Matt’s Best Movies of 2014

1. Begin Again

Only a couple of times a year (if we’re lucky), a really special movie comes along. These movies usually don’t make a big splash. They aren’t hailed with much fanfare. They don’t make much of a dent in the box office. Hardly anyone in the moviegoing public even notices that they are released. If I mention them in conversation, the person I’m talking to stares at me blankly and says “I haven’t heard of that” (followed by the inevitable question, “who’s in it?”). “Begin Again” was this year’s really special movie.

What movies like “Begin Again” are able to do is evoke feelings, sympathy, emotion on a level on which most other movies rarely even aspire to reach. The minute the characters are introduced, you feel like you know them. Their struggles, their challenges become important to you. For 90 minutes or so, you feel like these characters are your friends, your family. You want them to win like you want your friends and family to win. Their success (or failure) resonates on a level that feels almost personal to you.

In past years, I’ve called movies like this one “magic.” It’s hard to spot a magic movie. You don’t know that it’s coming. But when you’re watching it, you feel it. This one definitely fits the bill.

If you’re into music – how it’s made, the process of writing, recording, and releasing music – this movie is for you. But here’s the thing: even if you’re NOT all that interested in the music world, but you love well-made movies, this movie is ALSO for you. I’m not hugely into music like I’m into movies (Louisa, on the other hand, is passionate about music) but we both loved it and reacted to it for different reasons. That, to me, is the hallmark of a great movie.

SO: watch the trailer. If you’re intrigued at all, please do yourself a favor and check it out; it’s available on DVD and for download now. But if you’re going to watch it, PLEASE do me a favor and turn off all distractions – turn off your phone, turn down the lights, and just let yourself get transported to the world of Gretta and Dan. It’s magic and crazy good.

2: The Raid 2 (a/k/a The Raid 2: Berendal)

American film directors spent all of the 2000s and most of this decade emulating the Paul Greengrass “Bourne” style of filming action sequences – and we’ve all suffered for it. Example: in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” there’s a scene early in the movie where Cap squares off with a baddie played by famed MMA fighter Georges St-Pierre. The characters fight for a good 2-3 minutes, and we the audience HAVE NO IDEA WHAT’S GOING ON because it’s impossible to follow the action. That’s because there IS no action – I later heard from someone close to Mr. St-Pierre that during filming he was never even in the same room as Chris Evans (who plays Captain America). All of the supposed “action” was later created through multiple cuts. That fact alone says everything you need to know about modern action moviemaking. CGI and fast cutting have become the lazy man’s substitute for skilled filmmaking. “The Raid 2” is the polar opposite of that.

The criticism of this movie is that the plot is needlessly complicated and confusing; to get some idea of what it’s like, imagine “The Departed” and add about 10 more characters and layers of complexity. I don’t disagree with any of those criticisms. In fact, it took a second viewing for me to fully appreciate and understand how the characters and their groups related to one another. You shouldn’t HAVE to watch a movie twice just to be able to get who was fighting who and why.

“The Raid 2” is also the magnum opus of an expert filmmaker, Gareth Evans. With “The Raid 2” Mr. Evans, single-handedly schooled virtually every filmmaker working today in how to make an action movie. “The Raid 2” is chock-full of intricately-choreographed action set pieces that set a new standard for how action scenes should be filmed; instead of blurring due to quick cuts, the action in this movie is only blurry when the actors are moving too quickly for the camera to follow them.

This movie is badass from start to finish, and sets a new standard by which all other action movies should be judged. If Hollywood was smart, it would do everything it could to entice Mr. Evans to come to America and teach American filmmakers how to direct action. If you love action movies (and don’t mind lots of gore), see “The Raid 2.” Don’t avoid it because of its subtitles; you will be depriving yourself if you do.

3: Fury

David Ayer’s masterful follow-up to “End of Watch,” “Fury” is about the crew of a tank pushing deep into enemy territory during World War II. There was so much to like about this movie.

First, I loved how in “Fury,” we get to see a side to WWII that we don’t often get to see in movies. I think many of us tend to lose sight of the fact that WWII was a real conflict, with real people, real violence, and real consequences. Our involvement in WWII was morally just, but that didn’t make the death, gore, pain and destruction any less real for the men and women on both sides who lived it.

“Fury” puts us there, in the tank, with a five-man crew that had to depend on one another to find success against tremendous odds. We see the world, and their limited options, from their perspective. We see the consequences of violence from their perspective. We get an idea of what it must have been like to be them.

