Blog: The Best Films of 2014 . . . so far!

| August 9, 2014


The mid-point of 2014 passed on July 2nd, but by that point I hadn’t seen enough movies to fill a “so far” list. Now, here in mid-August, I’m pretty happy with the 9 films I’ve selected as the best and the 4 that I have selected as the worst. The trend thus far in the year is that indie films seem to be flourishing while Hollywood continues to tread safe waters of brand names and reliable genres.  With four-and-a-half months to go, this list will inevitably change, but here goes: The Best (and worst) Films of 2014 . . . so far.

Let us begin . . .


#9. Guardians of the Galaxy
Director James Gunn gives the superhero genre just what it needs – an injection of pure fun. All the way, this movie looks and feels as if someone is trying to make a cult film, and if that is their intention then they’ve succeeded beautifully. It’s also a risk for Marvel Studios because unlike The X-Men and the Avengers, The Guardians aren’t exactly a household name. They’re hardly even third string benchwarmers, and the movie opens with a perfect commentary as the hero, called Star Lord, introduces himself to  his adversary, who retorts “Who?” That’s appropriate. I’d never heard of the Guardians, but apparently they’re a rag tag group of wannabe superheroes who are chased across the galaxy after they come in possession of a silver ball that – say it with me – Has the Power To Rule the Universe. The plot isn’t the point, it’s the characters that work. Star Lord is Peter Quinn (Chris Pratt) a space jockey who sells junk for a living. He’s flanked by the assassin Gamorra (Zoe Saldana), a muscle man Drax (pro wrestler Dave Bautista) who talks like a pulp novel; a genetically altered raccoon named Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and his walking house plant named Groot (Vin Diesel). This movie was fun all the way. It was funny, lively and containes a gallery of goofy supporting characters that remind you of great sci-fi comedies like The Fifth Element, Brazil and Buckaroo Banzai. I’m sure the movie will be a mega-hit, it deserves to be.

#8. The LEGO Movie
In a year of thin soup for animated pictures, this one was an exhilarating ball of fun. It’s a bright, colorful, quick-witted adventure that stretches the animated form as far as it can possibly go, spinning its characters into other dimensions and other realms. like “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” and “Toy Story” the animators open the visual canvas to create something really special and distinct. The story takes place in a world comprised entirely of LEGO, a world that keeps changing and remaking itself based around the functions of the toy itself. Our focus is on a generic worker brick named Emmett Brickowski (voiced by Chris Pratt from Guardians of the Galaxy), who is perfectly happy in his brick-a-day world until he is recruited to save the world from President Business (voiced by Will Farrell) who wants to glue the world together and keep it from ever changing again. What follows is the head-spinning adventure in which the entire makeup of the world keeps changing. We get cameos by William Shakespeare, Gandalf, Superman, Han Solo, Chewbacca, Abraham Lincoln, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, C-3PO and Shaquille O’Neal. We visit a pirate world, a cowboy world, a subterranean world and many more. This is a bold piece of work. At a time when most animators are satisfied to simply tell generic stories with no imagination or creativity, here’s a movie that has it to spare. This is what an animated movie should be.

#7. The Normal Heart
This movie shook me up, and had me still feeling its effects for days afterwards. Directed by “American Horror Story” creator Ryan Murphy, it tells another horror story, one that his great anthology series could never be able to capture. Based on the play by Larry Kramer, The Normal Heart tells the story of the earliest days of the AIDS epidemic, but pinpoints a very acute and important moment in the history of gay Americans. It opens on Fire Island in 1980, just as the era of disco hedonism was giving away to the era of caution and safe sex. After decades of shame and oppression, gay men were just beginning to assert themselves sexually but then had to cull their sexual adventures in light of an unknown disease that was infecting and then killing them in large numbers. Our focus falls on a pudgy Jewish reporter, Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo), who tries and fails to get some measure of help for those who are dying simply because they have been written off as sinful freaks of nature whose condition is a punishment from God. Yes, the movie is preachy and often one-sided, but what is special is that Murphy gives the film a funerary tone. There are long spaces of time when we feel the weight of absence of those who have succumb to AIDS, and therefore we feel the helplessness of those who are affected by it. This is a dark, and sometimes difficult film to experience, one that is unsettling in its tone and mood. The latter half of the film has the feeling of a wake, not just for an individual, but for thousands of individuals who have died needlessly and for the thousands who will soon meet the same fate.

