Slam Adams’ Top 50 Movies of 2014 (Part 1)
I am a big fan of movies. Usually I try to review a lot of them here, but this year, I got lazy. I was still watching them, just not reviewing them. So I am super-sizing my list to put my opinion out there on more movies that I wish I reviewed and advocated. This year I saw 154 movies that premiered in the US between January 1st and December 31st, in theaters or on VOD. The list would be up sooner but I spend a lot of time in the new year catching up with DVDs and such. Obviously, I didn’t get to seen everything, but I saw as much of the “must see” movies and the below-radar indie darlings as I could. I think it is a pretty eclectic list so hopefully people will give movies a chance that they either weren’t sure of or even heard of before.
50. Happy Christmas
The mumblecore movement continues to evolve with Happy Christmas, its most sophisticated entry yet. Anna Kendrick stars as a 20-something bachelorette whose drinking and partying are making it hard to adapt to living with her brother, played by director, Joe Swanberg, and his family, including a wife played by the terribly underrated Melanie Lynskey. With the chops of Kendrick and Lynskey supporting this movie, the mundane arguments and resolutions have an incredible energy. That energy is hard to describe because it has that patented naturalism that mumblecore is all about, but being so relatable, you can almost read the characters minds. I think everyone has been in a predicament where you just want to scream at a relative but don’t.
I know a lot of people are probably going to disagree, but Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar was not the great follow up to the Batman series I was hoping for. As a fan of Nolan’s, I always looked forward to the features he planned between the Batmans, usually earning himself the budget to capture an incredible scope but with a really weird idea. Not that Interstellar is bad (it made the list). The special effects were fantastic, the tension was palpable, the comic relief robots were charming as hell, and despite it being a blockbuster with some phoned in deeper meaning, Matthew McConaughey keeps the McConaissance going, something that could have been accomplished with the scene where he watches years of video messages alone.
48. Love is Strange
Alfred Molina and John Lithgow play a gay couple finally getting married after 39 years together. But when the Catholic school Molina works at gets wind of this, they fire him on a technicality (he was openly gay but the administration never cared until his marriage). Now, the couple must live married but separate, couch surfing with their friends and family. It is a unique opportunity to depict a relationship with almost no scenes of the members of said relationship together. The commitment never feels any less real with them apart and results in one of the most optimistic pieces about marriage in a long time.
This English-language debut of Boon Joon-ho takes place in a snow-covered apocalypse where the surviving members of the human race live on a perpetually moving train. The poor are sent to the back, the rich stay to the front, and there is pretty much no economy to speak of that would allow for movement in any direction. Unlike many blockbusters of this era, Snowpiercer has the ambition to be better, to try to use sci-fi mumbo jumbo allegorically. Even if it doesn’t quite succeed at making its point, it is still a tense thrill-ride with characters more emotionally invested in the fight than usual summertime heroes. And, in my opinion, that is reason enough to include it.
46. Lucky Them
One of this year’s truly under-the-radar flicks, Lucky Them only got my attention by casting the awesome Toni Collette in the lead as Ellie Klug, a self-destructive rock journalist investigating the mysterious disappearance of her ex-boyfriend (and rock icon) 10 years prior. The mystery is mere set dressing to put Ellie on a course of self-discovery, one that kind of sneaks up on the viewer who is probably paying more attention to the investigation. Paired with the very funny Thomas Haden Church, who is trying to make a documentary of her investigation, Collette gets a pitch perfect sounding board instilling some much needed silliness into their conversations and diluting what could have been on overly cynical character piece.
This Dutch oddity is one of a few movies this year that seems to revel in genre tropes without giving any exposition that would shed light on the situation. The titular character, Borgman, is introduced as a hobo chased out of his spider-hole home by an axe-wielding priest and his gun-toting compatriots. He seems to have some supernatural abilities especially manipulating people’s dreams. He teams up with some resourceful hobos and con-artists to weasel into the lives of an upper crust family and make their lives a living hell. Darkly comedic and surprisingly hypnotic, Borgman tests the audiences’ grip on reality. Those willing to go along for the ride might find themselves satisfied.
