Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Top Ten Films of 2014 - (plus three quick reviews)

Before I get to the definitive list of the very best movies of 2014, I want to give a few quick-hit reviews of movies I saw this last weekend in cramming for the Oscars.

American Sniper is Clint Eastwood's dramatic look at real-life Navy Seal sniper Chris Kyle and his four-tour duty in Iraq.  I enjoyed this movie and it was well acted by Cooper and well-shot by Eastwood but I wasn't blown away by it. While it did show the impact that war can have on the homefront, it didn't really do anything new. Cooper is excellent though and Miller is effective (and great to look at). A pretty-good 3.5 out of 5 JRs for a film that probably didn't deserve a Best Picture nomination.

The Theory of Everything chronicles the amazing life of Professor Stephen Hawking and showcases his battle with ALS that renders his entire body nearly paralyzed.  Eddie Redmayne (a star in the making) gives the second best acting performance of the year in a physically demanding role. He manages to portray the demise of Hawking's muscle control without making the performance a caricature of the professor. Felicity Jones is lovely and believable as his loving partner who devotes much of her time to care for the ailing professor.  While the movie did not get into the science and theories of Hawking as much as some people would like to have seen, I didn't really feel bothered by that lack of depth. The acting of Redmayne and Jones is enough to make this film worth seeing and earn it a 4 JR rating.

Still Alice should give Julianne Moore her first-ever and well-deserved Oscar win for Best Actress. Moore plays Alice Howland a linguistics professor at Columbia University who tragically is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease. We watch as Alice travels down the sad path of forgetting everything that means so much to her.  Moore is amazing in her ability to convey what's going on in her head without saying a word. You can see the gradual loss that she deals with and the way it impacts her family, particularly her husband (Alec Baldwin) and two daughters (Kate Bosworth and Kristen Stewart). 4 out of 5 JRs for a depressing but moving film that makes you cherish each and every day of life. Moore joins Reese Witherspoon in delivering the best female performances of the year.

Now on to THE LIST. What follows are the ten best films released in 2014 that I personally have seen. I managed to make it to a pretty healthy 34 movies this past year. A marked improvement over 2013. I'm sure many of you will question what is on the list and what was left off.  I diverted from the Academy's view of the 8 Best Picture nominees by selecting only 3 films from that list.  Feel free to voice your opinion as I reveal the list in descending order as always.

#10 - Noah

Darren Aronofsky's best movie in quite some time chronicles the biblical story of Noah (Russell Crowe) . I know many of you A: did not like this movie and B: forgot it was even released in 2014, but I really did enjoy the epic spectacle of Aronofsky's work and I thought Crowe, Emma Watson and especially Jennifer Connelly were all excellent and believable in their roles. If you missed it in the theater give it a try on On-Demand. I'm eager to see what Aronofsky decides to direct next.

#9 - Godzilla

The big bad lizard is back! Director Gareth Edwards made Godzilla relevant once again by making this visual-effects-heavy blockbuster that features a lot of epic monster-on-monster combat sequences. Bryan Cranston is effective in his first post-Breaking Bad role and the rest of the cast is adequate enough to let the real CGI heroes shine.  This movie has a lot of Pacific Rim DNA but allows a lot of the action to occur during the day (especially in the final battle sequence)  The LOTR effects team (Weta Digital) brings their A-game once again and I for one am looking forward to a sequel.

#8 - The Lego Movie

Everything is (kinda) Awesome! Except for the fact that the Oscar voters totally snubbed this film by not including it in the Best Animated Feature category. This was easily the best animated movie (and funniest film) of 2014 and featured a large voice cast at the top of their game. A mix of live action at the end of the film was a nice touch leaving a message for kids to be creative and think outside the box to succeed in life. Phil Lord and Christopher Miller brought a breath of fresh air to animation and the Academy should be ashamed of themselves for not honoring this achievement.

#7 - Wild

The true story of Cheryl Strayed's epic hike along the Pacific Coast Trail made for the perfect launch vehicle for Reese Witherspoon's comeback tour. Dallas Buyers Club director Jean-Marc Vallee takes us into the wild along with Witherspoon as we experience her struggles along the trail and find out about her troubling back-story that involves losing her mother (played with such enthusiasm and good nature by Laura Dern).  The movie flows well and serves as a believable "finding yourself" story. Reese gives a powerful and authentic performance that has her in striking range for another Best Actress trophy. I'm glad that the Academy got the Supporting Actress category right and honored Dern's excellent performance with her second Oscar nomination.

