Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Films That Salvaged 2014

This year was a pretty terrible. I mean that in general (lots of nasty stuff souring my favorite hobbies, like GamerGate and the death of some childhood movie icons, not to mention awful, toxic, racist stuff in our legal/law enforcement systems), as well as some personal stuff that hit me hard. But when asked, "Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the theater?" I at least have a few answers.

Because 2014 was a really really good year for movies. The financial headlines will make hay about how box office was down significantly from the last couple of years, but across the board - from big studio films to smaller dramas and quirky genre movies - this was a great time at the cinema. Considering the total ****-show that this year was, I'll take what bright spots I can find.

So here are the Films That Salvaged 2014 for me - as well as what was awful, what was surprising, and what was just plain awesome.

First, the movies that didn't quite make the "Top 10" but were enjoyable or notable enough to get a shout-out. I won't lie, I came this close to putting a couple of these on the official list (Cap in particular was hard to cut), but this just goes to show in what high regard I hold the ones that did get numbered.


Captain America: The Winter SoldierX-men: Days of Future Past22 Jump StreetHow To Train Your Dragon 2Dawn of the Planet of the ApesThe BoxtrollsInterstellarNightcrawlerBig Hero 6,


No, I didn't see Transformers: Age of Extinction, so if that was even worse. . . lucky me? Still though, this was awful. Spider-man is possibly my favorite comic book hero, and seeing him reach his peak in the REAL Spider-man 2 was a major high point of my personal geeky movie-going and the genre as a whole.

This? This is a waste of wads of money, some talented actors, and nearly 2 & 1/2 hours. The film is odious in its handling of characters, in its grasp on storytelling, and has absolutely no clue what the character of Spider-man stands for. The very few things about it that do work are so fleeting and surface-level that they only serve to act as a light dusting of perfume on a large pile of crap. Even the sickly-sweet smell of which becomes sickening before too long.

I know it's the cliche thing to say in nerdom right now, but can Spider-man please go back to Marvel? Not even so much in the hopes of him getting put in an Avengers movie, but just so he doesn't have to keep being in these movies.


Look, I'm a man of simple tastes. You throw an action movie at me, and I'm at least paying attention. Tell me it's starring Keanu Reeves as a hitman so good that "he's the guy you hire to kill the Boogeyman" and you have my curiosity. But then you sell the movie as this super-human assassin taking on the entire mafia because some idiot killed his dog? Oh, I'm gonna see that movie.

So imagine my delight when John Wick not only turned out to be a hell of a good time, but a legitimately great action movie in pretty much every way. You want a lean, slick, visually-sumptuous film? Gotcha covered. You want some unique world-building and texture packed into the edge of the frame without ever wasting your time? This movie delivers. You want to see Keanu Reeves take righteous vengeance for the most adorable puppy dog in the last decade of film? Oh yeah, that happens. But John Wick is all about the small triumphs - like a method of shooting action that's at once stylish and subdued, informing the title character's no-frills prowess even in the way the set pieces are filmed. Or the way every character walks on eggshells around John lest they incur his wrath. Or the wealth of character actors who turn up just to lend the right flavor to a scene or story turn. It's a quietly confident marvel.

John Wick is so great at kicking ass that it doesn't even have to show off while it does so. Which is its own kind of showing off. The awesome kind.


Reality. Seriously world, you dropped the damn ball in 2014. Let's not do that so much in 2015, okay?


10. Boyhood

I'll be honest - I was kinda ready to hate this movie. What's that? An epic rumination on dreamy white kids in suburbia? Boy, that sure sounds like the most captivating experience you could spend 12 years filming a set of actors aging through.

And yet. . . it's really effin' good. Part of what makes Boyhood a success is that, every time director Richard Linklater has a chance to indulge in some lofty pretension or gratuitous melodrama, he studiously avoids the opportunity. And the choice to film a single set of actors over more than a decade is absolutely a bold choice that the movie makes work like gangbusters, even though it never goes out of its way to call attention to this fact. The film - more a series of vignettes following young Mason from childhood to his freshman year at college - plants its audience in the mundane while still making the lives and personalities seem vivid and vibrant.

Even though Mason himself is an almost annoyingly passive character, he and his world are so transformed through the years that the film can't help but leaves the audience reeling. And for all that I know that this is all-but destined to be adopted by a wave of millennials as the Stand By Me of their generation, it earns the hell out of every reaction - mostly because of the magic trick of making itself seem true to life even through the lie of cinema. Rather than trying to be profound, it tries to be personal. And in nailing the latter, it manages to accomplish the former as well.

A one-and-done blockbuster is the unicorn of modern cinema - honestly, look at most of the films that hit multiplexes any given year. The tentpoles are pre-branded, continuity-laden vessels of advertisement for continuing franchises. Even legitimately great films like Captain America: The Winter Soldier can't escape this need to be perpetual narrative machines beyond the confines of their own run time.

