2014 in movies

Movie reviews about movies theatrically released in 2014. At the end of 2014, I wrote the following: “I feel like I saw a few less new movies in 2014 (and I have yet to get off my ass to see Interstellar), so this list is perhaps not quite as authoritative as last year’s. Alas.”

1. Boyhood, directed by Richard Linklater (10/10)

Unlike anything else you’ve ever seen. Read the review.

2. 99 Homes, directed by Ramin Bahrani (10/10)

This is a devastating portrait of the housing crisis and its affect on the average American.

Read the rest of the review.

3. Birdman, directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (9/10)

I have never been a fan of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.I find his films self-important, over-plotted, over-long, ponderous and so forth. They all contain moments wonderful, profound, beautiful and hysterically funny, but those moments are always surrounded by so much unnecessary crap and, usually, two narrative arcs too many. I have long felt the man needed a creative partner (or, perhaps, better yet, some kind of supervisor) to tell him to cut the most of the intricate plotting and focus on his strong characters.

Read the rest of the review.

4. Citizenfour, directed by Laura Poitras (9/10)

Essential viewing, even if you know about NSA surveillance.

Read the review.

5. Virunga, directed by Orlando von Einsiedel (9/10)

This is an important film that is slightly marred but it’s clunky approach but is nevertheless essential viewing and an important document, not just of one of the innumerable conflicts between conservation and natural resource development, but also of the bravery required to to do the “right thing” in the face of overwhelming pressure to the contrary.

Read the rest of the review.

6. En Chance til, directed by Susanne Bier (9/10)

This is a difficult film that I had trouble figuring out my thoughts about because of its hopeful and not-so-difficult resolution. Fortunately, the wife and I talked it out and I’ve come around.

This is a film about people pushed to emotional extremes by depression, loss addiction and the like and its about the bad decisions that people make when pushed to emotional extremes.

But it is also about hope – hence the title. As someone who has always found (Hollywood) films too hopeful, sometimes I have trouble dealing with hope when it is done well, simply because I have felt beaten to death by fantastical movie Hope for years and years.

But though this movie is hard to watch and really, really depressing, it’s also extremely hopeful and that message that, as long, as you’re alive, you still can change things, is an important message and one that resonates with you long after the film has ended.

An excellent film.

Second Thoughts: The more I think about this film, the more I like it.

7. While We’re Young, directed by Noah Baumbach (9/10)

I think this is Baumbach’s best film since The Squid and the Whale or perhaps even Kicking and Screaming (my favourite Baumbach movie). It’s certainly his funniest since the latter.

Read the rest of the review here.

Second Thoughts: A lot of people are saying this is Baumbach’s most accessible film, and I guess that’s true. But despite that, I guess this film just speaks to me because of my age and where I’m at creatively and financially, in much the same way that Kicking and Screaming spoke to me when I watched it not long after graduating. I can’t really help that.

8. The 50 Year Argument, directed by Martin Scorsese, David Tedeschi (9/10)

Scorsese and Tedeschi’s film about the New York Review of Books is not a documentary about the magazine so much as it is a love letter to it.

Read the rest of the review.

Second Thoughts: Sometimes I worry people don’t truly appreciate well-made documentaries about hard to film subjects. Some subjects suit themselves easily to film, others do not. I am far more impressed by a non-fiction film about a hard to film subject that is very well made, that a clumsily made film about an easy to film subject (see below). I think that’s sensible.

9. Night Crawler, directed by Dan Gilroy (9/10)

Is this Gyllenhaal’s best performance?

I don’t know any sociopaths but I feel like this has to be one of the best portrayals – or more accurate, I should say – that I have seen, at least in terms of believability. Certainly this is much more believable than a serial killer.

It’s also a pretty riveting portrait of those aspects of humanity that would enable sociopathy/psychopathy. This could have been told with all sorts of modern narrative tricks, but instead Gyllenhaal’s character’s insanity, though always somewhat visible, is revealed slowly.

