Before I get started, apologies to the movies of 2014 I will no doubt love but have yet to see: Boyhood, Whiplash*, Nightcrawler, The Babadook, Birdman, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Locke, The One I Love, Force Majeure, Calvary, Foxcatcher, A Most Violent Year, The Skeleton Twins, Only Lovers Left Alive.
1. The Lego Movie
From my youngest years, LEGO has been a part of my life. I still have, in my classroom, over half of my collection that I’ve amassed over the years. I still play with them sometimes. And I have absolutely no shame over that.
So I approached this movie with trepidation until I found out Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, 22 Jump Street) were making it. These two dudes are not only some of the funniest directors working today, but they’ve shown time and time again that for all the hysterics that can whip their audience into, for all the creativity they throw out at you to the edges of every frame of film, they never, ever forget the importance of character and story. These guys know what makes it stick.
There are few thrills I had this year like seeing this movie in theaters for the first, second, and third time. Each time just as thrilling as the last. This is a movie built for the long run. It will probably outlast us. And it will probably inspire generations to come. Everything is awesome, indeed.
2. Obvious Child
I first heard about this film as “the one where the girl goes through with her abortion”. The media loves to summarize films into their most incendiary components (this is why Sundance is full of reports of crazy sex scenes that get spoiled 9 months before we get a chance to actually see them).
But Gillian Robespierre’s debut film, adapted from her short film of the same name, is the most charming film I’ve seen all year. It certainly helps having breakout actress/comedian Jenny Slate as her lead, but every actor brings such a humanity to their role that you can’t help but smile throughout. Even the characters who grind our gears at first are given their moments to show there’s more to them than meets the eye. And this is all without saying that the movie is hilarious. I laughed out loud. Far more than once.
This movie will also make you believe that a pee-fart is the most hilarious, most charming thing ever.
3. Edge of Tomorrow
From the time this film was announced as a sort of sci-fi ‘Groundhog Day’, the joke has been clear: either you can go to see Tom Cruise be a badass over and over, or you can go to see him die horrible death after horrible death, again and again, with delightful repetition.
The title changes didn’t sell me. The trailers did an okay job. But this movie, from start to finish, is one hell of a ride. It’s easy to have a plot that involves a lot of repetition become a fast-track to Snoresville, but Doug Liman and his band of movie men have made each do-over as thrilling as what came before. I don’t know how they did it. I’m just glad they did.
Yes, the third act falls into a bit of a trap in which it’s telling they didn’t have it figured out before they started filming. The scenes are too dark, the resolution too rushed. But it all leads up to the most euphoric ending that, against all expectations, is absolutely, absolutely earned.
4. Guardians of the Galaxy
Director/writer James Gunn finally got his chance to shine and play in a much bigger, more expensive toolbox. The amazing thing about this film is how much it feels like Gunn’s sensibility – with its colorful characters and oddball humor – and how it earns every emotion on display. This is the movie that helped Marvel realize anything is possible. Gunn has shown that you can make people care just as much about a simple-minded tree and a scarred raccoon as you can about Chris Pratt. That’s quite the trick.
Superhero movies have, since Batman Begins, been largely grey, drab affairs. Everything that was once colorful and energetic has suddenly been made dark, brooding, and gritty. Some comics are well-suited to this treatment. But anyone who has seen teenagers turn from their bright, effervescent selves to moody, brooding marketers of doom knows that sometimes, when it comes to the shadows, less is more. So I thank Guardians of the Galaxy, with its rich visual palette, for letting us all know that, hey, it’s totally okay to have a superhero movie with bright colors that pop and explode off the screen. It’s okay to have fun. It’s okay to be silly. It’s okay to embrace that goofball within you and spread it across a big piece of we’re-becoming-a-family slice of toast. These things are okay – and they can become enormously successful. So I give a standing ovation to Gunn for finding the emotional core of this film, spray-painting it with his full personality, and fighting for everything that made this as special as it is.
I’m still in awe of Nick Hornby’s screenplay. When Amores Perros came out in 2000, it birthed a great deal of movies that played with fractured narratives, moving back and forth and in-between the present, past, and future. And yet, whenever you aligned the pieces into chronological order, the result would be quite underwhelming. It became more smoke and mirrors, with a bucket of tears and overacting thrown in.
