The People’s Critic’s List of the Best and Worst Films of 2014

Interior of a Movie TheaterShould I get my annual ANGRY SIDE NOTE out of the way now? OkI still have yet to see Selma, American Sniper, Inherent Vice, and Foxcatcher appear in a theater anywhere near me. It’s not due to lack of trying, and it’s not due to North Korea. Year after year, films vying to qualify for Oscar eligibility will open their films in the minimal markets (LA and New York) and then choose some obsequious and noncompetitive weekend in January to open wide to audiences; this stupid phenomenon continues to persist.  Last year, films like Spike Jones’s Her, The Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, and August: Osage County all opened in minimal markets and opened wide later in January.  I continue to champion that films should have to be widely released in the year that they wish to be nominated.  Audiences should have access to all academy qualified films and an opportunity to share their points of view before the “so-called” powers that be cast their votes. In fact, the one movie I should NOT be able to see, The Interview, opened in a local independent theater for a limited four day engagement! But hold on Foxcatcher, better cool your heels for a while and let the riff-raff pass, I guess. The films listed below all played fair and deserve to be seen and commended.

2014 has been a pretty bland year for movies.  Oscar nominations will be announced Thursday, January 15th, and I haven’t seen a more lackluster field of eligible films since 2011 when The Artist went on to win BEST PICTURE! Regardless, some good films were released this year, so once again – an important announcement is being made right now.  While no Top Ten List can ever satisfy everyone, great care has been taken to analyze each film on my own particular set of criteria ensuring reliability!  So without further ado, I present The People’s Critic’s Top 10 films of 2014.

The Ten Best Films of 2014

Noah10.  Noah – Darren Aronofsky’s films are as diverse as it gets, and so while it is surprising to see his name attached to a high budget Biblical epic, it also is not surprising. Noah delivered in ways that seemed to go mostly unnoticed by audiences. This film came and went pretty quickly last spring and didn’t even come close to recouping its estimated $125 million budget. Still, Aronofsky’s take on the tale of Noah is spectacularly fascinating and truly more original and innovative than any other film of its kind in the last ten years.

 

The Imitation Game9.  The Imitation GameThe Imitation Game is an absorbing look at the life of British mathematician and cryptologist, Allen Turing as he attempts to thwart the Nazis by breaking their seemingly unbreakable Enigma communication codes. The film hinges very heavily on its performances, which are all excellent. Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing and Keira Knightley as his fellow codebreaker are especially great, and the film feels and looks very authentic, especially in its depiction of the many layers of World War II, most notably the pivotal role of intelligence in terms of how the war played out as well as the impossible decisions that must be made as a result. This film does justice to the wondrously incredible story at its core.

wild8.  WildWild is a surprising film of perseverance and beauty. Unlike many films of this genre, Wild spends more time examining the human instinct and its conflict with reason. This is what makes it most compelling and oddly most relatable. Quite honestly, this film resonated with me more than director Jean-Marc Vallée’s Oscar darling from last year, Dallas Buyers Club. Reese Witherspoon is on top of her game here as reluctant adventurer,Cheryl Strayed, and there is great strength in Wild and great heart.

 

Grand Budapest7.  The Grand Budapest Hotel2012’s Moonrise Kingdom was a nearly perfect cinematic experience, and it was Edward Norton’s portrayal of Scoutmaster Ward that made the film so enjoyable from start to finish. With Grand Budapest Hotel, director Wes Anderson capitalizes on this character-driven amusement again with Ralph Fiennes as M. Gustave, legendary concierge of the Grand Budapest Hotel. Never has an Anderson film had more fun with foul language, dark subject matter, and true human consequences. This elevates The Grand Budapest Hotel to the height of Anderson’s achievements.

