ensue as everyone around Ig begins to let their deepest darkest thoughts come to fruition in his presence.  Keep an eye peeled while your watching for biblical references at every turn.  The film is bedlam right out of the gate and perhaps speaks of what draw the evil inside man has in bringing out the same in those around him.  It's a solid story from beginning to end with some great special effects to back it up, especially in the last act of the movie.  If you get it- you'll have a devilishly good time, if not- get in line with the other half who thought it was over-the-top.

[08] Frank 
(directed by Lenny Abrahamson)

Young Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) has scored the opportunity of a lifetime when he gets to live the dream and join a band.  He soon finds out he's in for more than the glitz and glamour of rock stardom in dealing with the band's leader, the enigmatic Frank (Michael Fassbender.)  Up until the closing scenes of the movie, the now A-list actor Fassbender performs his role entirely inside the huge paper-mache head of Frank.  At times funny, sometimes esoteric and at other times endearing, this is a great movie which delivers insightful manifestations of its many themes.  Social media (twitter) is used in a very clever way to navigate the progression of the band, Jon's ego and how people interact with the world seeking their 15 minute of fame.  Frank himself embodies both an exploration of the artistic process as well as certain shades of mental illness which seem to overlap the cognitive achievement of many artists.

[07] Grand Budapest Hotel 
(directed by Wes Anderson)

It is probably safe to say Wes Anderson is just one of those directors who will almost always be on my annual list when they churn out a new motion picture.  True to Anderson's branded peculiar tone, he delivered another oddly stylized tale this year with a robust ensemble cast including four Oscar winners and eleven Oscar nominees.  The film as also shot in three different aspect ratios to differentiate between the time settings of the movie (and to frustrate theater projectionists all over the world.)  To add to the atmosphere, the entire cast stayed in the hotel during shooting having their make-up done in the lobby daily.  Set against the backdrop of an ever-changing Europe between World Wars, Anderson delivers a love story, a heist movie and another chapter in his legacy as one of film's premier independent directors.

[06] Boyhood 
(directed by Richard Linklater)

Richard Linklater helmed this project which simply cannot be ignored.  Over the course of a twelve year period, he met with his small cast of actors each and every summer to film the next chapter of Boyhood.  As a result, we get to watch childhood actors transform into young adults on-screen over the course of nearly three hours.  The results are actually more fast-paced than I expected as I found myself looking for the seams in the twelve chapters which weave together the ultimate coming-of-age movie.  While the story-arc is fairly straight-forward, the audience identifies each step of the way from the wonderment of childhood to the wandering attention of pre-teen years to the journey of discovery in young adulthood.  The end result is nothing short of a masterpiece in regards to the ambitious scope of the film.  Only some finer acting points and a bit deeper script would have landed it higher on my list.

[05] Dawn of the Planet of the Apes 
(directed by Matt Reeves)

When I watched the first installment of this prequel revisit to the brain-child of Rod Serling, I liked what I saw but was much more anxious for what it was setting the stage for.  This chapter (ten years later in the cinematic timeline) absolutely floored me.  Using motion capture technology, the apes of this film bring animation to an entire new level.  Through a combination of evolving language and sign language, an entire simian community's lifestyle was developed.  Here we see our manufactured characters in family and community strife and eventually at war manning horses, guns and even a tank.  The animated apes become characters which draw their audience in to each and every expression on their faces.  We care about them, we anger for them, at them and with them. While Caesar is at the helm, the show was very much stolen by Koba, the eventual main antagonist of this tragedy.  The story speaks every bit as much to the nature of man as it does the nature of animal.  I find myself again anxious for what's next.

[04] Birdman 
(directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu)

With a touch of life imitating art, I think it's safe to say Michael Keaton was waiting for this role whether he knew it or not.  As a washed-up actor (Riggan) who is forever identified by his superhero role (and title of the film,) Keaton gives the comeback performance of a lifetime which the help of some great film techniques. One of the keystone features of this film is how it is masterfully edited to look like one fluid shot for the majority of the film.  The fast pace keeps the audience on their toes when certain lines, stage gags, asides and surprises happen.  The film serves as homage to the crafts of acting and film-making as well as the cultural translations of both the medium and the life of an actor.  This is served from Riggan's inner monologues as Birdman to the stage disasters (or discoveries depending on your viewpoint) to even the lady screaming across to Riggan on the rooftop that, "Movies are full of shit!" Take flight with Birdman and he'll take you on one wild ride!

[03] Gone Girl 
(directed by David Fincher)

One of the darkest films of the year is also the ultimate twist on the love story- two people made for one another lost in a tangle of lies, deceit and deadly games.  This film was adapted for the screen by Gillian Flynn who also penned the novel by the same name.  I'm glad I hadn't read the book, for in this case it would have taken the wind out of many of the movie's twists which made up the puzzle.  When Nick Dunne's (Ben Affleck) wife goes missing on his fifth wedding anniversary, we fall down the rabbit hole with him as the media and public begin weaving their own story about what could have happened to Amazing Amy (Rosamund Pike.)  This was fertile ground for Fincher who is another director who always delivers and simply doesn't make bad flicks.  The film is largely a commentary on obsession with a brilliant look at the sociopathic tendencies fueled by both marriage and media.

[02] Interstellar 
(directed by Christopher Nolan)

This ambitious journey of man seeking a new home far from Earth's futuristic dust bowl landscape is stunning.  If you missed Interstellar in the theater, you should be ashamed.  The visual spectacle cost nearly $1 Million per minute of screen-time including over 100 hours to render individual frames in the climatic wormhole sequence.  By comparison, it cost the audience just over 7 cents per minute for the movie ticket.  I'd say that's a pretty damn good deal.  Travelling though the edges of space, alien planets, black holes, worm holes and the tesseract, the film can only be rivaled by 2001: A Space Odyssey in its look at the Universe and the journey of man.  The pacing of the movie goes toward the theme of relativity in regards to time.  After three hours in the theater, I felt as if I'd only been gone twenty minutes or so.  Had Gravity not been the darling of the awards season last year, you'd be hearing more about Nolan's masterpiece picking up its deserved accolades.  Partnered with the every-entertaining script writing of his brother Jonathan Nolan, the director took his craft to another level once again.

[01] Snowpiercer 
(directed by Joon-ho Bong)

If you haven't even heard of it, Joon-ho Bong's English language cinematic debut had a strange road to travel in finding an American audience which kept it away from any main-stream success.  The dystopian vision of a polar wasteland in the near future was picked up by the Weinsteins only to be cut, tested, re-cut and audience tested some more.  After months of squabbling, the original director's version was released after being pushed back from last year's awards season.  By the time it reached a limited theatrical run and release here in the States, it was already out on DVD in much of rest of the world.

Get off the train!   Adapted from the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, this is the comic-book movie you didn't know about.  A heavy dose of politically-fueled science fiction, this is a story of rebellion and civil unrest.  The action takes place entirely on Snowpiercer, a train which houses the remnants of humanity on a non-stop journey through the engulfing arctic weather brought about by a failed climate change experiment.  If the train stops, humanity stops.  As we join the story, we are at the back of the train- the prison car and are introduced to a class system not too different from the structured societies of today.  As the prisoners and laborers revolt, they fight through the military and societal rankings car by car in their fight to the front of the train.  A great ensemble cast brings the story and struggle to life in each step of the voyage.  One could speak at length about the symbolism of each rung on the ladder given the time and a forum where spoilers weren't an issue.  See it for yourself and decide if you want in the front of the train.... or off?

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