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Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Hype Starts Here's Top 40 Movies of 2014 (40-26)

40. Ida
        Presented in gorgeous, precise black and white cinematography, Poland's Ida tells a coming-of age story marred by the aftermath of the second world war. Agata Trzebuchowska is great as a young girl on the brink of taking her vows and committing fully to her nunnery, but the film is stolen right out from under her by Agata Kulesza, the unlikely aunt who exposes Ida to an outside world previously hidden beyond the walls of her church.
39. Love is Strange
        A film whose plot can be neatly broken down in just a handful of words, Love is Strange tells the story of George and Ben, a long-term couple who finally tie the knot, only to have finances force them to start living under different roofs. This is about as small as movies get, but there's sincerity and life teeming in every frame, from the awkward, relatable interactions of these men with their new hosts, to the overflowing affection the two bare toward one another. John Lithgow and (especially) Alfred Molina have hardly been better.
38. Interstellar
        Sometimes size and scale just win out. I still have more than my share of issues with Interstellar, but there's just no denying the spectacle of this mammoth undertaking. Matthew McConaughey's Cooper, a man who could honestly list both 'astronaut' and 'corn farmer' on a resume, is enlisted by a futuristic, underground version of NASA. The mission of his crew: find a new planet for humans to inhabit, because Earth is on the outs. Their epic journey takes us to the far reaches of the galaxy, and presents space with a realism and beauty that's simply unparalleled.
37. Sin City: A Dame to Kill For
        Thank you sir, may I have another? Despite meeting the world nearly a decade after its predecessor, A Dame to Kill For shares every last strand of its DNA with the 2005 original, revisiting that film's characters, actors, world-views, and (most importantly) wholly-unique visuals for one last go around. If the first one wasn't your cup of tea, you'd be well advised to stay away, but for those yearning to catch up with Dwight, Nancy, Marv, and the rest of the gang, this is appointment viewing. Mickey Rourke is just as good as you remember.
36. Godzilla
        Deciding whether you enjoyed or disliked Gareth Edwards' 2014 Godzilla reboot is almost like deciding if the glass is half full or half empty. Those on the side of pessimism have plenty of arrows in their quiver: the story is shoddy, the dialogue bland, and our leading man, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, is about as interesting as an unbuttered piece of toast. Still, I simply can't reject a movie that possesses this level of spectacle, a summer tent pole that might wait a little too long to get to the good stuff, but when it's on, it's on. Buildings crumble, monsters lurk, and giant lizards roar; this is a movie made for the 13-year-old in all of us, stocked with one memorable set piece after another.
35. The Grand Budapest Hotel
        The fact that the Academy would pick this occasion to finally warm up to Wes Anderson still seems strange to me, but there's no question that the auteur is still at the peak of his ultra-specific powers. Budapest stars Ralph Fiennes as the persnickety manager of the titular hotel, a gaudy palace that's thrown into chaos at the whims of World War 2. Everything is as candy-colored and dryly humored as we've come to expect from Anderson's canon, and Fiennes knocks his roll out of the park. No one does it quite like Wes.
34. Jimi: All is By My Side
        Before I finally got a chance to check out All is By My Side, I couldn't believe that a Jimi Hendrix biopic starring the one-and-only Andre Benjamin (AKA Outkast's Andre 3000) was such a flop; now I know why. Neglecting your standard 'greatest hits' version of a famous person's entire life, Jimi focuses on the rock god's initial sojourn to London in the mid-60's, concluding long before his myth is fully formed, and letting all the warts of his emotional immaturity and rudderless ways shine through. It's a fascinating, esoteric approach to the story, bolstered by Benjamin's truly stunning performance.
33. The Imitation Game
        Otherwise known as The King's Speech: Part 2. Yes, both movies focus on the lives of anti-social Brits who famously changed history during war time, but the real similarity is in how little both flicks bite off, and how exquisitely they chew it. The film chronicles the work of a band of British mathematicians led by Alan Turning (an excellent Benedict Cumberbatch) as they attempt to decipher Germany's infamously uncrackable enigma code, racing against the skeleton's in Turing's closet as much as the Hitler's army. The Imitation Game is completely risk-averse, which is why it's sitting outside of my top 30 despite being as close to perfect as movies really get. This one is rock solid.
