My Favorite Movies of 2014

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This is my Favorite Movies of 2014 list (along with a second opinion from Midwestern correspondent Eric Sweeney). What a great year it was for movies. Even as I assembled this list, I struggled to find a proper order for them as it was such a strong crop to pick from this year (admittedly this list could be reshuffled on any given day). There are still quite a few movies that I haven’t gotten around to seeing yet (I really want to see The Imitation Game and Nightcrawler, but haven’t had a chance) so no yelling about your favorite film being excluded if it appears on the haven’t seen yet list at the bottom*. If it didn’t make either of those lists, then have at it with the internet yelling.

My Favorite Movies of 2014

WHIPLASH+onesheet1. Whiplash – The last ten minutes of this movie were by far the most compelling and intense moments I witnessed on screen this year (the Raid 2’s kitchen fight might be equal, but it’s more impressive in the context of a relatively bloodless movie about jazz). Whiplash is fantastic and I hope J.K. Simmons wins an Oscar for his performance once award season rolls around. There are so many things in the last ten minutes that I’d love to rave about, even seemingly small decisions made by writer/director Damien Chazelle, but I don’t want to spoil too much. Go see it in theaters while you can. It is an outstanding film.

Watch This If You Like: Black Swan, J.K. Simmons yelling at people, Jazz music

guardians2. Guardians of the Galaxy – What was once projected to be Marvel’s first bomb at the box office turned out to be the year’s most pleasant surprise, succeeding both with critics and fans alike. Some questioned handing off such a large franchise to filmmaker James Gunn, whose credentials were more indy-oriented, but much like when the LOTR franchise was handed off to fellow morbid kindred spirit Peter Jackson, it worked out beautifully. Guardians is fun and entertaining and that’s about all you can ask for in a summer blockbuster. It’s not a high brow movie that will head many top 10 lists, but I don’t care. Hopefully Gunn’s success will ease the minds of nervous studio heads who have recently handed over large summer products to lesser known directors (Colin Trevorrow directing Jurassic World, Rian Johnson tapped to finish episode 8 and 9 of Star Wars and Josh Trank helming the Fantastic Four reboot along with a Star Wars spinoff of his own) and open up the door for other rising talents.

Watch This If You Like: Star Wars, Serenity, Avengers, Slither, 70s Rock

Interstellar 23. Interstellar – Interstellar easily wins the most devastating checking of an answer machine award (I honestly don’t know what sort of competition it has for that award though, Little Miss Sunshine?) and also deserves some consideration for the best space movie with semi-plausible/well researched science behind it award. I’m a sucker for space travel movies, so it’s not surprising that I thoroughly enjoyed this sc-fi opus. While Interstellar had some noticeable blemishes (there were more than a few head scratching moments), I’d say the good things far outweighed the bad; a killer score, great effects, a solid cast, surprise Matt Damon cameos (potentially gearing up for his role in the Martian later this year?) and walking Tetris blocks round out the good.

Watch This If You Like: Sunshine, Inception, Space, A sense of childlike wonderment that adulthood slowly shaves away

calvary4. Calvary – Calvary is choppy, disjointed and in giving with the McDonaugh brothers tendency to write witty scripts that read like plays, but I enjoy their style. It stands as a solemn film, anchored by a stellar performance from Brendan Gleeson who plays a priests that struggles to get his affairs in order after receiving a death threat. Set against the distinctly ominous landscape of Sligo, Ireland, Calvary is a bleak exploration of personal pain and the various ways we choose to hide it from others. Gleeson’s performance is a quiet and restrained one and will be overlooked come award season due to its relative lack of showy and fiery sermons, but I think it’s the best performance (Michael Keaton, J.K. Simmons and Rosamund Pike are in the mix, too) that I saw on screen this year. Oh, but what a very sad and haunting ending this film has. Good lord.

Watch This If You Like: The Guard, In Bruges, Doubt, Irish landscapes

Snowpiercer5. Snowpiercer – As this was my most anticipated movie of 2014, I had already convinced myself that I loved it even before I saw a single frame, so it’s possible there might have been some bias in play. Snowpiercer was another film that could be considered a surprise hit (albeit on a smaller scale), garnering a lot of positive attention after Miramax essentially tried to bury it in limited release and VOD. In an earlier post I cataloged how much I liked this movie, so I won’t really get into it again, but I don’t think it’s any coincidence that two of my favorite directors found their way into my top five this year. Joon-ho Bong and Christopher Nolan consistently put out movies that I find interesting and engaging on a number of levels. I know Snowpiercer wasn’t for everyone and seemed to produce some rather divisive opinions amongst viewers, which I understand, but I thought it was great. Tilda Swinton hamming it up as Minister Mason? Easily worth the price of admission.

