Monday, January 19, 2015

My Top Films of 2014

Here are my picks for the best films of 2014, in alphabetical order:

Begin Again
Directed by John Carney
Starring Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley, Adam Levine, Hailee Steinfeld, Catherine Keener, Mos Def, and James Corden

Since the breakout hit Once graced theaters in 2007, most critics and audiences have been patiently awaiting what the director and writer of that film -- John Carney -- would do next. Much like writer/director Kevin Smith was given more money after the success of his low-budget debut film, Clerks, to make a bigger-budget sequel (technically, Mallrats was a prequel), Carney was given the same privilege. And while the trailer for the film is very hokey, the film itself is very well-done. There's more heart to the film than the trailer lets on, and I have to admit that Keira Knightley -- an actress I'm usually unimpressed by -- has been having a great year. With this, plus The Imitation Game and her famous, much-needed photoshop protest, under her belt, that's two phenomenal films and an admirable use of celebrity in her repertoire -- and that's not too shabby. The film is about out-of-touch, middle-aged music producer Dan (Ruffalo), who is ousted from the music label he helped found and bring to its success (the scene in which he is canned even has a character jokingly referencing a Jerry Maguire moment). So, like most films of this genre, he wallows in self-pity and a drunken haze. Until he stumbles across an open-mic night featuring a reluctant songwriter Gretta (Knightley) -- homeless and jilted by her now-famous singer ex-boyfriend Dave (Levine) -- and the once-uninspired, cynical producer is wowed, leading them both on a path of self-discovery and finding out what's really important in their lives. While the premise sounds a bit generic, the way in which the story was written and executed is quite charming. Yes, there is an annoying cameo by Levine's The Voice partner-in-crime CeeLo Green, but don't let that turn you off. The acting is good and the music is superb, making this one of the best films of 2014 to check out -- especially if you like romantic comedies (rom-coms), music, Ruffalo, and/or Knightley.

Big Bad Wolves
Directed by Aharon Keshales & Navot Papushado
Starring Lior Ashkenazi, Tzahi Grad, Rotem Keinan, Doval'e Glickman, and Menashe Noy

Don't let subtitles divert you from film. Ever! If you do, you're missing out on some of cinema's best, most original contemporary works. One such great film is this Israeli film, which addresses revenge -- almost, some may say, taking a cue from one of my favorite films of last year, Prisoners. The film centers around a father (Grad), whose young daughter is abducted and murdered, and his quest to find the murderer and getting him or her to confess to the crime. Along the way, he inadvertently hooks up with a fired police detective, Micki (Ashkenazi), who suspects the same man for the murder -- school teacher Dror (Keinan). What follows is the lengths the two men will take in order to prove their suspicion to be true, but also leaving the audience to question whether the suspect is guilty of the crime which the two men are so sure he is. It's only fitting that the film has an approval from legendary director Quentin Tarantino as the film bears a slight similarity to his style -- albeit, not the Kill Bill or Pulp Fiction style, but rather more of a Reservoir Dogs style. However, don't think this is some other filmmaker's or country's pathetic, desperate attempt to make their "Tarantino film." Wolves is still original in its style and pacing. A great revenge pic that proves that revenge is not always a straight, clear-cut path to walk.

Blue Ruin
Directed by Jeremy Saulnier
Starring Macon Blair, Devin Ratray, Kevin Kolack, Eve Plumb, and Brent Werzner

Fairly newcomer director Jeremy Saulnier has written and directed the most realistic revenge films I've ever seen with Blue Ruin. It doesn't have any of the gratuitous, unrealistic protagonist-outruns-fire or walks-away-from-an-explosion effects that most films of its ilk have these days, and the writing and acting are very intense, concise and true-to-life. Yes, this film was shot in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, eastern shore Maryland and Virginia, but that's not my draw to it (although it is nice to see a famous Rehoboth amusement park, where I once worked many summers, featured!)! Deciding to use the shooting locales that Saulnier did made his film feel real, gritty and easier to swallow as opposed to some CGI world or even overused backdrop cities such as L.A., New York or somewhere in North Carolina -- all a majority of film shoot locations nowadays. Lead actor Macon Blair stars as protagonist Dwight Evans, who finds out that the man who murdered his parents is going to be released from prison. He decides to avenge his parents' murder and kill the murderer. But his revenge doesn't go exact to plan as the murderer has family of his own who soon come looking for revenge. Like my other favorite revenge pic this year, Big Bad Wolves, this story proves that revenge is not as clean as most revenge films make it out to be. Blair turns in a gritty portrayal of a very ordinary guy who decides to do something quite ugly, and the film doesn't pull any punches. The story is not some over-the-top big-budget wham-bam popcorn flick, but its effectiveness still resonates nonetheless.

The Book of Life
Directed by Jorge R. Gutierrez
Starring Diego Luna, Zoe Saldana, Channing Tatum, Ron Perlman, Kate del Castillo, Christina Applegate, Ice Cube, Hector Elizondo, Danny Trejo, Placido Domingo, and Cheech Marin

