My Top 10 Films of 2014

List by Derrick Carter

2014 has been a solid year for cinema. As with every film critic (freelance or professional), there comes a time of decision-making as to what the best movies of the year were. This list is all opinion based (like my reviews) and I can understand why people might not (and probably won’t) completely agree with every choice. In deciding how to rank my top 10 of the year, I noticed there was an equal amount of independent/foreign fare and big studio hits. This was unintentional, but is a nice detail that highlights how balanced this year really was for cinema all around.

Before I get into my actual list, it bears mentioning that I have not seen/reviewed every single film from this year (I plan on covering FOXCATCHER, INHERENT VICE, and AMERICAN SNIPER eventually). I’m only one man after all, so my selections come from the films that I’ve watched and reviewed this year. That all being said and without further ado, here are my 10 favorite films from 2014!

Honorable Mentions: BOUND BY FLESH, UNDER THE SKIN, CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER, FURY, THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES, HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2, and A MOST WANTED MAN

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10. BIG BAD WOLVES: I wasn’t terribly impressed with Aharon Keshales’s and Navot Papushado’s directorial debut, RABIES. BIG BAD WOLVES serves as a drastic improvement. At first, the story seems relatively simple. However, the diabolical screenplay toys with the viewer in injecting a pitch-black sense of humor that works wonderfully and a dark tone that isn’t the slightest bit funny. Things aren’t as simple as they originally appear and a haunting conclusion ensures that this film will stick with you. I originally saw/reviewed it in January and it has held up on multiple viewings throughout the year. If you’re up for a disturbing tour-de-force of horror that defies expectations, BIG BAD WOLVES should be on your radar!

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9. THE LEGO MOVIE: On New Year’s Day, I was chatting with a friend about how much I thought THE LEGO MOVIE was going to suck. This concept seemed doomed from the beginning and I was reluctantly dragged to the theater at the urging of my younger siblings. In all of 2014, I have never been so happy that I was so wrong about a film! Blending meta-elements, rapid fire jokes, and a hilarious storyline, THE LEGO MOVIE is 2014’s biggest surprise! The animation (which appears to combine stop-motion and computer graphics) is stellar. Tons of jokes are present so that it takes multiple viewings to catch every little piece (pun intended) that the movie has to offer. LEGO MOVIE is not only the best family film of 2014, everything about it is awesome!

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8. X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST: The X-MEN movies have a good vs. bad ratio of 5 to 2. Those are fantastic odds for any blockbuster series. DAYS OF FUTURE PAST delivered the best entry in the mutant saga to date. This much-anticipated comic book storyline was fantastically brought to life by returning director Bryan Singer. In lesser hands, FUTURE PAST could have become a standard blockbuster with the gimmick of time travel used to combine both casts of the franchise. Instead, this film was a delight to sit through for myself and many film goers this past summer. Easily the best comic book film since Christopher Nolan graced the silver screen with his take on Batman. Definitely count me in for APOCALYPSE in 2016!

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7. NIGHTCRAWLER: Scarier than any true horror film that I saw in all of 2014, NIGHTCRAWLER is a truly disturbing movie. Disappearing completely into the main character of Lou, Jake Gyllenhaal delivers an award-worthy performance that creeped me out to the point where I was wriggling in my seat as he manipulated everyone around him. In a sense, Lou is a vampire sucking the moral decency out of everyone he comes across. As a dark, disturbing, and unflinching masterwork, NIGHTCRAWLER serves as cinematic nightmare that I can’t wait to revisit in the near future.

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6. DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES: This was the summer blockbuster that delivered on every possible level. It had grand action and amazing effects (those monkeys look so real), but also incorporated them into a smart story and complicated characters. While RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES was a huge surprise for everyone, DAWN has cemented itself as my personal favorite APE movie. DAWN blended spectacle and a fantastic plot so perfectly that it makes me shake with anticipation for the newest upcoming APES film (Summer 2016). Having seen RISE and DAWN, I’m more than prepared to bow down to our future primate overlords. This movie rocked!

