2014 IN REVIEW: Everything in Between That I’ve Seen
Finally, we come to the films that I actually did see! As with the films I didn’t see, these films will come at you in three parts: the films that were just somewhere in the middle in terms of quality, the films I greatly disliked, and the films I really enjoyed.
I use those qualitative terms just to avoid confusion over what I’m ranking here. The films in this section range from generally bad to generally quite good, but never elevating to excellence or making me fall in love with them or making me hate them with a passion. That being said, I didn’t expect to like some of the films here as much as I ended up liking them, and, of course, I was letdown by others I actually was kind of looking forward to.
If you don’t see the movie here and didn’t see it in the list of films I didn’t see, then you can almost certainly be guaranteed to find them on one of my next two lists, as this is just a portion of the 121 total films I ended up seeing from 2014 as of this writing, whether in theatres, on DVD/Blu-Ray, or through streaming.
Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones – 1/03/14
Effectively filling the void of Paranormal Activity 5 without actually being a main film in the series, The Marked Ones spinoff can largely be considered as the most pandering of this already pandering series. Noting the large number of Latino fans the series had, the filmmakers and studio set out to capitalize on this with a film centered on a seemingly unrelated but similarly haunted Latino family from the central family of Katie and Kristi from the previous films. New cast, new situations, and a new perspective that sheds some light on some revelations in the third film, but it’s still largely a bunch of the same old scares and, yes, it maintains the traditional found footage style. Seriously, if you live in this universe, stop filming yourself on a regular basis. That’s how the demons get you. The Marked Ones just barely rises above my worst films list by having largely likeable characters and some interesting events if you’ve invested any time in the primary installments – yes, there is some payoff, complete with an ending that’s as intriguing as it is confusing. If you managed to get through the wretched fourth entry with your interest in the series somehow unscathed, you’ll probably find The Marked Ones to be overall superior.
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit – 1/17/14
The last time I watched any film based on Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan series, it was in the cheap theatre the year that The Sum of All Fears came out, and, honestly, all I remember from that one was the stirring nuclear bomb attack and the overall boredom that I had to fight off before and afterward. Much like how that film ignored the events of the Alec Baldwin and Harrison Ford-starring films, Shadow Recruit once again tosses chronology out the window and begins again – rebooting, if you will – with Chris Pine taking over the role in a film that tells of his early now-post-9/11 career with the CIA, fighting evil Russians who wish to collapse the US economy whilst trying to maintain a marriage with the doctor who helped save his livelihood after an incident in Afghanistan. Kenneth Brannagh, having gained some knowledge of how to direct an action film from Thor, brings a lot of humor and fun to the film, and Pine does some good work here, too, as an increasingly weary Jack. He also has some good chemistry with costar Keira Knightley as Jack’s wife, Cathy, who finds herself getting mixed up in his work. It’s not quite on the same level as the reboot of Bond with the 2006 Casino Royale, but while Shadow Recruit wasn’t a game changer for the genre, nor was it a big splash with audiences and critics, it still managed to entertain me reasonably well with the likable actors as likable characters performing in likable action sequences. Would not mind a return to this continuity with a more exciting story.
Kidnapped for Christ – 1/17/14
Technically a documentary that was first widely released on Showtime in July, this documentary still made its debut at the Slamdance Film Festival, so I’m counting it. Documentarian Kate S. Logan began filming this all the way back in 2006 when she heard about a Christian school in the Dominican Republic that aimed to rehabilitate troubled teens while providing them with community and education, as well. Being a Christian herself, she apparently wished to show how such a program was changing lives for the better, but what she encountered instead was a dysfunctional micro-dictatorship where many of the kids were miserable, shamed, shunned, and even physically and repeatedly beaten as part of the rehabilitation tactics, as ordered by the staffers. Many interviews with the students had to be filmed in secret, and as soon as the staff began to catch on to Kate’s suspicions, she was gradually shut out, as well. Legal threats prevented Kate from completing the film for some time. The title is derived from the story of the three teens who were often woken up in the middle of the night by staffers who were hired by their parents and dragged off to the airport without prior warning and the ultimate secrecy back home that arose from their absence. The reasons for being sent are largely at the discretion of parents, varying from genuine delinquency, coming out as gay, or even just suffering from depression and anxiety – something that the stressful environment doesn’t seem that conducive to treating. It’s Christian fundamentalism at its worst, and it’s only a shame that this documentary didn’t manage to go further in exploring the great number of unregulated schools noted towards the end that are like the one shown here.
To Be Takei – 1/18/14
George Takei’s an interesting guy, rising to fame on Star Trek and then making a comeback later on in life after coming out and then becoming a social media star. At least, that’s what most people know him for. To Be Takei explores the man best known for playing the helmsman of the USS Enterprise (and later captain of the USS Excelsior) from his early childhood until today. We hear stories about his coming to grips with his Japanese ancestry in America and spending much of his early childhood in the Japanese internment camps after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, stories about his often troubled relationship with his father, stories about his rise to fame in film and TV, stories about his coming out publically so late in life, and how this has all accumulated into the creation of his (now Broadway-bound) play, Allegiance, made in tribute to the father he didn’t feel he ever fully understood until it was too late. It’s a very interesting, revelatory documentary and definitely worth your time, but your enjoyment of it will depend largely on your tolerance for Takei’s often persnickety personality and his interactions with his husband, Brad.
