2014’s Top Twenty Films

Hello, hello my lovelies! It’s been… Well, it’s been a while. As most of you reading can probably tell, I took some time off blogging (and writing in general) to recharge the batteries a little, and get some of the old passion for it back. In truth, I was going to write a big post explaining about how it felt like a job or obligation, but as time went on, it just seemed easier to let it lie, and come back with a fresh burst of positivity and (hopefully) productivity. So, as customary, we start the new year with a couple of posts looking back at the old one. Video games will come shortly, I’m just a little late getting around to playing a couple. So first up, films!

20. How to Train Your Dragon 2

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I was that guy who didn’t really fall in love with the first How to Train Your Dragon. A lot of my friends love it, and assured me that as a fan of animated movies, I would too. But I didn’t. The whole thing was too montage-y for my liking, with not enough plot and stakes to keep me interested.

Fortunately, How to Train Your Dragon 2 solves this problem by introducing a new threat in the form of dragon kidnapping villain Drago. On top of a heartwarming plot featuring Hiccup’s mother (which was sadly spoiled by the trailers) the return of the excellent animation in the style of the first film makes this a much more rounded experience.

19. 22 Jump Street

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Well now, here’s a rare breed. A comedy sequel that’s actually funnier than the first? When was the last time that happened? And, this isn’t the only near miracle Phil Lord and Chris Miller pulled out this year (spoilers: they will be featured again on this list).

To be fair, the trick with 22 Jump Street seems to be to repeat the formula that made the first one such a success, but continually mock that process with meta jokes, including perhaps my favourite end credits sequence of all time. A mid film freak out by Ice Cube followed right away by a freak out by Channing Tatum is maybe the hardest I’ve laughed in the cinema in a very long time.

18. The Rover

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Let’s get this out of the way first as last: I was predisposed to like The Rover. I just love post-apocalyptic media, from the Fallout game series, through to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (even if it makes me want to curl up in a ball and never love again). And The Rover scratched that itch perfectly.

The plot is simple. It’s something of a picaresque story in which some men have stolen a man’s car, and he kidnaps their brother to convince them to give it back. But where the film truly comes alive is in the small encounters along the way, whether it’s Guy Pearce’s shockingly intense Eric getting caught up in a brutal gunfight, or Robert Pattinson’s Rey singing along mournfully to Pretty Girl Rock in a broken down car. Both actors turn in exceptional performances, especially Pattinson, who is on a tear of proving he’s more than a pretty boy franchise lead.

The gorgeous and desolate Australian outback provides the perfect backdrop as well, and is worth the price of admission on its own.

17. X-Men: Days of Future Past

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I’ll be honest, I didn’t have high hopes for Days of Future Past. Superhero films are dime a dozen right now, and I’ve never really thought much of Bryan Singer as an action director. But, having skipped it in the cinema, I got the blu-ray for Christmas and threw it in while resting after a massive turkey lunch.

And honestly? I had a good time watching it. It’s not quite as good as First Class, and the rest of the film never quite reaches the height of the one famous Quicksilver scene, but the battles with multiple mutants were good fun, and I will forever be happy with the casting of Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen as Professor X and Magneto.

As ever, Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine is the focus, but he appears to be having a good time here too, thanks in no small part I’d imagine to the engaging screenplay. It’s good stuff, and I’m now looking forward to X-Men: Apocalypse.

16. Killers

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Killers is one of those interesting films I discovered completely by accident when the trailer was attached to my blu-ray copy of The Raid 2. It’s the story of Nomura, a serial killer in Tokyo who posts videos of his murders online for the world, and his strange relationship with Bayu, a journalist in Jakarta who is provoked into vigilantism by an act of violence against him.

To say much more would give it away, but I was consistently gripped throughout the slow burn lead up to the final act. It’s the first film I’ve really sat and watched by the Mo Brothers, despite their popularity in the Indonesian film scene, but it absolutely will not be the last.

15. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

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When I saw Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, I had not seen Rise. It was shown in my local cinema as a secret screening before the general release, and while it was not necessarily the film I was hoping to see, it still kept me entertained for two hours or so.

The plot is somewhat simple. After most of mankind has been wiped out by simian flu (a dangling plot point from the first film, I’ve since discovered) a small band of survivors in San Fransisco need access to a dam in Caesar’s territory for power. It all culminates as you would expect, with monkeys riding horses dual wielding machine guns. Yes, that’s as awesome as it sounds, managing to overcome any misgivings I may have about the overly simple story, or the small role for Gary Oldman.

Monkeys riding horses dual wielding machine guns.