32. Neighbors
        At what point will we finally take Seth Rogen just a little more seriously? His brand may be embodied by pot smoking and sex joking, but the big-hearted schlub is consistently drawn to sneakily thoughtful affairs, none more so than Neighbors. He co-stars with Rose Byrne as a pair of new parents whose marital bliss is interrupted when a Zac Efron-led frat house moves in next door, initiating a war between raging parties, and early curfews. While the laughs are plentiful enough, the real intrigue here is a running commentary on the experience of watching youth slip between your fingers, and struggling to find a way to make aging 'cool.'
31. Wild
        I'll be honest; I struggle with Wild. Based on Cheryl Strayed's autobiographical account of hiking the entire 1,000+ mile-long Pacific Crest Trail as a sort of extreme emotional detox, director Jean-Marc Vallée's follow-up to Dallas Buyer's Club has a troubling tendency to pull its punches, refusing to ever let star Reese Witherspoon get too dirty, or struggle too much on her path to redemption. That said, the film has no difficulty tugging at heart-strings, weaving both painful and empowering memories into Strayed's lengthy journey in stream-of-conciousness fashion, and coloring in the margins with one stellar supporting turn after another, and employing music in a way that's sure to put a lump in your throat. Wild may be flawed, but its heart is positively enormous, and you can feel the warmth in each frame.
30. Night Moves
        In the wake of 2010's wildly-underappreciated Meek's Cutoff, everything director Kelly Reichardt does is appointment viewing. Her latest is a chilly thriller of sorts, relaying the tale of three radical environmentalists who set out to destroy a hydroelectric dam without fully considering the consequences. The story here is strong, but its the inescapable feeling of dread that Reichardt creates that truly makes Night Moves special. Well, that and its three-pack of winning performances from Peter Sarsgaard, Dakota Fanning, and a mesmerizingly steely Jesse Eisenberg.
29. Enemy
        From where I sit, 2014 will go down as the year that Jake Gyllenhaal fully embraced his inner weirdo (more on that still to come). Enemy represents his second collaboration with the deeply talented Denis Villeneuve, arriving in theaters a few months after 2013's Prisoners despite being filmed beforehand. This mind-bending puzzler opens with a bearded Gyllenhaal effectively sleepwalking his way through life until he discovers his perfect Doppelganger (also Gyllenhaal), and struggles to maintain his grip on reality. It all makes a for queasy viewing experience, but Villeneuve's utter command of the screen is awe-inspiring, while Javier Gullón's knotty screenplay continues to rattle around in your brain long after the closing credits.
28. Snowpiercer
        Cult-director hero Joon-ho Bong has finally landed in America, and it's with a bang, not a whimper. The Korean wunderkind finally brings his indescribable worldview to the English language with Snowpiercer, a film set in the post-apocalypse, where everything is frozen over, and mankind's (presumably) last survivors ride an eternally-moving train wherein social class tiers are only exacerbated. This is a disturbing film, jam-packed with unsetting imagery and ideas, often expressed with merciless violence, but Bong's paradigm is entrancing, and fully realized at every level. Snowpiercer is his attempt at an American blockbuster; if only our nation's own could catch up...
27. A Most Violent Year
        At this point in his career, there doesn't appear to be anything that writer/director J.C. Chandor can't do. After making his debut with the talky, claustrophobic financial crisis thriller Margin Call, and following it up with last year's dialogue-free oceanic odyssey All is Lost, Chandor completely changes gears once again. A Most Violent Year tells the story of Abel Morales, an Italian immigrant who heads a non-violent underground crime syndicate in 1980's New York, and his attempts to maintain control as his business constantly flirts with disaster. Not everyone would have the guts to create a spiritual successor to The Godfather, but not everyone has a magnificent Oscar Issac in front of their camera, updating Al Pacino's Michael Corleone with both force and grace. Or Bradford Young's eye-popping cinematography, for that matter.
26. Starred Up
        No one ever said that working as a voluntary therapist in a violent prison was easy, and based on his lived-in first screenplay, Jonathan Asser certainly won't be the first. Pulling from his real-life experiences, Asser's story centers around Eric Love (Jack O'Connell), an uncontrollably violent british teenager who is 'starred up' (transferred from a Young Offender Institution to an adult prison at an early age), only to meet up with his fellow inmate/long absent father (Ben Mendelsohn) in the process. Director David Mackenzie packs the film with sweaty, unapologetic violence, and juxtaposes it against the camaraderie and support that Love experiences in his group sessions, a push-pull that has you on the edge of your seat. There's a lot to like here, but best of all is O'Connell, whose work here might already be the new dictionary definition of 'star-making performance.'

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