Happy New Year Everyone
Before I give you my listing, the three films that moved in and out of my top ten deserve to be mentioned as well. One last minute film bumped “Saving Mr. Banks” off the list. “About Time” was on the list at one point but was bumped by “Saving Mr. Banks”. “12 Years A Slave” is a fine film and hovered on the edge for me. Ultimately I was just not moved in the same ways that everyone else seems to be by it. The horrifying depiction of human cruelty may have suffered because I’m not sure how repeatable the experience is for me. This is not really a list of the “Best” films of the year, it simply represents my set of favorites. It is of course subjective, but I could enjoy seeing all of these multiple times. The original reviews are available by clicking on the posters shown below.
This is a social movement film that describes an important change in the American character and the greatness of one man. Jackie Robinson achieved his place in sports history not just because he was the first black player in the major leagues, but also because he was a great player and a courageous man. The story will probably be seen by many as too conventionally told but it hits all the important emotional points and it works on each of them. It also has the advantage of having my favorite movie poster of the year. The image to the left here depicts a baseball move, but look at Robinson’s right hand, it is raised and clutched in defiance. The fact that this horizontal activity is depicted vertically, makes it more interesting and maybe even symbolic. Harrison Ford gives a terrific performance as Branch Rickey, the baseball man who saw the future.
9. The World’s End
This movie is on the list for one reason, it made me laugh and it made me laugh hard. I was chuckling all the way to the car after the movie was over and still laugh just thinking about it. Simon Pegg has become one of my favorites in the last few years. He has a comic persona but can play a good dramatic turn as well. I was late to “Shaun of the Dead” but “Hot Fuzz” was on my radar before it opened and i was there that first night. The idea that these films are in any way connected story wise is just part of the joke that everyone seems willing to go along with. The set up of the movie was excellent and the characters were played straight. When it takes a sharp turn two thirds of the way in, we are willing to go along because the characters were so strong to begin with. I know I will be watching ten or fifteen minutes of this every time I run across it, and I know that if I have the time, I will end up finishing it.
8. Drew: The Man Behind the Poster
As a movie, this documentary about the illustrator Drew Struzan is pretty conventional. There are a lot of talking heads sharing opinions and telling stories. The fact that those talking heads belong to some of the greatest film makers of the last thirty years is what begins to tell you there is something different here. I looked forward to this movie for about a year before it opened. I love movie posters and I love poster art. Too many posters now are simply photoshop creations. Some of them are attractive but they are rarely artistic. Drew Struzan makes art. I’m not sure I know how one distinguishes illustrator from artist, but I am confident that Mr. Struzan is esteemed by people in both fields. The movie played at a film festival here in Southern California and that’s what allowed me to meet both the director and the subject. Each of them was gracious with the few moments i spent talking to them and it was a highlight of the year for me.
7. American Hustle
In terms of quality, this may be the best picture of the year. I thought it was extremely well written and turned an interesting historical event into an entertaining story with some clever additions of romance and “Sting” like story deception. As a collection of performers it would be difficult to find a cast that did a better overall job than this one. All of the major characters are effective in their roles with special attention going to Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence. These two women are the current generations version of Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck, sexy in non conventional ways and talented as all get out. This is director David O. Russells third film in a row to knock it out of the park, he is in the sweet spot of his career right now and we are lucky to be a part of it.
6. Evil Dead
The thing that most scared me when I knew this was coming was that it would suck. The original “Evil Dead” is a touchstone horror classic from the 1980s and it was straight out frightening. The sequels went more for humor mixed with scares but the original practically invented the cabin in the woods genre of horror movies. The one thing that gave me some confidence was that the original film makers were overseeing the new crew and they would not want their legacy to be tainted. Some of the other sites I read did not like this but i thought it was everything I hoped it would be. There was gore in service of the story and characters, the effects are for the most part practical, there are some good subtle nods to the original without becoming campy and best of all, it was frightening.
5. The Conjuring
That’s right, I’ve got two horror films on my ten favorite list and they are back to back. Where “Evil Dead” goes for the visceral horror, “The Conjuring” is more suspenseful and builds to it’s frights. There a smashing opening that seems to have little to do with the later events but of course in the end it will be connected for us. This is a moody, haunted house piece that does not reinvent the genre, it just does it’s job efficiently and with professionalism. There are CGI moments but they are used with restraint, which seems to be the main problem I have with most films in this genre, when it’s time for the boogie man to show up, it is often not as frightening and sometimes it is visually distracting.
This movie looks amazing. The images could convince you that it was filmed on location. I have seen a couple of pieces critical of the science or a storytelling technique or two, but those criticisms miss the bigger picture. This is an ambitious film, told on a grand scale about some of the most intimate feelings we as human beings have. While others have been beating the drum for Cate Blanchett as the best female performance of the year, I know in my heart and in my brain, that Sandra Bullock completely owns this move and this solar system. If you go to the movies to be wowed, than this is the movie to go to. It impressed me repeatedly. This is the kind of movie that 3D IMAX films were made for. I hope it will translate to other platforms because the story and the performance deserve equal attention to the look of the movie.
3. The Way, Way Back
One of those little movies that can, does. A coming of age story that has a few twists and a genuinely appealing performance from Sam Rockwell. The scenario is a little complicated but the story is conventional. The characters are incredibly real and the dialogue is full of sparkling insights about growing up and relationships. Allison Janey will slay you every time she opens her mouth. This is a funny film that has some genuine heart and the performances are winning. It crawled under my skin and just stayed there, daring me to try to rid myself of the warm happy feeling it gave me. I expect this to be a summer perennial at my house.
The real life story of a Formula One rivalry from more than thirty years ago did not seem to be something that I would fall in love with. I’m not a race fan and although I vaguely remember the incident, it was not of historical significance. None of that mattered once these characters came alive on screen. The fascinating point of the story is how competition compels us to make ourselves better and that competition means someone else is challenging us. The two lead actors are excellent and the race sequences are well staged. Somehow this movie pulled me in and as I sat in the theater after it was over, I could hardly contain my enthusiasm for the film. This movie has disappeared from most people’s radar for end of the year accolades, I say it easily is better than the new Scorsese film and equal to the other films that are being bandied around now. This is an adult film for grown ups who want to be intelligently entertained, not shocked or pandered to.
This film contains a more subtle performance from Matthew McConaughey than the one he gave in “Dallas Buyers Club”. I prefer it but both of those roles are terrific showpieces for an actor who has been slumming in rom-com world for far too long. Here’s the thing though, McConaughey’s performance is not the best one in the movie. That was provided to us by a child actor named Tye Sherida. Kids performances may be hard to gauge because sometimes they are just being kids and that’s all the part calls for. This was a lot more complicated and difficult and he pulled it off while being surrounded by a pretty impressive cast. This film came out in April and is now making the rounds on cable. Be sure to take some time to see it. The less you know about it, the more I think you will enjoy it. From the time I saw it, it was on the top of my list and nothing that has come since has been able to dislodge it.