Films of the Decade: Vol. 5: 2014

LaAnd on and on and on we go. Let’s move into 2014, my bulkiest year in terms of mass number of films that I’m recapping.

On we go.

whiplash

Whiplash

The year begins, at least in this case, with probably my favorite movie of the year and one that would be near the top of films of the entire decade (maybe I’ll compile that list at the end of all this).

As movies about obsession go, I don’t believe I’ve seen a better one. Miles Teller’s Andrew is a kid who just wants to be the best jazz drummer he can be, right up until he encounters J.K. Simmons’ Fletcher, who might be the only person in the conservatory more obsessed with greatness than Andrew.

The movie, which also announced the talent of first-time director Damien Chazelle, becomes a game of who wants it more. Fletcher pushes and demeans Andrew, and the latter is supposed to take all that, practice until his hands are literally bloody, and still maintain his life.

Chazelle’s script never really asks the viewer to decide if either man’s obsession is worth the cost, as there is insinuation on both sides of the argument, especially given the way the film’s ending. It’s masterfully shot and edited (it won an Oscar for editor Tom Cross, but somehow wasn’t nominated for cinematography), as the pacing and staccato of the film’s jazz score pilots Cross’ editing choices.

It’s not exactly a movie that is fun to watch, but it’s immersive in its entertainment value, and the vitriol coming from Simmons’ Oscar-winning turn (and Teller’s underrated performance opposite him), make it a movie worth coming back to over and over.

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The Lego Movie

Here’s one for the kids.

I remember I went to see this movie on a February evening at 10 PM because I thought it was weird for a grown man to go see a movie heavily marketed to children during the day by himself.

But as much as this movie is a flash of colors and silliness, it also has, like the best movies put out at as “kids movies” these days, something for the adults, be it some over-the-kid’s-heads jokes or references that only the sharpest of viewers would catch.

The story of the film, and the meta narrative of it all, is quite clever, something that was redone in the sequel to less success, mostly because the “woah” factor of the reveal was lost after the original.

And the idea to make the Legos in the film actual Legos is a brilliant one, and it allows the story to have more weight than you’d think a movie about walking and talking Lego characters should. Great voice acting and top-notch animation makes this one worth returning to.

And while it launched a series of movies we didn’t need because of this film’s success (including a Play-Mobil movie!), the original, as it often is, stands out above the rest.

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The Grand Budapest Hotel

I already shared my love for Wes Anderson earlier in this series, but it’s worth repeating: he’s pretty great. And The Grand Budapest Hotel might be, in many ways, his crowning achievement to date.

It’s grander than most of his work, not just because of the locations, but because of how intertwined all the movement in the film is to one another. Anderson has many of his regular cast of characters along for the ride, but it’s the starring performance of Ralph Feinnes as M.Gustave, the concierge at the Grand Budapest who’s got a bit of a nefarious side.

The film, as Anderson’s often are, is all about the atmosphere and the look, and Grand Budapest has that all over. Even as the plot is spinning around on itself, there’s never any doubt that entertainment will be had.

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier

I noted that the first of the Captain America films is one of the strongest in the Marvel canon. One of the films that stands above it is its followup — Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

If the original Captain America movie was a World War II movie with a comic book sheen, then The Winter Soldier doubles as an espionage thriller, and begins to set up the key relationship that would push the next few Marvel films: namely the strained relationship between Cap and Bucky Barnes, who is the Winter Soldier.

It would become key in Civil War, the technical sequel to this movie, and this film does a good job of setting up Cap’s character as someone who would struggle with such a push and pull situation.

Of the Marvel films, The Winter Soldier stands out among the crowded lineup. And it probably started to make people believe that this whole MCU thing was going somewhere after all.

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Edge of Tomorrow

Speaking of really excellent action movies, here comes Edge of Tomorrow (or Live. Die. Repeat. which is a much less confusing title). And wow, what a film this is.

The premise is ridiculous (and actually not terribly different from that of About Time, if you think about it). Tom Cruise is Cage, a soldier who goes into fight an alien race that is invading Earth. Cage dies almost immediately in battle.