10. War of Lies, directed by Mattias Bittner (9/10)

Let’s get this out of the way: This is a student film. The director freely admitted last night that he made this as his graduation “project” for film school.  When he said that before the movie, my expectations lowered considerably. I am always wary of first time directors.

Read the rest of the review.

11. Gone Girl, directed by David Fincher (8/10)

This review contains some fairly serious SPOILERS. Read the review here.

12. A Most Violent Year, directed by J.C. Chandor (8/10)

Read the review.

13. Calvary, directed by John Michael McDonagh (8/10)

Read the review.

14. Frank, directed by Lenny Abrahamson (8/10)

Frank has a premise like so many other recent indie dramedies: the premise is just a touch too wacky for belief and everyone is just a touch too eccentric. There has been a rash of these films in the last 15 years or so, and I have to say I’m getting sick of them.

Read the rest of the review.

15. The Grand Budapest Hotel, directed by Wes Anderson (8/10)

It’s not often I call a film ‘delightful’, but I can’t really think of another word for this entertaining and absolutely wonderful experience.

I know nothing of Stefan Zweig but he and Anderson are a near-perfect match. Anderson has created a world that both seems inspired by and a tonic to Hollywood and European film versions of the old Eastern European resorts. Within that world, his usually kookiness operates and most of the time the tone and everything else work marvelously.

A few times I fond the entire thing a little too coy, too cutesy (too fey?), but on the whole, this story within a story within a story captivated and entertained me, much int he way Anderson’s early work did my younger self.

Like so much of Anderson’s work, it is self-contained to the point of inconsequence, but that is a part of its charm, I guess. This is a pleasant, diverting, entertaining and delightful film that will likely rub you the wrong way if you can’t stand Anderson, but will be everything you wanted from him if you love his work.

16. Merchants of Doubt, directed by Robert Kenner (8/10)

Read the review.

17. An Honest Liar, directed by Tyler Measom, Justin Weinstein (8/10)

Read the review.

18. Impunity, directed by Jyoti Mistry (8/10)

This is like the South African, avant garde Badlands. If you like how that sounds, you should check it out.

Although kind of hard to fathom in its early scenes, and a little clunky in some of its attempts at Meaning / Symbolism, this film is, on the whole, an effective if overly arty examination of violence as a social problem in South Africa and, really, in any society with pretenses to being civilized. In certain circumstances, violence can come easy – too easy – for some people and once you’ve done something that society won’t forgive, there’s really no reason to go back.

This film is a little pretentious and, as I said before, a little clunky (though I think that clunkiness is deliberate) but on the whole we get to see the cycle of violence in a unique and thought-provoking way. As I noted at the outset, it’s a little like Badlands. (Though, in terms of its narrative, it’s like Badlands with a massive left turn half way through.)

It’s late, so I can’t really think of much else to say, but this is worth seeing despite how “avant garde” it is.

Second thoughts:  Way too artsy fartsy, but still a daring, provocative movie which poses more questions than it answers (always a good thing).

19. Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films, directed by Mark Hartley (8/10)

Hartley specializes in riotous, laugh-out-loud documentaries about low budget films and the people who make them, and this film is no exception. It’s almost a laugh-a-minute movie (when the protagonists tried to get serious the film also gets serious, briefly) and I can honestly say, having seen a couple of these movies all the way through, that it is more fun to watch this movie than to watch the movies this movie is about. It’s also way more educational and the story of Cannon is truly an incredible one. Hartley’s style will never be mistaken for great documentary journalism, but few people make more entertaining films about films in this day and age. A pleasure, as usual.

20. Altman, directed by Robert Mann (8/10)

Read the review.

21. The Battered Bastards of Baseball, directed by Chapman Way, Maclain Way (8/10)

Read the review.

22. Whitey: United States of America vs. James J. Bulger, directed by Joe Berlinger (8/10)

Read the review.

