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A Recap of The Best Movies of 2014
I honestly don't know why it takes me so long to write my Best of....lists. Maybe it's because I try to catch up at the last minute on all the movies so many other people say are the best of the year. Or maybe it's because studios hate Warner Robins so much, that they refuse to release the supposed gems in our neck of the woods. For that reason, and many others, you will not see movies like Foxcatcher, Locke, Selma, and Birdman on this list, because I have not seen any of those movies (yet!).
With that said, I was still able to catch a surprising number of excellent movies from last year, and a few of them were summer blockbusters (2014 was a far better summer movie season than 2013). First, we'll start with the Honorable Mentions.
Oculus (A 3-star horror movie that earned an extra half a star after repeated viewings)
Big Hero 6 (This was just plain fun! I look forward to watching it again)
How to Train Your Dragon 2 (Not quite as terrific as the original movie, but still, it's pretty darn wonderful!)
The Den (A dark and gory horror movie that's both very scary and well-written!)
Boyhood (Apart from a few mild nitpicks that I have, this is a poetic and sincerely written coming-of-age movie that spent 12 years in the making).
And now on to the main event. Here are the 13 very best movies that I saw last year. Enjoy!
13. American Sniper: Here it is. The movie that's been the cause for a surprising amount of controversy. Actor Seth Rogen compared it to the Nazi propaganda movie at the end of Inglorious Bastards (did he even see this movie?), while others have said that if you decided to see this movie over Selma, that you're a racist. Yes, I went to go see American Sniper, because it was highly recommended to me by people that I know and love. And yes, I did love the movie, because it is a hard-hitting, blisteringly intense, and exceptionally well-written character study. Bradley Cooper turns in his best performance in ages, and director Clint Eastwood wisely keeps politics out of the movie and turns it into an intimate and riveting portrait of a man who sacrificed so much in the name of "God, country, and family." It is a very good movie. Give it a try!
12. The Babadook: Hands down the best horror movie of 2014, The Babadook tells the story of a single mother who's being stalked by the titular beast after reading a children's book to her son about the creature. Essie Davis turns in a phenomenal performance as the mother, and debut filmmaker Jennifer Kent creates a number of insanely frightening scenarios without resorting to cheap jump scares and buckets of blood. It's a fantastic horror movie with a story that has a surprising amount of heart. This is one for the DVD collection.
11. The Guest: It's dark. It's violent. It's wickedly amoral. I kind of loved it. Dan Stevens turns in a magnificent performance as David Collins, a mysterious stranger who knocks on a family's house, claiming to have been friends with their eldest son, who was killed in Iraq. Is David sincere, or is there something he's not telling the family? I wouldn't dream of revealing the truth, but director Adam Winegard (who made 2013's atrocious You're Next) directs the proceedings with such style and heart-stopping energy that it's impossible to look away from it. Even the movie's ridiculous, are-you-kidding-me final scene made me smile. The Guest is a terrific entertainment, scary, exciting, and just a good-ol'-time at the movies. I can't wait to see it again.
10. Blue Ruin: A sparse yet darkly funny and utterly electrifying revenge thriller, Blue Ruin stars Macon Blair as Dwight, a scruffy hobo who embarks on a quest for vengeance once news reaches him that the man who murdered his parents is being released from jail. What sounds like a pretty routine premise is executed with a deft and unconventional touch by writer and director Jeremy Saulnier, who has a way of setting up scenes we'd expect to see in a movie like this, but then has them play out in excitingly unpredictable ways. All of this is carried by an extraordinary and expressive performance by Macon Blair, who makes Dwight into a seemingly timid man who's capable of savage acts of violence, and is prone to making many mistakes whilst on his quest. He's a complex, flawed, yet strangely sympathetic figure who keeps us riveted all the way up to the film's bleak and grisly conclusion. Beautifully photographed by the director, tautly edited by Juliet Bloch, and featuring set-pieces that are as bloody as they are thrilling (an early scene set inside a bathroon stands out), Blue Ruin is a terrifically entertaining film noir, and is one of the very best movies of 2014.
9. Captain America: The Winter Soldier: Just thinking about this movie makes me smile. I saw it twice in theaters, and the second time was just as rewarding as the first. Nicely balancing thrilling action set-pieces with some surprisingly weighty ideas, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is everything you could hope for in a summer blockbuster and more. What's surprising is that it's not even the best Marvel movie released in 2014. We'll get there in a few minutes, but for right now.....
