THE YEAR IN MOVIES - 2014
- Well, it's been an interesting year, hasn't it? There were a lot of things I could have talked about with regards to the state of movies in 2014, but ultimately, this was the year that The Interview almost caused an international incident. As I write this, there's still a bit of ambiguity over who, exactly, hacked Sony Pictures and later threatened to retaliate should The Interview be released. But because of our suspicions that North Korea was behind the attack on Sony, major theater chains pulled out of showing The Interview - leading Sony to follow up by cancelling the release of the movie altogether. Soon, an outcry began, and a Seth Rogen / James Franco comedy was the unlikely centerpiece of a movement. Fans, Hollywood insiders, and politicians all wanted the film to be released - not releasing it was an affront to our freedom, a victory for censorship. The President of the United States stated he thought Sony should have gone ahead and released the film, and encouraged Americans to go to the movies over the Christmas holiday. Eventually, as small theater operators rallied and fans protested, Sony relented. The movie ended up releasing in independent movie theaters across the county over Christmas, and also went live on select digital distribution platforms. The Interview could be seen, and freedom won the day.
The entire thing played out like some strange comedy of errors. The movie was cancelled, then suddenly back on again. America spent days worrying about some sort of attack on movie theaters, then began to doubt whether North Korea was even truly the source of the hack that started this whole incident. When Sony finally decided to pull the trigger on okaying a digital release for the film over Christmas, the timing was such that many big distribution platforms were unprepared to go live with the film - this meant that iTunes got the movie late, and Sony's own Playstation Store still, at year's end, doesn't have it available (while their competitors at XBOX do).
In many ways, it's all already a bit silly in retrospect. But at the same time, it's not at all. If North Korea truly was behind the threat, and truly was willing to use force to keep The Interview from being seen - than that is a legitimate assault on our country and an attack on our freedoms. As surreal as it is to be having this conversation about an over-the-top comedy, we also can't dismiss what happened just because of the movie's genre. In fact, comedy is in many ways the epitome of our freedom of speech. The ability to mock, satirize, and poke fun at people and institutions - that's the very essence of what it means to have that freedom. And as I said in my review, The Interview feels like the kind of silly retort that an absurdly silly regime like Kim Jong Un's deserves.
In purely pop-cultural terms, all of the discussion about The Interview opened up a debate about how we view comedy. One of the strangest side effects of The Interview becoming a politically-charged issue: scores of people watched it who would not normally be caught dead watching this kind of comedy. Which in turn led to an endless supply of comments trashing it. As a guy who reviews movies, and as a huge comedy nerd, this really frustrated and annoyed me. Suddenly, everyone was an expert, and people were all too happy to declare, definitively, that The Interview sucked. Ugh.
One of the things that got me interested in reviewing movies in the first place was the rise of internet enthusiast sites like Ain't It Cool News, circa the late 90's. As a kid, I remember always feeling frustrated with the movie reviews in the local paper. Comedies were always reviewed poorly, no matter how funny I found them. Action movies were always panned, no matter how badass their fight scenes were. Luckily, the internet gave voice to a new breed of reviewer who actually understood and appreciated genre. If you're going to review comedy, you've got to understand timing, joke construction, delivery, etc. It's why I hate when reviews seem to rag on comedies that aren't "about" some larger issue, instead of actually analyzing how well-constructed the jokes and dialogue are. If we only graded comedies based on what big, important issues they dealt with, then I suppose the works of Mel Brooks and Monty Python would be considered failures.
This is why you're not going to see They Came Together on many 2014 Best-Of lists. But there was never any doubt in my mind that it would make mine. Watching They Came Together, I laughed more than at any movie I've watched in years. The movie isn't really *about* anything. It's just funny as all hell. Recognize and respect, people. For similar reasons, it was a no-brainer to me that the masterful The Raid 2 would rank high on my list. The movie is an absolute action-movie masterpiece, with some of the most jaw-dropping fight choreography I've ever seen. I understand that it may not be some people's cup of tea. But if you're going to talk about it, you've got to do so in the proper context, and look at what it is and what it's trying to be.
