The best movies of 2014
Happy New Year! It's now 2015, but before we get too far into the new year it's worth looking back at 2014, which was another great year for movies. It was another year of sequels and sequels to the sequels (Expendables 3, The Hobbit Part 3, Transformers 4, Captain America: The Winter Soldier), but it was also a year showcasing directors at the top of their craft (Gone Girl‘s David Fincher and Interstellar‘s Christopher Nolan). We also had two Liam Neeson movies (Non-Stop and A Walk Among The Tombstones) as well as two other Liam Neeson movies with different actors playing Liam Neeson (The November Man and John Wick). It was harder this year than most to choose a top five, so I'll also include some honorable mentions before getting down to business. And as a warning, I did my best, but there may be some minor spoilers ahead. So read on, with caution, after the jump.
Rosamund Pike was a commanding presence on screen; in fact, the rest of the cast was pretty spot on too. The cinematography was as satisfying and technically precise as anything else Fincher's done. The plot, while maybe not a surprise to people who've read the book, was riveting, with as many twists and turns as anything else we saw all year.
Chris Evans showed he could play a different kind of hero, and turned in an excellent portrayal of a tortured but dutiful leader. The supporting cast (which included John Hurt and Tilda Swinton, along with another one that I won't spoil) were really great for their roles too. The movie did a great job of exploring the idea of an entire dystopia on a train, and the action scenes felt appropriately claustrophobic. Like some of my other favorite movies, the heroes and the villains in this movie aren't all white and black, but conflicting shades of grey which add tension and sympathy to the whole movie.
Hunger Games: Mockingjay
This movie didn't need to be two parts, but as a whole it was way better than I expected it to be. Jennifer Lawrence's portrayal of Katniss Everdeen has sort of evolved along with Lawrence herself, and to a degree she's not really acting when she's playing a character thrust into national fame suddenly and not always gracefully. The supporting cast (Woody Harrelson and Stanley Tucci are the two that stick out) are also solid. The Hunger Games franchise continues to be the class of the new and popular “teen dystopian love triangle” genre, and the next film promises to be packed with action.
5. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the second movie in a reboot of the iconic science fiction saga. The first movie, titled Rise of the Planet of the Apes and starring James Franco, was released in 2011, but I didn't see it until this year, because at the time it was released the previews didn't make it seem very interesting. But when I started seeing trailers for Dawn, which starred Gary Oldman, I figured it couldn't hurt to give Rise a watch so I'd be prepared for the new one, because when has Gary Oldman made a bad movie? Rise was a pleasant surprise. The trailers didn't do a great job of describing what the movie would be about (possibly intentionally), and because of that I expected a human-centric and one-sided special effects show, but instead it ended up being a nuanced, well-crafted film which was focused on a super intelligent ape named Caesar.
Dawn continues that story, almost by default: none of the humans in the last movie appear in this one, and with the exception of a couple scenes, they're mostly forgotten. It says a lot about the strength of the ape story, then, that the movie works incredibly well without a lot of commonality on the human side. Caesar is a CGI rendering, but is played expertly by Andy Serkis in a motion-capture suit. He's forced to deal with dissension within his own ranks as well as contain a threat posed by a new human settlement nearby. I'm a huge fan of movies that don't oversimplify heroes and villains into “good” and “evil”, and it's that way in this movie, with the many players in the story having legitimate stakes and valid reasons for their actions. The action sequences are well done, and for a movie that's more than half CGI, you never really notice it. I look forward to the next movie in this series. (Rise, then Dawn… are we headed for Coffee of the Planet of the Apes?)
For my money, there wasn't a better performance this year than Jake Gyllenhaal's vulturous Louis Bloom. Bloom is a businessman, and in the beginning of the movie is struggling to find a job. He stumbles onto a career filming the immediate aftermath of brutal crimes and accidents, and selling the footage to news networks. His entrepreneurism pushes him to take his business from uncomfortable to creepy to downright horrifying. But it's not only Bloom who's guilty: Rene Russo's character is so desperate for ratings that she and Bloom form an uneasy partnership. What makes the whole thing so uncomfortable is Gyllenhaal's performance as a psychopath who is totally detached from the depravity of his behavior.
I wasn't sure what to expect going into this movie: the previews make it seem like it could be a horror movie, or a more conventional thriller. But it ended up being a haunting satire: portrayal of the news industry that was sometimes humorous, but other times way too close to real.
I loved writer and director Dan Gilroy's direction in this movie. Notice how he never shows you the victims of the accidents or crimes himself; his camera focuses on Bloom as he works. It's only when Bloom's footage is revealed that we see the true horror of the incident. This is beneficial in a few ways: 1) by focusing on Bloom, we see he has absolutely no empathy for the victims, 2) Gilroy is able to show respect for his victims (symbolically) and juxtapose his own sense of decency with his character's, and 3) by showing most of the accidents through a grainy screen capture, you're not overwhelmed by the gore and so you're able to focus more on the psychology of the characters.
3. Guardians of the Galaxy
Both Marvel movies released in 2014 were really good, but Guardians of the Galaxy was riskier and thus more rewarding. There are people who will say this is Marvel's best movie, better than The Avengers, and to that I say, “whoa now. Let's not lose our heads here.” People forget how good The Avengers was, and I still think the first Iron Man is still the movie to beat besides The Avengers.
