The Best Movies I Saw in 2014, by The Movie Snob

Welcome to The Movie Snob’s “Best of 2014” column.  I will look back over the 71 movies I saw in the theater last year and tell you which movies you need to see if you haven’t already done so.  As happens every year, some of the movies mentioned will be releases from the previous year (2013), just because I didn’t get around to seeing them until 2014.

Movie of the Year.  I gave out seven “A-“ grades this year, which seems like a pretty high number for a tough grader like me.  It’s tough to single one out, but I’m going to go with Fury, an intense WWII combat movie starring Brad Pitt as a seasoned tank commander in the vanguard of the final American charge to Berlin.  It had me on the edge of my seat from start to finish.  Not for the squeamish, to be sure, but it’s a great adventure if you have the stomach for it.

Runners-Up.  I’m going to pick two this year.  One is a sentimental little movie called St. Vincent, starring a decidedly unsentimental Bill Murray as a cantankerous and boozy geezer who just might have a heart of gold.  Maybe.  The other is Jersey Boys, a biopic about the rise of pop music sensations Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.  I think it was considered a bit of an underperformer, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Best Action/Adventure Flick.  Hands down, my pick for this category is Edge of Tomorrow, a twisty time-travel/sci-fi story starring Tom Cruise and the delightful Emily Blunt.  This movie totally underperformed at the box office, and it deserved much better.  They’re trying to re-brand it on DVD by essentially renaming it “Live. Die. Repeat.,” so don’t be confused when you rush down to the Redbox to rent it.  As runner-up in this category, I’ll give a nod to The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, which I thought was the best movie in the Hobbit trilogy.  For lack of anywhere else to put it, I will also recommend Noah, starring Russell Crowe as the biblical patriarch himself.  As long as you don’t insist on a literal retelling of the Genesis story, you should like it fine.

Best Animated Movie.  I think it was a 2013 release, but Frozen was the best of the few animated features I saw in 2014.  Enough said; Elsa doesn’t need any promotion from me.

Best Comedy.  This is always a tough category.  I enjoyed The Grand Budapest Hotel quite a bit, but it is hardly a straight comedy.  The same goes for the Woody Allen flick Magic in the Moonlight, which is a bit of a romantic comedy but has a little philosophical steel to it.  As for the new movies I saw that were straight comedies (e.g., 22 Jump Street, Neighbors)—forget about them.  They were terrible.

Best Documentary.  For sci-fi geeks like me, it would be hard to beat Jodorowsky’s Dune, a documentary about a visionary science-fiction movie that never got made.  I also enjoyed Tim’s Vermeer, about an inventor who tries to figure out how Vermeer painted such awesome paintings, and Life Itself, a biopic about my late colleague Roger Ebert.  Particle Fever, about the superconducting supercollider in Europe, was also interesting and enjoyable.

Best Drama.  Well, the two best dramas I saw last year were foreign films, so I’ll save them for that category.  Instead, I’ll give this honor to a 2013 release, Philomena (which was apparently an American-British-French co-production).  It’s a sad movie, based on a true story about an Irish woman trying to find her son, who was taken away from her and adopted out decades earlier because she was an unwed mother.  Judi Dench is great in it, but then she’s always great, pretty much.  I also liked The Fault in Our Stars pretty well.

Best Foreign Film.  The Polish film Ida was one of my absolute favorite films of the year.  It’s a beautiful movie about a young woman—an aspiring nun—in 1960s Poland who must learn about her family’s mysterious and tragic past before she can decide how to move forward with her own life.  Close behind is The Past, a French/Iranian movie about some Iranians in Paris who are trying to sort out their very complicated domestic relations and move on with their lives.  And I’ll mention a third very good foreign film, the Swedish movie We Are the Best!, about a trio of teenaged girls who try to form a punk band in 1982.

