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!

Big Eyes

The Movie Snob submits his last review of 2014.

Big Eyes  (B).  Director Tim Burton (Corpse Bride) delivers perhaps his most normal movie to date—although the people at the center of Big Eyes are anything but normal.  Indeed, this based-on-a-true-story movie reminded me a little of The Informant!, which left me thinking, “Did people really do these crazy things?  Really?”  This the story of Margaret and Walter Keane, who met in late 1950s San Francisco and got married.  Margaret (Amy Adams, The Fighter) was an amateur painter who liked to paint pictures of small children with unusually large eyes.  Walter (Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained), a slick promoter, makes Margaret’s paintings famous, and eventually the paintings make them rich.  The problem is that Walter is a compulsive liar and tells everyone that they’re his paintings.  Why did Margaret go along with the sham?  And why did she stay with Walter, who is portrayed in the film as pretty seriously unhinged?  The movie doesn’t really get at the answers to those questions, probably because there are no good answers.  There are a few recognizable actors in small roles (Danny Huston, Wrath of the Titans; Jason Schwartzman, Moonrise Kingdom), but it is Adams and Waltz’s movie.  I enjoyed it, and I’ll be curious to see if the Academy shows Adams and Waltz some love for their solid performances.

Frankenweenie

A new review from The Movie Snob.

Frankenweenie  (B-).  The latest film from the twisted mind of director Tim Burton (Dark Shadows) is a relatively low-key animated “horror” movie.  In the town of New Holland, young Victor Frankenstein (voice of Charlie Tahan, I Am Legend) is a budding film director with only one real friend, his dog Sparky.  When Sparky is killed in an accident, Victor decides to put the science he has been learning at school into practice.  His experiment is a success, but when his efforts to keep his discovery a secret fail, disaster threatens to strike!  I give Burton credit for trying to come up with a fresh story to tell, and I enjoyed the mash-up of so many old-timey horror-movie conventions.  Martin Landau (City of Ember) voices the weird, Vincent-Price-looking science teacher; Catherine O’Hara (Waiting for Guffman) voices Victor’s mom, and Winona Ryder (Star Trek) voices Victor’s sad next-door neighbor Elsa Van Helsing.  The film has an interestingly creepy look, being done in black and white stop-motion.  On the minus side, I didn’t think the story made a whole lot of sense.  Still, I appreciated the effort to make an original story, and I think this film is mild enough for all but the littlest children this Halloween.

Dark Shadows

The Movie Snob gives you fair warning.

Dark Shadows  (D).  Who would have thought that a joint enterprise by director Tim Burton (Alice in Wonderland) and actor Johnny Depp (the same) could turn out to be so deathly dull?  Depp plays Barnabas Collins, a wealthy fellow in colonial Maine who gets turned into a vampire and buried in a chained-up coffin by a wicked witch (Eva Green, Casino Royale).  Fast forward 200 years to the early 1970s.  BC is set free and makes his way back to his ancestral mansion where the last few members of the Collins family live in a state of advanced aristocratic decay.  Oh, and the witch is still hanging around the area causing trouble for the Collinses.  Previews suggested that the film was a comedy, but it is not funny.  (Gags involving BC’s encounters with “modern” phenomena like lava lamps and the Carpenters inevitably fall flat.)  Nor is it exciting, scary, romantic, dramatic, or anything else that might make it the slightest bit interesting.  Avoid it unless you have 2 hours you really need to waste.

Alice in Wonderland (2010)

Movie review from The Movie Snob

Alice in Wonderland (B). I don’t really remember the original Disney animated version of this movie, but my vague recollection is that it was long on visuals and short on plot. This new version is much more plot driven. After a brief prologue with Alice as a young girl, we catch up with Alice (Mia Wasikowska, The Kids Are All Right) as a young woman facing a marriage proposal from a dorky aristocrat. Of course she soon finds herself back in Wonderland, but it is rather different from when she first visited it.  The Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp, The Astronaut’s Wife) is apparently just kind of hanging out. The Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter, Fight Club) rules like a tyrant, while the good White Queen (Anne Hathaway, Get Smart) flits around her castle ineffectually, waiting for a champion. Unfortunately the obvious choice–Alice–thinks the whole thing is just a dream! It felt kind of like The Wizard of Oz, souped up into more of an action movie. I enjoyed it. Oh, the 3D effects were okay, but I don’t think they made the movie or anything.

9

Movie Man Mike bestows a review on us.

9 (not “District 9”) C+. The theme of this film is a common one—man-made machines take over the earth and exterminate all human life. I was taken in by the film because it (a) is a Tim Burton film, (b) is animated, and (c) had cool music to go with the trailer I watched online. I never heard the same music that I heard as part of the trailer. Visually the movie was captivating. The animation was great. At the end of the day, however, I wasn’t “wowed” by the story. The writers did nothing new with this old theme and the resolution of the story-line left me wanting. I was interested to see that the theater I saw this in was not very full, but it had a mix of children and adults. Yet, after watching the film, I am not really sure who the film’s target audience is. Maybe teens? This one is more of a rental, if you are inclined to see it.

