This is an attempt to create a personal Top Eleven list for the movies released in 2014. Of course, this list is potentially incomplete, as I could not catch up with all interesting productions of that year yet, because of different release dates in my country or a lack of time and/or money.
Notable omissions that could have possibly qualified for a Top Ten are: The Raid 2, John Wick, The Imitation Game, The Lego Movie, Boyhood and Interstellar (covered by my guest author I-am-Better).
The Tale of Princess Kaguya
Technically a 2013 release (it premiered in Japan in November ’13), I decided to include it as it only had a limited release in the Western hemisphere in late 2014.
Princess Kaguya is easily the best movie of the year: The retelling of a Japanese folk tale is realized with eye-popping, gorgeous hand-drawn animation and a strong sign of life from this kind of art form as well as from the responsible Studio Ghibli, both of which have been through some rough times lately. With its sketchy style, reminiscent of old Japanese paintings and early cartoons, it may be one of the most beautiful and inventive animation film in years.
But it’s not just the bold visuals that deliver, the film tells its simple story with an added subtext about oppression in (ancient) Japanese society, takes a look at the fascinating rites of rural life in old Japan and first and foremost demonstrates an almost unbearably sincere emotionality that never feels phoned in.
Like a roller coaster, it’s hilarious and sweet in one moment, only to crush the our hearts with sadness and despair in the next. Add the flawless direction by Isao Takahata (Grave of the Fireflies, 1988) and the excellent soundtrack by Ghibli-legend Joe Hisaishi and you have one of the best movies of the Anime-studio, which is quite amazing at this point in its history. Highly recommended, but prepare for an emotional tour de force. Read my full review on nerdbong.
Edge of Tomorrow
This is how entertainment should be: There is not one dull moment and while it is packed with action, it is not completely brainless and sufficiently surprising. And because of that, Edge of Tomorrow is the movie that delivers on the promise so many movies make but cannot keep.
Read my full review here.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Much better than its somewhat one-dimensional predecessor, this installment of the freshly rebooted legendary series mainly scores with excellent cinematography, stunning FX and lush vistas of picturesquely decayed cityscapes. Tellingly, the characterization of the apes is (maybe intentionally) far more interesting than that of the human protagonists, with “Koba” (mo-capped by Toby Kebbell) stealing the show from the first movie’s simian star “Caesar” ( Andy Serkis reprises his role). Watch out for a virtuoso action scene in the third act of the movie. The fact that the ambitiously morally ambiguous tone is a bit marred by some flat supporting characters and moments from the repertoire of clichés from the post-apocalyptic movie subgenre as well as an overlong running time, does not retract much from the overall impression of a very noble effort to deliver a blockbuster with brains.
Under The Skin
Another film that is technically a 2013 release, but got an official wide release in the last year. Scarlett Johansson, who never could really convince me so far, gives an impressive fearless performance as a man-killing alien, which turns out to be her best and most unusual so far at the same time.
Director Jonathan Glazer created a hypnotic masterpiece that effortlessly combines elements that should not work together on paper: Despite complicated symbolism and artful surreal interludes, the film undeterredly follows its plot which is basically a B-movie yarn, in a remarkably straightforward manner. Elegiac, mysterious visuals that evoke associations with David Lynch’s surreal work, alternate with raw and unpolished, yet beautifully framed shots of the unglamorous life in Scotland’s provinces as well as vistas of the country’s magnificent but intimidating nature. In the end, Under The Skin manages to be artful without being pretentious and revels in its imagery and themes without being overly self-indulgent.
An enlightening fable about how empathy defines what it means “to be human” and how alienation and loneliness find their expression in sexuality. Highly recommended, but prepare for some gut-wrenching moments.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Another sequel that is much, much better than its lacklustre predecessor. The writers fortunately acknowledged that the Captain (the always likable Chris Evans) cannot act like in the clear-cut, bi-polar surroundings of the 1940s anymore but updated the plot according to our more complicated times and its more diffuse perception of who are the enemies and where do they come from, thereby throwing the boy scout hero right into a moral dilemma. The modern enemy image is perfectly symbolized by Cap’s antagonist, the “Winter Soldier”, a threat that comes from the inside and was created by two forces -one of them Cap’s employers- that have been former adversaries and are united by no ideology but the goal of gaining endless power and control.