Watch This If You LikeThe Host, Trains, Claustrophobic date movies, Movies that aren’t really date movies

raid_two_berandal_np6. The Raid 2 – The Raid 2 was definitely the best action movie of the year (with some serious consideration for best all-time, too), a blistering, violent gang epic from the mind of rising action director Gareth Evans and his talented cast of Indonesian martial arts stars. I was ridiculously excited going into the theater to see The Raid 2 and left with the same buzz I entered with, which is a rare feat these days. Admittedly, the movie is too ambitious for its own good at times and could stand to lose twenty five minutes from its run time (along with a subplot or two), but those minors qualms are erased by the insanity that is the last hour of this movie. If you don’t mind heaps of gratuitous violence and want to see what has to be one of the best fight scenes of all time, then the Raid 2 is for you.

Watch This If You Like: The Raid, Merantu, Ip Man, Cringing

birdman-click7. Birdman – Michael Keaton is excellent in this movie. Well, everyone who gets significant screen time in Birdman is excellent, but that’s besides the point. All signs point to director Alejandro González Iñárritu picking up some technical mastery from his good friend Alfonso Cuarón (along with borrowing his DP Emmanuel Lubezki), as the majority of the film is brilliantly constructed and edited together to appear as one long seamless tracking shot. Technical mastery aside, Keaton is the showpiece and he is the best he’s ever been as washed up star Riggan Thompson. What a great role and performance from him (especially considering the semi-autobiographical nature of the material). Hopefully we’ll see more of him on the big screen once again. He has been missed.

Watch This If You Like: Being John Malkovich, Black Swan, Great cinematography

boyhood-movie-poster8. Boyhood – Boyhood is unique. Other than the 7 Up documentary series, I can’t think of anything quite like it, and the result is mesmerizing. Linklater should be commended for such an ambitious and poignant project. It’s a fantastic film beyond the perceived gimmick and I’d be surprised if you didn’t find yourself still seated long after the credits have rolled, contemplating the many odd twists and turns of your own life.

Watch This If You Like: The 7 Up series, Before Sunset

lego_movie_ver9_xlg9. The Lego Movie – The Lego Movie is the best animated movie of the year and also one of the funniest. Everything from the animation to the jokes to the more heartfelt moments work well. It’s the epitome of clever and evokes some comparable moments to Toy Story without feeling too derivative. This could have been terrible, but isn’t. It’s wonderful.

Watch This If You Like: Toy Story, Legos, Heart warming product placement movies

Gone Girl10. Gone Girl – David Fincher’s near perfect adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s best selling novel was a great showcase for Rosamund Pike, who was tasked with playing the role of the infamous ‘Amazing Amy’ Dunne. Kudos to her and Fincher for pulling off what should have been very tough material to adapt and making it look easy. And even though it was a thankless role, credit to Ben Affleck, too. He nailed the feel of scummy old Nick Dunne. Also, as strange as it sounds, Tyler Perry was really good as Tanner Bolt. Seriously.

Watch This If You Like: Reconsidering dating anyone ever again, Living alone in the mountains, Dial M for Murder, A Perfect Murder, Strangers on a Train, Zodiac

edge-of-tomorrow-poster311. Edge of Tomorrow – This film is much better than it should have been, bolstered by the supremely wise decision to sprinkle the script with humor instead of rolling out the bleak Nolan-esque fare it was most likely destined for. It’s a shame it struggled at the box office, but hopefully it will get a second life on DVD (if they stop renaming it that is). If you want to check out a solid sci-fi movie, give it a shot.

Watch This If You Like: Source Code, Groundhog Day, Oblivion

Grand Budapest HOtel12. The Grand Budapest Hotel –  I think at this point people know whether or not they like Wes Anderson’s movies. I do, and thought this one was delightful.

Watch This If You Like: The Wes Anderson catalog, whimsy, lobby boys

 

 

rover_ver3_xlg13. The Rover – Guy Pearce stars in this semi-dystopian companion piece to The Proposition as a drifter who is dead set on getting his truck back after it’s stolen. I’m a big supporter of Guy Pearce and admired the scuzzy ego-free performance he turned in as the film’s drifter, a role that most actors wouldn’t have even entertained playing. The Rover is an undeniably bleak, dusty, dirty and depressing movie, so stay away from this one if you’re looking for feel good material. This is not it. And for all the hate Robert Pattinson gets, he was actually solid in this movie. It’s tough not to feel sympathy for his tragic dim-witted character of Rey.