Best Science-Fiction MovieEdge of Tomorrow is the clear winner here, but I already used it for Best Action/Adventure Flick.  Setting that film aside, I would pick Interstellar, starring Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway as intrepid astronauts trying to find a new home for humanity as Earth gradually becomes uninhabitable.  I also recommend the goofy Guardians of the Galaxy as a fun romp through space.  With a talking raccoon.

Honorable Mentions.  Here’s where I dump the best of the rest—movies that are worth your time and attention when you’re looking for something to “stream” on your fancy television.  In the drama category, consider The Railway Man, starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman.  Based on the trailers for the recently released Unbroken, the two movies have a lot in common, but The Railway Man also has Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman.  I also recommend Heaven Is For Real, based on the true story of a little boy’s account of a near-death experience.  Begin Again is a nice little story about music and musicians, and it has Keira Knightley in it.  I also enjoyed the similar movies Tracks and Wild, based on true stories about women hiking alone through the wilderness.  The Hundred-Foot Journey is a pleasant dramedy, while The Skeleton Twins is a rather darker look at family, and specifically sibling, dysfunction.  For your Amy Adams fix, watch the current Tim Burton release Big Eyes.  If action is more your cup of tea, check out Maleficent, X-Men: Days of Future Past, the truly original Snowpiercer, or the more familiar comforts of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.  And if you can handle a truly cheesy B-movie, give Pompeii a try.  Kiefer Sutherland makes a truly ridiculous evil ancient Roman senator, let me tell you.

And a few more oldies.  Thanks to the Magnolia Theater, I enjoyed several other classic movies in re-release that I had never seen before.  Robert Altman’s Nashville is an interesting slice of 1970s Americana.  The French Connection is a cop movie starring Gene Hackman that stands the test of time.  For an old-fashioned nail-biter, see Sorcerer, starring Roy Scheider.  I liked the old comedy Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, starring Marilyn Monroe.  I enjoyed Soylent Green, starring Charlton Heston as a corrupt cop in a dystopian future America, and Scarface, starring Al Pacino as a ruthless Cuban crime lord.  Double Indemnity is a solid film noir, and Harold and Maude is . . . well, it’s kind of hard to describe, but if you like quirky you should give it a try.

Happy New Year!

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Interstellar

New from The Movie Snob.

Interstellar  (B+).  Director Chris Nolan (Inception) is back with another big-concept movie.  I can’t say too much about the plot for fear of spoilers, but almost a month into the film’s release I think I can safely say it is about astronauts searching for habitable worlds other than Earth because Earth itself is getting increasingly less habitable as the 21st century goes on.  Matthew McConaughey (Mud) plays the lead astronaut on the mission, while Anne Hathaway (Les Miserables) plays some other scientist-type member of the crew.  More than that, I cannot say.  I definitely enjoyed it; although the run time is 169 minutes, I never got bored or looked at my watch.  But I can’t quite give it an “A” grade because there’s just too much stuff that left me scratching my head and thinking, “Huh?”  I understand that Nolan tried to stick to the known rules of science in creating the movie, but he gets into some pretty far-out theoretical physics along the way.  As long as I turned my brain off and focused on the spectacle, I liked it just fine.  If you’re into sci-fi, and especially if you enjoyed 2001: A Space Odyssey, you will probably enjoy this movie.

Les Miserables

A new review from The Movie Snob.

Les Miserables  (B).  I get the impression that everybody and his grandmother thinks this is the greatest musical of all time, bar none.  The hype may have affected me when I finally saw a big traveling production of the show a few years ago, and I thought it was only average.  Aside from “Master of the House,” and a few bars of that “Red and Black” song, none of the tunes stayed with me, and from my nosebleed seats I wasn’t always sure who was who.  So I went to this new movie version with some ambivalence, and I left feeling pretty much the same way.  The plot is appealing enough–in the early 1800’s a French convict breaks his parole and tries to start a new life after a kindly clergyman “buys” his soul for Christ and saves him from going back to prison.  A merciless policeman is always on his heels.  By a twist of fate, he becomes the father figure to an orphaned girl, and he devotes his life to her happiness.  Meanwhile, revolution is again brewing in post-revolutionary and post-restoration Paris.  But somehow the movie just never really catches fire.  Neither Hugh Jackman (Australia) in the lead role nor Russell Crowe (Cinderella Man) as Inspector Javert impressed me with his singing ability.  Anne Hathaway (The Dark Knight Rises) was pretty good, but her screen time is very limited.  The music still didn’t amaze me, and they buried “Master of the House” under so much commotion that I couldn’t understand most of the words.  But I did generally like the music better than I did before, especially the nice lament by Eponine.  And the conclusion really was pretty moving.  So I reckon it’s about a B, maybe a B-.

