December 21, 2014
A list of “favorites” is always tough for me. It brings to mind all of the films I loved, many of the films I hated, but mostly the ones I missed, Birdman, Big Hero 6, Neighbors, Obvious Child, Whiplash, Get On Up – just to name a few. What I have compiled aren’t movies that I loved but that surprised me. So if you see some you’re less familiar with, or some that just didn’t seem interesting at first, I entreat you to take another look. So, in no particular order, let’s begin!
1 – The Guardians of the Galaxy
This was the oddball movie of the year, hands down. The tenth picture from Marvel Studios featured no top-tier characters and a sci-fi story involving a talking tree that only said, “I am Groot.” Focusing on the usual end-of-the-world stakes on a planet in a different galaxy, Star-Lord and his criminal companions seek to prevent Ronan the Accuser of destroying a planet-full of innocents. They fight. They quip. They win the day. Before it hit screens, it seemed like Marvel was taking a huge risk. Instead, Guardians became one of the biggest releases in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Highlights: Any scene with Groot, orb hot-potato, and the Collector’s explanation of the Infinity Stones.
2 – The Raid 2: Berandal
This sequel to the Indonesian 2011 release The Raid: Redemption found a way to raise the stakes and extend the world established in the first. Our protagonist, police rookie Rama, returns as the film picks up a few days after the first film ends. Having survived the infiltration of a gang leader’s high-rise, Rama is now tasked with going undercover to help Internal Affairs find out who’s in charge of the local gangs and their police contacts. The first film was a non-stop, kinetic experience that was fleshed out by lead actor Iko Uwais’s subtle performance in the few dialogue-driven scenes it had. Now, in Berandal¸ the story maintains the high-speed action, but tells the story over years in a storyline reminiscent of The Departed. Don’t worry, action fans, Uwais still brings the pain. This time, however, we see what the price of loyalty is when someone is pushed to the limit of their own ethics.
Highlights: A quiet moment in the bathroom, Baseball Bat Boy, and Knife Master showdown.
3 – Snowpiercer
So rarely do films live up to the anticipation and Snowpiercer does in spades. Between the powerful performances by Chris Evans, John Hurt, and Tilda Swinton, incredible set design, and amazing choreographed action sequences, you find yourself truly immersed in the story of revolution taking place on a train. It sounds like a ridiculous concept, but put into a narrative where all of humanity lives segregated by financial status on a transglobal train, where space itself is a commodity afforded to very few, the idea of a revolution seems inevitable. The biggest surprise to me with this picture is how rewatchable it is due to the subtle nature of the storytelling. This is the rare film that you want to restart to see what you’ve missed as soon as it’s over.
Highlights: Protein bar revelation, axe fight, and conversations about responsibility.
4 – Need For Speed
I didn’t have high hopes for this adaptation of the widely popular racing video game series, but Need For Speed was one of the largest surprises of 2014. It’s highly rewatchable, entertaining as hell, and possesses a strong story that stands on its own. Unlike the Fast and Furious series that aims for fast cars, hot girls, and intense action, Need For Speed tells a smaller story of redemption. Framed for the death of a friend in a racing accident, Tobey Marshall (played by Breaking Bad star Aaron Paul) drives across the country, Smokey and the Bandit-style, to reach the infamous De Leon race where the man who framed him is a contender. Clocking in at over two hours, Need For Speed takes its time to build up Marshall’s skill as a driver, the betrayal that sends him to prison, and the trip he takes across the country. While it does feature cinematography that connects it back to the first-person style of its namesake video game, for the outsider watching the film, it just looks like a camera angle designed to immerse you further into the action.
Highlights: “$1 on the next exit,” “two lane grasshopper,” and a race to the lighthouse.
5 – Captain America
The Winter Soldier When we were first introduced to Steve Rogers in Captain America: The First Avenger, he was a wholesome kid fighting back against the Axis of Evil in World War II. Structured as a period film, the black-or-white ethics and moralizing of Rogers made sense. While this made sense as an introduction to the famed Marvel character, switching gears to tell a spy thriller kept audiences interested and on the edge of their seats. The sequel, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, finds Rogers living in post-Avengers D.C. – a world aware of the presence of aliens and very full of grey. Quickly, the story puts Rogers on the run with Black Widow, not knowing where to find safety or who to trust. Mostly, with two small words, Winter Soldier changed everything we knew about the Marvel Cinematic Universe, sending Rogers and the audience scrambling backward, retracing the stories as we knew them, for any chance to find footing. Hail Hydra.
Highlights: “On your left”, the first “Hail Hydra,” and a Falcon flies while buildings fall.
