The top ten movies of any year is of course a matter of opinion. The reader should, and no doubt will, feel free to disagree. In the opinion of the Capital District Movies Examiner, the ten best movies of 2014, are, in reverse order:
10. ‘The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies’
You could make the argument that “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” isn’t a movie at all – it’s an incredibly expensive dry run for a video game. But be fair. You’re not supposed to be coming in on this one; you’re supposed to be going out on it. “Battle of the Five Armies” is the third act, and in a story told in a single movie, it’s fair to have the third act be all action. Like “The Lord of the Rings,” “The Hobbit” movies were never intended to be standalone features. Each movie presumes you’ve seen the movie that led up to it, and you’re going to see the one that comes after. “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” is the culmination of the prequel trilogy, and in some ways is the culmination of the entire fantasy franchise.
Director Peter Jackson does what he does best here, and that includes the sort of “all is lost” tone that permeated much of his Oscar-winning “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.” “The Hobbit:The Battle of the Five Armies” is a technical showpiece that’s almost overloaded with the “Gee whiz” factor. The 3D, high frame rate presentation provides a startlingly detailed, lifelike image, which is occasionally jarring when cutting from a long shot to a closeup. The high frame rate also reduces eye strain and enhances the quality of the 3D itself. If this movie doesn’t win an Academy Award for Visual Effects the Academy can stop expecting anyone to take it seriously.
“The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” is designed to finish the job of tying the story into “The Lord of the Rings,” which it does with sufficient wistfulness to appeal to the most sentimental fanboys. Fans will no doubt say goodbye to the franchise with a mixture of sadness and relief. In any event, the wrap-up of this remarkable movie series challenges you not to get your geek on.
9. ‘The Homesman’
It’s been said that the life of neanderthal man was hard, brutal and short. Could life on the American western frontier have been much easier? The landscape presented in the new movie “The Homesman” has a cold elegance that almost belies its hard, flinty brutality. That life here could drive someone mad is more or less the point. The west isn’t romantic in this often hard-edged, even unsettling movie, which benefits from Rodrigo Prieto’s evocative cinematography with its clean, classic compositions. The events that put the three women over the edge are depicted in flashbacks (the movie’s only departure from a strictly linear narrative structure) that could have been lifted from a Japanese horror movie. But the Hollywood feature could use a reappraisal of both character study and tragedy, and Jones’ laconic, idiosyncratic tale serves the purpose.
The World War II drama “Fury” invites comparisons to Sam Peckinpah’s classic western, “The Wild Bunch,” both in its unflinching depiction of obscene violence and in being a story about men of violence whose world is ending. It’s hard to know if writer/director David Ayers, who was born the year before “The Wild Bunch” was released, was consciously influenced by Peckinpah. His visual technique could scarcely be more different. Where Peckinpah caught the attention of critics with his almost balletic slow motion shots of twisted bodies spurting Max Factor stage blood, Ayers favors sudden mayhem that comes out of nowhere and incredibly graphic dismemberment that happens so fast you barely glimpse it.
As a writer, Ayers does periodically fall into the trap laid by “Saving Private Ryan,” with a couple of sequences of overlong, expository backstory dialogue that disrupt the flow of an otherwise taut drama. Still, “Fury” puts its audience through the wringer. No good deed is left unpunished. Decency is followed by indecency, and heroism is the by-product of insanity. That war is hell is not a new theme, but few movies have demonstrated quite as vividly as this the terrible price of making men good at it.
7. ‘Edge of Tomorrow’
The science fiction, military-themed actioner “Edge of Tomorrow” could almost have been called “Grunt-hog Day,” so reminiscent is the premise of a certain Billy Murray movie. Well, if “Groundhog Day” had marauding aliens and lots of explosions. That being said, this is a remarkably smart, surprising movie that satisfyingly delivers the goods at least as well as any other studio summer tent pole.
