Hey there freaks and geeks, BAADASSSSS! is here with a list of the best films I saw in 2014. Instead of doing the traditional top ten list as originally planned, I decided to take a cue from the great Nigel Tufnel and crank this sucker up to 11 (yes, I am aware that some people are doing top 20 lists, top 50 lists, top 100 lists, etc., but I didn’t see enough of last year’s releases to make a list quite that long). So you will find on this list my ten favorite films that were released last year, one that wasn’t, and my three choices for the worst of the year. And the hell with round numbers.
10. The Raid 2
Blu-ray | DVD
This movie kicked my ass. Literally. In most cases that’s a figure of speech, but The Raid 2 actually managed somehow to give me the beating of a lifetime. Gareth Evans is possibly the finest director of pure action cinema working today. Between his breakout feature The Raid (released in the U.S. as The Raid: Redemption) and its recent sequel, I’m prepared to declare Evans one of the greatest filmmakers the genre ever produced. The first Raid was a spectacular martial arts extravaganza with a compellingly compact narrative engine not unlike the best scripted modern video games, but The Raid 2, which kicks off exactly where the original ended, expands the tightly-contained story of its predecessor into a full-blown underworld epic where heroic Indonesian cop Rama (the great Iko Uwais) must accept a dangerous deep cover assignment to protect the lives of his wife and newborn child. Now that Evans is able to take his characters from the claustrophobic confines of the heavily-guarded tenement in The Raid out into the open, the action sequences get crazier and unrestrained in their brutality and bloodshed. Not since the glory days of John Woo’s legendary double feature The Killer and Hard-Boiled has their been an action film of this scope and ambition that actually delivers on its promise with a smile full of broken teeth and bloodied spit. The Raid 2 is a masterwork.
9. The Grand Budapest Hotel
Blu-ray | DVD
On the surface, the films of Wes Anderson tend to be about as connected to reality as the average sci-fi flick. Beneath their sparkling, immaculately crafted veneers lie fierce wits and wounded souls battling it out and finding peace by the end. His latest feature, The Grand Budapest Hotel, may be the most fanciful effort Anderson has yet produced, but the candy-colored production design never overtakes the zesty and heartfelt comic thriller going on within the intricate miniature sets. Anderson’s films have always looked like the imaginative dioramas of an impressionable child given a pulse and a mind-boggling ensemble cast; The Grand Budapest Hotel brings together nearly every actor who ever performed for the filmmaker in the past in roles that are never inconsequential regardless of their size. Anchored by a stellar Ralph Fiennes as a haughty hotelier whose snobbishness is understood and well-earned, Anderson’s wintry paean to the bruised beauty of European literature is a winner on all fronts.
8. Guardians of the Galaxy
3D Blu-ray | Blu-ray | DVD
This one is ending up on a lot of best-of lists for 2014 and for many very good reasons. Primarily that Guardians of the Galaxy is a superbly fun and frisky sci-fi adventure that goes all in with the cosmic lunacy of the classic Marvel comic books while delivering an accessible entry point for fans of the genre and newcomers alike into an unexplored corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe just teeming with exciting possibilities. Like more than a few great blockbuster directors before him, the gifted James Gunn brought his considerable experience as an independent filmmaker who knows how to put every dollar on screen in a way that values substance as much as style and livens up the standard superhero origin story flick with goofy humor and a fantastic ensemble of unlikely heroes that managed to connect with audiences all over the world in their own special way. The success of Guardians has paved the way for Marvel to get even bolder and crazier with their upcoming slate of big screen projects. This time they’re going to have many more devoted fans fully prepared to follow them to the four corners of the universe and beyond.
7. The LEGO Movie
Blu-ray | DVD
And oh how we took great joy in deriding The Lego Movie as a soulless corporate-mandated toy commercial months before it was released. Remember those days? Having seen the film once on the big screen and several times since on Blu-ray, I can’t help but hate myself just a tad for being so judgmental. It’s that suffocating cynicism that often makes enjoying films like this impossible, but I sure am relieved that The Lego Movie was filled with enough sneaky wit of both the visual and verbal varieties and some of the most beautifully-rendered CGI animation this side of Pixar’s finest hours to break down my self-imposed cultural barriers. An occasional watch should keep those walls down for good because watching this film is like reliving the greatest Christmas morning of your childhood over and over again, getting those cool new toys you desired all year and allowing your youthful imaginations run wild until it’s time to go to school (or to sleep). Indeed, everything is awesome.
