Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Best of 2014 So Far

Well, now that 2014 has officially closed, let's now look at what I thought were the good films, the ones that I thought elevated the year.  In the 40 films I officially reviewed, these were the ones that found themselves in my Top Ten of 2014 so far. 

NUM. 10

I figure I'm going to be trashed for this, but I'm one of the few people who really liked Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.  I really don't get the hate it gets.  Yes, Kenneth Branagh was a ham, and Kiera Knightley wasn't the greatest, but truthfully I didn't mind one bit.  I'm told that I should hate it because it's a generic action film, but I found it much better and more interesting than something like Skyfall (a film so full of itself). 

NUM. 9
I'm not a technological person, and things like SOPA and online freedom are a bit lost on me.  However, after watching The Internet's Own Boy, I too was outraged at how an overzealous and malicious prosecution brought about the death of Aaron Swartz.  The film is unabashedly pro-Swartz, but it is open about it.  Despite what might be seen as bias, The Internet's Own Boy is a powerful indictment on how one man who worked to make a difference was brought down but whose death also inspires long after his death. 

NUM. 8
Fury is an intense, violent, war film, and whether it's pro or con is up to the viewer.  At times visually stunning, at times incredibly hard, Fury gets us into the down-and-dirty of combat, of what fighting men are like, and does it well.  It brings out great performances out of its cast, but it is still extremely hard to watch in regards to how the American fighting man is seen. 

NUM. 7
The Planet of the Apes series has had good films and bad films, and Dawn of Planet of the Apes I think is one of the best in the franchise.  The best science-fiction films work best when they tell two stories: the one on the screen and an allegory on current topics.  DOPOTA does this, as well as provide intense action and a remarkably human story of how mutual suspicions bring about great tragedy. 

NUM. 6
I went into Guardians of the Galaxy highly suspicious and dubious.  I know people, particularly comic-book fans, went wild for it.  However, I didn't know the series at all, I am not a fan of Chris Pratt (whom I consider less an actor and more a lunkhead who stumbled into film, someone who has always played himself), and yes, the talking raccoon thing was not helpful.

Well, well, imagine my surprise to find GOTG was fun, told its story well, and managed to make such implausible things like Rocket Raccoon and Chris Pratt possible.  I think that is what makes GOTG an excellent film: it's unapologetically fun.  I still can't say I'm a Chris Pratt fan in terms of him being an actor (I can't picture him playing say, King Lear), but Guardians of the Galaxy shows he at least can be entertaining (and I actually like him as a person).  

NUM. 5

I found The Maze Runner to be highly clever and exciting, two things I wasn't expecting from a young adult novel given the dearth of dumbed-down YA fiction rolling around.  Dylan O'Brien, best known for being the goofy Styles on Teen Wolf, shows he can be dramatic and action-oriented, and I would make The Maze Runner to be a star-making performance.  O'Brien is an actor to watch for, and despite a bit of a jumbled ending, I find myself eager for the sequel.  That is extremely rare for someone as sequel-phobic as me, so The Maze Runner really turned out to be much better than I thought going in.

NUM. 4

Belle is an interesting film: a costume drama that is also an exploration of racism and sexism.  The based-on-the-true story of the daughter of a wealthy titled sea captain and the slave-woman he loved,  who finds herself both a privileged lady and a social outcast due to her race and gender is a fascinating story that now will be more known (as it should be).  It's a pity that Gugu Mbatha-Raw has been lost in the mix of potential Best Actress nominees, for her performance as Dido Belle, the woman caught in this strange universe of being a noblewoman and a slave simultaneously, is a rich and beautiful performance.  The only plus is that Mbatha-Raw, like O'Brien in The Maze Runner, has given a star-making turn and I hope that Mbatha-Raw will be, like Dido Belle, better known to filmgoers.

NUM. 3

I'm not Wes Anderson's biggest fan, finding his film overtly and self-consciously cute.  However, I was won over by The Grand Budapest Hotel, an elegy to a lost time of elegance, a wry (if self-conscious) comedy, and a lovely confection of silliness.  Ralph Fiennes I don't think has been better in a film since certainly Schindler's List, and if you see the two one after another you cannot believe it is the same person.   It's good to be reminded that Fiennes is a really good actor, and that people like Fiennes and Adrien Brody can be in on the joke.   Granted, parts of GBH weren't to my liking (Anderson still being a bit of block to me), but I give the guy credit: he made a film perfectly suited to his world and stuck with it.

NUM. 2
When the X-Men films are good, they are very good (X-2: X-Men United being one of the greatest comic-book films I've seen).  When the X-Men films are bad, they are very bad (the less said about X-Men 3: The Last Stand the better).  X-Men: Days Of Future Past could have crumbled.  You have the cast of the original X-Men trilogy with the cast of the revived X-Men franchise, with only the now-iconic Hugh Jackman as Wolverine tying things together. 

The fact that they managed to keep this story relatively together, to tie in both groups from the two franchises without one making the other redundant, and to not require a great deal of knowledge about what came before is a credit to Bryan Singer.  We also have some simply great performances, particularly by this generation's Magneto and Professor X.  Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy make a terrific double-act, and for me, it is McAvoy (who in my eyes can't do wrong) who is the standout as Charles Xavier; like Dr. Manette in A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Xavier is 'recalled to life' through the angry Wolverine, who now must be something other than himself to help Charles be who he has to be. 

Few comic book films can be both so entertaining and so deep at the same time, and X-Men: Days of Future Past, is that. 

NUM. 1

Again, it's another loss that the push for Oscars is including the mechanical performance of an Eddie Redmayne, because I think in a just world, Bill Hader would be the man to beat for his performance in The Skeleton Twins.  This story of siblings who find they do love each other moved me emotionally.  I could see both Hader and Kristen Wiig as real people, with flaws and virtues that made them who they were.

I don't think it was a perfect film (sometimes the symbolism was a little blatant) but what impressed me was that Hader's Milo might appear to come close to being a gay stereotype but who was really a complicated, troubled human being who happened to be gay. It's a pity that people have forgotten about the complexity Bill Hader brought to the character over the physicality Redmayne brought to his soulless Stephen Hawking.  I at least take comfort that both Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig are much better actors than their personas would suggest.

The Skeleton Twins was the only film so far to get an A from me, and both people who know me and long-time readers know how tough I can be on movies. 

The Skeleton Twins: 2014's Best Film So Far.

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