Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Ten Best Films of 2014 Thus Far

I already covered the not so good side of the 2014 film scene as we reach the midway point of the year. Now it is time for the best I have encountered thus far, films I strongly suggest you try to see and experience for yourself if you have not already done so.

Starting with the 10th best film of the year and descending up into cinematic heaven.

#10 - Godzilla
Directed by: Gareth Edwards
Starring: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Bryan Cranston, Ken Watanabe

Godzilla features some flat performances and clunky dialogue. Frankly, I couldn't really give a shit about any human being on the screen and their fate was meaningless to me. So why is it on my best of list? Everything else.

Gareth Edwards previously created a very low budget film called Monsters, one that I love even more than Godzilla, and I can say having seen two of his works now that the man has an incredible amount of talent. The slow burn style was executed perfectly here, as we keep waiting and waiting for Godzilla to really show up in a grand way but that is a compliment, not a complaint. I bought in and was giddy with anticipation, and everything was paid off wonderfully.

Another star of the show who will not receive nearly enough credit for his masterful work on Godzilla is the composer, Alexandre Desplat. His score is truly haunting and powerful stuff that sets a spine tingling tone throughout.

#9 - X-Men: Days of Future Past
Directed by: Bryan Singer
Starring: Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Hugh Jackman, and many others

I will admit I was extremely pessimistic about the prospects of X-Men: Days of Future Past when I first heard it was announced the massive cast of characters it would include. The film screamed of being bloated for the sake of trying to feel epic and I felt there was no way they could make such a thing without it feeling messy. I was wrong.

Bryan Singer's return to the mutant world is a triumph and in the most unexpected ways. Despite the ambitious project Singer clearly shows his appreciation for patient storytelling, allowing rich and well conceived dialogue to carry the pacing of the film rather than just assaulting the audience with action. Plus, while many familiar faces are seen throughout, the right people are showcased and allowed to shine. 

Now I can't wait for X-Men: Apocalypse in two years.

#8 - The Fault in Our Stars
Directed by: Josh Boone
Starring: Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort

Am I, a 30 year old man, the expected target audience for a film like The Fault in Our Stars? Absolutely not. Am I, a 30 year old man, ashamed that I wept like a child who was told they couldn't get their favorite toy during a decent portion of the film? Absolutely not.

I enjoyed the book, but I had my doubts it would translate well to the screen without being overly sappy and I was also concerned how the dialogue would avoid sounding phony when actually coming from peoples mouths in motion. It's one thing to read cleverly written wit supposedly uttered by a 16 year old, it is a whole other thing to believe it when it is actually heard. Much to my surprise, everything worked about the film. The chemistry felt real, the heartbreak made me hurt, and the relationships throughout the film felt genuine, as I especially connected to the horrible concept of a parent having to face losing their child.

The real game changer here is Shailene Woodley, giving an absolutely incredible performance. I knew she had talent from The Descendants and The Spectacular Now, but what she achieved her was so special it was eye opening to the type of career she should have going forward. Woodley broke my heart in the theater that day, but in a way that felt right as strange as that sounds. I look forward to letting her break it again and again.

#7 - Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Directed by: Anthony and Joe Russo
Starring: Chris Evans, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan

I went to see Captain America: The Winter Soldier twice in theaters over the course of about 15 hours. Now, to be fair, this was planned in advance before I even saw it, so it is necessarily an indication of my enjoyment level, but holy shit after the first time was I excited to come back the next day. When Marvel announced that Anthony and Joe Russo, the minds behind the remarkably forgettable comedy You, Me and Dupree, would be at the helm of the Captain America sequel, I was floored with disappointment. The first Captain America was my favorite of the Phase One films (not including The Avengers), and I couldn't believe they would hand over the reigns to such unproven filmmakers. Plus, here comes that wacky comedy that nearly derailed Iron Man 3 and Thor 2, right?

Holy shit was I proven wrong. Whatever lead to the hiring of the Russo brothers proves that the minds at Marvel know exactly what they are doing and I should think twice before second guessing them again. The Winter Soldier proved to be a serious, kick ass spy thriller that just so happened to have a superhero in it rather than a superhero film, and I loved every second of it. In fact, I will take it a step farther: I believe this is the finest film Marvel Studios has ever produced, including The Avengers.