#6. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
This great adventure by Andy and Joe Russo was possibly the closest approximation of what a thoughtful superhero movie might look like, at least in terms of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. No, it isn’t as psychological as The Dark Knight, nor is it the rock star epic of Iron Man, this movie actually tells a good story. More than that, it is a reminder of the great espionage thrillers of the 1970s like The Parallax View or and Three Days of the Condor and Marathon Man, films made in the days before brain power and good writing were replaced by shaky-cam and stunt fighting. The story builds from nothing, opening without foreshadowing and allows the tension to build from relative comfort. Our hero understands a grand scale conspiracy (which I won’t reveal) that has been festering inside S.H.E.I.L.D. since the days when he was rearranging Der Fuherer’s face. More I cannot say without spoilers except to say that this is the best of the Marvel series since Iron Man. It has a brilliant pace and a great tension level. This is the epic comic book movie I’ve been waiting for.


#5. Blue Ruin
This tiny indie action picture is a breath of fresh air to anyone who is utterly bored with the Hollywood revenge fantasy of Jason Bourne and the Taken series. Those movies are disposable fantasy, but Saulneir’s film is about the messy, bloody business of revenge as it might happen to those of us who don’t have training at hand-to-hand combat – or an army of stunt doubles. We’re introduced to a man whose motivation is only gradually revealed. *SPOILER ALERT* His name is Dwight and he’s been on the street ever since his parents were murdered some years ago. He gets information that Wade Cleland, the man responsible, has just been released from prison. So, Dwight makes up his mind to exact his revenge. Following the man to a bar, he initiates a violent encounter that puts him on the wrong end of the man’s family. What becomes of Dwight is fascinating, and what becomes of his story is an extremely violent and surprisingly funny rumination on the reality of revenge. Dwight is scared to death, not just for himself but for his family. He knows that the Cleland method of revenge is blood-coded in the familial hillbilly code of honor and, try as he may, can’t quite get himself prepared for war. With his pudgy stature and bug-eyes, he wears a mask of pure terror. The movie has a great deal in common with Fargo, especially in the way that bad planning begets a trail of dead bodies.

LivingThings#4. Living Things
Eric Shapiro’s tiny independent treasure is one of those great unheralded experiences that critics happen upon in a pile of DVD screeners. It’s one of those films that you’ve never heard of, but you urge people to see it despite the fact that they probably won’t. This one came inside the mailer of a more high-profile film that I didn’t care for. Tucked away in a white envelope I’d never heard of it, or the director, or any of the actors, but the simplicity of its idea was breathtaking. Running just over an hour, the movie is an exhausting experience with no car chases, no gun battles and no cacophony. It is constructed entirely out of words and contains only two actors, seated at a dinner table debating each other. They are at opposite ends of the political and social spectrum and find themselves in a heated ethical debate that gets more and more heated and we are engrossed at every single minute. We meet Rhona, a pretty 29 year-old woman who prides herself on her left-wing mindset. Her demeanor seems ruled by new age philosophy and vegan logic. She is preparing dinner for her boyfriend and his father. The boyfriend’s father arrives early. He is Leo, a veteran who is a conservative and a devoted meat eater. Their conversation begins on tenter hooks and steamrolls into a debate about ethics, plants, meat, war and anything else that they can throw at each other. Their argument is heated and never forced. Words fly like bullets and each combatant is ready with an intellectual response. Debate becomes argument. Arguments turn to a confessional and the two find themselves laying all their ill feelings for each other on the table. They argue over animal cruelty, climate change, health, morality, and spirituality. Rhona is an idealist whose point of view comes from books and education. Leo is more practical, he’s a man who has seen the real world on the battlefield and off. When it is over you are exhausted. Shapiro opens the doors of intellectual debate and lets the issues fly.

LifeItself2#3. Life Itself
Steve James’ documentary tells the story of the life and times of beloved film critic Roger Ebert, and yes, I can be accused of gushing here. Those of us who write about film owe a debt to the legacy that Ebert left behind after his death more than a year ago. He was my hero, and I might have been satisfied with any portrait of his life, but James has done something special. While the movie loves and adores Ebert, it also honors his belief in full disclosure. That means that the movie doesn’t shy away from the more difficult aspects of Ebert’s life, most especially his battle with cancer in his thyroid and salivary glands. Much of the film is told from friends, colleagues and his devoted wife Chazz, whose devotion and sunny disposition are a tonic for Ebert’s difficult final years. We get the story of Ebert without the movie becoming a safe pre-packaged commercial that only shows us the highlights. The movie takes us through his lonely early years as an only child from downstate Illinois, to his lonely college years to his years on television with sparring partner Gene Siskel and finally through the years of his illness. James doesn’t shy away his camera away from Ebert’s disfigurement, his jaw which sling down. It’s hard not to be aghast by it at first, but his positive outlook makes you comfortable with him.