Luckily, the mainstream seems to be getting increasingly down to get weird and crazy. Almost all of 2014's best and most acclaimed films are actually pretty insane, in their own way. Boyhood is a twelve-year opus from Richard Linklater, a guy who's always been a Hollywood outsider - a rock n' roll auteur. Whiplash, Nightcrawler - both dark and gritty and disturbing and intense as hell. One of this year's biggest fan favorites, Snowpiercer, is also quite possibly one of the strangest movies I've ever seen. And arguably the year's best and inarguably highest-grossing summer blockbuster, Guardians of the Galaxy, brought the weird, trippy, cosmic side of the Marvel universe to the big-screen - making heroes of a talking racoon and an ass-kicking tree-guy who says the same phrase over and over.
So yeah, I guess 2014 was a pretty great year for movies - in the weirdest, strangest, unlikeliest of ways.
DANNY'S BEST MOVIES OF 2014:
- Richard Linklater has long been one of our best filmmakers, but he outdid himself with the game-changing Boyhood. The way the film was shot - continuously over a twelve-year period - was no mere gimmick. Instead, Linklater created a film that gave us an unprecedented feeling of watching a life unfold before our eyes. Never before has a movie so actively invested us in the well-being of its protagonist. We hope and pray that the kid is alright, that Mason will be okay despite the hard times he goes through. Featuring incredible performances from Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, and from star Ellar Coltrane, Boyhood was the one film from 2014 that struck me as an instant classic, one for the all-timers list. I know, there's always backlash when a movie is proclaimed as being this singularly great. But on this one, believe the hype.
- Whiplash will leave you breathless. When I saw it in the theater, it left the audience in stunned silence, and it had the audience burst out in spontaneous applause. In this film, music is a battle, and Miles Teller's young, would-be drummer extraordinaire is at war. His barking general is JK Simons, in a performance for the ages - a can't-lose shoe-in for Best Supporting Actor. Simons is masterful in this film, and his stern warnings of "not my tempo" are flat-out nightmare inducing. Whiplash, in its own way, is one of the most messed-up movies you'll ever see. It's a dark, bloody, intense-as-hell look at the steep price of perfection.
- Why did some people hate Interstellar? My guess is that whenever you take a story right up to the very edge of existence itself, you're invariably going to end up in some pretty far-out places - and some people would just prefer not to go there. But man, I give Christopher Nolan credit for pushing his film to the absolute narrative and thematic limits. He sends Matthew McConaughey's Cooper on a journey to the edge of space and time, and at some point, he's got to grapple with what happens when you cross over into the great unknown. Call it silly if you want, but I say it's brave. To me, Interstellar was flat-out mind-blowing - a sensory-overload experience that took us to places that no film has gone before. I suppose the film would inevitably be divisive. I say it's a new masterpiece from Nolan that's on par with his best work.
- Selma was the right film at the right time - a moving, disturbing, deeply affecting look at a seminal moment in our country's history - a moment that feels as relevant today as ever. The brilliance of the movie is that it doesn't paint its characters in black and white. These are flawed, fully-formed people - but that makes what they accomplished that much more impressive. David Oyelowo is fantastic as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Tom Wilkinson kills it as LBJ. But Selma isn't just a slice of history - it's a rallying cry, a reminder that we can do better, that America is imperfect, but that its greatest strength is that it's a place that empowers its people to affect lasting change.
5.) The Raid 2
- The Raid 2 is the Godfather II of action movies. The Raid was a straight-up, no-frills action classic - featuring a simple but effective premise that provided the backdrop for some of the hardest-hitting, most jaw-dropping fight scenes ever seen on film. But The Raid 2 one-ups it by framing the action with a sprawling, crime-saga storyline that, even without the bone-crunching action, would be compelling. But combine the two, and what you get is sheer epicness - and hands-down one of the greatest action films ever made. If you dig action and martial arts films and have somehow not yet seen The Raid and its sequel, get to it.
- What a dark, badass, wickedly satirical film. Like some nightmarish mash-up of Taxi Driver and Network, Nightcrawler shows us the dark side of humanity while also offering up a biting commentary on the often predatory nature of the news and entertainment we consume. Jake Gyllenhaal is off-the-charts great here as the psychopathic Lou Bloom, and Renee Russo also impresses as his news-producer enabler. This one stuck with me for a long time after viewing it, in part because it has one of the most uncompromisingly brutal and hard-hitting endings I've ever seen. An unforgettable walk on the wild side.
