When I write these little anthologies, I try to avoid writing about the sequels as much as possible, because do you really need me to tell you yet again that “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” was awesome? No. But it should be noted that 2014 was a year with a few pretty radical sequels/reboots. In addition to the aforementioned “Winter Soldier”, we got:
- 22 Jump Street
- How to Train Your Dragon 2
- Guardians of the Galaxy (it’s KINDUVA sequel)
- The Equalizer
- The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part I
- The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (Just a very brief word about that last entry…as a stand-alone movie, it’s nearly plotless, but as the third act of a trilogy, in which massive forces finally come to a head, it’s effective…but it’s still no match for “The Lord of the Rings.”)
There were also a couple of clunkers (did anyone see “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For”?), but for the most part, the sequels were alright, with one of them being EXCEPTIONALLY good considering the way the franchise had been treated previously…read on to see what I mean. Here are nine of my favorite recommendations from the year 2014, listed in chronological order.
1. THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, 3/28/2014 – Once again, Wes Anderson creates a quirky, charming film filled with distinct visuals, outstanding character actors, and an indescribable sense of whimsy. The plot involves the concierge who managed a stately hotel nestled in the mountains of a fictional European country back in the ‘30s, with occasional flash-forwards to the ‘60s and the ‘80s, and there’s the question of a will and the disposition of a Renaissance painting and young love and a prison break, but really, the reason to see this is to watch the Wes Anderson “touch” in full bloom, even more so than in “The Royal Tenenbaums” (my personal favorite Anderson film). You’ll either love it or hate it…but it’s never boring, that’s for sure.
2. DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, 7/11/2014 – Here it is. The “Citizen Kane” of movies about talking apes. This is one of those sequels that people talk about when they say a movie is better than it should have been, or even needed to be. Gone are the clunky masks and limited facial expressions of the original films from the ‘60s and ‘70s. Motion-capture technology allows the acknowledged master of the medium, Andy Serkis, to embody Caesar with a gravity and nobility that must be seen to be believed. The movie depicts the growth – dare I say “evolution”? – of the ape culture extremely well, with scenes of astonishing depth and wonderment. (I loved the little throwaway scene of the orangutan teaching the alphabet to youngsters.) When the inevitable conflict arises with the remaining human population, I felt unexpected compassion with the forces desiring peace, even though I know that the requirements of the long-term storyline specifically prohibit any kind of peaceful resolution. This is a marvelous film, and it belongs on any list of sequels that are better than the first.
3. BOYHOOD, 8/15/2014 – Even if this movie wasn’t an exceptional accomplishment in and of itself, I would still recommend it for its scenes of unforced power and grace, depicting the small, normally uncelebrated moments in a young boy’s life that accumulate over the years to create a man. It’s not always “exciting” cinema, but it’s real. It never feels contrived or overwritten. Of course, the REAL reason “Boyhood” deserves a watch is due to the nature of the filming itself, which took place over the course of twelve years (!!!) using the same child actors during that span, which allows them to literally grow up before our eyes. This was such a bizarre experience that by the time the movie was in its latter stages, I found I was having trouble remembering what the young star looked like at the beginning of the film. What a great reminder of how the years change us and others. I’m not sure if or when we’ll see a movie like this again. (For something similar, look for the “Up” series of documentaries by Michael Apted; starting in 1964, he interviewed the same group of people every seven years, starting when they were 7 years old…he’s up to “63 Up”, released last year.)
4. WILD TALES, 8/29/2014 (Argentina) – “Holy s**t.” That about sums up my reaction the first time I saw this movie. (For the record, this is also the most financially successful movie in Argentinian history.) It’s a collection of six separate tales of people who have been pushed to the limits of their patience and who react with some unbelievably extreme behavior. The six tales are totally unrelated except in terms of the behavior on display; none of the characters intersect or overlap. There’s a suitably shocking opener on a plane, after which you’re strapped in for a roller-coaster ride of shocking acts involving rat poison, an unexpected flat tire, high explosives, a hit-and-run, and the world’s worst wedding reception. I can absolutely g**damn guarantee you have never seen anything like this. There doesn’t seem to be any over-arching grand statement, except this: Beware. You never know what some people will do when they’re pushed too far.
5. KILL ME THREE TIMES, 9/6/2014 (Australia) – Call this “Blood Simple Down Under.” Some might argue that the ending falls apart upon really close inspection, but to those people I say, “Phooey.” This is just a thoroughly entertaining examination of some very bad people doing some very bad things, although not very well as it turns out. Even the one character who has had the most experience at behaving badly (Simon Pegg, improbably, but effectively, cast as a stone-cold assassin) finds he has trouble following the mess left behind by his clients who are involved in a convoluted insurance scam. Double-crosses become triple-crosses, and at one point the assassin ingeniously figures out a way to get paid twice for the same murder…that he didn’t even commit. I don’t always like movies with very few likable characters, but in this case, it’s all done with great humor, great skill, and a great deal of fun. (I believe this may be available on Netflix…I could be wrong.)
