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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Edge of Tomorrow

New from The Movie Snob.

Edge of Tomorrow (A-). Or, as I prefer to think of it, Emily Blunt: Action Hero. This big-budget sci-fi summer movie deserves the good critical buzz it has been getting. It borrows a page from Groundhog Day, as you probably know if you have seen the trailer. (It is also very similar to the unjustly overlooked 2011 flick Source Code, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Michelle Monaghan.) Mankind is locked in a life-and-death struggle with invading aliens that look kind of like spastic giant octopuses. An unwilling soldier named William Cage gets killed in a critical battle, only to discover he is trapped in a time loop—meaning every time he dies, he wakes up and it’s the day before the battle all over again. The lovely Emily Blunt (Looper) stars as Rita Vrataski, a modern-day Joan of Arc who was previously caught in a similar time loop and used the knowledge she gained to become a war hero in a previous battle against the aliens. Vrataski and Cage team up, and she trains Cage to exploit his predicament, fight the aliens, and search for a way to defeat them once and for all. It’s twisty and exciting as various scenarios and dead-ends play out. And—dare I say it aloud?—I think Emily Blunt may be on the verge of replacing Nicole Kidman (The Railway Man) as my favorite actress working today. Go see this movie! Also starring Tom Cruise (Rock of Ages) as William Cage.

Oblivion

New from the desk of The Movie Snob.

Oblivion  (C-).  This new sci-fi action movie starring Tom Cruise (Rock of Ages) is pretty much a mishmash of ideas you’ve seen in other, better sci-fi action movies.  In the not-too-distant future, Earth is a wasteland after a war with an invading alien species called Scavengers.  Although the Scavengers were defeated, the damage to Earth’s ecology was so great that humanity evacuated to Saturn’s moon Titan, leaving Earth to a few scuttling subterranean Scavengers that survived the war.  But a few humans do still live on Earth—technicians who maintain some giant reactors that are slurping up the oceans, I guess to send the resources back to Titan, and the wicked security drones that protect the reactors from the Scavengers.  Jack (Cruise) and Victoria (Andrea Riseborough, Never Let Me Go) are two of those techs.  But Jack has these recurring dreams about a mysterious woman (played by Olga Kurylenko, Quantum of Solace), and he begins to wonder if he and Victoria are being told the truth by their far-distant commanders.  The movie is too long, and the whole thing feels quite derivative.  But some of the visuals are pretty cool, and Riseborough is a pretty, new face.  (I just realized, she’s also in the current release Disconnect as the ethically compromised news reporter.  I didn’t even recognize her!)

Rock of Ages

From the desk of The Movie Snob.

Rock of Ages  (D).  I had heard that this musical based on the music of the 1980s was not very good, but I just had to see it for myself.  After all, not only does it boast a soundtrack from the greatest decade pop music has ever seen, but it also features a truly star-studded cast, including Catherine Zeta-Jones (Chicago), Alec Baldwin (It’s Complicated), Paul Giamatti (Win Win), and Tom Cruise (Tropic Thunder) as the Axl-Rose-like rocker Stacee Jaxx.  But, what do you know, it really isn’t very good.  The main plot, I guess, is about two young lovers who both dream of being rock stars.  Julianne Hough (Footloose) is okay as the female lead, mainly because she’s so gorgeous, but Diego Boneta makes zero impression as her boyfriend.  Catherine the Great is wasted in a silly subplot in which she plays an uptight moralizer who’s trying to shut down Baldwin’s legendary club The Bourbon Room on the Sunset Strip.  Although she proved her singing and dancing chops in Chicago, her big number here (to Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot”) is pretty ridiculous.  Only Cruise has a relatively decent part as the decadent Jaxx.  Skip it.

Lions for Lambs

The Bleacher Bum sends us this DVD review.

Lions for Lambs: Titan actors Robert Redford, Meryl Streep, and Tom Cruise star.  Redford directs. But viewers sleep thirty minutes in. Redford is a political science professor at USC trying to encourage his most talented student to take action to shape the world and the country.  Streep, a television journalist, is interviewing Cruise, a GOP Senator, on his strategy for the war in Afghanistan.. The movie tries to be a high-brow thought-provoking look at political and military action in America.  But the movie turns into a Sunday episode of Meet the Press. Peter Berg is great as an Army Colonel that sends soldiers on a dangerous mission based on Cruise’s plan. This movie was more lamb than lion. Grade D+

Valkyrie

New review from The Borg Queen

Valkyrie – C+. I was dragged to see this movie by my brother, I’m not really a fan of war-related movies. As is clear from the previews, this is about a group of men relatively high in the Nazi regime that conspire to assassinate Hitler. Despite my disdain for Tom Cruise (Edge of Tomorrow) since the beginning of his couch-jumping, Scientology-preaching, antidepressant-loathing episodes, I’ll admit that the acting in the movie was all in all pretty good. The story line is interesting, but has an obviously undesirable end. At the end of the movie, though, I couldn’t help but wonder why, rather than concocting an elaborate assassination attempt, did these men not just shoot Hitler when they were near him? Maybe I missed something. In any event, the movie managed to hold my attention throughout the duration, which is saying something seeing how I generally don’t like these movies.

Mission: Impossible 3

The triumphant return of That Guy Named David:

Mission: Impossible 3 (C+)

From watching t.v. over the past year, I have come to the conclusion that Tom Cruise is crazy. Seriously, if you have seen the interviews with him, you can see he really should be institutionalized. Thus, it was with a degree of trepidation that I decided to pay my $6.50 matinee price (which is completely outrageous) to put money into Cruise’s pocket (and thus, the pocket of the rest of those crazy Scientologists) and see his latest endeavor. Yes, once again, special agent Ethan Hunt is out to save the world from almost certain destruction at the hands of [fill in the blank with the name of a really bad dude; this time played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman]. In MI 3, Hunt once again uses his considerable super human skills to dodge approximately 2.3 million bullets, leap from building to building in downtown Shanghai and over a crater on a bridge that has been shot with about 20 missiles but manages to stay intact (seriously), survive self-electrocution to short circuit a bomb inserted into his brain through his nose (my personal favorite), escape from his car seconds before it is shot with one of the afore-referenced missiles (which amazingly doesn’t affect Hunt who is about 6 feet from the car when it explodes), and still manage to save the world. Oh yeah… and he does all of this while saving the life of the hottest girl this side of the equator (who also happens to be his main squeeze in this movie). But, I guess it’s a winning equation because now there have been three of these, and people (including myself) keep coming back. I hate myself for lacking the self-control to avoid trekking to the theatre to see these types of movies. I give it a C+.