Each film on the following list was available (either theatrically, on DVD, or through streaming services) in the Milwaukee area for the first time in 2014. Due to the vagaries of international film distribution, most of these films had their world premieres in 2013, and a handful of these films won’t get a wider release in other parts of the world until next year, but for the purposes of this list these are 2014 releases since they were the ones I had a reasonable opportunity to see for the first time in the past year. Here are a few quick lists explaining why certain notable films didn’t make the cut.
Movies that I really want to see but haven’t gotten around to yet
Life Itself (Steve James, USA, 120 min.)
Norte, the End of History (Lav Diaz, Philippines, 250 min.)
A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhang-ke, China, 133 min.)
A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhang-ke, China, 133 min.)
Whiplash (Damien Chazelle, USA, 107 min.)
Movies that I really want to see that haven’t yet made it to the Milwaukee area
The Duke of Burgundy (Peter Strickland, UK, 101 min.)
Force Majeure (Ruben Ostlund, Sweden, 118 min.)
Goodbye to Language (Jean-Luc Godard, France, 70 min.)
Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA, 148 min.)
It Follows (David Robert Mitchell, USA, 100 min.)
The Look of Silence (Joshua Oppenheimer, Denmark, 99 min.)
Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, Belgium, 95 min.)
1) The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, USA, 100 min.)
For a film that was clearly meticulously storyboarded and choreographed, The Grand Budapest Hotel is remarkably light on its feet. Nothing else in cinemas this year was as consistently delightful. Wes Anderson is often criticized for repeating himself, but here his familiar diorama aesthetic has been refined to such a perfect sheen that viewers may feel like applauding at regular intervals. The plot is too deliriously complicated to sum up in a quick paragraph, but suffice to say it follows the adventures of a classy hotel concierge (Ralph Fiennes) and his trusted lobby boy (newcomer Tony Revolori) in 1930s Europe. The film breathlessly incorporates elements of spy capers, heist films, and even the prison break genre, and handles it all with a grace that makes a good argument for Anderson as the sharpest filmmaker of his generation. At many points the production values favorably recall such classics of cinematic opulence as Ernst Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait (1943) and Powell and Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), but the comedic sensibility clearly belongs to Anderson himself. The outstanding supporting cast (filled out with a combination of Anderson regulars like Adrien Brody, Owen Wilson, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, Edward Norton and Willem Dafoe, and ringers like Mathieu Amalric, F. Murray Abraham, Jude Law and Tom Wilkinson) dwarfs that of any other film released this year in both overall talent and sheer size. It’s true that the characters themselves aren’t quite as emotionally resonant as those in Rushmore (1998) or The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) – the thinly developed romance between the lobby boy and Saoirse Ronan’s character feels like little more than a quirky plot device, for example – but the epilogue alluding to the encroaching influence of fascism has a lingering melancholic power.
2) Boyhood (Richard Linklater, USA, 165 min.)
Richard Linklater has famously toyed with temporality in the series of romantic films he’s made with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, in which we check in on the progress of a long-term relationship every nine years, with the actors aging accordingly. He explores some of the same ideas from a different angle in Boyhood, which was filmed gradually over a period of twelve years and edited into one film, allowing viewers the unique experience of watching the protagonist (Ellar Coltrane) age from a child to a young adult before our very eyes for real. The film wisely sidesteps conventionally dramatic “coming of age” moments in favor of the type of low-key personal interactions that we tend to recall as special memories years later. The sweep of a fictional character’s childhood has never been so convincingly captured on film before, and the members of Coltrane’s biological family (Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, and Lorelei Linklater) are so vividly realized that it’s not hard to imagine equally satisfying alternate edits titled Manhood, Womanhood, or Girlhood. Linklater did a commendable job of maintaining a consistent tone and feel for the film over its extensive filming period. This is not an experimental series of vignettes, but a fully-fledged film that rivals the quality of nearly anything in its director’s impressive filmography. There are a few pacing issues in the last hour, as the film piles on a few more climaxes than it needs (even if the ending that Linklater ultimately lands on is just about perfect), but the overall experience is so distinct that the handful of rough edges are forgivable.
3) Manuscripts Don’t Burn (Mohammad Rasoulof, Iran, 125 min.)