14. Nightcrawler

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Is there something about Drive that is making it a ‘my first art film’ for a legion of moviegoers? On the lead up to Nightcrawler‘s release, all I heard about it was people comparing it in various ways to Drive. As it turns out, Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom shares more DNA with Taxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle than he does with anything Ryan Gosling has touched.

While there isn’t much to root for in a character like Lou Bloom, he is thoroughly engaging to watch as he sinks further and further into moral depravity to get newsworthy footage for his employers. Nightcrawler is a genius satirical look at our current state of hysterical media and the violent content fed to us daily by the news cycle.

It’s all photographed on the seedy backdrop of nighttime LA too, and while pretty much any film student with a camera can make a city at night look interesting, the cinematography here stood out to me a long way.

13. Fury

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David Ayer exceeds at portraying masculinity with a touch of humanity. He pulled it off with a police squad in End of Watch, and now with a tank platoon in Fury. It’s exemplified by an extended sequence at around the halfway point of the film in which Wardaddy and Norman (Brad Pitt and Logan Lerman) hole up in the home of two French women as a means of taking a break from the war. It’s a sequence more fraught with tension than any of the tank battles around it as the rest of the squad finds them and proceeds to ruin the calmness of the moment.

Ultimately, that’s the point of Fury. The war catches up with them all eventually, sooner or later. It’s an exceptional war movie that would have easily cracked my top ten this year, were it not for the rather silly final battle, which took me out of the grounded reality of the film, and more resembled a video game power fantasy. Still, while it is good, it is very very good.

12. The Purge: Anarchy

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The Purge had a fun, if dumb, concept. What happens if all crime is legal for one 12 hour period every year? Unfortunately, it squandered the premise on a simple home invasion horror film. Anarchy aims to fix that, presumably by starting with the question, what if we take this world, and put Marvel’s Punisher in it?

That’s essentially the role Frank Grillo plays here. A former soldier, armed to the teeth, hell bent on a revenge quest. Add in four civilians who fall under his protection for various reasons, and a whole host of people who are out to kill them, including masked lunatics and a strange militia operating out of semi trucks, and you’ve got a much more kinetic, action packed ride than the first film provided.

In truth, The Purge Anarchy probably falls this high on the list because it reminds me of one of my favourite films of all time, The Warriors. It has that same structure of a group of stranded people, trying to get to a set destination with everyone else out to stop them. But the wider backdrop allows James DeMonaco to explore a bit more of the sorts of madcap things that could happen within the world of the Purge, and turns this into a franchise I suddenly have a lot more interest in.

11. Snowpiercer

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Snowpiercer should technically not have made this list, since I run on UK release dates. But with seemingly no movement by the Weinstein Company or Anchor Bay to actually bother releasing it here, I went ahead and ordered myself a blu-ray copy from America.

Much like Fury, it would have cracked the top ten had the ending been better. Without spoiling the specifics of what happens, the actual ending contradicts a key scene from earlier in the film in a big way, that dragged me out of the story. But up until that point, it’s a well paced, well written, well directed, and well acted action blockbuster, with claustrophobic set pieces, inventive action sequences, and interesting ideas.

10. Edge of Tomorrow

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Edge of Tomorrow might be the best film of 2014 that pretty much nobody saw. On release, it bombed at the box office, and the closest I can come to understanding why is that there is some sort of stigma around the personal life of Tom Cruise. Which is a shame, because he’s on top acting form here.

It doesn’t hurt that the engaging script provides him with an excellent character to bounce off in Rita, portrayed by a fantastic Emily Blunt. And while the overall plot setup of a man living the same day over and over again because of magic alien blood is a little dumb and video gamey, the excellent direction and editing really help elevate it and make it something more than the sum of its parts.

Edge of Tomorrow is that rare summer blockbuster that not only has a high concept, it executes on the idea in such a way that makes it both easy to grasp and enjoyable to watch from start to finish.

9. Gone Girl

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David Fincher is emerging as a man with two insidious talents. The first is taking something that would otherwise be just a trashy airport book (The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl) and making a serious piece of art out of it. The second is managing to extract a show stealing performance from the least likely source. He managed it before with Justin Timberlake (who was a powerhouse in The Social Network), and now in Gone Girl. Who’d have thought that in a film starring Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, and Neil Patrick Harris among others, it would be Tyler Perry of all people with a standout performance.

Not that the rest of the cast are slouching, mind. Everyone here is turning in some of the best work of their careers, especially a mid-film change up for Pike’s Amy Dunne that turns her from a submissive housewife into perhaps one of the most memorable characters of the year, if not the decade.