This is part of what makes Edge of Tomorrow feel so special. It's completely self-contained. The movie is technically based on an existing property, and takes liberal inspiration from other films, but mixes its elements into something fresh and exciting that starts strong, moves along at a brilliant pace (there's one sequence in particular that is a literal master class in editing), and then ends (not just stops to wait for the next chapter or the inevitable crossover, it actually ends). But between those moments lies a hell of a great sci-fi actioner wherein Tom Cruise dismantles his ultra-competent action hero persona into someone craven and selfish, desperately in need of some serious karma building (which he gets by getting killed in morbidly amusing ways over and over again) and combat instruction under the tutelage of Rita Vratrasky (a.k.a. "The Angel of Verdun" a.k.a. "The Full Metal Bitch" and HOW AWESOME IS SHE???).

The film ends up being about earning the comforts and camaraderie of humanity as much as it is about fighting aliens, and thanks to Doug Liman's mastery of the film's tone (there's a reason his Bourne film remains the most relatable), it does so while still delivering a rollicking ride. In a year already rife with fantastic sci-fi offerings, this was a rare treat.

8. The Raid 2: Berandal

Did I put The Raid on my Top 10 list a couple years back? You betcha. Is The Raid 2: Berandal quite the machine of economic martial arts perfection as the original? No. But it is still a ridiculously awesome action film - and while the sprawling Infernal Affairs-esque gangland narrative doesn't mesh into the set pieces the way "reverse Die Hard" did with The Raid, wow is it ever fun watching this movie twist its ludicrous cast of characters around each other trying.

To be fair, it's not that the film's narrative doesn't work - it does (if not seamlessly), and packs in some nifty parallels (particularly Rama's concern over his family vs. Uco and Bangun's twisted relationship) as well as players among the various gang factions with brilliant moments and personality quirks. And with Iko Uwais anchoring the picture with an impressive presence (it's easy to forget this is only this guy's third movie) and director Gareth Evans' absolutely insane stunt team crafting set pieces that put $200 million blockbusters to shame. . .

You know, I'm pretty sure had a point that I was leading up to there, but now I just want to watch 2 1/2 hours of people beating the crap out of each other again.

7. Under the Skin

This was a ridiculously good year for sci-fi (more on that later), and not just because there were super-fun, smart blockbusters in the genre.  As a huge fan of the genre, it's exciting to see such a rich diversity of material, even though I don't generally gravitate toward "art-house/surreal" films, this one was just mesmerizing. I can't recommend Under the Skin the way I can nearly every other film on this list - it's an odd (and, at times, off-putting) experience by any measure. It is, however, an absolutely singular experience. Scarlett Johansson turns in a performance that's as nuanced as it is fearless, playing essentially three roles as an inhuman predator who gradually learns something more from the men she stalks.

Digging deeper you can find some interesting gender issues in Under the Skin's nearly-subtextual narrative, but even on a surface level there are images and moments that will burrow into you and stick with you for days.

Yes, that was me making an "under the skin" joke. Sorry.

6. Snowpiercer

About this being an awesome year for sci-fi - was it ever. And none of them packed quite the kick to the gut as Snowpiercer. There was a mad genius in casting Chris Evans in this particular role even as he crests the wave of stardom as Captain "World's Best Human" America, and the film both knows and revels in this subversion once the final hand is tipped.

I can't call this a "fun" movie, but it's furiously rousing in its own way. Snowpiercer has a lot of holes that will make logic hunters go nuts, but as a work of pure allegory and powerful visual storytelling, it's arresting. Most movies about revolution are content to stop once a revolution "succeeds," never showing the rise of the Robespierres that follow - not here. Much like The Winter Soldier, this movie posits that sometimes you can't settle just for trying to change the system - once it gets rotten enough, you just have to burn it down.

That anger, that non-complacent fire is something we desperately need more of in our entertainment, and if that means putting an audience through a wringer - especially one as visually glorious as this one - then I'm absolutely on board.

Okay, I'll try to go easy on the puns now.

So I've gotta ask - when does this dream team run out of luck? For their four movies, Phil Lord and Chris Miller have taken concepts that should have been terrible ideas and spun them into gold, but arguably their greatest magic trick was transforming the easiest cash grab in history into a film that not only addresses the generational divide between parents and children, the appropriation of childhood nostalgia by modern adult consumer culture, and the samey cookie-cutter approach to modern blockbusters, but also packs a level of heart and polish that is every bit as good as Pixar during their hottest streak. How is that even fair?

The LEGO Movie could have been a lazy-Dreamworks-level effort (but it's not) or a pandering riff on recognizable brands (okay, it does do that), but instead is an enormously energetic, funny, and masterfully heartfelt story that makes you fully invest in characters played by plastic interlocking bricks.

And everything about that is awesome.

4. Gone Girl

I have a theory that David Fincher is just making movies on dares now. The consummate visualist behind lurid work like Seven and Fight Club has been making a career out of elevating material (he even turns something as junky as The Game into an effective thriller), but from crafting an engrossing movie about Facebook to adapting pulpy crime novels, it's almost like he's actively trying to find something he can't make a good movie out of.

