Every year at this time I read list after list of top tens from different critics and every one boils down to the same sentiment. “Even though I hate the very idea of a top ten list, the public demands it so I guess I’m forced to do it.” Personally, I like making top-ten lists. I don’t think they mean a whole lot, considering how subjective it all is, but I’ve always enjoyed categorizing things, particularly movies. Sometimes I’ll arrange all my DVDs by color. Each January I look forward to compiling a list of all the movies I’ve seen, sorting them into Best, Worst, and Everything Else. It’s like a trip down memory lane of my year in film. Aren’t most people like that? Let’s assume you are, too, so without further ado, here is my list of the ten (or so) best and worst films of the year, in no particular order other than alphabetical.
Jon Favreau’s intimate road trip through culinary America was one of the best times at a movie I had all year. The acting is top-notch, the writing spot-on, and the food looks great. Best of all, however, is that the movie is simply trying to tell a good story and nothing more. It’s easy, sweet, funny and heartwarming without ever being maudlin. This surprising little gem is for everyone, foodies and otherwise.
“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”
This new series of “Planet of the Apes” movies has no business being as good as it is. The first one was amazing and the sequel was as gripping and emotional as just about any movie I saw this year. That the special effects are stellar is almost beside the point. Andy Serkis’ portrayal of Caesar really is groundbreaking. Whether he’ll ever be acknowledged with a legitimate acting award for his amazing motion capture work remains to be seen, but at least we get to enjoy the fruits of his labor.
“The Fault in Our Stars”
I was not looking forward to this movie, necessarily, but I ended up loving it. A YA weeper about kids with cancer doesn’t sound like the kind movie one gushes about, but the performances of Ansel Elgort and especially Shailene Woodley are stellar and completely anchor what could easily have turned into a sickening morass of sentiment. If you liked this, author John Green is also the creator of an entire web series of hilariously inventive short history lessons. Look ‘em up!
“The Grand Budapest
If you like Wes Anderson, and I am slowly coming to grips with the concept that some people may not, “Grand Budapest Hotel” is a beautiful centerpiece to a cinematic feast. Ralph Fiennes absolutely nails the comic melancholy as the legendary concierge of this Eastern European hotel at the cusp of World War II. With a wealth of hilarious cameos, and more madcap action than you usually see in one of Anderson’s films, “Budapest” is the pinnacle of an already stellar body of work.
“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1”
Despite having the most cumbersome title of just about any film this year, “Mockingjay” proves that the “Hunger Games” series is more than just a cash grab. Dark, emotional, but with awesome action beats, this “Part 1” sets us up perfectly for the coming grand finale. I’m naturally suspicious of this tendency to split the final adaptation of a popular series into two parts, but “Mockingjay” feels whole and complete, even with a cliffhanger ending.
“Interstellar” is the movie I’ve been waiting for since “Contact” came out in 1997. Grand in scale and scope, full of big ideas and amazing vistas, “Interstellar” is also a movie about relationships between people, and how our choices can have astronomical implications. It’s certainly not without a few flaws, but what film with these high aspirations isn’t? I was blown away by it, and can’t wait to see it again.
The LEGO Movie
This may have been the biggest surprise of the year. How could a silly movie about plastic blocks – a crummy commercial! – be the runaway best kid’s movie of 2014? Brilliantly written, ingeniously paced and staged, and expertly managed, “The LEGO Movie” floored audiences and critics alike. Not only was it the best animated film of this year, but was one of the funniest, most approachable movies I’ve seen, ever. An instant classic.
Marvel Studios seems to be on the same kind of run Pixar was on in the late ‘90s/early 2000s. They can seem to do no wrong. This summer saw two new superhero films from the company and they were both stellar. “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” was as solid and assured a comic book thriller as I’ve ever seen. Not one misstep – not with the script, the acting or the direction. It was a flawless exercise, and entertaining to boot. Later came “Guardians of the Galaxy” where the studio is expanding their famously all-inclusive universe out into the infinite. With as crazy a mix of characters as the original “Star Wars,” “Guardians” is fun, fast, and a full-on roller-coaster ride at the movies. It’s also, at this point, the reigning box office champion, having racked up over $300 million in this country alone. Not bad for a film starring a raccoon and a tree.
Serious SCI FI
There were two movies out this year that could easily have been train-wrecks, but both turned out to be smart, fun, and action packed. I’m referring to Tom Cruise’s “Edge of Tomorrow” (recently christened “Live. Die. Repeat.” for the home release. Um, wasn’t that the tagline?) and “Godzilla.” Both films relied on smart writing and succeeded far beyond their cumbersome science fiction baggage. “Godzilla” showed that film could succeed with a moderately big budget without having to toss out all of the original TOHO silliness, and “Edge” proved that the “Groundhog Day” conceit of endlessly repeating the same day could be as thrilling as it was fun.