Vampire Academy – 2/07/14
God help me, I saw this because it looked like it was awful, and I had a rent one, get one free coupon at Redbox. Sometimes I do that. And while I fully acknowledge this judgment is possibly based on my assumptions that this would undoubtedly be awful, I ended up not… exactly… hating it. Set at the titular vampire place of education and based on the books of the same name, Vampire Academy tells the story about two girls – one a Moroi (mortal, peaceful) vampire and the other a dhampir (half-breed) companion sworn to protect the other – who are also best friends who take on a plot by the more traditional and evil Strigoi vampries to overrun the school and wipe out the Moroi and their dhampir companions so that they can then overrun the world without interference, all while dealing with the usual teenage social drama you would expect in a movie directed by the guy who did Mean Girls. It’s not much of a movie, to be honest, and it’s pretty much derivative of quite a few things – elements borrowed from Twilight, Harry Potter, X-Men, Mean Girls, and Juno, complete with lead Zoey Deutch doing her best Ellen Page impression, all seemingly collided, with this as the resulting mess. But, again, God help me, I watched this and was shocked at how much I did not hate it. Perhaps its success with me is because it achieved being exactly what it wanted to be and never had any delusions of being much else. Critics hated it. Audiences didn’t see it. And, honestly, I have a hard time recommending it, myself, unless you can have a good time with C-grade stuff like this.
The Monuments Men – 2/07/14
Originally slated to release late in 2013, the film was postponed into 2014 to figure out the proper editing that would balance out the light humor inherent with the cast involved (George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, Cate Blanchett) and the heavy subject matter, which involved a team of aging men saving valuable cultural artifacts stolen by Nazis bent on erasing them from history permanently. The film’s story is based on the efforts of a real multinational group that was more formally known as the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Program and is inspired by the Robert Edsel book Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History. It’s definitely a worthy, potentially very moving story that the movie successfully presses the importance of art in preserving the essence of the cultures that create it, though the story has very little forward momentum and, despite reducing the cast to a more manageable number from the real core group, it’s hard to really get a feel for who these men are that are carrying out the operation. The film was poorly received, and I’d have to agree with the assessment – The Monuments Men, though its heart is definitely in the right place, is boring work of art in its own right that probably could’ve used even more time in development than what it got.
RoboCop – 2/12/14
How do you remake one of the most iconic, bloody, and beloved R-rated sci-fi action flicks from the 80s without ruining what came before? Easy: Call it a reboot and then throw out almost everything from the original but the core story. This 2014 reinterpretation takes the core concept of family man and police officer Alex Murphy being severely injured due to occupational hazards and being rebuilt into a new breed of cybernetic law enforcement at the hands of a money-hungry company and then does everything else just differently enough that it stands on its own but is still recognizable. RoboCop 2014 retains very little of the original’s sense of humor, tones the aggressive violence down to a more box office-friendly PG-13 rating, and is overall a less joyfully insane. The storyline has also shifted to a far more prescient one: military drones, particularly ones that can be used on American citizens themselves. While it does have fun in its own way with some impressive action set pieces, and there’s still humor to be had thanks to the manic performance from Michael Keaton as the head of OmniCorp., RoboCop 2014 still fails to make that much of an impact.
About Last Night – 2/14/14
A remake of the 1986 film of the same name, this movie might change up the race of the characters but keeps the core concept of exploring sexual politics and relational strategies and the hilarity and drama that result from such silliness. Remakes are hardly ever as good as the originals, but the 2014 film actually managed to impress many critics. I have never seen the original, but given the warm reception, I gave it a go. While I didn’t hate it, I’m rarely that interested in the actual drama of people’s relationships unless I become invested in the characters themselves or if the writing is particularly funny. I just didn’t care enough about the characters and their often unreasonable behaviors, which wasn’t helped by my overall distaste for Kevin Hart, who’s been placed in the Jim Belushi role of the more handsome guy’s best friend. (I’m sorry, dude, you’re probably a nice guy, but you’re a very shrill screen presence. If it makes you feel any better, you’re a lot better looking than Jim Belushi, and funnier, too.) Overall, not horrible, and if you’re into this kind of soapy-comedy, you’ll probably like it more than me.
3 Days to Kill – 2/21/14
Somehow, I didn’t hate this Kevin Costner-starring thriller about an aging spy who is finds out he’s suffering from a debilitating disease, and so he tries to leave his job and make amends with his estranged wife and teenage daughter. A mysterious young woman enters the picture, however, and offers him a cure for the disease, granting him more time with the relationships he values most and has only begun to rebuild. The catch, however, is that he must come out of retirement and kill the assigned target within 3 days. The humor is, like the film’s hero, so very tired and forced, and the action is not that riveting, either. The relational drama is so-so, too, but somehow I didn’t think the movie, as a whole, was all that bad.
Son of God – 2/28/14
Pieced together from scenes used in The Bible miniseries and expanded a bit to feature length, Son of God tells the story of Jesus Christ’s life on earth and up to His resurrection. Consider this your family-friendly, happy-smiley answer to The Passion of the Christ. The acting is stiff, the story is primarily concerned with making sure it presents every iconic moment from the gospels, and Portuguese model Diogo Morgado looks like a fratboy who should be strumming a guitar in Birkenstocks. I call him Bro Jesus. I think it’s a little audacious of Roma Downey to cast herself as his mother, too, particularly since they stand together as the only light skinned people who aren’t Romans. Way to go, guys. I didn’t put it on my worst list, though, for one reason: at the very least, I think it might be useful in Sunday school classes. And that’s really about it. Well, except for the production values. I was kind of impressed by that, given its TV origins.