Manuscripts Don’t Burn isn’t the first howl of despair from an Iranian filmmaker decrying the extremely difficult, even life-threatening, conditions facing the nation’s intellectuals. What sets writer-director Mohammad Rasoulof’s latest film apart from the pack is that it realistically and graphically details the horrors of living under a fascist regime rather than couching its tale in layers of suggestive allegory – a particularly bold stance given that Rasoulof is currently in the early stages of a 20-year ban on filmmaking levied by the very government officials that the film pulls no punches in attacking. The situation is so dire that the names of the cast and crew had to be left out of the credits for fear of retribution, but that didn’t stop Rasoulof from launching an impassioned assault on his government’s oppressive corruption. This situation called for blunt force rather than subtlety. Thankfully this is not merely an important piece of agitprop, but also a suspense film as gripping as any action blockbuster of recent memory. That Manuscripts Don’t Burn feels like a full-fledged thriller (albeit one with a purposefully muted style) is remarkable considering that it was made clandestinely. The narrative, drawn from real life, follows a pair of impoverished workers hired to execute a group of writers threatening to publish a story exposing a particularly heinous government act. Amazingly, Rasoulof manages to make one of these killers a nuanced, at times even sympathetic, character, who struggles with crippling debt and mounting guilt even as he grimly fulfills the demands of his job. The fact that the filmmakers could extend that level of empathy to the type of person who threatens their lives on a daily basis ensures that Manuscripts Don’t Burn is not just an urgent message to the world but also a powerful piece of humanism.
4) Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski, Poland, 80 min.)
Before taking her vows in a 1960s Polish convent, a young novitiate nun (Agata Trzebuchowska) takes a road trip with her bitter communist aunt (Agata Kulesza), where she learns that she is a Jew whose parents were killed during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Director Pawel Pawlikowski tackles heavy themes in a disarmingly tender manner, putting the focus on the semi-comic developing relationship between his mismatched lead characters rather than forcing any broad statements about religion, politics, or the Holocaust – and suggesting persuasively that the nun’s faith is just as likely to be tested by her first exposure to the music of John Coltrane or her budding sexuality as by the revelation of her family history. Pawlikowski wisely lets his incredible black and white imagery do most of the talking, and in Trzebuchowska he found the year’s most mesmerizing camera subject.
5) Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, UK, 108 min.)
Jonathan Glazer’s hypnotic puzzler starts with a rote sci-fi premise about an alien (Scarlett Johansson) who seduces and kills lonely men, and craftily sidesteps the expected clichés by embracing a boldly surreal, borderline non-narrative approach. Few films this year were as purely cinematic. Many of the year’s most disquieting images – a man trapped in a prison of oil spontaneously combusting, Johansson being totally unaffected by a blazing sunlight shining directly on her eyes, the alien staring at the still-blinking face that it’s just removed – were captured here by cinematographer Daniel Landin. His evocative imagery works in perfect harmony with Mica Levi’s nervy string score to keep the viewer simultaneously entranced and off-balance, just like one of Johansson’s victims.
6) Nymphomaniac, Volumes 1 & 2 (Lars von Trier, Denmark, 240 min.)
Lars von Trier’s latest provocation is thankfully not the “porn film with movie stars” that it was rumored to be. Instead it’s the cinematic equivalent to Kanye West’s Yeezus – an insane collision of high art and bad taste that seems designed to confound both the fans and detractors of its controversial creator. The narrative is structured around an eight-part conversation between Charlotte Gainsbourg’s sex addict and Stellan Skarsgard’s intellectual, and while it tells an engaging story about Gainsbourg’s character it also plays out like a dialogue between von Trier and his critics. The film is drowning in references to von Trier’s career, with allegorical nods to his Dogme ’95 movement mixed with flagrant remixes of shots, scenes, and plot elements from his other works. Each section has its own tone and style, which inevitably results in some uneven quality but also ensures that the film is never boring. In fact this is probably von Trier’s most conventionally entertaining film to date despite its extreme content and length. Two standout moments – the epically sarcastic meltdown of the wife (Uma Thurman) of one of the nymphomaniac’s conquests, and a shot where Gainsbourg is framed in between the erect penises of two men arguing in an unsubtitled African dialect – were as funny as anything in theaters this year.
7) Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy, USA, 117 min.)