There was a lot of great animation this year in the form of this blockbuster trio: The LEGO Movie, Big Hero 6, Song of the Sea, and this film, The Book of Life! Produced by legendary Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, this original animated featured tells the tale of a trio of childhood friends, Manolo (Diego Luna), Maria (Zoe Saldana), and Joaquin (Channing Tatum), who become the subject of a bet between two gods, La Muerte (Kate del Castillo), ruler of the Land of the Remembered, and Xibalba (Ron Perlman), ruler of the Land of the Forgotten. La Muerte bets that Maria will marry Manolo, while Xibalba bets Maria will marry Joaquin. If La Muerte wins, Xibalba can no longer interfere with mortal affairs, but if Xibalba wins, he and La Muerte will switch domains. As the trio of friends grow, Manolo -- although yearning to become a mariachi -- is trained to become a bullfighter; Maria moves away with her family; and Joaquin becomes a legendary town hero with the help of a gift from Xibalba, the Medal of Eternal Life, making Joaquin invincible. The two boys grow up to be great friends, but when Maria moves back to town, their love for her becomes an obstacle, while Maria just wants them all to be friends. But love inevitably comes and what follows is a test of honor and loyalty, as well as friendship, from their town of San Angel to the underworld and back. I really enjoyed the vivid imagery, but what amazed me the most was the important use of music. The mariachi versions of Mumford & Sons' "I Will Wait," Biz Markie's "Just a Friend," Radiohead's "Creep," Elvis Presley's "Can't Help Falling in Love," and Rod Stewart's "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?" are wonderfully adapted; but what is most musically satisfying is the finale of the cast singing a cover of Us the Duo's "No Matter Where You Are." I could watch this film more than once, which is a surprise seeing how most live-action films now I could only watch once and be satisfied. There is so much eye candy in this film, it's difficult to watch once and see it all. So multiple viewings are not only recommended, they're essential!

Directed by Richard Linklater
Starring Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, and Lorelei Linklater

I wasn't quite sure what to make of this movie because while I think director Richard Linklater is one of the best contemporary directors out there, a majority of some of his movies border on pretentiousness. And for some parts of this movie at the beginning, it felt like that was the direction in which the story was moving. Thankfully, Linklater prevented from wading into those waters by always keeping his story tight and focused on the snapshot of contemporary Americana. In fact, that is how I view this film in its entirety. At least, for a white male (then again, most of Linklater's films are somewhat autobiographical in nature so this is no surprise). The audience does not see all of young Mason's (Ellar Coltrane) experiences, but is seeing the most notable. The many people who come in and out of his life without any follow-up as to what becomes of them is, sadly, realistic and makes the overall story feel all the more believable. The music rocks -- except for that Sheryl Crow blemish of a song -- and Ethan Hawke's creation of The Beatles' "Black Album" is worth creating (I've already done it!). Of course, critics are raving about the idea of using the same actors and shooting them over the 12-year span (from May 2002 to October 2013) in which the film's story takes place. While this is a great gimmick, it is still just that. But it works! This film is a piece of art in which the audience is watching Mason and his sister Samantha (Linklater's real-life daughter, Lorelei Linklater) grow before our eyes -- reminding us of our own childhoods as well as (for parents, especially) those of our kids. There is a point near the end of the film where Mason's and Samantha's mom (Patricia Arquette) feels disillusioned at how fast her life is going by, as evidenced through the growing up of her kids, reminding one of the famous John Lennon lyric "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." It's a sad reality for most parents and the mention of it in the film brings all the more legitimization to the story. What is also most notable are the two different paths seen taken by the mom and dad (Hawke) throughout the film -- the mother wants to be more stable whereas the father does what he likes -- and seeing how their lives turn out. Like most of Linklater's films, the film's story is notsomuch a "point A-to-point B"-type of script; Linklater's films are more artistic through his almost-documentary style of filmmaking. He's not trying to have the characters achieve some overall goal (i.e., saving the world, falling in love, and/or winning a contest, etc.) which drives the film; but rather he is inviting the viewer to watch intimate home movies, looking in on the characters' lives. And don't expect some message or meaning of the film which is spelled out in detail for the viewer. Linklater's films are cinematic Rorschach tests, leaving the viewer to take from his films what they want (i.e., most people may think Linklater's 1993 film Dazed and Confused is merely about a day in the life of several high school kids in 1976 who just party, but I see one of the film's protagonist's story as being about making choices and living in the moment; oh, and I loved the cameo of David Blackwell who played the liquor store clerk in this film and in Dazed and Confused!). Linklater's films are all about the viewer's perception, making the film almost participatory art for the audience. So, if you like a film that is "point A-to-point B," this may not necessarily be the film for you; but if you love a film where you can relate to the character(s) and get some of your own meaning out of it, then Boyhood is essential viewing.

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

 I was pleasantly surprised with Marvel's 2011 adaptation of its star-spangled boy scout Captain America: The First Avenger -- especially since I've never been a big fan of his -- but I was still very impressed. So the stakes were high when the inevitable sequel was released this past April. Fortunately, Captain America: The Winter Soldier greatly exceeded my expectations! Taking on all of the aspects of a spy film, Winter Soldier -- while it does have huge action sequences -- focuses more on story, twists and turns, and ideas. When I first saw the trailer, I was so excited as Cap (Chris Evans) sees what S.H.I.E.L.D. is doing with weaponizing alien technology for defense and promptly tells S.H.I.E.L.D. commander Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), "I thought the punishment came after the crime" and "This isn't freedom. This is fear." I loved the idea that Cap was "sticking it to the man" (as evidenced when Fury says, "S.H.I.E.L.D. sees the world how it is." Reminds me of how politicians go about deciding to pass laws nowadays.) And what is even more great is how Fury attempts to justify the weaponization. His moral ambiguity in order to secure some freedom runs parallel to not just real-world attempts of security (i.e., Patriot Act, overspending billions of dollars for defense, etc.)but also the antagonist's over-eagerness to bring order through homicidal utilitarianism. The Winter Soldier himself is not a big twist for those who know -- or have read -- the Cap comics, but what plays out on screen is done with expert precision, pacing, and writing. The only criticism I do have with Marvel movies is there always seems to be some massive spaceship or transport (i.e., this film, Guardians of the Galaxy, The Avengers) and when said vehicle inevitably crashes, this massive machinery conveniently crashes safely either in a body of water or a huge city which has unrealistically been completely evacuated; but, who can blame them? After the ridiculous Man of Steel backlash (i.e., the destruction of Metropolis), Marvel won't go touching that kind of destruction with a 10-foot-pole -- even though Manhattan was banged up quite hard in Avengers. But I digress. I have said since The Avengers that Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow needs her own stand-alone film -- especially since her history in the comics is so freakin' cool -- and her role in this film only proves it even more (due to their history, I'm even hoping we may see her make at least a cameo appearance in Netflix's Daredevil series due out this April)! What most excited me was the addition of Anthony Mackie's Falcon and how he will ultimately figure into the sequel -- 2016's Captain America: Civil War, which, by the looks of the latest trailer, appears is also being setup in 2015's Avengers: Age of Ultron; and for those who know about it, via the comics, the "Civil War" storyline is going to pit Cap against Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.)! Marvel doesn't hold my favorite comics, but their films have done an outstanding job at tying the entire universe together, and it is that technique -- along with the writing -- which makes them -- and Cap -- a success!