But when he’s doused with alien blood(?), he is sucked into a time loop, allowing him to relive the same day over and over. So, along with Emily Blunt’s Rita, he takes it upon himself to use the ability to his advantage in order to find the key to defeating the aliens.

In spite of the craziness of the story, the movie is actually quite smart, and gets a top performance from Cruise, and Blunt, who wasn’t actually considered an action star coming into the movie, more than holds her own (it’s one of her finest roles). It also has a bit of heart to it, which is part of what makes the movie so good.

This isn’t just another mindless action movie.

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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The sequel to the excellent Rise of the Planet of the Apes from 2011, a much more contemplative movie that built up to its action, Dawn is a movie more focused on the apes and their fight for freedom.

After having gained their freedom, Caesar and his fellow apes have built a home for themselves in the jungle outside the city, but still find themselves subjected to human interference. Caesar’s goal is to create a kind of peace, as is the case for many of the humans living nearby.

But when one of the humans doesn’t agree with that (Gary Oldman), the fight begins, fueled mostly because the humans fear the further spread of the virus that is wiping their race out.

Like its predecessor, Dawn has ideas about segregation and hating someone because of what they look like, ideas that ring truer than ever in our day and age. Much of the quality of the film comes from the human performances and the humans portraying the apes, especially Andy Serkis’ lead role as Caesar. Without that dose of humanity, from both human and apes, this would be just another silly ape movie.

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Guardians of the Galaxy

While most of the first few Marvel films were pretty safe bets (even Iron Man had name recognition, even if it was only from the Black Sabbath song), Guardians of the Galaxy was the first in the canon that came way out of left field. And it’s to the great credit of everyone involved that the original GotG was not only a smash hit, but produced some of the MCU’s most beloved characters.

Much of the credit goes to director James Gunn for realizing that to sell this to the general public, they needed to create a film that had a real sense of what it wanted to be. First and foremost, this is an action comedy, with heavy reliance on the humor to make all the ridiculousness feel less weighty.

Which isn’t to say that this is all stakes-free cinema. As with all the Marvel films, there’s a lot going on, especially so because many of the characters in this film have direct ties to Thanos, who would become the great villain of the MCU in the years to come. So yes, Marvel rather needed this film in order to complete the long-form story they were telling, but that they took such care in making it work on so many levels is a testament to the quality of the studio’s filmmaking expectations.

So even if the characters tended to fade into the background in their appearances outside of their own films, they are all well-crafted and beloved no matter where they appear. The gamble paid off.

birdman

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

From a superhero/comic book film to a movie that is, in its own way, critiquing the genre. Birdman, the eventual Best Picture winner at the Oscars in 2015, is certainly one of the more bizarre films in years.

There’s commentary going on all over this. From the casting of Michael Keaton as a former comic book movie actor turned “serious actor” with some clear mental instability,  to the releasing of this film amidst an onslaught of superhero/comic book and other IP movies, director Alejandro G. Inarritu clearly has things he wants to say.

And yet the movie is quite high concept. It’s shot in extended long shots, and is meant to appear as if it’s entirely free from cuts, as the camera glides around the corridors of the theater that Keaton’s Riggan Thomson is using to stage a version of a Raymond Carver story he’s told is too difficult to do. Scenes don’t so much begin and end as the camera interrupts and inserts itself into conversations.

And in spite poking fun at the whole comic book film phenomenon, Inarritu’s movie leans into the otherworldly and bizarre, allowing Riggan’s inner mind to manifest itself on-screen.

Combine this with the open-ended final scene, and you’ve got a film that never allows you to take your eyes off of it, all while never quite leaving your mind.

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Gone Girl

One of the more unsettling films of the year, Gone Girl is also one of the best of 2014, and one of the better executed movies of the decade.

Based on a best selling novel, David Fincher’s adaptation takes some liberties with the formation of the narrative, but generally keeps the story intact. This is a story where nobody is completely innocent, but where it’s pretty clear that nobody is fully at fault for the narrative’s events, either.