When we first meet Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) he barely qualifies as a petty thief, but a chance encounter with a freelance film crew shooting footage of a car crash gives him the ambition to start capturing his own lurid footage to sell to the highest bidding news station. When the crime scenes aren’t vivid enough to give Bloom the shots he needs he decides to take matters into his own hands. The cynical commentary on “if it bleeds it leads” journalism is hardly revelatory, but the specifics of the story are gripping, and not just because Gyllenhaal is so frighteningly, hilariously committed as the creepy, platitude-spouting protagonist. Veteran screenwriter Dan Gilroy proves effective in the director’s chair, and shows his versatility with the year’s most surprising action scene, a riveting climactic car chase.
8) The Past (Asghar Farhadi, France, 130 min.)
Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s follow-up to his masterpiece A Separation (2011) is another morally complicated and emotionally charged drama revolving around the damage caused by the collapse of a relationship. Though the action has been transported to France, The Past does feel at times a little too similar to Farhadi’s previous triumph, as if the writer-director is as paralyzed by his own recent history as his characters are. Yet it’s hard to fault the film too much for its slight feeling of déjà vu when the results are this assured. No one else working in cinema is on Farhadi’s level when it comes to story structure, and the level of verisimilitude in both the script and the performances of the ensemble cast is spellbinding.
9) Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, UK/Germany, 123 min.)
Leave it to Jim Jarmusch to find a fresh take on the increasingly crowded vampire subgenre. The writer-director is less interested in creating scares or wallowing in doomed romanticism than in using his undead main characters to take stock of his own obsessions (classic literature, underground music, the work of Nikola Tesla, the cityscapes of Detroit and Tangier) as they become increasingly ignored by the modern world. Jarmusch treats the material with his usual deadpan wit, but his sincere reverence for various forms of art from all eras of human history is genuinely touching. As usual his great taste is abundantly evident in the film’s eclectic soundtrack and lush visuals, and Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton are ideally cast as the world’s oldest, most undead hipsters.
10) Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves, USA, 130 min.)
The latest installment in the long-running Planet of the Apes franchise is the most impressive since the 1968 original. For a movie that prominently features gun-toting, horse-riding simians, this is surprisingly emotionally grounded, politically nuanced, and even poignant. The massive action set pieces consistently deliver in a way that they didn’t in any of the year’s other blockbusters, and are all the more effective for coming in service of an engrossing storyline about the tension between the hyper-intelligent apes that rule the film’s future Earth and a small band of humans who need resources on the apes’ land. Exceptional CGI work and terrific performances (from the likes of Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, and Andy Serkis) make the scenario feel convincing, and the screenplay allows even the warmonger factions of both the human and ape societies understandable and sympathetic motivations. This is what summer blockbuster filmmaking should be.
B Very Good
11) Blue Ruin (Jeremy Saulnier, USA, 90 min.)
Veteran cinematographer Jeremy Saulnier’s directorial debut puts a refreshing spin on the tired tropes of the gritty revenge drama by consistently demonstrating that the vengeful party (Macon Blair) is completely in over his head in pursuit of the backwoods clan who were involved in the murder of his parents. Rarely has violence been depicted as such hard, thankless work as it is here. Blair never becomes an unstoppable badass, but remains a meek everyman even when he’s committing acts of horrific violence, which adds to the tension of the story even as it gives it a moral dimension lacking in the average thriller.
12) The Immigrant (James Gray, USA, 120 min.)
James Gray’s lavish love triangle between a Polish immigrant (Marion Cotillard), a pimp (Joaquin Phoenix) and his magician cousin (Jeremy Renner) genuinely plays like a melodrama from Hollywood’s Golden Age. The crucial difference between this and the average “women’s picture” of yesteryear is that Gray never allows Cotillard to be a simple victim, and he gives Phoenix plenty of room for a bracingly uncomfortable depiction of violent self-loathing. Hopefully Gray will work to develop his own distinct style with his next film, but his devotion to old-fashioned aesthetic virtues here makes for an impressive throwback.
13) Live Die Repeat (aka Edge of Tomorrow) (Doug Liman, USA, 113 min.)
Tom Cruise plays a smug military PR man forced to relive the same disastrous battle over and over again until he gets it right, in this unexpectedly clever and well-organized sci-fi action film. It’s basically Groundhog Day (1993) as a special effects-heavy blockbuster, but the filmmakers mercifully spare us the boring exposition and simply throw the viewer into the premise, allowing us to be just as disoriented as the protagonist in the early going. The puzzle narrative is impressively fluid, and the filmmakers continually find smart and surprising ways to vary the repeated scenario. Perhaps inevitably, the film does lose a little steam once the heroes figure out exactly what needs to be done, but the quality of the storytelling prior to that point made this the nicest surprise of the summer blockbuster season.