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In the hands of South Korean dynamo Bong Joon-ho, who previous bucked genre trends with features like Memories of Murder and The Host, the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige becomes a harrowing futuristic thriller exploding with deep philosophical concepts and surprises every few minutes. The poorer inhabitants of an supertrain that continuously travels a planet frozen solid by the onset of another Ice Age stage a violent class rebellion against the dictatorial rule that has long dominated their lives and fight their way to the front, finding that with each entry into a car they’ve never before seen a world both spectacular and disturbing is unfolding before their very eyes. Better than any Hunger Games sequel by a mile for embracing the bleak and outlandish elements of the story and putting a winning ensemble cast (headed by a rarely better Chris Evans) to excellent use, Snowpiercer is a work of visionary science-fiction that deserves your careful attention and respect because its rewards are greater than one could imagine.
5. Blue Ruin
Blu-ray | DVD
“Revenge is never a straight line. It’s a forest, and like a forest it’s easy to lose your way….to get lost….to forget where you came in.” That quote cannot be heard coming from any of the characters in Blue Ruin, a downbeat and taciturn drama about the true costs of vengeance, but it certainly implies to the soul-damaged hero created by director Jeremy Saulnier and played by Macon Blair in one of the most haunting performances in American cinema this year. Blair’s aimless wanderer finally gets a shot at giving some genuine purpose to his life when he reluctantly goes gunning for the man who murdered his parents and discovers that even if you live to tell the tale you’ll never be the same person as before. Watch this film and think about it the next time you want to get someone back for the pettiest of offenses because you just might realize that it is pointless and self-destructive to go down that particular road. You cross the point of no return the moment you start.
4. Gone Girl
Blu-ray | DVD
2014 has been an unforgettable year for literary and comic book adaptations, with David Fincher‘s deliciously sinister adaptation of Gillian Flynn‘s best-selling pulp deconstruction of a failing modern marriage being an unexpected surprise. Ben Affleck gives one of his finest performances in front of the camera as a man who becomes the reluctant star attraction of a national media carnival when his wife goes missing and he starts to look like a sensible suspect. But it’s the long-underrated Rosamund Pike whose virtuoso performance as Affleck’s wife will amaze long after the film is over. Only those who have read the novel will fail to be floored by the direction Gone Girl takes at its midway point, but even if you know what to expect of the story, Fincher’s visceral direction, Flynn’s biting funny and vicious screenplay, and the terrific performances by Affleck, Pike, and a solid supporting cast (even Tyler Perry is great here) will still get you on board for a ride you might want to take more than once.
3. Inherent Vice
Blu-ray | DVD
Larry “Doc” Sportello, the consistently bemused and stoned So-Cal sleuth hero of Thomas Pynchon‘s 2009 novel, is a film noir lead the likes of which we don’t really see anymore. He’s not a tough guy and he doesn’t pretend to be, but he tries to be a decent human being and usually can be depended upon to get the most difficult job done. Played by Joaquin Phoenix in a high-wire performance of unexpected hilarity and eye-watering melancholy, Doc gets ensnared in the craziest case of his professional career as Paul Thomas Anderson‘s sprawling adaptation of the most readily adaptable of Pynchon’s works piles on the characters, incidents, and twists like a pothead on a late night shopping spree for disposable munchies and arrives at a pitch-perfect conclusion where the confusing plot matters little in the grand scheme of the great human experiment. Inherent Vice is two-and-a-half hours of pure pleasure that rewards close attention but also forgives if you occasionally get distracted. It’s a cool ounce of Pineapple Express, whereas in the hands of lesser talent the Pynchon tome could have ended up a soggy bag of Snicklefritz.
2. The Rover
Blu-ray | DVD
A brutal and unforgiving drama set against the backdrop of a civilized society that has crumbled through all fault of its own into a literal Hell on Earth, David Michôd‘s sun-burnt follow-up to his 2010 feature directorial debut, Animal Kingdom will kick you in the gut so hard you’ll be too gobsmack to notice your wallet being lifted. The film features career best performances from Guy Pearce as a post-apocalyptic wanderer madder than Max and snakier than Plissken and Robert Pattinson (wisely employing his Twilight clout to work with some world class filmmakers) as a good-natured halfwit with a lingering shred of humanity who starts out as Pearce’s hostage and later becomes his partner, friend, and surrogate little brother. Michôd also wrote the script based upon a story he conceived with actor Joel Edgerton. Once you watch The Rover the first time your mind and soul will not know peace for a long time. I can’t wait to see what Michôd does next.