And who would have thought that the directors of You, Me and Dupree could create such flawlessly choreographed action set pieces?
Fun Fact: Scarlett Johansson has a part in two movies on my Best-Of list and delivers a perfect performance in one and an absolutely awkward in the other. Well, at least there is still “Mariah Hill” (Cobie Smolders) who tops her as the most wooden character in the MCU.
A glorious rebirth of a movie monster legend that makes us instantly forget the Emmerich incarnation from the late 90s, bringing back a very traditional Godzi-design, that is frightening and adorable at the same time.
Its plot is an homage to the Japanese original from 1954 as well as to the first franchise reboot Godzilla 1985, and it is more clever than it is given credit for, organically completing the character arc of the giant lizard from foe to friend in just one movie.
There are some minor flaws, like a bunch of one-dimensional and/or unneeded human characters as well as too many interruptions of the build-up in the first half of the running time, but this is all made up for by some outstanding suspense moments (railway bridge scene) and the best giant monster fight showdown in many years.
Director Edwards constantly frames the monstrous personnel of his movies in iconic, well-composed shots and avoids misguided stylistic hijinks like the shakey cam in Pacific Rim and Cloverfield that are detrimental to the bombastic, epic nature of the spectacle. Worth pointing out is also that he pays sufficient respect to the Japanese roots of the franchise, even with a nifty visual tribute to Akira (1988) in the beginning, when helicopters fly over desolated city ruins. And the moment when Godzilla activates his atomic breath for the first time is one of the best movie scenes of the year. Period.
… is a tale about the night-time crime journalism in LA that does not hold back with stabs against this bloodthirsty biz. More interesting than the obvious media criticism is the underlying character study of a driven man whose sociopathic tendencies are fostered by a society that gauges the value of humans by their success alone. It’s a one man show for Jake Gyllenhaal, who will hopefully be honoured with an Academy Award for this performance. (Update: No nomination. The Academy sucks.) Read my full review here.
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Wes Anderson has already been artistically stagnating with his preceding two live-action movies (Darjeeling Limited, Moonrise Kingdom) and his latest one is continuing that trend.
What was once “idiosyncratic”, is approaching a level that can almost be considered as “autistic”.
Once again we have a bunch of eccentric characters doing quirky things that lead to impossibly cute and outrageous situations. Of course the film is bursting with carefully designed and selected costumes and sets and meticulously symmetrically composed shots of characters looking directly into the camera. And how many quick 90° camera pans can you endure?
On the other hand, Anderson is not a director who should deviate too much from his style and tropes, as that would kill him off creatively, but he is in dire need of a co-writer to stir things up, if you ask me.
Thankfully there are a few elements that save The Grand Budapest Hotel from being a tedious exercise in self-reference though. The atmospheric winter setting for example, the inclusion of surprisingly dark elements like the rise of fascism (although it’s a bit toned down by the fact that it takes place in an alternate timeline) or the gentle melancholy that permeates the film. Not to forget all the great actors of course that are largely responsible for making this endeavour thoroughly enjoyable for the audience.
After all, Anderson is one of the last humanists of cinema and is worth checking out for that alone.
