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!

Noah

The Movie Snob gets wet.

Noah  (B+).  If you are of a certain age, perhaps you too remember a movie from your childhood called In Search of Noah’s Ark, which rather sensationally depicted some guy’s story that he had stumbled across the remains of a giant wooden ship in the high snowy reaches of Mount Ararat.  I guess he had trouble re-finding the exact spot, because I never heard about any subsequent expedition triumphantly sledding it down the mountain.  Anyway, that movie made a big impression on me, and so I was looking forward to seeing this new movie from Darren Aronofsky, director of Black Swan, among others.  I thought it was a very interesting take on the story, and pretty exciting considering that we know how it all comes out in the end.  Russell Crowe (Les Miserables) makes a good Noah, a man consumed with disgust for mankind’s wickedness and with the desire to know and do the will of the Creator.  Jennifer Connelly (Inkheart) plays his long-suffering wife, and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson, This Is the End) plays the grown-up version of a waif adopted by the Noah family in the pre-ark years.  Oh, and good old Anthony Hopkins (Thor: The Dark World) turns up as Noah’s grandfather Methusaleh.  The movie is rated PG-13 for violence, disturbing images, and brief suggestive content, so don’t take the little ones.  And don’t expect complete fidelity to Genesis 6-9.  That said, I was quite entertained and intrigued by the film.  For a Catholic priest’s review of the film, click here.

Man of Steel — a second opinion

The Movie Snob chimes in.

Man of Steel  (B+).  I agree with much of what The Borg Queen had to say about this movie (click here for her review), but I think her B- grade was a tad too low.  I was thoroughly entertained throughout this long (almost 2 1/2 hours) origin story about Superman.  Henry Cavill (I Capture the Castle) makes a fine Kal-El/Clark Kent, and I thought Kevin Costner (The Company Men) and Russell Crowe (Les Miserables) turned in nice performances as his adoptive and biological father, respectively.  The Borg Queen is perfectly correct that Amy Adams (Trouble With the Curve) was miscast as Lois Lane–hard-boiled reporter is just not in her range–but she’s such a peach I was willing to overlook that mistake.  The rock-em-sock-em ending was perhaps a little too long, but General Zod (Michael Shannon, Mud) was a very good villain.  In my humble opinion, this is a very good popcorn movie.  Hats off to director Zack Snyder (300) for breathing new life into the blue tights and red cape.

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-.

State of Play

A new review from The Bleacher Bum

State of Play: Political thrillers are a huge genre with nonfiction books. However, there have not been many political thrillers as movies in recent years. State of Play is a big budget movie that focuses on Capitol Hill, mega-corporations, and the relationship between politicians and the press. The movie is based on the 6-part British television serial of the same name.

Russell Crowe (L.A. Confidential) is a superstar investigative reporter in D.C. working for a newspaper that is in the process of being bought. Ben Affleck (Chasing Amy) is an up-and-coming congressman from Pennsylvania that is chairman of a military spending committee. Rachel McAdams (Midnight in Paris) works for the newspaper as the on-line gossip columnist. Robin Penn-Wright (The Princess Bride) is Affleck’s wife. Crowe’s, Affleck’s and Penn-Wright’s characters were good friends in college. Helen Mirren (The Queen) is Crowe’s and McAdams’ editor. Mirren gives an award-winning performance as a boss that is being pulled in a thousand directions that wants to do the just thing and get the story right.

The good congressman is having an affair with one of his staffers, until she is murdered. Crowe and McAdams uncover the story and learn that many influential people and companies are involved. The story and dialogue are very good. The director did a very good job. The story covered a lot of angles, but was constantly moving, twisting and turning. Crowe and Penn-Wright were extraordinary in their roles. McAdams and Affleck were good, but they seemed a little outmatched when they shared the screen with Crowe and Penn-Wright.