#6 - Enemy
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal

Prior to last year, I had no idea who Denis Villeneuve was but the buzz around his 2013 film Prisoners was rather intense, and from the small clips I had seen it seemed to have the dark atmosphere I would want to bathe in. That film proved to be a creepy, intense, ominous thriller that I immediately fell in love with, so an infatuation with the director was born and I knew I had to see everything he has done.

Some quick research of his filmography lead me to the film Enemy, one that wouldn't be released until early 2014 despite actually being filmed prior to Prisoners. One look at the trailer combined with the buzz from some festival reactions, specifically regarding the ending, and I knew this was a work to get excited about. Enemy absolutely lived up to the hype.

Challenging, confounding, perplexing, bizarre, surreal. Pick a word to describe some of the imagery found during the film, they all apply and I soaked it all up. The concept alone should be enough to put this on your radar, the idea of a man watching a film and seeing his exact double in the background of one of the frames, and the results of this idea are haunting. Oh, and that ending? What an amazing ending. It happens so fast and I literally said "What the fuck?!?!" aloud when the frame quickly disappeared. I still can't stop thinking about it.

#5 - The LEGO Movie
Directed by: Phil Lord and Chris Miller
Starring: Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Morgan Freeman, Will Ferrell, Will Arnett, Liam Neeson

I am not going to say "Everything is awesome!" in my little write up here. Every single damn person in the world quotes it in their reviews, and I won't do it. Although I guess I technically already did by bringing it up in the first place. Fuck.

The balls to the walls surprise of 2014 thus far, The LEGO Movie can easily be disregarded and labeled as "silly" or a "kids movie" simply because it features toys, and that would be a shame. Did we not learn a lesson from the Toy Story films, one of the greatest trilogies of all time? Lord and Miller created very enjoyable and entertaining films with Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and 21 Jump Street, but when I saw The LEGO Movie I recognized for the first time that they were totally brilliant. That isn't hyperbole, brilliant is the appropriate word choice.

It is so difficult to make a film that appeals to absolutely ANYONE who is willing to let it into their hearts, but that is exactly what The LEGO Movie is. The humor is on a whole new level of clever and it results in a constant stream of laughter throughout, and then just when you think you have the whole thing figured out it hits you with a third act surprise that will bring tears to your eyes, a wonderful message about letting kids explore their imaginations and bringing their creativity to life. A genius film, yet amazingly not the top work of animation on the list.

#4 - The Grand Budapest Hotel
Directed by: Wes Anderson
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham, Adrien Brody, Willen Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Mathieu Amalric

I have been a huge fan of Wes Anderson for a long, long time, but I always felt his films were just a note short of being perfect. Even my favorite of his works, Rushmore, just couldn't quite get to that level in my mind, and I wondered if Anderson would be an auteur with a constant stream of great films but never reaching the level of a masterpiece. The Grand Budapest Hotel is the film I was looking for.

A perfect combination of all the best features of his other films, this has the aesthetic, the charm, the humor, the performances, and the pacing, all of which won me over and brought the biggest smile to my face. While watching it at the cinema I kept wishing I could somehow pause the film without others getting upset so I could really study the level of care and detail that went into every frame. The Grand Budapest Hotel is a joyous work and without a doubt the finest of the amazing career of Wes Anderson.

#3 - The Raid 2
Directed by: Gareth Evans
Starring: Iko Uwais

Typically I am not really into action films. If it takes place within a well told story and it is filmed well, absolutely count me in, but when something is labeled as essentially just being straight up action and little else, more often than not I will find myself bored halfway through and counting the minutes until it would be over. This would explain why I initially avoided the film The Raid from a few years ago, as I caught wind of the fact that it was almost literally entirely action with hardly any story at all to go along with it. 

I kept reading reactions to it and noticed it was actually well received by critics, so I considered the possibility that the first film had to feature something special that went above and beyond people merely kicking and punching and shooting each other, so I decided to take a look. Once I did, I couldn't look away. Sure, it was action, but unlike anything I had ever seen before and it was intoxicating and hypnotic. When it was over, I couldn't imagine how any character in the film would still be standing if the events were to have been fact instead of fiction, because I was exhausted just from watching it.