#2. The Great Budapest Hotel
Wes Anderson’s great confection is the kind of bizarre, droll comedy that Alec Guinness used to make. With tick tock precision of pastel design, whip-smart dialogue and square-jawed performances Anderson whisks us through a bizarre murder mystery set in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka, which is apparently located somewhere in the Alps. The story focuses of Gustav H (Ralph Fiennes), the legendary concierge of The Grand Budapest along with his faithful bellboy Moustafa (played in a wonderfully droll performance by newcomer Tony Revolori). The two are soon neck-deep in the theft of a priceless painting to which Gustav is falsely accused of stealing. Anderson must have written the dialogue to a metronome because it is so sharp, so precise that you don’t want the characters to stop talking. This is one of those comedies that you appreciate looking at as much as listening to. Anderson is the master of his comic canvas, painting everything on a Dick Tracy-style canvas that never lets up.

UndertheSkin#1. Under the Skin
Jonathan Glazer’s great mindscrambler is, thus far, the best film I’ve seen all year, an oddly constructed science fiction thriller that is difficult to digest and even more difficult to follow. The movie opens in deep space as strange elliptical shapes form and reform until we understand that we are looking at the formation of a human eye. Then we meet a strange woman (Scarlett Johansson), an alien who has stolen the skin of a dead prostitute and given herself the name Laura. The rest of the movie follows her adventure as she drives around Glasgow Scotland, luring muscular men back to her lair where . . . well, it’s not very pleasant. This is a strange, strange movie. Director Glazer dispatches all the usual narrative elements and gives us fragments of story. We see pieces of a larger story and our brains are tasked with filling in the gaps. The point is that the story takes place from Laura’s point of view, a uniquely alien perspective that is refreshing because it is so difficult to find a relatable foothold. I so appreciate this film. It’s refreshing to find something this challenging and this original. It’s a movie that begs you to watch it over and over and decipher and decode its mysteries. Some will find it a masterwork while many will find it frustrating. I am going to become a student of this film. I look forward to my next lesson.

Aaaaaand here are the WORST films of the year so far . . .

#4. Mom’s Night Out
A dead zone of a comedy from the Erwin brothers who apparently wanted to recreate The Hangover for the Christian set. The problem is that they’re not very good filmmakers. The story: four harried mothers need a night away from the small children who cling to their ankles and from the large children that they married. So they get a night out that involves lost babies, car chases and the kinds of half-baked nonsense usually found in sitcoms that never get picked up. Yet, the worst crime is its use of location. It takes place in my hometown of Birmingham, Alabama (it was filmed here) but refuses to even acknowledge it. Where’s the love?

#3. Transformers: Age of Extinction
This one was kept off the top of my list only because I wasn’t as angry with it as I have been with previous installments. This one left me feeling indifference. Shia LeBouf and Megan Fox are long gone from this series and are replaced with Mark Wahlberg and Kelsey Grammer, two people who should know better. The story is the same, the production is the same, the idea is the same; the only thing that’s changed is that I feel so apathetic that I no longer want to set fire to the screen. I guess that’s praise.

#2. God’s Not Dead
The tagline read “What do you believe?”  Well, for starters, I believe that this movie sucks.  This so-called serious drama is actually funnier than most comedies I’ve seen this year. It features a microcosm of an idea – a Christian college student debates his hard-headed professor over the existence of God – but turns it into an embarrassing recruitment drive for the evangelical set. The movie doesn’t know when to quit, it contains a gallery of cartoonish characters, some are unhappy non-believers and the rest are happy Yeah-God Christians who beat the message into your head with the ferocity of the mafia thugs of Goodfellas. Add to that a laughable third act in which Duck Dynasty star Willie Robertson calls on the viewer to text the title to everyone you know, and you’ve got a movie so bad that I wanted to offer a prayer for those responsible for this chunk of day-old corn. They could use it.

#1. 22 Jump Street
Thus far the single worst movie of 2014, a low-impact, bargain basement comedy so bland and unoriginal that no one seems to even be trying. Here is a movie in which the cleverest invention is that the filmmakers have figured out how to graft their lack of creativity onto a central joke in which the characters acknowledge that they’re in a bad movie. Great, but we’re still stuck with a BAD MOVIE!!!   Thanks for nothing.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
Filed in: Disney Essays