Movies I Saw in 2014

“Edge of Tomorrow”

When people ask if I’ve seen any good movies lately, I tend to answer that, with three kids and a surfeit of side projects, I hardly ever get to watch anything. But looking back at the past twelve months, I realize that somehow I did manage to see a decent number of the year’s more notable releases. So, at the risk of running a blog post that really should have been published in December deep in the middle of January, here are some thoughts on the films I watched in 2014, in no particular order.

Life Itself
It’s a real testament to Roger Ebert’s integrity—not just as a critic, but as a person—that he refused to let his documentarian make a whitewashed, shallow film of his life; what got captured and put on the screen is frank and unsparing and brave. It’s also a lovely reminder of how rewarding a deep, abiding love of film can be. One of the year’s best.

The Grand Budapest Hotel
Director Wes Anderson’s previous outing, “Moonrise Kingdom,” struck me as overly preoccupied with artifice (I wrote about it three years ago in this post), so I approached this movie with little enthusiasm. But thankfully Anderson found a renewed ability to paint singularly rich characters that actually make the precious worlds he constructs around them somewhat sensible. A terrific, winning performance by Ralph Fiennes helped make this film a delight, and I walked away quite pleased, even though I found it was overpraised on other year-end lists.

I wrote effusively about this movie after seeing it in theaters in this post. Months later, I still regard it as a cut above everything else released this year; no other film was as effective at rethinking what is possible in cinema, at redefining the idea of “movie magic.” An astounding achievement that, for me, cements director Richard Linklater’s position as one of the very best filmmakers of our time.

The Lego Movie
Far, far more entertaining than a movie based on a line of toy bricks has a right to be. Still, at the end of the day it’s a movie about a line of toy bricks, and for me it never quite transcended those origins. Fun to watch, but overhyped, in my opinion.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and “Guardians of the Galaxy
Both of these movies do more with their genre roots than one can reasonably expect, and I enjoyed them. And yet, I can’t help but feel that the entire run of Marvel’s recent successes is really just a systematic lowering of our expectations. Even at their best, they’re still a shadow of the films that they so clearly emulate—“Three Days of the Condor” and “Star Wars,” to name just two in these examples. I don’t mean to imply that comic book films as a whole are regressive, just these. They were good, but they could have been so much better.

Edge of Tomorrow
It bewilders me how this movie ran aground at the box office while miserable trash like “Transformers: Age of Extinction” raked in the cash. “Edge of Tomorrow” is, if not original, then everything a popcorn film should be: vibrant, surprising and loads of fun. I’d recommend it to anyone.

This really small independent film has the whiff of gimmick all over it: Tom Hardy drives a car for eighty-five minutes and takes a bunch of calls on his speaker phone along the way. That’s it. And yet, “Locke” is surprisingly gripping and effective, a truly powerful demonstration of how few resources are truly needed in order to generate substantial drama.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
An astoundingly substantial entry in a decades-old franchise that has always danced on the edge of self-parody, if it didn’t frequently just trip right over into it. The nonsensically titled “Dawn…” somehow managed to make its premise not only believable but more deeply human than would seem possible in a film devoted to talking apes. I’ve approached every “Apes” sequel with dread, but after this one, I’m genuinely looking forward to the next one.

Gone Girl
I’ve been a David Fincher fan since his earliest films, but after watching “Gone Girl” I came to the realization that almost all of them, including this one, are gorgeously wrapped but deeply flawed. There’s always some absurd dramatic conceit that stretches credulity, some ridiculousness hidden just beneath the meticulously crafted surface. “Gone Girl” is cursed with this in spades, and I found it difficult to stomach, even notwithstanding Ben Affleck’s clumsy performance.

Speaking of ridiculousness, Christopher Nolan’s space travel epic is similarly plagued, but its sheer ambition more than compensates. “Interstellar” is flawed, but it’s so very good in so many ways that the flaws can be excused, at least for me. The movie is rife with filmmaking ideas that I had never seen before, spectacles in the very best sense of the word. It’s not clearly a masterpiece if it is at all, but it’s a truly amazing film nevertheless.

A Walk Among the Tombstones
Not to be mistaken with Liam Neeson’s other recent fare—no wolves are harmed and no vengeance is exacted in this surprisingly bookish, somber potboiler. It’s not a terribly consequential film, but in its quiet, small scale way it’s quite good—a grimy, unpretentious hard boiled mystery that holds the attention without resorting to spectacle.

Big Hero 6
The early reviews for this animated kiddie actioner were really, really encouraging, and I can see why. Its blend of antiseptic Disney charm and frantic Marvel super-heroics, underpinned with a decent degree of genuine heart, was engaging. But its story is so slight, and it rushes so quickly into pro forma explosions and fight sequences that its early promise is never really fulfilled.

Logistically, this is a shockingly well-executed film. Everything really came together to make it work, from a wonderfully taut script to the brilliant casting of Michael Keaton in a role only he could play. That cohesion had me riveted throughout, even through the movie’s barrage of vindictive tirades against…well against seemingly everything that ever displeased director Alejandro González Iñárritu about the entertainment business. At its core it’s actually quite an incoherent film, and, as it focuses entirely on the bubble of the entertainment industry, it comes off as more than a little self-important.

Under the Skin
A bizarre, spooky, not quite sci-fi thriller that defies easy description, backed by one of the most hauntingly effective soundtrack that I heard all year, courtesy of composer Mica Levi. This is director Jonathan Glazer most successful attempt yet to fuse contemporary fine art with the conventions of genre films; the result is vivid and unforgettable.

A load of over-the-top digressions knitted together into a semi-coherent whole, this bonkers movie about a dystopian future where the remnants of humanity are confined to a train that never stops running is ridiculous fun for a while. But it never manages to reconcile all of its crazy ideas, and sputters to a disappointing finish.

X-men: Days of Future Past
It was fine, I guess, with a few impressive scenes scattered throughout. But like its Marvel-produced cousins, it does better when measured against other comic book fare than against the broader context of more ambitious films. In the end, I found it to be flatly inessential.

Jodorosky’s Dune
A delightful, heartbreaking documentary about a wildly ambitious adaptation of Frank Herbert’s “Dune” novel that never came to be. The story of its abortive development is packed with amazing anecdotes and wonderful work that never made it to theaters, but the real treat is all the time viewers get to spend with the highly spirited, deeply inspiring Alejandro Jodorosky, one of those rare filmmakers who underestimate neither their audiences nor the power of film. Highly recommended.

Of course, there were plenty of films from 2014 that I actually didn’t get to go see, and that I still hope to. Here is a shortlist.

Okay, back to everything else I’m supposed to be doing instead of watching movies.