Favorite Movies of 2014

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.

Favorite Movies of 2013

I didn’t make it to the movies nearly as often this year as I have in the past, time was more of a crunch and frankly, there was so much good television available. Between shows like Sleepy Hollow and Hannibal it was more entertaining to stay home. Not really what Hollywood wants to hear per se, but true. But even though I didn’t check off everything from my anticipated list, the movies I did manage to see included some truly great ones, along with some that were pure fun. Hopefully studios trend more towards these offerings next year.

10. Star Trek: Into Darkness: There was a ton of backlash over this movie, and I can’t say a whole lot of it wasn’t deserved, but it was still highly entertaining. Coupled with the 2009 film, and with the biggest Classic Trek villain (solo category) nicely dispatched, they hopefully move past the trend of the Earth is in peril storytelling and focus on more intimate, episodic films. Star Trek really does come out of the same era and culture as The Twilight Zone, and is well designed for philosophical storytelling. Focusing on the same “The Planet’s About To Blow!!” story is a lot like using an iPad to play solitaire. You’ve got a charismatic, attractive cast and a premise that lets you go literally anywhere, it’ll be fun to see what’s possible if they really use those tools.

9. Thor: The Dark World:  Thor continues to put the lie to DC’s claim Wonder Woman’s too complicated a property for a feature film. Further, at a time when David Goyer and Zack Snyder are claiming their tone-deaf Man of Steel ending was designed to make Superman mythic in tone, Thor showed how actual mythic heroes don’t need to be heartless – in every possible interpretation – to be entertaining.

8. Iron Man 3: Marvel is clearly now to superhero films as Disney proper is to animated musicals, in that they’ve got their formula locked down and running on all cylinders. In terms of tone and attitude, Shane Black proved a perfect fit for the Iron Man series. What I particularly like about the Marvel movies is the way each is now intended to move these characters into position for Avengers films, but never at the cost of being entertaining on their own. Now if only they can figure out how to do that with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

7. Much Ado About Nothing: Joss Whedon’s downtime project between principle filming for The Avengers and effects supervision of the same ends up being an interesting object lesson in what happens when a vanity project is made by a team whose vanity is fed by entertaining others. What could have been an insufferable indulgence ends up being absolutely delightful entertainment.

6. The Heat: Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock leading a cast packed with excellent character actors and a whipsmart, vulgar as all get out script by Paul Feig was nearly the most fun I had watching a movie all year. Also, if we could find a way to have a movie where Melissa McCarthy and Peter Capaldi just swear at each other for 90 minutes, that’d make me very, very happy.

5. Pacific Rim: Pacific Rim was, without a doubt, the most fun I’ve had at the movies. Outsized in all possible ways, Guillermo del Toro and Travis Beacham put together an incredible, entertaining movie. While there were definitely parts one could quibble should have been better, the areas where they excelled far outweigh any nitpicking.

4. The Conjuring: It’s possible the Warrens, the ghost hunters at the center of The Conjuring, are the most functional married couple we’ve seen in movies in years. Loving and supportive of each other, even in the face of truly harrowing demonic possessions. By starting with a sense of genuine concern for likable characters, James Wan makes a nearly no-gore horror movie that’s frightening, but also quite moving.

3. The World’s End: The capper in the Wright/Pegg/Frost Cornetto Trilogy, the tale of Derek King and his merry men’s return home for one last hurrah was the perfect balance of bitter and wry. While the lower profile Shaun of the Dead gets more praise right now among those looking to burnish their “before it was cool” cred, I believe World’s End is only going to grow in esteem over time.

2. Gravity: Alfonso Cuaron put every technical filmmaking trick to excellent use to create a beautiful masterpiece of a film, anchored by a perfect human performance from Sandra Bullock. It’s worth noting that while both of Bullock’s major movies were arguably sold on other qualities (the raucous, Bridesmaids style comedy for The Heat, jaw dropping effects for Gravity), you can make an equally strong case neither would have succeeded without her sharp acting to humanize them.

