Home > Year in Review > 2014 IN REVIEW: My Top Films of the Year

2014 IN REVIEW: My Top Films of the Year

The LEGO Movie - Batman and Benny

I saw so many movies this year, I honestly couldn’t pick the best movie. The selection was so wide because I saw so many, I honestly couldn’t pit movies I just enjoyed versus films I admired. So, this year, I’ve decided to do something different — I separated them into genres. it’s not exactly what you might expect – Guardians of the Galaxy isn’t in sci-fi, for instance, because it’s much more of an adventure film in space.

I’ve ordered these based on gut instinct overall, however, and so you’ll be able to see what I (currently) favored over others. That being said, however, all of these movies are fantastic.

I’m tired of explaining things, honestly. The process of doing the year in review this year was a lot longer than I intended. So, yeah. You know the drill. Read below!

DOCUMENTARY

I Know That Voice - John DiMaggio

I Know That Voice – 1/07/14 N/A

I was waiting for this one to come out for so long. Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve admired voice actors for the work they do. These are people who have the thankless task of bringing so many characters to life for everyone to enjoy that don’t get to rely upon celebrity name recognition to sell a project. I Know That Voice features a who’s who of talented voice artists (and a few associates, including Andrea Romano, who has been knocking it out of the park in her casting decisions for animated DC Comics projects, starting with Batman: The Animated Series) discussing the craft. June Foray, Jim Cummings, Tara Strong, James Arnold Taylor, and John DiMaggio are but a few of the big ones you might recognize from their prolific work that feature in this entertaining and insightful film – from the techniques they use to play their parts, the changing nature of the business (and the threat of those aforementioned recognizable actors moving in on their turf in big animated films and the rise of anime and video games as an outlet for their craft), and the legacies they often have to live up to when they take over what are essentially immortal pop culture fixtures. This is one of the few documentaries I’ve watched multiple times since its release, and it’s seriously about time that these incredible people get the recognition they deserve (even if some of them enjoy staying out of the spotlight most of the time).

Life Itself - Roger Ebert & Gene Siskel

Life Itself – 7/04/14 – 97%

Originally beginning as a simple biography and companion piece to Roger Ebert’s own 2011 memoir of the same name, the film also wound up capturing some candid moments from what would turn out to be the final days of his life. The film was directed by Steve James, whose documentary Hoop Dreams was championed by Ebert himself, and was also executive produced by Martin Scorsese and Steven Zaillian. Despite the posthumous release and direct involvement with Ebert and his family, Life Itself is an impressively candid documentary that never once portrays Ebert as anything more than human, discussing details about his early days as a hotshot reporter and party guy (a time when he developed a nasty drinking problem), his failed attempt to get into filmmaking himself with Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, his tumultuous relationship with Gene Siskel, his unexpected settling down with his wife Chaz, who has stayed by his side and ensured that his legacy will carry on since his passing, and then all the horrible details about his health. The film is also a fantastic examination of the unexpected relationship Ebert had with filmmakers themselves, who actually respected his opinion and were even grateful to him for his enthusiasm for new but easily overlooked talents. Ebert himself was a great influence on me – someone who took the film medium seriously but never forgot to enjoy them, as well. When I heard of his passing, having read what turned out to be his final blog entry about how excited he was for his site’s upcoming revamp and how much more focused he was planning to be on the films that excited him most. His was a great loss, and I still miss reading his reviews.

ADVENTURE

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2

How to Train Your Dragon 2 – 6/13/14 – 92%

Superior to its already fantastic predecessor in both action, wonderment, and heart, How to Train Your Dragon 2 managed to provide more of what we loved about the previous movie without completely repeating itself and allowing for some very bold, unexpected story developments as well, the least of which is aging the kids fairly significantly. Somehow, even with the Vikings and dragons being friends, this sequel managed to raise the stakes and made up in a big way for Pixar’s absence in 2014, and, along with Mr. Peabody & Sherman (of all movies), it showed us that they don’t necessarily hold a monopoly on entertaining, beautifully animated family entertainment. Not to mention, the film continues to delight with some incredibly beautiful animation and some imaginative dragon designs. It’s a terrible shame the film was seen as some kind of disappointment due to not making up for DreamWorks Animation’s more recent and less deserving films – namely, The Croods, Turbo (which I voted worst movie of last year for being such a bad ripoff of Ratatouille and almost convincing critics we somehow had too many animated films on our hands), and the aforementioned Mr. Peabody & Sherman.

The LEGO Movie - Benny (Charlie Day), Batman (Will Arnett), Princess Uni-Kitty (Alison Brie), Emmet (Chris Pratt), Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman), Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks)

The LEGO Movie – 2/07/14 – 96%

Somehow, this movie has been denied even a nomination for the Best Animated Feature Oscar, perhaps because it was forgotten about for having released so early in the year. Perhaps because the Academy felt the obligation to nominate the less deserving but indie-developed Laika film The Boxtrolls. Perhaps because they didn’t want to explicitly look like they were endorsing what admittedly amounts to a very dressed up product placement film. Whatever the excuse may be, there’s no doubting that The LEGO Movie was deserving of a nomination, even if they had to expand the category to include it among the actual nominees. If I had my choice, this movie would win the category, hands down. If I considered “animation” to be its own genre (repeat it with me: “It’s not a genre; it’s a medium.”), I would still give The LEGO Movie the win, because it’s that excellent.

The sense of fun, the sense of wonder, the incredibly fun, silly sense of humor, fantastic voice acting from an all-star cast, the surprisingly moving story, the inventiveness, the audacity to make the film in the first place and then to take it seriously enough to make it astoundingly good, and, yeah, the admitted novelty factor of seeing so many Minifigure versions of your favorite pop culture heroes teaming up and hanging out (Seriously: Dumbledore, Gandalf, the Justice League, Lando Calrissian, Michelangelo of the Ninja Turtles, Michelangelo the artist, Shaq, freaking MILHOUSE from The Simpsons…). The Academy doesn’t even have the backup of saying they nominated based on the skill of animation because this movie even looks incredible, fooling many, including myself, into initially thinking that the movie primarily used actual LEGO pieces and stop motion. The detail in every piece is truly astonishing: little cracks, nicks, painting anomalies, and even fingerprints in the pieces’ reflections.

I’m sorry, but there is no excuse for The LEGO Movie only getting a nomination for Best Original Song. This was even the best work Liam Neeson did all year!

Guardians of the Galaxy - Zoe Saldaña, Bradley Cooper, Chris Pratt, Vin Diesel, Dave Bautista

Guardians of the Galaxy – 7/24/14 – 91%

Yes, yes, there are space ships and aliens, and there are definite sci-fi elements, but at its core, Guardians of the Galaxy is an adventure movie, not unlike Raiders of the Lost Ark, which the film itself acknowledges. It’s all about the journey, both physical and internal, and the people encountered along the way, be they man, woman, beast, or tree. There’s even a destructive MacGuffin at the center of the story that both villains and heroes are struggling for control over. Ark of the Covenant, anyone?

This film was also somewhat of an adventurous choice for Marvel, as well, who staked their reputation and name recognition on the line thanks to the good will built off of Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, and the rest of The Avengers and threw it all into this movie set in the furthest reaches of space, where a hotshot group of criminals joined together against an alien religious zealot bent on destroying the infidels, cracking wise and listening to classic pop tunes along the way. It’s a very strange movie, directed by someone who is known for making strange films, and yet everything gelled together so well, and the characters and actors who played them were so memorable and entertaining, the movie managed to become one of the most ambitious and successful movies of the year not just for box office numbers, but also in the areas of critical and fan response.

As if the humor and spectacle weren’t enough, the film will most definitely get you, emotionally, in unexpected ways – it might be Marvel’s most emotional film since the first Captain America, and that movie had the time when Steve threw himself on a grenade and later had to say goodbye to Peggy! [sniff] … Okay, maybe Guardians is still second in the emotional stuff, but it’s a close one, and it is most definitely Marvel’s most joyously fun films to date, as well. The stuff they’re doing and having mainstream audiences accept in their entertainment can only lead to good things. One of my most favorite movies of the year.

