Every New Movie I Saw In 2014, From Worst To Best (Part II)

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.

3. Birdman

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.

Every New Movie I Saw In 2014, From Worst To Best (Part I)

I didn’t see that many new movies last year, which is to say that I saw way more than usual and still didn’t even make a dent into most professional critic’s lists. Wanna know why? Because those guys see hundreds of films in 12 months, and I just barely cracked 20 on my own dime and free time. But I still feel grateful to have seen all that I have, and am excited to finally give you a rundown of my thoughts on each, mostly taken from the gross scribbly handwriting in my little blue journal. Obviously, this is super subjective and kind of cobbled together, so don’t take it too seriously. Let’s dive in! Don’t like spoilers? Proceed with caution!

20. Noah

It’s a sign of how cherry-picked this list will be that Noah is at the bottom. I’m sure this was far from the worst film of the year (based on what I’ve heard, it’s got to be a lot more interesting than the new Moses movie, Exodus). In fact, the second half, when the title character and his family finally get on the boat and start moving, heats up some potentially engrossing drama, albeit with a shamefully contrived suspenseful ending. But everything else veers from being overly stiff to eye-rollingly splashy, sometimes literally (sorry), and the centerpiece of the movie is basically one long Biblical tower defense game. Rock people build scaffolds, the bad guys wear denim and Anthony Hopkins somehow lives for centuries without growing more than a five o’clock shadow. All the same, I’d see this a hundred times before any of the many, many other movies that openly pandered to the “faith-based” market this year, except maybe the Nicholas Cage Left Behind. Someone still needs to explain to me what the hell “zohar” is, and why the earth is rich with it.

19. Boyhood

“Life doesn’t give you bumpers.” Uch. Overrated, overrated, overrated. The first half of this coming-of-age saga is full of great stuff. I love the way it gives us universal scenes that cut right before they get to the part we know is coming. Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette have a great chemistry with the kids, and it’s refreshing that there’s stuff left in the gaps between scenes for us to fill in. Then the child protagonists hit adolescence and start saying dumb teenagery things that the movie either wants us to think are dumb or (and this may be even worse) actually believes are profound. Lots of people saw this as a masterpiece, and for all I know it’s going to win Best Picture: I thought it was condescending and snide, crammed with not-so-hidden cororate logos and veiled contempt for us silly little people who actually listened to Vampire Weekend and voted in the 2008 election. Now if this was rotoscoped, it might have been another story.

18. The Zero Theorem

Whereas Noah was often laughably bad, this was just disappointing and frustrating. The premise is good, as Christoph Waltz attempts to find out the meaning of his life and escape the gamified torture of his soul-crushing office job. The sets are dizzying, the central angst of the hero palpable. All seems well at first. However, like several of Gilliam films, it’s all dressed up with no place to go. Plot points are set up and then abandoned, the story fizzles into a baffling anticlimax, and the character of Bainsley, played gamely by Melanie Thierry, is embarrassingly underdeveloped and spouts dialogue that will make you sink into your chair. Tilda Swinton has an amusing role using the same accent and buckteeth from Snowpiercer, but even she can’t save this pretty-looking mess.

17. The Double

Why is Richard Ayoade holding himself back? The erstwhile Maurice Moss has been involved with some of the most original, hilarious television projects of his generation, yet judging by his recent creative choices, he’d rather play it safe than try something truly worthy of his talent. This very dark riff on retro-dystopia has some funny moments, great art direction, and a well-done double performance from Jesse Eisenberg as both a hapless cubicle dweller and his womanizing twin. Unfortunately, the screenplay is still married to about half a dozen post-1984 tropes, and you’ll probably see the ending coming, only your version will almost certainly be better. It’s a step in the right direction, though, and Ayoade has the makings of a great future director if he starts picking more inspired projects.