Wild is the first movie, that I can remember, that has so perfectly shown how memory works. There are no perfect, clean edits, but rather scenes that bleed into each other, sometimes from pain, sometimes from euphoria, and sometimes from both. Grantland and Entertainment Weekly have written great articles about just how well the music of the film runs parallel to the way the script works, fading in and out and in fragments and, more than anything, working just the way our memories do.
There is so much to admire about this film, and yet I nearly leapt from excitement when I saw Laura Dern nominated for Best Supporting Actress. Her screentime may be compact, but her impact runs far longer. She makes the pain of loss hurt all the more, and helps you understand just how, in her absence, someone’s life could spiral so badly as to require this incredible journey in the first place.
6. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
It says a lot about 2014 that the movie I looked forward to the most ends up at #6. This film has balls, guys. It starts with almost 20 minutes of no dialogue, nothing but the apes working together in concert and giving us a chance to experience the civilization they have built. It’s all so elaborate and beautiful, and WETA has done a stunning job of outdoing themselves. These chimps feel as alive and real as ever.
I want to point out something that really stood out to me about the making of this film: in the first of the new Apes, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, there were several times where the apes would be swinging in places and in ways that were in no way safe for even a stunt performer. So CGI had to be used. And it really showed. It took me, and, I imagine many others, out of the film.
But this time, director Matt Reeves and his crew did something different: the did motion capture with parkour and gymnastics athletes, and then did their magic. The result is apes that move around, even from high above the tree-tops, in such realistic fashion. It makes a difference, guys. If you can believe how something moves, you can believe how ANYTHING looks. Too often we see it the other way around – the creation will look almost photorealistic, and then look immediately fake once it starts moving. The danger is eliminated. The character ceases to exist. But here? I totally believe them as they’re moving through the forest, working towards an absolutely uncertain conclusion.
This is a film about trust. About how hard it is to earn and how easily it can be broken. This is a story about two chimps, Caesar and Koba, who sit on opposite sides of the coin. One trusts humans, and the other, for completely understandable reasons, cannot stand them. And with the chimps having something that the humans absolutely need, something has got to give. The pacing is deliberate, but never slow. This story takes its time to show you all the increments of change that click into place, that shift gears in ways that are irreversible. And by the end, you will not only be satisfied, but dying for the next chapter. All hail Caesar.
7. Big Hero 6
When Disney first acquired Marvel in 2009, we all wondered out loud which comics their animation studio would take on and run with. In fact, Big Hero 6‘s eventual co-director, Don Hall, recounted to Wired Magazine about the time when he lined up his pitches for possible adaptations, starting with what he felt were his strongest ideas and moving down. As he worked his way to the end of the line, head animation honcho John Lasseter remained, for the most part, still. He didn’t say much. When Hall finally got to the pitch for the 90’s obscure comic Big Hero 6, he described the heart of the story: a young boy who loses his brother, and the robot who essentially becomes his surrogate sibling.
“Finally, Lasseter spoke. ‘That one,’ he said. He was taken with the idea that a robot could become a brother to the main character, and care for him, and teach him. “It had potential for a tremendous amount of heart,” Lasseter says.”
This story not only speaks to the strength of Big Hero 6 as a film, but to Disney Animation as of late. They are rediscovering the emotional core of their stories and letting them guide outward. And, unsurprisingly, the audience is eating it up. In fact, as much as I love the superhero team that develops in the back half of the film, it almost feels like an add-on to the emotional core. And you know what? It doesn’t matter. The heart of the story, with its incredibly charming robot and its obviously grieving main character, is more than enough weight for the movie to build around. It grounds it; it guides it; it makes it feel like something whole and richly satisfying.
And by the time Baymax utters, “The treatment is working,” your tear ducts will be working overtime.
8. How to Train Your Dragon 2
I’ll never forget the moment when I went into Fred Meyer’s one day and saw Pixar’s Up playing on one display TV, with Dreamwork’s recent Monsters vs Aliens playing on another TV. The comparison was not flattering at all. Up, like all Pixar films, looked astonishing in HD, as perfectly crafted with ornate, meaningful detail as we’ve come to expect. Dreamwork’s film, on the other hand, looked absolutely rushed. The characters all looked the same. The colors looked cheap. Everything felt like a product rushed through the assembly line, chasing money over quality.
