My Top Ten Movies of 2014
This film featured great lead performances by Robert Duvall and Robert Downey, Jr.
This movie's introduction of Robert Downey's character is one of the most effective and efficient that I have ever seen. From there, it continues to build and develop with unexpected twists and turns one might expect from an action thriller instead of a serious drama. The ending is not quite pat, but just enough to be satisfying.
There are also really fine supporting work by Vera Farmiga, Vincent D'Onofiro, Dax Shepard, and Billy Bob Thornton, in perhaps his best work to date. A young man named Jeremy Strong nearly steals the show as the family's mentally challenged cinematographer.
This is as good a movie and as much fun as I've had during a movie in a long time. Bill Murray gives a very un-Murray-like tour de force performance with just enough hints of his persona to accentuate the effect even more.
I think the screenplay needed a tad more explication between the unraveling of the relationship between the boy and Vincent and the boy's school presentation, but that's probably quibbling on my part.
Melissa McCarthy is her usual excellent self. Jordan Lieberher holds his own with Murray in many scenes. Naomi Watts gives a strikingly good performance showing how much she continues to be underrated. Chris O'Dowd as well continues a string of performances which suggest much more to come. He has one of my favorite lines:
"We celebrate all the religions of the world in this room, Oliver. I'm a catholic, which is the best of all the religions, really, because we have the most rules. And the best clothes. But among us, there is also a buddhist, agnostic, we have a baptist, and we have an "I don't know", which seems to be the fastest growing religion in the world."
It will be interesting to see if first-time writer-director Theodore Melfi has other stories to tell.
An amazing, wonderful, entertaining film about gay activists who saw the struggle of striking coal miners as the same struggle as their own for equality and justice.
Based on a true story, the actual events are a true drama and triumph as the gay community wins over the miners despite the immediate futility of both their struggles. Masterfully told, the story is bouyed by stellar performances by Ben Schnetzer as the young leader of the gay alliance; Paddy Considine as the union leader, Imelda Staunton as the town leader, Bill Nighy as the town's gay man, and Dominic East as the flamboyant outwardly gay who teaches the miners how to dance and impress their women.
This is a movie which transcends the history itself as an entertainment as well as a lesson.
The Monuments Men
Apparently, I was the only one who was expecting this NOT to be a guns blazing, bombastic pyrotechnic World War II action movie. These were non-soldiers, the opposite of fighting men really, academics and art experts who were trying to save a big chunk of the world's culture and history.
I went to see it because George Clooney never seems to make a bad movie even if they aren't all great, Bill Murray, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett (seems incapable of not giving an award-worthy performance), John Goodman, the under-appreciated Bob Balaban, and Jean Desjardin in an English-language talkie.
I was not disappointed. This is a beautiful, touching movie, something I have learned to expect from the collaboration of Clooney and Grant Heslov. It's true the movie is somewhat episodic, but when most of those episodes work, it is hard to complain too much. The procuring of a phonograph to play a message from home for Clooney's character is a masterful scene, but is surpassed for me by the work of Murray and Balaban exposing the cowardly thefts of the former German officer posing as a farmer.
Guardians of the Galaxy
There's a lot to like in this movie. There's a little bit of everything, and the movie needs every bit to make it work. There's flip humor, quirky characters, unusual settings, wily villains, epic storylines, twists, turns, action, adventure, internal and external conflict, and good music which also figures in the plot. It also has just enough heart-tugging schmaltz to make the whole mess work in the end.
The cast is fine with a star turn by Star-lord Chris Pratt who is still not as impressive as Bradley Cooper knocking it out of the park even as a space raccoon. You also wouldn't expect a former wrestler like Dave Bautista to come close to stealing the show as mono-syllabic behemoth trying to avenge his home planet.
As one might expect, this also holds up to multiple viewings.
The story of a gigolo for lonely, middle aged women sounds on the surface like an awful premise for a movie, but it is surprisingly funny and poignant in the hands of writer, director, and star, John Turturro. Add to it that Turturro convinced Woody Allen to star as a forced-into-retirement bookseller who is the mastermind of their small business and acts as his pimp. Harkening back to Woody's role as Virgil Starkwell in one of his earliest movies, Take the Money and Run, Woody's character chooses Virgil Howard as his pimp name and dubs his friend, Dan Bongo as if his real name Fiorevante was not perfect for a gigolo.