14) The Tribe (Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, Ukraine, 130 min.)
Told entirely in unsubtitled Ukrainian sign language and without the aid of background music, Miroslav Slaboshpitsky’s bold feature debut earns credit for its sheer stylistic audacity. The narrative is so elemental, and the sign language so expressive, that it’s never a challenge to follow the tale of a young man’s initiation into a fearsome gang at the school for the deaf that he attends. Cinematographer Valentyn Vasyanovych’s masterful Steadicam tracking shots drop the viewer right in the middle of this closed-off world, and the results are utterly transfixing, at least in the early going. As the film progresses it becomes dispiritingly clear that this stylistic innovation is being used in service of an increasingly nihilistic story that climaxes in a series of scenes of pointless ultra-violence. Still, this is a rare film that offers a genuinely new method of telling its story, and that goes a long way toward making up for the deficiencies of the narrative itself.
15) Young & Beautiful (Francois Ozon, France, 95 min.)
A 17-year-old girl (Marine Vacth) loses her virginity during summer vacation, and by autumn she’s working as a high-end call girl. No explanation is given for this drastic career move, and little is revealed about how Vacth feels about the profession or her sexuality, as if writer-director Francois Ozon started with the question of why a young woman would become a prostitute and then, not finding an obvious answer, simply decided to respect the mystery. At times Ozon’s decision to keep his protagonist’s psychology so close to the chest is frustrating, but the ambiguity makes the film intriguingly difficult to pin down. It’s less the tawdry exploitation film that its premise would seem to suggest than an elegant tone poem about the complexities of budding sexuality, with any given scene just as likely to be creepy, funny or sad as erotic. A memorably puzzling climax featuring a cameo by Charlotte Rampling suggests that the young call girl is just as lost as we are.
16) The Missing Picture (Rithy Panh, Camobida, 92 min.)
Footage of the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge is scarce, but director Rithy Panh was there, and he’s recreated his memories here with static shots of clay figures. The layer of abstraction presented by this unusual device allows the film to be more than just another litany of abuse, and gives it an emotional vitality that’s lacking in most documentaries of its type.
17) Her (Spike Jonze, USA, 126 min.)
Joaquin Phoenix plays an introvert who develops an intimate relationship with a Siri-like operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) in Spike Jonze’s fourth feature film. Jonze wrote the screenplay himself this time around, and while it’s tempting to imagine the more biting and conceptually bold script that his frequent collaborator Charlie Kaufman might have developed from the same premise, there are also some clear advantages to Jonze’s gentler approach. For instance, the heartbreaking scene where the operating system attempts to make physical contact with Phoenix might have stood out less in a more satirical film. Phoenix’s raw nerve performance is very affecting, and Johansson finds the perfect balance between warmly human sexiness and coldly computerized precision. The film is also subtly visually impressive, with Jonze making smart use of contemporary Shanghai location shooting to create a futuristic city on a budget.
18) Like Father, Like Son (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan, 121 min.)
In its broad outlines, this story about two couples who find out that their children were switched at birth sounds like a Lifetime melodrama, and the fact that the character that gets the most screen time is a workaholic businessman (Masaharu Fukuyama) who gradually learns that there are more important things in life only reinforces that notion. Thankfully the writing and directing is in the hands of Hirokazu Kore-eda, one of cinema’s most patient and observant chroniclers of human behavior, who allows the story to unfold organically and convincingly without giving in to the temptation for easy melodrama or crowd-pleasing heartwarming moments.
19) Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea/Czech Republic/USA/France, 126 min.)
The tired post-apocalyptic thriller gets a fresh spin in Bong Joon-ho’s energetically campy adaptation of a series of French graphic novels. In the wake of an ice age, the surviving members of the human race live aboard a gargantuan train powered by a perpetual motion engine, eternally circling around a world-wide track. The poor live in dirty, cramped quarters in the back of the train while the wealthy live in relative comfort up front. One dissident (Chris Evans) from the caboose hatches a plan to assassinate the train’s mysterious leader, and the film follows his increasingly gory and surreal rebellion all the way to the engine room. The level of eccentric detail on the train set recalls dystopian classics like Brazil (1985), and the many action set pieces become increasingly deranged as the action moves toward the front compartments. Eventually the breakneck pacing becomes exhausting, and the broad social commentary never gets past the surface level, but this is still one of the most fun and baroque action films of recent memory.