In short, Ben Affleck’s Nick and Rosamund Pike’s Amy deserve each other, and if nothing else, the movie goes out of its way to make that clear. Nick is a victim of Amy’s treachery and cunning, yes, but Amy is also the victim of Nick’s cheating and general sense of not being a trustworthy partner. Neither is forgivable, but within the context of the film, the actions, while often beyond insane, feel somewhat logical, even if the mind from which the logic derives doesn’t really feel fully formed.

Pike was nominated for an Oscar for her role, an award she probably should have won because of the stirring, affective nature of her performance. But a lot of the success of the film comes down to Affleck’s role, and he handles it with aplomb, especially given how the movie’s story seems to eerily connect with his own personal life.

It’s not a crowd pleaser or an easy movie to watch, but Gone Girl is a wild movie to watch, even if it isn’t for the feint of heart.

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Fury

Here’s one of the most overlooked movies of 2014.

It’s an extremely violent, claustrophobic World War II tank movie with excellent performances from Brad Pitt, The Perks of Being A Wallflower’s Logan Lerman, Michael Pena and most especially from Shia LeBeouf, who reminds people why he is considered such a talented actor in spite his personal mental lapses.

Fury is an upsetting film in terms of what it wants to say. Sure, there’s the whole “war is hell” trope, but that’s not the point. War, the movie wants you to remember, is the end for many of the people that enter into it. In staying in literal close proximity with these men, the film needs you to always remember that. And in watching it, there’s almost no way to miss it.

There’s no sparkle of American spirit here, no “this is going to work out in the end” refrains. In fact, the movie almost beats you over the head with the opposite. Good is being done, but the terrifying nightmare of war is how lonely it is. And yet these men have each other, and that’s the only silver lining.

interstellar

Interstellar

I wrote about this movie in detail when it first came out, and while I have cooled on it some, I still think there is a great deal of achievement in what Chris Nolan has done here.  Visually this remains an incredible film to look at, even if the story doesn’t hold up as well as you want a movie of its length to.

Yet Nolan is nothing if not ambitious, a quality he has maintained throughout his career, be it via his Batman trilogy, Inception, or Dunkirk, one of his keys is doing something different.

In that sense, Interstellar is a success. And while it may not be the shining achievement of Nolan’s career, it stands up as one of the more thought provoking and stunning films not only of 2014, but of this decade.

^*^

Saw, but didn’t make the list (*close): Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Frank, Laggies, Obvious Child, Wish I Was Here, Boyhood*, The One I Love, The Monuments Men, Mr. Peabody and Sherman, Chef, Neighbors, Noah, Muppets Most Wanted, Bad Words, Veronica Mars, Divergent, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Draft Day, Transcendence, Godzilla, X-Men: Days of Future Past*, The Fault in Our Stars, How to Train Your Dragon 2, It Follows, Foxcatcher, Snowpiercer, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Giver, The Imitation Game, Nightcrawler*, Welcome to Me, Love & Mercy*, The Theory of Everything, The Maze Runner, Inherent Vice*, Big Hero 6*, A Most Violent Year, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part I, American Sniper, Into the Woods, Taken 3, Big Eyes, Selma

Didn’t see: Mr. Turner, Kingsman: The Secret Service, Exodus: Gods and Kings, Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, Annie, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, Horrible Bosses 2, Unbroken, Dumb and Dumber To, John Wick, No Good Deed, The Drop, The Equalizer, Tusk, St. Vincent, The Judge, Wild, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, Let’s Be Cops, Into the Storm, The Expendables 3, Get On Up, Lucy, The Purge: Anarchy, Tammy, Transformers: Age of Extinction, Jersey Boys, 22 Jump Street, A Million Ways to Die in the West, Maleficent, The Rover, God’s Not Dead, Need for Speed, 300: Rise of an Empire, Winter’s Tale, A Long Way Down, Labor Day, RoboCop, I, Frankenstein, Calvary

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