Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Best & Worst of 2014

It’s that time of the year once again: the end.  For those of you who are following The Gibson Review on Facebook, it also means it’s time for my annual best and worst of the year lists.

So, as has been the case the past couple years, due to limited releases there are a few heavy-hitters that have eluded me this year.  Films like Boyhood, Foxcatcher, Inherent Vice, Nightcrawler, Selma, and Whiplash narrowly escaped my reach. That’s always frustrating, because the films that I’m not able to catch always include two or three that would be on my ‘Best of the Year’ list.  Therefore, it’s always good to take this list with a grain of salt.

As far as trends in film this year, science fiction got a huge bump – and few could credit comic books as source material!  From the ridiculous and absurd (Transcendence, Transformers: Age of Extinction, The Congress) to the intelligent and astonishing (Interstellar, Under the Skin, Edge of Tomorrow), science fiction was all across the spectrum and everywhere in theaters this year.  Eight out of the year’s Top 10 Domestic Grossers were sci-fi films. The #1 worldwide box office grosser was among these: Transformers: Age of Extinction.

As for comic books, there were 13 films based on comic book properties – twice as many as in 2012 - only half of which were superhero properties this year.  Those that weren’t made less than $100 million domestically (300: Rise of an Empire was the exception at $106 million). Four of these 13 films were among the year’s Top 10 Domestic Grossers.  The #1 domestic box office grosser was a Marvel film: Guardians of the Galaxy.

This was a hell of a year for female-driven films and female performances.  Of the year’s 25 highest-grossing films, 11 either star a strong female lead or feature a female prominently; 8 of them are action-heavy films.  The year’s top performers include: Eva Green (300: Rise of an Empire, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, White Bird in a Blizzard), who proved crazy was the new sexy; her co-star Shailene Woodley (Divergent, The Fault in Our Stars, White Bird in a Blizzard), who had a banner year in 2014 gaining attention in previous years for The Descendants and The Spectacular Now.  Tilda Swinton (The Grand Budapest Hotel, Snowpiercer, Only Lovers Left Alive) astonished many by remarkably disappearing in nearly every role she took on this year.  Other great performances came from Emily Blunt (Edge of Tomorrow) and Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything).  None of these female characters are damsels in distress.  But this year’s MVP has to be Scarlett Johansson, who cemented herself as a viable action star (Captain America: Winter Soldier & Lucy) while also pursuing and impressing in more creatively challenging fare (Under the Skin).

This year was a great year for movies, as there were more good films to catch up with then usual.  That said let’s have a look at the year’s worst.
The Worst

Like every year, 2014 was no stranger to crap films.  By crap films, I mean those that you kinda expected to get their ass handed to them by critics: Adam Sandler’s Blended, the reportedly mind-numbing Transformers: Age of Extinction, the needless sequels Planes: Fire & Rescue and The Expendables 3… if you weren’t expecting the worst out of those films, you haven’t seen enough movies.  Setting those aside, here are my picks for the worst of the year.

5. The Congress

Robin Wright stars as a version of herself in some near future wherein she begrudgingly agrees to have her likeness scanned by a movie studio to be used in any way at any ‘youthful’ age, forever.  That’s quite a meaty and intriguing premise!  Unfortunately, that only makes up the film’s first 45 minutes.  It gets weird from there.  Then it gets downright ridiculous, having nothing to do with hardly anything the film sets up during its first act.  The Congress tries to be thought-provoking and weighty.  Instead it becomes a frustrating head-scratcher.

4. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
The heroes in a half shell are back.  Surely, over 20 years since the original adaptation of the black and white comics, with greater special effects and more sophisticated superhero scripts we’d be able to produce the Ninja Turtles film fans have been waiting for.  Maybe even something closer in tone to the original comics than the CBS Saturday morning cartoons.  Apparently, all of that is asking for too much.  Yes, there is some improved action choreography.  Yes, the turtles look and move better than in 1990.  If anything, this reboot makes you realize how bad the originals were.  However, this is about as bad as the other recent cinematic adaptations of ‘80s cartoons with a stupid villain (to say he’s poorly-written is an understatement), absurdly suggestive language that does the character April O’Neil no favors, and an extremely confused target audience.  Perhaps Michael Bay should just stay away from ‘80s cartoons from now on.