7.) They Came Together
- For devotees of Wet Hot American Summer, here, finally is the worthy follow-up we've been clamoring for. This is David Wain, free from big-studio restrictions, able to go all-out in order to provide the sort of insane absurdist humor that first put he and his fellow members of The State on the map. Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler destroy as the leads, and they're surrounded by a who's who of funny people, including several fan-favorite State alumni. I've seen people talk about They Came Together as if it's a straight-up parody of romantic comedies. Only sort of. Mostly, it's just an excuse for Wain and co. to provide scene after scene of over-the-top hilarity. Basically, this is a comedy nerd's dream-come-true.
8.) Obvious Child
- It's always exciting to see new comedic voices emerge, and Obvious Child is a highly impressive debut from writer/director Gillian Robespierre. It's also a true coming-out party for star Jenny Slate. After being booted from SNL, Slate bounces back with an incredible performance that's both heartfelt and hilarious. You wouldn't think that a comedy about abortion could work. But Robespierre handles the delicate topic with such humanity and humor that, somehow, the film turns into one of the funniest and surprisingly poignant movies of the year. To me, the film works as more than just a story about abortion. It's a comedy about what it means to be a struggling young adult in 2014 - and I think that's why it spoke to so many people as powerfully as it did.
- 2014 had one of the best summer movie seasons ever. Several of the year's big blockbusters were not just great popcorn movies, but great movies in general. My favorite of the pack was the second film in the rebooted Planet of the Apes franchise - a series which I've quickly grown to love as much as the legendary originals. What's amazing about Dawn is that the humans are largely peripheral. This is the apes' story, and it's remarkable that we come to care about Ceaser, and root against his rival Koba, to the extent that we do. Give huge credit to the phenomenal mo-cap performances of Andy Serkis and Toby Kebbell. Also give credit to a smart script that creates the rare action-movie scenario where we root more for an end to hostilities than we do for one side to triumph.
- Snowpiercer is flat-out insane, but man, is it awesome. The film is a true international production. It's a Korean film that's (mostly) in English, based on a French comic book, adapted by American screenwriter Kelly Masterson (Before the Devil Knows You're Dead), shot in Prague, and starring a diverse cast that includes big-time talent like Chris Evans, John Hurt, Jamie Bell, Tilda Swinton, Alison Pill, and Octavia Spencer. And it really is unlike anything I've seen before. Visually, it evokes the post-apocalyptic sci-fi stylings of Terry Gilliam. The extreme action brings a Hong Kong martial-arts sensibility to the table. But beneath the out-there aesthetic trappings, there's a pretty potent message about manufactured inequality. Don't write this one off as a mere oddity - there's plenty of substance to accompany the style.
JUST MISSED THE CUT:
This was a year that was positively overflowing with great films, with perhaps the most films I considered in the "A" range of any year that I can remember. Here are five superb movies that just missed the cut.
11.) Edge of Tomorrow
- This one was a huge surprise - an expertly-crafted sci-fi action film that made the most of its conceit: that its soldier hero, played by a game Tom Cruise - re-spawns every time he dies, now equipped with the knowledge to stay alive at least a little longer when he re-enters the fray. The way the premise plays out is clever and novel, providing the real viewer with a real sense of videogame-esque trial-and-error and ultimately reward. But aside from all that, this movie is owned by Emily Blunt, who shows never-before-seen action movie chops. Blunt absolutely kicks ass in this film, in an instantly-iconic turn that surely puts her at the top of every female superhero casting call from here on out.
12.) Only Lovers Left Alive
- Jim Jarmusch's gothic vampire film was a real surprise and a true stunner. Dripping with goth-rock atmosphere, the film is a darkly funny tale that is almost like the vampiric version of Before Sunrise. Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swindon slay as the two immortal lovers, who now find themselves facing true danger that threatens to uproot their lives. What really struck me about the film is how it uses the vampires' immortality as a way to comment on what's important in life. The two are terminally bored, but it's the discovery of the new - of art and ideas - that keeps them engaged and makes continued immortality a thing worth fighting for.
13.) Guardians of the Galaxy
- Guardians of the Galaxy is the kind of fun, funny, imagination-filled spectacle that they just don't make anymore. As great as the current cinematic superhero renaissance has been, what's been missing has been the weird, cosmic, trippy stuff that made us all love these comics in the first place. Now, finally, it felt like we were getting to the good stuff - and James Gunn imbued his movie with a personality and quirkiness unique in the superhero genre. It was, indeed, a cosmic mix-tape of awesome.