ACTION

The Raid 2 - Iko Uwais

The Raid 2 – 3/28/14 – 79%                                                                                 

Though I think the first film in this Indonesian martial arts series is much more satisfying with its simpler, faster-paced story and a notably shorter runtime (120 min. vs. 150 min.), The Raid 2 still manages to be immensely entertaining, with Iko Uwais returning as Rama, showing off once again that he’s still a fantastic martial artist, but also getting the opportunity to show off some decent acting chops, too, thanks to the more intimate, slower pace. The film picks up right where the first film ends and has Rama going undercover as a prisoner and eventual member of a crime syndicate, which puts a considerable amount of strain on his personal life, with a wife and young son at home. The storyline isn’t bad at all once you adjust expectations and get into it, but admit it: you came to this movie for the fight scenes.

Luckily, while the action scenes are seemingly fewer and further between, they’re also a lot more varied, with some car chases thrown into the mix and new cast members providing some interesting new gimmicks to the choreography, including a sister-brother duo that will have you cringing with anticipation as they swing around claw hammers and a baseball bat, respectively. The final big fight scene, which takes place in a kitchen, is also much more satisfying and less unbelievable than the 2-on-1 battle that took place at the end of the first film that seemed to stretch on for way longer than was even believable in a film series like this. Overall, it’s an excellent follow-up, and, if Uwais and director Gareth Edwards manage to keep the quality up to at least this level, I would not mind a final chapter to complete a trilogy.

Snowpiercer - Cast

Snowpiercer – 6/27/14 – 95%

The first film I’d ever gone and seen in theatres without ever having been exposed to a trailer, Snowpiercer managed to get on my radar thanks to concept artwork posted on io9.com and positive word of mouth throughout the internet. I knew the general premise, don’t get me wrong, but having no clue what it was ultimately about, what it looked like, and even who was in it made my viewing experience all the more exciting. No longer was I anticipating something cool to happen that I saw in the trailers – I was simply able to soak in all the atmosphere and action and enjoy it for what it was: a fantastic, highly original dystopian apocalypse film set entirely on a train and revolving around freedom fighters taking it over and instating a policy of equal treatment among the train’s passengers – who also happen to be the last survivors on earth after a deep freeze destroyed the planet (one caused by man, of course).

It’s adapted from the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette and helmed by Korean director Bong Joon-ho, who makes his English-language debut with the film, and it stars a surprisingly all-star, international cast made up of Chris Evans, Song Kang-ho, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, Ewen Bremner, Go Ah-sung, and John Hurt – with not a one of them giving a bad performance. (Swinton in particular is a bizarre delight as the prim, proper, and brutal second in command.) As you would expect from the premise and eclectic group of people working on the film, Snowpiercer is probably one of the most unexpected film experiences you’ll have the pleasure to watch. The film makes great use of the limited space the film’s premise allows, but the movement from car to car, each one serving a different look and function, allows for a large variety of environments, all the same. Apart from some lo-fi but forgivable visual effects, Snowpiercer is pretty stunning to look at and provides some fantastic, creative, and brutal action sequences, like the clash that’s interrupted by a tunnel.

Inventive, leaden with striking imagery, darkly humorous, and surprisingly poignant, Snowpiercer is easily one of my favorite movies of the year.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier - Scarlett Johansson, Chris Evans

Captain America: The Winter Soldier – 4/04/14 – 89%

Marvel really knocked it out of the park this year for their Cinematic Universe, and The Winter Soldier was easily the turning point where these movies went from fun romps to transgressive entertainment, providing a superhero film that not only delivered on all the action, effects, humor, heroism, and villainy you’d expect from these films, but also a timely commentary on the state of American politics and the concept of national security, all seen through the eyes of idealist and morally black-and-white Captain America. The series marked a major turning point in the franchise, with the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D. certain to affect all the movies going forward and even having massive, immediate repercussions in the Marvel TV series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., another unprecedented move on the part of Marvel and this multimedia project they’ve undertaken.

Even throughout all the seriousness and darkness, however, the film also remains focused on hope and idealism, with the Captain still believing in the old school ideals of what America should be, and there’s even a lot of great banter between him and holy-crap-she’s-not-just-eye-candy Black Widow, who is treated here like a genuine partner and friend to Cap, and also introduces us to Anthony Mackie as Falcon, who was not only well loved by fans, but who would himself love to continue showing up as the character, which bodes well for him one day possibly taking over for Chris Evans in the role of Captain America, whenever he leaves.

The Winter Soldier may not have been the unexpected pop cultural phenomenon that Guardians of the Galaxy was, but that’s only because this was already a sequel to a well-liked film and was also the third appearance of Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson in their roles. It’s not like the film’s financial success was ever in question. However, directors Joe and Anthony Russo, brothers who are better known for their work in comedy TV series like Arrested Development and Community, really managed to knock it out of the park with this one, providing us with probably Marvel’s most compelling, impactful films yet. Cannot wait to see them do Civil War – which we all know now will also feature the MCU debut of freaking Spider-Man!!! X-D

John Wick - Keanu Reeves

John Wick – 10/24/14 – 83%

Probably the best film I’ve ever seen Keanu Reeves in, and, yes, I’m including the rapidly aging The Matrix in that category. And, yes, also Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Reeves plays the titular John Wick, a badass retired hitman who loses practically everything that’s important to him within a short amount of time, and so he comes out of retirement to get revenge on the guys responsible. What follows is an absurd, violent, but unexpectedly delightful film where assassins are around every corner and, to them, killing is not just a job, it’s a way of life. There’s even a hotel that seemingly caters to them, complete with some unspoken rules about the unusual etiquette and expectations of discretion that comes from hosting such clientele.

The film itself is masterfully choreographed, where every shot our antihero makes is efficient and counts. The violence is brutal, but not cartoonish and over-the-top gory. The pacing of the story is relentless but not overwhelming. Characters are always interesting and/or fascinating and add more to the overall atmosphere of the film. And Reeves himself is perfectly cast – cool, intimidating, slick, and, again, totally badass. That’s really about all I can say about this film. It’s about all that you could want from an action film.

THRILLER

Enemy - Jake Gyllenhaal

Enemy – 3/14/14 – 75%

I’ll admit that I really need to watch this movie again, as I’m not entirely certain that I fully understood it. Perhaps that would move the film up a bit in this category, but I just did not have the time. All the same, however, Enemy is a truly fascinating film with a fantastic dual performance from Jake Gyllenhaal as both Adam Bell, a depressed history professor, and Anthony Clair, his actor doppelganger who seems to be leading a life far more interesting than his own, but soon the two find themselves competing out of jealousy of one another. Also, there is the image of a spider – the meaning of which I am not entirely certain, but it’s fascinating all the same.

Yeah, I know it seems a bit disingenuous to put it on this list if I don’t fully understand it, but that’s just the thing – I did appreciate it, and I’m compelled to continue to watch it again to fully grasp its meaning. I’m not putting it here to pretend like I’ve gotten it figured out, and perhaps if I do come to some conclusion, that might even change my opinion of the film for the worst, but, for now, this is undoubtedly one of the more perplexing films of the year, and certainly one of the more fascinating because of it.

Locke - Tom Hardy

Locke – 4/25/14 – 91%

Do you know what a bottle episode is? It’s an episode of a TV series where the whole thing is set within a single location – something I knew existed but that the show Community provided me a term for. Locke is pretty much the film equivalent, though it’s doing so not to cut costs, as many shows might, but rather as a creative decision.

Tom Hardy plays the lead, Ivan Locke, and he is the only person you’ll ever see on screen, with all other characters coming through as voices on the other line of his various phone calls. Locke is in some trouble, as he’s just received news that the woman he had an affair with has gone into labor with his child the night before he is scheduled to supervise the concrete pour for a new building. Speeding out to see the woman, he must make arrangements with work to ensure the work is done correctly while simultaneously making phone calls to his family, explaining where he is.

It’s a beautifully shot film, with the camera panning around and moving within Locke’s car as he drives down the highway without stopping. Hardy’s performance is transfixing, as well, with the actor stifling the character’s undoubted anxieties given the situation he’s found himself in then getting to unleash some anger upon Locke’s absent father, to whom Locke speaks as if he were in the back seat of the car, vowing to never abandon his own children, regardless of the circumstances. The film makes no real judgments about the man, despite acknowledging his mistake and how that mistake has resulted in several severe consequences.

Gone Girl - Ben Affleck

Gone Girl – 10/03/14 – 88%

David Fincher continues to be one of my favorite directors and one of the few who can deliver a thriller I would actually look forward to, thanks to his impeccable direction. Here, he directs Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike in this adaptation of the Gillian Flynn novel, with Affleck playing Nick Dunne, a supposedly loving husband whose wife goes missing, and Pike playing Amy, his wife and potential murder victim.