Nymphomaniac: Volumes 1 & 2 – 3/06/14 & 3/20/14
I’m counting these two as one long film (there’s an even longer extended cut, too), as they were even released within a couple weeks of each other. Infamously using special effects to fuse actors’ performances with body doubles actually… you know… Lars von Trier’s duology about a woman whose lusts drive nearly every action and thought. Found in an alley, beaten and bloody, she’s taken in by an older man who claims to have no sexual desires of his own nor any judgmental nits to pick with her. She explains her life story to him, starting with her earliest sexual awakenings and the close (but not sexual) relationship she had with her father and concluding with what got her into her present predicament. The story is divided into chapters, and the two characters’ interactions are presented like philosophical discussions. It’s surprisingly engrossing, and I’m not talking about the film being a means of gussying up pornography. Von Trier actually managed to sneak in a surprisingly tragic story amidst the debauchery, presenting its lead, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), as a woman who honestly feels that she cannot control her desires, and we’re meant to understand why she’s been driven to go so far in seeking these things out. Perspectives will undoubtedly vary on whether the film’s methods were justified, and there will undoubtedly be comparisons to smut like Fifty Shades of Grey, but I honestly feel as though that would be unfair and uncalled for. Nymphomaniac may have questionable morals, and it’s not exactly always the most pleasant of experiences, but it’s undoubtedly more artful and intelligent than many would give it credit for.
Grand Piano – 3/07/14
I’ve said before it before countless times, and I’ll say it again: Thrillers, generally, do not interest me that much. They often rely on clichés, which in turn make the films themselves very boring. Grand Piano differentiates itself enough with a great concept and great pacing and tension. Elijah Wood plays Tom Selznick, once hailed as the greatest pianist of his generation, but also a man who suffers from extreme stage fright and choked during a performance. Attempting to make a comeback, the panicky Selznick finds himself confronted by a homicidal maniac (John Cusack, in his only well received movie of the year) somewhere out in the audience who demands a perfect performance from Selznick, or else he’ll get a bullet to the head. You know those Looney Tunes cartoons that blend comedic timing with a musical performance? Imagine that, but instead of comedy, it’s terror. Grand Piano is like that. It’s terrifically entertaining.
Mr. Peabody & Sherman – 3/07/14
The trailers for this one looked bloody awful. I used to watch Rock & Bullwinkle as a kid when Nickelodeon still showed it, and I always enjoyed the crazy historical shorts on which this film is based. I didn’t know exactly how well DreamWorks Animation would expand this concept into a feature length film, however, and when the trailers started using such timely references as Zumba and using Patrick Warburton in yet another dimwitted meathead role…. The film also promised that it would expand on the relationship between the genius dog and his human boy and why exactly they hang out together – and, oddly enough, while you would assume this would lead to a Doc Brown/Marty McFly type relationship complete with plentiful references to their film, they instead showed us that Mr. Peabody is actually the adoptive father of the extra-cutesified Sherman. Shockingly, this little addition made for a startlingly heartfelt film – I dare you not to get a little misty-eyed with that whole “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)” sequence. And shockingly, the film was actually pretty fun, too, with lots of little laugh-out-loud moments. It’s not quite what I would’ve expected, but for what it is, I did end up liking this movie. Sadly, it lost money and ultimately helped to lead DreamWorks Animation into its financial troubles of late.
Bad Words – 3/14/14
I really wanted to like this one, but Jason Bateman’s debut effort as director, which has him playing a foul-mouthed grown man, Guy Trilby, who enters into elementary school spelling bees on a technicality in the rulebook and then proceeds to torment the kids, teachers, and parents, mostly falls flat on the side of just being kind of annoying for most of the time. Scattered moments of workable, mean-spirited humor and Bateman’s interactions with the only little boy who likes him, played by Rohan Chand, are the movie’s saving grace, but the few story beats and the gradual build up to a big public reveal about why exactly Guy is doing what he’s doing aren’t all that remarkable. As with many movies on this list, it’s not terrible, and it’s not terribly good, either.
Veronica Mars – 3/14/14
I’ve never gotten into this teenage detective series and haven’t watched an episode past maybe the first two episodes, so when I watched this Kickstarter-funded reunion of the show’s cast, I was coming in with pretty much a clean slate and no knowledge of the character’s histories. It’s a testament, then, to the filmmaker and cast’s abilities to make them feel like they have that history, even if you are unaware of the details – kinda like how I’d imagine someone not familiar with Firefly would feel with Serenity. Veronica Mars is definitely a smaller-scale detective story from most major releases, with chipper lead character Veronica coming home and attempting to absolve her ex-boyfriend of a recent murder, but that’s actually pretty refreshing, and the addition of some humor to the proceedings really helps set this movie apart. It actually got me thinking of trying to pick up the series again.