The Dark Knight Rises

From the desk of The Movie Snob.

The Dark Knight Rises  (C).  I think I may be just about over the whole superhero thing.  I remember liking the two previous Batman movies well enough, but for some reason it felt like a chore to drag myself to this two-hour-and-forty-five-minute spectacle.  I finally got around to it yesterday, and, as my grade reflects, I wasn’t blown away.  When the movie begins, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale, Reign of Fire) has been in virtual seclusion for eight years, and Gotham City has enjoyed a long period of respite from supervillainy.  That vacation from reality ends when the city is conquered and sealed off from the outside world by a muscle-bound freak named Bane (Tom Hardy, Inception) and his band of thugs.  Secondary villain Catwoman (Anne Hathaway, Get Smart) is much less destructive but much nicer to look at.  For me, the whole thing was too much.  Subplots involving congressmen and control of Wayne Enterprises were too complicated for me to want to try to follow.  The film drags for a while after Bane conquers the city and seems to defeat Batman, and we get umpteen different versions of a particular bit of backstory that I could not have cared less about.  Some parts were quite unbelievable, even for a comic-book movie.   I hope they let Batman enjoy a lengthy retirement before the next reboot, but I’m not counting on it….

Love and Other Drugs

New review from The Movie Snob

Love and Other Drugs (D). This movie just isn’t very good. Maggie Murdoch (Anne Hathaway, Get Smart) is an attractive but bitter young woman suffering from stage one Parkinson’s disease. Her path crosses that of Jamie Randall (Jake Gyllenhaal, The Good Girl), a soulless pharmaceutical sales rep whose only hobby is having lots of meaningless sex. Since Maggie has closed the door on love and is ready to self-medicate her despair with meaningless sex, it is truly a match made in hell. Let’s don’t forget all the other loathsome people in this movie, like Jamie’s pathetic younger brother, a Jack-Black-lookalike who sleeps on Jamie’s couch despite being a multimillionaire (yeah, right), and a doctor played by Hank Azaria (Godzilla) who is, apparently, obsessed with having meaningless sex. The movie is padded out with scenes about the pharmaceutical industry and the shocking secret that pharma companies are out to make lots of money. But the main plot is the unpleasant and unconvincing romance betwen Maggie and Jamie. There’s lots of gratuitous nudity. Skip it.

Alice in Wonderland (2010)

Movie review from The Movie Snob

Alice in Wonderland (B). I don’t really remember the original Disney animated version of this movie, but my vague recollection is that it was long on visuals and short on plot. This new version is much more plot driven. After a brief prologue with Alice as a young girl, we catch up with Alice (Mia Wasikowska, The Kids Are All Right) as a young woman facing a marriage proposal from a dorky aristocrat. Of course she soon finds herself back in Wonderland, but it is rather different from when she first visited it.  The Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp, The Astronaut’s Wife) is apparently just kind of hanging out. The Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter, Fight Club) rules like a tyrant, while the good White Queen (Anne Hathaway, Get Smart) flits around her castle ineffectually, waiting for a champion. Unfortunately the obvious choice–Alice–thinks the whole thing is just a dream! It felt kind of like The Wizard of Oz, souped up into more of an action movie. I enjoyed it. Oh, the 3D effects were okay, but I don’t think they made the movie or anything.

The Movie Snob’s 2008 Year in Review!