#6 - The Imitation Game

One of these years, Benedict Cumberbatch is going to win an Oscar. I guarantee this. However, Eddie Redmayne or Michael Keaton are poised to snatch his prize next month despite a flawless performance from B.C. as English mathematician Alan Turing. Cumberbatch gives Turing a nuanced, brilliant yet troubled embodiment in his performance. Paired with excellent chemistry from Keira Knightley, the duo help provide the pulse of the code-breaking effort of the 1940's designed to end WWII. The group effort to break the Enigma code makes for fascinating film. Kudos for Alexandre Desplat's moving and powerful score which deserves the Best Original Score prize.

#5 - Into the Woods

Rob Marshall brings another Stephen Sondheim musical to the big screen and does it with an all-star cast on board. This film is a great example of extending the scope of a play to the larger canvas that a movie can provide. The inter-cutting between storylines in this musical is far more easier to execute with a full editing team at your disposal. Johnny Depp seems a bit out of place in his brief role as The Big Bad Wolf but that is a minor defect in a wonderfully produced film. All of the singing is performed remarkably (especially Emily Blunt, Meryl Streep and Anna Kendrick) and makes the journey into the woods a memorable experience for viewers of all ages.

#4 - Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Andy Serkis and his motion capture brethren help bring a race of living, breathing, emoting apes to life in this movie. The cast of characters (including Jason Clarke and Gary Oldman) are solid but maintain more of a supporting role in this movie. The effects team at Weta Digital (really... these guys are fucking GOOD!) perfectly transitioned the actor's movements into digital primate representations. It's amazing to see how many key scenes featured animated apes that actually deliver believable performances that make you as the audience feel their struggle. Adding real sympathy to CGI characters is starting to become a trademark for Weta and their work in this movie becomes the heart and soul of the narrative. This is one of the best action movies I've seen in some time and should be viewed by anyone who missed it in the theater.

#3 - Boyhood

I won't fault the Academy when they give the 2014 Best Picture to Richard Linklater and his team for their technical achievement in creating a blow-by-blow look at adolescence. This movie is REALLY good and powerful, especially for a divorced father like myself. It's amazing to see a child grow 12 years in the span of a few hours. Seeing this film reminded me both of my childhood and the journey that my own children are about to embark on. Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke give great performances and help ground the story during the decade-plus of narrative, but it's really Ellar Coltrane that makes Boyhood succeed as much as it does. Linklater totally lucked out in casting a young actor that doesn't try to be showy in his performance and appears on-screen as a regular average believable adolescent/teenager.

#2 - Whiplash

The best pound-for-pound fight I saw over the last year was held in an auditorium and featured furious drumming. Whiplash is Damien Chazelle's high-octane look at a fictional jazz conservatory and the battle that rages between star pupil (Miles Teller) and teacher (J.K. Simmons). It's incredible to see a movie about music (albeit a characterization and not what ACTUAL jazz performances are like) become such a visceral experience for the audience. Chazelle lets his two star performers trade barbs throughout the practice and performance sessions. Simmons is the early aggressor and you can tell he relishes this role he's been given. The character acting veteran finally found the perfect role for him and delivers the best performance of 2014 (most likely ending with his shoe-in Oscar win next month). Teller manages to hold his own as well and helps bring a manic energy to the epic final sequence of the film. This is a must-see movie (you'll probably need to wait for on-demand to catch it now) and is just a hair below the quality of...

#1 - Interstellar

...Christopher Nolan's latest masterpiece. Interstellar is a bold ambitious tale of exploration,  love,pioneering and the human desire to delve into the unknown.  Matthew McConaughey proves again that he is the "it-actor" right now in delivering a touching performance as Cooper that balances being a father with being an innovator. Nolan's wonderful plot leads us into the depths of space and time on a true adventure that has repercussions both abroad and at home for Cooper and his family.  The theories of relative time and wormholes are put to good use in a film where the science comes to the forefront and is somewhat believable.  Nolan's use of minimal CGI helps add to the realism of space discovery and his work with master composer Hans Zimmer (who is now solidly in the Big 4 with John Williams, James Horner and Howard Shore) perfectly sets the tension and drama. The surprise casting of a key character in the middle of the movie adds a nice touch. Like Gravity last year, the best film experience of 2014 can be found in outer space. Christopher Nolan has hit out-of-the-park homeruns with his last four films and I can't wait for the next one.

Giddy-Up TARS!

Thanks for reading over the past year. There are quite a few movies to look forward to in 2015 (Star Wars Episode 7 anyone??).  Stay tuned for the 2nd Annual ARCademy Awards show I plan on doing with Omar Latiri at ARC where I will go over my list again and pick my favorites for the upcoming Academy Awards. If you missed last year's show you can re-listen here.

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