Divergent – 3/21/14
This should’ve been called “Ain’t Tris the Best?” That’s pretty much what I imagine going through fans’ minds when they watch this Hogwarts-meets-Hunger Games adaptation of the bestselling books. While the concept of a government categorizing people into roles in a post-apocalyptic society isn’t necessarily a bad one – it will be told again and again and again, so it’s got some lasting power – Divergent fails in making its lead character, played by current “It” girl Shailene Woodley, actually feel like she’s actually as special as the movie wants us to believe. You can’t just have characters tell us she’s awesome, movie. You have to show it, and I don’t mean through those bull abstract tests. I wouldn’t call it awful – just very ordinary. .. Oh, hey, irony!
Muppets Most Wanted – 3/21/14
I liked The Muppets much more than I expected, so I was really looking forward to this one. And it delivered. The songs were ridiculous, the jokes were funny, and it maintained that zany Muppets spirit, complete with gratuitous celebrity appearances – which are arguably a lot more fun this time around, with Ricky Gervais, Tina Fey, Ty Burrell, Jermaine Clement, Salma Hayek, Stanley Tucci, Christoph Waltz, and Danny Trejo all appearing in some capacity. The evil Kermit doppelganger is hilarious and gets one of the most ridiculous musical numbers I’ve ever seen. Muppets Most Wanted has some story issues, but I really can’t fault it too much when it’s this much fun.
Noah – 3/28/14
Yes, yes, yes. I know. It’s not 100% accurate and derives a lot of story from Kabbalah. I saw the posts all over my Facebook feed from people either decrying it or even just clarifying the film’s origins. This is the movie that had a lot of Christians up in arms over thanks to the presence of fallen angel rock monsters, Noah basically going insane, a story of God’s creation as taking place through evolution, and Noah then getting drunk (which, of all the things Christians complained about, was explicitly depicted in the Bible). Any major adaptation by Hollywood of a Bible story was going to draw some ire (see also Christian Bale’s portrayal of Moses as being not all there in the head in Exodus: Gods and Kings), and so I didn’t go in prepared to judge it based on that, and took it for what it was: one man’s interpretation – specifically Darren Aronofsky’s interpretation, which always meant that it was going to be kind of nuts. The resulting film was certainly interesting, and I actually appreciate that Aronofsky tried to depict the mental toll it may have taken on Noah to create this ark and know that everyone else was going to die, and there was nothing he could do about it. Noah was a flawed human, and it’s a mistake to think otherwise (see the drunken incident again), so I’m not certain why anyone would want a more saintly portrayal. It was fine. A little too long. Beautiful to look at. Performed well. That’s about it.
Dom Hemingway – 4/04/14
If it wasn’t for Jude Law’s performance as the opportunistic safecracker who lends his name to the title, I don’t think this would’ve been even remotely enjoyable as a movie. The premise is similar to 3 Days to Kill, with Dom getting out of the criminal business and attempting to reunite with his estranged daughter, but first he must juggle these parental responsibilities with one last job. Law’s performance makes Dom a charming but smarmy loser, one who is so far gone that any semblance of a man who could’ve done something else in his life is lost, so you kind of pity him and admire his efforts. It’s an alright viewing, but I don’t see myself returning to the movie after one viewing.
Rio 2 – 4/11/14
The Rio movies are still made with the mindset that all you need to make a successful animated film are pretty colors, lots of moving shapes, everybody having fun no matter what the stakes, stock characters, and lots of celebrity voices and pop culture references. It’s differentiated just enough thanks to its Brazilian flair and some admittedly pretty animation, though, apart from the lead character himself, voiced by Jesse Eisenberg – still doing a surprisingly good job making his voice sound parrot-like – I really don’t care about any of these characters – particularly newly introduced little kids who provide us with the long since tired jokes about kids being way too connected to pop culture and using silly slang that no actual kids use. It’ll amuse little kids while not necessarily driving parents absolutely crazy, but that’s really all I can say about it.
Oculus – 4/11/14
An interesting premise and decent execution of it are what set Oculus apart from the me-too horror movies that release every year. Having been released from a psychiatric hospital, Tim Russell, who was convicted of murdering his parents when he was a child, is placed in the custody of his sister, Kaylie, who has spent all these years devising a plan to prove to her brother that it wasn’t his fault – it was the same evil spirit that influenced their dad to turn on his family, one that comes out through an antique mirror from their childhood that she’s managed to track down. The conversations between the two siblings as Kaylie conducts and documents her experiments has you questioning which of the two siblings is more correct than the other – the rehabilitated brother who stands as a voice of reason or the still traumatized sister who has seemingly figured out the perfect plan to prove her belief in the spirit. There’s definitely got a lot of thought behind it (which you wouldn’t expect from a WWE production), and I appreciated that the movie avoided some of the most common horror genre tropes like jump scares and such. I didn’t think it was as mindblowing as some, but it’s definitely one of the better ones to come out of late.
The Railway Man – 4/11/14
A harrowing true story film about Eric Lomax’s survival in a Japanese internment camp and how the resulting PTSD affected his life and the relationship with his wife, who remains mostly in the dark regarding her husband’s past beyond the bare essentials. There are some truly great performances here from Colin Firth, Jeremy Irvine, and Nicole Kidman, and the film largely tries to avoid the usual grand gestures, which is perhaps a welcome change of pace, but somehow ends up making the film flatter than it could’ve been. That being said, its quiet dignity is something I can appreciate, and the powerful but equally quiet ending did stick with me. An admirable film with a worthwhile story, for sure.