To say more would only spoil it for people who didn’t catch the film in cinemas, so suffice to say that Gone Girl is an exceptional thriller that should be watched spoiler free at all costs.

8. Blue Ruin

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When I first saw Blue Ruin at a preview screening, I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of it. It rests somewhere on the border of comedic and serious, levity and suspense. Perhaps the best way to describe it would be to say that it takes the revenge thriller genre and deconstructs it.

Whereas the vast majority of revenge flicks are about people living ordinary lives until something happens (usually the death of a spouse) the opening of Blue Ruin finds Macon living destitute out of his beaten down car, only allowing himself to be dragged out of his drifter lifestyle when he finds out the man who murdered his parents is being released from prison early.

The other key difference to note is that Macon is almost completely inept. The revenge actually comes in the first act, but he plans it so poorly, the meat of the plot is made up of him trying to fix that mistake. It’s especially interesting in a world packed with films like this where the hero is a cop or soldier that is nigh untouchable. It brings something fresh to a genre I love, albeit a well worn one at this point.

7. Interstellar

7 interstellar

Of all the films included on this list, I imagine that Interstellar will be the most controversial. And, if we’re honest, that’s mostly down to the big revelations in the third act (which I will not spoil here, fear not). I deliberated over whether to move the film up or down in the list, at one point having it somewhere below Gone Girl and even once considering not putting it in the top ten at all. But as a friend pointed out to me, whether you enjoy Interstellar will depend on your willingness to just go with it when the moment comes. And I did.

Frankly, it’s the sort of big idea metaphysical science fiction that the blockbuster space could use more of. I could spend a paragraph talking about how good Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway are, but you already know they’re good actors. And you already know Christopher Nolan is a competent director.

Interstellar resides somewhere alongside smaller modern sci-fi features like Duncan Jones’s Moon or Neill Blomkamp’s District 9, albeit on a much larger scale. Nolan earned a major amount of studio cache with his uber successful Batman trilogy, and if this is the sort of passion project he chooses to spend it on, more power to him.

6. The Guest

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I missed The Guest in the cinema. I totally wanted to see it, but in the UK it came and went within a fortnight. And it just happened that I was in Florida for the entirety of that period. Then of course, it opened in America right after I left. A case of unfortunate timing, but a real shame.

A colleague described The Guest to me as “like Drive, but good”. His rather controversial opinion of Drive aside, I’m not sure I see it. The Guest feels more to me like Barrett and Wingard’s tribute to John Carpenter. Everything from the colour palette to the in film title treatment oozes that action meets horror 80’s feel, and much like when they turned the slasher genre on its head with the mindboggling last act of You’re Next, they pull it off here too.

There is always a danger with films like this that pay homage to past filmmakers that too much emulation will result in a diluted product, but the team have come on in leaps and bounds since their earlier successes, and both script and direction are confident enough to put their own particular stamp on Carpenter’s well trodden ground. It’s all but confirmed that Barrett and Wingard’s next project is a remake of Korean thriller I Saw the Devil. While I normally roll my eyes at the thought of foreign films being Americanised, The Guest is strong enough that I’m actually looking forward to seeing what they bring to an adaptation of one of my favourite films.

5. The Lego Movie

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I guess I gave this one away earlier when I said that Phil Lord and Chris Miller would appear again in the list, but honestly, how did this happen?! Not only did Lego have brand stake in this film, but so did Warner, with a huge number of the DC slate appearing. There was every reason going in for The Lego Movie to be the dullest, most uninspired piece of 90 minute advertising in the whole year.

Instead, what we get is something that I could easily imagine would be a Youtube project put together by art students giggling at how counter culture they’re being. Parts of The Lego Movie are so off the wall ridiculous, it really feels like Lord and Miller have got away with something, especially in their near perfect representation of Batman.

Although, as funny as The Lego Movie is, its true strength lies in its core message. Themes of individuality, creativity, and even the sanctity of children’s play time really help to ground the zaniness of it all, providing a strong backbone that holds the whole thing up. The fact it wasn’t even nominated for Best Animated Feature at the Oscars is an utter travesty.

4. Boyhood

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I was up and down on Boyhood for a while. The first time I saw it, I just didn’t quite see what everyone else seemed to. It was very impressively made, and I loved the performances from Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, and Ethan Hawke. But there was just something about it that didn’t quite click with me, perhaps the lack of an overarcing story.