When Dreamwork’s released 2011’s How To Train Your Dragon, it was the first film from their studio that felt something like Pixar. The attention to detail was noticeably higher. The character designs were as varied and colorful as anything Pixar had ever put together. The lighting, thanks to a visual consultant aid from cinematography wunderkind Roger Deakins, felt as real and bold as any animated film that came before. Shadows were not only deeper, but almost encouraged. It felt like we had stumbled into a lived-in world, rather than a dashed-together theme park ride.
All of this is to say that the second installment of this series has been on my radar for years. I had no idea that Dean DeBlois, who took over sole reigns after his co-directing partner Chris Sanders moved on, was ready for his moment in the sun. Everything about this movie is deeper. The palate. The mythology. The characters. The detail. Everything.
It grapples with real emotional struggles that we’ve all experienced, and it does it in a way that always feels slightly underplayed and always, always cool. And dragons, guys? You can’t beat dragons. Especially when they’re as enormous as in the picture above.
9. The Boxtrolls
“Cheese, hats, boxes, they don’t make you,” Eggs says. “You make you.”
That line, delivered near the end of the film, may sound a little ridiculous, a stumbling attempt at a platitude. But by the time the film gets there? It works. It works for me. I imagine it will work for many others. And sometimes, let’s be honest, we all need a little reminder that our material goods will never be what makes us who we are. We make who we are. Of course we do.
What stood out to me in this film more than anything is the character design. Far too often, we are seeing animation studios use very similar character models throughout their films – Disney, Pixar, Dreamworks, and even Illumination are all guilty of this. But this film, the 3rd from Laika, is almost a workshop in itself of just how daring you can be with your character design. Each character is incredible distinctive and with so much detail that you will get lost in it. Sometimes the character details are charming, and at times they border on terrifying (who knew lactose intolerance could look so scary?). But they are incredibly inspired in their distinctiveness and willingness to try new things.
Just a jaw-dropping amount of care and detail went into this film. Not everything about this film clicks, but the detail alone is worth any price of admission.
10. 22 Jump Street and They Came Together
After proving (again) their incredible storytelling skills with The Lego Movie only a couple months earlier, Lord and Miller were back to take it to another level. This film, like David Wain’s They Came Together, showed that you can make meta and have heart.
Both films use the deconstruction of the formula – 22 Jump Street with all money-hungry sequels, and They Came Together with every romantic comedy you’ve seen – to not only show how hollow the formula is, but to use them for their own means. They Came Together is all about showing bad romantic comedy cliches at their true core: mostly hot hair with a couple fake kisses. 22 Jump Street uses the formula as a skeleton of which to fill with recognizable emotions – such as that awful feeling when you feel you’re growing apart from the one you love – and inject it with the electricity of hilarious joke after hilarious joke. They both deconstruct the formulas, alright, but they also show why we fall for them every single time.
I still laugh thinking about the intense levels of meta these two films achieved. Bonus points to them for actually making them highly enjoyable movies in the process.
HONORABLE MENTION: Chef
I’ve been a huge fan of Jon Favreau since seeing his debut acting/writing/directing performance in Swingers. Everyone knew he was a born storyteller. He had the chops. He had the charisma. He was ready.
What resulted is Favreau becoming involved with a number of projects with varying degrees of success. But it felt depressing to watch him get beaten up by the Hollywood studio machine with Cowboys & Aliens, Iron Man 2, and a number of big-budget projects that just didn’t work out.
Chef feels like a man exorcising a lot of demons at the same time he’s blazing a new path for himself. It’s a palate-cleanser both for Favreau himself, and for the audience to realize what this man is capable of. This is a simple, gentle film with some well-earned emotions and laughs. You can feel the pain Favreau must have gone through, but you will also experience with him the creative high of turning your life (and your career) around into something that works.