44. John Wick
Ever since Taken, I feel like more and more actors have been vying for their own gun-toting low-budget thriller where this time, it’s personal. Here, Keanu Reeves plays John Wick, retired hitman, newly widowed, caring for a dog that happens to be the last gift his wife gave him. When a selfish Russian mob heir decides to screw with Wick over his cherry muscle car, he ends up killing the dog just to rub it in, setting off a bloody series of events. John Wick is an old-fashioned type of action movie. Little to no visual effects. Zero frills fighting styles. Bullets on top of bullets. No shaky cam. Just cool and confident action scenes led by an equally cool and confident Reeves.
In 1962, Anna is about to take her final vows as a nun. She was orphaned and raised by the convent, but at the insistence of her superior, she seeks out her only surviving relative, an aunt who is a hard-drinking former lawyer. Anna learns from her aunt that she was born Ida to a Jewish family that went missing during WWII. Together, they hit the road to find out whatever happened to their family uncovering secrets about each other. It’s a buddy road pic starring two people who couldn’t be any different, but rarely do such things have such gravity. Identity. Morality. Faith. Family. Ida is overflowing with themes and revelations anchored by the nuanced chemistry of its fantastic leads.
42. Dear White People
Dear White People is an energetic and chaotic look at race politics on the campus of a fictional ivy league school. Filmmaker Justin Simien is an exciting new voice in cinema, looking at modern day race relations with more nuance than it has since Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. He populates his race satire with characters, who either by their own design or by outside forces, are forced into archetypes that fail to truly define them as people. For instance, the shock jock lead, played by Tessa Thompson, hides her white lover and biracial heritage so that people take her more seriously as a voice of the black community. This struggle with identity helps depict race issues as more relatable problems that everyone is responsible for rather than a singular burden felt by minorities.
I will pretty much go see anything made by Darren Aronofsky, but when I heard he wanted to adapt a Biblical story, I was a little surprised. Of course, I should have expected Aronofsky’s version of Noah would be a whole lot different than the children’s fable it has become. It is a post-apocalypse movie that takes place in an era before our own. Mixing elements of Lord of the Rings sword-and-sandal action and some supernatural horror, Aronofsky creates an exciting and visually stimulating character piece about Noah, played excellently by Russell Crowe. He is a man driven by obsession, a driving force behind all of Aronofsky’s movies, and ultimately haunted by survivor’s guilt. It confidently walks a fine line to not alienate the faithful or the faithless. Its open-ended conclusions allow for both secular and religious interpretations without ever feeling like a cop out.
40. Top Five
As a stage comedian, Chris Rock is one of the best. As a writer and director, Chris Rock has had a hard go of it. His movies have been pandering studio comedies that rob his stage show of its teeth and insight. Rock finally scores big with Top Five, a semi-biographical tale of a comedy actor trying to be taken seriously with his Oscar-bait slave movie, juggling an interview with a journalist, played by Rosario Dawson, and his upcoming nuptials to a reality tv star, played by Gabrielle Union. Taking inspiration from Woody Allen’s essential New York movies like Annie Hall and his stand up buddy Louis CK’s French New Wave inspired sitcom, Rock reinterprets his comedy routine into a more deserving indie charmer.
39. Edge of Tomorrow
One of the best and most underrated action movies of the year, Edge of Tomorrow stars Tom Cruise, biggest movie star in the world, like you have never seen him before. Tom Cruise plays the biggest wuss in modern cinema, allowing Cruise to flex his underrated sense of of humor. He is forced out of his cushy military PR job to fight on the front line in a war against an alien invasion that seems to always be one step ahead. It turns out they have the ability to travel back in time, an ability that Tom Cruise inherits after being doused in the blood of a dead alien. His Groundhog Day exploits are hilarious, but they also set him up to develop into the kind of action hero we have come to expect from Tom Cruise, as he is trained over and over again by Emily Blunt’s stoic war hero.