Gone Girl examines the role of the media in how these cases are played out in the real world. Affleck’s character more than resembles Scott Peterson, but the film isn’t your typical Lifetime movie, with Dunne’s innocence, despite public perception and nitpicking of his behavior, never being out of the realm of possibility. A turn halfway through the film keeps things interesting by turning the truth into a full blown circus that the real world media could only dream of exploiting for ratings.

The film itself has great performances from its ensemble cast, with Fincher even finding a role for none other than Tyler Perry that makes him one of the most engaging characters in the film. The film looks very slick, as always, and the story unfolds at a solid pace, too. I wouldn’t call it a whodunit, exactly, but fans of mysteries and psychological thrillers will both find common ground with this one.

Nightcrawler - Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo

Nightcrawler – 10/31/14 – 95%

Jake Gyllenhaal was robbed of a nomination for this film. The actor here presents a chilling figure that’s reminiscent of Anthony Perkins in Psycho in that his character, Lou Bloom, is someone whose meek looks belies a truly chilling personality. You never quite know exactly what’s going on in his head or how he might react, as the director of a local news program, Nina (Rene Russo), learns when she begins to do business with Bloom, buying footage he’s shot of various crimes around the city.

Director Dan Gilroy’s debut feature examines similar territory as Fincher’s Gone Girl by examining how the media can manipulate real events to present a narrative – one that keeps viewers glued to the screen and keeps ratings up. The extent to which Bloom goes to capture his footage gets increasingly more daring, as does Nina’s willingness to exploit the victims in the name of ratings. It’s disturbing stuff, and audiences are liable to feel a lot like voyeurs as they go along for the ride

COMEDY

They Came Together - Amy Poehler, Paul Rudd

They Came Together – 6/27/14 – 70%

This one nearly landed on my list of mediocre films, but I decided against it based on gut instinct. I liked it too much. Parodies these days tend to take the form of lazy jabs at certain genres with stupid jokes and an assortment of random pop cultural references. They Came Together, a send up of the romantic comedy, isn’t entirely original in its observations, is incredibly silly, and has some pretty obvious jokes, but there’s definite effort to put into it, and everyone from the lead actors, Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd, to the costars, an assortment of various comedians and sitcom stars, are so charming and into the whole thing, I really couldn’t help but love it. I may have seen the trailer and declared to my friend, “WE HAVE TO SEE THIS!” right that moment, but, to my credit, I had to and did wait until the DVD release, and, despite any faults it may have had, I very easily fell for this movie. It was… like it was meant to be.

Begin Again - Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley

Begin Again – 6/27/14 – 83%

I saw Once years ago, soon after I got my Netflix account, and I haven’t seen it since, but the impression it left on me was pretty great. Begin Again, a spiritual successor to John Carney’s 2007 musical romance, isn’t nearly as good as that one, but what it lacks for dramatic and emotional depth, it more than makes up for it with… well, delightfulness.

Keira Knightley plays Gretta James, a young woman who came to America with her boyfriend (Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine, who also provides the film some of its songs) only to dump him sometime later, finding herself stranded with only one friend around… until she meets up with Dan Mulligan (Mark Ruffalo), a record label executive who hears her put on an impromptu performance at bar one night and agrees to put out a record with her. Dan himself is having some issues with work and relationships, as well, particularly his business partner (Mos Def), his estranged wife (Catherine Keener), and his teenage daughter (Hailee Steinfeld), all of whom Gretta is uniquely gifted in charming over. The film may not be the most original, and though it’s definitely a comedy, it’s a decidedly quieter one, with few laugh-out-loud moments. It’s really more of just an all-around pleasant movie that features some quite pretty pop songs along the way. It definitely won me over.

Frank - Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Fassbender, Domhnall Gleeson

Frank – 8/15/14 – 92%

Possibly only Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy left me scratching my head more than Frank, a film about a paper mache helmet-wearing frontman and his band of misfits and oddballs making music together. To be 100% honest, however, I don’t think that too many other people really “got it,” entirely, either. It’s one of those films that I’m certain most people are just claiming they really enjoyed because they feel that they should, or they’re just going to be honest and say they hated it and thought it made no sense I think I can honestly say that I thoroughly enjoyed the experience enough to actually genuinely like the film, even though I’m not 100% certain I fully grasped it after one viewing. I’m certainly thrilled that it’s on Netflix streaming right now, though, and I plan on revisiting it for the first time since I last saw it in theatres once I get back to my normal movie viewing schedule by publishing this list.

That being said, the film isn’t hard to follow, narratively. Jon, an aspiring musician still living with his parents, gets the random opportunity to join the aforementioned avant-garde band and help them make their strange music out in the woods while befriending their enigma of a leader, Frank, the one in the perpetually present head. Frank has some interesting, eccentric ideals, and he believes that their strange music can truly change the world for the better. Jon becomes so entranced with the experience, he documents their work and markets the band online, an even that angers some in the band, but thrills Frank, who sees this as an opportunity to spread the word. Issues and tensions abound, however.

I’m fairly certain the film is about self-acceptance without the need to be validated by others, but, again, I need to give the film another watch. It’s not so much that the narrative is hard as it is to really ascertain the message. That being said, that Frank is at all on my list shows how entertaining the journey is on its own. And while Frank’s music may not be my particular cup of tea, we definitely need more movies like this.

The Skeleton Twins - Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader

The Skeleton Twins – 9/12/14 – 87%

As with They Came Together, this decidedly more dramatic but still humorous turn for both Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader was just too likable for me to leave off the list. They play twin siblings Maggie and Milo, who have been apart for several years when, on the same day, they both decide to commit suicide and end their unsatisfied lives. Milo, however, gets to it first, however, and before she can do anything, she gets the phone call that informs her that her brother is in the hospital after his attempt. Despite their years apart, Milo agrees to go live with her and her husband in his hometown, so that he can be taken care of by what he perceives to be his much more put together sister. The two begin to bond, though, over the secrets they haven’t been able to share with anyone else, however, quickly remembering why they needed each other all their lives.

Hader and Wiig are pretty much perfectly cast in their roles and work great together, no doubt due to their years of working off one another on Saturday Night Live. And while the humor in the film isn’t necessarily laugh-out-loud, it manages to surround some incredibly dark subject matter with some very lighthearted stuff that is most definitely very uplifting and makes for an endearing, ultimately happy film.

The Double - Jesse Eisenberg

The Double – 5/09/14 – 82%

Directed by Richard Ayoade, inspired by Dostoevsky’s novella, and starring Jesse Eisenberg in a dual role as timid government employee Simon James and his more ascertive, charismatic, and manipulative counterpart James Simon, a newcomer who always finds the means to ends he didn’t earn at the expense of the weak – Simon in particular. The film uses darkness like most movies use light, and, when combined with the very industrial look, this purposely has the effect of the film overwhelming both the characters in the film and the viewer. (I was actually kind of reminded of Batman: The Animated Series, of all things, and how its imagery was painted on dark backgrounds to give it a similar gothic feel.) Luckily, this is matched with some fantastic, dark humor and Eisenberg’s incredible performance as the two very different but visually identical leads. Highly entertaining and yet unlike most everything else.

Dear White People - cast

Dear White People – 10/17/14 – 92%

Poignant, insightful, introspective, and yet universally appealing racial humor is an unusual find. It’s not that comedies starring predominately one race can’t appeal to people of another, but making one that feels as though it’s addressing both people of the race who feature in the film and people who are not and engages them on different levels while also being funny is certainly a feat, one that Dear White People, I think, executes admirably.

While one can undoubtedly take the title as putting white people on notice – and the film does have plenty of moments where the claws come out, justifiably – Dear White People ultimately isn’t about drawing lines in the sand, but rather ends up feeling more like a call for understanding, presenting its arguments through the stories of various black college students’ experiences at a fictional, prestigious university. getting intimate their personal experiences as they’re figuring out their own identities, dealing with unfair expectations from peers and society as a whole, showing that there isn’t just one type of black culture, and, yes, by examining pop culture, which is ultimately where a lot of people get their perceptions of other cultures, for better or for worse. The film uses fairly recent events at universities that prove that racism and prejudice are still problems – particularly recent incidents where college groups held blackface-themed parties.