3. Lucy
Lucy had a lot of promise.  An average woman gets caught up in an international drug cartel and gains full use of her brain’s potential through an accidental overdose of a new drug.  The premise opens many high-brow possibilities.  The trailers promised a mix of female empowerment and brainy sci-fi action, a la The Matrix.  Instead we got a film that goes the wrong direction with its premise and becomes increasingly difficult to swallow, lightly skipping over its potential in favor of a paper-thin plot.  Lucy is not without its defenders, mostly because it’s so overtly about a woman evolving beyond man; that was part of its initial appeal.  But the only way this could’ve been executed worse was if Michael Bay directed it, threw in some camera pans that objectified Scarlet Johansson and added a big explosion.  Thankfully, he was too busy making Optimus Prime ride a robot dinosaur like a horse.


2. 300: Rise of an Empire

This was the first sequel of sorts to a Frank Miller story this year.  Oddly enough, like Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, it seems the filmmakers of Rise of an Empire took only the surface-level elements that made 2007’s 300 a hit and amped them up to ridiculous levels.  This is a film that is almost entirely made up of CGI blood splatter.  I’m reminded of the Mortal Kombat films.  Sure the 1995 Mortal Kombat film wasn’t great, but its 1997 sequel, Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, took the original’s over-stylized action choreography and exaggerated it to laughable levels.  That’s what director Noam Murrow (of Smart People, for crying out loud!) did with Rise of an Empire’s CGI visuals.  Furthermore, what could’ve been a camp classic is marred by the attempt to respect its audience’s intelligence with its complicated timeline running parallel to the 2007 original.  At least there’s Crazy Eva rockin’ the boats.

1. Walk of Shame
More like Watch of Shame… am I right?  *ahem*  I checked out this comedy on the promise of Elizabeth Banks, who first proved her worth as a leading comedic actress in Zack and Miri Make a Porno.  She’s since been relegated to supporting roles, but in films like Role Models, What to Expect When You’re Expecting and the TV series 30 Rock she’s always a highlight, leaving me wishing for more from her.  In Walk of Shame, she tries.  Boy, does she try.  She deserves so much better.  I’m not even sure why, knowing the director is Steven Brill (The Drillbit Taylor, Little Nicky, Without a Paddle), Banks signed on to this thing. This is a film that only made $7.9 million TOTAL – 25% of which was in Russia, less than a percent of its gross was domestic!  I’ve gotta hand it to the American public, every once in a while they can spot a stinker when they see one.

 Dishonorable Mention: Maleficent

Now that you know what to stay away from, it’s time for…

The Best

10. Edge of Tomorrow
Edge of Tomorrow is probably the year’s most underrated film.  It doesn’t help that it suffers from a bit of identity crisis.  During production, it was originally titled All You Need is Kill, the name of its source material.  In theaters, it was released as the bland and meaningless Edge of Tomorrow.  On video, its name changed once again to the more appropriate Live. Die. Repeat.  No matter what you call it, this is one of the smartest and best sci-fi action films of the year.  Its only flaw is the nonsensical ending.  Tom Cruise is excellent as the weasely PR officer who gets ordered – nay, charged – with going onto the front lines of a battlefield against an invading alien species.  Through happenstance, he ends up repeating the day over and over again and learns the aliens would win the war that day due to a precognitive upper-hand.  Cruise seeks out Emily Blunt, the film’s MVP, for help.  Blunt plays a warrior who’s gone through the same Groundhog Day-like trip.  She’s also something of a war hero.  This Groundhog Day-meets-Starship Troopers premise brings lots of laughs and thrills and a whole lot more in two hours than most of the year’s box office hits did combined.

9. Only Lovers Left Alive

Here’s a vampire film about two lovers that is sparing on the gore, but never nears the melodrama that a certain vampire love story is famous for.  Meet Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton), two vampire lovers living the bohemian lifestyle to keep their existence on the down-low.  Eve likes to travel; Adam is a shut-in who strums his guitar and sends an errand boy to fetch his needs.  Because they are vampires, they can live independent lives on separate sides of the world while still maintaining their passion for each other.  Everything is fine and there is very little in the way of plot until Eve’s ‘sister’, Ava (Mia Wasikowska) visits.  She’s immature, obnoxious, and impulsive; the annoying sister that can ruin any night out.  With Only Lovers Jim Jarmusch has directed his best film since Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai.  This is a beautifully-shot film and also worth checking out for Hiddleston & Swinton’s performances alone.