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5. THE RAID 2: I watched the original RAID at its Sundance premiere and thought it was an impressive action flick, but a tad overrated in the end. This exhilarating sequel pulls out all the stops to one up the original in every possible way. While APES blended spectacle with an intelligent story, RAID 2 blends an intense gangster thriller with mind-blowing action scenes. I was exhausted by the end of this film and that’s the biggest compliment I can give any action movie. Each fight scene has its own unique spin so none of them blended into one another. A few that stick out in my mind are a prison yard fight, one of the most intense/realistic car chases that I’ve ever seen, and a stunning confrontation between two highly skilled, deadly men. Those are just a few of the phenomenal sequences that this epic-length modern action classic has to offer. It plays like THE DEPARTED had a baby with a Bruce Lee movie. It’s friggin’ nuts and I loved every second of it!

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4. WHIPLASH: How do you turn a protégé story about a young man trying to be a successful drummer into a nail-bitingly thriller? Apparently, you get Damien Chazelle to write and direct it. Though he is a young newcomer, Chazelle struck gold in this fantastic and deep drama. I didn’t like Miles Teller before watching this movie and now appreciate that he has some serious acting chops on him. J.K. Simmons, usually a side character or background actor, is given room to be the most intimidating antagonist that I saw in a film all year. He plays a conductor, but Simmons is downright scary as hell and entertaining to watch at the same time. Well shot, well written, well acted, and all around well constructed, WHIPLASH is a masterpiece!

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3. THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL: The evening that I spent watching this magical film was an enchanting experience. Evoking a sense of classic comedies and a fairy tale color palette, Wes Anderson’s GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL sucked me into its oddball world from the first frame. Ralph Fiennes’s Gustave H. and Adrien Brody’s villain had me breaking into hysterical laughter throughout this whole film. Besides the humor, there’s a unique sweetness to BUDAPEST as well as a compelling storyline (background happenings reward repeat viewings). GRAND BUDAPEST is sincere in its story, humor, honest emotions, and ridiculous nature. Cinematic heaven!

GONE GIRL, from left: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, 2014. ph: Merrick Morton/TM & copyright ©20th

2. GONE GIRL: Going into 2014, there was one film that I was highly anticipating. That was David Fincher’s adaptation of the best-selling mystery, GONE GIRL. The novel is acclaimed, for good reason, of having a nasty sleight of hand that trips up the reader’s preconceived notions. Fincher masterfully transfers that level of Hitchcockian suspense onto the screen in this deeply disturbing and haunting thriller. I didn’t spoil anything in my review and I won’t spoil anything here either. If anyone does try to give away the plot, slap them in the face before they can give away any detail. Though it’s really your fault for having not seen this film yet. Go see it! Seriously! It’s the smartest, entirely compelling and most intense thriller that I’ve seen all year. Once you’ve seen GONE GIRL, you’ll know why everyone is raving about it so much.

BIRDMAN OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE), (aka BIRDMAN), Michael Keaton, on set, 2014. /TM

1. BIRDMAN or (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE): What do I even say about this film? When I saw the trailer for BIRDMAN, I felt iffy on it. This looked to be a quirky comedy that could potentially be good, but might rely far too much on the gimmick of having a washed-up former superhero actor playing a washed-up former superhero actor. Nevertheless, I walked into the movie theater hoping for a good flick. In less than 10 minutes, I was under the film’s spell. This wasn’t just good or funny, this was fantastic and amazing. Telling the story in a stylistic choice that appears to be caught in one take (through various hidden cuts) and containing some of the best performances that this entire year had to offer, BIRDMAN is an extraordinary piece of cinema. I’ve bad-mouthed Michael Keaton for a couple of crappy movies he did earlier this year, but his performance really is something to behold in this film! There’s never been anything quite like BIRDMAN before and there’s never going to be anything quite like it again. BIRDMAN is perfection!

2014 was a solid year and produced a lot of phenomenal films. I hope 2015 is even better!