The large cast is packed with talented young actors, particularly Tessa Thompson as Sam White, a highly opinionated girl who hosts the on-campus radio show that gives the film its name, and Tyler James Williams as Lionel Higgins, a rare black gay student who finds it hard to fit in no matter where he goes. This may not be one of the funniest comedies of the year, but it’s certainly one of the most intelligent, both in what it has to say and how it goes about saying it.

Chef - John Leguizamo, Emjay Anthony, Jon Favreau

Chef – 5/09/14 – 86%

Jon Favreau has an interesting track record when it comes to the films he’s directed. Two Iron Men films, Cowboys & Aliens, Zathura, the Christmas classic Elf, an episode of the TV series Revolution¸ and Made, his directorial debut about a guy who decides to earn a little side money by taking on some work for hire for a mafia boss. Chef, his latest film, is definitely the most grounded of any of those works, however, and shows that Favreau has a knack for intimate, indie feel-good flicks just as much as he does taking on the challenge of some of his more fantastical works.

Favreau stars as Carl Casper, a respected chef whose creative output has been stifled by the restaurant’s owner, who insists that he knowns better and that predictability is the key to success. This runs contrary, of course, to what a notorious food critic says, which puts Carl in the awkward place of putting his reputation on the line for the sake of keeping his job or sticking to his principles, but at the risk of his livelihood. The feud boils over, and Carl, having enough of the lack of respect on both ends, sets off to work for himself in a food truck, taking along with him the restaurant’s sous chef and the son he hardly ever got to see in his former life.

Stories about embracing your passion and finding success in that field are a dime a dozen, but Chef still manages to transcend the clichés through solid storytelling and performances and by being overall just a very joyful, touching film with its a fair share of laughs and loaded with food porn.

22 Jump Street - Jonah Hill, Ice Cube, Channing Tatum

22 Jump Street – 6/13/14 – 84%

The first film did the impossible by being unexpectedly a hilarious send up of the original TV series’ premise, and now 22 Jump Street comes along and does the impossible: being a sequel that’s every bit as funny as the original ridiculous film.

As promised at the end of the first, Schmidt and Jenko are sent to college, where they investigate yet another drug, this time called WHYPHY. As per usual, crazy ridiculous hijinks ensue. It’s pretty much more of the same, with the only difference being the setting, more (and very welcome) participation on the part of Ice Cube, and the action being taken up to a much more absurd level. Pretty much everyone from the first film makes an appearance here, as well, with the exception of Brie Larson. However, that’s perfectly alright by me, as the comedy is what matters most, and the movie definitely brings the laughs, with Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum once again proving to be a formidable comedy duo.

This is, of course, also thanks to returning directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who have pretty much made a name for themselves in delivering unexpected hilarity through ridiculous, silly humor with these films, The LEGO Movie, and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. It’s questionable whether they’ll return for the inevitable third film (teased at the end, among other things), but perhaps they’re up for the challenge of updating the concept behind the original show’s one-season spinoff, Booker (which also gets a shout-out here)? I mean, who wouldn’t want a film about a hardened insurance claims investigator from these guys?

The Grand Budapest Hotel - Ralph Fiennes, Anthony Quinonez

The Grand Budapest Hotel – 3/07/14 – 92%

Wes Anderson’s movies are always so mannered and proper, even when addressing impolite and messy issues. The Grand Budapest Hotel is certainly no exception, and, in fact, stands practically as a commentary on Anderson’s own style as a director. The center of the film is Monsieur Gustave H., the concierge of the luxurious Grand Budapest Hotel whose story is told through layered flashbacks as told through the lens of a young girl reading a book, the book’s author, the author’s recounting of his younger self interviewing the owner of the hotel, Zero Moustafa, and then through Zero’s own recounting of his friendship with Gustave in the 1930s, back when Zero was a new but devoted busboy. This layering emphasizes the idealization and nostalgia for the manners and properness that seem to have disappeared in modern times, with Gustave standing as the paragon of the ideal gentleman – or, at least, a man who tried his damnedest to represent those ideals.

Gustave, we learn, was framed for the murder of an wealthy old woman who was a regular at the hotel and who was quite fond of him; fond enough for him to have been named in her will as the inheritor of a valuable painting, Boy with Apple, making him a target of her greedy family and ultimately finding himself a fugitive from the law. Gustave maintains an air of dignity and manners, however, even when being chased, manhandled, or even while being shot at, something that he passes down to Zero, his trusty sidekick. Despite all his faults and fussiness, Gustave becomes an admirable figure and even a hero, standing up for what he believes to be not just true, but proper, even in the face of death and a world with increasingly bad manners. The Grand Budapest Hotel is a very amusing film and also a very beautiful one, and while it’s not exactly my most favorite of Anderson’s films, my admiration for it has definitely grown since when I first saw it.

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Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) – 10/17/14 – 92%

As much as I love superhero films and hope that their current trajectory never lets up, there’s no doubting that they’ve added to the piles of loud movies that have drowned smaller scale, lower budget films that perhaps might benefit more intimate stories and afford actors better opportunities to stretch their acting abilities.

Alejandro G. Iñarritu’s Birdman acknowledges this by casting a three of its leads with actors who have previously featured in some major superhero films – Michael Keaton (Batman), Edward Norton (infamously recast after Marvel’s The Incredible Hulk), and Emma Stone (The Amazing Spider-Man) – and placing them in a film about moving past the fame those films provide and trying to relocate the artist. Keaton himself, in his Oscar-nominated performance, plays Riggan Thomson, an aging actor who, a number of years ago, played Birdman, a superhero who continues to haunt him in his thoughts, its gravelly voice tempting him to return to the fame and noise of his glory days and abandon his current project, a stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, which also happens to have a stage critic breathing down Riggan’s neck, ready to ruin any chance of him tainting her beloved stage with his presence again. Also causing him headaches: a young daughter who just got out of rehab (Stone) and a diva method actor threatening to wrestle away creative control from Riggan (Norton).

I’m not certain how much of a bone Birdman has to pick with superhero movies – it could be that Iñarritu’s just sick of having his projects ignored in favor of those flicks, or not having access to the actors, or a great number of other things – but I do know that I agree with the film’s basic premise of not ignoring art just because it doesn’t provide the explosions and visual spectacle that ignite the pleasure centers of your brain. It’s not like smaller projects can’t visually dazzle or engage the viewer either, as Birdman proves with the fantastic performances of its actors, the visual trickery of presenting the film as one long take from beginning to end, the ever-present jazzy soundtrack that keeps the tensions high, and the strange way in which Riggan is struggling with that anxiety. It’s certainly one of the most refreshing and entertaining films out there.

DRAMA

Rosewater - Gael Garcia Bernal

Rosewater – 11/14/14 – 73%

Jon Stewart’s directorial debut is unusual in that it tells the story about a man whose story may not have even needed to be told if it wasn’t for the fact that The Daily Show interviewed him, and yet, because The Daily Show exists, Jon Stewart was given the opportunity to tell a story that definitely deserved to be told: that of Maziar Bahari, an Iranian-Canadian journalist who was incarcerated as a spy by the Iranian government for five months soon after filming political protests during their 2009 elections and giving an interview with the show’s Jason Jones, who jokingly made the interview look like a meeting between spies. Enduring solitary confinement, torture, interrogations, and little contact with the outside world, Bahari had very little reason to believe he was getting out, as the country is well known for its intolerance of deviant journalists, unless he was willing to give them the names of others like him.

It’s a harrowing tale, one that Stewart is fairly capable of delivering with all the reverence and passion it deserves, with very small moments of levity and triumph and also depicting Bahari’s imagined discussions with his father and sister, who were also political prisoners. Gael García Bernal is very good as Bahari, too, doing very well with the portrayal of desperation and conflicting emotions about how he would manage to get home again.

FOXCATCHER

Foxcatcher – 11/14/14 – 88%

I had a friend who brought this to my attention, as he has a small personal connection to the story, having met one of the men at the center of the film, Mark Schultz, here played by Channing Tatum, and having admired the wrestling careers of him and his brother Dave, played by Mark Ruffalo. The film tells the very disturbing story about how Mark got involved with John E. du Pont, an egomaniacal heir to the du Pont Company fortune who hoped to train up a wrestling team on his family farm, Foxcatcher, and bring home Olympic gold.

