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Counting Down the 20 Best Films of 2014

2014 was a banner year, with great films in an enormous range of genres: blockbusters and indies, horror and SciFi, dramas and comedies, as well as films from first time filmmakers, a lot of great stuff from women directors, and an unusually high number of excellent films with one-word titles. No idea that that trend might mean. Anyway, today we walk through our 20 favorites of the past 365 days.

20. Into the WoodsRob Marshall proves again that he’s the man you want filming a musical, using inventive techniques to bring the  cross-cutting fairy tale narratives in this Sondheim musical to glorious life. Not your traditional Disney effort, Into the Woods offers a sophisticated, often dark but insightful and imaginative look at the other side of fairy tales.

19. The Lego Movie: The tone is fresh and irreverent, the voice talent spot-on, and the direction is endlessly clever. The Lego Movie was the most fun to be had at the cinema in 2014.

18. Guardians of the Galaxy: Director James Gunn nails the tone, the color, the imagery, and the sound of one Earthling dartin’ about space scavenging, smooching, and basically living the dream. The effortlessly likeable Chris Pratt leads a crew of ragtag misfits who collectively become the most enjoyable team of intergalactic scoundrels since Han Solo piloted the Falcon. This is the definition of a great summer movie.

17. Calvary: World-weary humor, brilliant writing and one stellar performance from the always remarkable Brendan Gleeson mark this underseen gem from Ireland about humanity, betrayal, forgiveness and redemption.

16. The Imitation GameA wonderful mix of exciting historical mystery and heartfelt examination of the complicated man at the mystery’s center, The Imitation Game is a film about secrets boasting an Oscar-worthy performance from Benedict Cumberbatch.

15. American Sniper:  The bio of America’s most lethal sniper is tense, heartfelt, and wise. Director Clint Eastwood hasn’t been this invested in years, and along with an astonishing lead performance from Bradley Cooper, strikes just the right tone with a story that could have easily been mined for manipulation. It isn’t, which is another reason to salute American Sniper. 

14. Locke: A masterpiece in simplicity, Locke tags along on a solo car trip: just you, the great Tom Hardy, and several simultaneous crises he handles on his mobile.

13. Under the Skin: This hypnotic, low-key SciFi thriller – the latest from filmmaker-to-watch Jonathan Glazer – follows Scarlett Johansson around Glasgow in a van. Light on dialogue and void of exposition, Under the Skin demands your attention, but it delivers an enigmatic, breathtaking, utterly unique vision of an alien invasion.

12. The Babadook: A familiar tale given primal urgency, the horror fueled by compassion, the terror unsettling and genuine – this film is more than a scary movie, and it immediately ranks among the freshest and most memorable the genre has to offer.

11. Inherent Vice: Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest defies easy summarization as an inebriated PI (played by Joaquin Phoenix as you’ve never seen him) fits together pieces from several different puzzles to create an unpredictable, barely coherent but wildly enjoyable whole.

10. A Most Violent Year: This gem is a film about the merits versus moral compromise of the American dream, and a slow boil drama that keeps you on edge for its full 125 minute running time because there is absolutely no guessing what is coming next.

9. Snowpiercer: Though incompetently marketed and abysmally underseen, Snowpiercer is an immediate dystopian classic. Visionary direction from Joon-ho Bong maximizes claustrophobic tension while brazen casting victories (Oh my God, Tilda Swinton!) and another solid lead turn from Chris Evens work together to create an enthralling allegory of the makers and the takers.

8. Foxcatcher: Director Bennett Miller’s understated true crime film benefits from seriously unusual casting. Steve Carrel is revelatory as John du Pont, millionaire weirdo and wrestling enthusiast who bankrolled Olympic hopefuls (Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum, both award worthy), ensnaring then in his unpredictable psychosis. It’s riveting stuff.

7. Only Lovers Left Alive: The great Jim Jarmusch (Ohio boy!) updates the vampire genre with a well conceived twist on the unusual, aided by Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston’s wonderful performances as well as his own dry humor and magnificent eye for visuals.