The Other Woman – 4/25/14
There’s a funny movie wanting to get out of this, but once the film introduces the third lead, Amber, a young bimbo archetype, the film stops being a mildly amusing story about two very different women: Carly, a tough businesswoman, and Kate, a meek and neurotic housewife, who unexpectedly bond over unknowingly sharing the same man and shifts into a gratuitous revenge story where the trio play some extreme pranks on the cheating husband before they make the big reveal that they’re all in cahoots with one another. It’s unfortunate, because I actually kind of liked the relationship between Carly and Kate up until they fly off to the Caribbean to spy on the Kate’s husband and discover third wheel Amber. Meh.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 – 5/02/14
Half of this movie was good. As with everyone else, I absolutely loved the relationship between Peter and Gwen in this movie, and compared to the first Spider-Man movie series, this one totally gets the relationship aspect right, allowing Gwen to participate in the story without all the drama that comes with a love triangle and all that jealousy stuff. Kudos. I also really liked this interpretation of Harry Osborn – though he doesn’t get nearly enough time in the film to make his friendship and ultimate betrayal of Peter that impactful, the casting of Dane DeHaan and the believable damage he brings to the role really works. But Electro is pretty terrible, and Jamie Foxx is terrible both pre-transformation and post-transformation. A lot of that lies on the shoulders of the way the character is written, though – your stereotypical shut-in dweeb that everyone picks on and then a loosely motivated psychopath bent on destroying Spider-Man because a slight misunderstanding. It’s not as bad as what happened to Venom, who barely even had anything to do, but I could see someone making the case for it, given the amount of screen time he has. I didn’t hate it, like a lot of people do, and I’m not certain it’s overall as bad as Spider-Man 3 was, but I seriously cannot wait for the character rights to revert to Marvel. Sony’s just screwing this up, and the future they have planned for this franchise is bound to fail.
Palo Alto – 5/09/14
Despite being mostly joyless and putting quite a bit of weight on reckless teenage drama, Palo Alto still isn’t all that bad a debut for yet another Coppola making her debut as a filmmaker – in this case, Gia Coppola, granddaughter of Francis and niece of Sofia. Based on James Franco’s 2010 collection of short stories, the film follows four teenagers who go to the same high school and who are already dealing with some fairly adult responsibilities and who cannot necessarily depend on their parents for guidance. Palo Alto can at times feel pretty sleepy and aimless, but that’s pretty much the point. What we get isn’t some big message film but rather some slice of life stuff. There are some intersections between their lives, including some romantic interest between two of the leads, but you do get the feeling that these characters are slowly drifting apart, as well. The characters themselves are largely unremarkable, save for Fred, whose issues with substance abuse and strange, often random behavior provide the otherwise languid film with some manic texture. The actors themselves, including Emma Roberts, Jack Kilmer, Nat Wolff, James Franco, and Zoe Levin, are solid, regardless. It’s a decent movie and worth a rental.
Neighbors – 5/09/14
Coming from the guys who made the insane This Is the End and the more recent The Interview, Neighbors is surprisingly grounded in reality and tamer in its humor, but it might actually be funnier than its predecessor and is definitely more enjoyable than The Interview. It has a great cast in Seth Rogen, Rose Byrne, Zac Efron (doing the same thing here that Channing Tatum did in 21 Jump Street and effectively earning my appreciation), and Dave Franco, and the jokes come often and stick it more often than not. The film did well enough that a sequel has been confirmed, with the stars coming back to take on a sorority. I can’t say that I’m not looking forward to it.
Godzilla – 5/16/14
Yeah, okay, it has a pretty heavy emphasis on some admittedly dull human drama now and then, but Godzilla 2014 still manages to deliver the monster action you’d want from a Godzilla film while still adhering to the more serious tone of the original Japanese film. And you can be damn sure it blows the 1998 Roland Emmerich film out of the water, too. The cool factor of seeing the massive creature for the first time in the film is off the charts, and the fights between it and the new creatures the film introduces are fantastic. Godzilla’s freaking badass here, and while I could’ve probably done with a more charismatic lead human character than the one we get in Aaron Taylor Johnson, I can dig the subtle subtext exploring the strain placed on a soldier with a family who is constantly being deployed in the name of national security – a perfect subject to explore through the medium, given the nuclear bomb analogy of the original. I was never really a Godzilla fan, but I like the idea of giant monster movies overall – my love of Pacific Rim is evidence of that – and I was more than happy to throw this film into my collection next to my Criterion Collection edition of Gojira.
The Fault in Our Stars – 6/06/14
Ah yes, the film that made me eat my words. Teenage love stories have rarely interested me since we almost always know how they’re going to end, and The Fault in Our Stars looked like it was just going to be the latest in terrible teenage romance films and possibly the most egregious, given that its main conceit is that these teenagers are dealing with various stages of cancer. It has its hokey moments, for sure, but what saves the film from being cloying trash is that it actually has a great respect for those who are actually suffering in real life – something that the author of the book it’s based on has pretty intimate experience with, given his past work as a children’s hospital chaplain. The emotions ring very true as a result, and solid performances from the cast make The Fault in Our Stars a standout in the crowded young love movie genre.