As future soldier Tom Cruise goes through the same day again and again, he gets better at fighting and surviving, but still inevitably dies, with no clue as to how this is happening or why. Enter Emily Blunt as a highly decorated combat veteran who helps train him for combat. Initially Cruise cannily evokes James Garner in “The Americanization of Emily,” but that gradually gives way to the sort of professional fighting man Cruise has portrayed for years from “Top Gun” to the “Mission: Impossible” movies. One of Hollywood’s more underrated leading men, Cruise handles the spectrum deftly without missing a beat. Ms. Blunt, not known for action roles, is thoroughly believable as a seasoned warrior who is completely comfortable with killing. The on-screen chemistry between the two is palpable.
Director Doug Liman is at the top of his game here, with his most assured directorial outing to date. As did the late Harold Ramis with “Groundhog Day,” Liman astutely gauges how far he needs to rewind with each successive day, keeping the pacing brisk while simultaneously ensuring that the trippy premise remains comprehensible. His trademark style, shooting an über-budget, studio tent pole like an indie, works extremely well here, partly because his untethered, kinetic camera helps disguise the occasionally Playstationy CGI flames. It should be noted that most of the special effects are very convincing, and add substantially to the verisimilitude.
The action compares favorably to other recent high-concept movies, but what sets “Edge of Tomorrow” apart is the smart, savvy script by Christopher McQuarrie (“The Usual Suspects”) and Jez Butterworth & John-Henry Butterworth (“Fair Game”). Fast-paced and surprising, this is a story that sucks you in and doesn’t spit you out until the end credits.
Why they picked a title that sounds like a daytime soap is a mystery. “Edge of Tomorrow” is based on Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s novel “All You Need is Kill,” a much more gripping title, and even the blurb, “Live, Die, Repeat,” would have been better. The studio seems to have belatedly noticed that, and has all but officially retitled the movie “Live, Die, Repeat” in the home video advertising campaign.
6. ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’
Arguably the best movie yet released by upstart Marvel Studios, “Guardians of the Galaxy” is certainly their best release since the billion dollar grossing “Marvel’s The Avengers.” There’s a self-conscious decision evident here to eschew the self-importance that’s been undeniably part of the fabric of Marvel Studios’ unbroken stream of hits. Not that there hasn’t been comic relief in Marvel’s “Phase 1” movies, from “Iron Man” through “Marvel’s The Avengers.” There has—but it also can’t be denied that these movies take themselves pretty damn seriously. “Guardians of the Galaxy,” based on one of Marvel Comics’ lesser-known books, is a marked departure. Not a typical superhero movie, “Guardians” is a smart, snappy and sarcastic space opera more in the “Star Wars” mold. Thing is, this is the best movie of its type since “Star Wars,” and that’s not a comparison to be made lightly.
5. ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’
Wes Anderson’s latest movie is something John Irving’s T.S. Garp could have written. But this is Irving, or Garp, through a glass Anderson. An all-star cast of Anderson regulars weave their way through a vaguely Tintinesque caper plot as the looming shadow of World War II threatens the postcard beauty of the settings. “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is so clearly an Anderson movie, despite the period European setting, that a comfortable familiarity settles in like your favorite traveling rug on the Orient Express.
4. ‘Gone Girl’
Based on Gillian Flynn’s bestselling novel, “Gone Girl” is a crafty and well-crafted suspense thriller about a man who finds himself the prime suspect in his wife’s sudden disappearance, but it’s also an unsettling and darkly perceptive study of the pitfalls of modern marriage. Crime thrillers don’t get much better than this.
This is a plot heavy movie, one that’s almost obsessively determined to stay one step ahead of the audience. “Gone Girl” is surprising right out of the starting gate, and keeps it up right through the home stretch. That’s enough to do a good crime movie, but the director David Fincher and Gillian Flynn, adapting her own novel, have grander ambitions here, as they also dissect the main characters’ marriage in minute detail with a very sharp scalpel.
Either way, “Gone Girl” could have devolved into some sort of dreary, Bergman-esque domestic nightmare, a post-modern reboot of “Scenes From a Marriage,” or just easily, a DePalma-esque Hitchcock pastiche. Fincher adroitly avoids both pitfalls, partly by keeping the plot moving briskly, despite the two and a half hour running time, partly with some droll asides.