14.) The LEGO Movie
- Speaking of awesome, who would've thought that this of all movies would be an instant animated classic? Somehow, Phil Lord and Chris Miller made The LEGO Movie into a brilliantly-scripted adventure that served as a commentary on conformity, imagination, and growing up. On one level, the movie was funny and fun and visually-breathtaking. On another level, this was a surprisingly deep and thoughtful and moving film. That, I think, is a minor miracle.
15.) A Most Wanted Man
- A sad but fitting goodbye for the powerhouse that is Philip Seymour-Hoffman, A Most Wanted Man is a slow-burn, ultra-intense story of political intrigue that casts Hoffman as an under-pressure, in-too-deep German official trying desperately to foil a terrorist plot. Adapted from a John le Carré novel, the film brims with a quiet, methodical intensity, and Hoffman here is at the top of his game.
THE NEXT BEST:
16.) The Guest
-From the brilliant, genre-bending minds behind last year's cult-fave horror hit You're Next comes a must-see midnight-movie action/thriller that goes to some very cool, very unexpected places. Riffing on 80's action films, but with a modern twist, this one's a bonafide new cult classic.
- A movie that takes place entirely in one man's car, with the only dialogue involving his conversations on a speaker phone. That can't possibly work, can it? It does. An unbelievably great performance from Tom Hardy and a crackling script make this one a must-see.
18.) The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies
-A fitting send-off to Peter Jackson's Middle Earth epic, the final Hobbit movie delivers gravitas-filled moments of action, drama, and epic fantasy. Maybe it's not Lord of the Rings, but there's still a magic in Jackson's Hobbit films - especially in this one - that makes them a cut above. The end of an era.
19.) The Skeleton Twins
-My single favorite movie scene of 2014 is in The Skeleton Twins - a hilarious, sad, moving, chill-inducing, fist-pumping lip-sync sing-off involving stars Bill Hader and Kristin Wiig, set to Starship's cheesetastic ballad "Nothin's Gonna Stop Us Now." A showcase for the two SNL alums, who deliver laughs as well as pathos.
- Featuring a brilliant, razor-sharp script and picturesque direction from John Michael McDonagh, and an earth-shaking performance from the great Brendan Gleeson, Calvary is a meditative, elegiac, darkly funny story about Ireland's last good priest facing down a would-be murderer.
- Darren Aranofsky's biblical epic is sort of bat$%&% crazy, but that's why I love it. It's got epic battle scenes, warrior-angels, a stunning animated sequence that depicts the entire history of evolution as filtered through the Book of Genesis, and a Noah who is downright psychotic. Somehow though, it all comes together to form a big, bold, dark, epic that is entirely unforgettable.
22.) Gone Girl
- David Fincher's adaptation of Gillian Flynn's novel is an engrossing, screwed-up look at the dark side of marriage. Rosamund Pike is fantastic here, showing the true wrath of a woman scorned. Gone Girl is the ultimate bad date movie - a sordid look at the modern relationship that, in its own way, is as much about the darkness within as Fincher's Fight Club or The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and as much about who we are today as The Social Network.
23.) Captain America: The Winter Soldier
- A worthy sequel to the original film, this one pays homage to gritty 70's spy-thrillers, smartly adding Robert Redford to the cast as a S.H.I.E.L.D. official with suspect motives. The film plays out like one of those classic paranoid thrillers, pitting cap (Chris Evans still owning the role) against a new threat from a reborn Hydra and an awesomely badass antagonist in the mysterious Winter Soldier.
24.) Big Hero 6
- Disney's animation studio is on a creative roll of late, and the streak continues with Big Hero 6. It might just be the studio's best CG-animated film yet - a visually-stunning, action packed superhero story that also packs an emotional punch. The movie is just flat-out fun. It one-ups The Incredibles in terms of paying homage to classic superhero and sci-fi tropes, and it delivers a story rich with positive messages that also never lacks for kick-ass action.
25.) TIE: The Imitation Game
- The Imitation Game isn't an experimental game-changer or a boundary-pushing film from a narrative or aesthetic viewpoint. It's a pretty classically-made Hollywood prestige film, no question. But there is also a lot of depth to the narrative and a lot to chew on - this is the rare World War II film that's not about combat, but about strategy and tactics and smart people trying to out-think the opposition. That to me is cool, and if that still doesn't sell you, the all-star cast, led by an Oscar-worthy Benedict Cumberbatch as genius code-breaker Alan Turing, should.
