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!

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 (Rock of Ages) 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 (The Savages)]. 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+.

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!

The Commitments; Days of Thunder

DVD reviews from The Movie Snob:

The Commitments (B). This movie has been sitting in my collection, unwatched, for a long time. This afternoon, after our tennis match got rained out, my cousin Diane and I gave it a spin. It was good, but not as good as I remembered. The plot is strongly reminiscent of that modern-day classic That Thing You Do!. Out-of-work Irishman Jimmy Rabbitte dreams of managing a soul/R&B band in modern-day Dublin. He puts an ad in the paper seeking musicians, and against all odds a quality band—The Commitments—emerges from the chaos. But centrifugal forces go to work almost immediately: the sax player really wants to play jazz, the lead singer is a monstrous buffoon, and the trumpeter is bedding all of the female back-up singers. Can the band hold together long enough to catch their big break for stardom? Take a look and find out.

Days of Thunder. I continue to plumb the depths of Nicole Kidman’s oeuvre, and I pray that I have now hit the bottom. This earthbound remake of Top Gun is absolutely terrible. Tom Cruise plays Cole Trickle, whose name alone should have led to an immediate lifetime ban from NASCAR. But no, in the alternate universe inhabited by this movie, a goofily named maverick from the left coast can take NASCAR by storm, at least if he’s backed by the engineering wizardry of cornpone-spouting crew chief Harry Hogge (played with unseemly enthusiasm by Robert Duvall). A fiery car crash puts Cole in the tender care of a female neurologist played by Kidman (who was no more than 22 when this thing was filmed). He quickly takes the good doctor’s breath away, but problems loom when Cole tries to get back into the danger zone. Can he overcome his loss of nerve, sponsorship, and girlfriend, beat the cocky iceman who has replaced him as NASCAR’s darling, and win the Daytona 500? Your tolerance for pain will have to be very, very high if you want to find out. Even NK’s ethereal beauty is compromised by her massive mane of permed red hair. Movie grade: F. Nicole grade: C.

War of the Worlds

A second opinion on War of the Worlds, by Nick at Nite:

War of the Worlds

Everything I need to know in life I learned from Tom Cruise and Steven Spielberg. From Tom I learned: ladies like men who wear blue jeans, but no shirt to play beach volleyball; sometimes doctors are really doctors and not strippers; that it is a bad, bad thing to go uninvited to a kinky, sex party; there is no minority report; an M-60 machine gun makes a beautiful noise when it is fired out of the third floor window of a military school; and that we live in a cynical world. From Steven I learned: what a Goonie is; talking teddy bears are creepy; dinosaurs live in Costa Rica; you can marry women you cast in your movies; Richard Dreyfuss is old; and Harrison Ford is only cool and interesting when he is acting. I learned a little more from these two guys watching War of the Worlds: it doesn’t matter what story these guys try to tell, they do it pretty well.

The premise of the movie is the same as the original. Aliens come to kill humans. The spin this time around is that the special effects are amazing. By “amazing,” I mean this is some of the coolest stuff I have seen since Jurassic Park. The special effects are unique because Spielberg uses some of the CGI technology, but he also uses real people, helicopters, trucks, and more. He combines the old and new very well. This is a great summer blockbuster. You should see it on the big screen. I give it an “A.”

War of the Worlds; Howl’s Moving Castle; My Summer of Love

From the desk of The Movie Snob:

War of the Worlds (B). The buzz I had heard was that this movie keeps you on the edge of your seat almost the entire time, and I have to say that it delivered. For about five minutes, things are perfectly normal. Tom Cruise plays Ray, a swaggering, divorced New Jersey dockworker. He is charged with taking care of his surly teenaged son and ten-year-old daughter for the weekend while his ex-wife and her wealthy new husband go to Boston. Weird storms simultaneously crop up all over the world, knocking out power and communications, and before you know it invincible alien tripods are marching through cities and across the countryside. Ray takes off with his children, and the film is at its best when it focuses on their flight from the alien marauders. To my mind, the film faltered when it slowed down and zeroed in on Ray’s conflicts with his children or other humans, like an unhinged Tim Robbins hiding out in an abandoned farmhouse. I was also surprised at how much Spielberg seemed to borrow from Independence Day, although perhaps that’s unfair since ID itself apparently lifted its plot straight from the same source—H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds. Overall, a perfectly decent thriller.

Howl’s Moving Castle (C). This was my first experience with Japanese anime, and it left me completely befuddled. The visuals were undeniably stunning, but the setting and plot were baffling. In the movie’s universe, from what I could tell, most people live in kingdoms that look like something out of Europe circa 1900, but wizards, witches, and magic are also accepted as facts of life. Howl himself is a wizard who lives in a fabulous moving castle that looks like a junkyard on giant mechanical chicken legs. The film’s protagonist, Sophie, is an ordinary young woman who attracts a witch’s attention for some reason and gets put under a spell that turns her into an old woman. She finds the moving castle and attaches herself to Howl’s small retinue as a cleaning woman, hoping to get her spell reversed. Lots of weird stuff happens, but danged if I could tell you why, and there’s a cute fire demon voiced by Billy Crystal too. Definitely a different sort of movie experience.

My Summer of Love (C). The reviewer for the local newspaper loved this British movie, calling it a “triumph” and a “gem.” I was less impressed, finding it pretty ordinary and predictable. The protagonist is Mona, a poor, plain, teenaged girl with no parents and few prospects. She’s having a loveless affair with a married man, and her older brother, Phil, has turned away from a life of petty crime and become a religious fanatic, leaving her even more alone. Then a beautiful rich girl named Tamsin (Emily Blunt, in the first movie I ever saw her in) moves into the mansion situated just outside of town, informing Mona that she was asked to leave her boarding school for being a bad influence on the other girls. Mona is quickly pulled into this exotic creature’s orbit, and over the summer the two girls experiment with various illicit activities and substances. As I say, I thought it was really pretty predictable. And average.

Collateral

Another DVD review from Nick at Nite:

Collateral

Tom Cruise has ten minutes of dialogue and dyed grey hair, and this is still one of the best films I have seen this year. It is an original twist on the “aiding and abetting a criminal under duress” genre. Jamie Foxx is great as the taxi driver caught in the middle of a mysterious crime spree. No wonder he has been nominated for a bunch of awards. This movie has action, humor, romance, and a plot. It requires some thought and in my opinion is best seen when you can really pay attention to what you are watching. I give this movie an “A.”

Collateral

A View from Mars

Collateral (A-). In short, this is one cool ride. In one corner, Tom Cruise in a villanious role more becoming of the classic antihero, the bad guy you root for. In the other, Jamie Foxx (busting out a little dramatic chops), playing the classic everyman, the good guy you root for. TC plays a contract killer in L.A. for one night to “take care of business” and JF is the idealistic cabbie who is destined to be in the wrong place for a fare that will change his life. Heat‘s Michael Mann takes us back to the seedy night life that makes L.A. a great place to visit but not to live as interchanged nonchalantly between Cruise and Foxx in one scene. It’s actually the interchange in dialogue and also what is not spoken between the two that really propels the film and seperates it from just your average run-of-the-mill adult action oriented thriller. Although the ending doesn’t disappoint, I was hoping for the exclamation mark that would have elevated this film from great to greater. I always know a movie is going to be a hit with me when half to 2/3rds of the way, I already anticipate owning the DVD. With Cruise’s performance, Foxx’s breakout adaptability and Mann’s “cool” direction, there’s nothing more really that needs to be said…easily one of the better flicks this summer.