“Gone Girl” is one of the most entertaining crime movies in years, but also a solid, hard-hitting drama. This darkly twisted rollercoaster ride through marital hell is worth the trip.
A creepy Steve Carell dominates Bennett Miller’s chilly and perverse slice of Americana. Eerily pale, eyebrow-challenged and sporting a prominent, prosthetic proboscis, Carell doesn’t look or for that matter sound much like himself as real life old money heir John E. du Pont, who strikes us immediately as at least eccentric, if not actually sinister.
The movie opens and closes on Mark Schultz (played by an effectively de-glammed Channing Tatum), a wrestler, who despite having won gold in the 1984 Olympics is living on Ramen noodles in the shadow of his older brother Dave (an almost unrecognizable Mark Ruffalo). Lightning strikes in the form of a sudden invitation from du Pont to train at his Foxcatcher horse farm.
“I’m an ornithologist,” du Pont tells Mark. “But more importantly I’m a patriot.”
Tatum is always at his best when he can unload his almost overwhelming physicality on a role, and here he delivers by far the most emotionally complex and textured performance of his career. He stalks through “Foxcatcher” like a poster child for disillusionment and disappointment, brightening only during his brief honeymoon with du Pont. Mark easily falls under his spell, and provides du Pont exactly the sort of man he wants to be associated with. One of the greatest rewards “Foxcatcher” offers is an incredible duet of acting between Carell and Channing Tatum.
“Foxcatcher” inevitably functions as a chilly meditation on the dark underbelly of wealth and inevitable abuse of power that accompanies it. This is a popular theme in American culture, which both reveres and resents wealth. “Citizen Kane,” “Sunset Boulevard” and “Reversal of Fortune” are only a few notable classics that have attacked the same thematic territory, and yes, “Foxcatcher” is that good. But just as inevitably the moral fable takes a backseat to a steady, chilly building of suspense as the movie moves inexorably towards its brutal climax. Whether you know the story and what’s coming or not, it’s likely to get a gasp out of you.
Tom Hardy plays the title role, and only on-screen character in “Locke,” which takes place entirely during an hour and a half car trip. Don’t worry. You won’t be asking “Are we there, yet?” Writer/director Steven Knight, who wrote the screenplays to “Eastern Promises” and “Dirty Pretty Things,” has crafted a taut, absorbing drama, whose only gimmick is the one-man-in-a-car device.
Knight and his director of photography Haris Zambarloukos (“Thor,” “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit”) milk their small, moving stage for everything it’s worth, incorporating the highway and traffic in a way that defeats any sense of claustrophobia (as contrasted with Rodrigo Cortés’ 2010 “Buried,” which made sure its audience was all but literally gasping for breath as the air ran out). In fact one thing you absolutely have to give Knight is his evocation of the eeriness of late night travel.
It would be tempting to call “Locke” a radio drama with nice photography, but Hardy is acting even when he isn’t talking. His face, his body language, his sweat and an occasional tear often do the talking for him. Perhaps best-known for the ferocious physicality of his roles in “Warrior” and “The Dark Knight Rises,” the chameleon-like actor is riveting here. The best movie acting often takes place behind the eyes, and this is particularly the case when a character is wrapped tight. Locke almost never raises his voice, and never when anyone else can hear him. One of the great rewards “Locke” has to offer is the opportunity to see Hardy acting in a minor key.
1. ‘A Most Violent Year’
Oscar Isaac (“Inside Llewyn Davis”) shines in a gritty, period drama that among other things vividly demonstrates the perils of the home heating oil industry. Writer/director J.C. Chandor doesn’t like to tip his hand either early or often, and a little more early exposition wouldn’t have hurt. But for those who stay with it, this is an engrossing, often nerve-jangling ride through the dark underbelly of New York City in the early eighties, when the subways were still covered with graffiti and people still smoked in offices.