But Guardians of the Galaxy‘s wackiness might, just might, vault it to the #3 spot on the Marvel rankings. Chris Pratt is excellent casting as an orphan with a bit of an attitude who's trying to make it as a Star Lord. You can hardly tell it's him, but Bradley Cooper's Rocket (a genetically-modified rodent who's armed to the teeth) delivers some of the best one-liners of the movie, but not without some moments of tenderness too. Dave Bautista got some mixed reviews for his portrayal of the very literal Drax, but I thought he was really funny. Zoe Saldana's Gamora was unsurprisingly good as well (she's good in everything she's in).
The action sequences are pretty fun, although I couldn't tell you now what planet they saved at the end. The best parts of this movie are the characters and the dynamics between them, and the rest almost feels like bonus. Director James Gunn set the bar really high for this one; let's hope that he can match that in the sequel.
2. Edge of Tomorrow
Despite the fact that I loved Tom Cruise's last movie Oblivion, this movie wasn't even on my radar entering 2014 and I wasn't really excited when I saw the trailers for it. So go figure it ends up being the funnest movie of the year. Edge of Tomorrow (confusingly rebranded in its Blu-ray release as Live Die Repeat) was one of the better reviewed movies of the summer, but did poorly in theaters, and I put that squarely on the shoulders of the marketing team who came up with the trailers and TV spots. The trailers show mech suits and explosions and monsters, and it's hard not to think of Transformers, and thus it's not hard to be turned off by this movie.
But when you see the movie, it becomes clear that it's more or less an action/sci-fi version of Groundhog Day. And when the movie becomes less about the somewhat generic villains and more about the idea of time travel and repeating days over again, it gets really fun. Tom Cruise is perfect casting for his role because he's both very convincing in his action scenes as well as a little crazy in his scenes where he's trying to convince people he's living the same day over again. He's backed by an excellent supporting cast headlined by Emily Blunt and Bill Paxton; the former plays a no-nonsense, gets-the-job-done soldier who struggles with her identity outside of the war, and the latter is a comedically stereotypical drill sergeant who delivers most of the funnier monologues in the film.
Doug Liman's direction is also worth noting, because his pacing is really good. He does a really great job of showing you a process (whether it's learning, training, whatever) and then hitting fast forward until that process is complete, but not so much so that you're disoriented. It's not like Cruise's character is trying the same thing every day and inching a little further each day; he'll try something for a while, then reset and start off in a different direction. All of this makes the plot move along quickly, and indeed the movie is a tidy 1 hour and 53 minutes.
There was only one major problem I had with this movie: the score was abysmal. Actually, it wasn't so much abysmal as totally forgettable, and if you know me at all, you know that I'm all about a good movie score. And on that note… (see what I did there?)
Hans Zimmer's score for Interstellar was the best I heard this year. Sweeping, grandiose, epic, and totally unique, it sounded totally different than anything Zimmer's written in the last 10 years, and it's certainly his personal best since Inception. Some of my favorite bits were during the cornfield chase at the beginning, the liftoff sequence, the first planet visit, and the docking sequence near the end, but the way it rises and falls makes the entire score wonderful.
But a movie isn't entirely defined by its score (which is unfortunate for movies like TRON: Legacy), and the score is only the tip of the atmospheric iceberg when it comes to Interstellar. I'll start with the story, which starts on a dystopian Earth and takes a bit to get going, but does a good job of building up the urgency of the mission at hand. When the team launches into space, the pace picks up and the tension rises and builds into what you think is an epic conclusion. And then things get crazy, and when I walked out of the theater, I was still trying to figure out what hit me.
The movie is directed by Christopher Nolan, and so many of the special effects are practical rather than CGI, but the imagery is no less spectacular. Nolan filmed a lot of the movie on IMAX cameras, and so seeing the movie on an IMAX screen was definitely worth the premium. Nolan's version of space is orderly, but not pristine; well-designed, but utilitarian. In other words, it's not the pristineness of Star Trek, but it feels a little cleaner than Star Wars. The robots of Interstellar got a lot of commentary because unlike how we usually perceive robots, the ones on the space ship Endurance aren't androids but are almost abstract, which helps to give the movie a very unique aesthetic.
Matthew McConaughey does a good job as Cooper, the captain of the mission who leaves his son and daughter to save them without knowing if he'll come back, and Jessica Chastain plays his grown-up daughter who struggled with her father's abandonment. But the best character in the movie first appears about halfway through, and you'll know it when you see it.
All in all, I was going into Interstellar with high expectations, and it wasn't exactly what I expected but I came out of the theater enthralled and inspired. And wondering how much it would cost to install an IMAX screen in my apartment.
2015 promises to be a great year for movies too. Right off the top, we have Avengers 2 and Star Wars VII, but there is also Brad Bird's Tomorrowland and Jurassic World, and Mockingjay: Part 2. But if history is any guide, my favorite movie of 2015 will probably be one I haven't even heard about yet. Happy New Year again, and I hope to see you at the theater next year!