Sharon Stone and Sofia Vergara are among his customers, but perhaps wiser than he knows. And there is a subplot involving Liev Schreiber and Vanessa Paradis which doesn't turn out quite as one might expect.
I have to admit to a predilection for Paul Haggis movies and TV series so I may be a little more affected by this effort than the average viewer. I am also fascinated by the process of writing fiction and the autobiographical influences involved with that process.
That said, I believe this solid little film has enough intriguing levels and subplots to appeal to anyone who gives it a chance. Liam Neeson has enough vulnerability to his weighty demeanor to engage the viewer in his struggle. Olivia Wilde is connivingly duplicitous and at the same time naively sincere. And although removed from the action, Kim Basinger is persuasive as the anchoring force of both Neeson's character and the film itself.
Adrian Brody and Mila Kunis turn in very impressive performances in a couple of the subplots which weave throughout the film. Loan Chabanel, James Franco, and Maria Bello do fine work supporting the subplots as well.
Although the answer to the puzzle is never really hidden, the reveal is handled well.
The Imitation Game
The only one on my list to garner an Oscar nomination for best picture. Given its foreign subject matter about a technical application in a non-combative theater of World War II and its non-American protagonist known more for his intellectual prowess, borderline autistic personality, and a badly-kept secret life as a gay man than his heroism, its not a wonder that it didn't win.
I readily admit I went into it with a healthy skepticism myself, but this is very well-told story with deftly handled elements of genuinely human drama, conflict, mystery, and sacrifice. The ending is a wallop to the gut.
I think a lot of the fuss about Benedict Cumberbatch is a tad overblown, but he is uniformly excellent here. Keira Knightley brings some unexpected gravitas and empathy to her role. Charles Dance and Mark Strong are very good as always. Matthew Goode continues to prove he is one of the most undersung actors working today. Rory Kinnear does the most with the least, his father would be proud.
It's become routine to just bash every Nic Cage movie that gets churned out, but then you'd miss out on an unexpected jewel like the 2014 movie, "Joe" based loosely on the first novel of southern literary legend Larry Brown.
Granted the film may not be for all tastes. It is gritty and uncompromising right down to casting a homeless local man, Gary Poulter to play Tye Sheridan's abusive alcoholic father. (Poulter passed away shortly after filming completed.) The title character is an ex-con with a temper who runs a tree removal company and has reduced as much contact with anyone or anything which might cause his temper to get away from him. He gives Sheridan a job, assuming it will be a one-day thing, but the boy impresses him with his determination and work ethic spurred by his desire to feed his mother and sister.
Joe is a tragic knight errant with a drinking problem of his own and a vicious loyal dog named Dog. In spite of himself, he can't help but save the kid.
Tye Sheridan is as amazing here as he was in "Mud" and "Tree of Life" so stick around for the epilogue; it's a nice touch.
Just another reminder that not only is Tom Hardy a force of nature, he also has as wide a range as any actior working today, at least in his age group.
Written by Dennis Lehane from one of his short stories, this is a small movie which packs a big punch. The consistently good Noomi Rapace and the one-to-watch Matthias Schoenaerts provide some really fine work supporting the provocative B story which carries the movie and ties into the climax for Hardy's character. It is also James Gandolfini's final movie which adds bittersweet undertones to his already bittersweet character.
The director, Michael Roskam makes no effort to hide the true nature of the characters which makes the ending all the more convincing.
This Is Where I Leave You
Honorable mention is in order for "This Where I Leave You," the film adaption of Jonathan Tropper's book which as good as it was as a novel is one of the few examples where the movie is just a little bit better with its wonderful ensemble cast led by Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, and Jane Fonda. The movie won me over by some extraordinary performances by the lesser known members of the ensemble including Adam Driver (another one to watch) as the hopeless brother and Timothy Oliphant, cast against type as the long-time survivor of a brain injury.
Also, due a mention, is a very personal favorite of the past year, "Inherent Vice" based on a very good book by the reclusive Thomas Pynchon. In this case, the book is better, but the movie is very good as well if very different. I liked it because it reminded so much of those zany late '60s-early'70s films like "The President's Analyst," "Alice's Restaurant", and "Winter Kills." It is not the sort of movie one expects from Paul Thomas Anderson. The movie rises and falls on how much you care about the Jena Malone - Owen Wilson relationship and outcome. I cared enough, so I liked it overall.