25.) TIE: Top Five
- Top Five is Chris Rock's Woody Allen film - a wryly witty, laugh-out-loud funny, emotionally involving story that is, one one level, about one man trying to find himself, but is, on another level, about, well, everything. Few comedians are able to put themselves out there in such a raw fashion, but that's exactly what Rock does here.
MORE GREAT FILMS OF 2014:
- A hilarious comedy in the grand bro's vs. schmoes tradition, Neighbors is funny, but it's also got some real depth and heart. Seth Rogen is funny, but a hilarious Rose Byrne is the film's secret weapon. And Nick Stoller again proves that he is one of the best comedy directors working today.
- An inspiring true-life tale, Unbroken features breakout performances from lead actor Jack O'Connell, and from Takamasa Ishihara as his relentless torturer in a Japanese P.O.W. camp. Featuring some truly chill-inducing moments, Unbroken is a strong effort from director Angelina Jolie.
28.) X-Men: Days of Future Past
- This one really surprised me. I was weary of yet another X-Men movie, but DOFP is a fun movie, plain and simple, and it has just about everything you could ask for in an X-Men/First-Class passing-of-the-torch film. There are nice callbacks to the previous movies, as well as some nice stage-setting for stories yet to come. This is pretty much the ultimate Brian Singer X-Men movie, both keeping what worked about the older films but also addressing some of the issues. This is a film that elevates the franchise as a whole.
29.) The Book of Life
- The Book of Life may not have the blockbuster name-recognition of some of the year's other big animated movies, but it's a fantastic film - on par with the best from Disney and Pixar. Not only that, but it's a crafted-with-love celebration of a culture that we don't often see in film or TV beyond cliches and stereotypes, and it brings a unique sensibility and art-style to the table. There is a 100% universal story here about family and legacy, told in a fun, action-packed, visually-dazzling manner.
30.) TIE: Veronica Mars
- Come on now sugar: bring it on, bring it on - and long live Veronica Mars. Kickstartered back to life by a passionate fanbase, the cult-fave TV show returned in movie form in 2014 - and the result was a great film that served as a satisfying epilogue to the series, and a great example of how to continue and build upon a beloved franchise. The pop-culture universe is stronger with great characters like Veronica Mars in it.
30.) TIE: The Interview
- Oh, how could I not give one final round of props to The Interview, the movie that changed movies forever in 2014. I don't know that the movie is a stone-cold comedy classic. In 2014 alone, I felt that They Came Together, Obvious Child, and Seth Rogen's other big movie, Neighbors, reigned supreme. But The Interview *was* funny. Very funny. And if you disagree, hey, that's your prerogative. But let me know when next we see such an epically ballsy comedic take-down of an evil dictator come 'round the pike. I'll be waiting.
HONORABLE MENTIONS - OTHER HIGHLY RECOMMENDED MOVIES FROM THIS YEAR:
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Under the Skin
The Muppets: Most Wanted
The Theory of Everything
Get On Up
BEST LEAD ACTOR:
1.) Jake Gyllenhaal - Nightcrawler
2.) Philip Seymour Hoffman - A Most Wanted Man
3.) Tom Hardy - Locke
4.) Brendan Gleeson - Calvary
5.) Tie: Eddie Redmayne - The Theory of Everything / Benedict Cumberbatch - The Imitation Game / David Oyelowo - Selma
BEST LEADING ACTRESS:
1.) Patricia Arquette - Boyhood
2.) Rosamund Pike - Gone Girl
3.) Kristin Wiig - The Skeleton Twins
4.) Reese Witherspoon - Wild
5.) Jenny Slate - Obvious Child
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR:
1.) JK Simons - Whiplash
2.) Ethan Hawke - Boyhood
3.) Tom Wilkinson - Selma
4.) Riz Ahmed - Nightcrawler
5.) Josh Brolin - Inherent Vice
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS:
1.) Renee Russo - Nightcrawler
2.) Emily Blunt - Edge of Tomorrow
3.) Jessica Chastain - Interstellar
4.) Tilda Swindon - Snowpiercer
5.) Emma Stone - Birdman
1.) Richard Linklater - Boyhood
2.) Christopher Nolan - Interstellar
3.) Dan Gilroy - Nightcrawler
4.) Damien Chazelle - Whiplash
5.) Gareth Evans - The Raid 2
4.) Obvious Child
5.) The LEGO Movie
6.) They Came Together
7.) Edge of Tomorrow
8.) Guardians of the Galaxy
9.) Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
- And that's that, another one for the books. 2014 over and done. 2015 is going to be epic.