Du Pont, though, was a disturbed man, who fancied himself an athletic expert and authority on wrestling, despite his inexperience, with much of the training being handled by Mark and Dave. The film focuses primarily on du Pont’s relationship with Mark, the younger brother, and the emotional and mental manipulation of Mark at the hands of du Pont. The relationship resulted in a great deal of jealousy on the part of du Pont, however, and Dave’s efforts to take care of his brother while continuing to work with the team ultimately led to du Pont shooting Dave in cold blood, killing him.

The degree of accuracy in the portrayal of the relationship has since been called into question, with Mark himself protesting some aspects of it, particularly the implication of a possible sexual relationship, though he has praised the film overall, particularly in the performances. The performances are indeed the highlight of the film, with Steve Carell earning himself a Best Actor nomination for his portrayal of John du Pont and Mark Ruffalo being nominated for his role as Dave. Channing Tatum is no slouch, either, as Mark, and many speculated as to whether he would get his own nomination (and bring the 21 Jump Street series some additional prestige). The story does unfold fairly slowly – perhaps a little too slowly – but overall, the film is a haunting, disturbing look at a truly disturbed man.

Joe - Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan

Joe – 4/09/14 – 86%

Nicolas Cage still has it in him, as shown in Joe, a film I honestly randomly picked up after spotting at the Redbox and looking up its Rotten Tomatoes score. Cage portrays Joe Ransom, an ex-con who befriends Gary (Tye Sheridan), a teenage boy who is looking for work to help support his family, which includes a perpetually drunk, abusive father, Wade (Gary Poulter). Joe hires them both, but Wade’s drunken belligerence and disrespect gets them both fired. Desperate, Gary makes his case and convinces Joe to rehire him, and the two grow close. There’s more to the story, but I won’t go into details about it here, so as to avoid any spoilers. Needless to say, however, Joe is a welcome return to form for Nicolas Cage, whose performance lends Joe’s anger a sort of honorable quality when it comes to his fatherly bond with Gary. The remainder of the performances are also excellent, and the film looks incredible, too – gritty, desaturated, and dark, which is fitting for such a film. It’s a shame that it’s likely to go unnoticed, and films like Left Behind will overshadow it and continue to make Nicolas Cage look like nothing more than a strange fool who somehow continues to get jobs. The man can, in fact, act – he always has been, and he will continue to do so, as well.

American Sniper - Kyle Gallner, Bradley Cooper

American Sniper – 12/25/14 – 73%

Allow me to put aside the controversy for a moment about who Chris Kyle was in reality (as I honestly don’t have a say one way or another and think it’s probably a lot more nuanced than the loudest among us would like to make it out to be), and focus on the actual filmmaking of American Sniper for a bit, as I’m not so certain that people are quite getting that this film isn’t exactly glorifying the war on terrorism, as director Clint Eastwood himself has stated. The film has no questions about whether or not the war is horrific – some of the stuff depicted here is some of the most disturbing war violence I’ve ever seen committed to a film. It does not pull any punches, and in portraying the number of insane things that went on in each of Kyle’s deployments, the film definitely captures just how much war, particularly in these conditions, can mess with one’s mind and, yes, possibly even one’s perception of reality and how things should be. The film is also careful (though sometimes a bit hamfisted in its portrayal) about how Kyle’s constant deployments and obligations, both personal and external, to the military affected his home life in negative ways.

Going back to the controversies, however, the film seems to have been another one of those Rorschach test films where one’s personal perceptions have resulted in a number of divisive responses to the film, with many claiming it glorified violence, while others saw it as a portrayal of an American hero that everyone needed to see – including children, apparently, as was the case with several people in the audience when I saw the film. (Please, PLEASE think twice, thrice, and probably four times about letting children see this, as not even children are exempt from being victims of brutal violence in the film. I know some could possibly handle it, but seriously, I wouldn’t let my kids… if I had them.) American Sniper, to me, was neither vindictive towards the military nor those who served and was also not a celebration of the what has been going on in the Middle East, though many would like to portray it as one way or another. As Eastwood and star Bradley Cooper have said before, the film is more an examination of the person caught in the middle of it all, and, as that, American Sniper is very successful.

The Wind Rises - Caproni and Young Jiro

The Wind Rises – 2/21/14 – 89%

Another controversial war movie, this time coming from Hayao Miyazaki, who chose, as what is currently to be his final film, to tell the story of Jiro Horikoshi, the Japanese engineer who dreamed throughout his life of inventing flying machines, only to have his greatest invention turn out to be the infamous Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter, used by the Japanese Navy during World War II.

The controversy arose from its idealistic portrayal of Horikoshi in a positive light, despite his contributions basically making the plane a more efficient killing machine. However, the same can be said of many engineers at the time on both sides of the conflict. The movie does manage to avoid addressing this directly and even adds in a whole romantic subplot that was not true to life to fill out the story. This love story, however, seems to serve a purpose, as both the girl he’s courting, Naoko, and the project he’s pursuing are both pleasurable but doomed, as the girl suffers from tuberculosis. The film is beautifully made, visually and narratively (and is even interesting to listen to, with many of the sound effects being produced through human verbalizations). Miyazaki, who shares Horikoshi’s love for flying machines, seems to have wanted to comment on the shortness of life and pursuing one’s passions, in spite of outside pressures and perceptions and efforts.

The Imitation Game - Benedict Cumberbatch

The Imitation Game – 11/28/14 – 89%

Alan Turing, long considered the father of artificial intelligence and theoretical computer science, finally gets his due with a major motion picture biographical film, here portrayed by one of the most in demand actors working today, Benedict Cumberbatch. The Imitation Game primarily focuses on Turing’s time working with Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) and other cryptanalysts at Bletchley Park to break the Nazis’ Enigma machine, through which the Nazis communicated many of their attack plans.

As with all biographical films, liberties are taken with the story in order to make it a more engaging story, though Turing’s closeness with Clarke up to and including his proposal to her, despite his homosexuality, were true. Turing’s story is, as with many of the true story films released this year, one that deserves to be told, as well, as his reputation and war efforts were long overshadowed by his being charged for homosexual acts (illegal at the time in the UK) soon after the war was over. This was, of course, in part because the group’s operations were kept secret for some time.

Cumberbatch’s performance, though basically your typical misanthropic scientist portrayal, is incredibly moving and makes Turing one of the more likable and sympathetic eccentrics in a historical period film. Knightley is also excellent, as she usually is, as Clarke. The film portrays her as someone who is genuinely drawn to Turing and who appreciates his equal treatment of her when most everyone else in the program was ready to dismiss her based on her sex. The film as a whole – though the story beats are, if not predictable, familiar – is an excellent historical drama, regardless of how accurate it is.

The Theory of Everything - Felicity Jones, Eddie Redmayne

The Theory of Everything – 11/21/14 – 80%

I wavered between whether this one or The Imitation Game was better, as the two both explore the lives of their influential scientist characters in a very well-done, highly dramatized fashion, and, ultimately, I decided to give The Theory of Everything the edge thanks to the incredible performance on the part of Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking, a role in which he has to go from a healthy, charming young man who has developed a crush on a cute girl on campus, a married man who may not have much time left to spend with her, and then the end of their romantic involvement after years together and the challenge in being a husband and father who can no longer hold on to those he loves.

Based on the book by Jane Hawking, here played by Felicity Jones, in which Hawking discussed her life living with the brilliant scientist, the film is remarkable in the way in which it manages to make Hawking into one of the most endearing subjects of a biographical film ever put to screen, likely thanks to seeing him the way that Jane did. While Hawking is portrayed as having his eccentricities, I was very pleased to see that the film did not play those up for laughs or as a sign of some kind of dysfunction of his personality, but instead as lovable quirks that we can come to appreciate, making it all the more tragic once he begins to lose the ability to do this in quite the same way. Felicity Jones, likewise, helps us along in her very moving performance as Jane, a woman who put everything on the line and tried, as hard as she could, to remain true to Hawking. The film presents their inevitable divorce as nothing short of tragic and hard for the both of them. It’s a very well made, romantic film about one of the last people you would have ever thought of for this type of work.

Boyhood - Ellar Coltrane

Boyhood – 7/11/14 – 98%

Richard Linklater’s 12-year-spanning production coming of age story about one boy growing from age 6 to 18 is an unprecedented piece of work, one that I’m sure may result in some imitators, though it’s doubtful many of them would be as ambitious nor as impressive as this one.