Edge of Tomorrow
Directed by Doug Liman
Starring Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton, Brendan Gleeson, and Noah Taylor

Edge of Tomorrow can easily be summed up as a sci-fi action take on Groundhog Day, but it's that same sci-fi action that makes Tomorrow a must-see for fans of the genre. Based on the 2004 novel by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, the film focuses on public affairs officer, Major William Cage (Tom Cruise), who is stripped of rank due to trying to blackmail a general (Brendan Gleeson) to get out of being sent behind enemy lines. Cage is sent into battle the lethal, unending threat of an alien species known as Mimics. They are called this because they remember battle moves and fighting threats each time they are "reset." On Cage's first mission, he kills a Mimic, but its acidic blood sprays on him and he dies as well. However, he wakes up before the battle, at the same airport where he awoke before, finding out that each time he dies, he resets. He soon finds a companion in Sgt. Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), a tough-as-nails hero soldier who has experience with resetting, and they set out to find a way to destroy the invading Mimics. Cruise may have his eccentricities in real life (which turns off a lot of people to his movies), but he makes one hell of an action star, always associating himself with great action films. And it's refreshing to see a usual macho action star take on a role which starts off the complete opposite; as well as seeing one of my favorite actresses (Blunt), who usually takes on comedic roles, take on the role of badass Vrataski. Ideas of selflessness and sacrifice permeate the story, which ends differently from the book. I had a few qualms with the way the Mimics were defeated -- thinking of it as a deus ex machina -- but, overall, the film is entertaining and worth a definite look. 

The Equalizer
Directed by Antoine Fuqua
Starring Denzel Washington, Martin Csokas, Chloe Grace Moretz, David Harbour, Melissa Leo, and Bill Pullman

Based on the 1985 TV series of the same name, The Equalizer focuses on retired black ops government operative Robert McCall (Denzel Washington), who now lives in Boston and works for a Home Mart hardware store. Although friendly, McCall lives a lonely existence, often suffering through insomnia. One night, while in a diner reading The Old Man and the Sea, he meets a young hooker named Teri (Chloe Grace Moretz) and the two become friends. When he sees Teri abused by her pimp and she is hospitalized, McCall goes to his office to offer him -- and his Russian mobster associates -- a hefty sum of cash to release Teri from the pimp's service. When they refuse and threaten McCall and Teri, McCall unloads some of his expertise of pain on them. But the mission is not over. The head of the mob sends in his enforcer, Teddy (Martin Csokas), to find the man who killed his men. From that point on, it's McCall versus the Russian mob -- along with some crooked cops. This is Washington's first reunion with the director who helped him gain his Academy Award for Best Actor for 2001's Training Day, and they've proven they make one hell of a team! Fuqua knows how to best utilize action and drama without going too over-the-top. Washington proves again and again that he knows action and he's taken on some of the best, most thought-provoking ones around. The Equalizer -- followed very closely by Captain America: The Winter Soldier -- was probably my favorite action film of the year.

Gone Girl
Directed by David Fincher
Starring Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Kim Dickens, Carrie CoonNeil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry, and Patrick Fugit

Adapted from the 2012 novel of the same name by Gillian Flynn (who gets an extra kudos for writing the screenplay), Gone Girl tells two sides of a seemingly obvious missing persons mystery. Director David Fincher proves once more he is a master at his craft, one of the best contemporary filmmakers. Ben Affleck -- proving once more that since his brief hiatus from acting from 2006 to 2009, he has greatly improved -- shines as Nick Dunne, an everyman who appears to have a loving wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike), but when she turns up missing and presumed dead, all suspicion points in Nick's direction. What ensues is the investigation into Nick and his marriage to Amy. But there are two different points-of-view: Nick's and Amy's. With plot twists, amazing pacing and masterful direction from Fincher, Gone Girl is a taut mystery-thriller that will leave audiences guessing for most of the film. What I especially liked about the film was the portrayal of the media in the film -- especially the cable news outlets -- and how they cover such missing/murder cases, how fickle they are. They are represented through the character of Ellen Abbott (Missi Pyle), a Nancy Grace-type who shows no shame when it comes to getting her scoop for ratings but masquerading it as feeling sympathy for the victims. The film itself can be a great critique on what the nature of our modern-day news -- especially cable news -- has become. The performances here -- particularly by Affleck, Carrie Coon and Kim Dickens (who I've always thought was a very underrated actress) -- are all spectacular, but it is Rosamund Pike's portrayal of Amy Dunne that is not to be missed! She should at least receive an Academy Award nomination, but -- given the Academy's reputation -- that sadly will most likely not happen. For a great mystery thrill of a ride, Gone Girl hits all the marks.

Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia
Directed by Nicholas D. Wrathall

Some people absolutely loved Gore Vidal and some downright hated him and thought him to be a snobby intellectual. Love him or hate him, the man contributed much to this country. Nearly every phrase that came from the man's lips was quotable and meaningful. In my estimation, he correctly labelled this country "the United States of Amnesia" on account of Americans easily forgetting their history, thus making every new skirmish or scandal seem brand new and uncharted territory. He especially came to this conclusion after the events of 9/11 and its aftermath (i.e., the 2003 Iraq War). If anything, Vidal was a curmudgeon but I believe it was because of all the ignorance and complacency he saw through said events as well as up until his death on July 31, 2012, at the age of 86. Watching this documentary, I felt sad Vidal is no longer with us as the world needs someone like him with all of the bullshit going on in politics -- on both sides of the spectrum -- today. From his admiration of his maternal grandfather, Senator Thomas Pryor Gore, to his service in the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II, to his run for Congress in 1960, to his personal life, to his run-ins with famous politicians, actors, commentators, and writers, United States of Amnesia covers the entirety of his life in glorious detail. 