8. The Lego Movie: I saw this movie the same weekend I saw Vampire Academy. Is it any wonder I hold this movie in such high regard? All joking aside, The Lego Movie is hands down the most visually breathtaking animated movie of last year (which is saying something, given that 2014 was the year of How to Train Your Dragon 2 and Big Hero 6), and it's positively ingenious in the way it uses a discarded stick of krazy glue as a weapon of great destructive powers. What really makes the movie so wonderful is its infectiously playful and good-natured tone. It's hard not to smile with a movie that plays out with all the zeal and imagination of a young child playing with the Lego toys (I hope I didn't spoil anything there).
7. A Most Wanted Man: Now here's something unusual: A spy movie that keeps you on the edge of your seat without the use of car chases or shoot-outs. Based on the book by John le Carré, the movie stars the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman as a German Intelligence officer who's keeping tabs on a Chechen immigrant named Issa (Grigoriy Dobrygin). What's enagaging about the movie is that we're never really sure what Issa's motives are. Is he sincerely trying to make a new life for himself, or does he have something darker in mind? Carried by Hoffman's spell-binding performance and an A-list cast (which includes Rachel McAdams, Robin Wright, and William Defoe), A Most Wanted Man keeps you absorbed from the first frame to the movie's haunting final shot.
6. Force Majeure: One of the most visually bewitching movies of 2014, Force Majeure tells the story of a family vacationing at a French ski resort. The turning point in the movie comes when the family sits out on a patio of a resturaunt eating lunch, and they witness an avalanche heading straight at them. The wife stays and protects the children. The husband grabs his gloves and phone and hightails it out of there. Observant, funny, and visually intoxicating to boot (the climax of the movie, in which the family skis down a mountain during a heavy snowstorm, must be seen to be believed), Force Majeure is a magnificent movie that every film buff should see (and don't let the fact that it's a foreign movie turn you away from it).
5. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: One word: Epic! I enjoyed 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes, but Dawn is a far better film. The movie gets off to a terrific start with a hypnotic sequence where the apes go hunting for food, and from there, it tells an exciting and multilayered story that deals with themes of honor and family. There are moments in this movie that remain engrained in my mind, including a magnificent single shot sequence where a veangeful ape takes control of a tank during a battle and uses it against his enemies. I want to write more about it (and I will (hopefully)), but until then, you'll just have to see it for yourself and discover what a treasure this movie is.
4. X-Men: Days of Future Past: What can I tell you? This was a great year for summer blockbusters. That's because movies like Captain America 2, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and now X-Men: Days of Future Past deliver the action movie goods, and give us something to think about afterwards. Not only is this the best film in the X-Men franchise (and a breath of fresh air after those dreadful Wolverine movies), it's also the best blockbuster of the summer. It's exciting. It's funny. It has great special-effects. It has an epic and thematically rich story. You want to know more about it, I already wrote a review on it. I can't add much more to the discussion than what I already wrote last May.
3. Life Itself: Hmmm, a film critic putting a documentary about another film critic on his best of the year list? Who'da thunk it? In all honesty, Roger Ebert is the reason why I wanted to write movie reviews in the first place. I grew up reading his reviews and watching his shows, and seeing this movie (and how he faced what he knew were his final months on Earth) has only deepened my respect for the man. While director Steve James paints Ebert in a positive light, he doesn't shy away from showing us his faults either. The result is a three-dimensional portrait of the single most influential film critic of all-time. It's heartbreaking to see everything Ebert endured during his final days, but he faced it with such courage and acceptance that, as hard as it is to watch at times, it's also somewhat inspiring. Ebert wasn't just a great writer, he was a wondeful human being, and when the time comes to face my own death, I can only hope to accept it with as much grace as he did.
2. Ida: Movie magic! Ida is a quiet movie (you almost have to try to listen for the musical score), but that's what makes it so special. It manages to say more with its silent passages than most Hollywood movies manage with their over-scored theatrics. Newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska is a real find as the title character, a young nun who visits her aunt before taking her vows and learns that not only is she a Jew, but her parents were also murdered during WW2. Director Paweł Pawlikowski tells the story with passion and grace, and imbues the movie with some of the most striking B&W images ever committed to celluloid. And while Trzebuchowska is very good in her acting debut (she has said that she has no interest in pursuing a career in acting), it's Agata Kulesza as Ida's aunt who steals the show. Here's an actress who can say so much with her eyes alone. Beautiful, thought-provoking, and absolutely exquisite, Ida is a masterpiece and one of the crowning jewels of 2014!
For the longest time, Ida was, for me, the #1 movie of 2014, and it wasn't until I rented a movie on iTunes last December that it was knocked down into second place. I didn't think it would be possible, but my number one film of the year was a movie so raw and haunting, and yet so darkly funny, that I haven't stopped thinking about it since seeing it (and it's been almost a month already).