(written by guest author I-am-Better)
Christopher Nolan’s confidence-levels must be up to every scale there is. After rejuvenating a dead Batman-franchise, he can do pretty much everything he wants. And keeps doing it too. Between the Bat-films we already got The Prestige and Inception, and now after that trilogy, we get a…whatshouldIcallthis…a Rubik’s Cube of post-apocalypse-ish, emotional sci-fi, drama, metaphysics epic. I stayed away from all the discussions before I saw this myself(not on IMAX, but a pretty big screen) and it blew me away. It stays with you, after you leave that theater. It stays in your head for a looong time. The story, the visuals, the music (Hans Zimmer at his finest), the characters (McCoinnascance continueth!). It has some of the most emotional scenes of the year, and some of the most thrilling sequences of the year. And a surprising amount of humour, thanks to the humorous robot TARS, that accompanies the astronauts, as they embark outside our galaxy to find a new home for mankind, as Earth is quickly dying. Bravo. Can’t wait to see what Nolan comes up with next.
X-Men: Days of Future Past
Personally I have always preferred Matthew Vaughn’s kinetic X-Men: First Class over the heavy-handed Singer outputs. Now Singer returned to the franchise after Vaughn dropped out during the screen-writing process to direct the biggest film of the franchise so far ,an ambitious effort that unites the old and the young cast for a massive time travel extravaganza.
One can easily see where Vaughn’s input ends and Singer’s influence starts though and the result is a mixed bag. At least Singer was wise enough to adapt Vaughn’s more exciting visual style and abandon his own stale TV-visuals, but occasionally his trademarked ham-fistedness still shines through. Some of the constant weaknesses of the series become painfully obvious again, like the almost unchanging dynamic between the always same characters that creates similar situations over and over again- did we need another plot point that (spoiler ahead) involves the X-Men falling for Magneto’s schemes after they freed him from imprisonment? (spoiler end) How often do we need the Prof. X is ML King / Magneto is Malcolm X metaphor getting reiterated?
The opportunity to introduce some new characters and stories from the vast X-Men universe into the saga was missed again.
Despite all those flaws, DoFP is a lot of of fun though. To be able to watch a talented ensemble like that (Fassbender, McAvoy,Peters…) interact with such an apparent enthusiasm for their roles (another proof that Jackman’s Wolverine works much better in an ensemble movie) is a rare enough delight. On top of that, the 1970s setting is gorgeous and played out for maximum effect, creating an atmosphere that lives up to the high standards which the lush 1960s period piece First Class set up.
Maps to the Stars
What happens when one of the best living directors (David Cronenberg) and one of the most cynical writers of the US literature scene (Bruce Wagner) this side of Bret Easton Ellis join forces to take on Hollywood? Hell unleashed, that’s what happens.
Partly an examination of the perversely high significance “being famous” has gained in our society and partly an unflinching look at the lives of people with mental illnesses, Maps… is, if you peel away the satirically exaggerated, deliberately with elements of dime novel kitsch infused dialogue, at its heart a gripping drama about very different people whose fates are connected in shocking ways that just wait to be revealed. Tinseltown is depicted as a hellish, unreal place haunted by the ghosts of the innocent, whose existence is solely legitimized in the head of its (more or less) living inhabitants by their own existence and their almost (and sometimes literal) incestuous relations with each other. Recommended- if you dare!
Only Lovers Left Alive
Yet another film that is a production from 2013 but had its wide release in 2014.
Who would have thought that Jim Jarmusch will pull off one of his best movies at this point in his career? Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton shine as an estranged vampire couple that reunites after years. Lovers is very thin on plot, but rich in amusing dialogue dripping with the typical Jarmusch irony. The melancholic vampire dandy Adam (Hiddelston), might be one of the best movie characters in years. His habit of desperately clinging to his collection of antiques and outdated music equipment is symbolic for a fear of witnessing a vanishing beauty in designs that comes with the change from the analogous to the digital. It’s no coincidence that Adam’s house is located in Detroit, the city of slow decay.
Yet, the film never devolves into a hipster pamphlet or a maudlin mess of misguided nostalgia, but keeps up a sharp humorous tone and laudably ends with the upbeat message to embrace the life in the present.
That’s it. What are your choices? With which movies do you agree, with which ones do you disagree? I am curious for your well-informed opinion!