Watch This If You Like: The Proposition, The Road, Animal Kingdom

hobbit14. The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies – This CG heavy conclusion to the Middle Earth story certainly seemed to be losing a bit of steam and direction as it came to a close, but there were still some things to like. Martin Freeman continued to be a reliable anchor for the series, the opening scene was thrilling and the battle scenes were executed on a grand scale, but it was tough not to feel the tapestry of Middle Earth starting to fray. I love this series and all its entries, but some of its troubling tendencies were becoming harder to ignore. A entirely CG dwarf character? Why? A guy that turns into a giant bear only getting seven seconds of screen time in an epic battle scene? Also why? Three movies for a skinny paperback? Explain?

Watch This If You Like: Movies with Hobbits in them

Honorable MentionLocke, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Life Itself, Blue Ruin, Under the Skin, How To Train Your Dragon 2The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1Godzilla, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, 22 Jump Street, The Signal, Begin Again, X-Men: Days of Future Past, John Wick, The Fault In Our Stars, God Help The Girl, Wild, the synth soundtrack in The Guest

Had High Expectations For: The Drop. I really wanted to like it, but was ultimately a bit disappointed. Tom Hardy was great in it and so are the last fifteen minutes of the movie, but as a whole it seemed messy. I think I need to give it another shot though.

Worst Movie: I’m don’t want to linger too much on the negative, but what the hell happened with Transcendence? It was awful. And Pompei, too. You shouldn’t be allowed to plagiarize that much of Gladiator and not call your movie Gladiator 2: Jon Snow’s Revenge. Equally terrible.

*Still Haven’t Seen But Want To See: Nightcrawler, The Imitation GameThe Theory of Everything, Get on Up, Foxcatcher, Lucy, Inherent Vice, Only Lovers Left Alive, Comet, Fury, Manakamana, Jodoroski’s Dune, Force Majure, Coherence, Norte: The End of History, Unbroken, American Sniper, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, Big Hero 6, Selma, A Walk Among the Tombstones, Citizenfour, Obvious Child, Cold in July, Frank, Dear White People, Ida, St. Vincent, The Book of Life, We Are The Best, Chef, A Hard Day, Starred Up, The Homesman, Enemy

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What Do You Think Of The Way Writers Are Depicted In Film And Television?

Writers penning stories about writers is not a rarity in the world of film and tv. While some may criticize this as being a bit lazy and arguably pretentious on the part of the writer, it is a narrative device that isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

The effectiveness of these portrayals vary. Sometimes depictions of writers are endlessly fascinating to people, while other times people could care less about watching someone sit in a room and transcribe the conversations that take place in their head. It generally hinges on the level of interest the viewers have with the author in question.

Personally, the last thing I want to write fiction about is writing. I’d rather spare people the not so interesting ins and outs of my writing process in favor of exploring something more fantastical. But what about you? As a writer, what do you think of the way writers are depicted in film/tv? Do you find them completely unrealistic, at least as far as the majority of authors go? Do people think you’re wealthy beyond belief because of these depictions? Do they expect you to pick up the tab because of Californication? Do they expect you to arrive to book signings in a helicopter because of Castle?

It seems that most films tend to favor unrealistic depictions of writers. One of the more outstanding examples is John Cusack’s character in the forgettable two and a half hour explosion that was 2012. Cusack’s character Jackson Curtis lives in a fairly sizable house in LA despite being recently divorced, apparently out of work (he might drive a limo? I forget) and a bit of a mope. He identifies himself as an out of work writer who penned this great science fiction novel that no one read. Despite not seeming to do any other writing outside of said book, he lives comfortably off the massive royalties from the twelve people that bought his book. This seems like a bit of a stretch unless his book jacket was made of diamonds and each copy sold for $100,000. But in retrospect, Cusack’s occupational discrepancy is still probably the most realistic thing in that movie.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t rock star writers out there that don’t live like royalty, but the truth is that they represent a very small minority of the writing community. And even then, most of the vastly successful writers like J.K. Rowling, Stephen King and Neil Gaiman hardly strike me as extravagant or excessive personalities. So, this begs the question, is there really a Rick Castle or Hank Moody out there in real life or are the really wealthy writers just recluses who spend their millions on expensive scotch and alimony payments?