6. The Grand Budapest Hotel: The great eccentric genius Wes Anderson inches his way closer to mainstream acceptance and Oscar with the most meticulously framed, wickedly clever dark comedy. Filled with melancholy and whimsy, full to bursting with fascinating cameos, and boasting an almost unimaginably perfect performance by Ralph Fiennes, it’s a work of genius that could spring only from the mind of Anderson.

5. Whiplash: As sure as J.K. Simmons will walk home with his first Oscar this year, Whiplash will astonish you. No film this year ratchets tension like this one, as one musician and his mentor do battle that makes the Hobbit look light hearted. Brilliantly written, expertly directed, and boasting two excellent performances (not to mention some really great music!), Whiplash is easily one of the best features of 2014.

4. Nightcrawler: No telling why it took so long to combine Network and American Psycho, but Nightcrawler is here now, so buckle down for a helluva ride. Jake Gyllenhaal is at his absolute best in a film that is as scorchingly relevant an image of modern media as it is a brilliant character study in psychosis.

3. Birdman: Meta-magical-realism at its finest, Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu’s look at the transience and transcendence of fame will nab some Oscars this season. This is a brilliant director and a magnificent cast at their playful, creative best.

2. Selma: Ava DuVernay’s account of the civil rights marches in Selma, Alabama doesn’t flinch. You can expect the kind of respectful approach common in historical biopics, but don’t let that lull you. This is not a laudable and forgettable historical art piece, and you’ll know that as you watch little girls descend a staircase within the first few minutes. Selma is a straightforward, well crafted punch to the gut.

1. Boyhood: Richard Linklater manages the impossible. By checking in on one family every year for 12 years, collecting not the major incidents but all those everyday moments, he provides an achingly, hilariously, touchingly realistic impression of an entire childhood. The cast is brilliant, and the sense of family they evoke is as authentic as anything you will ever see on film. Boyhood is a film like none other ever made, and it is imperative viewing.

Two of 2014’s Best For Your Queue

Let’s assume you saw Guardians of the Galaxy while it was in theaters. If you didn’t, you should probably not admit that out loud. So, seein’s as how you already saw the best, most fun intergalactic misadventure in years, you can look around for something you might have missed with this week’s Queue. We recommend two new releases: Frank and Calvary.

In Calvary, filmmaker John Michael McDonagh may have found his muse in the endlessly wonderful Brendan Gleeson. Gleeson plays Fr. Michael, a dry-witted but deeply decent priest who has a week to get his affairs in order while a parishoner plans to kill him. Sumptuously filmed and gorgeously written, boasting as much world-weary humor as genuine insight, it’s an amazing film and a performance that should not be missed.

And speaking of magnificent performances, please see Michael Fassbender’s tender, funny, beautiful turn in Frank. Inspired by an enigmatic musician who performed and lived wearing a giant, fake head, Frank is a wry yet intimate film that offers a thoroughly entertaining, wholly odd journey into relationships, fame, mental illness, and the mad magic of music.

Countdown: Summer of SciFi!

The summer of 2014 crapped forth yet another Transformers movie, so it shoulders that shame. But otherwise, it hasn’t been such a crummy season, especially if you are fan of science fiction. The season began a little early, back in April, with Scarlett Johansson’s hypnotic alien abduction poem Under the Skin. But come the hot weather, Hollywood kicked into high gear with few disappointments. Here are the best of the season.

5. X Men: Days of Future Past

Matthew Vaughn’s 2011 re-envisioning of this franchise worked miracles, thanks to an inspired rewrite of history and an even better cast. It was worrisome when the next in this line fell back to Bryan Singer, whose spotty cinematic output in the last decade suggested he may not be the man for the job. But, he proved game for the challenge, bringing the best of one X Men world (Hugh Jackman, obviously) together with the best of the throwback generation (everyone, basically: Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence and James McAvoy) for a time travel bit of wizardry, shape shifting and Seventies references. Hearing Fassbender quote James Brown is alone worth the price of admission.