The Rover – 6/13/14
I previously wrote about a film called Camp X-Ray that was also released in 2014 which just so happened to star Kristen Stewart as a military guard at Guantanamo Bay. The film earned her some surprising praise for her performance, which is surprising given the reputation she has as an actress. The Rover, starring Guy Pearce and Stewart’s Twilight costar Robert Pattinson, offers further proof that you never know what actors who are better known for roles in crappy movies are capable of when given the right material. Set in a future dystopian version of Australia where times have definitely been better for everyone, Pearce plays the titular rover, Eric, whose car is hijacked by a gang after they crash theirs after a robbery gone wrong. He winds up dragging along Rey, who was left behind by his older brother after the robbery, forcing Rey to help him get back the car that his brother stole. Both Pearce and Pattinson are great, with Pattinson being the most surprising as the stammering, needy, but unexpectedly complex Rey. Sure, it’s another bleak road trip movie in another post-apocalypse, but The Rover is still an exceptional film with two very interesting leads.
Planes: Fire & Rescue – 7/18/14
I voted the first Planes as one of its year’s worst theatrically released films, and so I wasn’t expecting much from its rushed-into-production sequel, either. Perhaps it’s because of this that I ended up surprised by Fire & Rescue’s not terrible quality. It still aims for the youngest kids and never any higher, but it’s no longer Cars-Lite and has some welcome drama added to the mix. The animation’s not horrible, either, and I was pleased to find that the cast of characters are devoid of any annoying Mater facsimiles. Also has one of the more surprising adult jokes thrown into a movie meant for very little kids.
Happy Christmas – 7/25/14
Family drama at Christmastime is pretty much its own tired subgenre at this point, so it takes some care and consideration to make a film like that standout from the pack. Releasing it in July helps, but so does a thoughtful story that makes that drama actually mean something by tying it into that oft mentioned Spirit of Christmas. In this case, it’s two sister-in-laws who are having a hard time coming to terms with one another’s flaws – Jenny, in particular, who is a known substance abuser who has moved in with her brother, his wife, Kelly, and their infant son. Kelly, however, is not without her issues, though they’re far more internalized, as she feels unfulfilled, despite a happy marriage and loving her baby. The relationship Jenny and Kelly develop is the core of the film, and while you don’t get the high drama and shouting matches you’d expect from, oh, I dunno… The Family Stone… Happy Christmas becomes more refreshing and appreciated for not going there.
Magic in the Moonlight – 7/25/14
I’m ultimately not a fan of Woody Allen, though I’ve generally liked some of his movies. I didn’t care much for Annie Hall but found Hannah and Her Sisters and Midnight in Paris to be fairly enjoyable. Magic in the Moonlight tries to be as charming as the latter film, but in spite of its premise of an illusionist attempting to debunk the purported gifts of a young psychic medium and winding up falling in love with her, and in spite of a very likable cast that includes Colin Firth, Emma Stone, Marcia Gay Harden, Hamish Linklater, and Jacki Weaver, Magic in the Moonlight feels like Allen spinning his wheels, with the movie’s charming premise and setting still giving way to a very ordinary story.
The Purge: Anarchy – 7/28/14
Much like Planes: Fire & Rescue, I did not like the first film in this series but found the 2014 sequel to be a notable improvement. Unlike Planes: Fire & Rescue, however, I actually rather enjoyed The Purge: Anarchy, a film that takes the central premise of the annual lawful crime spree of the first flick and, well… purges everything else. Instead of a waspy rich family holed up in their rich people’s home with cartoon villains who want to kill them and the homeless man they’re harboring terrorizing them, this sequel instead focuses in on a single man who uses Purge Night as a means of going on a mission to punish the man who ruined his life only to be sidetracked by a group of people who are in need of his help to make it through the night. With a definite goal in sight for the characters and with more diversity in the characters and the situations they find themselves in, thanks to the street-level setting, The Purge: Anarchy becomes something akin to a gritty 1980s action flick, similar to Escape from New York. This is the movie the first should’ve been, and if you like these kinds of B-grade, low budget thrills, then The Purge: Anarchy is a solid recommendation.
The Hundred-Foot Journey – 8/08/14
It’s stuffy French restauranteur Helen Mirren vs. the foreigners moving in on her turf across the street with their homegrown Indian comfort food in The Hundred-Foot Journey. A very romantic film about food and its place in bridging the gaps between cultures, The Hundred-Foot Journey is comfortable with being pleasant and entertaining whilst serving up some delicious food porn to salivate over in between scenes of humorous warfare between the two restaurants and the love that begins to grow between two of the restaurants’ chefs. For that, I commend The Hundred-Foot Journey, one of the more pleasant films of 2014.
The Giver – 8/15/14
This was a year that was about to hit critical mass with young adult dystopian society film adaptations, and The Giver was one of the most poorly received, despite being based on the book that is often seen as the progenitor of these kinds of stories. Fans of the book were angered by changes, reportedly made to put the film more in line with other films of its ilk, and so it suffered by becoming more of a me-too film rather than a film that set an example. Having not read the book myself, I didn’t hate The Giver and found its characters and premise to be more intriguing than the ones in the more well regarded but terribly dull The Maze Runner, but even so, that it was nothing special was still pretty apparent. It didn’t do so well at the box office, either, so, as with Ender’s Game before it, don’t hold your breath for a continuation any time soon.