And yet, after its theatrical run, I didn’t quite stop thinking about it. So, I came back to it a second time, and I don’t know if it was a case of having different expectations going in, but it just worked for me the second time through. And the third. Boyhood is perhaps one of the truest slices of life ever put to film. Yes, there isn’t much of a plot to it really. And there are things set up early in the film that are never brought back or resolved. But in a way, that’s what life is. We go through chance encounters and connections with people who we never see again, we love without being loved in return, we grow and change imperceptibly slowly over the course of years.

Ultimately, Boyhood is twelve years in the lives of a family, set in a just under three hour film. And for what it sets out to achieve, it’s damn near perfect.

3. Guardians of the Galaxy

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Last yearPacific Rim was my favourite film because sitting in the cinema watching it was the closest I came to feeling like I was back in 1997 watching Star Wars for the first time on the big screen. This year, that happened with Guardians of the Galaxy.

It was big, it was fun, it was a Marvel comic book movie in the form of a space adventure. Pretty much everything about it worked, even an out of left field show stealing performance from Dave Bautista.

It’s a film that worked so well, it managed to make me feel emotional over a sassy raccoon and a talking tree. And if that doesn’t say it all, I’m not sure what else will. If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve already seen it. If not, you probably should.

2. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

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I won’t lie, given the proliferation of blockbuster comic book movies in recent years, I feel a bit weird about Marvel taking my number two and three spots this year, but this really was a banner year for them.

Being totally honest, the first Captain America didn’t quite work. It was an hour of build up to his origin, then another hour to give us a montage of sequences to lead him into the modern day and get Avengers rolling. It never really set out to tell its own story, and fell down in the process.

Winter Soldier remedies that. It’s essentially a hard boiled spy thriller, the kind with shadowy government agencies, double crosses, big twists… The sort of thing where Robert Redford is a perfect piece of stunt casting at this point. The real genius of it all however, is taking a character who is so black and white in terms of his morality, and putting him headlong into this world to show how he deals with it.

Perhaps most surprisingly of all, the film works best when it focuses on letting these characters be human beings. A heart wrenching scene where Steve Rogers visits an aging Peggy Carter, the odd couple friendship he has with Natasha Romanoff. Unlike Avengers where every character just seemed to serve as a mouthpiece for snarky one liners (thanks for that trend Joss Whedon), characters in Winter Soldier have actual conversations! There is organic humour rather than forced quips! Honestly, the whole thing is just a huge breath of fresh air.

1. The Raid 2

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I imagine people will accuse me of bias, since I live only a few miles from where director Gareth Evans was born. But, damn. The Raid was an action masterpiece, taking the claustrophobic framework of Die Hard and building a showcase for Indonesian martial art silat around it. The story ended in the first film with wider implications of corruption in Jakarta’s police force, and it’s here The Raid 2 picks up, opening literally hours after the first film ended.

Bigger isn’t always better, but in this case, opening up the story to a much larger stage really benefits it. Whereas the first film had an extremely narrow focus, The Raid 2 is a sprawling crime epic, putting former cop Rama undercover into a mob war between a local Indonesian family, the rival Japanese Goto family that they have an uneasy peace with, and a third faction led by an enigmatic man named Bejo who is intent on disrupting this peace at all costs. Throw in the aforementioned corrupt cops, and it’s a story that absolutely needs the two and a half hours taken to tell it, rather than feeling like a case of a film being inflated beyond its needs (looking at you here Transformers: Age of Extinction).

It does admittedly become apparent that much of the plot setup is an excuse for protracted action sequences, but by the time we’re an hour in and being introduced to Bejo’s assassins (one of whom is a girl who uses a pair of claw hammers to take out a subway train full of guys in what feels like a slight nod to Oldboy), I had stopped caring. The writing is engaging enough to support it, and even when it does begin to flag, there’s a heartstopping action scene just minutes away, ready to drag you back in.

The climactic fight, pitting Rama against Bejo’s lead assassin in a kitchen, is easily one of my favourite action scenes of all time. Definitely top ten, if not top five. The way it’s so expertly choreographed, and how it ramps up in intensity. Honestly, the first time I saw it, I nearly threw up out of sheer excitement. And that, ultimately, is why The Raid 2 is my favourite film this year. It doesn’t quite have the nostalgia of Boyhood or the zaniness of The Lego Movie or the pedigree of Gone Girl. But when I go to the movies, I go to be entertained and excited by what’s happening on the screen. In terms of that sheer joy, The Raid 2 just can’t be touched.

———————————————————————-

Phew, and that’s that. I’ll be back soon with my top ten games of 2014 (just finishing up Far Cry 4 first), and then doing posts where I try to guess my top games and films for 2015. After that, who knows? But I’m looking to get back into blogging on a fairly regular basis, so hopefully there’ll be no more hiatuses for months at a time.

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