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.

The Best Movies I Saw in 2013, by The Movie Snob

Once again, it is time for The Movie Snob’s annual “best of” column.  As always, the only rule is that I limit the list to films I saw for the first time during the last calendar year.  Thus, you can be sure some 2012 releases will be sprinkled in among the 2013 releases.

Movie of the Year.  It’s another tough call this year.  I gave three movies a straight “A” grade this year, but one of them was a 1949 release, so I’ll temporarily disqualify that one.  As between the other two, I’ll give top honors to 12 Years a Slave.  You’ve already heard all about this movie, if you haven’t seen it already, so I’ll just say it was an amazing, harrowing experience.  It’s a fitting companion to Lincoln, which was my pick for movie of the year last year.

Runner-Up.  If I had managed to see it in 2012, when it was released, I would have picked Zero Dark Thirty as my movie of the year in last year’s column.  If you missed this movie, correct your mistake and see it!  Jessica Chastain gives a fine performance as a CIA analyst consumed with the hunt for Osama bin Laden, and the final act of the movie depicting the raid on bin Laden’s compound is a tour de force.

Old-school runner-up.  The third movie I gave a straight “A” to in 2013 was the 1949 classic The Third Man.  It’s just a great, great movie.  Look it up.

Best Action/Adventure Flick.  I’ll pick Man of Steel as last year’s best action movie.  This Superman origin story held my interest from beginning to end.  Plus it featured Amy Adams, which is a plus even though she was kind of miscast as Lois Lane.  I still haven’t seen the new Hobbit movie, so we’ll see if it can give Superman a run for his money.  I also liked World War Z, and I think most zombie fans will too.

Best Animated Movie.  I saw and liked two last year.  Top honors go to Wreck-It Ralph, an entertaining and heart-warming story about the lives of a bunch of video-game characters “after hours.”  I also liked The Croods.  I didn’t have high hopes for that one, but the emotional ending really got to me.

Best Comedy.  This is always a tough category, and last year was no exception.  I didn’t think any of the comedies I saw were great, and the ones I thought were pretty good generally weren’t straight comedies.  I guess the best straight comedy I saw was In a World…, about a woman who is trying to grow up while also trying to break into the very male field of movie voice-over work.  Judd Apatow’s This Is 40 had some good moments, but it’s got a lot of very serious stretches amongst the amusing bits.  And I liked Warm Bodies, which is kind of a zombie romantic comedy, or zom-rom-com, but it is certainly not going to be to everyone’s taste.

Best Documentary.  Hands down, my favorite of the year was 56 Up.  But don’t watch it until you’ve seen all the previous installments in this long-running British series of documentaries.  The series follows a double-handful of British kids from different social classes from their childhoods until now, when they are 56 years old.  Find the first one, 7 Up!, and watch them all.  You’ll thank me.  I saw a couple of other good ones in 2013 as well.  Twenty Feet From Stardom was an interesting look at the careers of some rock-and-roll back-up singers.  Blackfish is a grim, if one-sided, look at Sea World’s mistreatment of its captive killer whales.

Best Drama.  I’ll give top honors to The Spectacular Now, an effective dramedy about a high-school senior who needs to come to grips with his burgeoning alcohol problem, fast.  Another very good dramedy is The Way Way Back, about a young teenaged boy trying to come to grips with his mom’s relationship with a new, unpleasant boyfriend, played unpleasantly by Steve Carell.  I also urge you not to miss Woody Allen’s last movie, Blue Jasmine, starring the sure-to-be-Oscar-nominated Cate Blanchett, and Alexander Payne’s last movie, Nebraska, which may produce an Oscar nominee or two of its own.  Finally, Baz Luhrmann is not for all tastes, but I enjoyed his new version of The Great Gatsby quite a bit.

Best Foreign Film.  Setting aside the British documentary 56 Up, mentioned above, I’ll go with the Italian film The Great Beauty.  The movie is languid and episodic, but it’s still an interesting look at the life of an aging hedonist living among the splendors of modern Rome.  I also saw and enjoyed a couple of older Italian movies—Fellini’s 8 ½ and the post-war classic Bicycle Thieves.

Best Science-Fiction Movie.  Here’s another clear winner: Gravity, starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney.  Look for some Oscar nominations for this special-effects extravaganza about a couple of astronauts marooned in space.  I also liked the latest Star Trek movie, Into Darkness, but it doesn’t hold a candle to Gravity.

Honorable Mentions.  What else should you put in your Netflix queue or your streaming list?  Here are a few suggestions.  For drama, you could go with the 2012 release The Impossible, about the devastating tsunami in Southeast Asia, or the recent remake of Les Miserables.  The Steven Soderbergh movie Side Effects is a pretty effective and twisty little thriller.  So is Mud, starring Matthew McConaughey.  At the risk of making myself a laughing stock among critics, I’m going to come right out and say I didn’t think The Lone Ranger, starring Johnny Depp as Tonto, was half bad.  Just give it a chance!  Frances Ha is a decent little movie about a young woman trying to figure out what she wants to do with her life.  Short Term 12 is a decent little movie about a home for troubled teenagers and the twentysomethings who try to watch out for them.  I liked American Hustle decently well, and you may still have time to catch that one in the movie theater.  Finally, I finally got around to seeing Kubrick’s The Shining, which is a pretty effective and entertaining chiller.  And I don’t usually like horror movies.