Notable portrayals of writers in film/tv:
David Duchovny as Hank Moody in Californication
Nathan Fillion as Rick Castle in Castle
John Turturro as Barton Fink in Barton Fink
Johnny Depp as Mort Rainey in Secret Window
Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance in The Shining
Emma Thompson as Karen Eiffel in Stranger Than Fiction
John Cusack as Jackson Curtis in 2012
Michael Douglas as Grady Tripp in Wonder Boys
Nicholas Cage as Charlie Kaufman in Adaptation
Joseph Fiennes as William Shakespeare in Shakespeare in Love
Geoffrey Rush as the Marquis de Sade in Quills
Gwyneth Paltrow as Sylvia Plath in Sylvia
James Caan as Paul Sheldon in Misery
William Holden as Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard
Woody Allen as Harry Block in Deconstructing Harry
Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote in Capote
Thomas McCarthy as Scott Templeton in The Wire
Hayden Christensen as Stephen Glass in Shattered Glass
Gwyneth Paltrow as Margot Tenenbaum in The Royal Tenenbaums
Ben Stiller as Jerry Stahl in Permanent Midnight
Albert Brooks as Steven Phillips in The Muse
John Cusack as Edgar Allen Poe in The Raven
Dianne Wiest as Holly in Hannah and Her Sisters
Everyone trying to kill Tim Robbins in The Player

GoProing With Friends 2014

This is the end of the year GoProing With Friends montage I put together every year with my friend Joe. It highlights a lot of the random activities we do throughout the year including sliding down volcanoes, trampoline dodgeball, tomato fights, snow tubing, roller coasters, the World Cup, Super Bowl parades and a little bit of Vegas. Thanks to everyone who contributed, especially Joe’s cousin Alex for cutting most of it. Always fun to do every year.

Recommended Reading: City of Thieves

City of Thieves is the story of young Lev Beniov, a boy who tries to survive the siege of Leningrad in WWII. The book was written by David Benioff, a screenwriter by trade, who has also penned the scripts for movies like Troy, 25th hour, The Kite Runner and is currently heading the Game of Thrones tv series for HBO. He also has the incredibly difficult jobs of being married to Amanda Peet and being extremely wealthy (I don’t know how he does it).

The synopsis of City of Thieves as follows:

“Having elected to stay in Leningrad during the siege, 17-year-old Lev Beniov is caught looting a German paratrooper’s corpse. The penalty for this infraction (and many others) is execution. But when Colonel Grechko confronts Lev and Kolya, a Russian army deserter also facing execution, he spares them on the condition that they acquire a dozen eggs for the colonel’s daughter’s wedding cake.

Their mission exposes them to the most ghoulish acts of the starved populace and takes them behind enemy lines to the Russian countryside. There, Lev and Kolya take on an even more daring objective: to kill the commander of the local occupying German forces. A wry and sympathetic observer of the devastation around him, Lev is an engaging and self-deprecating narrator who finds unexpected reserves of courage at the crucial moment and forms an unlikely friendship with Kolya, a flamboyant ladies’ man who is coolly reckless in the face of danger. Benioff blends tense adventure, a bittersweet coming-of-age and an oddly touching buddy narrative to craft a smart crowd-pleaser.”

City of Thieves reminds me a bit of Slaughterhouse-Five. Both books are based off personal accounts of men surviving wars (Vonnegut’s personal experience when Dresden was firebombed and supposedly Benioff’s grandfather’s tales of surviving the siege of Stalingrad, a basis that is often questioned by critics though), but both still exist as works of fiction, using these experiences as a jumping off point for their fictional tales.

I really like this book. I had no expectations for it when I started reading it and was pleasantly surprised to find it to be a well written book with great characters, especially in the main trio of Lev, Kolya and Vika. Benioff is often criticized for writing his books like screenplays, but I think his prose in this book is effective enough to ward off such criticisms. It may not be the most accurate account of the siege of Leningrad, but it’s an entertaining, funny and sometimes poignant dramatization of the events that transpired. It should not be missed.

Excerpts:

“We saw two women in their sixties walking very close together, their shoulders touching, eyes on the sidewalk looking for the patch of ice that could kill them. A man with a glorius walrus mustache carried a white bucket filled with black nails. A boy, no more than twelve, tugged a swled with a length of rope. A small body wrapped in blankets lay on the sled, a bloodless bare foot dragging along the hard-packed snow. Dragon’s teeth studded the street, reinforced concrete blocks arrayed in rows to hinder the movement of enemy tanks. A printed sign on the wall read WARNING! THIS SIDE OF THE STREET IS THE MOST DANGEROUS DURING BOMBING.” (42)

“The boy sold what people called library candy, made from tearing the covers off of books, peeling off the binding glue, boiling it down, and reforming it into bars you could wrap in paper. The stuff tasted like wax, but there was protein in the glue, protein kept you alive, and the city’s books were disappearing like the pigeons.” (52)

Publisher: Plume

Release Date: 2008

Similar To: Slaughterhouse-Five.