Bleacher Bum Movie Scale: Homerun, Triple, Double, Single, Strikeout

State of Play: Triple that just beats the throw from right field

Cinderella Man

A new review from The Movie Snob:

Cinderella Man (B). That Guy Named David has already posted a thorough review, so I’ll limit myself to just a few words. I thought this was a good movie, but it just didn’t make it into the “A” category for me. I’m as much a sucker for sentimental movies as the next guy, but Director Ron Howard trowels the treacle on just a bit too heavily even for my taste. Russell Crowe’s character is like a St. Francis of Assisi of the Boxing Ring, which does at least make for a nice contrast to the actor’s thuggish persona in real life. In the end, it’s a feel-good movie, and I did leave feeling good, and only a little manipulated. Not bad.

Cinderella Man

A review from That Guy Named David:

Cinderella Man (A-)

As the great poets of the late 1980’s Cinderella said, “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” Well, that’s essentially the theme behind Ron Howard’s newest run at the Best Picture Oscar. Russell Crowe plays boxer Jim Braddock who, along with wife Mae (Renee Zellweger), attempts to keep food on the table and the electricity running in their one-bedroom shack through the early years of the Great Depression. Braddock had, at one time, been a rising contender in the heavyweight/light heavyweight ranks until a series of setbacks relegated him to “washed up” status in the sport at which he had made a good living prior to Black Tuesday and the stock market crash in 1929. The majority of the movie is a profile of Braddock and his wife as they struggle mightily to keep the family together during this tragic time in our nation’s history. However, this general theme is interlaced into the story of Braddock’s determination and drive to make the best out of his second chance in the ring, given to him by longtime manager, Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti). The boxing scenes are intense, and the acting was sensational. I even enjoyed Renee Zellweger’s performance (something that I was almost certain would not happen given her last several performances (ex. Cold Mountain)). The movie (and in all likelihood, the Oscar), however, all belongs to Russell Crowe who once again demonstrates why is considered one of the best actors today. I was tired and cranky when I went into the theatre, and I left thinking I had just really enjoyed the previous couple of hours. Very impressive start to the summer movie season. Thanks to Ann C. for the free tickets to the early screening.

The Movie Snob’s 2004 Year in Review!

The Movie Snob’s 2004 Year in Review.

I’ll say up front that a couple of these movies probably came out in 2003, but I saw them for the first time in 2004. Thus, they’re on this list. So sue me.

Best Drama: I’ll pick two, in no particular order. First, Friday Night Lights. I am not much of a sports fan, but I found this movie engrossing. It’s the true story of a single season of high school football in a small west Texas town that is consumed with football and demands nothing less than a state championship of its coach. Billy Bob Thornton is fine as the put-upon coach, but the young actors who play the stars of the team are really outstanding. Second, Finding Neverland is an excellent little movie about the life of playwright J.M. Barrie, who wrote Peter Pan. Johnny Depp was perfect for the part. Honorable mention to the comedy/drama Sideways, about two buddies facing down their midlife crises by drinking their way through the California wine country.

Best Action Flick: I’ll pick two again. The thinking man’s action movie would be Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. Russell Crowe delivers another fine performance as the gruff and bluff Captain Jack Aubry, and the director did an amazing job of filming the sea battles between these old wooden sailing ships. For mindless schlock, I thoroughly enjoyed Troy. Sure, they reduced a war that lasted ten years to roughly two weeks, ignored the gods that started the whole thing, and changed Achilles’ motivation for sulking out half the war from timeless honor to [ick] love. But for all that, I enjoyed every minute of it. Honorable mention: Spider-Man 2. But I liked the first one better.

Best Comedy: Slim pickings in this category since the Spinal Tap crew didn’t put anything out this year. Surprise hit Napoleon Dynamite definitely had some laughs, but I felt a little guilty for laughing at people who seem to exist solely to be ridiculed by the rest of creation. Shaun of the Dead was a fun ride for a while, but it ran out of gas before the end. Mean Girls and I Heart Huckabees both had their moments, but were by no means great.

Best Documentary: I was sorry that there was no Winged Migration II this year, but happily another excellent documentary filled the void. No, I’m not talking about the Michael Moore atrocity. I mean the 2003 release My Architect, a fascinating biopic about architect Louis Kahn, who designed the Kimbell Art Museum over in Fort Worth. He lived a strange life, marrying only one woman but leaving children by three. His youngest child made this excellent film to try to understand the father he barely knew.