And that’s a wrap!

Mud

The Movie Snob takes a little trip on the mighty Mississip.

Mud  (B).  When a movie gets a 98% favorable rating on Rotten Tomatoes, I figure there must be something to it.  This is writer-director Jeff Nichols’s third film, but the first I have seen, and I was duly impressed.  It’s about a couple of 14-year-old boys living in a small Arkansas town on the Mississippi River.  They’ve heard a rumor about a boat stuck up in a tree on some small island in the River, but when they go to claim it they discover that somebody is actually living in it—a scruffy vagabond who identifies himself only as Mud (Matthew McConaughey, Bernie).  Mud tells them some of his story, and they agree to help him lie low and carry out some other plans he has.  Is he telling them the truth?  Is he dangerous?  Who’s looking for him and why?  Part suspense movie, part coming-of-age tale, this is a solid film featuring outstanding performances by McConaughey and the two youngsters.  Reese Witherspoon (Four Christmases) plays a decidedly unglamorous gal by the name of Juniper.  None other than Joe Don Baker of Mitchell fame also shows up in a small role.  I thought the final act got a little unbelievable, but all in all I enjoyed this movie.

The Paperboy

From the desk of The Movie Snob.

The Paperboy  (D).  I swear, if Nicole Kidman (Days of Thunder) appears in 10 or 20 more terrible movies, she may stop being my favorite actress of all time.  In this overcooked slab of Southern Gothic, we are in some tiny Florida backwater in the early 1970s, and Kidman plays Charlotte Bless, who’s one of those strange women whose hobby is writing to all these violent prison inmates.  She falls in love with a swamp rat named Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack, Identity), who’s on death row for killing a sheriff.  Matthew McConaughey (Sahara) plays Ward Jansen, an investigative journalist who returns to his hometown to see if Van Wetter was unjustly convicted.  Zac Efron (17 Again) is Ward’s little brother Jack, who’s emotionally crippled from being abandoned by his mother at a young age and who quickly falls in love with the trampy Charlotte.  There are several embarrassing scenes, such as Charlotte and Hillary’s first meeting at the prison, and the scene in which Jack gets badly stung by a bunch of jellyfish and Charlotte helps him out by urinating on his wounds.  I strongly advise you to skip this movie, which shouldn’t be too hard since it seems to have gotten a very short, limited release.

Bernie

New review from Movie Man Mike.

Bernie (B+).  This movie has been out for quite some time and I kept hearing good things about it, so I decided to check it out.  It’s still selling out!  Let me say up front that I am not really a fan of Jack Black or the genre of movies that he is known for, but I have to say that he was quite good in this film.  This story is based upon actual events in Carthage, Texas, and has appearances of many of the actual townspeople from Carthage.  The main character is a man named Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), who is an assistant funeral director.  Bernie moves to town and wins the hearts and souls of the townspeople, including rich widow Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), which is amazing because nobody likes Marjorie.  Bernie winds up killing Marjorie and is put on trial for the murder.  You would expect the townspeople to turn on Bernie, but he is so beloved that the townspeople come to his aid.  This is a black comedy and it has some hilarious lines in it, some of which appear to be impromptu commentary from actual residents of Carthage.  If you don’t see this at the theater, by all means rent it.  You won’t regret it.

Bernie

New review from Mom Under Cover

Bernie – A

If you have not seen Bernie, run, don’t walk, to a theater as soon as possible and be sure to stay for the extended interviews during the credits.  Confirmed bachelor (closet homosexual?) Bernie Tiede (played by a restrained Jack Black–Nacho Libre) moves to Carthage, Texas fresh out of mortuary school where he befriends a wealthy widow forty years his senior, Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine).  Nugent is a sourpuss; Bernie teaches her how to enjoy life. Marjorie blooms under Bernie’s attention; Marjorie funds Bernie’s shopping habit. Marjorie becomes demanding; Bernie snaps. Because of strained relationships with her family, Bernie ultimately stands to inherit Marjorie’s millions.

Richard Linklater’s (Slacker, Dazed and Confused) offering of the late ’80 events in Panola County surrounding the death of Marjorie Nugent is spot on.  Linklater co-wrote the screenplay with Skip Hollandsworth (who penned  a 1998 Texas Monthly article detailing the story) and hired only actors from Texas or Louisiana so the accents would ring true.  Matthew McConaughey plays district attorney Danny Buck opposite Scrappy Holmes played by Brady Coleman.  McConaughey’s mother has a small role as one of the local gossips.  The Greek chorus of gossips (composed of actors and locals) pops in to move the story along and is by far the star of the show.   Having grown up in a small, Texas town, I can attest that the locals are the real deal–even Linklater cannot write dialog that authentic. (Watch the post credit interviews to find out if you guessed correctly which were actors and which were locals.) Both MacLaine and Black’s characters were somewhat caricature though Black was respectful in his portrayal of Tiede.  This black comedy will keep you laughing all the way home!