20) They Came Together (David Wain, USA, 83 min.)
The romantic comedy genre gets the full Wet Hot American Summer (2001) treatment in this frequently hilarious spoof from most of the same cast and crew.
B- Good but flawed or insubstantial
21) Gone Girl (David Fincher, USA, 149 min.)
David Fincher’s adaptation of 2012’s best-selling mystery novel is limited by the trashiness of its material but is nonetheless a marvel of craftsmanship. Screenwriter Gillian Flynn reportedly changed very little in adapting her book for the screen, but Fincher and his crack production team give the film an effectively chilly modern noir mood that makes it easy to look past (or at least be entertained by) the shallowness of the outlandishly campy story. Giving away too much of the narrative would spoil the fun – particularly given how much an outlandish mid-film twist changes the game – but suffice to say that the film revolves around the suspicious behavior of a struggling writer (Ben Affleck) in the aftermath of the mysterious disappearance of his socialite wife (Rosamund Pike). Fincher and Flynn keep the plot momentum high (the two and a half hours fly by), but the atmosphere of creeping menace is a lot more convincing than the characters’ actions are. Pike, in particular, has trouble navigating a character who displays few recognizable human characteristics.
22) Interstellar (Christopher Nolan, USA, 169 min.)
The high-tech showmanship on display through Interstellar is so mesmerizing that it’s frankly frustrating that director Christopher Nolan (and his brother/screenwriting partner Jonathan) felt the need to structure their heady concepts around a blandly sentimental story about the relationship between an astronaut (Matthew McConaughey) and his daughter (played at different ages by Mackenzie Foy, Jessica Chastain, and Ellen Burstyn). Intriguing notions about time and space travel are impressively visualized by Nolan and his stellar production team – the space sequences are even more convincing than in last year’s Gravity, despite this film’s less plausible scenario – but Nolan keeps trying for broad Spielbergian emotional moments that are simply out of his range. The only time that the film’s “human element” is fully convincing is during the tense build-up to the reveal of one astronaut’s space madness. More often the film gets into shamelessly corny tear-jerking territory, particularly during a brutally protracted climax. Nolan’s skill is cramming big ideas into a blockbuster format. He should leave the simple stuff to somebody else.
23) Into the Woods (Rob Marshall, USA, 125 min.)
Even for those of us who haven’t seen Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical on stage, it’s clear that Rob Marshall’s film adaptation has been compromised by a Disney corporate mandate to make the story more kid-friendly – which is a serious problem considering that the story is about classic fairy tale characters being forced to come to terms with adult problems. The set design lovingly transfers the look of classic Disney animated films to live action in the first half, while the painful emotional moments in the second half of the story are largely sped through or glossed over. Still, the film benefits from Sondheim’s exceptionally sophisticated score and from the fine performances of a game ensemble cast.
24) Mood Indigo (Michel Gondry, France, 94 min.)
The third film adaptation of Boris Vian’s 1947 novel Froth on the Daydream suffers from excessive whimsy but nonetheless charms thanks to the boundless visual inventiveness of director Michel Gondry. The couple (Romain Duris and Audrey Tautou) at the center of this story has the depth of stick figures, which makes it hard to get invested in either their meet-cute or the tragedy that occurs when she develops health issues. But on a purely formal level the film is a constant delight, offering up something strange to look at in every frame.
25) Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn, USA, 121 min.)
Yet another in the endless parade of Marvel movies, though this one distinguishes itself by being an old-fashioned space adventure (like a wittier, funkier version of the Star Wars films) rather than another superhero origin story. Thankfully co-writer/director James Gunn keeps the tone light by focusing on zippy action and broad comedy, instead of straining too hard for the grittiness that most recent blockbusters aim for. The pacing of the film is too hectic and the plot too convoluted for the stakes to ever be entirely clear, but the individual elements are so fun that the big picture hardly seems to matter.
26) Patema Inverted (Yasuhiro Yoshiura, Japan, 99 min.)
This charming anime has a sci-fi concept perfectly suited to the visual freedom of animation. A scientific disaster has split the world into two radically different societies, one made up of the “inverts” whose reverse gravitational pull has forced them to live underground for fear of falling into the sky, and another of surface-dwellers who have been taught that they are a superior race. Writer-director Yasuhiro Yoshiura hasn’t thought through what he wants to say with the film’s muddled allegory (beyond the obvious “respect each other’s differences” message), and the inevitable star-crossed romance between members of the different societies is nothing we haven’t seen before. Yet the film’s odd conceit and gorgeous hand-drawn animation are enough to keep it compelling throughout.