1. Before Midnight: Another third in a series, but in this case hopefully not the last. Richard Linklater has created a beautiful, smart film about what happens when the romantic dream settles into reality. Hard but not harsh, worn but not stale, just genuine and true even if it’s not always happy. Of all the movies I looked forward to this year, Before Midnight exceeded my wildest expectations by far.

Vincent Price Blogathon Over at The Nitrate Diva

Vincent Price Blogathon.

In honor of the twentieth anniversary of Vincent Price’s passing, The Nitrate Diva is hosting a blogathon, where numerous bloggers are celebrating the many hours of entertainment he provided us. This is going to occupy a fair amount of my weekend reading time, and I highly suggest you stop over for some excellent perspectives on a true icon of film.

Something for Fans of Zombies and Crying

I’ve recently realized I’m done with The Walking Dead, at least for now. I don’t really have clear thoughts on why just yet, but I’m intending to sit out Season 4. I’m not done with zombies as a concept yet, but The Walking Dead’s particular reliance on bad character decisions to create drama isn’t doing it for me anymore.
I posted this link to the excellent short film “Cargo” earlier this year, and as the year’s gone on it’s still one of the best films I’ve seen in 2013, and more satisfying than much of The Walking Dead’s been. Feel free to let me know if things improve, but for now, “Cargo” is plenty for me.

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This excellent short Australian film from Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke is the perfect thing to scratch that Walking Dead itch now that Season 3 is over.

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Gravity Review

People with a lot of pride in their home theaters often use blockbusters as their tool to show off the tech to friends. They revel in the system’s ability to cleanly handle the bass notes and booming explosions that define battle sequences.

Gravity would reveal the shortcomings of those systems. In fact, it easily stands as the best case in favor of seeing a movie in a theater this year. There’s no way to replicate the effect of seeing this on a movie screen with a home theater.

Right from the opening, a crescendo of Steven Price’s electrifying score drops out, and we’re in space. Lonely, vast, and immersive. The 3D stretches everything back an immeasurable distance, giving a sense of how far below the atmosphere is, let alone the earth. And how nothing else is reachable. We drift in and a shuttle drifts towards us, and from the brilliant previews you all know what happens next.

Cuaron uses a combination of newly developed and classic techniques to put us in helmet with his actors, and to perfectly represent weightlessness. He captures the remote, unforgiving void of space. He’s designed a taut film and a technical marvel to boot. There are shots here that are achingly beautiful to look at. The score and sound design are intricately woven together to capture the experience of “hearing” in a vacuum, where sound is more illusory, the product of vibration against your suit disturbing what air pressure there is inside to present the ghost of sound.

And none of this would work without the performances of George Clooney and especially Sandra Bullock. She’s in new territory here, working almost entirely alone to reveal her character’s fear, despair, loss, and hope. Her cathartic journey is executed with such skill she humanizes every technical element, and connects the audience with her character. Working with his son Jonas, Alfonso Cuaron puts dead center the humanity most technically driven films forget, and Bullock and Clooney absolutely make it work.

This plays out brilliantly in the theater, where the 3D and immersive sound put you right into the movie. Where the size and clarity of the image makes it possible to see the edge of the atmosphere and feel the sudden terror of an open space suddenly filled with bullet-fast debris. Gravity is a stunning film, top to bottom.

The World’s End Review

Since Shaun of the Dead debuted nine years ago, we’ve watched the progression of the Cornetto Trilogy, a loose trilogy of collaborations between Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg,and Nick Frost with no recurring characters and only a couple of recurring set pieces.  I’m a fan of their thematic trilogy, where instead of getting one story chunked into three pieces that don’t really stand on their own, we get three insular takes on a particular theme.  These are much like the Leone/Eastwood/Van Cleef Man with No Name Trilogy without the focus of returning to Westerns each time.