Guardians of the Galaxy
Directed by James Gunn
Starring Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Karen Gillan, John C. Reilly, Benecio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, and Glenn Close

I know it's no big stretch to have this film on this list as I'm sure it makes nearly everyone's this year, but you can't overlook Marvel's big team movie (no, not that one!). Director James Gunn has taken a franchise which was dead in the comic world and reinvigorated it to bring it back in a very big way -- not only breathing life back into its comic run but also expanding Marvel's already massive cinematic universe! I am not ashamed to say there were several laugh-out-loud moments for me in this film -- especially when it came to Dave Bautista's literal Drax the Destroyer and Bradley Cooper's Rocket Raccoon ("What's a raccoon?"). Aside from witty banter and one-liners, the film scores big with an awesome story true to its comic book inspiration. Intergalactic thief Peter Quill, a.k.a. Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), steals a very important orb -- containing an Infinity Stone -- a crystal capable of completely destroying every living thing except only the most powerful beings who wield it. The only problem is that the galaxy's big bad, Thanos (Josh Brolin) is also after the stone, and he sends his daughter Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) to retrieve it. There are also two bounty hunters, Rocket (Cooper) and Groot (Diesel) after it, as well as ruthless space pirate Yondu Udonta (Rooker). Soon, Rocket, Groot, Drax, and Gamora must work with Quill in order to save the galaxy by returning the stone to the peaceful Nova Corps before it falls into the wrong hands. The film is a wonderful viewing for both kids and adults as there is plenty of action and humor, as well as a you-can't-go-wrong-with-the-hits soundtrack. Guardians is a rollicking fun, good time, leaving the audience cheering for more. Fortunately, Marvel Films has already announced there will be an inevitable sequel (due out May 5, 2017). 

The Imitation Game
Directed by Morten Tyldum
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Rory Kinnear, Allen Leech, Mark Strong, and Charles Dance

Based on the true story of Alan Turing and his work to cracking Nazi Germany's Enigma code -- an encyphering and decyphering secret message machine -- during World War II, The Imitation Game has so many great performances in it -- particularly by Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Turing, and Keira Knightley, who portrays Joan Clarke -- it's difficult to pin down just one solid criticism about the acting. Cumberbatch especially gives one of the most impressive, finest performances of the year. Watching the film, I knew of Turing's ultimate fate and couldn't help but think of that as he did what he did -- providing one of the most priceless contributions to the war effort and the world at large -- only to be so easily turned on by a majority of society. It makes the film all the more powerful and all the more necessary to watch.

The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz
Directed by Brian Knappenberger

Playing out almost like a fictional thriller, this documentary by Brian Knappenberger delves into the life of boy-genius-turned-computer-programmer-turned-internet-hactivist, Aaron Swartz. It's only been two years since Swartz was found dead from an apparent suicide, but his influence has unknowingly spread, leaving a legacy of true freedom of information and giving future generations the feeling they can change the world. Of course, like any rebel or independent thinker, Swartz was labelled a criminal for downloading and releasing about 2.7 million federal court documents stored in PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) because he wanted to make expensive research documents free to the public (the records were accessible to the public but at a very hefty fee). The FBI would not press charges because the records are public, but when Swartz tried to do the same thing with academic journals in Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) computer network, he was arrested by MIT police and a Secret Service agent, and charged with breaking and entering with intent to commit a felony. It is true that he had to break and enter into a controlled-access wiring closet; however, the closet was unlocked. By 2012, the original charges were dropped but new federal charges were placed on Swartz. This all resulted not from national security secrets or dangerous traitorous information which would cost countless amounts of lives, but regular academic journals you find at college. Why was he charged so highly for such a seemingly innocent attempt to share knowledge for free? This riveting documentary follows the story and is quite jaw-dropping in its discoveries. The film questions how free our common society has truly become when it comes to knowledge, a topic which is truly important in a post-9/11 world. 

Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, Mackenzie Foy, David Gyasi, Wes Bentley, Jessica Chastain, Topher Grace, John Lithgow, Bill Irwin, and Josh Stewart

In a script by Nolan and his brother Jonathan Nolan (The Prestige, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises), one may think this story is Nolan’s attempt at taking on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. But they would be wrong. Although Kubrick’s film – based on the 1948 short story The Sentinel by Arthur C. Clarke – is clearly an influence, the story of Interstellar is not quite as divided as 2001. In this film, the human connection is explored with greater story technique than in Kubrick’s film. The story’s overall theme of love and sacrifice packs quite an emotional punch. As a father of two young daughters, the film delivers a heartwrenching decision between see the big picture of giving years of your – and your childrens’ – life to save humanity or wanting to be there for your children. It is a dilemma which is brought about with great entertainment value here.

Some may believe the prospect of a situation like the one in Interstellar may be nothing but pure science fiction. However, with news such as the months-long drought in California, and the Kepler Telescope’s recent discovery of the most Earth-like planet yet, the film’s concept isn’t so much science fiction as the viewer may think. McConaughey does some of his best work here – even much better than his Oscar-winning performance in Dallas Buyers Club (that’s right, I said it). And Jessica Chastain proves once more why she is one of Hollywood’s best new talents. I believe both should be nominated for Academy awards. As for Hathaway, anyone who knows me, knows I’ve never been crazy about her. But I had to give credit where credit is due. She did magnificently in Les Miserables and The Dark Knight Rises. However, in this film, I don’t know whether it is her character, but she annoys me. I’d like to think it’s the character, but it’s not. It’s her.