This amazing and inspirational true story about a guy who spent 45 days trapped at sea only to be captured by the Japanese navy and thrown into a prisoner of war camp gives you exactly what it promises and nothing more. It’s sincere and straightforward, and thats just fine. Too much style would divert from the travails of this incredible man. Director Angelina Jolie plays it just right.
“The Amazing Spider-Man 2”
If it was a good year for Marvel, it was a bad, bad year for Sony, one that only kept getting worse as the year wore on. Their summer started off rough with the huge mess that is “Spider-Man 2.” I’ve seen plenty of films where the plot is difficult to keep up with, but rarely have I seen one where there is no central plot at all – just a random series of only vaguely connected events. Extra points for the worst, and possibly shortest, appearance by Paul Giamatti in a movie.
I’m not a sports guy, but I like sports movies, so I was looking forward to Kevin Costner’s football drama “Draft Day.” I wish someone had told me that there are no sports actually in it, unless you count competitive phone calling. Not only did I not really understand the football draft system (people have since explained it to me — it doesn’t help) when I saw this, the movie never gives the audience any reason to care about any of the characters involved in it. Major fumble. See what I did there?
“Dumb and Dumber To”
I know, I know, it’s right there in the title. Yes, this movie was dumb. But not ironically dumb, or winkingly dumb, or even subversively dumb – it’s just dumb. Bad writing, bad acting, and a “who cares” plot make the twenty year gap between this film and it’s vastly superior predecessor far too short. Was anyone clamoring for this?
Neither of the movies listed here are actually terrible movies, but both failed to achieve the mythic status they were going for, making the end results seem all that much more disastrous. The third film in “The Hobbit” trilogy leaves unanswered questions littering the battlefield as if they were trying to make up for “The Lord of The Rings” having something like nine endings in that final movie. What was the Arkenstone? What happened to Bard? Or Tauriel? Or Dain? Or that other Elf? Who cares? I have finally ceased to, I’m afraid. And “Exodus” which is actually a pretty well-spun tale, suffers from completely egregious casting. I understand that you want to use this funny Scottish comic actor as the desperate Egyptian soothsayer, but slathering him with Bronz-o and putting some eyeliner on him isn’t going to cut it. Where were all the Africans and Middle Easterners in this film set in Africa and the Middle East?
“If I Stay”
This film was like the anti-“Fault in Our Stars.” Sappy and trite, this tale of a girl experiencing an out of body experience in the hospital after her family’s mostly fatal car accident, seemed to go on and on and on. Half flash-back, half mope-fest, I found it especially disheartening that she ultimately chooses to “stay”, i.e., “live” because she gets into the college she wanted. What if it had been her safety school?
Two films I saw this year were obviously designed for smart people to feel smart about having seen – too bad neither made a lick of sense. Robin Wright at “The Congress” started out promising, with only Harvey Keitel’s odd way of overacting giving me pause in the first twenty or thirty minutes. But then the entire thing shifts into a bizarre cartoon nightmare where the plot is literally incomprehensible. I kept watching, thinking I would eventually get it, but that was a fool’s errand. Soon after I saw Terry Gilliam’s latest, “The Zero Theorem,” about a guy paid to solve the equation of the universe which will all boil down to the number zero, thus proving that all existence is an illusion. What? Don’t worry, it never gels.
“The Monuments Men”
Sometimes sincere and straightforward work, and sometimes they can go horribly wrong. Tonally all over the board, the worst parts of this WWII film about the blatant theft of European art treasures by the Nazis, are George Clooney’s rousing speeches to his men. This movie couldn’t be any heavier-handed if it tried.
I should have known better than to go see this utter trash, but my wife and I were looking for a few laughs last spring. What an awful movie. A frat house moves in, so naturally the young, new parents next door try to out-gross, and all-around out-immature the fraternity boys. What a disturbing piece of dreck.
I thought this shoot-em-up about corruption and murder within an elite special forces drug task-force would be at least fun, but I didn’t count just how depressing and grim it really was. Arnold Swarzenegger was, for once, only one of the bad things about the film. “Sabotage” includes performances so broad that I wanted to call a cop myself.
Sad SCI FI
Ironically, the two final films in my worst-of list feature stars of two of the films in my best of. Scarlett Johanson, so good in “Captain America” was terrible in “Lucy,” a story about a woman who gains superpowers when a mysterious drug she’s smuggling breaks open and leaks into her bloodstream. It wasn’t just her automaton performance however, the rest of the movie, especially the writing, is complete claptrap. Finally, both Ansel Elgort and Shailene Woodley, so perfect in “The Fault of Our Stars,” are shackled to a completely preposterous plot in the over-hyped, completely underwhelming “Divergent.” I like how, when it all boils down, being “divergent” just means you’re normal teen and not an emotionally stunted tool. What a waste of time, and it looks like I’ll get to waste more time with this summer’s upcoming “Insurgent.” Yay.