23. Art and Craft, directed by Sam Cullman, Jennifer Grausman, Mark Becker (7/10)

Read the review.

24. The Calling, directed by Jason Stonee (7/10)

A pretty good serial killer film. Read the review.

25. The Barkley Marathons, directed by Annika Iltis, Timothy James Kane (7/10)

Read the review.

26. ’71, directed by Yann Demange (7/10)

Read the review.

27. Edge of Tomorrow, directed by Doug Liman (7/10)

Read the review.

28. The Clouds of Sils Maria, directed by Olivier Assays (7/10)

Definitely worth watching. Read the review.

29. The Boxtrolls, directed by Graham Annable, Anthony Stacchi (7/10)

Pretty great. Read the review.

30. Im Labyrinth des Schweigens, directed by Giulio Ricciarelli (7/10)

This is a movie that starts off feeling like a conventional legal thriller – almost like a Grisham adaptation – only its a docudrama based on the first German investigation into the crimes at Auschwitz.

The film gets stronger as it goes along, though it does resort to typical legal thriller cliches in ways that grate on you. And the score doesn’t help. Fortunately it features universally strong performances and it ends on a strong note. And obviously the story itself is compelling.

But there are way too many legal thriller conventions for me to really like this a lot. I think it could have been told much better: the over-bearing score could have been muted, the romantic B story could have been eliminated or minimized, the lead prosecutor’s partners could have been turned into actual characters, and there is at least one part of the film which I am 90% sure couldn’t possibly have happened.

It’s too bad because I think this is a really strong story that could have been told without resort to Hollywood legal thriller cliches.

Second thoughts: I feel like my review sounds a little too harsh. This is mostly a pretty good film. I just wish the filmmakers had trusted their audience a little more as I believe the potential was there for a very good film, perhaps an excellent one.

31. The Imitation Game, directed by Morten Tyldum (7/10)

This is a conventional biopic that succeeds in spite of itself in part because it is so engaging – it is surprisingly funny and it is full of compelling committed performances. The film suffers from an unnecessary conceit – Turing is telling his story to a police officer investigating him for “indecency”, I mean why even bother with that – and from some parts of the film that feel like it is painting by numbers a little: interpersonal conflict here, a little self-doubt there. (As with the above film, the score is no help here.) I watched Enigma years ago and don’t remember anywhere near as interesting a story about the war, and that’s to this film’s credit. I think perhaps the film would have been better had it been constructed differently or done a little less conventionally. It’s still an above average biopic, but this is fairly standard stuff. No wonder it won the Viewer’s Choice Award.

32. X-Men: Days of Future Past, directed by Bryan Singer (7/10)

Putting the massive problems with time travel aside, this is still every enjoyable comparable to the other movies in the series; it combines a number of cinematic tropes to great effect which makes for an enjoyable film – time travel to prevent a dystopia, superhero, preventing an assassination, etc. The time thing is really ridiculous but what can you do? It’s comics.

33. Foxcatcher, directed by Bennett Miller (7/10)

This is one of those off-beat dramas where major stars try to show a different side to their personas. Sure, Ruffalo – who is now, arguably, a major star – has taken on stuff like this many times in the past, but Carrell, Tatum and Miller have not – and Carrell and Miller are particularly unrecognizable (and Miller’s part is tiny). When someone goes through a physical transformation like Carrell does here, you always wonder how much is makeup and how much is acting, but anyway…

Everyone is committed. The story is utterly bizarre and worth telling. The pacing is a little off and, frankly, it’s not exactly surprising this is the director’s third feature. But I feel where the punch is kind of lacking is more in the script – this is an insane story. And something about it is off.

But that being said, everyone is good, and I can’t say it’s a bad or even average movie. I just feel like something was missing that I cannot put my finger on.

34. 1971, directed by Johanna Hamilton (7/10)

Read the review.