If that's the case, he hasn't managed it yet. Adapted from the best-selling book, Gone Girl takes a sideways glance at layered character-focused pot-boiler mysteries and the modern media before taking a radical turn in its second half and packing the story with jabs at the convention of marriage and gender expectations in modern society. Like much of Fincher's previous work, there's a lot of material that, under a lesser director, could be seriously troubling (the handling of alleged rapes, for one), but here is played with just the right mixture of tone, backing in character, and slight skewering by the story itself that it morphs into something bizarre and trashy but never actually distasteful.

And as good as all the players in this film are (yes, especially Affleck), it'll be a damn shame if Rosamund Pike isn't given some sort of awards recognition for her work here.

3. Selma

I'm not sure if it's impressive or depressing that Selma feels both effective as a long-awaited cinematic examination of one of recent history's most important figures and a raw, of-the-moment work of furious idealistic passion. It's impossible to watch this movie without the events of racially-charged (if not outright racially-motivated) violence over the past year coming to mind.

And you know what? It really shouldn't be. Art is the lens through which we view the truths of our world that are more than just bare, sanitized facts, and as such Selma cuts to the truth of disenfranchisement, oppression, and senseless hate that has been an inextricable part of our culture for so long. And even today, when it's ostensibly not as supported by the law as it was 50 years ago, so much of the attitudes that serve only to separate us rather than unite us are allowed to rule our actions. The vision of this film's central march, one about the rights of a "minority" that spurred a unification of people from different backgrounds (economic, religious, and racial) to march from Selma to Montgomery, is a powerful moment on its own. In the context of the story crafted here, one which shows the humanity of a secular saint much like Lincoln did in 2012, the sequence of the various attempts - and final victory in - the march are almost overpowering.

This film shows the road behind us as a nation, but reminds us that the road still lies ahead.

2. The Grand Budapest Hotel

I love when film-makers get transparently personal with their movies. One could argue that Wes Anderson, a man who's more or less defined his career (especially recently) by meticulously personalizing every aspect of the production, already takes this to an overly twee level of obsession. One might even be right. But one should watch The Grand Budapest Hotel, and then one would realize how much he'd been holding back until now.

It's easy to enjoy Grand Budapest as a comedy (it's very very funny), but through it runs a painfully tragic thread that cuts so close to the truth of not just the film's many eras and imagined histories, but how we relate to the world, past and present, that the rest of the film's "Wes Anderson-ness" feels more like a film-maker's honest self-appraisal than indulgence. Here is a movie examining why we feel nostalgic for the way things used to be, finding the difference between honesty and truth regardless of whether things were really better "back then" or not. It's about finding the small victories, and the towering personalities who utterly reshape our lives even if the world at large forgets them in less than a life-time.

Also, seriously, this film is a RIOT. Ralph Fiennes has always been a great actor, but he's given some of the best comedic material of the year here and his timing and delivery just kills.

No, I'm not joking. Yes, I know it's "just another Marvel movie." Yes, I also know that it wasn't even the "best" Marvel movie this year. And no, I'm still not joking.


Okay, get it out of your system. It's alright, I'll wait.


Done? Okay. Yes, Guardians of the Galaxy is another product in what is basically the best-disguised assembly line in modern Hollywood since the 90's Disney Renaissance or the 1999-2010 Pixar run. However, it's also the ultimate expression of great blockbuster entertainment, while also being a breakout turn from a singular genre voice. James Gunn infuses the already wacky concept of "So it's kinda like Firefly, only Zoe is green and Jayne is a raccoon..." with a dose of the odd and vulgar sensibilities that defined his indie films like Slither (as well as the humor you'd expect from that mix). That the movie also manages the combination of fresh and approachable that sci-fi has been chasing since Star Wars AND is a perfectly functional story with a cracking script and surprising emotional heft is a minor miracle.

But in the end, this comes down the personal connection. To borrow from someone else, Guardians is, at its core, a story about a child who loses their mother, but still connects to her through the music that they shared. Having lost my mother-in-law this past year, that hits so close to home that it's practically helping me to pay rent. Especially given that I'm an 80's kid who really dug on the tunes of my parents' generation far more than my own (and boy, does this movie bend over backwards to cater to kids who were born or grew up in the 80's). Needless to say, this movie speaks to me.

Add to that the central message of the film (epitomized both in the barrier of the Nova Corps and the climactic scene where the Guardians themselves earn their name) of abandoning the idea of a "chosen hero" in favor of the strength of joining hands to stand against the impossible odds, of broken people coming together to become something more, and I simply couldn't not give it the top spot. Guardians of the Galaxy is a movie that masks both a beating heart and a sharp mind behind the veneer of a rollicking genre comedy in the mold of Ghostbusters or Galaxy Quest.

Of course, it also helps that it's also pretty much the best movie of it's kind since those classics.

1 comment:

  1. Great writing, man. Entertaining to read your reviews . . . just as much fun as watching the movies. We seem to have about the same tastes too. But you write much better than me. Great job!