I really enjoyed Interstellar, but that’s not to say it didn’t have its flaws. The film may be a science fiction film, but I love how Nolan made it one of the most believable science fiction films I’ve ever seen. And I’ll stick by that claim – even though the last twenty minutes takes a gigantic leap into extreme science fiction, making the viewer question whether what happens could really happen. But that is the beauty of science fiction. It tests our thinking, our emotional and logistical/mental understanding and allows us to “think outside the box” (so to speak) when it comes to our lives and our place in the universe. Some may be turned off by the last 20 minutes of this film, and I originally did not know quite what to make of it at the time, but, after having time to have digested the material, I liked most of it. There was only one particular aspect at the end which I didn’t agree with – as a parent. But I cannot say it without giving away one of the film’s major plotlines. Yes, Interstellar is long – at 2 hours, 45 minutes, but with films like Cloud Atlas, Braveheart, and Saving Private Ryan, a long run-time is not such a bad thing. And it’s not nearly as trite as films like Armageddon (don’t get me wrong, I like that film), Deep Impact, Mission to Mars, or Red Planet. But, while some critics may think it too emotional, I believe that is one of its best features. If you’re looking for some run-of-the-mill action/romance blockbuster, go rent Transformers 4. With its smart science speak, emotional depth and superb performances, Interstellar is a must-see for any science fiction fan. I think it leaves last year’s Academy Award darling Gravity in the dust. In an age of non-original films based on books, video games, comic books, cartoons, true stories or remakes of older films, Interstellar proves the paramount filmmaking of legendary directors such as Spielberg, Coppola, Lucas, Scorsese, and, yes, Kubrick, lives on in the filmmakers of today.

Kill the Messenger
Directed by Michael Cuesta
Starring Jeremy Renner, Robert Patrick, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rosemarie DeWitt, Barry Pepper, Tim Blake Nelson, Michael K. WilliamsOliver Platt, Andy Garcia, Michael Sheen, Ray Liotta, and Paz Vega

Most may write this story off as another "crazy conspiracy theory" story, but, based on a true story as told in journalist Gary Webb's non-fiction book Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion, the story is sadly one of this country's dark truths. Gary Webb (Renner) is a successful investigative journalist who, in August 1996, reports that Nicaraguan drug traffickers sold and distributed crack cocaine in L.A. during the 1980s. No big deal ... except the drug profits were used to fund the CIA-supported Nicaraguan Contras, meaning the CIA knew of the illegal drug transactions and drug shipments into the U.S. by the Contras and did nothing to prosecute them. What follows in the film is the aftermath of paranoia induced in Webb by a CIA smear campaign, looking to destroy Webb's integrity as well as his personal and professional life. I've always been a fan of Jeremy Renner, who has done several underrated roles before being "discovered" in Marvel's The Avengers. The cast is amazing and screenwriter Peter Landesman almost makes up for his atrocious Parkland -- a film steeped in historical inaccuracies and conveniently missing facts. Of course, there are a few inaccuracies in this film as well (which is to be expected from a Hollywood adaptation), but the importance of the story and overall quality of the production more than make up for it. Like most films on this list, I don't want to go too much into the story because I want the audience to watch this film unspoiled. What occurs in Kill the Messenger is one of those unfortunate missing truths of American history unbeknownst to most of America today, but thanks to the film, can be viewed to educate the masses as it should.

The LEGO Movie
Directed by Phil Lord & Christopher Miller
Starring Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Will Ferrell, Morgan FreemanLiam Neeson, Alison Brie, and Nick Offerman   

 One of the surprise hits this year was definitely a film which seemed geared strictly towards kids. The long-rumored LEGO Movie proved that sometimes the lamest-sounding concepts can turn out to be one of the best! The story follows unmemorable everyman Emmet Brickowoski (Chris Pratt; also having a great year!) and his finding a mythical "artifact" one day on his job site, thus propelling him on an adventurous mission based on his seemingly mistaken identity. To assist him in his journey is master builder Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) and her boyfriend, Batman ... yes, Batman (Will Arnett). They are sent on a quest to by Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman) to use Emmet's "artifact" to stop the machinations of the evil tyrant, Lord Business (Will Ferrell). The story is just fantastic enough to keep kids' attention, and yet also philosophical enough -- with references in which adults can find humor -- to keep parents and even those without kids highly entertained. What shines most in this story is the concept of "uniqueness" and "creativity" -- foundations on which the Lego company is built! What also caught my attention were the subtle nods to one of my favorite comedians of all time, Bill Hicks (although, I'm sure the writers and filmmakers didn't know they were referencing Hicks when they wrote the film). In one particular scene near the beginning of the film, in the city where everyone likes the same things and does the same of nearly everything, Emmet sees a TV broadcast by President Business (Ferrell), who quickly, subliminally reveals his dastardly plot to the viewing audience, and when Emmet questions what Business just said, a mind-numbing, laugh-track sitcom TV show ("Where Are My Pants?") comes on, distracting Emmet. It reminds me of a routine Hicks did in which he would say, "Go back to bed, America. Your government is in control again. Here. Here's American Gladiators. Watch this, shut up. Here's 56 channels of it. You are free ... to do what we tell you!" And that is the same humor which guides Lord's & Miller's LEGO Movie! But there is hope in the film! What is thought to be a Lego-animated romp turns into a live-action film near the end of the film, where the entire LegoLand is the imagination of a child and Emmet's "extraordinary person" is exposed for what truly lies at the heart of this film ... and the true "enemy" is exposed. The film is not just a visual and humorous delight, but what I loved most about the film is its concept of creativity, uniqueness, and imagination versus order, sameness, and the mundane. It reminds us that no matter how old we get or how stuffy our lives may become as we get older, we should never forget what it means to create something, anything; and to never shut out any creativity, no matter how small or seemingly meaningless. 

