I had meant to post this during summer, but due to the site’s hiatus caused by some big changes in my personal life, I’m only getting to it now. Despite this, the timing is appropriate. Starting in the next few weeks, I’ll be seeing many of the films likely to be one of the ten nominated for best picture. The fall festival circuit has commenced, where films like Foxcatcher, Nightcrawler, and Birdman are being passed around and reviewed, with Oscar pundits on the hunt for the likely-to-be best picture winner. As such, this list creates a nice wall for 2014’s movies: Oscar season, and before Oscar season. It also should be mentioned 2014 has had such a startlingly strong offering of movies that, even by early September, I’m unhappy to leave many titles off. By this time last year, I was thirsty for quality movies; this year, my list is drunk with them. Onto the list!
10.) Godzilla (Gareth Edwards) - It feels greedy to call a blockbuster as unique and visually disciplined as Godzilla a disappointment, but it was. It had a flimsy script Edwards was handed by the studio, which led to poor characterizations and a strangely aimless plot. Truthfully, I don’t complain the film waits so long to show Godzilla, and not just because it was worth the wait. Every second of Godzilla is gleeful genre fun, and it doesn’t take itself half as seriously as some have accused. The star of the film isn’t the underused Aaron Taylor-Johnson or marginalized Elizabeth Olsen (although Bryan Cranston has a lot of fun in what one critic called “an amusing series of wigs”), nor is it Godzilla himself. It's Edwards himself. For one thing, the set pieces are all spectacular. Edwards has an eye for exhilarating and artful images, and it’s no wonder why he was one of the chosen few directors for a Star Wars spin-off. Yet again, a studio script undermines a supreme talent, and hopefully Disney won’t make the same mistake.
9.) Locke (Steven Knight) - A triumph of experimental filmmaking, Locke gives you a film set (almost) entirely in the front seat of a car. As much as I want to say it’s a one-man show for Tom Hardy’s extraordinary talents -- and watching him is nothing short of riveting -- equal credit for Locke’s rising tension and emotional complexity is due to writer and director Steven Knight. He made Locke take on the likeness of theater, cinema, as well as that of an art installation, making both the film and the experience watching it wholly unique. That’s a hot commodity in a year dominated by sequels and reboots, and it’s a powerful statement that a film so small could feel so big.
8.) Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn) - It’s the most fun I’ve had in a movie theater in years, and the more times I see it, the more I like it. Don’t be surprised if it’s higher on my top 10 of the year list come January. It’s a film that’s apparently impervious to diminishing returns, suggesting it might become a classic in no time at all. Guardians is all about the characters, and the lovable and instantly relatable cast of oddball characters — that includes the walking tree and the talking raccoon — have more heart than every other Marvel film combined. Every second of the film is designed to give you a good time, from the jamming soundtrack of ‘70s pop songs to the constant flow of laugh-out-loud humor. It’s hard to see anyone leave the theater without a smile on their face.
7.) Nymphomaniac Parts I and II (Lars Von Trier) - This is a tricky one, and it’s not because of the lurid content or hyperbolized themes or even the schizophrenic style. It’s that the film feels innately disconnected from itself due to the butchering of the film for its international release. Lars Von Trier’s ultra-graphic director’s cut comes out in a few months time, and my expectations to see a Nymphomaniac that feels cohesive are high. As is, Nymphomaniac Parts I and II are electrifying high-brow cinema that’s dramatically biting and thematically ambitious, using sex and sensuality as a springboard for the entire human experience. It doesn’t hit all the notes Von Trier wants it to, but it hits enough.
6.) Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Joe and Anthony Russo) - No other top 10 list of any previous year has included a Marvel Studios film. 2014 has two, and, so far, the Winter Soldier is Marvel’s crowning achievement. Captain America is often painted as one of the more vanilla superheroes, but here he’s anything but. His characterization is used against him, forcing him to question the moral and political intentions of his own government. It’s a film using the trappings of the 1970s paranoia thriller, echoing classic thrillers like Marathon Man or Three Days of the Condor. The plot is dense and twists abound. Adapting this classic comic storyline couldn’t have come at a more relevant time, and the deep(ish) themes have real resonance for the audience. The Russos also know action, giving the Winter Soldier’s action scenes a visceral intensity that feels closer to Michael Mann than to Joss Whedon. It also has the best villain in a Marvel film to date with enormous screen presence that instantly conveys danger. It’s not just a great superhero movie but a great film by any standard.
5.) Noah (Darren Aronofsky) - It very well may be that 2014 will close with Noah as the most controversial film of the year. It’s a controversial film to different people for different reasons, with some turned off by the brazen aesthetic choices that Aronofsky made, while others are insulted by his reshaping of one of the most famous stories in the history of the human race. It’s easy to understand those points of view, and one wonders how the studio ever gave it financing. But me? I was blown away. Aronofsky shows what it means to be a believer, and he does it with a powerful and unique voice that was always going to challenge. Noah works on multiple levels, but especially as big screen experience and as spiritual odyssey.
4.) Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman) - The blockbuster of the summer. It’s one of the only films at the multiplex to literally steal my breath away. Relentless in its pacing and fronted by a Tom Cruise determined to show you why he used to be the world’s leading action star, this is a blockbuster that really works. It’s an unusually smart sci-fi thriller, but also one that’ll surprise you by how much you laugh. Part D-Day alien invasion and part travel romp, Tomorrow effortlessly commands tropes even the best genre movies struggle with; namely, time travel. Normally a mess in most films, Tomorrow saw time travel as an opportunity to constantly reinvent itself and pull itself in new directions. The level of craft and showmanship is spectacular; this is what the summer tentpole should look like.
3.) The Raid 2 (Gareth Evans) - This is one of the greatest action films ever made. Following the action orgy of 2011’s The Raid: Redemption, Evans returned this year with a wildly more ambitious product that has instantly become a classic to action aficionados around the world. It’s more likely to excite the film nerd than the casual viewer, since the more you know about movies and how they are made, the more you know half of what Evans did seems impossible. The action scenes have mind-blowing martial arts choreography and feature multiple long takes tracking — and never hiding — the action, letting the athleticism and authority of the action speak for itself. It does. It has no less than three of the greatest action scenes ever put on film, making it by definition one of the best.
2.) The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson) - At a press junket, Anderson joked this is the first of his films that could be described as having a plot. Amusingly, he’s right. There’s a mysterious murder, a stolen painting, and before long it becomes a deadly cat-and-mouse road movie. This hardly sounds like Anderson, but it takes minutes to find that couldn’t be more untrue. This is Anderson at his most delightful, with a cameo-a-minute film that’s by far his most accessible. He’s mastered his craft, turning high art into off-beat fun, but never at the expense of Budapest’s poignant theme. Anderson’s latest is a swan song for a time of dignified principle and manner, even if such an era never may have existed at all. The film’s sadness isn’t bound in familial drama but from society, making it his most poignant but nevertheless most wonderful, film yet.
1.) Boyhood (Richard Linklater) - Filmed a few days a year over 12 years, this is without a doubt one of the most ambitious undertakings in the history of moviemaking. Perhaps no other film has been harder for me to review than this one, and there’s a reason. Watching the film can be called post-verbal, where poetry has become life and life has become poetry. Every moment has meaning, though it’s not always obvious what that meaning is. It is a transcendental experience unmatched by almost any other in movies and destined to be a classic in the same vein as 2001: A Space Odyssey. It has my highest possible recommendation.
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