Thus we now have The Raid 2 in 2014, and it is a magnificent sequel that takes the first film and elevates it to incredible new heights. A completely different tone and feel to this film when compared to the original, The Raid 2 is an hour longer and is far more story based, as if it was the love child of The Raid and The Godfather. The final hour or so is when the action really kicks into gear and at that point I was craving it, and my goodness did it deliver.

The opening shot of the film is of this wide open, calm field of grass blowing in the wind, a massive overhead shot that feels so serene, yet it is jarring when compared closely to the first Raid film. I became so used to the claustrophobic confines of rooms and hallways that I have to believe Evans wanted to start the sequel this way intentionally to send a message, almost like he was saying this would be a bigger film and he had more room to play with. Just don't expect the quiet to stick around for long.

#2 - How to Train Your Dragon 2
Directed by: Dean DeBlois 
Starring: Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Cate Blanchett, Craig Ferguson

The first How to Train Your Dragon absolutely stunned me, mainly because I consider Dreamworks Animation to be on a much lower level than Disney or Pixar when it comes to producing quality films. It was a work of incredible warmth, amazing character and relationship development, jaw-dropping animation and an impressive understanding of the importance of storytelling, and after multiple viewings it was elevated to one of my all time favorite animated films. I didn't believe they could ever release a sequel that would be even close to that level of excellence again, but they actually managed to surpass it in my eyes.

DeBlois admits being inspired by the Empire Strikes Back when coming up with the concept of a sequel and you can tell immediately, as he recognizes that the world was already built and the characters were already fleshed out the first time around. Now he can expand on it and send it to new, impressive heights, and the choice to move the story forward five years made it feel like the fans of the first film aged right there at a similar pace as the characters, allowing the tone to get a bit darker as well which reminded me of the progression of the Harry Potter franchise.

Exciting, bold, and emotionally resonant, How to Train Your Dragon 2 was a top notch sequel and proof that Dreamworks has at least a couple people on their team that know how to make a real, beautiful film rather than simply a series of pop culture gags and colorful characters that kids will eat up while the adults roll their eyes. This was sitting comfortably at the top of my 2014 list and I thought it would be there for a while, but then I saw...

#1 - Under the Skin
Directed by: Jonathan Glazer
Starring: Scarlett Johansson

The one thing I love most with cinema is when I feel truly challenged, when I have to work at piecing together a puzzle rather than just have the pieces assembled for me. A film like Under the Skin practically defines this, and I didn't even realize how much I loved it until it was over and I gave myself 24 hours to let it soak in. It is a science fiction film, but is it really? Behind all the surreal imagery and bizarre encounters, I believe there is a layered and nuanced reason for all of it that delves into gender issues, female insecurities and the way our society view women and inappropriately hold them to some sort of body image standard. 

Completely eerie and spellbinding, and even as my mind is still racing trying to process everything that happens during Under the Skin, I still know for a fact that I have so much more I can absorb from it when I revisit it time and time again. For some this film might come off as nonsense, pretentious garbage with no real cohesive narrative or message, but I couldn't disagree more. Under the Skin is the finest and most important cinema I have seen so far in 2014.

So there it is, my ten favorite films I have seen thus far this year. It will be very interesting to see where these stack up when the end of the calendar rolls around, as we are still months away from Oscar season when the big hitters are finally released. I would imagine a few of these titles will be bumped off for things like Boyhood, Gone Girl and Interstellar, but you never know. Perhaps Under the Skin will hold onto the top spot permanently, but in a year with both Fincher and Nolan releases I can't help but expect big things ahead. 


  1. The only one I'd agree with is The Lego Movie Under The Skin would be in my worst

    1. Glad you agree with Lego Movie, it is still in my top 10 despite seeing a lot more since this. Under the Skin is now on the outside looking in but I still love the film. I am all about the abstract bizarre stuff my friend, haha.

  2. for me Scarlet was box office poison this year with her and Under the Skin Lucy was ok though but not as good as it should've been

  3. While still a fan of Under the Skin as I mentioned above, I did lower my love for it a bit. I have a few of these films that were ranked beneath it in front of it now.