35. Dod sno 2 aka Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead, directed by Tommy Wirkola (7/10)

I know I should have watched the first movie first. But I’m not sure I care right now. Though this movie ruins the first with flashbacks, this is such an entertaining film, that I really don’t mind. Hopefully I’ll forget what I know by the time I get around to watching the first one.

Read the full review.

36. Drone, directed by Tonje Hessen Schei (7/10)

Read the review.

37. Whiplash, directed by Damien Chazelle (6/10)

I need to see hyped movies either right away or years later when I’ve forgotten about them. Inevitably, whenever I see a hyped movie after I’ve been inundated by hype but before I’ve forgotten the hype, I am disappointed. Read the rest of the review.

38. John Wick, directed by Chad Stahelski, David Leitch (6/10)

Ridiculous, but entertaining. Read the review.

39. Cold in July, directed by Jim Mickle (6/10)

A weird one. Read the review.

40. Black Sea, directed by Kevin Macdonald (6/10)

Read the review.

41. Backcountry, directed by Adam MacDonald (6/10)

Read the review.

42. Shes’ Beautiful When She’s Angry, directed by Mary Dore (6/10)

Read the review.

43. God’s Pocket, directed by John Slattery (6/10)

This is a directionless, slice-of-life crime dramedy full of great, believable performances but which leaves one with the definite impression that something was lost in translation between the novel and the film.

This film is much more about a place – in this case a place that doesn’t exist but representative of the dying lower class neighbourhoods in many northeastern cities, no doubt – and the characters in it than it is about the hijinks that occur during the film. It might be a commentary on more heavily plotted novels and films of this ilk, but if it is, we’re not let in on that as an audience.

Instead, it feels like character study of a place and it’s reasonably effective but, as I have noted already, we are left with the felling that something is definitely missing.

44. Obvious Child, directed by Gillian Robbespierre (6/10)

Read the review.

45. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, directed by Anthony Russo, Joe Russo (6/10)

Read the review.

46. Still Alice, directed by Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland (6/10)

Read the review.

47. En duva satt pa en gren och funderade pa tillvaron, directed by Roy Andersson (6/10)

This is the third of Andersson’s trilogy about “being human” or something like that. I haven’t seen the first. I have seen the second, You, the Living.

Read the rest of the review.

48. Guardians of the Galaxy, directed by James Gunn (6/10)

This is an entertaining and deliberately silly comic book film that still managed to not entertain me as much as it should.

Though I laughed out loud a few times (4? 5?) I also watched a few scenes thinking “I know this is supposed to be funny, but I am not laughing.” I am not sure whether it was the timing or the direction but some jokes fell flat. Particularly most of the music-cue jokes.

Now, usually I would be just happy to see a non-serious comic book film, but I had been led to believe by the hype that this thing was uproarious and it is definitely not. That being said, it’s still more entertaining than most other recent comic book films that I am supposed to like but don’t. I think my expectations were just a little too high.

49. Cut Snake, directed by Tony Ayres (6/10)

Cut Snake is an interesting but flawed attempt to update classic Hollywood film noir with more modern characterizations (for lack of a better word). We’ve got some classic tropes: a mysterious man “without a past” so to speak, a femme fatale (only, in a neat twist, this one’s a man!) and bad decisions. Unfortunately, the film sticks too much to the traditional formula. It would be nice if the ’70s Australian setting and the more modern love triangle were paired with an ending that didn’t reek of White Heat or The Public Enemy.

Read the rest of the review.

Second thoughts: I get the idea of trying to update a genre, but when a classic genre has already been revived and updated, it’s probably better to go with tropes from the revisionist era – i.e. neo-noir in this case – than the original era, since the flaws with the original style are well known. For me the ending really did weaken what was otherwise a fascinating attempt are reinventing noir.

50. Iris, directed by Albert Maysles (6/10)

Read the review.

51. Cathedrals of Culture [omnibus film] (6/10)

2 pretty great shorts, and some far less successful ones.

Read the review.