8. Big Hero 6
In an age when superhero movies are just as common as biopics or scary movies, it can be difficult for one to feel fresh and surprising.  Disney has managed to do just that with Big Hero 6.  Back when Disney bought Marvel Entertainment in 2009, it was uncertain how exactly this partnership would manifest itself.  With Big Hero 6, we witness the first fully-realized result of that merger.  And it didn’t disappoint.  During most of the last decade, Pixar remained the animation giant while Disney limped along with weaker fare.  In recent years, Pixar has taken a nose-dive into mediocre sequelitis while Disney has climbed out of a rut with Bolt, Tangled, and Frozen.  Big Hero 6 continues that streak.  Taking an obscure Marvel mini-series was genius on Disney’s part, creating a promising new franchise while being completely independent of Marvel’s live-action cinematic universe.  Usually, Disney’s non-Pixar sequels are low-rent and dumpster-bin quality.  However, Big Hero 6 introduces a group of characters that we’d actually care to see more from with potential for many worthwhile adventures to come.  That’s practically unprecedented for Disney (The Rescuers is the only Disney film to have a theatrically-released sequel).  Keep it up, Disney!


7. Interstellar
Christopher Nolan is well-established as one of today’s visionary directors; his films are almost an event in themselves.  Not all his films are gems; Insomnia is a fairly forgettable thriller and The Dark Knight Rises failed to bring the Dark Knight trilogy to a satisfying close.  With Interstellar, Nolan gives us his space movie, swinging big.  It isn’t among Nolan’s best films, but it may be his most personal.  Interstellar manages to be, like all of Nolan’s films, highly intelligent, full of big ideas, daring acts, and spectacular visuals and with a father/daughter relationship at the center of it all.  Matthew McConaughey continues making all the right moves by not only starring in this film in the first place, but helping make the story’s danger palpable.  Time and gravity is the enemy in Interstellar and every second longer McConaughey and his crew takes on their mission, the less likely he and his daughter will be reunited.  The film may not hold together in its final act, but it’s still a greater experience than most 2014 had to offer.

 6. The Imitation Game

With The Social Network’s Mark Zuckerberg and The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper, we’ve started to become more understanding of those socially-frustrating, yet unmistakably brilliant minds that were once dismissed as ‘nerds’.  At the same time, Queen Elizabeth II made public last year the classified story of Professor Alan Turing, a highly-intelligent mathematician who was invited to participate in a top secret operation to decode the Nazi’s Enigma messages during WWII.  His personality was a lot like that of Zuckerberg and Sheldon, resulting in resentment and ridicule by others.  Not only that, but he was a closet homosexual in an age when such identities were illegal in England.  Benedict Cumberbatch, while somewhat typecast as highly-intelligent outsiders, proves himself to be one of today’s best actors.  His clueless and damaged protagonist is intriguing, relatable, and occasionally funny.  Most of all, The Imitation Game helps us understand that those who are different from the norm are sometimes the ones who help make the norm possible, making them some of our most valuable members of society.

5. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

While it’s been only three years since the surprise hit Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a prequel to the Charlton Heston classic, wowed us with its above-average script and powerful motion-capture performance by Andy Serkis, in its follow-up Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, it’s been ten years.  Humanity has been nearly wiped out by a virus like a zombie movie where everybody stays dead.  Ceasar leads his society of apes while tending to a family.  Man has not been seen by the apes for a couple years… until they are.  Fear breeds misunderstandings, which breed hate and violence.  Matt Reeves (Cloverfield) uses the ape and human societies, who are mostly separated by linguistic and cultural differences, as allegory for our world in such an effective, yet thrilling way that this Apes rivals the original.  Yes, it’s that good.  Credit must go, in part, to Andy Serkis and Toby Kebbell who play two philosophically-opposed simians.  They are not simply ‘special effects’, they are performances as deep and layered as any ‘live-action’ actor.  Rise was a modern-day franchise prequel that raised the bar, Dawn managed to deliver.  That makes it exceptional – as in, the exception and not to be expected from any other of its ilk.  It offers proof that sometimes a studio can manufacture something truly spectacular.

