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!

Sorcerer

A new review from The Movie Snob.

Sorcerer (B+).  Many years ago, someone recommended this 1977 release to me.  This past Tuesday, the Magnolia Theater in Dallas showed it as part of its classic film series, so I jumped on the opportunity.  It’s about four men from different parts of the world who need to disappear for a while and wind up in the same backwater village (in Nicaragua, I think).  The movie takes its time introducing the characters and establishing the setting.  Low on funds and desperate to get out of the dumpy village, the four men sign up for a suicide mission–an oil company needs to have some dynamite hauled through 200 miles of jungle to extinguish an out-of-control oil-well fire.  Catch #1 — the dynamite is old and dangerously unstable.  Catch #2 — the trucks have to be cobbled together from several rusted old junkers.  Catch #3 — the trip is 200 miles through Nicaraguan jungle.  Although the movie is decidedly low-tech, director William Friedkin (The French Connection, The Exorcist) does a good job ratcheting up the tension, especially in the famous scene in which the trucks try to cross a raging river on a fraying old rope bridge that I wouldn’t have even wanted to walk across.  Roy Scheider (Jaws) plays the only American in the quartet, and I thought he did a great job.  Unfortunately, the movie opened right around the same time as Star Wars, and it flopped at the box office.  It’s definitely worth seeing if you ever get the chance.

The French Connection

A new review from The Movie Snob.

The French Connection  (B).  I have a love-hate relationship with Dallas’s Magnolia Theater.  The parking situation is terrible, and I hate having to pick my “assigned seat” at the kiosk when I buy my ticket.  How is this an improvement over walking into the theater and picking your seat then?  On the other hand, some movies don’t play anywhere but the Magnolia, and it does have a great running series of classic films.  Tuesday night I saw their showing of this 1971 film, which won five Oscars including best picture, best director (William Friedkin, The Exorcist), and best actor (Gene Hackman, Heartbreakers).  I thought it was pretty good.  It’s a cop movie in which Hackman plays Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle, a loose-cannon NYC cop on the narcotics beat.  He’s in the doghouse for some past screw-up that got another policeman killed, and when he hears rumors that a massive shipment of drugs is coming into New York from France, heaven help anyone who threatens to get between him and the bust.  Roy Scheider (Jaws) plays his calmer partner.  The movie is famous for an extended car chase, and it was good, but what struck me was the tedium of the cops’ job.  They do a lot of surveillance, which means a lot of following suspicious characters, losing track of the suspicious characters, and sitting in cars overnight watching to see what the suspicious characters are going to do next.  It is decidedly low-tech, and it does not look like a lot of fun.  Anyway, I enjoyed the film.