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!

St. Vincent

A new review from The Movie Snob.

St. Vincent  (A-).  Okay, the grade may be slightly inflated, but what can I say?  I fell for this sappy little movie about a cranky old boozehound and the little boy who moves in next door and gets taken under his wing.  Bill Murray (Moonrise Kingdom) plays Vincent, a cranky old boozehound with a Russian stripper girlfriend (Naomi Watts, The Impossible) and a serious debt problem.  Melissa McCarthy (The Heat) plays the woman who moves in next door to Vincent.  She’s going through a tough divorce and works long hours, so she gets Vincent to watch her young son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher, in his first movie) after school.  It’s Murray’s movie, but young Lieberher also turns in a great performance that really makes the movie work.  Chris O’Dowd (Calvary) has some good one-liners as a Catholic priest and teacher at Oliver’s school.  I described this movie to The Borg Queen, and she said, “It sounds like About a Boy.”  And you know, there is some similarity there, although I don’t think I’ve ever cried watching About a Boy.  Anyway, I’ll be curious to see if Murray gets an Oscar nom for this one.

Moonrise Kingdom

A new review from The Movie Snob.

Moonrise Kingdom  (B).  Quirky director Wes Anderson (Fantastic Mr. Fox) returns with a quirky tale of young love between a couple of 12-year-old misfits, Sam and Suzy.  Suzy lives on a smallish island with her dysfunctional family, and Sam is an orphan in foster care.  Via flashback, we learn that they met cute a year earlier, became penpals, and hatched a scheme to run away together when Sam’s scout troop is on the island for a camping trip.  Once their disappearance is discovered, search parties are formed by the various semi-competent adults who are available–the earnest scoutmaster (Edward Norton, The Painted Veil), Suzy’s parents (Bill Murray, Ghostbusters; Frances McDormand, Fargo), the island’s policeman (Bruce Willis, Surrogates)–and quirky adventures ensue.  The relationship between Sam and Suzy is easily the movie’s strongest point, and Anderson makes it touching while keeping it believable.  Sam and Suzy’s affection is genuine, but it doesn’t keep them from hurting each other’s feelings once in a while.  The supporting elements are not as strong.  Stuff is odd without actually being funny, Murray’s character in particular is way underdeveloped, and using a hurricane as a plot element seems like overkill.  Nevertheless, I enjoyed the movie as a whole.  It made me wonder what happened to that one particular girl who transferred into my elementary school at the beginning of 5th grade, didn’t come back for 6th grade, and in between made me get the worst grades in conduct I ever got….

Moonrise Kingdom

A new review from Movie Man Mike.

Moonrise Kingdom.  B.  The cast of this film creates some pretty big expectations.  Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Ed Norton, Bruce Willis, & Tilda Swinton.  And those are not even the main characters.  This was a cute and sweet film.  The two main characters are misfits in their respective worlds.  They meet and decide to run away together.  When the rest of the grown-up cast realizes it, an all-out search ensues and the results are quite amusing.  The entire cast gives a solid performance.  In my view the only weakness in the film was that I had higher expectations in the laughter department, given the cast and subject matter.  If you don’t see this one at the theater, it will make a great rental for a rainy day afternoon.

City of Ember

From the desk of The Movie Snob

City of Ember (B). I enjoyed this little sci-fi adventure. Some sort of impending catastrophe will make the Earth’s surface uninhabitable for a long period of time. The best scientific minds come together and build the City of Ember far below the surface, where a remnant of humanity will survive for 200 years until the surface will, with luck, be habitable again. Now the 200 years have elapsed, but somewhere along the way the mayors have forgotten the City’s purpose and lost the instructions that reveal how to escape the crumbling City. Two teenagers stumble upon clues to the dire reality and the escape route, but the mayor and his cronies aim to stop them. Saoirse Ronan, who was excellent in Atonement, shines as Lina Mayfleet, and she receives able support from Harry Treadaway (The Lone Ranger) as her friend Doon Harrow. Bill Murray (St. Vincent) costars as the mayor, and Tim Robbins (Bull Durham) and Martin Landau (Ed Wood) also appear.

David’s Grab-Bag of Reviews

DVD reviews from That Guy Named David:

Bad News Bears (C+)

The original is better. Maybe it’s because I think Walter Matthau was a better actor than Billy Bob Thornton. Or maybe it’s simply because originals generally are better because, well… they’re original. Nonetheless, the second-coming wasn’t a total bust and provided quite a few enjoyable scenes. Thornton expands on the character he played in Bad Santa and once again, managed to make me laugh on several occasions. He is very good at being a worthless nothing of a human being in both roles. In addition, the kid playing Tanner was great, just as the original kid playing Tanner had a very entertaining role in the first one. It’s worth the rental fee and time if you have absolutely nothing to do on a Sunday afternoon.

Broken Flowers (D)

This movie had the makings of everything I enjoy in cinema. It was put out by Focus Features, possibly the best production company in Hollywood today (Lost in Translation, The Pianist, The Constant Gardner, Wet Hot American Summer). It stars Bill Murray, one of the greatest actors of our generation. It deals with the subject of loneliness and confusion, and casts the leading role as an individual searching for answers to unanswerable questions. Just the type of deep, reflective movie that makes me stay up drinking into the wee hours of the night wondering where I took the many wrong turns in my life… but I digress. In short, this movie sucks. It’s fragmented, has no real point, and leads the viewer to an ending that has no ending. Murray is good with what he is given with the role; however, the overall flow of the movie never gets going and when the credits finally roll at the end, you are wondering what just happened and whether you are actually worse off for having watched the movie. Very bad.

Crash (B+)

This movie profiles all the racial stereotypes in our society and doesn’t try to sugarcoat the problems that invariably arise from people acting out on the stereotypes. It is deep, hard-hitting, filled with superb performances (Don Cheadle is quickly becoming one of my favorite actors), and leaves you with an uneasy feeling about the race issues that are still pervasive in our society. The one knock against the movie is that there was too much happenstance in the movie, so there were times when I thought to myself that the multiple storylines were being stretched a little too thin. That being said, however, it’s a quality movie with quality performances that should get some well-deserved credit in the coming months. Rent it.

Broken Flowers

A new review from The Movie Snob:

Broken Flowers (B-). Despite the critical acclaim, I can’t go higher than a B- on this movie. Bill Murray plays Don Johnston, a character with some resemblance to his character in Lost in Translation. Johnston, however, is more emotionally shut down and apathetic — indeed, he’s virtually catatonic. We meet him as the latest in a long line of girlfriends is breaking up with him, and he barely tries to stop her. He is sort of jolted out of his state of inertia when he receives an anonymous letter, purportly from an ex-girlfriend, warning him that he has a 19-year-old son who is out there looking for him. At the urging of his friend Winston, Johnston narrows the list of possible authors to five and sets out to visit each of them to try to figure out which one sent the letter. This yields some juicy parts to several actresses of a certain age (Sharon Stone, Jessica Lange), and the vignettes are interesting. But somehow, the movie just didn’t entirely work for me. I think part of my problem was the way Johnston’s character is written — he is so completely inert that it is very difficult to imagine him (1) having a girlfriend (much less a whole bunch of them) and (2) caring enough about the possibility that he has a son to go on a long uncomfortable journey over it.