Life After Beth – 8/15/14
Teenage romance and zombie flicks collide in this bizarre story of a high school boy grieving over the loss of his girlfriend, Beth, only to find out one day that her parents are secretly keeping her hidden from him – only it’s not because they disapprove of him, but more due to the fact that they don’t think anyone would actually react well to their daughter’s now being a zombie. He ultimately agrees it’s a miracle, however, and the two teens resume their relationship as if nothing happened… that is, until things begin to happen and Beth kind of starts losing her mind. An incredibly weird premise, to be sure, one that the film is more than happy to exploit for some uncomfortable laughs. Ostensibly being about moving on from what was once an ideal relationship – whether it be romantic or one between parents and a child – Life After Beth doesn’t quite have enough laughs nor cleverness to be considered genuinely good, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns into a cult classic.
Love Is Strange – 8/22/14
Two older gay men, George and Ben, who have lived together for decades finally get the right to legally marry, but when word of mouth starts to spread at the private Christian school that George works at, he’s fired from his job, an event that costs them their livelihood and home and forces them to separate and move in with family and friends for a period of time – George with the two cops downstairs and Ben with his nephew’s family. The film has very good performances form Alfred Molina, John Lithgow, and Marisa Tomei as Ben’s nephew’s wife, who has to put up with Ben’s fussiness on top of her angst-filled teenage son, who now has to share a room with his great-uncle. Many critics were enamored with the presentation of its simple story, and it is very well told. Ultimately, I didn’t love Love is Strange, however, but it is still one of the year’s better dramedies.
The Guest – 9/17/14
Slick and original, I didn’t even hear about The Guest until I was documenting for you the films that I didn’t see in 2014. After hearing about its premise, where a mysterious man shows up to a grieving family’s home claiming to have known their son and brother when they served together in the Middle East and ends up surprising everyone with the secret he is hiding, I knew I had to check it out, and, luckily, it was readily available at a nearby Redbox. I wasn’t disappointed. The film has some great action, intrigue, and excitement to offer, all without succumbing to the usual Hollywood style. It’s not exactly mind-blowing, but, as with the filmmakers’ previous film, You’re Next, its cool factor wins you over.
The Maze Runner – 9/19/14
If it wasn’t for the film’s just-in-time DVD release, I never would’ve seen this movie. The story didn’t interest me in the slightest, but it was a big enough hit that I couldn’t ignore it, and a friend did recommend it to me. Yay, again, for Redbox. Boo to this movie, though. If clichés were a food, there would be enough of them in this movie to feed a small country. Amnesiac hero with unexpected special skills? Check. Plucky young sidekick you’re meant to love? Check. Disapproving leader who isn’t necessarily a villain but who is demonized anyway for not trusting the mysterious outsider? Check. Second in command who takes a special liking to the mysterious outsider and thus makes the disapproving leader look like kind of a dick? Check. Scary monsters that everyone but the hero is terrified of? Check. Societal issues centered around teenagers? Check. Singular female cast members that throws male teenagers for a loop? Check. Ending where [REDACTED] is revealed to be [REDACTED] and [REDACTED] kills [REDACTED] but there’s not enough time to grieve because [REDACTED], but it’s not actually that either because [REDACTED]? Check. Yeah, I’m not going to spoil anything here, but trust me when I say that the big ending crams so many ridiculous things your way all at once, you can’t help but laugh at the lunacy of it all. The ending promises a better sequel, which we’re getting this year with The Scorch Trials, but man, was The Maze Runner a sorry excuse for a Hunger Games cash-in.
The Boxtrolls – 9/26/14
Laika has a lot of great artists working for them, and I genuinely like Coraline and am growing more fond of ParaNorman each time I see it, but I don’t think the same can be said of their latest film in their quest to keep stop motion alive, The Boxtrolls, based on the novel Here Be Monsters! by Alan Snow. The story follows a boy named Eggs who is being raised by a society of underground trolls who wear boxes at all times and go by the names of the objects on those boxes – hence the boy’s name. Having never known life in human society, Eggs truly does believe himself to be a boxtroll until he meets up with a human girl named Winnie, whose father belongs to a hoity-toity society of cheese-eating men called the White Hats and who hires an exterminator to wipe out the boxtrolls, who have long been seen as a baby-snatching threat to society. The film serves the same purpose as Laika’s previous films in spreading the word about understanding those who are different, understanding your own identity, and acknowledging that sometimes adults are hypocritical and often just as at fault as their children, but while its technical and artistic achievements in the film’s animation are notable, as a narrative, The Boxtrolls is a remarkably dull misfire with few laughs, little character nuance, and very little momentum. It’s only 96 minutes long, but it feels like it runs for 120, and while the trolls are initially very charming, it begins to wear thin as they never really become characters themselves, kinda like the Minions of Despicable Me, only they don’t have a more engaging leader to carry the film along. It’s an admirable effort, though I still can’t believe it got nominated for Best Animated Feature over The LEGO Movie!