What they do return to, time and again, Is an exploration of what adulthood means, viewed through the filtered of the most popular subgenres of action and Sci-Fi movies. In Shaun we saw the titular character shaken from the quagmire of a dead end existence by a zombie apocalypse. In the next, Hot Fuzz, we saw the opposite side of that coin played out, where the outwardly successful, buttoned up Nicholas Angel learns to break the rules and bring a sense of fun into his life while chasing a serial killer.

And now we arrive at the final entry, The World’s End, where traditionally all the covenants of previous installments are blown up and upended. Now Pegg plays Gary King, who’s embraced life so fully he’s burned through nearly every scrap of goodwill his friends may have had for him. He’s never moved past the night he and his four best friends attempted to visit all twelve pubs in their hometown of Newton Haven. 23 years later, he looks on their failure that night as the moment his life went off track, and sees the successful completion of that crawl as perhaps the way to reboot, or at least mend those bridges he’s burned. And so he ropes those friends, each of whom has nestled into a safe, comfortable, passive existence, into returning to his personal Waterloo.  It seems at first they’ve flipped the normal dynamic and present Pegg as the fun loving one shaking Frost out of his flat existence, before the true motivations of the film-makers are revealed.

It’s wonderful watching Pegg and Frost, who have fantastic chemistry, reverse their normal roles. Here Frost is ANdy Knightly, now the responsible one, participating in the pub crawl out of a vestigial sense of pity for Gary.  He’s given up the full speed ahead life that consumed his closest friend, and now orders water in pubs. Pegg meanwhile is unleashed, tapping into a manic energy and rapid-fire way of talking that rivals the kinetic style of Wright’s nimble film style. He lies, misunderstands, and wheedles in conversation like a demented version of Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka. You’re never sure if he’s dumb, damaged, or deceptive.

The remainder of the cast support the lead duo admirably, but it’s Nick and Simon’s show at the end of the day. Watching them make their way through twelve pubs, first discovering the alien invaders who’ve infiltrated their town and then fighting back against that force, you see them open wounds and expose themselves in hilarious ways. In a strange way, it’s as if Gary’s inventing his own personal twelve step program on the fly, with Andy as his unwilling companion, running interference as they move towards some kind of closure at the World’s End. Both give their best performances of the trilogy in this installment.

A special word, too, for Edgar Wright.  Wright’s become a sharp director, and the script he and Pegg have written I think stands above the first two in both craft and wit.  Shaun was a left field surprise, so naturally there’s a greater affection for that film.  It appeared as a true cult classic, arriving with no preconceived expectations.  So while Hot Fuzz ably matched it, Shaun still loomed larger, the gold standard the other films would be measured against. But I’d argue their storytelling is far tighter here, and Wright’s visual storytelling is exemplary.  The use of the pub signs as portents, for example, or the recursion of the number twelve.  There’s a deft touch to the storytelling, a willingness to go for every laugh tempered with a knowledge of when it’s time to abandon the humor.

As with the first two, The World’s End is about finding that balance between responsibility and abandon.  In the end, both of this film and the series, we get a hint of which choice they prefer, which side they fall on. It’s a perfect capper to a great series of films. I don’t know if these three will collaborate in the same way again, but if they did truly choose to stop here, we can be satisfied with the pure joy they’ve baked into these films, and the sharp story craft they’ve used to create such thrilling movies.

Pacific Rim Review

Of all the phrases dragged out during the summer movie series, the most risible to me is that one should “turn off your mind.” I can’t stand either the idea popular entertainment is inherently stupid, or that it should be OK for the makers of blockbusters to forego character or story to entertain. Even still, I can understand people resigning themselves to that mindset. It gets difficult to avoid as the summer wears on, and more movies come and go that try to overwhelm with spectacle and emotional angst to distract from their lack of actual story. They get caught between the extremes of Michael Bay (all the explosions, none of the character development) or Christopher Nolan (brooding, dark, joyless heroes). They’ve lost the magic classic adventure movies like Star Wars and the Richard Donner Superman had, where they were filled with plenty of visual stimulation while presenting actual fun characters who aren’t weighed down with agita.