52. Natural Resistance, directed by Jonathan Nossiter (6/10)

I thoroughly enjoyed Mondo Vino and so I guess I was looking for more of the same. Well this is a very different film (as well it should be).

Read the rest of the review.

Second thoughts: I have been toying with the idea of reducing my rating of this movie to 5, as it really was a mess. On the other hand, the content was so compelling that it’s hard for me to really be that hard on the film, even though it is so rough.

53. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, directed by Kenneth Branagh (5/10)

This seems to me to be an attempt at making an older style of spy movie, and when I say older I mean of the original “Jack Ryan” type – like a Hunt for the Red October or Patriot Games.

Read the rest of the review.

54. The Monuments Men, directed by George Clooney (5/10)

Hugely inaccurate and tonally confused but mildly entertaining. Read the review.

55. Bird People, directed by Pascale Ferran (5/10)

Read the review.

56. The Interview, directed by Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen (5/10)

I always have the same experience with bombs: when I see them I always wonder why everyone hated the movie so much. This happened to me with Gigli, with John Carter, and with numerous other movies. I think hype, both positive and negative, feeds back on itself. And people get carried away.

Read the rest of the review.

57. The Drop, directed by Michael R. Roskam (5/10)

Are there not crime movies with Protestant or Jewish small time criminals? (Actually, I can think of some Jewish ones, but not Protestant). Or maybe some atheists? The Catholic gangster/criminal thing is a little done to death at this point, no?

The characters aren’t likable or compelling and, until the twist, there’s not much compelling about the plot either. Tom Hardy does voices! It’s part of his shtick!

58. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, directed by Francis Lawrence (5/10)

Read the review.

59. The Babadook, directed by Jennifer Kent (4/10)

Read the review.

60. Frontera, directed by Michael Berry (4/10)

The term “liberal propaganda” has always made me laugh for many reasons, such as: it only exists in the States, it’s often just fair or truthful storytelling, etc. As a man once said, the reason wikipedia has a liberal bias is because the facts have a liberal bias.

Read the full review.

61. Noah, directed by Darren Aronofsky (4/10)

I have long been a fan of Aronofsky’s, even of his misses (though I have yet to see The Fountain) because he has always made me think. His films provoke thought and discussion, and are also usually full of inventive direction and cinematography.

I am not sure I can think of another example of a Great or near-Great director exceeding his grasp like Aronofsky does here. (Though, again, I have not seen The Fountain.) This is a film that is so overdone, so self-serious and so unsubtle in its allegory (while at the same time, confused) that whatever neat little aspects of his filmmaking that have made it into this film are hard to get excited about.

Read the rest of the review.

62. The November Man, directed by Roger Donaldson (4/10)

Too much plot, not enough motivation. Read the review of The November Man.

63. Killer Legends, directed by Joshua Zeman (4/10)

I remember sort of enjoying Cropsey, finding it kind of frustratingly made, but compelling enough to give it a pretty decent rating. I didn’t write a review, so I have no idea exactly what I liked/disliked about it. But watching this film, which could be called Cropsey II, I worry I was far too generous.

Read the rest of this review.

64. Big Game, directed by Jalmari Helander (3/10)

Read the review.

65. Non-Stop, directed by Jaume Collet-Serra (3/10)

Read the review.

66. Exodus: Gods and Kings, directed by Ridley Scott (3/10)

Read the review.

67. The Maze Runner, directed by Wes Ball (3/10)

Read the spoilerific review.

68. As Above, So Below, directed by John Erick Dowdle (3/10)

In addition to being dumb, this found-footage film is hard to follow and boring. Read the review.

69. Tokarev, directed by Paco Cabezas (2/10)

Somewhere in this movie is an interesting comment on these mindless revenge thrillers starring middle aged men rampaging through American or European cities, usually because a child was killed or abducted. I can see the germ of that idea. And it’s an idea I love. I want to see that movie!

Read the full review.