1. Cold in July
Blu-ray | DVD
Proof positive that more Joe R. Lansdale novels need to be adapted into feature films, the author’s 1989 crime story becomes the latest winner in the ever-evolving filmography of Jim Mickle, the chameleonic cinematic craftsman responsible for the unsettling and underrated Stake Land and We Are What We Are. Cold in July is a solidly constructed and fiendishly funny suspense thriller starring Dexter‘s Michael C. Hall as an ordinary man who with one act of perceived self-defense plunges down a rabbit hole of crime, corruption, and depravity where no sane person should have to venture. Coupled with a delightful 1980’s throwback music score composed by Jeff Grace – read my review of the soundtrack here – and winning supporting performances from Sam Shepard, Don Johnson, Vinessa Shaw, co-writer Nick Damici, and Wyatt Russell, Cold in July goes great with Drive as an amazing double feature about the dark flip side of doing the right thing and being a man in a hyper-masculine America.
That’s my top ten of the year. My pick for best film I saw in 2014 that has yet to receive an official release is….
Over a year ago I had the privilege of being part of a large audience in attendance at a special secret screening of the latest feature from Drew Bolduc, a fearless independent filmmaker from my hometown Richmond, Virginia. Previously he made the splatterific satirical horror-comedy The Taint, and his follow-up Science Team couldn’t be anymore different if had been a quiet drawing room romance. Instead, Bolduc took on the genre of science-fiction while introducing his own premium blend of twisted humor and jaw-dropping plot turns (with some juicy creature effects work as a side dish) and came away with an offbeat brain pan fryer of a dark comedy that has the potential to be a bigger cult hit than The Taint once it gets an official release. Currently, the film is still playing the festival circuit and could hopefully hit theaters and home viewing platforms sometime next year. I really can’t wait to see this one again. You can read a review of Science Team I wrote for the James River Film Journal last January here.
My choice for the three worst movies of 2014:
Christopher Nolan‘s intergalactic epic was once one of the most anticipated films of the year. But after a first hour made soggy with leaden exposition and dull character work, I was left wondering what the point was of saving a human race that didn’t deserve salvation. Once the story took off into space, things got a little better and the hard science was mostly sound. Unfortunately, what precious few virtues Interstellar had going for it were abandoned to be dragged kicking and screaming into mediocrity by a third act rife with lame plot twists and a finale that had me almost falling to the theater floor in a fit of hysterical laughter. Nolan aimed for the lofty visionary heights of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but he fell way short of even 2010.
2. The Interview
I didn’t want to see The Interview to support the causes of freedom, democracy, and the right by all artists to express themselves freely and without prejudice. I wanted to see it because the last time Seth Rogen and James Franco teamed up to play characters that were not thinly-disguised caricatures of their own personalities (as in This is the End) was in Pineapple Express, one of my all-time favorite comedies. Instead, this aimless attempt at a violent political comedy was ultimately brought to its knees not by terrorist threats and a tin-pot dictator afraid of having his image tarnished, but by lame jokes, a lack of focus in the storytelling, and what is quite possibly the worst performance of Franco’s career. At least the third act was watchable and the cinematography was some of the most gorgeously accomplished of the year, but that’s little comfort considering everyone involved in the making of The Interview has done far better work in the past.
1. Sin City: A Dame to Kill For
Blu-ray | DVD
If a sequel to a successful film is as good as, or even better than, the original, then a long wait can sometimes be justified. Why it took Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller nine years to produce a follow-up to Sin City, arguable one of the most faithful and gutsy comic book adaptations ever made, that lacked nearly every single one of the qualities that made the first film uniquely entertaining is beyond my comprehension. A Dame to Kill For suffers from an abbreviated length and a repetitive story structure that aims for the original’s non-linear anthology feel but comes across like a character on Drunk History that is too plastered to keep the characters and plot details straight. Between this and Machete Kills (not to mention Miller’s Sin City-esque adaptation of The Spirit, which is too bad to go into here), the filmmakers are in greater need of an intervention than most junkies and alcoholics.
I apologize for the lateness of delivering my year-end film list. Unfortunately, I happen to live in one of those cities that has to wait for the limited release features to open wide. All in all, 2014 was a pretty good year for cinema. It had its share of hits, bombs, sparkling jewels, diamonds in the rough, instant classics, potential cult films, and soul-destroying suckage. Of course, you can probably describe every year for film as such. Here’s to a better 2015.