There’s not exactly an overall plot to the film, as Linklater didn’t plan things out ahead of time when the filming began back in 2002 and was often finishing up script portions the day before production would begin again. This is because each segment was intended to be a snapshot of how things change and stay the same with the passage of time, rarely providing too much exposition to explain it, though the story flows seamlessly and provides enough context for things to prevent them from feeling like random decisions made to manipulate the viewer. The film does follow four central characters over the years, however: Mason Evans, Jr. (Ellar Coltrane), his mother Olivia, who has a hard time settling (Patricia Arquette), his absent but always affectionate father Mason, Sr. (Ethan Hawke), and his older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, who steals a lot of scenes early on).

The storytelling device used by Linklater has a surprisingly big influence on how we see the characters – usually years-spanning stories like this recast the child actors and show us only snippets of the most important parts of their lives, usually only at two or three time periods, but the effect of watching the very gradual changes in all four actors and their characters’ relationships with each other and the people who come and go through their lives is pretty astounding. The story isn’t anything mind-blowing and probably could have been told through conventional means, even, but that would ruin the effect and make for a much more boring film. It is true that once Mason enters his high school years, the film gets a bit maudlin, with Mason becoming a little too philosophical, but what teenager doesn’t think they’ve finally figured everything out by then? Boyhood is still quite a unique masterpiece.

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Wild – 12/05/14 – 90%

Reese Witherspoon is one of those actresses I always like to see get really good parts because she’s such a likable actress who doesn’t always get work that garners her much attention for her acting skills. Wild has luckily provided her another means of showing her talents, playing Cheryl Strayed, a woman who in 1995 went on a 1000+ mile hike down the Pacific Crest Trail in an effort to find healing from her troubled past and reflect on the death of her mother (Laura Dern), who stood out as one of the few positives in her life. The film is based on the 2012 memoir by the real Strayed (born Cheryl Nyland before changing her name to something more befitting the image she had of herself), which has itself gone on to critical acclaim. The film basically follows Cheryl as she endures the hardship of the hike, encountering people who help her out along the way, and including flashbacks to her mother and the events in Cheryl’s life that led to her feeling the need to go on this long journey. It’s a very well told, reflective story, and the film has plenty of beautiful scenery to look at, as well, with Cheryl enduring desert heat, hiking through the forests, and even reaching snowcapped mountaintops. A very simple film, but one that has a great impact.

Starred Up - Jack O'Connell

Starred Up – 8/27/14 – 99%

I rented Starred Up when I spotted its 99% rating on Vudu, having gotten some free credit for the streaming service. I actually let my first rental lapse by accident, however, and ended up wasting the credit. Luckily, I got some more free credit after that and made it a priority to remember to watch it this time. I’m very happy I did, as Starred Up is fantastic.

Taking its title from the term used in Britain for when a minor is moved up early from the Young Offender Institution into adult prison, the film centers on Eric Love (Jack O’Connell), a violent young man with a chip on his shoulder who is more than prepared to use physical force on anyone he perceives as a threat, be they prison guard or inmate. He enters into a counselling group, however, where the therapist is making some actual progress with those who attend. Some of the men in the group take Eric under their wing and help him to hash out some of his own issues, though the problems are only exacerbated by the presence of Eric’s father, who is also an inmate, and the near indifference the prison guards have about rehabilitating the people they see as expendable scum.

There are some fantastic performances here, including from Jack O’Connell, who gained more attention this year for his role in Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken but really should also be recognized for his work here, which also includes some impressively physical stuff. Rupert Friend is also excellent as Olive Baumer, the prison therapist who has earned the respect of the inmates he treats but not the people he works alongside.

Calvary - Brendan Gleeson

Calvary – 4/11/14 – 89%

“I think there’s too much talk about sins, and not enough talk about virtues.” “I think that forgiveness has been highly underrated.” The two lines that stand out both in the film’s trailer and within the film itself, and ones that I think a lot of Christians would do well to think about. In a year that was littered with major Christian-targeting films, it’s seriously a shame that a film like Calvary was lost in the shuffle.

An Irish priest, Father James, finds out through the confessional that someone in his flock intends to kill him in one week’s time as revenge for sins committed upon them by another priest. Asked why him, the man tells Father James it’s because the priest who committed the crime died already without punishment, and though he is a good man and is himself innocent, Father James’ death then will make a much larger impact on the church. Father James is then given the week to get his life in order – time which he spends reconciling with his daughter and attempting to resolve issues in the lives of the fairly wretched townspeople.

Calvary is possibly the most Christian film released this past year, with Father James often facing some truly awful things over the course of the film, sometimes having to overlook them in order to help the people. Though he is innocent of the crime he’s being told he’s atoning for, and though the film is named after the place where Christ was crucified, Father James himself is never portrayed as anything but imperfect, as well. This in no way makes him less of a good man, however, at least so far as humans can be, and what I took away from it is that, in spite of our own sins and inability to be perfect, we can still be Christ-like in our forgiveness and understanding of others in spite of their own issues, as well. It’s a fairly simple message, but it’s also one that is so easily overlooked. People often mistake morality tales as being tales of good versus evil, but the truth is that everyday life is rarely that simple.

Other than this nuanced approach to storytelling, however, Calvary is also incredibly well made and gorgeous to look at. Brendan Gleeson as Father James is rock solid in his portrayal of a man who is often angry at people for their often intentional nastiness but is gracious enough to endure it for their own sake. The townspeople can be a bit on the theatrical side, but it does serve a purpose in showing just how mad the world can be, so I can forgive it. Plus, it does lead to the film having a sly, dark sense of humor every now and then, which you kind of have to have when dealing with such ugliness. Overall, Calvary is probably one of the best, most overlooked films I saw this year, and it’s even more of a shame that there are many Christians out there who would actually see it but then be offended by its frank nature and go see something more “clean.”

Selma - David Oyelowo

Selma – 12/25/14 – 98%

I’m kind of astonished that there have been relatively few attempts to bring the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. to the big screen in a dramatized form. There have been a number of films surrounding his life, of course, but I guess there have just been too few people brave enough to make a film about the man. Selma is thus a welcome addition to the fleet of biographical films that came out in 2014 and is undoubtedly the best one, too. The film focuses on King’s efforts to march from Selma, AL to the voting registration office in Montgomery and the events that surrounded it. One of the nice touches in the film is that it also highlights some of the lesser known figures who took part and also the strain this put on King himself and his family, who rarely got to see him.

The film has garnered controversy for its portrayal of Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) as a supposed racist. I’m not so certain that was the intention nor the effect, however – it portrays him as a politician playing the game, no doubt, which I think is pretty fair, though he’s undoubtedly in favor of MLK’s causes and butts heads with Gov. George Wallace (Tim Roth), who at the time sought to uphold segregation laws in Alabama. Apart from that, though the film has been nominated for Best Picture, it’s seriously a shame that director Ava DuVernay and star David Oyelowo did not get the recognition they deserved at the Oscars for their work here. Oyelowo practically embodies King, and the film is also careful to not make him out to be too perfect, either – though undoubtedly an extraordinary person, he was, after all, still human.

Whiplash-5547.cr2

Whiplash – 10/10/14 – 95%

Whiplash was one of two films I needed to see to see all the Best Picture nominees for this year’s Oscars, and, as luck would have it, when the announcements came out, there was still one last showing in my area that very night, and so, yes, I did basically put all my plans that night on hold to go see it, even going so far as paying the guy in my carpool’s ticket fee to ensure he would go with me, as the last showing was only a little more than an hour after work and was in the complete opposite direction of home. I was not disappointed.

The story of a student, Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), at a prestigious music school who is surprised when he’s recruited by a renowned jazz conductor, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). When he enters the classroom, however, he discovers that Fletcher’s fame does not come without a price, with Fletcher not just expecting the best from his band – he’s prepared to beat it out of them, literally if he must.

The film is a fascinating but agonizing watch, and Teller’s performance makes every bit of anguish palpable to the audience. Simmons is a frightening, manipulating mentor – borderline psychotic, even, though I wouldn’t say the film goes into the territory of making him a caricature, either, which makes it all the more insane – so to speak. Whiplash is a brutal examination of the cost of greatness and whether the experience is worth it. For only his second film as director, after the acclaimed musical Guy and Madeline on a Bench, Damien Chazelle is certainly also a director to keep an eye out for.