16. Snowpiercer

Oh hey Snowpiercer, I was just talking about you two entries ago! While I wasn’t bowled over by this when I first saw it, I’m willing to give it another chance at some point in the future. I thought the movie buried its best elements under endless dull action sequences and exposition, with a finale that was supposed to be some grand existential political statement but just came across as kind of self-defeating. I’ll admit there’s enough here to make it worth a watch, though, such as great performances by Tilda Swinton, who steals her scenes, and Octavia Spencer, who really should have been the main character. I maintain that this mostly got as much praise as it did in comparison to other comparatively less “challenging” summer fare, and I’d be interested to see how much it holds up in, say, February.

15. Gone Girl

I dunno. While I liked a lot of things about this movie (particularly the fine supporting cast) I was left more than a little cold in the end. Maybe the film lost me when it gutted the central mystery halfway through and turned a potentially complex character into a one-note cypher. I don’t really want to give anything away, suffice it to say that I came away feeling kind of unclean and unsatisfied. Plus, there was a dangling character motivation thread just begging to be yanked and it wasn’t and I hate it when that happens. Apparently there could possibly be a sequel (Gone Girl 2: Gone Harder), so it’s possible that this is another film that will look better in hindsight.

14. Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie

Anyone who even knows this exists can probably predict exactly where it fits on their own personal scale, and that’s part of the charm of James Rolfe’s “real movie” debut. On the internet, Rolfe has always been one of the best video critics due to his natural savvy and unforced charm. Even though his first big screen romp injects the titular nerd character with some creepy old-school sexism (a little hard to watch post-Gamer Gate, though that’s not his fault), it’s got all the gloriously lo-fi special effects, monster puppets, and profanity you could possibly want, along with an almost folksy no-budget vibe that’s kind of hard to resist. A big step for a guy who makes videos about poop jokes and swearing at old videogames, to be sure.

13. Whiplash

Oh man, if you think you like hearing J.K. Simmons yelling at people, just you wait until you see him as a manipulative bullying jazz instructor that turns an eager protege into a self-destructive asshole, just like him. Suspend your disbelief a little and bask in the central conflict of this movie, which generates genuine tension despite its formula and raises timeless questions about artistic discipline vs. humanity. It’s like the negative polarity version of every standard “inspiring teacher” movie, except you’ll need a big hug after. Destined to become the go-to movie of every obnoxious “Yeah, I’m In A Band” guy you know. You will almost certainly leave with every tune stuck in your head at the same time.

12. Wild

There’s no earthly reason you should be reading Armond White on a regular basis, but every now and then I check in to see what convoluted reasoning he’s using to hate on anything that gets above a 70% on the Tomatometer, just for larfs. When it comes to Wild, I (kind of) agree with him for once: it’s a potentially strong movie laboring under the weight of its direction and screenplay. The heart of this story is Reese Witherspoon’s brave performance and her character’s tragic relationship with her mother, played by an excellent Laura Dern. Because the screenplay is written by Nick Hornby, this is a movie less about hiking and more about pop music and the endless ways it can be laden onto nature scenes and flashbacks. Scrape away the distracting voiceovers, supposedly accidental product placement and Urban Outfitters-esque philosophizing, and there’s a nice collection of honest and touching moments here. The final message is genuinely uplifting, even if some heavy-handed symbolism (and, I shit you not, a cherubic singing child) almost ruined it. Technically I saw this after the New Year but if I don’t count it I don’t get to an even 20, so deal.

11. Dear White People

Brainy, if uneven, comedy about race relations on a fictional snooty college campus, where the buildings are all named after jazz musicians but racism still percolates. Although Dennis Haysbert aka The Guy From the Allstate Commercials is great as a well-meaning, impotent college official, the real breakout stars are Tessa Thompson and Lionel Higgins, the latter of which gets some of the most memorable lines. Nobody makes it out of this movie innocent, and for once the hyper-aware Juno-speak of so many bad indie comedies actually feels appropriate, given the college setting. The ending is especially cutting.

More coming soon! Like, instantly!