27) Of Horses and Men (Benedikt Erlingsson, Iceland, 81 min.)
The feature debut of writer-director Benedikt Erlingsson is a series of interconnected vignettes revolving around the men of an isolated farm community and their equine companions. Though it never reaches the surreal heights of its obvious stylistic inspiration Songs from the Second Floor (2000) it does have some dryly funny moments of its own, and it sometimes comes across as the world’s most deadpan sketch film. The first two segments, concerning respectively a pompous horse rider’s humiliation when his mare is humped mid-jaunt, and a drunkard taking his horse into deep water to score some vodka from a passing boat, are highlights.
28) 22 Jump Street (Phil Lord & Christopher Miller, USA, 112 min.)
The follow-up to 2012’s surprisingly popular 21 Jump Street reboot gets a lot of energy from its “anything for a laugh” sensibility, and from the infectious chemistry between stars Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, but at nearly two hours it could’ve used a little editing.
29) Birdman (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, USA, 119 min.)
Watching severely earnest director Alejandro Gonzelz Inarritu (previously best known for cheesy “everything is connected” dramas like 2006’s Babel) try to make a meta comedy is reminiscent of U2’s strained attempts to embrace irony in the ‘90s. Irreverence is simply out of the director’s wheelhouse: he’s just as nakedly desperate for acclaim as his protagonist, a faded comic book movie star (Michael Keaton) attempting to write, direct and star in a Raymond Carver stage adaptation. Inarritu also can’t kick his habit of piling on miseries for his main characters, and here he saddles Keaton with several estranged relatives, an insanely difficult co-star (Edward Norton), and a bevy of critics who can’t wait to discredit his theatrical debut. It’s all too bitter to be funny. Inarritu’s sledgehammer aesthetic doesn’t work for comedy, but the technical virtuosity on display is undeniably striking (albeit too indebted to 1963’s 8 ½ to qualify as innovative). Most of the film is presented as if it were an uninterrupted shot, an impressive trick that ace cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki pulls off effortlessly. It’s also great to see Keaton, one of Hollywood’s most underutilized actors, get a role that allows him to fully display his nervous energy.
30) Noah (Darren Aronofsky, USA, 138 min.)
Darren Aronofsky approaches the Biblical tale of Noah the same way that Peter Jackson deals with The Hobbit: expanding on a simple story by filling in the missing details, adding context from related texts, and turning brief sentences from the story into vividly detailed action sequences. The results are messy, with serious ruminations about faith coinciding with shots of giant rock creatures getting pelted with flaming arrows. It’s as if The Last Temptation of Christ (1987) and Waterworld (1995) were awkwardly welded together into one movie. The competing artistic agendas only gel in one scene (a psychedelic montage depicting the Christian creation story), but it’s bracing to see the Bible treated in such an eccentric manner in a major Hollywood production. Aronofsky deserves credit for his reckless ambition even though it lead to an atypically incoherent film.
31) The Wind Rises (Hayao Miyazaki, Japan, 126 min.)
For what will allegedly be his swan song, the great animator Hayao Miyazaki returns to his lifelong passion for flight with a fictionalized biography of Jiro Horikoshi, designer of the aircrafts that Japan used in WWII. Despite being animated, the film still feels awkwardly hamstrung by biopic conventions, particularly during an interminable stretch where Horikoshi tends to his ailing wife. This might have been more excusable if Miyazaki were merely following the events of Horikoshi’s life, but it is especially problematic considering that the director invented many of the biographical details himself. Structural issues and prestige picture clichés are only part of the problem with the script, which constantly raises questions about Japan’s military history only to shrug them off in favor of whimsical ruminations about the wonder of flight. Why does Miyazaki hint at political issues at all if he has no interest in commenting on them, and why did he choose the biopic format if he was going to alter so many details of his protagonist’s life (and only come up with a generic personal story anyway)? While this is the director’s most confused and muddled film overall, it still boasts the charming handmade aesthetic that has been Studio Ghibli’s signature for decades. The animation is unbelievably gorgeous and the sound design, which includes plane engine noises that are clearly being made by actors’ mouths, boasts the kind of simple playfulness that too many animated films lack.