You will like this if: You like books. Er and also if you are looking for a breezy read with entertaining characters or have enjoyed any of Benioff’s other work.

Update on the Ready Player One Movie and Armada’s New Release Date

Armada-Ernest_ClineNews on the ‘Ready Player One’ movie has been somewhat scarce of late, but the recent announcement that the script is being rewritten by Zak Penn signals that not all is lost for the adaptation of Ernest Cline’s bestselling novel. Although it’s not incredibly promising when the only update you get on a long delayed production is that it’s undergoing rewrites, at least this means that the movie is not completely mired in development hell.

Admittedly, ‘Ready Player One’ is tricky material to adapt. It’s a highly referential, 80s nostalgic sci-fi tale that more than likely requires a CG heavy budget. But I’m confident if they put it in the rights hands and give them the necessary resources, they can do it justice. Hopefully the recent box office success of somewhat kindred sci-fi spirit ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ will give it a nudge in the right direction.

Although the movie rights to Cline’s next book ‘Armada’ have already been sold, the book itself seems to be experiencing some delays, too. Originally announced back in 2012 and slated for a September 2014 debut, ‘Armada’ is now looking at a July 2015 release date. There aren’t many details about why it got pushed back, but delays like this aren’t uncommon in publishing, so I’m sure they are just touching it up. Either way, I look forward to its release. I’m sure the wait will be worth it.

Snowpiercer: Summer’s Secret Hit

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I’d spent a significant amount of time hyping ‘Snowpiercer’ before its release (even going as far as putting it on my best movies of 2013 list before I had actually seen it), so I have no idea why I waited so long to sing its praises. I got a chance to see it back in April when I imported the cool looking French DVD a few months before the Weinsteins got over their squabbling and released it in June. I’m not sure what caused the delay in writing about it. Maybe I was just mulling over the complexities of the story or compiling the elements that I liked about it. Either way, like all of Joon-ho Bong‘s movies, there was a lot to process and I found myself thinking about it not only the next day, but weeks and months later.

I get that the movie wasn’t for everyone and those that were expecting straight turn off your brain popcorn fun couldn’t overlook some of the allegorical aspects of the film (and even then, I know there are people who just straight hated it), which is certainly fine, but I thought it was wonderful and should finally cement Joon-ho Bong as one of the best filmmakers out there. In my opinion ‘Snowpiercer’ is an eccentric masterpiece and it marks the third master class film Bong has made for three different genres (respectively, ‘Snowpiercer’ as dystopian sci-fi, ‘The Host’ as a monster movie and ‘Memories of Murder’ for the serial killer genre).

And while America has seemingly embraced it in even its semi purgatory limited/VOD release, I am really happy to see the sheer amount of theories and attention it has received weeks after most releases have faded from the clipped attention spans of summer moviegoers. One such theory about the film’s meaning is in the video below, an interesting take on Snowpiercer’s class warfare (I know almost all theories about the film confront class warfare, but this one has an intriguing interpretation of the middle class, especially in the roles of Namgoong and Yona).

Either way, I highly recommend checking out ‘Snowpiercer’ if you are looking for something outside of the traditional summer mold. ‘Snowpiercer’ is still in theaters, available on VOD and if you have a region free DVD player, you can even import the French DVD from amazon.

Also, in somewhat related sci-fi news, you should go see ‘Guardians of the Galaxy.’ It is awesome. So is the soundtrack.

Snowpiercer Extras:

– The Snowpiercer Graphic Novel (amazon)

– Snowpiercer’s Gnostic Symbolism (io9)

– Chris Evans on Snowpiercer (hitflix)

– Breaking Down The Filming Techniques Used in Bong’s 2009 ‘Mother’ (youtube)

– 5 Things You Didn’t Know About Snowpiercer (hitflix)

Trailer For Dennis Lehane’s ‘The Drop’


The new trailer for ‘The Drop‘, the upcoming adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s (‘Mystic River’ and ‘Gone, Baby, Gone’) short story ‘Animal Rescue’ and now forthcoming book of the same name has hit the internet, and needless to say it looks amazing. Mostly because of Tom Hardy, but Noomi Rapace, a moody score and the late great James Gandolfini don’t hurt either. The novel releases September 2, 2014, while the movie is due to release ten days later on September 12, 2014.