Sweeney Todd

New review from Movie Man Mike

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (B-). I probably give this movie higher marks than it deserves because I have a soft spot for Tim Burton and Johnny Depp and because I can appreciate the creativity in the lyrics of the musical numbers. But I had a hard time with the subject matter of this film and the graphic blood-letting. This is nothing short of a bad horror film. I mean really… a film about a barber who slits his clients’ throats and his landlady who cooks the body parts and then sells them as meat pies? And it’s a musical, no less! It doesn’t get much more gruesome than that. To be fair, the lyrics of the songs are clever, and Jamie Bower and Jayne Wisener demonstrate their considerable singing voices. I had to wonder if I would have had a different reaction to this one if the blood had not been so graphically displayed and if there had been a more comedic tone to the killing, but the seriousness with which the whole thing was presented was really unsettling. If you must see this one, you might wait for the DVD.

The Nightmare Before Christmas

New review from The Movie Snob

Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas in 3-D (B). Somehow this movie always got by me until this year. As you would expect, it is visually stunning. The 3-D effects are very well done, although there is very little about the movie that is particularly enhanced by the 3-D. There aren’t any skulls rolling out into your lap or anything like that. Anyhoo, Jack Skellington (voice of Danny Elfman, Corpse Bride) is the Pumpkin King and pretty much the top dog in Halloween Town, which is home to all the ghosts and ghouls that go around scaring everybody on Halloween. But old Jack is feeling a little hollow inside after yet another Halloween, and while wandering in a wood he accidentally discovers that there are other holidays with towns of their own. Intrigued by what he sees in Christmas Town, he decides he wants to try out Santa’s gig for a change. It’s an interesting concept, but despite the dazzling visuals it doesn’t rise to greatness, in my opinion. But it’s worth seeing.

The Movie Snob 2005 Year in Review

The Movie Snob’s 2005 Year in Review

As usual, I am considering all movies that I saw in theaters for the first time last year. There are assuredly some 2004 releases in this list, but I saw ’em in 2005. So sue me.

Best Drama. I thought 2005 was a good year all the way around, so I’ll be singling out more movies in this list than I usually do. Top honors in this category have to go to Hotel Rwanda, a movie that grabs you by the throat and never lets go. Some scenes are hard to watch, but the Rwandan genocide really happened, and not hundreds of years ago either. It happened in 1994. It may be happening again right now in Sudan. Close second: Pride & Prejudice. It’s hard to make a bad movie out of a Jane Austen story, and this one was terrific. Some critics carped that the movie displays a judgmentalism about the rigid social rules of Austen’s time that is absent from Austen’s own novels. Frankly, I didn’t care. It’s just a great love story. Honorable mentions go to biopics Ray and Walk the Line, as much because of the awesome performances as because of their respective plots.

Best Action Flick. This year’s winner slipped in on the last day of the year–The Chronicles of Narnia blew me away, even though I had never read the books. As a devout Catholic, I am probably biased in the movie’s favor since it’s based on the work of the great apologist C.S. Lewis and it’s a Christian allegory that I wouldn’t say is even thinly disguised. But it has a lot of great action, and a message that probably anyone would find thought-provoking. Coming in a close second is Serenity. Never saw the TV show on which it was based, but loved the movie. If you liked Star Wars, then shame on you for not getting out there and buying tickets to Serenity so they would make a sequel. Honorable mention to Batman Begins, the best of the three Batman movies that I have seen to date. It even beats whichever that one was that had Nicole Kidman in it! (Sorry, Nic.)

Best Comedy. As always, good comedy is hard to come by. I’d give top honors to The 40-Year Old Virgin, but with the caveat that you must have a huge tolerance for coarse, vulgar humor to enjoy this movie. (The equally coarse and vulgar Wedding Crashers just wasn’t that funny.) Equal parts comedy and action movie, Kung Fu Hustle was also a lot of fun. I hope the rumors of a sequel are true. Can’t think of any other comedies really worth a mention here….

Best Documentary. The Penguins were fine, but there were plenty of other better documentaries this year, in my humble opinion. In fact, you could get Penguins condensed to about 90 seconds within the excellent ocean-going documentary Deep Blue, if it didn’t sneak by you in its short theatrical run. Also terrific was Mad Hot Ballroom, about the ballroom-dancing program in NYC’s public schools that showed etiquette and beauty to kids who had seen little of either in their lives. Honorable mention to The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, a touching little movie about an eccentric fellow in San Francisco and a flock of wild parrots that he befriends. Be sure to watch until the very end for a pleasant little surprise.

Other Honorable Mentions:

The Aviator — yeah, it’s way old by now, but I didn’t see it until ’05, so I’m mentioning it.

Off the Map — a quiet little independent movie about an eccentric family that really lives as far “off the map” as it can manage. Maybe I’m remembering it being better than it was, but I liked it a lot at the time.

War of the Worlds — I managed to forget all the TomKat craziness and enjoyed Cruise’s turn as an average joe trying to save his kids from evil extraterrestrials. Great special effects.