Pacific Rim is amazing, and welcome for finding that rarified ground. Guillermo del Toro’s monsters vs. robots spectacular practically thrums with his love of classic Kaiju movies. It’s built from a fan’s understanding of the archetypes and revels in the excesses of the genre. Everything is outsized; the set design, the special effects, the score and performances are all dialed up as far as possible. The movie is populated with characters with names like Stacker Pentecost. When Ron Perlman’s Hannibal Chau strides into frame, with his capped gold teeth and gold tipped shoes he’s clownish, and completely appropriate.

Everything flows straight out of the premise. A breach between dimensions deep beneath the Pacific Ocean allows giant monsters dubbed Kaiju to cross into our world and proceed to destroy everything in their path. To combat these monsters the various nations create Jaegers, 25 story tall robots piloted by a neural link between machine and man. The link is so powerful it requires at least two minds working together across what’s known as “the drift.” Controlling the Jaegers is too taxing for one mind, so sharing the load is necessary.

The drift also means that Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) and his brother and co-pilot are in each other’s minds when Yancey is killed during a Kaiju attack. Raleigh quits the Jaeger program, and moves to helping build the walls humans begin constructing to defend against the more powerful monsters that start coming through. This is all prologue, setting up how the human race initially managed the threat, then began losing. The main plot picks up with the aforementioned Pentecost (Idris Elba, who commands the screen) bringing Raleigh back to the Jaeger program as they prepare one last-ditch gambit to save the planet.

There’s no time wasted with Raleigh debating whether he can or can’t get back into a Jaeger, which is so refreshing. There’s also nothing inherently unique about Raleigh. He’s chosen because he’s the most familiar with the controls of one of the few remaining Jaegers, not some special snowflake fulfilling a destiny. It’s simple and efficient which, under the bombast of the visuals, is exactly the setup the story needs. Two plus hours melt away, as almost no time is spent on the existential hand-wringing that’s come to define so many action movies. There are some moments where Pentecost is reluctant to allow Mako Mori (the phenomenal Rinko Kikuchi) to serve as Raleigh’s co-pilot, but those are dispensed of rather quickly. He knows there is a greater good at stake, and so he casts aside doubt quickly. Just in terms of that mindset, the last time I can remember a movie with characters who thought that way was Apollo 13.

Which is another strength. Pacific Rim doesn’t dwell on the action beyond it’s core characters, even when we see how the people still living in the coastal cities experience this reality. We see the warning systems and safety bunkers. We even see a cult devoted to worshipping the monsters, and a biologist who’s fascination with the creatures has extended to getting tattoos of them. Guillermo del Toro and the screenwriter, Travis Beacham, spend just enough time away from the main characters to establish the reality of this world without getting bogged down with too many subplots.

For example, the way they handle the relationship potential of Mako and Raleigh. Rather than shoehorn a sexual side to their relationship, we barely see the first sparks of the attraction between the two. The impending threat of attack is never far, so the story concerns itself with their preparation for battle. The respect and admiration that develops between them is believable, and in keeping with the film’s steadfast focus on addressing the Kaiju. From that perspective, she’s as intelligent and battle ready as any of the men, without being either over-sexualized or stripped of her gender.

That last point and the earlier one about Apollo13 sum up what satisfied me so much about Pacific Rim. For the entire running time, everything was focused on Kaiju versus Jaegers. Every decision related to how humanity would fight back, with nothing wasted or forced. Everything here was lean, distilled down to just what was necessary to tell the story and keep the audience entertained. I’ve been a fan of Guillermo del Toro’s for twenty years now, and as long as he keeps his storytelling as efficient and effective as this was, I expect to be a fan for many more.