Best Melodrama: If you blinked, you missed I Am David, the tear-jerking tale of a little boy who escapes from a Communist concentration camp in 1952 Bulgaria. Yeah, it’s syrupy, and the plot has some holes in it, but I still loved it.

In a Class by Itself: The Passion of the Christ. Enough ink has been spilled about this movie to last a lifetime. I won’t add to it here.

Other Honorable Mentions:

The Barbarian Invasions – a French or Canadian or French-Canadian import about a father who is dying and his estranged adult son who reaches out to comfort him in his last months.

Big Fish – not the biggest, best, greatest movie of all time as That Guy Named David would have it, but definitely an enjoyable one.

The Station Agent – a very sweet little movie about friendship. An angry little person moves out to the middle of nowhere to get away from people, but he learns that getting away from people isn’t that easy.

Cold Mountain – good story, beautiful cinematography, fine cast. And Nicole Kidman somehow manages to run a pathetic little dirt farm throughout the whole Civil War without a hair out of place.

The Incredibles – fine movie, just a little long for my taste.

Bubba Ho-Tep – the best Elvis-versus-the-Mummy movie I have ever seen.

School of Rock; Master and Commander

From That Guy Named David:

School of Rock (B)

I’ll admit to being extremely skeptical about this movie after hearing the Movie Snob laud Jack Black as the “comedic genius of modern times” or some such something. Anyway, after watching this pleasant little movie, I’ll admit that I was probably a little harsh with my baseless criticism of Black after hearing the Snob go on and on and on about his “unbelievable wit and incredible ability to bring the audience to tear-inducing laughter.” The movie was pretty funny at times, except for the corniness of the plot in general. I still am not on the same line of thought as the Snob in thinking that Black is “the Bob Hope of the next generation,” but I do think that this movie has its moments. The little Asian kid made me laugh too. Not bad.

Master and Commander (C-)

Wow. Talk about a movie that had a lot of hype and then landed with a massive thud as I wasted a Sunday morning watching this dreadful display of Waterworld on steroids. Note to Russell Crowe: you were good in Gladiator, but there is no need to play that role again. There was nothing about this movie that I enjoyed. Okay, so they get attacked by a bigger ship, then float around trying to find it, stumble upon an island or two, and then, voila… they find the ship and have a battle with it again. Such great writing. Oh, and that other guy from A Beautiful Mind (you know, the guy that really didn’t exist), well, his performance is just as bland as Crowe’s. And to think that my friend Becky said this was a very good movie when she went and saw it several months ago. Makes me wonder if she actually watched any of the movie.

Master and Commander; The Barbarian Invasions

From the Movie Snob:

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. (B+) Although this movie got a lot of good reviews, it was never high on my list of priorities. I finally saw it this weekend at the instigation of a friend of mine who’s a former Navy doctor, and I was duly impressed. It’s a straight-ahead tale about swashbuckling in the service of king and country, with no post-modern apologies for Eurocentrism or colonialism or anything else. Russell Crowe’s Captain “Lucky Jack” Aubrey reminded me of a certain James T. Kirk — an imaginative commander who’s not afraid to act on his own initiative when his orders run out. Only the proto-Darwinian musings of the ship’s doctor seem a bit out of place, but this is a minor quibble with an exciting and well-made adventure film. Maybe this is really more of an A-.

The Barbarian Invasions. (B+) This is a Canadian movie mostly in French. Remy is a 60ish college professor who is dying of cancer, and his son Sebastien is a successful businessman. The two are estranged, apparently because Remy’s philandering ways destroyed his marriage and because Sebastien’s pragmatic capitalism is an embarrassment to Remy’s conventional academic-style liberalism. Nevertheless, Sebastien answers his mother’s call to be with his father in his last weeks, and that is pretty much where the movie begins. To my surprise, the director does not assume that Remy’s perspective is self-evidently superior. For example, the Canadian health-care system is portrayed as a bureaucratic nightmare; even more surprising, a member of Remy’s cohort of friends is even open-minded enough to argue the intellectual greatness of the Founding Fathers of the United States. Although the Catholic Church comes in for a bit of abuse, even that is somewhat counterbalanced by a warmly compassionate nun who works in the hospital. A thought-provoking film about a universal subject.