Dear Frankie — this little independent melodrama deserved a wider audience. I’ve liked Emily Mortimer in every movie I’ve seen her in, so I’m really looking forward to Match Point.

Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride — my favorite animated film this year. Weird for sure, but what do you expect from Tim Burton?

Zathura and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants — the best family-oriented movies of the year. But be careful. Zathura is a little scary for the littlest ones, and Sisterhood deals with adolescent-girl issues in a pretty frank way. Watch them for yourself before showing them to your kids. Sky High was cute too, come to think of it, and probably doesn’t present any of the concerns that Zathura and Sisterhood do.

Grizzly Man — good, intense documentary. It felt a little exploitative to me (the subject of the film pretty clearly suffered from mental illness), preventing a higher rating, but the story of this guy trying to live with Alaskan grizzly bears is hard to turn away from.

That’s all, folks!

Serenity; Corpse Bride

New reviews from The Movie Snob

Serenity (A-). I went into this movie without ever having seen an episode of Firefly, the short-lived television series it was based on, but that diminished my enjoyment not one bit. It’s a good old-fashioned space opera, like a grungier, lower-tech Star Wars. The deal is this–in the distant future, most of mankind is ruled by a government called the Alliance, which definitely does not put a premium on civil liberties. So there was a civil war, the Alliance won, and the losing rebels retreated to the remoter, less-civilized parts of the galaxy. Among the ruffians out on the frontier are Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion, TV’s Castle), captain of the Millennium Falcon, er, I mean the Serenity, and his ragtag crew. They find themselves transporting a cargo that the Alliance very much wants to get its hands on–a mysterious and somewhat psychotic 17-year-old girl named River Tam who escaped from a secret government lab. If you liked Star Wars, or Star Trek, or Space Balls, I can pretty much guarantee you’ll like Serenity. So get out there and see it so they’ll make a sequel.

Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride (B). This is some weird stuff (although maybe not so weird if you’ve seen The Nightmare Before Christmas, which I haven’t). This claymation fairy tale starts in a very grey, dour little village where nervous Victor (voice of Johnny Depp, Alice in Wonderland), son of a wealthy fishmonger, is about to be wed to sweet Victoria, daughter of an aristocratic family that has fallen on hard times. But Victor gets cold feet, wanders out into the forest the night before his wedding, and while practicing his vows suddenly finds himself married to the lovely Emily (Helena Bonham Carter, Cinderella)–who just happens to be, well, dead. She drags him down into the netherworld, and then things start to get really weird. This short (76 minutes) film is a visual treat, as Burton takes full advantage of the freedom of animation–for example, the townspeople are a collection of bizarre caricatures, some fantastically skinny and elongated, others impossibly short and squat. There are a few musical numbers that aren’t bad but aren’t particularly memorable either. This movie probably won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I enjoyed it.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

That Guy Named David works through some issues:

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (C)

Gene Wilder freaked me out when I was a kid. I still wake up in the middle of the night screaming to high heaven when I think about the boat ride he took on the chocolate river singing that creepy song, “There’s no earthly way of knowing which direction we are going. There’s no knowing where we’re rowing, or which way the river’s flowing. Is it raining? is it snowing? is a hurricane a-blowing? Bah! Not a speck of light is showing, so the danger must be growing. Are the fires of hell a-glowing? Is the grisly reaper mowing? YES! The danger must be growing, for the rowers are still rowing and they’re certainly not showing any signs that they are slowing! STOP THE BOAT!” Okay. . . just typing that out gave me the chills. Anyway, in the 2005 version, I think that Johnny Depp tried his damndest to recreate the weirdness exhibited by Wilder but managed to overact to such a degree that his attempt seemed hollow. Personally, I am a big fan of Depp and think he is one of the better actors out there today; however, his portrayal of Wonka was a bit much. What I did like about this version were the amazing special effects (a little better than what was available in 1971) and that the ending was more true to the book (I never liked the ending of the original because it left too many unanswered questions). I would recommend going to see this on the IMAX where you could be blown away by the special effects or renting it in a few months when it comes out on DVD. Maybe my expectations were a little high because of the past work of Depp and Tim Burton (who directed Big Fish and Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, two of the greatest movies ever made). Oh well . . . I’ve learned to live with disappointment.

Big Fish

A new review from That Guy Named David:

Big Fish (A)

I told The Movie Snob that this movie was the best I have seen in the past several years. Maybe I overstated a bit, but that would follow the premise behind this story. The movie is directed by Tim Burton, renowned for his directing Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (he also directed such little-known movies as Batman, Beetlejuice, and Edward Scissorhands). He is also known for being a bit of a freak, which fits in well with this movie. Without giving too much away, Big Fish is about a son (Billy Crudup) going back to see his dying father (Albert Finney). The father is known for being a bit of a storyteller, and the son desires to find out what his father was really like when you strip away the embellishments of the stories. In essence, the movie becomes a showcase for how our lives are all made up many individual stories (some embellished, some not; and I want to emphasize to The Movie Snob that the federales are not an embellishment). Anyway, the storyline is great, the imagery is classic Tim Burton, and the acting is superb, all of which makes this a must-see coming into the movie awards season.