Boyhood6.  Boyhood – While this film is my #5 film of the year, it is my #1 must see for everyone and perhaps the greatest cinematic experiment that I have had the pleasure of seeing in my lifetime. The plot is simple, the direction is appropriate, but the concept is fascinating, Richard Linklater and his small but talented cast headed by the newcomer and suddenly very familiar Ellar Coltrane follows its characters over a 12 year period as they simply live the life they lead. The experimental piece is that the movie was also filmed over 12 years allowing the cast to age along with the characters. This is a wonderfully successful film with great heart and a great use of music as well, including the added bonus of “Post-Beatles Black Album” playlist that is a must for any Beatles fan.

Get on Up5.  Get on Up – What is funk? Well take Get on Up, subtract last summer’s tepid Jersey Boys, and what you’re left with is solid gold, toe-tapping funk! And what we have here is a funk filled film. In the theater where I saw this film, two women were dancing in the aisles during one of the scenes. That speaks volumes to the power of James Brown’s music and the way that Tate Taylor utilized it. But an equal amount of credit must go to Boseman for his performance. He expresses the complexity of James Brown with every dramatic scene and he embodies the physicality of Brown in every performance scene. This is a performance on par with Jamie Foxx’s portrayal of Ray Charles in Ray, although Boseman does lip-sync to Brown rather than sing.  Still, you can’t dance-sync and Boseman is electric on his feet! I’m not sure how Oscar voters decide who to nominate, but it’s criminal if Boseman is overlooked this year for Best Actor.

Captain America4.  Captain America: The Winter Soldier – I know people are tired of hearing me crow about this film, but it is phenomenal. And just to piss those same people off just a little bit more, I was not that impressed with Guardians of the Galaxy. Too many films of this genre are born into intergalactic conflicts and absurdly fantastic plotlines, but the best of them are grounded, at least partially, in reality. The motive for Captain America has always been protecting his homeland from threats, and it is a credit to the Russo brothers and writers Christopher Marcus and Stephen McFeely to put him in an environment where he is doing that very thing. This is a throw-back to the old conspiracy thrillers of the 60s and 70s. Chris Evans brings the perfect balance of charm, bravado, and idealism to the role of Captain America, and Robert Redford puts forth a very real and noteworthy performance as Pierce, no doubt inspired by how Tommy Lee Jones treated his role as Colonel Phillips in Captain America: The First Avenger. I’m so ready for Captain America: Civil War, but I’m not sure it will surpass the impressive nature of this film.

gone girl3.  Gone Girl – David Fincher certainly has fans of the novel in mind in his adaptation of Gone Girl. While Flynn adapted her own novel for the screenplay, Fincher captures the novel’s tone beautifully keeping the audience at the edge of their seats for the film’s entire 149 minute running time. Comparisons to Hitchcock have been made in the past and while techniques vary, Fincher’s pacing, camera work, and tremendous use of score are very reminiscent of the great master of suspense. And then there’s the acting! Affleck and Pike are perfect in this film. The nuances, layers, and personalities of Flynn’s characters are fully realized in both lead performances. Mystery thrillers are far more dependent on proper characterization than virtually any other genre and these performances make way for some of the most satisfying twists since The Usual Suspects.

Birdman2.  BirdmanBirdman is a captivating film from start to finish. Stylistically, its long, choreographed shots sweep the viewer into the world of Michael Keaton’s character, Riggan Tompson, a former Hollywood star on a personal search for lost glory. Director, Alejandro Iñárritu expertly uses the medium of film to emphasize the often overlooked majesty and tension of theater, in essence earning the film’s subtitle, “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance.” Birdman is a triumph of the art form and is certainly one of the most ambitious movies of the year.

