*Sigh* It’s been a busy year. Work. Fatherhood. Filmmaking. Podcasting. Short of the Week. Suffice it to say, those are some of my excuses for why my personal blog hasn’t been updated for many a moon. But, as we near the end of 2014, I thought it was time to dust off the wordpress cobwebs and pen my yearly, much anticipated (not really) “top 10” movie list.
Now, as humble disclaimer, I’m no film critic. I haven’t seen every film (including much of the buzzed about awards fodder). But, still, I enjoy making this retrospective look back at the cinematic year that was. Enjoy!
Okay, so I’m starting off my list with a cheat. Apparently, this film officially came out in 2013. But semantics…schmantics…Blue Ruin is the real deal—a simple, precise revenge thriller that strips the genre down to its skivvies. Too often is a revenge tale focused on some sleek assassin who knows how to look cool and spurt one-liners. As escapist entertainment, that’s just fine. But, what about the reality of the situation? What if our revenge-seeking protagonist was just…well…an average guy? Suddenly, the tiniest things become the most compelling. How will he get a gun? When he gets said gun, will even know how to use it? And, so, Blue Ruin manages to find the drama in the small and insular rather than resorting to regressive, violently fetishistic fantasy. Beyond that, it’s a true independent film—produced on a legitimately small budget, shot on Canon c300s, and worked on by a close crew of friends and family. Team Blue Ruin, I tip my hat to you.
Calling Interstellar bad is like saying a Tesla Model S is lame because it only has a mileage radius of 250 miles. Sure, it has limitations, but Jiminy Jillikers, Radioactive Man, it’s a race-car from the future! Interstellar is that futuristic race car so to speak—whereas it’s hampered by some very clunky dialogue and some not-quite-sensical third act plot mechanics, its soars on ambition, visuals, and emotion. Yes, you read that right—emotion. Chris Nolan often gets accused of producing over-plotted films with thinly drawn characters—unfairly labeled as a puzzle-maker rather than a filmmaker. But, you know what? F-that noise. This movie got me in my soul. Missing 23 years of your child’s life because you spent an hour on a tidal wave planet? That’s not just scientifically mind bending, it’s emotionally devastating. Interstellar is a film meant to be seen on the biggest, loudest screen possible, filled with fantastic set-pieces that include frozen sky clouds, deep space chase sequences, and mother-loving robots. My only qualm? I didn’t get to see Hathaway and McConaughey due the dirty by the end (I have sophisticated state). Post credits tag, perhaps?
Remember when the The Hangover 2 came out and everyone was teed off because it was essentially the same movie as The Hangover? Well, directing duo Phil Lord and Chris Miller became self aware of the nonessential nature of studio sequels and made 22 Jump Street—a movie that is making fun of the Hollywood franchise machine while also being a cog inside of it. In effect, Jump Street is gleefully self referential, but more importantly, it’s also really funny. You see, when it comes to comedy, breaking the fourth wall only works in part—a joke isn’t necessarily good just because you’re winking while making it. But, 22 Jump Street is bolstered by the impeccable timing and presence of its two stars, Hill and Tatum. The movie isn’t so much a buddy cop flick as it is a romantic comedy between two bros. Part Mel Brooks spoof, part action film (where, thankfully, the action is never given that much legitimacy), 22 Jump Street exists in a sort of vacuum where all the worst ideas and traits of Hollywood (unnecessary sequels, franchise building, pop culture references) have managed to come together to form something miraculous. It’s the cinematic equivalent of lightning striking a surfboarding shark—ridiculous, but also absurdly incredible. 22 Jump Street is really dumb. But, thankfully, it knows that it’s dumb. And, dare I say it: doesn’t that make it kind of smart?
Oh, plus, this end credits sequence is fantastic.
For those that know me, I’ve been quite vocal of my distaste for the majority of director Wes Anderson’s work. His cloyingly twee style often produces nausea in my belly rather than whimsy. But, for some reason, the Grand Budapest Hotel worked for me. Granted, that may seem oxymoronic as Budapest is clearly Anderson’s most twee film to date, but in some strange way, that’s what works about it. Anderson isn’t pretending to make movies anymore. Rather, he’s deliberately making the most deliciously elaborate cinematic dollhouses that anyone has ever seen. In turn, I enjoy this film in the way that someone enjoys looking at an intricate train set. The beauty is in the tiny details and craft—in the artistic, refined facsimile of real life. It seems that Anderson is now operating in some sort of self-parody fugue state—a cinematic trance where the prettiest wallpapers and most symmetrical backdrops combine to form a frothy, cartoonish cocktail of pure fancy. Plot? What plot? We’ve got yet another adorably designed set-piece just around the corner, complete with matching pink drapes!
Honestly, I don’t know where Wes Anderson goes from here. With Budapest, he’s made his crowning aesthetic masterpiece. The dollhouses can’t get any more intricate, can they? But, I do know this: in the event that Anderson decides to hang up his scarf and tweed jacket for good, I’ve got a two bedroom condominium that is in dire need of redecoration.