32) Night Moves (Kelly Reichardt, USA, 112 min.)
This slow-burn thriller (not to be mistaken for Arthur Penn’s 1975 neo-noir of the same name) finds Kelly Reichardt stepping out of her comfort zone to tell the tale of three eco-terrorists’ (Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, and Peter Sarsgaard) attempt to blow up a hydroelectric dam. A scene where Fanning is tasked with buying a large amount of nitrate fertilizer from a rightfully suspicious store owner (James Le Gros) achieves the combination of suspense and modest human drama that Reichardt seems to be aiming for throughout the film, but the rest of the story feels almost senselessly muted and vague. Even the nature of the relationship between Eisenberg and Fanning’s characters, which the story arc of the film revolves around, is kept pointlessly ambiguous, leaving the fine actors with little to work with.
33) The Interview (Evan Goldberg & Seth Rogen, USA, 112 min.)
Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen have consistently brought a welcome level of ambition to the stoner comedies they’ve been involved with, and this farce about two tabloid journalists (Rogen and James Franco) enlisted by the CIA to assassinate Kim Jong-Un (Randall Park) has their most audacious premise yet. Unfortunately the film largely avoids biting satire in favor of scatological humor. Some of it is still pretty funny, but for a movie depicting the graphic death of a current world leader it’s pretty tame.
34) Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Anthony & Joe Russo, USA, 136 min.)
Though slickly directed by Anthony & Joe Russo (veterans of ambitious sitcoms Arrested Development and Community), the second film in the Captain America franchise is ultimately just another in the endless assembly line of Marvel superhero movies. The governmental conspiracy scenario is fairly involving – and it’s a clever touch to cast Robert Redford, hero of classic paranoid thrillers like Three Days of the Condor (1975) as a corrupt official – but the story is weighed down by its need to service the increasingly convoluted Marvel Films continuity. It would be great to see someone make a fun, simple 90-minute comic book movie instead of another of these overcomplicated behemoths.
35) The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga (Jessica Oreck, USA/Ukraine/Russia/Poland, 73 min.)
Perhaps no film could live up to such a memorably insane title. Jessica Oreck’s freewheeling essay touches on ancient Slavic folklore and modern ecological issues while quoting liberally from various philosophical texts, but winds up being less than the sum of its parts. This type of film doesn’t have to make a clear point to be effective – Chris Marker’s Sans soleil (1983) is a masterpiece even if no one could realistically sum up what it’s about – but it does have to form its disparate parts into a compelling whole, and the material in Oreck’s film never quite gels. Parts of the film are quite effective, particularly the animated interludes recounting the legend of Baba Yaga (a forerunner of Hansel & Gretl), and Paul Grimstead’s haunting ambient soundtrack. But there are too many dull stretches that break the spell.
36) The Expedition to the End of the World (Daniel Dencik, Denmark, 90 min.)
A group of artists, scientists, philosophers and sailors travel beyond Greenland’s rapidly melting ice mastiffs and into uncharted territory in this intriguing but ultimately directionless documentary. Despite featuring a polar bear attack, a bracing soundtrack consisting largely of heavy metal, and even the discovery of a new species, Daniel Dencik’s film winds up feeling like a fairly generic travelogue. Certainly it suffers from comparison to Werner Herzog’s similarly titled and themed Encounters at the End of the World (2007), which is vastly more eccentric. The scenery is gorgeous, but the film never develops a point of view beyond a general bemusement regarding humanity’s insignificant role in the universe.
37) 20,000 Days on Earth (Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard, UK, 97 min.)
Directors Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard deserve credit for attempting to make their look at Nick Cave more stylish than a standard-issue documentary, but the periodic footage of the Bad Seeds onstage suggest that a straightforward concert film would’ve been far more riveting.
38) Godzilla (Gareth Edwards, USA, 123 min.)
Warner Brothers deserves some credit for putting this blockbuster in the hands of young director Gareth Edwards (previously best known for 2010’s micro-budgeted Monsters), who intelligently films and edits the footage of Godzilla and his insectoid foes in ways that put the audience in the shoes of the cowering human characters. Edwards’ skill with kinetic action sequences should make the film gripping, but there is an odd lack of danger in the major disaster sequences. The lack of blood or human casualties in the city-destroying set pieces suggests that the filmmakers were constrained by pressures to turn in a PG-13 edit, and as a result the film feels far less visceral than it ought to. The talented ensemble cast is largely wasted as well. Bryan Cranston has room to imbue his stock character with some genuinely intense pathos, but Ken Watanabe, Elizabeth Olsen, Sally Hawkins, Juliette Binoche, and David Straithern are just on hand to deliver exposition or serve as fodder for the monsters.