SCI-FI/FANTASY/HORROR

Coherence - cast

Coherence – 6/20/14 – 86%

With a premise that would make Rod Serling proud, Coherence is definitely one of the more mind-bending films on this list: A dinner party, taking place on the night when a passing comet is most visible with the naked eye, is suddenly interrupted by a series of reality-disrupting anomalies, not the least of which is the appearance of parallel versions of themselves. In the confusion their relationships begin to unravel as they question just who is from one of the other parallel houses and, perhaps more troublingly, who among them is actually from the same house.

Filmed like a mumblecore drama with a puzzling sci-fi bent, Coherence can sometimes begin to grate on the nerves, particularly because most of the drama is derived from these characters’ selfishness and little drama fits with one another. Your enjoyment of the film may only extend so far as you can tolerate these self-absorbed characters and the way they constantly talk over one another, but, truth be told, by the end of the film, I did feel that it was a necessary element to play up, and I’m one of those people who cannot even comprehend people when they talk at once. None of these guys are entirely likable, and their fights, whether it be from their own universe or from another, brings into question just how well you know the people in your life and how, with one slight difference, those relationships might just fall apart. The real masterstroke of the film is in its execution, however, and in its ambiguity about any clear resolution about who these people really are.

Big Hero 6 - the team hugging Baymax

Big Hero 6 – 11/07/14 – 90%

While it didn’t capture the hearts and minds in the same way that Frozen or even Wreck-It Ralph did, Big Hero 6 is still a welcome addition to the Disney canon, and it’s also the first film adaptation of a Marvel property Disney’s feature animation studio has had a hand in, and they even adhere to some of the rules of making a Marvel film. That’s pretty cool.

The plot is a bit standard and not entirely unpredictable, with Hiro Hamada, the film’s protagonist, gathering a group of friends to form a superhero group and uncover the identity of a kabuki-masked villain hiding in their futuristic city of San Fransokyo (a combination of San Francisco and Tokyo, of course). That’s all well and fun, but the heart of the film lies with Baymax, the huggable, inflatable robot that Hiro’s brother, Tadashi, was working on before his untimely death. With Baymax the one connection Hiro has to his brother, who had encouraged Hiro to pursue is interest in science and even managed to help him get into college, Disney really goes for the lovability factor and, with Scott Adsit providing the kind robot’s voice, they definitely achieve it. The film may lack memorable songs and all that, but Big Hero 6 still contains plenty of thrills, heart, and some truly fantastic visuals.

As a sidenote, it was also the first film screening I went to, where I got to see it with unfinished animation. It was truly an exciting experience because I got to see it with some of the people made the film, too, including John Lasseter, who I was in touching distance of until I realized I probably shouldn’t. Still, I got to give my input (suggested they develop the side characters more), and help make the movie better. So, yeah. You’re welcome.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 - Jennifer Lawrence

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 – 11/21/14 – 65%

I don’t know why everyone complained about this one. It seems like most of the negative reviews of this film were directed at its inconclusive ending. People, it says “Part 1” right in the title. You knew it wasn’t the end, but at least it was a complete story, and fans of the books will be happy to know that the film follows the book very closely and with only minor changes – including one that I thought was for the better, one that affords fan favorite Effie Trinket (and Elizabeth Banks) some well-deserved screen time. One was perhaps less desirable, which does take place in the end of the film that, I feel, diminishes the impact of what the book portrayed so well.

That didn’t overall diminish my enjoyment of this first half, however, as we get even more of Jennifer Lawrence’s amazing portrayal of Katniss Everdeen. She gets some of her most powerful stuff to do in this film – the hospital scene in the battle zone alonegot me all teared up – and there are some powerful scenes of the rebellion across Panem. The lack of an actual competition, as in the first two films, may cause some to feel like the film lacks forward momentum, but this is the film where Katniss is recovering, seeing the devastation of what the Capitol has done, and building her up for the second half, which will definitely make up for those who wanted more action from Part 1.

I’m admittedly putting this here because I’m such a fan, so I can understand why some may not feel as strongly about this as I did, but I really did enjoy Mockingjay, Part 1 quite a bit.

The One I Love - Elisabeth Moss, Mark Duplass

The One I Love – 1/21/14 – 80%

Similarly to Coherence, The One I Love is a low budget indie flick that calls into question one’s relationships and how fragile those bond are. This film, however, puts it in a lot more comedic light, with a troubled couple seeking counselling and being sent off to an idyllic vacation home as a last resort. There, however, the couple discovers that the treatment they’ve been set up for is not just unorthodox, it’s downright confusing, both logically and emotionally.

If you don’t care about SPOILERS, here they are: The guest house basically grants them access to an alternate version of their spouse, one who, it turns out, is more idyllic than the other. This has the couple rekindling their affection for one another, only the version of the other is not exactly the person they married, either. END SPOILERS.

The film is very well acted by both Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss, and the premise leads to some amusing observations about relationships. This was another one of those movies that I rented out of curiosity, having never heard of it before, and I was not disappointed.

Under the Skin - Reflection

Under the Skin – 4 /04/14 – 85%

Scarlett Johansson continues to impress with her choices in roles, here playing an alien being who takes on a human form and reeling in men off the street before dumping them into lair where they are… digested? Johansson spent a lot of time actually doing this with real men on the streets of Glasgow, Scotland, with footage of this actually making it into the film, but that’s not really the most intriguing part about this story – that comes when Johansson’s character begins to develop a feeling of empathy for her victims.

Based on the 2000 novel by Michel Faber, the film feels to me like an analogy for those caught up in the life of prostitution, with the unnamed woman coming to terms with these actions and discovering her body on her own terms for the first time. Whatever your reading of it, though, the film is undoubtedly a very facsinating work of sci-fi horror.

The Tale of Princess Kaguya - princess

The Tale of Princess Kaguya – 10/17/14 – 100%

Possibly one of Studio Ghibli’s most visually ambitious films yet, The Tale of Princess Kaguya tells the story about an elderly peasant couple who come across a baby girl who grew out of a bamboo shoot and raise the girl as their own, though her rapid aging makes her very much unlike the other children in their village. Her father comes upon some gold in the same way he discovered Kaguya, and takes this as a sign that she needs to be raised as royalty. Kaguya is then forced to move into the city, away from her friends and a boy she has grown close to, Sutemaru, to be raised as a princess and marry into royalty.

Apart from its beautiful, delicate art direction, The Tale of Princess Kaguya now and then taps into the sadder emotions of one of director Isao Takahata’s previous films, Grave of the Fireflies. Kaguya’s situation reflects how a lot of parents feel about their children – that they are truly special and deserving of only the finest things, which can oftentimes blind them to what their children actually want, particularly if they are not nearly as extravagant. Heartbreak takes form in the ways in which this hinders the girl’s own desires, and her rapid aging means that she only has a short time to spend here. This can either symbolize how quickly parents feel they lose their children or even the tragic ticking clock some children face when diagnosed with a terminal illness, which was my takeaway. However you take it, however, there’s no questioning The Tale of Princess Kaguya is yet another astonishing masterpiece from Studio Ghibli.

Edge of Tomorrow - Emily Blunt, Tom Cruise

Edge of Tomorrow – 6/06/14 – 90%

Based on the novel All You Need is Kill and since retitled for the home video market as Live. Die. Repeat.: Edge of Tomorrow, this film has certainly had an inexplicably bumpy ride, with Warner Bros. considering the film to be somewhat of a disappointment at the box office and somehow blaming this on the title. To be honest, I don’t exactly know why the film didn’t latch on with audiences, if that was truly the case, because it has all the elements you’d want from a summer blockbuster: Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt as an awesome female hero in a mechanical suit and carrying big ass sword, alien invasions, plenty of action, and a really interesting gimmick wherein the Tom Cruise, every time he dies, he wakes up at the beginning of the same day.

Yes, it’s the same gimmick as Groundhog Day, but while the mechanics and general premise are the same, and there’s even a romance and aspect of getting the chance to become a better man, the film itself is still a very different beast, and, hey, this time you know the why and how of the phenomenon, which actually factors into how the alien invasion is being carried out and how the central characters will put an end to it.

Overall, Edge of Tomorrow is just a highly entertaining flick, however, with Tom Cruise playing against type early on as a cowardly government bureaucrat forced into combat and Emily Blunt playing the aforementioned badass soldier who must train Cruise and whose prowess and striking image gives hope to humanity. If you are among those who didn’t go see it in theatres, do yourself a favor and at least rent it. You might be surprised.