interstellar21.  Interstellar – If you’re tired of me shouting about Captain America: The Winter Soldier, you’re probably also tired of me screaming about Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. Interstellar is the most immersive film of the year, eclipsing even last year’s Gravity in terms of cinematic experience. Nolan does not treat the audience with kid gloves and allows us to observe and appreciate the film without needless exposition or over-explanation. Clocking in at 3 hours in running time, the film actually moves with a deliberate and intrepid pace. Like successful cinematic space operas of the past such as 2001: A Space Odyssey or even Star Wars, Interstellar is enriched with thoughtfulness, theoretical rhetoric, and intensity! The film is also quite beautiful and awe-inspiring. Nolan, one of the last filmmakers still shooting on 35mm film, uses the technique to his stunning advantage. Darkness, color, perspective, and beauty are all heightened by Nolan’s camera work, and the film resonates with a voracity that feels appropriate for a quality depiction of interplanetary space travel. Like most Christopher Nolan films, the true strength of Interstellar is not in its cast but in its atmosphere and ambition. For a science-fiction film, Interstellar feels very authentic and while the film’s final act may challenge some viewers, everything works. This is a big movie and deserves to be my pick for the best film of 2014!

The Five Worst Films of 2014

So now that the best films are identified, it’s time to mention the five worst films of the year. This task was unfortunately tougher than usual since so many disappointing films opened this year. Still, I managed to whittle it down to five real stinkers.

Transformers5.  Transformers – Age of Extinction – This is a loud, long, and dumb movie, and while a niche exists for this kind of thing in the summer, but Transformers: Age of Extinction does not fill that vacancy with high quality entertainment, but rather strives for mediocrity with momentary flashes of obscene and immoral product pandering in the style of the famously satirical Wayne’s World scene, only completely without any sense of irony. This is an upsetting movie in so many ways, but there were still four movies that were worse!

Divergent4.  Divergent – How the hell did people like this movie? Most of the film is an excruciatingly long and played out training set-up piece for a lackluster climactic finish. Director Neil Burger is at least partly responsible for the flavorless and wishy-washy performances in this film. His direction involves running back to the well of successful YA novel adaptations and hand picking the qualities he thought worked in other places. There is no shortage of young adult novels that encourage the individual and warn against conformity; Divergent is one such novel. However, this film ignores those lessons and aims to have absolutely no originality or individuality from its acting right down to its execution.

Tammy3.  Tammy – This film was allegedly inspired by a dream that writer/director Ben Falcone had about his wife, Melissa McCarthy. I wish that this terrible nightmare of a film stayed inside his head and never had the chance to enter mine. I felt embarrassed for everyone involved in this movie from the moment it started all the way to its absurd and horrendously offensive conclusion. McCarthy has done better work in every single other film she’s been involved in and this film unfortunately is the only one that bears her name as “writer.” McCarthy is a force on the screen when the material is good, but Tammy will forever serve as a reminder for what happens when it is not.

Transcendance2.  Transcendence – I decided to watch Transcendence in my home theater while confined to my basement during a severe storm and tornado warning. What I thought I was doing is passing the time with an interesting film. In reality, what I did was give the tornado a run for its money in terms of devastation and calamity. Transcendence basically says to the viewer, “Hey remember that terrible movie from 1992, Lawnmower Man? Well, here’s another version that’s even worse.” If you like love stories with disembodied voices, watch Her, not this train wreck of a film. First time director, Wally Pfister is actually Christopher Nolan’s favorite cinematographer, but once he’s in the director’s chair, it’s a disaster. I thought this was sure to be the worst film of the year, but then my wife took me to…

The Best of Me1.  The Best of Me – So Nicholas Sparks has the rare distinction of penning the source material for a film that appears on this list two years in a row! Last year, Safe Haven started the list of worst films at #5. This year he move all the way to the top with The Best of Me. The Notebook was a successful film and put Sparks on the map in terms of his films being cinematic successes. Now every time one of his books is adapted, someone is trying to recreate that Notebook magic, and never has that been more apparent than with this film. We have the young couple who falls in love, we have a girl’s family who hates the boy, we have the same couple later in life, no longer together due to circumstances that came up. We have clichés all over the place. And then there’s the ending that basically alienates the core group of fans who would normally have liked this movie, making it basically impossible to like no matter who you are. Thus, given that this film should appeal to absolutely no one, it clearly deserves the top spot on the list of worst films of the year!

