10. Muppets Most Wanted
I liked Jason Segel’s Muppet reboot movie from a few years ago just fine at the time, but this one’s a big, big improvement. Even though it’s a teensy bit too long and contains some flat moments, I’m still glad I saw it. Is it possible that the Muppets could start making real movies again just like old times? This one’s fun enough to make me believe. Definitely check out the soundtrack for the full effect, since the movie cuts out some of the best parts of the songs. Too many false endings and one depressingly obvious scene of product placement aside, it was a nice enough diversion on a drizzly March day and contains some of Brett McKenzie’s best work yet, production-wise.
9. The Grand
Exotic Marigold Budapest Hotel
After Moonrise Kingdom, possibly Anderson’s best film, Budapest feels like a a bit of a stumble through familiar themes, with a lot of jokes about famous actors showing up in funny mustaches. Taken for what it is, though, this movie does at least get to darker territory, with Adrian Brody playing a genuinely menacing villain and a bit more violence and nastiness than usual. As great as Ralph Fiennes is, the soundtrack might be the best thing in it, and that’s no slight to the rest of the film.
8. Guardians of the Galaxy
I have a friend who laments that modern Doctor Who has lost its way because it no longer presents us “cool space shit” on a regular basis. Well, if there’s one thing Guardians of the Galaxy had in buckets, it was cool space shit. I suppose it’s sad that pumping a superhero movie with ancient pop tunes and foul-smelling jokes about prison rape and semen is enough to get one counted as “quirky” or “individual” in the modern blockbuster landscape. All the same, Guardians gave us the kind of unabashed escapism that so many popcorn flicks seem to be afraid of these days, complete with a rainbow of different alien skin tones and memorable planets. Peter Quill’s dance through a dank otherworldly cavern made me smile in spite of myself, as did the surprising showdown with blue Lee Pace that feels like the punchline the entire movie winds up to. I think Snowpiercer got lots of praise for being “smart,” but it was a shallow movie that thought it was making a deep social statement, while Guardians knew what it was and reveled in it. Problematic undercurrents aside, this represents the greatest strength that the Marvel universe has over other far-too-serious superhero films.
7. The Lego Movie
Does it say something about me that three of my top ten were big budget movies aimed largely at children? I don’t really care: not even Greenpeace can change how much fun The Lego Movie was. If we’re heading towards a future of feature-length commercials, this will be the one to imitate, for better or for worse. Try not to think about all of the terrible knock-offs that are sure to follow in its wake (although I will totally go to the mat for The Playmobil Movie, should it ever materialize) and just have a good time with this one. LEGO is one brand that has taken its pop-culture and nostalgia goodwill to the bank and then some to exhilarating effect.
6. Life Itself
As a dude with an unavoidable debt to Roger Ebert’s writing style and opinions, there was no way seeing this movie wasn’t going to be emotionally conflicting. Little did I expect how excoriating it would be of its subject, with a surprising amount of time depicting Ebert not just as a jerk to work with (which was certainly no surprise to most of us) but an alcoholic blowhard who remained stubborn until the end. Not the breezy, affirmational watch the posters would have you believe, and definitely could have used a little more show footage, but a necessary experience, especially for the way it lets us finally learn more about the emotional journey of Chaz, Ebert’s widow. Another potential bonus: no Roeper.
5. The Babadook
If you’ve seen the trailers for this and heard the buzz, you’re probably wondering “how scary can a movie about a monster that goes DOOK DOOK DOOK be?” Answer: pretty damn, that’s how scary. Featuring what will surely be one of the most divisive child actor performances of all time, this simple, effective horror story is familiar in many broad ways while offering subtle new tweaks to classic horror tropes. Essie Davis delivers a performance that is throbbing with full-blooded psychotic energy and not just a female version of Jack Nicholson’s scenery-gnashing from The Shining. Do not see if you have a problem with children or young dogs being put into peril, or if you’re expecting a huge bloodbath. It should fit nicely into the monster movie canon and I wouldn’t be surprised if it becomes a modern staple.
4. Only Lovers Left Alive
Tilda Swinton continues to be First Lady of Cinematic Awesome, and by pairing her with a gothed-up Tom Hiddleston Jim Jarmusch almost certainly became the fairy godfather of a certain class of fanfic writers. Between this, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night and What We Do In The Shadows, vampires seem to have gone from being the subject of every major multiplex film back to indie territory. That’s fine with me, as this movie was more about what being an immortal but benevolent bloodsucker would actually be like on a daily basis, especially if your tastes run more for poetry, botany and Motown than gore. There’s also a tiny, brilliant nugget of a possible apocalyptic future tucked into the ending that almost makes me want to see a sequel.
Nevermind the backlash this movie has been receiving: I was hooked from the opening on through, and found it a dynamic reinterpretation of the tired “has-been creative guy midlife crisis fantasia” genre with a smidge more relevance. Upset nerds seem to be confusing the film’s depiction of an actor’s attempt to escape his big-budget superhero past as a scandalous statement about how blockbusters can’t be art: A) that’s the character’s opinion, not the film’s and B) I’m pretty sure Hollywood will survive the ribbing, guys, especially when they’ve got another half-decade’s worth of Marvel movies in their arsenal. Emma Stone turns in some impressive work her in an underwritten role and delivers one of the best speeches in the whole film. Go into this one as fresh as you can, since one of its great joys is the way it takes little turns you aren’t expecting.
2. The Congress
No, I have no idea what happens at the end of this movie. That’s part of why I loved it. Part Being John Malkovich, part A Scanner Darkly, part Ralph Bakshi and part Black Mirror, this sci-fi satirical odyssey centers around a fictionalized version of Robin Wright, who is forced to sell the rights to her digital likeness to Big Cinema. Then things get even weirder in a long trippy animated sequence as we enter a conference where attendees can take on their ideal shape. Even though The Congress is actually from 2013, I think it’s only really getting recognition now, so you should go see it so we can talk about it.
1. The Dance of Reality (“La Danza de la Realidad”)
This year I found myself aching for a film that took risks and really surprised me, and Alejandro Jodorowksky’s “psychomagical” autobiographic film certainly fits that bill. It’s rough in places, too long, filled with bizarre segues and disturbing visuals: assassinations, tarot imagery, torture, people peeing on stuff and animals being torn to pieces. It’s also a marriage of two tones I never thought I’d see welded together this well, one part absurdist, deliberately shocking heightened self-satire, the other a sad, poignant, grief-stricken reconciliation with the past, kind of an amped-up Chilean version of Amarcord. The central image is of the older Jodorowsky cradling his younger self and assuring him that all will be well, and that’s damn heartbreaking. There’s a lot to stomach here, and it won’t be for everyone, and that’s a good thing.