THE HOST (2013)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 5 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some Sensuality and Violence

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Directed by: Andrew Niccol

Written by: Andrew Niccol

(based on the novel THE HOST by Stephenie Meyer)

Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Max Irons, Jake Abel, Frances Fisher, Chandler Canterbury, Diane Kruger, William Hurt & Emily Browning

In the vast recesses of young adult adaptations, I doubt I’ve run across one that is crammed full of mind-boggling stupidity as THE HOST. Based on a novel by Stephenie Meyer (author of the TWILIGHT saga), the premise is basically INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS with romance thrown in. We all know that the one thing that terrifying science-fiction/horror movie needed was more sweeping shots of people kissing. That’s exactly what THE HOST delivers in a film that misses every opportunity of creativity thrown at it. This is all coupled along with one-dimensional characters and convoluted plot twists that come right the hell out of nowhere. This is a really dumb movie and there’s no way of avoiding that.

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In the not too distant future, the human race is nearly extinct. A parasitic race of aliens, Souls, have invaded human bodies and are using them as their own. Melanie (Saoirse Ronan) is a young girl who has become the latest host of one of these Souls. The particular alien inhabiting her is called Wanderer. Much to Wanderer’s dismay, Melanie is not completely absent from her now taken-over body. Her consciousness is trapped inside her controlled form and unable to communicate to anybody except for Wanderer. A Seeker (form of authority in this newfound society) has become suspicious of Wanderer’s behavior and is planning on exterminating Melanie’s body, but the alien parasite and Melanie’s consciousness work together in order to find the remaining family that she comes from. Some romance ensues between Wanderer/Melanie and two different boys (Jared and Ian), all while the threat of the Seeker finding her increases and the paranoia of the survivors in the colony grows. That’s about the best I can sum up this premise.

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One might not be expecting too much from THE HOST and rightly so. Stephenie Meyer is a piss-poor writer (having read about a third of the novel this film is based on and giving up on it). The book took far too long to get going, but a two-hour movie would most likely have a better pace. It does, but the problem lies within the convoluted plot and wooden acting. To be perfectly honest, things don’t make a whole lot of sense. The viewer isn’t given a whole lot of character development. With Andrew Niccol penning the script and sitting in the director’s chair, some significant deviations were made from the source material. Even with these changes, Niccol didn’t see fit to flesh out these characters further. They come off as one-dimensionally as Bella Swan and Edward Cullen. Therefore the motivations behind these people/aliens seem specifically driven, but a few turns come later on in the plot that get completely far-fetched and downright confusing. Coincidences and delayed decisions induce a lot of eye-rolling. It’s a poorly constructed plot to say the least.

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As far as the acting goes, nobody gives anything close to resembling a halfway decent performance. Saoirse Ronan is hollow as both Wanderer and the mostly disembodied voice of Melanie. The love interests are nothing more than pretty boys cast for their looks. The most capable actor here is William Hurt as Melanie’s uncle Jeb and he’s the most likable character, which isn’t saying much as Jeb is pretty much a redneck stereotype. The trailer also showcases some action scenes, of which there’s only one real one in the entire film (about halfway through). In fact, the conflict between Wanderer/Melanie and the Seeker is so half-assed in its conclusion that it makes every scene featuring the two feel entirely pointless. The visual scheme is ugly to begin with and the dull settings don’t necessarily make things any better. The effects are also worthy of a Syfy Channel film.

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The biggest compliment I can give THE HOST comes in it being far more fast paced than the novel it’s based on. That one attribute doesn’t make it a good, decent or even tolerable film though. It’s a stupid story with bad characters and an infuriating conclusion. THE HOST is somehow even worse than the TWILIGHT SAGA. At least those films had some sort of continuity and made more sense within their universe, despite how silly things got. THE HOST is terrible all around!

Grade: F

THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language, some Sexual Content and Violence

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Directed by: Wes Anderson

Written by: Wes Anderson

Starring: Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham, Mathieu Amalric, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Jude Law, Harvey Keitel, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Lea Seydoux, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Owen Wilson & Tony Revolori

Wes Anderson has gained a reputation over his career for unique style and an oddball sense of humor. Anderson’s newest film carries an air of sophistication and the logistics of a cartoon. Layered with quirky sensibilities and having a genuine heart at the center, THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL is my favorite film of the year thus far! This already has a spot reserved on my Best of 2014 list. The entire affair is an absolutely entrancing experience of wonderful magic that only phenomenal filmmaking can bring.