6. IT FOLLOWS, 9/24/2014 – Gotta be honest, I didn’t much like this movie the first time I watched it, but after seeing it again, I am more appreciative of the skill used in its making. From the get-go, it generates an ‘80s-horror-movie vibe with the synth-heavy score, very John Carpenter-esque. Then there’s the less-is-more approach to the “big-bad” of the film. With the exception of two sequences that obviously had to use some CG trickery, all the scariness of this film is generated by simple shots of a person slowly, implacably walking towards the heroine. That’s all. Just walking. Not running, not sprinting, just…walking. It’s a fantastic device, especially when the villain is literally only a few feet away, and the heroine is – predictably – frozen with fear. The fact that this villain can assume the likeness of literally anybody was another masterstroke. I’m not sure I “get” the final sequence, but I have to say, it was a helluva ride getting there. I would classify this movie as “an experiment in fear.”
7. JOHN WICK, 10/24/2014 – Don’t talk to me about plot with this movie. The plot is simply a clothesline on which the filmmakers can hang some exhilarating action sequences featuring Keanu Reeves in full-on bad-assery mode. It is chock-a-block full of gonzo fight scenes, both of the fist and gun variety. It actually reminds more of the films of John Woo than anything else, especially in Woo’s Hong Kong heyday, the days of “The Killer” and “Hard Boiled.” As happened with Neo in “The Matrix”, Reeves so completely embodies this character, and is so dedicated to performing as many of the stunts and fights himself as possible, that it is impossible for me to think of anyone else besides Jackie Chan who might have been able to pull this off. (And even Chan would not have given the role the dead-eyed stoicism it requires.) “John Wick” delivers what it promises, nothing more. Anyone looking for depth of story should keep on looking. You’ll get none of that here. Just revenge, revenge, and more bloody revenge. Awesome.
8. INTERSTELLAR, 11/7/2014 – More so than most sci-fi films, “Interstellar” engaged and fired my imagination in a host of different ways. First there’s the “post-apocalyptic” scenario – Earth’s crops are mysteriously dying and mankind MUST find a new home – of which I’m so fond. Then there’s the concept of finding a new world in the farthest reaches of space, so far away that the distance can only be traveled via a wormhole parked in the vicinity of Saturn. WOW. Then there’s the idea that mankind was born here on Earth, but it was never meant to die here. I’m thoroughly aware of the challenges facing scientists when it comes to space travel, but I cannot help but believe that at some point in our future, technology can and WILL be developed that will eventually put us on Mars, which will be a stepping stone to even more distant journeys. I’ve been fascinated with these concepts since childhood, and “Interstellar” tapped into those memories of a wide-eyed kid wandering around the NASA Visitor Center in Virginia, or staring at the Saturn V rocket at Cape Canaveral. Say what you will about the improbable ending…I believe it follows a grand science fiction tradition of something coming to our rescue that is simply too big for us to comprehend. Yet.
9. BIRDMAN, OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE), 11/14/2014 – And I can already see your eyes glazing over. “Oh, Miguel, aren’t you sort of pandering to the Oscar voters now? This wasn’t REALLY the Best Picture of 2014, was it? Aren’t you just saying that so you can be one of the cool kids?” Well…no. I’m not. “Birdman” is a singular accomplishment, and I’m not talking about the long-take strategy used to make it appear as if the vast majority of the movie was performed in one single take. What elevates “Birdman” beyond its technique is the casting of Michael Keaton as the main character, a former Hollywood actor who made a fortune playing a comic-book hero called Birdman, but who now wants to make a name for himself as a serious actor in a Broadway play that he’s written and directed, and in which he stars. I mean, talk about a role that’s written just for YOU. Keaton’s performance is revelatory. The Oscar-winning direction by Alejandro G. Iñárritu is pitch-perfect. And the graceful choreography that manages to place everybody exactly where they need to be to maintain the long take strategy is breathtaking. And even aside from all of that, it’s one of the best backstage movies ever made, so it’s especially appealing to me as a community theatre actor. If you have somehow avoided watching “Birdman” because of reasons of your own, I cannot stress enough: this really was the Best Picture of 2014. It’s breathtaking.
OTHER NOTABLE FILMS FROM 2014: The Lego Movie, The Babadook, Edge of Tomorrow (hey, I liked it, leave me alone), Gone Girl, Whiplash, Big Hero 6. (Full reviews of “The Babadook” and “Gone Girl” are located elsewhere on our website.)