6 – The Lego Movie
My eldest brother loved Legos as a kid and, to this day, still brings Lego versions of characters to any movie he goes to. Legos represent a time of innocence for many people, a time of open creativity and imagination. So, as a family, my brothers, our respective wives, and our mother all went to see, what most expected to be, a child’s movie made with Lego. We couldn’t have been more wrong. While the story is fun (prophecy for the “Special”) and features one of the catchiest songs you’ll ever hear (“Everything is Awesome”), what made this movie succeed was the heart at the center. It wasn’t just about a lone Lego man, Emmett, learning that he has greatest within him and the ability to defeat his enemy, Lord Business, but about what growing up is all about. That creativity and openness, that being a Master Builder, has more to do with throwing out the directions, than following the rules.
Highlights: “Everything is Awesome,” double-decker couch, and Duplo.
7 – Interstellar
Christopher Nolan is rarely known for going into any concept half-assed. If he’s telling the story of a man who has long-term memory issues, you’ll get his story in reverse. If he’s creating a world where diving into the dreams of others is possible, you’ll get three levels of dreams and the possibility that it was all a lie. In Interstellar, Nolan puts us in the shoes of Matthew McConaughey’s Joseph Cooper, a pilot and engineer turned farmer, who is recruited by NASA in a last ditch effort to find a hospitable planet that can replace dying Earth as our home. To achieve this, Nolan creates a scenario where a wormhole has appeared from nowhere – presumably placed there by some unseen entity – which may take a few brave explorers to planets beyond our galaxy in search of humanity’s salvation. Again, no small undertaking. Interstellar is clever in two ways: (1) Nolan grounds his story by showing us Cooper’s journey in parallel synchronization with that of his children – how they grow up in his absence and the struggle of living with hope in the face of uncertainty. Something both sides face. (2) His science is largely accurate and supportable, making the probability of this taking place even more impressive. Clearly pulling inspiration from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Nolan invites his audience to go along on this journey of exploration and hope into the outer reaches of space, I think, to reinvigorate our awe of the stars and planets that we take for granted every night. In a way, he is challenging us to take his science fiction and make it non-fiction. I wonder if anyone will take the bait.
Highlights: Visual representation of the space, TARS, and CASE.
8 – Frank
Featuring Michael Fassbender as the titular character Frank, this musical odyssey into the mind of man seeking a way to connect with the world has to be the strangest movie I saw all year. (Only God Forgives would have been #1, but that was released in 2013 and not up for consideration on this list.) Masked in a papier-mâché mask that he never takes off, Frank uses everything from tufts of cloth to the smells and stains of a bowling alley as musical inspiration. Newest member to Frank’s band, Jon, played with delightful creeping envy and deep sadness by Domhnall Gleeson, wants to learn how Frank sees the world, so that he too can create inspiring music for the masses. From the premise and the trailer, you’d think this would be an oddball comedy and you would be horrifically disappointed. Instead, it surprises by being an exploration into the concept of acceptance and what we try to do to connect with the world around us. While it was nowhere near the absurd comedy that the trailer suggests, I left my viewing most certainly affected and full of love.
Highlights: Ode to a tuft, Galactic jam, and Frank’s love song.
9 – A Walk Among the Tombstones
Though this story has its origin in a novel by Lawrence Block, I think most folks expected this film to fit into the “one man army” motif Liam Neeson has become more famous for, creating a missed opportunity to see why Neeson is such a strong dramatic actor. What impressed me about this is how anti-violence it seemed to be. Even with the grey filters and rain making the world of the story seem cold and isolating, Neeson’s Matthew Scudder only resorted to violence when absolutely necessary, choosing to use his mind to either out-talk or out-wit his opponents. It’s a refreshing take on an otherwise standard detective story.
Highlights: Threats with a knife, gumshoe-in-training, and gunshots in a graveyard.
10 – Space Station 76
Inspired by a stage play, Space Station 76 is a ‘70s family drama set on a space station on which lives, and possibly an asteroid, collide. From the out-set and, again, the trailer, you’d think this would be a space romp inspired by the likes of Airplane, but it examines the isolation that comes from a failing relationship using the backdrop of space. Do you try to make it work? Do you fight? For yourself or for others? What do you do when you meet someone that makes you happy? This isn’t the first film to place its characters in an inescapable situation and force them to confront the lies they’ve created, but this is the first one I know where the resident psychiatrist is a robot. While you won’t leave a screening happy, its superb cast will, at minimum, get you talking about the struggle and complexity of relationships.
Highlights: Antigravity childhood, Dr. Bot, and asteroid conversation-stopper.