Curious? Are you ready to find out what it is? Here we go. The absolute best movie that I saw in 2014 is (drum roll please)................
"Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved.
Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned."
-- St. Augustine
The Ireland-set drama Calvary begins inside a confessional, with an unseen man confessing to Father James (Brendan Gleeson, simply extraordinary), rather explicitly, that he was sexually abused by a man of the cloth, and how since the priest that wronged him is already dead, he plans to exact revenge by killing James in one week's time. How does the good father respond? He tells the bishop of his diocese, who tells him that since the man wasn't penitent, the conversation wasn't protected by the sacramental seal (Hey, a filmmaker who actually got it right!). Other than that, he goes about tending his flock, and the movie follows him as he encounters the locals in the small Irish town of Sligo.
This is where the St. Augustine quote above (which is what opens the movie) comes into play. It is, of course, in reference to the two thieves who were crucified with Christ, and it enriches the movie's thesis of what it means to live by faith, and what it means to think it's enough to just go to church every Sunday. The people of James's congregation are an insanely loony bunch (one rich man pees on a painting in front of Father James), but it's to the credit of writer and director John Michael McDonagh that he nevers turns them into cartoonish caricatures, and the scenes between Father James and the people of Sligo feature some of the best dialogue that I've heard all year.
Take the scene where James visits a young man guilty of cannibalism in prison, or the scene where a cynical atheist doctor tells James a story (about a young child who was the victim of a bad surgery) that explains his disbelief in God, or the conversations James has with a young, deeply-religious Italian widow. Some of the best scenes in the movie are between James and his daughter (he was married before becoming a priest), played by the luminous Kelly Reilly. One of my personal favorite scenes from the movie comes when the two of them talk in a confessional about her recent suicide attempt, and she asks him if she would have been damned for all eternity had she succeeded (I won't reveal his answer, but it is one of the best lines in the film).
Then, there's the movie's final 20 minutes. It would be criminal for me to reveal what happens, but the acting, writing, cinematography, and musical score are so pitch perfect that it easily qualifies as the best final 20 minutes of 2014, and the film's wordless and hauntingly scored final scene is so emotionally wrenching that it literally put tears in my eyes.
How refreshing it is to see a movie about faith that isn't sacchrine, heavy-handed, or simply preaching to the choir. The Catholic in me is especially happy to see a movie about the Catholic Church that doesn't go out of its way to villainize it (this is a FAR better movie than 1995's horribly overrated Priest). It doesn't shy away from the church's history of abuse (the movie is actually quite angry about it), but it also acknowledge's that there are still many good priests in the church, and how many of them suffer for the sins of their less faithful priests. This is a darkly funny, superbly acted, luminously photographed movie that is rather thoughtful about its subject matter. It's a jewel of a movie that will be, and should be, treasured in the years to come.
(Special Mention: Short Term 12: Yes, this is a 2013 release, but I didn't see it in time for my Best of 2013 list, and it deserves to be mentioned here. Flawless and unforgettable, if you have not seen Short Term 12 yet, do so now. Words can not even begin to describe what a masterpiece this movie is!)
So there you have it; my list of the Best movies of 2014.
As I did last year, I also want to mention the other movies I saw that weren't really good enough to be on the Best of the Year list, but deserve mentioning anyway.
We'll start with......
Biggest Guilty Pleasures of 2014
As Above, So Below (What can I say? I had a lot of fun with this movie. I'm not going to argue that it's a good movie, but I'm not going to lie and say I had a bad time with it, either.)
Cold Comes The Night (I saw this movie last January, and I thought it was pretty decent. Is it goofy? Does it have a wildly pretentious title? Does it have plot holes? Does it feel just a wee bit rushed during the climax? Yes, yes, yes, and yes. In spite of all that, I liked the performances turned in by Alice Eve and Brian Cranston, and I also like the movie.)
Most underrated movie of 2014
A Walk Among the Tombstones (This is a well-directed and well-acted movie, unquestionably flawed, but one that still manages to get the job done. While I'll admit that it isn't for all tastes, it was still better than what some critics had to say about it.)
Non-Stop (Another underrated Liam Neeson thriller. Apart from the film's dopey climax, this was a thrilling and well-acted mystery that had me guessing right until the end, and I feel no guilt in saying so.
Now that 2014 is over and done with, I have to say, I'm really excited about many movies that are going to be released this year. They include In the Heart of the Sea, Jurrasic World, and especially The Avengers: Age of Ultron. What's more: There's no Hobbit movie this year. YAY!
Does that mean that 2015 will be a better year for movies that 2014? That's certainly a nice thought, but only time will tell.