YOUR FUTURE IS BRIGHT AWARD: Neighbors
Coming out of this movie, after having laughed my ass off for two hours, I immediately texted my brother and said, “Dude. You have to see it.” I hounded him for days. I tried to follow up on his mission for weeks. I was convinced he would be raving alongside me. But then I got his response: “Eh, it was okay. It had some kinda funny parts, but felt too much like Project X.” I sat dumbfounded. How could he not have loved Neighbors like I did? But then it hit me: Project X, the 2012 film about 3 teenagers who attempt to throw a lifetime-defining party that quickly gets waaaay out of control, is all about the party and it’s escalating nature. There is an escalating party atmosphere in Neighbors, don’t get me wrong. But what made me laugh the most about Neighbors is the story that, well, neighbors the party: two 30-somethings who are not sure if they’re ready to move on to the next phase of their life, even as they got a baby reminding them that it’s already arrived.
My brother is almost 8 years younger than me. He’s still in college, where sometimes there are parties that escalate. But there aren’t 30-somethings with a baby, desperately trying to show they can still be cool. We plugged into different parts of the film – it happens. So I imagine, maybe 8 years down the road, we will revisit this film together and he, of course, will look to me and say, “Okay, now I see why this is so funny. This is some seriously funny stuff, bro.” And then we will find ourselves foolishly attempting to sneak into someone else’s out-of-control party.
MOST KICKASS MOVIE OF THE YEAR: John Wick
John Wick showed us the simplest way to let everyone know how badass a character is: have the bad guys in the movie speak about him in hushed, reverent tones. I still crack up thinking about the phone calls that took place in this movie, debating how to handle this John Wick. The slow burn of understanding that, Holy smokes, we are so screwed.
This movie is what happens when you have legendary movie fight coordinators take a stab at a story they’ve been dying to tell. All the fights are clearly shot – there’s no shaky cam or nonsensical sense of place. Everything here can be seen and understand. And the conclusion, like John Wick’s actions, is simple: it kicks an unholy amount of ass.
Bonus points to the movie for developing a simple mythology that just made me cackle: a hotel, headed by Lt. Daniels himself, of which no business is allowed to take place on the premises. It’s even more amusing when you realize when the business he speaks of is the killing kind. There are rules. And they must not be broken.
Come for the puppy. Stay for the action. Leave with a smile on your face.
THANKS FOR MAKING ME CRAZY AWARD: Captain America: The Winter Soldier
For a solid 3 months after seeing this film, I whispered “Hail Hydra” in my girlfriends’ ears whenever the time felt appropriate.
There’s never an appropriate time to do it. I blame this movie.
I WILL LOVE YOU SOON AWARD: Grand Budapest Hotel
I imagine that this film will be higher on my 2014 list in the coming years. The film immediately charmed me, but as is wont to happen when you watch a Wes Anderson film as you get sleepy in the middle of a long week, you just might miss the overall aim.
I smile at the parts I remember. I look forward to taking it again as a whole and enjoying it once more.
BIG, BIG BALLS AWARD: Noah
There’s something that happens in Hollywood when a director of smaller, artsier films makes a couple that are so successful he buys himself some capital. A studio, wanting to keep his talent close by and happy, allows him to make the movie he’s always wanted to make, and with a sizeable budget. It happened to Christopher Nolan. And it, to a degree, happened with Darren Aronofsky. And what did he spend his new capital on? A movie he’s wanted to make since childhood: a movie about Noah, of course!
I cannot say enough about the size of this movie’s balls. I am amazed that Paramount willingly put out something like this and didn’t interfere more (though they did try). This film pulls no punches; it holds nothing back. And there are these weirdly awesome, stop-motion-inspired rock monsters! There is all kinds of weird shit in this movie that I just can’t help but admire. And it is all displayed with that same sense of earnestness that Aronofsky had with The Fountain, in which he is deadly serious about the matters at hand and the stakes that come with them. This is as uncompromising as a $125 million dollar movie gets. I can’t praise Aronofsky enough for sticking to his guns.
BEST USE OF AWESOME MONSTERS AWARD: Godzilla
The human story in this film is kinda lame. Populating it with great actors, like Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche, helps a little. But even then, it helps to remember this is not a human story – this is a story about the King of Monsters, Godzilla himself. The human story, I’ve decided, is just there for the audience – and just there to create a sense of scale. Because these humans look mighty small next to these giant monsters.