What do you think the best and worst films of 2014 were?  Sound off below or on my Facebook Page.

Top 10 Films of the Summer (2014)

Top Ten Summer MoviesWith the summer movie season all but finished, the overall consensus is that this has been a bummer summer at the theater. I am not fast to disagree with this statement, but I will say that there has been a steady flow of films worth seeing. Nonetheless, this summer could have benefitted from a little help, so that’s precisely what I‘ve done with this top ten list. This is not a list of the ten best movies released this summer; this is a list of the ten best movies I watched this summer. For example, The Godfather Part II appears on this list because I watched it on HBO a few weeks ago. I think you’ll find that with a couple of tweaks, this summer easily measures up with the best of the best. Besides, it’s my list, so it’s my rules!

 

Get on Up10.  Get on Up – The number 10 film on this list is a certified summer of 2014 release. The electrifying performance by Chadwick Boseman in this film makes it one that I foresee transitioning from the summer movie season discussion right into the awards season discussion.

 

 

 

juno9.  Juno – Maybe it’s because I’m a nostalgic Gen-Xer, or maybe it’s because my wife and I are expecting our first child, but we decided to revisit Jason Reitman’s 2007 comedy. This is a film that certainly received plenty of recognition in its day, but has faded into the background over the years. Still, this quirky comedy anchored by Ellen Page and skillfully penned by stripper/Oscar winner, Diablo Cody is one that deserves a Renaissance almost as much as the hamburger phone does.

 

 

Snowpiercer8.  Snowpiercer – Like #10, Snowpiercer is another summer movie that contains a performance that deserves some award consideration, this time in the supporting category. Tilda Swinton’s devilishly strong turn as the evil Minister Mason aboard the microcosmic bullet train elevates the film’s already fascinating premise that much more.

 

 

 

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes7.  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – The impressive follow-up to 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes is the finest sci-fi film in some time. The effects are as good as it gets and Andy Serkis is mesmerizing in yet another astonishing motion capture performance. The operatic and Shakespearean subtext also ensure the film does not pander or appear too simple despite its premise.

 

 

 

Magic in the Moonlight6.  Magic in the MoonlightNo summer is complete without the gift of a new Woody Allen movie. While this one does not reach the echelon of the director’s finest works, it delivers. Magic in the Moonlight is a beautifully photographed period piece that follows a snarky magician played by Colin Firth as he falls in love while trying to debunk a suspected phony psychic played by Emma Stone.

 

 

 

Godfather25.  The Godfather: Part II – Once in a while, you find yourself in front of the TV on a rainy day and as you’re searching through the channels you find you’re just in time to catch the beginning of the perfect film for the moment. What is there to say that has not been said about this film? Still, Coppola’s brilliantly conceived sequel not only continues the Corleone crime family’s saga but also explains its origin. Furthermore, the exceptionally quotable script is audacious and daring.

 

 

Boyhood4.  Boyhood – Perhaps the greatest cinematic experiment that I have had the pleasure of seeing in my lifetime. The plot is simple, the direction is appropriate, but the concept is fascinating, Richard Linklater and his small but talented cast headed by the newcomer and suddenly very familiar Ellar Coltrane follows its characters over a 12 year period as they simply live the life they lead. The experimental piece is that the movie was also filmed over 12 years allowing the cast to age along with the characters. This is a wonderfully successful film with great heart and a great use of music as well, including the added bonus of “Post-Beatles Black Album” playlist that is a must for any Beatles fan.

 

Mulholland Dr3.  Mulholland Dr. – A spellbinding puzzle of a movie! This is one that requires multiple viewings anyway, and each time it’s seen, the experience is richer. On the surface, Mulholland Dr. appears to be a simple story about a Hollywood hopeful discovering the price of her dreams, but it quickly becomes much more than that. What’s real and what’s imagined is for you to decide, but director David Lynch does provide an appropriately enigmatic roadmap worth taking a look at.

