I’m squeaking this last list in just under the wire. Of the two I’ve already done, this one definitely comes with a couple of caveats. First, there are several films I would have liked to have seen, but short theatrical runs aligned poorly with time I had free to go to the movies. That’s a problem that comes around pretty much yearly, though the trend of films getting to VOD or streaming faster definitely helps alleviate that. Second, there’s a slew of films out now in limited release I haven’t gotten to, and most likely won’t until the open slightly wider in the beginning of 2015.
Those factors might change one or two titles here, much the way eventually seeing The Raid 2 knocked John Wick off this list, but overall I’m extremely happy with the movies I saw this year. As ubiquitous as these lists tend to be, for myself I find it a helpful exercise to engage in. With movies particularly the trend is for most award-worthy films to come at the end of the year, and that sometimes leads to an assumption that the months before were filled with dreck. The attention movies such as Trans4mers and TMNT got helps contribute to that feeling, so it’s nice to take a moment and reflect on the actual good movies I saw, and that I’ll happily rewatch, and that I’d recommend you track down (if you haven’t already).
Snowpiercer and Captain America: The Winter Soldier – Can we start talking about what a great actor Chris Evans really is? First with Cap 2, where Steve Rogers continues to embody everything we want in a hero. In a world where heavy surveillance and pre-emptive strikes against possible enemies can so easily be misused, Evans grounded the larger-than-life patriotism and heroism of Cap (Also, it’s interesting that one of the few cultural commentaries on US military policy this year came in the form of a blockbuster superhero film). Then in the even more overtly political Snowpiercer, where his Curtis is the perfect inversion of Rogers, a coward forced into action when all hope has been stripped away.
Guardians of the Galaxy and Edge of Tomorrow – Where Cap 2 got it’s structure from emulating paranoid 70’s political thrillers, Guardians seemed to steep itself in tropes I associate with 80’s action films; building off outsized characters and a script chock full of quotable lines to make something purely escapist and fun. Meanwhile, the criminally underseen Edge (or Live. Die. Repeat., or whatever the title morphs into next) makes me hope Emily Blunt keeps getting action roles, and reminded me that the sheer effort Tom Cruise puts into being a star really pays off in the right film with the right director (see also: Ghost Protocol).
The LEGO Movie and Big Hero 6 – I nearly added the caveat that I only saw these because I have a kid, but honestly I would probably have gone to both regardless. Both were far more playful and inventive than I expected, with LEGO subverting the “Chosen One” cliche nicely, and Big Hero centering itself on a hero whose greatest power is compassion. Bonus points to LEGO, for including the best big-screen Batman since Michael Keaton’s run.
The Guest and The Raid 2: Berendal – Where The Raid: Redemption was a tight, focused action sequence occasionally paused for character moments, Berendal sprawls. The wider scope ends up working nicely, offering more breathing room between brutal fights and heart-stopping chases. The Guest, on the other hand, has fewer, faster moments of violence, and focuses instead on building an air of constant threat. Adam Wingard uses Dan Stevens’ considerable charisma well, building a character who’s equal parts charming and frightening, a palpable danger you never feel betrayed by, because you’re shown early on he’s capable of anything.
Blue Ruin – You can find this movie on several streaming services, and I highly recommend you do. A slow burn piece of noir, Blue Ruin is a breath of air, particularly among all the stylized violence most of the other films I watch present. This is about the actual consequences, the gutting of lives and the stain violence leaves behind. It’s a film with a lot of weight that never feels heavy to watch, and I’m eager to see what comes next from Jeremy Saulnier.
Boyhood – I have a deep and abiding love for Richard Linklater’s movies, he constantly impresses me with the simple humanity of his characters and the effortless charm of his writing and directing. Boyhood topped many “best of” lists this year, and it would be easy to dismiss that based on the gimmick of filming in stages over twelve years. What keeps that from feeling gimmicky to me is the way the story stuck with me like actual memory, rather than simply recollecting a film. To offer one example; I worked in a bookstore for several of the Harry Potter releases, and the scene of young Mason dressed as Harry for the Half-Blood Prince launch felt like my own memory those nights. Many other moments and flashes felt like my own childhood, and what I see and hope to see as my son grows up. the “gimmick” of Boyhood never feels artificial or unnecessary, just as the nine year breaks between Before movies never felt forced. Where other films I saw this year used CGI, or music, or established stars, Linklater used time, in a beautiful, perfect way.