X-Men: Days of Future Past - Nicholas Hoult, James McAvoy, Hugh Jackman

X-Men: Days of Future Past – 5/23/14 – 91%

This movie was freaking amazing. I was so happy to have Bryan Singer back at the helm after Matthew Vaughn had to back out and move into a producer’s role. Days of Future Past may be the most ambitious superhero film to be made outside of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, taking the original comic book story and adapting it into a single epic film that ties the First Class timeline to the original film timeline and basically makes everything better again. Those of you who did not see this but also hated what The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine did to the timeline will be very pleased with this film.

Much of the returning cast from the first three films come back, as does a good portion of the First Class cast, with Wolverine being sent back in time from a Sentinel-ruled future to the 1970s to convince the younger Professor X and Magneto to work together and stop Mystique from killing the Sentinel’s inventor, Bolivar Trask, believing that this will put preemptively stop the government from moving forward with the project as a result of his assassination at the hands of a mutant.

Somehow Days of Future Past manages to cram in a ton of cameos while also introducing new mutants along the way without falling into the same trap that The Last Stand did. It’s probably because volume wasn’t necessarily that film’s main issue – it was story, and Days is definitely a lot more focused in that area, spending most of its time in the 70s and only occasionally going back into the future to provide some context for the urgency of Wolverine’s mission (and provide us with some action, too). The actors are consistently very good to excellent, with James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender in particular still standing out as the younger versions of Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen’s characters. Once those two are no longer able to play their roles (and it’s increasingly looking like those days are nearly here), I will be happy knowing that these two will still likely be around to carry the franchise – as they are in the already filming Apocalypse. Yes, I am excited.

The Babadook - Essie Davis

The Babadook – 11/28/14 – 97%

For such a silly title, one might be forgiven for not taking this Australian horror film very seriously. However, The Babadook has achieved widespread acclaim, with star Essie Davis being singled out as someone deserving of a lot more attention as single mother Amelia, who is still grieving from her husband’s death from an accident that occurred on the way to the hospital while she was giving birth. Davis really is remarkable in the role, at once being sympathetic, sweet, creepy, and even downright terrifying. Noah Wiseman, as her troubled son, is no slouch for a little kid, either, and the relationship his character has with his mother is incredibly moving. The film makes great use of lighting and tension, rarely taking the easy or clichéd way out in evoking scares from the audience – it’s all about the ambience and performance here, though there’s also some pretty incredible visual work going on, too. The titular monster, hailing from a disturbing fairytale book in the movie, is also going to be remembered by the film’s end as an all-time great.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes - Caesar

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – 7/11/14 – 90%

Nobody expected Rise of the Planet of the Apes to be as good as it was, but this did result in high hopes for its sequel, Dawn, which picks up a few years after the end of the first, a time when a horrible disease has killed off all but a few human survivors. The apes, meanwhile, have continued to live out their lives in the forest, forming a small and idyllic civilization until their paths cross with a group of humans seeking to restart a dam in the ape territory that would provide them with power.

Andy Serkis returns in the motion capture role of Caesar, who remains wary of the humans but is willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, so long as there is a mutual respect between the two groups, which also means no guns. As always, a few bad eggs on both sides have differing ideals, with Koba in particular, who had spent his life as a lab experiment before Caesar freed him. Paranoia and distrust, naturally, leads to war between the two groups.

The effects in the film, while not perfect, are still astoundingly good, sometimes good enough to fool you, with the motion captured actors and visual effects artists working together to bring these characters to life. There are some truly beautiful and striking images throughout the film, as well. The humans in the story could be a bit more interesting as characters, but this doesn’t detract from the overall film. Caesar alone continues to be one of the more fascinating characters being explored in films.

Song of the Sea - Saoirse

Song of the Sea – 12/19/14 – 97%

I nearly didn’t see this one, but, luckily, the local art house theatre had a screening scheduled soon after the Oscar nominees were announced. Song of the Sea is, I think, the most deserving of the nominees, as it combines a truly magical, moving story with some gorgeous visual designs, and it also has the potential to appeal to a very wide audience, as well.

Based on the Celtic myth of selkies, Song of the Sea resembles what you might imagine a Studio Ghibli film would be like if the studio were based in Ireland instead of Japan, using the mythology to tell the more relatable story about a boy, Ben, and his younger tagalong sister, Saoirse, whose true nature as a selkie holds the key to bringing back to life back to the mythical beings who have long since been turned to stone by a witch known as Macha and also bring happiness back to their father, who is still mourning the loss of his wife long ago. Time is not on their side, however, as Saorise’s health continues to deteriorate the longer she is unable to fulfill her true purpose.

Song of the Sea is a truly phenomenal work of art that has some very entertaining characters and truly beautiful imagery to tell its story. As a whole, the film is an even more impressive follow-up Cartoon Saloon’s previously Oscar-nominated film, The Secret of Kells, which was already pretty great itself. It just didn’t leave me quite with the same sense of awe that this film did.

Interstellar - Matthew McConaughey

Interstellar – 11/05/14 – 72%

Long? Yes. Prone to pontificating? Yes. Gorgeous to look at? Undboutedly. A great argument for why we must continue to explore space? Again, yes, most definitely.

Interstellar ended up dividing audiences as to whether or not it was worth the 169 minutes it takes to watch the film from beginning to end. A few reasonable people did call into question some of the story beats, such as one turn of events late into the film that left even me questioning what the heck was happening and why. They also questioned the film’s points about love and the power love can have over us, which I guess sounds very corny, but I think makes sense in the context of the film. A few even more picky audience members felt the need to debate whether the film was scientifically or even logically accurate to reality, which… I don’t even know how to answer that question for so many reasons.

Ultimately, however, I’m choosing this as my top sci-fi film not because of its lack of flaws or any logic that went into making it. I’m choosing it because it’s a film that we actually need in this day and age where the point of space exploration, be it manned or unmanned, is being called into question by politicians and jaded everyday people who don’t see the point in going beyond what’s right in front of us. Not even recent events like landing a probe on a comet or eccentric personalities like Elon Musk and his company Space X are seemingly able to change people’s minds, many of them latching on to conspiracy theories that purport that we never even went to the moon. That’s exactly why I really think Christopher Nolan was smart to throw in that supposedly corny love factor.

Interstellar - Black hole

Love, you see, is ultimately the prime motivator for the astronauts in the film. They face a future where a disease has made it virtually impossible to grow many different crops, and it continues to mutate and affect more and more every day. The earth simply can no longer afford to sustain human life for much longer, and it’s time to either move on or prepare for extinction. NASA, however, comes in with a secret mission to send a group of people into a black hole, which they believe will prove to be a gateway to other worlds – some of which may be able to sustain human life. Coming out of retirement, former NASA pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey, who is fantastic here) makes the toughest decision of his life when he decides to take on the mission and leave his two children behind, even if it means never seeing them again, and even if he does, there’s no guarantee that they will be the same, as the effects of time dilation means he will experience time slower than they will, with decades potentially passing for them even if it’s only a year for him. Why do it then? Love, pure and simple – because risking his own life to find a new life for them is the greatest gift he could give his children, even if they don’t fully understand it now.

That’s some powerful stuff, giving some context for the personal journeys that these pioneers go on as they explore the unknown. There are currently plans for a manned mission to Mars, and while the whole Mars One mission itself is pretty sketchy, let’s set that aside, as a lot of attention has been placed on Natalie Joy Lawler, a 36-year-old mother of two from Australia who is among the 100 candidates to possibly be one of the first people to colonize Mars, with many people calling her selfish to abandon her children (who, mind you, would be adults by the time she would theoretically leave the earth). The same could be said for many explorers, however, who left their homes and loved ones behind in the name of finding new lands, regardless of whether their destinations were on earth or in space. Is it truly selfish if the ultimate goal is to help with the betterment of humanity, or is it a show of immense love? I think that the latter is the ultimate stance Interstellar takes, and that’s ultimately what may be getting lost amongst all the incredible imagery playing out on screen – and it truly is some fantastic imagery.

I may not be choosing the #1 film of the year this year, and while it may not be the best film, objectively, of 2014, Interstellar is certainly the film that I appreciated most.

Interstellar - home life

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