Stretch – 10/07/14
Whacky, over-the-top, and often downright weird, Stretch casts Patrick Wilson as cynical limo driver going by the name “Stretch” who finds chauffeuring around an eccentric billionaire who promises to pay off Stretch’s gambling debt if he performs his duties without question. Naturally, Stretch agrees, but little does he know that this assignment will have him going up against crazed gangsters, rival limo services, and even his own employer. The film goes for broke in its craziness, and, luckily, Patrick Wilson and Chris Pine as the eccentric Roger Karos are game enough to sell it. There’s even an appearance from Ed Helms as the spirit of a once prolific limo driver who killed himself right in front of his own passengers. Stretch never achieves greatness, but for what it is, it does it in a very entertaining fashion.
St. Vincent – 10/10/14
Bill Murray takes on the Hugh Grant role in this film about a boy and a man forming an unlikely friendship when the boy’s newly single mother (Melissa McCarthy) needs someone to take care of her son while she’s at work. I know, I know, it’s not an exact rip off of the much better About a Boy, but the premise is similar, albeit with the boy being younger and the man being a very cranky, older Bill Murray type, Vincent MacKenna, who has recently impregnated his Russian stripper/hooker acquaintance with benefits. Yes, it’s a notably more acerbic movie than that heartwarming film, but that doesn’t mean St. Vincent is devoid of heart, either, as we and the boy get to know the hardships of Vincent’s life and gain a deeper admiration for him, despite his obvious faults. It’s sweet, I guess, and the actors are all good, including McCarthy, who gets to be the straightman for once to the zanier characters in the film and proves that she has far more range than even her own films give her credit for. (I’m looking at you, Tammy.) St. Vincent is a decent, feel-good movie that someone spiked with a little something… you know, for flavor.
What’s this? Yep. I either really liked or really hated the movies I saw from November, so there’s nothing to see here. Move along.
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies – 12/17/14
Ugh. FINALLY, we’re at the end of this trilogy that never should have been one in the first place! I was so excited for the first movie, only to be let down by the glacial pacing, boring characters and story, and an absolutely horrendous high frame rate gimmick that made it look like a bargain bin fantasy flick that only made the experience worse. Needless to say, I did not make that mistake again. The second really picked up the pace and added some fun action scenes, though, and, best of all, it had that villainous dragon, Smaug, so it was definitely a marked improvement over the first, but still nowhere near the same level as The Lord of the Rings films. The Battle of the Five Armies pickups where that one left off to give us the horribly-CGI heavy climax that film should have had before then putzing around for a bit before finally giving us the overall series climax – a 45 minute long battle between the eponymous armies that certainly provide some often neat-looking action, but ultimately offering very little narrative. It’s very weird because Return of the King managed to mix in the action and story beats so well, but here, it’s just a matter of seeing who gets killed and when, with the surviving characters pretty much unchanged from who they were in the last film. There’s also still the matter of the CGI being a mixed bag of impressive and mostly terribly distracting. Orc chieftain Azog’s effects have definitely improved since the first film, for example, but the casting of 72-year-old Billy Connolly as the battle-ready dwarf king Dáin necessitated that the character be completely CGI in even non-action scenes, leading one to wonder why they even bothered casting him in the first place (Hint: name recognition). Heavy use of distracting CGI for the settings, too, just exacerbate the unflattering comparisons one can make between The Hobbit films to the Star Wars prequels. That The Battle of the Five Armies feels so anticlimactic, despite ultimately being nothing but climax, is truly baffling and makes for a very disappointing end to what will likely be the last cinematic depiction of Middle Earth for quite some time.
The Interview – 12/25/14
For a film that caused so much controversy and headaches for the studio that produced it, The Interview, when separated from the hype, is pretty tame for a film that caused such massive international incident. I really think that the only people who would actually find the film that outrageous really are North Koreans themselves. I liked the movie well enough, and I admire its goal to be so audacious, but I’ll also admit to having had a very large bottle of beer in me at the time, too (as well as a bunch of Korean food, which was purely incidental, as I already had plans to have it long before I decided to rent the movie from my phone while I was waiting on my food to arrive, never drawing the connection until afterward). The film had me with the first trailer, and I joined the masses in being outraged at Sony’s initial decision to outright ban the film from release, letting a foreign dictatorship decide what they should and should not do, but, in the end, I do wish the movie had been as good as it was controversial because, stripped of that, it’s kind of just ordinary. See it, sure, as it’ll now go down as a small footnote in history, but it’s not nearly as funny as This Is the End or this year’s other Seth Rogen vehicle, Neighbors.
Into the Woods – 12/25/14
Disney’s film adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim musical about the interconnected lives of fairy tale characters and desires beyond “happily ever after” often feels like it’s lost its teeth in the translation and modification to make it a bit more family-friendly. Rapunzel is pretty much there as a plot device, and any semblance of loss and grief is glossed over, with a few significant character deaths pretty much being trampled over through with no chance of the characters being able to grieve, seemingly just to make the already lengthy 2 hour film shorter. Still, at least the more jovial parts are pretty fantastic, with every single actor pretty much perfect in their role and doing well with the musical nature of the film (at least, I believe so, though I know some corrections were likely but unnoticeably made). The songs are terrific, the script is entertaining and witty, and the set design feels like the stage has taken on a much grander scale. If it weren’t for those annoyingly rushed segments, this could’ve easily been one of my favorite movies of the year. As it is, it’s a highly entertaining, if flawed, rare modern musical that I would really like to see an extended edition of, more so than I would any of the undeserving Hobbit films.