Life Itself
Directed by Steve James

This definitely should have been an Academy Award/Oscar nominee for Best Documentary Feature, but, given the academy's reputation, it doesn't surprise me that they nominated other, more forgettable documentaries. This one is about famed movie critic and Pulitzer prize-winner Roger Ebert (the other half of the two critics who invented the "two thumbs up/down" critique), and it follows him as he is getting treatment for thyroid cancer. Sadly, Ebert passed away in April 2013, but his legacy -- captured in this film -- lives on. The film follows Ebert from his upbringing in Illinois to his rise as a journalist with the Chicago Sun-Times to his death. As a movie critic myself, I definitely didn't always agree with Ebert's choices or reviews (i.e., he picked the dreadful Synecdoche, New York as his choice for the best film of 2008; and he completely panned one of my favorite films of all time, The Natural), but he was a great writer and he brought a distinctive style to film critique. This film is a moving, emotional picture which any lover of film will enjoy. Throughout his life, Ebert reminded everyone why film is so important to society, what we can gain from it, and joy it brings in our lives.

Directed by Jon Stewart
Starring Gael Garcia BernalDimitri LeonidasArian MoayedAmir El-MasryShohreh Aghdashloo, and Haluk Bilginer

I personally don't care what anyone thinks about The Daily Show's Jon Stewart. Some think he is a great entertainer and critic of politics and the news, while others think he's just some liberal clown who doesn't know what he's talking about. Either way, as a filmmaker, Stewart's film (based on Bahari's non-fiction book Then They Came For Me) about the true story of the imprisonment and torture of Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari (Bernal), who was imprisoned in Iran for 118 days because of a satirical interview (for Stewart's The Daily Show), which he gave regarding Iran's 2009 presidential election, is one of the best true story adaptations of the year. For those not "in the know," Iran's 2009 presidential election saw Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who most in Iran considered somewhat of a dictator, versus Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi. Even though it was reported by media -- and video footage showed -- that there was major support for Mousavi and he seemed likely the winner, Ahmadinejad was elected president for a second term. Naturally, this caused a major outrage among the Iranian people, who turned out in droves to protest his victory. Sounds a bit like a particular 2000 election. However, in Iran, the protests turned violent as protesters and innocent bystanders were killed and arrested -- one of them being Bahari, who was among the crowds, taking video footage to report. Soon after his footage was aired, Bahari was arrested at his mother's home by the Iranian government without being charged and sent to Evin Prison. The reason for no search warrant or official charge? He was suspected of being a traitor with terrorist ties. I know Iran's not the only country with such policies (thank you, Patriot Act <wink>)! While some of the camera work seems a bit rough around the edges, I believe that is the look Stewart was going for so as to see Iran and the story through Bahari's camera. This is not just an important story for freedom of speech, but also in reporting truth -- an increasingly vitally-important concept in an age of skewed "journalism" and heavily opinionated news. Think this could only happen in a country like Iran? Think again. When Bahari was imprisoned, he was believed to be a spy for the CIA (because The Daily Show reporter, Jason Jones, was reporting his story and acting like a spy), and when Bahari told Iranian officials Jones was an actor, and the show was satire, the officials refused to believe him and continued to interrogate and torture him. Bahari was imprisoned for being a traitor to Iran. In 2014, when U.S. citizen and former NSA infrastructure analyst Edward Snowden released documents proving the U.S. government's secret wiretapping of U.S. citizens, to the American press, he was branded a traitor by the U.S. government (even though the wiretapping story was so 2006!) and has had to live in countries where he can seek political asylum. This story highlights a sad truth in today's society as a whole -- that of being wrongfully imprisoned for doing what is right even though it is propagandized as traitorism and/or espionage -- and sadly, from the looks of it around the globe, shows no stopping anytime soon.

Directed by William H. Macy
Starring Billy Crudup, Anton Yelchin, Laurence Fishburne, Felicity Huffman, Ryan Dean, Ben Kweller, and Selena Gomez

I have not seen such a wonderful, well-crafted film and story centered around music since 2007’s Once. This film (and story) has a lasting effect on the viewer; well, it did on this viewer, anyways! It makes you question people’s (and maybe your own) preconceived notions of judging others. The beauty of the story is that it starts off somewhat predictable and light, but then turns into something all the more dire, and the way this aspect is revealed within the film is well done by director William H. Macy, who may have a future as a director. The story is a testament to the healing and uniting power of music, and it entices the viewer to want to see how the story of these two misfits will turn out. The acting is very impressive – particularly from Billy Crudup, who proves here why he is one of the best underrated actors today and why he was so damn likeable in the 2000 hit Almost Famous. Anton Yelchin also wows as Quentin, and Felicity Huffman takes a role which is small in terms of screen appearance but is paramount to the film, nonetheless. I was not impressed with Selena Gomez as Kate, and felt that any no-name actress could have played that part; although the role is important to the story, I felt like having Gomez play the part was merely a chance to have a noticeable celebrity name on the bill.

Of course, in a film that revolves around music, it is detrimental to the film to have great music, and Rudderless does that in spades. From the original score by Eef Barzelay to the original music as performed by the band Rudderless (consisting of Crudup, Yelchin, Ryan Dean, and real professional musician Ben Kweller), written by Charlton Pettus and Simon Steadman. Songs such as “Stay With You” (featured in the trailer), “Over Your Shoulder,” and “Sing Along” are better than anything I’ve heard on contemporary mainstream radio! The lyrics to the songs also correlate to the plot as Quentin becomes more confident and Sam sings the song as catharsis to deal with the loss of his son.
Rudderless is available to rent or purchase through iTunes and Amazon Instant, and it most likely will not be noticed this year, it won’t win any awards, and it will hardly be noticed by movie audiences. In fact, I doubt most people who see the post of this review won't read it simply because they haven't seen it advertised on TV a thousand times or because they "don't know what it's about" ... because it's not based on a book, “true life” story, cartoon, comic book, toy, video game, etc. (which most major-released films are these days). And that is a real shame because I would take one Rudderless over ten Transformers Part 4s or twenty Hunger Games! I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Sometimes, the best films are the ones where the story is rather seemingly simplistic. In other words, less is more. The original story of Rudderless – no matter how simplistic – is a more welcomed cinematic work in today’s age when all the major film releases that seem to be made are sequels, remakes, and adaptations (as previously mentioned). As this film critic gets older and takes in all the cinema he can (clocking in over 2,700 films), it’s difficult to impress me much nowadays as the films of today’s stories all seem to be knock-offs of other films made 10, 20, 30, 40, even 50 years ago. I hate to admit that I’ve grown rather cynical with mainstream cinema, even though I love my comic book adaptations (as long as they’re good) as much as the next film- and comic book-geek. But with films like Rudderless, there is proof that there are still filmmakers out there whose material can impress a cynic by having great, original material, just yearning to be watched … just so long as it can find an audience. And I’m more than happy to be that cynic who makes that discovery. While the end of Rudderless is not some major revelation or epic closure, what is revealed is one man’s awakening to a journey he had to take and it's that small, simplistic journey the viewer is privy to which definitely makes this one of the best films of the year … if not, at least, of the past five years!