4. Edge of Tomorrow

Why didn’t anyone see this gem? Aliens meets Groundhog Day may seem like a weird pitch, but good Lord is it entertaining! Tom Cruise may irritate many, but he brings it to a role that requires a complete reimagining of character by the time the credits role. Beyond that, he throws some unexpected and much appreciated humor at us while he relives the same horrendous day again and again in the hopes of finding a way to defeat an invading army of aliens. He has the help of Emily Blunt, and he – and we – should be grateful. In what amounts to the Sigourney Weaver role, Blunt flat out amazes. She has never turned in a weak performance, but who saw action hero in her future?

3. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

It would have been hard to outdo 2011’s surprise hit Rise of the Planet of the Apes, but director Matt Reeves (Let Me In, Cloverfield) does just that. Though his sequel offers less intimacy and heartbreak, it takes the story of our quickly evolving simian cousins to an epic, even Shakespearean level. Remaining ever neutral in what amounts to a political thriller, Reeves never abandons the energy and imagery of a blockbuster, combining the two approaches to create an exceptionally entertaining whole.

2. Guardians of the Galaxy

Director James Gunn does Marvel fans right with one of the year’s most fun rides. Gunn nails the tone, the color, the imagery, and the sound of one Earthling dartin’ about space scavenging, smooching, and basically living the dream. The effortlessly likeable Chris Pratt leads a film, joined by ragtag misfits who collectively become the most enjoyable team of intergallactic scoundrels since Han Solo piloted the Falcon. This is the definition of a great summer movie.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=crIaEzXgqto

1. Snowpiercer

An immediate dystopian classic although badly under marketed, Snowpiercer went on to become the most buzzed about film of the summer, and with good reason. Visionary direction from Joon-ho Bong (The Host, Mother) gave the film a dizzyingly claustrophobic tension, while brazen casting victories (Oh my God, Tilda Swinton) and another solid lead turn from Chris Evans work together to create an enthralling allegory of the makers and the takers.

Summer SciFi Hits Keep On Coming

Guardians of the Galaxy

by Hope Madden

As a rule, August – like January – is the month studios sweep out their bin of movies that weren’t quite good enough to make the prime time cut. Usually we can expect little more than dregs until mid-autumn, when both holiday and awards season begins in earnest and studios once again proudly populate cinemas.

And yet, in what has been the summer of SciFi, James Gunn elevates our August with one of the most entertaining films of 2014, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy.

An uneasy bond connects five interstellar losers, each needing another to 1) avenge, 2) cash in, 3) survive, and 4) save the galaxy. It has to do with an orb, is all very cosmic bounty hunter-y, and includes a raccoon that sounds remarkably like 2011’s Sexiest Man Alive.

Right there – casting Bradley Cooper as the raccoon – Gunn zigs when you expect him to zag. Cooper excels as the very angry varmint, joining an entirely inspired cast.

Chris Pratt, who beefcaked up a bit for the gig, shoulders the leading role in his second relentlessly enjoyable film this year, after January’s joyous The Lego Movie, here playing the American intergalactic scavenger and adventurer, and lover of easy listening jams.

Pratt’s endearing combination of humility and confidence charms, and with a casual goofiness he elevates every line of the admittedly clever dialog, all of it brimming with crisp pop culture humor made funnier by the context (in that no one but Pratt’s Peter Quill could possibly get the earth references). He makes a hero of Kevin Bacon in his dramatic retelling of Footloose, which only gets funnier from Zoe Saldana’s callback in the final act.

Saldana joins WWE’s Dave Bautista and the voice of Vin Diesel (as a tree) to fill out Peter Quill’s band of misfits, and together the crew offers endless amounts of ruffian charm.

As important, all evil doers – from Lee Pace’s zealot Ronan to Benicio del Toro’s creepy Collector to Michael Rooker’s dangerous Yondu – are delightfully diabolical.

Gunn nicely articulates the galaxy and its characters, keeps the humor light, the action quick and the palette colorful.

 

Verdict-4-0-Stars

 

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=crIaEzXgqto