39) The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies (Peter Jackson, New Zealand, 144 min.)
In the end, it’s clear that Peter Jackson’s decision to split J.R.R. Tolkien’s slim novel into three epic-length films was less about generating extra revenue than about creating the world’s costliest piece of fan fiction. Yet it’s hard to argue that Jackson’s fanaticism yielded better results than more cynical motivations would have. In treating every minor footnote of the text as fodder for enormous blockbuster spectacle, Jackson ironically turned his films into the kind of generic fantasy bombast that Tolkien’s novel gently parodied. Tellingly, ostensible protagonist Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) seems to have less screen time in the final installment than standard-issue warrior Thorin (Richard Armitage). Jackson hasn’t lost his skill for presenting huge battles with clarity (even if his overreliance on CGI makes much of the movie look like video game cut scenes), but it’s a shame that he seems to have lost interest in everything else.
40) X-Men: Days of Future Past (Bryan Singer, USA, 131 min.)
Director Bryan Singer’s return to the X-Men franchise makes an ambitious attempt to simultaneously follow up on the little-loved The Last Stand (2006) and the enjoyable prequel First Class (2011) by uniting both films’ casts through a convoluted time travel narrative. The novelty of the premise is appreciated (and leads to some unintentional humor as huge stars like Halle Berry have their roles reduced to brief cameos) but stylistically the film does little to stand out from the endless wave of superhero movies. Aside from one memorable moment featuring playful manipulation of time during a frantic shootout, there is little here that doesn’t feel generic.
41) A Field in England (Ben Wheatley, UK, 90 min.)
Ben Wheatley is one of the most exciting talents in modern horror, largely due to his skill at unpredictably mixing in elements from other genres – which makes it all the more disappointing that his latest is a generically trippy psychedelic nightmare that feels too slavishly indebted to decades-old head films to feel truly avant-garde. The black and white cinematography is excellent throughout, and the inevitable druggy freak-out at the climax is sharply edited, but for the most part the film is a bore.
42) The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part One (Francis Lawrence, USA, 123 min.)
For all its glossy blockbuster showmanship, this still feels less like a proper feature of its own than it does “bonus content” linking last year’s surprisingly strong Catching Fire with the upcoming Mockinjay – Part Two.
43) The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (Marc Webb, USA, 142 min.)
The second film in the popular yet wildly inessential Spider-Man reboot is kids’ stuff, for better and for worse. It’s refreshing to see a modern comic book movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously, but it’s also dispiriting to see enormous production resources and an excellent supporting cast (including Jamie Foxx, Sally Field, and Paul Giamatti) wasted on a glorified Saturday morning cartoon. Though the film thankfully avoids the forced grimness of most recent action blockbusters, its convoluted storytelling and interminable length feel all too familiar.
C- Below Average
44) The Purge: Anarchy (James DeMonaco, USA, 103 min.)
James DeMonaco’s quickly produced sequel to last year’s surprise horror hit The Purge is more ambitious and action-packed than the original, which makes it all the more disappointing that it’s even more heavy-handed and poorly thought-out. The scenario, in which a ragtag group of lower-class citizens band together to try to survive an annual tradition where all crime is legal for a 12-hour period, offers non-stop opportunities for entertaining high camp ala Snowpiercer, but DeMonaco treats even his most ridiculous ideas with a grim solemnity, as if he thinks he’s teaching the viewer valuable lessons about institutional violence and classism. Can we please get someone with a sense of humor to write and direct the inevitable 2015 edition of this series?
45) Robocop (Jose Pedihla, USA, 117 min.)Jose Pedihla’s remake of Paul Verhoeven’s popular 1987 action-satire hybrid makes some promising early attempts at social commentary, but ultimately focuses so much of its energy on being a gritty origin story that it winds up feeling like just another generic action franchise reboot. Allusions to the war on terror and drone warfare are dropped quickly in favor of interminable scenes of the hero (Joel Kinnaman) adjusting to his new cyborg body. By the time the film reaches its protracted “get to the helipad” shootout finale it feels like we could literally be watching any action movie from the past several decades.