St. Vincent
Directed by Theodore Melfi
Starring Bill MurrayJaeden LieberherMelissa McCarthy, Naomi WattsChris O'Dowd, and Terrence Howard

Although the plot is somewhat like Nick Hornby's 1998 novel About a Boy (which has been adapted into a 2002 film and a currently-running 2014 NBC series), St. Vincent is a much-better written -- and acted -- film by writer/director Theodore Melfi, a director who has only released short films until now. The film sees Bill Murray as Vincent, a curmudgeon who drifts through life, drinking, gambling and keeping company with lady-of-the-night Daka (Naomi Watts). Shortly after Vincent finds out he's broke, fate intervenes in the form of new neighbors, Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and her son, Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher). Maggie works long hours at the hospital as a CAT Scan technician so she needs someone to watch over Oliver when he gets home from Catholic school. Vincent needs money so he begrudgingly agrees to babysit Oliver, and, of course, over time, Vincent and Oliver form a somewhat-cute-albeit-odd friendship. What I liked most about this film -- especially compared to Hornby's About a Boy, is that the characters are not as one-dimensional here as they are in Boy. There's more heart and honesty with St. Vincent -- especially seeing how the characters are not seeped in trivial personality flaws that can be swept under the rug at any moment. Rather, the characters in St. Vincent are jaded, cynical, flawed, and real! The film reveals that we are all not what we seem merely by appearance, and the ending really trumps About a Boy by miles! This really is Murray's best performance and he should have at least been nominated for an Academy Award/Oscar! Regardless, St. Vincent is a great underrated film!

Top Five
Directed by Chris Rock
Starring Chris RockRosario DawsonJ.B. SmooveGabrielle Union, and Cedric the Entertainer

I can clearly remember scoffing upon hearing of Chris Rock writing, directing and starring in a film co-produced by Jay-Z and Kanye West; however, I read what the film was about and it slightly struck my interest. So, when I went to my local Redbox and saw it in there, I figured I'd give it a try. Bthe time the first end credit graced the screen, I can safely say I was completely entertained. Top Five is Chris Rock's "Woody Allen film," as Rock uses his own brand of humor and injects it into a deeply flawed protagonist who uses subtle humor -- without trying to be funny -- as he moves through a day in his life of his celebrity. Sure, the "N" word is used, and, in one particular scene, it is used gratuitously. But that is Rock's language. Anyone who has seen his stand-up knows it's a part of his schtick as much as Allen's is his blathering, stuttering, self-deprecating rambling. And if Rock is a newer, modernized version of Allen, then Rosario Dawson is perfectly cast as Rock's Diane KeatonThe story is about a comedic actor, Andre Allen (Rock), who wants to break out of the genre and be seen as an actor with range who can do drama. On the day of his latest film's premiere (a drama of the real-life story of Dutty Boukman), he is interviewed and followed around by reporter Chelsea Brown (Dawsonwith the New York Times. As the day unfolds, the two get to know each other while Allen's professional and personal life become unhinged. One cannot help but think that a lot of the nonsense Rock's Allen has to go through while promoting a movie or meeting fans is a case of "art imitating life" as they are situations Rock has dealt with many times in real life. For Rock's first time behind the camera and writing a movie script, he did a wonderfully effective job at pacing, directing his actors, crafting a scene and taking the audience on a wonderful journey into the life of this flawed man just trying to live his life right.

Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee
Starring Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Thomas Sadoski, Keene McRae, Kevin Rankin, and Gaby Hoffmann

One of the best films I've ever seen. For those who know me, I shouldn't have to write anymore than that, but I will. Based on the memoir by Cheryl Strayed (Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail), Wild tells the true tale of Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon), who decides to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, stretching from the Mojave Desert to Washington State, alone -- all the while revisiting some of the tragic life events which drives her on her journey. The first thing I thought of when I heard about this film was a story that would be akin to the dreadful Eat, Pray, Love (also a memoir, but by Elizabeth Gilbert). Having watched that film and read only a few pages (that's all I could stomach!), I was hoping Wild would be nothing like Gilbert's work. Fortunately, it isn't. It is about a woman's journey. But, as my wife said it best, one film is about a woman running away from herself (Eat, Pray, Love), and the other is about a woman running toward herself (Wild). That speaks volumes. Wild takes a few similar themes but director Jean-Marc Vallee's technique -- coupled with a wonderful screenplay by novelist Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, About a Boy, A Long Way Down) -- does what Gilbert and director/screenwriter Ryan Murphy could only dream of doing. Laura Dern's performance is vital to the story but I wouldn't call it Oscar worthy. Witherspoon -- on the other hand -- deserves so many accolades it's hard to not gush enough about what is easily one of the best performances of her career. The use of flashbacks throughout Strayed's journey are done just right and with the right amount of exposure to entice the audience enough to yearn for more. What the viewer gains as Strayed herself gains is so poignant, poetic and emotionally satisfying, I felt like I was reading a great novel. This may very well be one of the best films I've ever seen, it's that damn good.