Not only that, but “Fury” was incredibly entertaining and extremely well-acted. Shia LaBoeuf may or may not be crazy, but he’s a damn fine actor and had two very memorable roles in 2014 with this and the “Nymphomaniac” movies. Brad Pitt was, once again, a solid lead, and Michael Pena and Jon Bernthal were flawless. Absolutely one of the best movies of the year.

4: Whiplash

Miles Teller plays a student at a prestigious music school competing for a spot in the school’s jazz band, led by a demanding and merciless instructor (played by J.K. Simmons). Not a compelling description, I know.

If you told me, at the beginning of the year, that a movie about a drummer would be one of the most pulse-pounding, exciting, and frenetic movies of the year, I would never have believed you. But “Whiplash” was all of those things. This movie was well-acted, expertly directed, and utterly compelling from start to finish. J.K. Simmons will get a “Best Supporting Actor” nomination for this role, and he deserves it. Miles Teller may be a putz in real life, but he did one hell of a job in this movie.

5: Nightcrawler

In his freshman effort, director Dan Gilroy created one of the creepiest, ickiest, and most memorable movies of 2014. Jake Gyllenhaal plays a “nightcrawler” – a videographer who tries to be first on the scene of any accident or tragedy, hoping to sell his blood-soaked footage to local news stations fighting to get ratings.

What’s most impressive about Nightcrawler is that, through its depiction of characters and the moonlight L.A. streets that they work in, it captures and conveys that little-seen world in a way that transports you there. And it does so impassively: instead of judging its characters and their amorality, it simply depicts them and leaves all judgment to you, the viewer. Because it didn’t seek to validate or criticize, Nightcrawler succeeds as a character study that is also highly entertaining.

One more thought: I have never been much of a fan of Jake Gyllenhaal, but holy hell, his performance in this movie was one of the most memorable of 2014 and clearly establishes him as one of the best actors working today.

6: Interstellar

One of the frustrations of being a film fan is that the industry is becoming more and more homogenized, more and more predictable, and more and more repetitive as the years pass. As budgets continue to increase, studio executives are becoming increasingly risk-averse and, as a result, from year to year the big-budget blockbusters start to look more and more alike; the product of focus-grouped entertainment calculated to evoke the greatest response and, therefore, the highest returns at the box office.

While this trend towards safety and predictability sometimes spawns great event movies that can define pop culture (e.g., the new “Star Wars” movies), more often it results in a generic uniformity. The plot points of “Superhero vs. Bad Guy 3” become virtually indistinguishable from those in “Prehistoric Monster vs. Society 4.” I’m not being facetious; with the large number of movies I see, it’s actually difficult to remember what kind of world-destroying threat faced civilization in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” versus “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” versus “Transformers: Age of Extinction.” Reduced to their essence, each movie is one massive jumble of CGI crap, virtually indistinguishable from the other.

Against this background, we have “Interstellar.” Christopher Nolan is one of the few directors working today on whom studios are willing to take a big risk, spending over a hundred million dollars on a completely new and novel story featuring characters and a story line that is not easily franchised. Was “Interstellar” a perfect movie? No. But it WAS interesting and played with big ideas in a way that was so very different than other big-budget movies. It’s so very good to see someone like Dir. Nolan be able to explore big ideas in a big way on the big screen.

Recently, a Facebook friend minimized the controversy surrounding the on-again, off-again release of “The Interview” by acting as though Hollywood’s problems aren’t that important in the grand scheme of things. I disagree. Hollywood matters. Hollywood and the entertainment industry are still able to, and do, sway public opinion. Hollywood is able to change minds; Hollywood is able to inspire action. Want proof? Ask Sea World how the movie “Blackfish” has affected its business (answer: Sea World’s business is down 50% since the movie was released). Look at how quickly momentum, and public opinion, has shifted towards supporting marriage equality. If not for Hollywood, these changes would be far slower.

With “Interstellar,” Christopher Nolan is playing with big ideas in a way that he hopes to capture the public’s imagination and attention. The U.S. space program is hurting because we, as taxpayers, haven’t been willing to fund space exploration. Mr. Nolan is trying to change that through creating a piece of entertainment that is also inspiring. As a result, I can forgive the film’s relatively minor flaws. By looking to spur our imagination and encourage our creativity, Mr. Nolan isn’t merely creating entertainment (although the movie is very entertaining); he’s trying to change minds and shape the future. And that, my friends, I respect and appreciate.

