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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Philomena

A new review from The Movie Snob.

Philomena (A-).  I’m a practicing Catholic, so movies portraying any of the Church’s many scandals are painful for me to see.  Nevertheless, this is undeniably a good one.  As you probably already know, it is based on a true story of an Irish woman who, way back in the 1950s, got pregnant out of wedlock, had nowhere to turn except a Church-run home for girls in such situations, and was badly mistreated there until the nuns finally took her toddler son away and adopted him out to an American couple.  Much later in life, the woman, Philomena, teamed up with a British journalist named Martin Sixsmith to try to find out what happened to her son.  This is their story.  The amazing Judi Dench (Pride & Prejudice) really makes the movie as Philomena, but Steve Coogan (The Lightning Thief) is not bad as Sixsmith either.  I had thought Cate Blanchett was an Oscar lock for Blue Jasmine, but I think Judi Dench gives her a run for her money in this film.  Director Stephen Frears adds another success to his impressive resume (The Queen, Dirty Pretty Things, High Fidelity).

American Hustle; Philomena

Mom Under Cover sets the record straight.

I liked American Hustle more than The Movie Snob.  I would give it an A and totally understand why it won the Golden Globe for best comedy/musical.  I found the opening scene a microcosm of the entire movie and a comment about life.  Christian Bale (who underwent quite a physical transformation from his Batman days) is putting the finishing touches on his elaborate comb-over as he prepares to leave for the day.  The things we do to feel comfortable going out in the world are a little bit of a con job.  How much of it do we believe?  How much are we really fooling others?  In some ways, we are all conning each other and ourselves—just as these characters do.  Sometimes we want to believe the façade we see even though clues abound.  Bradley Cooper’s complete and utter confusion when he realizes Amy Adams’ character is not British is a good example.  Cooper has the finesse to be totally believable as the FBI agent who thinks slightly higher of himself than he ought. J. Law rocks the ‘70s hair and makeup.  The crazy schemes are a wacky laugh-out-loud romp.

Another good movie I saw recently was Philomena. B+.  Judi Dench and Steve Coogan bring life to a real woman’s story about being forced by nuns to give her son up for adoption as an unwed, teenager mother.  Stephen Frears (The Queen; High Fidelity) directed a well-paced, heartwarming tale in the style of an odd-couple buddy movie.  The Catholic Church is scrutinized and found wanting for its treatment of young girls and their fatherless infants.  You will leave the theater googling to find out how much is true (hint:  all of it).  Seeing the real Philomena at the Golden Globes was a kick.

 

Skyfall

New from the desk of The Movie Snob.

Skyfall  (C-).  I barely caught the latest James Bond flick before it disappeared from the theaters, and I have to say I am glad I saw it in the dollar theater because it just wasn’t that good.  Mainly, it is too darned long–almost two and half hours–and it just kind of sags and drags along for a lot of that running time.  Do we really need to see Ralph Fiennes (Wrath of the Titans) arguing with Judi Dench (Mrs. Henderson Presents) about how the nature of spying has changed, blah blah blah?  It’s nice that we get filled in on some backstory for M and even for 007 himself, but a little of that kind of stuff goes a long way.  Javier Bardem (Vicky Cristina Barcelona) was decent as the villain, but the beautiful Berenice Marlohe has like three minutes of screen time as the “Bond girl” of this installment.  In short, I don’t really get the hype that Skyfall garnered, and it has made me start to wonder about the Bond franchise in general.  Aren’t most of them overly long, overly complicated, and really just not that good?  Hmmm.

Quantum of Solace

DVD review from The Bleacher Bum

Quantum of Solace

Like most guys, it doesn’t take much for me to enjoy a James Bond movie. A cool car, some alluring ladies, a few explosions, a brutal fight, an exciting chase sequence and dame Judi Dench are about all I need. If the movie has a good plot and some witty dialogue, then it instantly becomes a James Bond classic. Quantum of Solace has all the aforementioned ingredients. James Bond (Daniel Craig) uncovers a global conspiracy by a well-funded organization named Quantum. Quantum is trying to control the majority of Earth’s most treasured resource . . . water, not oil. Quantum also frequently converts CIA and MI-6 operatives into traitorous murderers.

As in Casino Royale, Craig is really good as Bond. He is very skilled and athletic at the physical stunts while being deft and cunning at Bond’s mental side. Bond also has a personal vendetta that he is trying to fulfill while saving the world. The movie traverses the globe, showcases lovely ladies and keeps the action movie at a breakneck pace. Quantum of Solace exceeded my expectations. I enjoyed the ride on land, in the air, on the sea and in the bedroom.

Bleacher Bum Movie Scale: homerun, triple, double, single, strikeout

Quantum of Solace: Stand-up Double without a throw

Casino Royale

Movie review from The Movie Snob

Casino Royale (B). Movie Man Mike has already reviewed this rebooting of the Bond franchise, so I’ll be brief. I liked Daniel Craig (The Golden Compass) as the new James Bond, and I liked the idea of going back to the very beginning, making Bond a newly minted double-0 agent who is still a little rough around the edges. Top spy M (Judi Dench, Philomena) refers to Bond as a “blunt instrument,” and he certainly is. The character development was unusually good for a Bond film, helping to show how Bond would become the character everyone knows. On the down side are many of the things that are always wrong with Bond films. It was too long. Although the technical gizmos are played down, there are still some pretty ridiculous action sequences. (How many times did 007 successfully run through a veritable blizzard of automatic rifle fire?) And much of the time I was hazy about who was doing what to whom and why, although some of the loose ends are decently tied up at the end. All totaled, I give this movie a 007 out of 10.

Mrs. Henderson Presents

From The Movie Snob:

Well, the plan last night was to meet a couple of friends and see Munich. We agreed on the 7:20 showing at one of the most popular theaters in Dallas. Knowing these particular friends as I do, I rather doubted we would actually get to see the show. Sure enough, Munich sold out by around 7:10, and at 7:20 on the dot one of my friends comes waltzing up, ready to get in the ticket line, which is probably 50 deep at this point. Obviously, there had to be a change of plans…

Mrs. Henderson Presents (B). Judi Dench (Skyfall) is an Oscar nominee for her performance as the title character in this new movie directed by Steven Frears (Dirty Pretty Things). The film opens at a funeral in 1937 England, where Mrs. Laura Henderson is burying her husband. A member of the upper crust, Mrs. Henderson soon gets bored with widowhood and on a whim buys the closed-down Windmill Theater. She hires a curmudgeonly producer, Mr. Vivian Van Damme (Bob Hoskins, Vanity Fair), to run it for her, and their musical review is soon the hit of London. When the competition fights back, Mrs. H comes up with a new angle—the girls will appear completely nude (assuming Mrs. H can get permission from the uptight government censor (Christopher Guest, A Mighty Wind)). The first half of the movie is quite entertaining, focusing on the oil-and-water relationship between the eccentric Mrs. Henderson and the irascible Mr. Van Damme. When WWII breaks out and the movie turns serious, however, it is not as effective, and even at 102 minutes started to feel a little long. But Dench’s performance is a pleasure, and Hoskins generally gives as good as he gets.