Wish I Was Here
Directed by Zach Braff
Starring Zach Braff, Kate Hudson, Mandy Patinkin, Josh Gad, Joey King, and Pierce Gagnon

Written by actor-director Zach Braff and his brother, Adam Braff, Wish I Was Here can easily be viewed as the brothers' cathartic attempt at coming to terms with Adam's true-life "Mr. Mom" status. In the film, Aidan Bloom (Zach Braff) is a 35-year-old father of straight-laced Grace (Joey King) and rebel-rouser Tucker (Pierce Gagnon), and husband to his ultra-supportive wife, Sarah (Kate Hudson), who works in a job she secretly hates while Aidan pursues his non-existent acting career. While the preview for the film seems as if this is the focus of the story, there is actually more to it. To me, the central story in the film is Aidan's relationship with his old-fashioned father, Gabe (Mandy Patinkin), while also following his journey toward becoming a better father and husband. When Gabe can no longer pay for the kids' education at an Orthodox Jewish day school, Aidan must homeschool them but also come to terms that he's been a bit selfish in his pursuance of his dreams while his wife is left to work a tedious data processing job. The reason Gabe can no longer afford the tuition is because he must put his money toward his cancer treatment. The film is ultimately about fathers and their kids -- particularly their sons -- as Gabe's relationship to Aidan and his other son, Noah (Josh Gad), are explored. The film does have the same quirkiness as Braff's masterful 2004 Garden State (a must-see!) -- coincidentally, also a film about father and son. In this film, Braff's Aidan is not so likeable of a protagonist, but that's what the film is steeped in: it is Aidan's journey to self-discovery. That is what makes this film so refreshing and worth a definite look. In a time when "Mr. Mom"s are becoming more of a normality (I myself was one for a while), this film is a great, fresh look on the 21st century man and his important role as a man, a husband, a son, and, most importantly, a father.

X-Men: Days of Future Past
Directed by Bryan Singer
Starring Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Nicholas Hoult, Ellen Page, Peter Dinklage, Shawn Ashmore, Halle Berry, and Evan Peters

One of the most anticipated Marvel adaptation films -- and sequels -- this year was X-Men: Days of Future Past, based on the 1981 storyline from the X-Men comics. Some panned the film and, after hearing of Singer's involvement as director once more, I was worried I may be in that lot. Thankfully, I was not. While this installment was not as good as its predecessor (X-Men: First Class), it still was one of the better films of the year. In the film, the X-Men movie audiences are used to -- from Singer's early 2000s films (i.e., Wolverine, Storm, Colossus, Iceman, etc.) -- are living in a time of destruction when all mutants are hunted and killed by Sentinals. As a way to change the present, Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) agrees to use her powers to send Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), the only mutant who could survive such a process, to go back in time to 1973 to find the younger Professor X (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) to try and find Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and prevent her from assassinating the creator of the Sentinals, Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), which marks the beginning of the end for mutants in that it makes the regular human public believe mutants are evil and need to be destroyed. What comes out of this storyline shows a great balance of action and the message of how no one's path is destined. Some of my favorite things about this film were the way it ended: Mystique disguising herself as the villainous Stryker so she can take custody of Logan/Wolverine in 1973 (which raises many questions); and the brief post-credit scene teasing the next film's antagonist, Apocalypse (which alludes to the sequel, set for release on May 27, 2016). One of the best sequences of the film is when -- in 1973 -- Wolverine, Professor X and Magneto track down Quicksilver (Evan Peters) to utilize his mutant power (super speed). Hopefully, Quicksilver will have a longer role in the sequel. Another added bonus is that this film negates the dreadful X-Men: The Last Stand! Although Days of Future Past can be dark at times, it still remains one of the best comic book adaptations (reboots) out there.

Honorable Mentions:

Big Hero 6
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes




Veronica Mars


The most disappointing film of 2014, for me, was a film I thought would be good but was one big flop! And here it is:

Jersey Boys
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Starring John Lloyd Young, Vincent Piazza, Erich Bergen, Michael Lomenda, Renee Marino, Joseph Russo, and Christopher Walken

I had high hopes for this adaptation of the hit Broadway musical, based on the life of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Valli and his group have churned out amazing hits -- such as "Big Girls Don't Cry," "Walk Like a Man," "Rag Doll," "Sherry," "Working My Way Back to You," "December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)," and Valli's massive solo hit, "Can't Take My Eyes Off You" -- and I knew their roots tied to gangster Angelo "Gyp" DeCarlo (who also tied Frank Sinatra to organized crime), portrayed here by Christopher Walken. Plus, with Clint Eastwood as director -- a filmmaker who has proven time and time again of his behind-the-camera talent with films such as Mystic River, Letters From Iwo Jima, Million Dollar Baby, Unforgiven, and the highly underrated A Perfect World -- I was excited to see what he did with the material. Sadly, what I got was a mess of a film trying to speed through the life of one of the music industry's most influential bands. The story and pacing feel all wrong as there are too many jumps in the chronology. For instance, when a major, life-changing event happens to Valli near the end of the film, in true "just-suck-it-up" fashion of which is quite popular among Mr. Eastwood's generation, there is only one short scene devoted to this life-altering event and then it is promptly swept under the rug, never to be mentioned again. Most of this is not Eastwood's fault as he did not write the script -- that falls to the writers of the stage play, Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice -- but the editing seemed too choppy and the acting was too over-the-top, leaving me to a few eye-rolls from time to time. Even Walken -- an actor I usually like -- seemed like a caricature in his portrayal of the gangster DeCarlo, making him seem like he was portraying one of his many famous Saturday Night Live characters. It reminded me a bit of how John Travolta approached his role -- or even Walken's own role of Travolta's character's husband, Wilbur Turnblad -- in the movie adaptation of the Broadway musical, Hairspray. I expected to watch this film and see more of Valli and his bandmates' lives than what I did see: the stereotypical story of a band struggling with each other in the face of success.

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