7: John Wick

Remember what I said before (in my review of “Blue Ruin”) about revenge movies? For me, a well-made revenge movie has an unfair advantage over other movies because I’m predisposed to like them. And “John Wick” was exceedingly well-made.

There’s not much to “John Wick” in terms of story (and it absolutely follows the revenge movie “formula” that I laid out in my review of “Blue Ruin”): bad guys piss off our hero by beating him and killing his dog. Our hero, who was previously content to live his life in quiet solitude, is provoked by bad guys and goes on a rip roaring rampage of revenge (phrase borrowed from my favorite revenge movie, “Kill Bill”). The action sequences were filmed with care and precision, so that you can actually tell what’s happening (a rare occurrence in action movies these days). It’s violent, bloody, satisfying, and utterly entertaining . . . everything I look for in a revenge movie. See also: “The Equalizer,” which was almost (but not quite) as good as “John Wick.”

8: Edge of Tomorrow (a/k/a Live, Die, Repeat)

Often described as “science fiction meets Groundhog Day,” “Edge of Tomorrow” was far and away one of the best science fiction movies in recent memory. The visuals were fun and interesting, but more importantly, the story was compelling and coherent, driven by strong, memorable, and human characters.

I’ve never made a movie, but I have to think that making a movie like this one must be a major challenge. How do you keep the audience engaged and make the story compelling when the characters are repeating the same day, over and over again? Director Doug Liman figured out how to do exactly that.

While the film started to suffer from “how-do-we-end-this-itis” during the third act, the movie and its characters were still strong enough overall to carry the story and end on a high note. This was one of the most interesting movies of the year and its place on my top 10 list is well-deserved.

9: Blue Ruin

I make no secret of it: I love revenge movies. I’m a sucker for them. I have to acknowledge, however, that revenge movies – even the best revenge movies – are somewhat formulaic: 1) guy or girl has a shadowy past where he or she was a trained assassin, secret agent, or cop; 2) guy or girl has retired from said life, and now just wants to be left alone and live quietly; 3) bad guy or guys commit bad act against our hero or heroine (or against someone close to him or her), either knowing or without knowing of the hero / heroine’s shadowy past; and 4) hero / heroine gets pissed off and wipes out the bad guys. Which is why “Blue Ruin” was such a surprise and a fresh new entry into the revenge genre.

After slightly tweaking the revenge formula (our hero is not a retired badass but is instead a drifter living out of his car), “Blue Ruin” asks the question: you’ve had your revenge. So what now? That person or people you just killed have friends, family, or loved ones, and now you’ve suddenly made yourself the bad guy of THEIR own storyline. Who have you endangered by doing that? Where does the cycle of revenge end? Does it end with every last person dead?

I saw “Blue Ruin” at Sundance this year and it stayed with me and will be one of the movies of 2014 I remember best. Writer-director Jeremy Saulnier is a fresh and exciting new voice in cinema and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

10: The Hundred-Foot Journey

Please don’t take away my man card for loving this movie; I promise there are some hardcore “guy” movies on the list, too. I couldn’t help but fall for this one.

The premise is simple enough: a chef and his family are forced to move to France when their home and restaurant in India is destroyed. They move to a small town and open their own Indian food restaurant across the street from an already-established, famous restauranT. The locals (and particularly the established restaurant owner) are hostile at first, but quickly change their attitudes by the power of the chef’s cooking.

This movie was small in scale but rich in texture; the characters were all well-developed, their relationships with one another truthful, and their struggles real. And don’t get me started about the food porn in this movie. . . you can’t watch “The Hundred-Foot Journey” without wanting to immediately go out and eat some amazing food. I’m salivating right now just thinking about it.

HONORABLE MENTION:

11. Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead
12. The Lunchbox
13. Pride
14. The Grand Budapest Hotel
15. X-Men: Days of Future Past
16. Chef
17. The Equalizer
18. The Drop
19. The Imitation Game
20. The Fault in Our Stars

The other movies that I really liked this year, and think are worth watching, are (in no particular order): The Guest, Laggies, Mr. Peabody & Sherman, About Last Night, Veronica Mars, Sabotage, Walk of Shame, Million Dollar Arm, The Rover, The Purge: Anarchy, If I Stay, The Maze Runner, St. Vincent, Dumb and Dumber To, Dom Hemingway, The Homesman, Night Moves, The Skeleton Twins, Snowpiercer, Odd Thomas, Cold in July, The Gambler, Hercules

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