The inspiration from Jurassic Park is obvious here, but in a way that feels inspired rather than copied. These monsters are not immediately on full display, like every other big, special-effects film out there. They are slowly introduced, bit by bit, piece by piece. It’s such a slow, enticing burn that by the time you get to see everything? You damn near explode. Seeing Godzilla be his badass self is quite the treat. And director Gareth Edwards shows that he’s more than got the goods.
I FULLY ADMIT I WATCHED YOU AWARD: The Fault in our Stars
Guys, let me tell you something: there is absolutely no shame in liking or even crying through this movie. It’s okay. Really, it’s okay.
This movie could have gone wrong in so many ways. But when you start your movie with an appearance by the hilarious Mike Birbiglia, populate your film with great actors, and underplay the material as much as you can? It works. It just works. And did I cry real grown-man tears at the end? You bet I did.
I’LL LOVE YOU WHEN I UNDERSTAND YOU AWARD: Snowpiercer
Going to see this film was one of the best movie experiences I’ve ever had. Alamo Drafthouse and their crazy crew set up a wonderful ride aboard the Hill Country Flyer to an outdoor blow-up theater somewhere around Leander. If you ever get a chance to take a true, living train to the movies – something no one can say unless they’re one really old, incredibly dedicated movie fan – you can’t pass that kind of thing up. And Drafthouse one-upped the game by passing out “protein blocks” – those nasty things as seen in the movie – as a nice little snack along the way.
As someone who is Deaf/HH, I knew there would likely be no subtitles (save for those by some of the foreign-language-speaking characters) and yet I still completely “got” the story since director Bong Joon-Ho is one talented visual storyteller. But I imagine that when I revisit the film, with the full subtitles and all the dialogue understandable, this movie will move further up the list.
RELEASE THE GONDRY AWARD: Mood Indigo
I have always been charmed by director Michel Gondry’s craftwork. The guy’s low-fi aesthetic and ability to seemingly make anything out of anything is a joy to watch on screen. But I – and many others – have always felt that he works best in collaboration with another writer. For all his incredible creativity and outside-the-box thinking, his strengths do not extend as much into the realm of storytelling. His ideas don’t always string together into a coherent whole – the balance is always being threatened.
So it came as no surprise that Mood Indigo – a film he wrote and directed – felt uneven. The tone felt all over the place. The story didn’t always gel as well as I wish it would. And it often felt like the film was playing at 1.5x speed, just a little too fast for everything to be taken in properly.
But the creativity on display? Good Lord. I still want a pianocktail (a piano which will make the cocktail drink you’re supposedly playing); I want to ride in a cloud with a bubble window; I want to have a kitchen like the inventor at the heart of the film has. There are so many creative, inspiringly awesome touches throughout the film that I can’t help but think two thoughts: 1) I’m glad this movie exists just so I can see all this cool stuff I never would have imagined, and 2) I wish Gondry could find a writer who taps into his brain well enough to steer him into the whole film he’s always got the parts of.
Maybe one day Gondry will astonish with his pure storytelling ability. But for now? I’ll take all those wonderful inventions and store them in my imagination.
SNEAKIEST MOVIE OF THE YEAR: Penguins of Madagascar
Throughout the entire movie, I had this distinct feeling that nobody was paying attention to the writers. The story works in the ways that formulas always do – as long as you got the structure, you can work your way to the end – even if the formulaic plot is so overused that it happens to almost be a carbon copy of Despicable Me 2. But everything in between? There are so my lines in this movie that I had to assume were either written while stoned or as a dare by the writers to see what they could get away with. There’s an astonishing amount of wordplay and verbal wit that I have to imagine the writer’s simply decided the kids would only care about the animation and the words were where they could do something for the adults stuck in the movie.
The formula creaks and eventually bores. But all the non-plot talking in-between? Delightful, subversive fun.
Well, that’s all folks. I know this list has arrived 2 months into 2015. Hopefully this year I’ll deliver on time.
* Just saw Whiplash recently. Expect some kind of attempt at a review soon.