 

 

life itself2.  Life Itself – In April of 2013, film lovers lost a legend. Eulogized on this blog, Roger Ebert was an inspiration not just for movie fans, but for lovers of the written word. Life Itself, filmed by one of Ebert’s favorite documentarians Steve James, lovingly and truthfully explores Ebert’s life, holding back nothing from Ebert’s inspirational assent in popularity to his heartbreakingly sad battle with cancer.

 

 

Captain American1.  Captain America: The Winter Soldier – I know June 21st is the official start of summer, but cinematically, when the hell does it start? I submit that it starts the moment an Avenger appears on screen; therefore, my number one film that I saw this summer marks both the start of the summer movie season as well as the height of its majesty. While many films of this genre are born into intergalactic conflicts and absurdly fantastic plotlines, the best of them are grounded, at least partially, in reality. The motive for Captain America has always been protecting his homeland from threats, and it is a credit to the Russo brothers and writers Christopher Marcus and Stephen McFeely to put him in an environment where he is doing that very thing.

 

  • Honorable Mentions: Enemy and Under the Skin – Two of the weirdest movies I saw on DVD this summer were also two of the best. Both of these films beg for interpretation and while both are creepy, they are not phony in their intentions to awe and inspire discussion. There is something unseen and haunting at the core of both of these films and I am still thinking about them in terms of what their true meanings are!

 

Get on Up

Get on Up“I paid the cost to be the boss.” By the time we hear these words in the new James Brown biopic Get on Up, we know they’re true. Chadwick Boseman (42), who plays James Brown in the film, speaks this revealing lyric directly to the audience in one of the film’s signature fourth-wall breaking scenes. Appropriately, Get on Up is not a traditional musical biopic. Director Tate Taylor (The Help) keeps things interesting by including Boseman’s asides to the audience as well as shaking things up with a fractured and non-linear storyline. These choices along with some excellent music make Get on Up a movie worthy of its subject.

Get on Up opens in 1988 with a disheveled James Brown entering an insurance seminar with a shotgun and telling everyone to leave. Not what you were expecting?  That’s the point.   The film then flashes back to Brown’s childhood and remains mostly in Brown’s past bouncing between his youth, teenage years, and young adulthood. Brown’s childhood is awful. At a young age, his mother (Viola Davis) leaves, and he is forced to live with his abusive and violent father (Lennie James) in a small shack outside Atlanta. When his father joins the army, young James is left with his Aunt Honey (Octavia Spencer), a madam of a brothel in Augusta, Ga. Recipe for disaster? You bet. James is soon arrested for petty theft but with no official home address, his sentence is extended. When a gospel group lead by a young Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis) comes to entertain the inmates, James finds his “soul” mate. With Byrd’s help, he is able to get out of jail and together they form the historic Famous Flames. And so it is in prison of all places where James Brown finds the funk.

What is funk? Well take Get on Up, subtract Clint Eastwood’s tepid Jersey Boys, and what you’re left with is solid gold, toe-tapping funk! And what we have here is a funk filled film. In the theater where I saw this film, two women were dancing in the aisles during one of the scenes. That speaks volumes to the power of James Brown’s music and the way that Tate Taylor utilized it. But an equal amount of credit must go to Boseman for his performance. He expresses the complexity of James Brown with every dramatic scene and he embodies the physicality of Brown in every performance scene. This is a performance on par with Jamie Foxx’s portrayal of Ray Charles in Ray, although Boseman does lip-sync to Brown rather than sing.  Still, you can’t dance-sync and Boseman is electric on his feet!

With a very active career that spans six decades, telling the James Brown story requires some glossing over many facts and events as well as spanning large portions of time. However, what Taylor focuses on in this film is not the rags-to-riches story that one would expect given Brown’s story, but rather that “cost” Brown paid to be the “Boss” he became, and overall he is quite successful. There is some “squeegeeing” of Brown’s image here and a deliberately murky narrative, but the film still resonates with nostalgia and power worthy of Mr. Dynamite. A-

Get on Up is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 18 minutes.

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