Like another film on this list (see Coherence below), The One I Love is—most likely—a film that slipped under your radar. It’s an “indie” about a struggling married couple (Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss) who go on a weekend retreat to mend their relationship. Sounds boring, right? Well, it’s not. It’s a tough film to describe without spoiling the high-concept idea driving the plot (even the trailer, thankfully, manages to not ruin it), but—keeping things vague—it’s a surrealist dramedy in the same vein as something you might see coming from Spike Jonze or even Charlie Kaufman. Yet, despite it’s quirky, science-fiction twists, the relationship drama is able to stay firmly grounded. It’s a real testament to the film’s writing that it manages to effortless transform from “normal” movie to other-dimension strangeness without ever feeling clunky or losing the audience. Even the ending, which is somewhat open-ended, is effective, feeling intellectually interesting (as as opposed to some lame cop out). Go into this one with an open mind (and don’t read anything else about it beforehand). You won’t be disappointed.
As an aspiring filmmaker myself, I’m always impressed by films that do a lot with a little. Specifically, I’m thinking of those “why-didn’t-I-think-of-that” type of premises that are astonishingly simple to produce, but narratively enrapturing. Coherence is that kind of film. It’s a low budget indie made for minimal resources that ties your mind into knots. Without spoiling the meat of the plot, suffice it to say that Coherence is the best Twilight Zone episode that never was, focusing on a series of strange occurrences that take place during a dinner party. Is it perfect? No. The first 20 minutes will try your patience and the character motivations are more than questionable a few times (especially towards the end). But, I’d be lying if I said this one didn’t have me hooked throughout. It’s a clever, small budget thriller that proves, once again, that big productions don’t necessarily equate to good stories.
Few filmmakers make “movies” as well as David Fincher. I use quotes because, at its heart, I realize Gone Girl isn’t so much a culturally important film as it is just a really good thriller. While it has been think-pieced and intellectualized to death, I don’t necessarily think Gone Girl is as deep as so many people claim it to be. That being said, it’s a highly entertaining movie that keeps you hooked throughout its too long runtime (no wonder the novel on which it it’s based was a bestseller). I don’t know if the movie ever transcends its “really good Law and Order episode” premise, but the filmmaking is astute, the performances are great, and Emily Ratajkowski’s nipples are at their puffiest. More to the point, it’s a movie that invites conversation. When’s the last time a big budget hollywood thriller did that?
For those keeping count, this is directing team Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s second appearance on this esteemed list. More specifically, it’s their second movie on this list that—ostensibly—should suck. But, let me tell you, The Lego Movie supports my assumption that Lord and Miller might, in fact, be wizards. I mean, c’mon, you just hear the words “Lego Movie” and immediately via word association think “cynical cash grab designed to sell toys.” But, dammit, this movie rocks convention (Transformers and Battleship this is not). Using the very idea that Legos are a commodity in order to convey messages about creativity and thinking “outside the instructions,” Lord and Miller transcend the film’s commercial roots, instilling the final product with a surprising amount of subversiveness and manic energy. It’s tongue and cheek, but never to the point where the story doesn’t hit the necessary emotional beats. Plus, the animation style is as frenzied, colorful, and innovative as the plot. Not bad for a “kids” movie, eh?
Is Guardians of the Galaxy yet another formulaic entry into the ever-growing Marvel cinematic canon? Hell, yes! Do I still love it? Double, hell yes! I’ve often said that there’s nothing wrong with a formula provided the formula is executed well. In that sense, Guardians is sort of like the rib-eye steak and potatoes of superhero movies. Is it conventional? Yeah, maybe. But, damn, it’s still pretty delicious going down. The writing is witty, the characters are fun, the effects look great, and that soundtrack…well…let’s just say there is a reason it’s called the awesome mix. If I saw this movie when I was ten, it would have immediately been my favorite thing in the entire universe (I’m actually sort of jealous of youngsters who get to grow up in a time where Iron Man and Captain America are box office celebrities). Considering the sheer amount of Marvel movies that are percolating on the horizon (practically three a year until 2019), I honestly wonder when I’m going to start tiring of the “dudes and dudettes save the universe in bombastic and humorous way” formula. But, for now, I’m going to put my neuroses aside, sit back, and just enjoy the fact that Bradley Cooper is voicing a foul mouthed raccoon.
If you follow movie news at all, you’ll recognize this film as the one being lauded for character actor JK Simmons’s “tornado” of a performance. Yes, that’s true—the always awesome Simmons gets to play an uncharastically showy role of a perfectionist jazz instructor who is putting one of his students (played by Miles “punchable face” Teller) through the emotional and physical ringer. But, Whiplash is so much more than that. It’s a drama about machismo, psychological dominance, and perhaps most interesting of all, the cruel nature of perfection. You see, most of us are pretty good at what we do. But, very few of us are great. And, so Whiplash becomes an examination of what it takes to achieve greatness. What kind of person would you become in the process? Is it really worth it? The performances are impressive and the filmmaking is even better (fantastic editing). Combine all that technical style with what is perhaps the best climatic scene this year, and you have my number one movie of 2015. Come to think of it, a movie about perfection really wouldn’t have it any other way.
- Bad Words
- Snow Piercer
- The Crash Reel (again, technically last year, but sue me. I just got HBO Go.)
- Banksy Does New York