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Beginning in the present, a young girl visits a memorial and reads a book by a character known simply as “The Author.” The film then cuts back to the 1980’s to find the Author describing a trip he made in the 1960’s. Flashing back to the 1960’s, we see a younger Author meet the elderly owner of the once prestigious/now rustic Grand Budapest Hotel. This elderly fellow relates the tale of how he came to own the Grand Budapest. So to break this down we open with a narration within a book that takes us to a flashback that then takes us to another flashback. Instead of coming off as convoluted in the slightest (as it almost certainly would have in any other film), this technique offers satisfying bookends to the main story at hand. Speaking of which…

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Set in the 1930’s, the main plot (e.g. the elderly owner’s story) is the tale of a famous concierge and his loyal lobby boy. The concierge is Gustave H., a philosophical and poetic gentleman, who takes to romancing many of the rich elderly (blonde) women who frequently visit the hotel. The lobby boy is Zero, a refugee from a less fortunate country, who has found a fatherly figure and devoted friend in Gustave. After Madam D (a former lover of Gustave) is found murdered, a priceless painting (titled Boy With Apple) is left in the possession of the two. Unfortunately for Gustave, something sinister is afoot and he’s been framed for Madam D’s death. Zero must rise up to the occasion, band together with Agatha (love of his life and candy-maker), and prove Gustave’s innocence!

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From the onset, there are many things unusual about THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL. Model work was done for the landscape shots and the film has a candy-colored sensibility in nearly all of the sets. Everything has been put together with care and attention to detail. In its most unusual opening, the viewer is sucked into the oddball world of this story. A thick atmosphere covers the whole thing like frosting on one of Agatha’s cakes. The amazing soundtrack adds even more flavor and perfectly encapsulates the tone of the movie. It should also be noted that the frame ratio of the film changes based on the time period the film is currently in. For example, its widescreen (2.35:1) in the present day, goes down to 1:85 when the Author is relating his story, and goes to traditional 1:33 for Zero’s tale. Purposely executed, this added yet another sense of wonder to an already amazing film.

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The film sports a large cast of big names. Some of these notable actors only appear for a minute or two, but their presence was a nice touch. Tony Revolori doesn’t have a long list of titles to his name, but delivers as young Zero. It’s easy for the viewer to sympathize with his bad history and root for him to overcome the odds to get his beloved mentor back. Speaking of which, Ralph Fiennes is simply brilliant as Gustave H. This character goes from waxing poetic to fowl-mouthed ruffian in the blink of an eye. Though the character might have come off as a quirky scumbag in any other film, Fiennes makes him into lovable guy. There’s certainly something to be said for that. Adrien Brody and Willem Dafoe both appear as villains. Brody is hysterical as the ill-tempered fascist son of Madam D. His off-the-cuff profanity is only outweighed by Gustave’s frequent outbursts. Dafoe is a quiet, intimidating, leering man whose fashion sense includes a constant pair of brass-knuckles. Last but not least, Saoirse Ronan is Agatha. Though her character isn’t devoted nearly as much time as Gustave or Zero, she’s an essential part of the film.

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As the old saying goes, all good things must come to an end. This was the case when the end credits began to roll on GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL. The film is a true crowd-pleaser in every sense of the term. The humor is hilarious, but there’s also an unspoken sentimental factor that doesn’t truly reveal itself until the final moments. In some comedies, this might be uncalled for or felt forced. In GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, every emotion is genuine and absolutely earned. The best way of describing the magic and wonder this film holds is by saying it’s an adult story set in an absurd fairy-tale landscape. Walking out of the darkened movie theater, a nearly overwhelming wave of awe washed over me from the whole adventure I had just gone through with a colorful cast of characters. THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL is phenomenal and nothing short of a masterpiece!

Grade: A+

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