This New Zealand import is quite the charmer. Kylie is caught breaking in to an ATM and is forced to move in with her mother. With an ankle monitor keeping her on lockdown, she is stuck in her childhood home finally seeing (and investigating) evidence that proves her mother’s suspicions that the house is haunted. It is not shy in embracing its horror roots, cliches and all, but it is ultimately more satisfying as a comedy, full of clever photography, affable goofballs, and just the right amount of slapstick to not ruin the life and death stakes.
37. The Skeleton Twins
Although it is not the most unique indie dramedy of all time, The Skeleton Twins has a secret weapon, the undeniable chemistry between SNL alums Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig. They play the titular twins, reconnecting after years of being estranged, and could probably be real twins if I didn’t know any better. They ping pong between hating each other and cracking each other up so naturally. They walk a very fine line between enabling and helping each other while dealing with their depression over how their lives didn’t turn out the way they wanted them too.
36. X-Men: Days of Future Past
Counting 2 Wolverine solo movies, X-Men: Days of Future Past is the 7th installment of the X-men film franchise. 7th! The fact that the 7th installment of any film franchise can make it on to the list of best movies of the franchise, let alone of the year it debuted, is impressive as hell. More impressive than Hugh Jackman’s loyalty and dedication to the character of Wolverine, a character that finally takes a backseat to the rest of the cast (not counting his cameo in X-Men: First Class). Instead, he works as connective tissue as the time travelling X-Man who connects Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan’s versions of Pr. X and Magneto with James MacAvoy and Michael Fassbender’s versions, 4 of the best performances that could be found in all comic book movies. They are what make up for what ends up being a slightly less flashy blockbuster than we are used to (except of course for the Quicksilver action scene which might be the most flashy thing in film all year).
It took writer/director, Richard Linklater, along with his cast and crew, 12 years to create Boyhood, the story of how Mason (played by new comer Ellar Coltrane) grew up to be the man that he is. It is meant to be the ultimate coming of age story, actually allowing its actors to age in real time. By focusing on the mundane and crafting its segments in the moment rather than retrospectively, Linklater creates a true oxymoron, an epic of intimacy, with the most unique look at childhood and parenthood possibly ever.
34. We Are The Best
Nowadays, the most punk thing a person could probably do is to continue being punk when everyone else is telling you that punk is dead. That is what this trio of Swedish girls do in the 1980s. Despite having no musical skill or even instruments they hobble together a punk band to scream to their hearts content. That’s the thing about punk, in its purest form it is for the misfits who don’t fit in making it a fantastic backdrop to depict adolescent confusion. It is a sweet yet chaotic look at childhood, specifically the fleeting ups and downs of being part of a friendship.
33. Still Alice
Possibly one of the most frightening movies to come out this year (surprisingly so), Julianne Moore portrays a wife, mother, and professional who is diagnosed with early on-set Alzheimer’s. Her life is completely turned upside down. The disease comes on slow, first as confusion, and then ever evolving into a horror movie, made all the more scarier by Moore’s excellent acting. She will make you share in her dread and depression whether you want to be or not. But it is not a horror movie, so Moore lets her character bounce back finding bravery with the support of her husband and daughter (both of whom are played excellently by Alec Baldwin and Kristen Stewart).
32. Gone Girl
Like so many of David Fincher’s post-Fight Club movies, Gone Girl takes on a novel length with slow pacing the amps up the atmosphere of his newest murder mystery. This one stars Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike as a picture perfect couple, that is until Pike goes missing and Affleck is suspect number one. If there is anything that ties all of Fincher’s work together, it is he is fascinated with skeletons in closets and how they effect the human condition. In a way, Gone Girl seems like the concluding statement to that theme: everyone looks guilty, everyone has something to hide, and everyone has a lie they are trying to protect.
Jon Favreau writes and directs this year’s feel good comedy of the year. He plays a celebrity chef forced into complacency by a restaurant with a boring menu. After a particularly harsh review, he quits his fancy job to go walkabout, reinvigorating his passion for cooking. The analogy is clear. This DIY indie audience pleaser is Favreau returning to the Swingers roots that established him as more than just an actor. It completely lacks the edge we have come to expect from indie film, but it doesn’t matter. It is just a simple, well-done, optimistic comedy, something we don’t get as often as we should anymore.