Happy New Year, and welcome to The Movie Snob’s Best of 2008 column. As usual, I will consider all movies I saw in a movie theater during calendar year 2008. As usual, this means that a lot of the previous year’s releases will be included, ’cause I didn’t see them until 2008. For the record, I saw 50 movies in theaters in 2008, down slightly from the 58 films that I saw in 2007.

Movie of the Year: My pick is The Savages, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney as siblings who are suddenly and unexpectedly called upon to find end-of-life care for their estranged and Alzheimer’s-stricken father. Hoffman and Linney give fine performances, and the whole movie just rings very true.

Runner Up: I also have to give high marks to Michael Clayton, a legal thriller that kept an iron grip on my attention from beginning to end. George Clooney stars as the title character, a lawyer at a top law firm who specializes in “fixing” things when particularly sticky problems come up. Things get real sticky when another lawyer in the firm, who has been the lead attorney defending some nasty environmental polluter, seems to go crazy and threatens to blow the whistle on the client.

Best Animated Feature: I mention this category next, because the fabulous movie Wall-E would also be my pick for the third-best movie I saw this year—which I think makes it my favorite movie actually released in 2008. Runner-up status goes to Persepolis, a very interesting movie about what it was like to grow up in Iran and to be a child when the Islamic Revolution swept the Shah out of power.

Best Drama: There were several other excellent dramas this year, to go with the four mentioned above. I loved The Visitor, about a lonely widower who is virtually brought back to life by the results of his unexpected discovery that two illegal immigrants are living in the apartment he kept in New York City. I thoroughly enjoyed Charlie Wilson’s War, even though it had Julia Roberts in it. Atonement also cast its spell over me, even though (or perhaps because) I never read the book on which it is based. And last but not least, and despite the mixed critical reaction, I really liked Australia, which just happens to star Nicole Kidman.A sheer coincidence, I am sure.

Best Comedy: No comedies really knocked my socks off this year. Forced to pick one, I’d probably go with Baby Mama, starring the ubiquitous and talented Tina Fey. I also got some decent laughs out of Role Models and Tropic Thunder. But all in all it was not a banner year for comedy.

Best Action/Adventure: The new Chronicles of Narnia movie, Prince Caspian, was a nonstarter for me as for most, and I haven’t yet gotten around to Quantum of Solace. That leaves The Dark Knight and Iron Man, and I enjoyed Iron Man distinctly more than I enjoyed the latest Batman flick. So Iron Man gets the nod in this category, although I liked Dark Knight well enough too.

Best Documentary: I saw a few good ones this year, but my pick for the best is American Teen, which is more than a little reminiscent of MTV’s The Real World set in a wholesome all-American high school in some small Midwestern town. Also getting thumbs up are a couple of IMAX movies I saw, Dolphins and Whales and Amazing Journeys. I think Amazing Journeys originally came out in 1999, though, so it’s probably even more out of place on this list than the 2007 releases I’ve been mentioning.

Best Foreign Film: I think I saw only one, and it was a good one—the French import A Secret, about a French boy who gradually learns about how his (Jewish) parents met, how they survived World War II, and various other dark family secrets. I recommend it. I also liked Happy-Go-Lucky, which was made in England, so I guess it counts as a foreign movie. The ever-happy-go-lucky main character (Sally Hawkins) won’t appeal to everyone, but I liked her.

Honorable Mentions. Other movies I would single out to recommend to you: Enchanted is perfectly enchanting, about the animated princess who is magically transported to real-world Manhattan. If, and only if, you are an ABBA fan, I would recommend Mamma Mia! to you—and then it’s pointless, because you’ve obviously already seen it. City of Ember, starring up-and-comer Saoirse Ronan, is a worthy effort in the science-fiction-for-young-adults category. Rachel Getting Married is a worthy effort in the big-star-plays-drug-addict category—kudos to Anne Hathaway for looking strung out and luminous at the same time. And I liked Hancock for its remarkable plot twist, Slumdog Millionaire for its unabashed celebration of true love, and The Other Boleyn Girl because, well, just because.