4. The LEGO Movie
The idea of making a movie about LEGOs seems about as bad as one based on Bratz dolls or a board game like Ouija.  So, you’d be forgiven if your expectations for The LEGO Movie were pretty low.  I guess it’s a good thing that the directing duo of Chris Miller and Phil Lord (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, 21 Jump Street) were hired to build something out of a pile of bricks.  Boy, did they!  Not only is The LEGO Movie an infectious thrill-ride chock-full of hilarity and clever moments.  It’s also a brilliant film about creativity vs. conformity.  The ingenious final act is what really elevates The LEGO Movie to unexpected emotional and creative heights, but I won’t spoil the fun.  Let’s just say that Miller & Lord succeeded in exceeding expectations and unwittingly creating the year’s best animated film – and one of the best films of the decade.

3. Gone Girl
Gone Girl is this year’s Seven, a film with a twist so mind-blowing and performance-driven it’ll be hard for pop culture to keep a lid on it.  I highly recommend seeing Gone Girl as soon as possible, because, as the awards season chugs along, some of its secrets are likely to get spilled.  More importantly, Gone Girl is a solid thriller.  It’s a testament to Gillian Flynn’s script and David Fincher’s direction that the film can still remain so highly-praised despite the crucial miscasting of Rosamund Pike as the titular mystery.  I didn’t feel Pike had the nuance needed to be fully believable in this role, especially for what it required early in the film.  However, that doesn’t prevent this film from raising some intriguing questions about gender roles, especially as the script’s sympathies for Ben Affleck’s husband gradually shift over time (another divisive element of the film).  As a result, Gone Girl may be Fincher’s most thought-provoking film, which places it firmly alongside The Social Network, Seven, and Zodiac as one of his best films yet.

 2. Birdman
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu has finally done it.  After toiling away for years trying to make films that mean something (21 Grams, Babel), he has finally succeeded at making a film that is meaningful without being forceful or heavy-handed.  The irony is it’s also about a man who is trying to create something that is meaningful.  Birdman stars Michael Keaton as a man who once starred in a superhero franchise, faded into irrelevance, and is now fighting to do something significant that’ll bring him some respect: a stage adaptation of a Raymond Carver story.  Adding another layer to this is Michael Keaton, who once starred in the Batman franchise, has faded away over the years, and is now in his first starring role since 2008’s overlooked The Merry Gentleman.  Birdman is a film about the stage, mortality, social media, franchise filmmaking, and a lot more.  It challenges us with what’s real and what’s imagined.  And it does so with a steady fluidity that appears as though the director never cut away from the drama.  Like so many of this year’s films, Birdman is a film that arguably falters in its final moments, but unlike most films offers so much meat for its audience to chew on while reveling in fantastic performances by the likes of its star (Keaton), Edward Norton, and Emma Stone.

1. Under the Skin

Let’s just be clear right away: Under the Skin is not for everyone.  It’s challenging, esoteric, and trusts its audience to be smart and patient enough to go along for the ride.  If Paul Blart or The Expendables are your cup of tea, this is not for you.  That said, Under the Skin is a film that’s been creeping higher and higher up this list as the year comes nearer to its end; it’s a film I appreciate more and more over time.  I feel like it’s the kind of film that may not garner many awards this year, but will grow to be highly-regarded over time.  There are many reasons this is the case.  It’s weird.  I mean that in the best way possible, because there is intelligence behind its weirdness.  This is a film that has a lot to say and sparks hours of discussion.  It’s a film about female empowerment. A film about our society.  A film about body issues.  It is so many things while being, on the surface, simply about a woman (Scarlett Johansson) prowling around Scotland, trying to pick up men for mysterious reasons.  In truth, Scarlett has been on a non-stop streak since the beginning of the decade (we’ll forgive her for Lucy).   But here Scarlett is fantastic and gives one of her best performances.  Director Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast) has crafted a beautifully-shot head-scratcher that is sure to gain esteem over time.

Honorable Mentions: Snowpiercer, The One I Love, 22 Jump Street, The Theory of Everything, and Captain America: Winter Soldier.

Those are my picks for the year. What do you think are the best and worst?

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