IAR's TOP TEN FILMS OF 2014 (So Far...)

Friday, 04 July 2014 18:10 Written by  Jami Philbrick
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IAR's TOP TEN FILMS OF 2014 (So Far...)

Now that July is here, it means that the year is officially halfway over. 

So that being said, I thought it would be a good idea to take a look back at the first half of the year and rank the top ten films of 2014 … so far. 

Usually I wait until the end of the year to make this list, but a lot of good movies get overlooked in December because of the onslaught of Oscar contenders that are released in the second half of the year. While I don’t expect many of these films to make the list again in six months, I wanted a chance to highlight some of the fine films that might be forgotten by year’s end. 

The following is a look back at my ten favorite films of 2014 … so far. In order to qualify for this list, the film either had to be released nationally or premiere at a film festival before July 1st. It’s important to note that at the time of this publication, I have seen almost every movie released in 2014 with the exception of Blended, The Other Woman, The Fault in Our Stars, Chef, Palo Alto, and Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon. That being said, the list compiled below is based on the movies that I did see (so far) this year, and which of those were my favorites overall. I’m not necessarily saying that these are the ten best films of the year up to this point, but in my honest opinion, they are the ten that I enjoyed the most.

However, honorable mention goes to The Signal, The Raid 2: Berandal, Boyhood, Fading Gigolo, Life Itself, The Lego Movie, and Muppets Most Wanted, all of which came very close to making the final cut. 

IAR’s Top Ten Films of 2014 (So Far…)

10) Obvious Child

Actress Jenny Slate (Saturday Night Live) gives a star making performance in this dark romantic comedy as a struggling stand-up comedian that decides to have an abortion after becoming pregnant during a one-night stand. Using her humor to get through a difficult situation, she grows closer to her family and friends, as well as the would-be father of her child. 

Advertised as the anti-Juno, Obvious Child is heart-warming as well as funny, and marks a terrific feature film debut for writer and director Gillian Roberpierre. In addition to Slate’s award-worthy role, the film also boasts great performances from Richard Kind, Polly Draper, and David Cross. But it’s Slate’s fine work on and off the comedy stage in this movie that makes it a must-see. 

9) I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story

Who is Caroll Spinney? He is a man that’s work has touched countless generations of children. Better known for his on-screen personas of Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch; Spinney has portrayed both characters on Sesame Street for over forty years. This wonderful documentary by filmmakers Dave LaMattina, Chad Walker and Clay Frost recently premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival and will hopefully be available in theaters and home entertainment platforms later this year. The movie not only examines the life of this sweet and talented man, but also his loving partnership with longtime wife Debra. 

In addition to his work on Sesame Street, the film also takes a look at different moments in Spinney’s life such as traveling to China, singing at Jim Henson’s funeral, almost going into outer space on the Space Shuttle Challenger, Mitt Romney’s attack on Big Bird, appearing on SNL, and the shocking murder that he and his wife unwilling were involved in. After you watch this documentary, you’ll never forget the name Caroll Spinney

8) Bad Words

This summer has seen some very strong comedies like 22 Jump Street and Neighbors, but one of my favorite funny movies came earlier in the year from first time feature film director Jason Bateman. Bad Words follows Guy Trilby (Bateman in one of his best performances), a 40-year-old middle school dropout who finds a loophole that allows him to compete in the National Quill Spelling Bee. With ulterior motive, Trilby’s goal is to destroy the honorable proceedings and make a mockery of them. Along the way, he befriends a female reporter (Kathryn Hahn) looking to write a story about him, and a 10-year-old contestant (Rohan Chand) that Guy introduces to shoplifting, alcohol, and looking at hooker’s boobies. 

Embracing its R-rating, Bad Words is over-the-top funny, as well as touching, and does not fall into the usual traps of a Hollywood comedy. Bateman is probably the best straight man in the bossiness and has never been better than opposite the young and excellent Chand. But what is truly impressive is Bateman’s command of the film as a director, never loosing sight of the movie’s humor or heart. 

7) Edge of Tomorrow

Edge of Tomorrow is not only one of the best blockbusters of the summer, but it also features Tom Cruise’s best performance in years, and it’s probably the best film Doug Liman has directed since The Bourne Identity. Based on a Japanese novel, the movie is basically an apocalyptic alien invasion version of Groundhog Day done video game style. Cruise plays Major William Cage, a coward who is put on the front lines of the war during mankind’s last stand against the alien attack. After an encounter with an alien gives him the power to die and relive the same day over and over again, Cage meets Sergeant Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), a fellow soldier who used to have the same power. Together, the two constantly repeat the day in order to find away to defeat their enemies. 

Despite a partially rehashed concept, the film is surprisingly original and works on all levels. Cruise plays against type to give a well rounded performance, and Blunt is as badass as we’ve ever seen her. Also, Bill Paxton is sensational as Cage's commander on the front lines. Liman, who can be hit or miss at best as a director, is at the top of his game with this film. The visual effects are excellent and the movie’s attempt to emulate the feeling of playing a video game; makes Edge of Tomorrow the best video game movie ever made, even though it’s not actually based on a video game. 

6) The Grand Budapest Hotel

Remember that SNL sketch last year that imagined what a horror movie would be like if directed by Wes Anderson? Well, The Grand Budapest Hotel is Anderson’s version of a Hitchcock-type murder mystery and prison break film. It’s awkwardly funny and unexpectedly original in a way that only Anderson can deliver. The movie revolves around the elderly owner of the Grand Budapest Hotel, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), and his recounting of how he came to own the hotel. His story involves being trained as a young man by the hotel’s devoted concierge, Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), who’s also a gigolo for wealthy elderly women. When Gustave is accused of murdering one of his lady friends (Tilda Swinton), it sends the two co-workers on an adventure that changes the course of Moustafa’s life. 

Anderson reunites with many of the actors from his previous films such as Swinton, Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Adrien Brody, Edward Norton, Harvey Keitel, and Bob Balaban, but also mixes them with a group of excellent actors new to Anderson’s films including Fiennes, Abraham, Saoirse Ronan, Jude Law, and Tom Wilkinson. Fiennes in particular gives an unexpected, yet outstanding and hilarious performance as the outrageous Gustave. But it’s Wes Anderson’s whacky view on the family dynamic, which makes The Grand Budapest Hotel one of the best films of his impressive career. 

5) Snowpiercer

South Korean director Bong Joon-ho crafts what is not only a thoroughly entertaining science fiction and action movie, but also a very thought provoking film that comments on many of the social, economic, and environmental issues that we are dealing with in society today. Set in 2031, seventeen years after an experiment to counteract the affects of global warming causes an ice age that kills almost all life on Earth, the survivors inhabit a massive train that rides around the world called the Snowpiercer. A class system is used that allows the elite to live a lavish lifestyle in the front of the train, and the rest to live in poverty in the tail section. Until one day, Curtis Everett (Chris Evans) leads a group of the tail section citizens in a revolution to take the train from it’s engineer and leader, a mysterious man named Wilford (Ed Harris). 

Loosely based on a French graphic novel, Snowpiercer features some of the best action scenes of the year, including a long fight sequence that takes place on the train in the dark. However, I will warn you that there is also a scene in the film that will ruin your appetite for weeks and make you never want to eat processed food again. While the movie is a fully entertaining thrill ride (pun not intended), it does begin to loose steam (pun intended) towards the end of the film. Evans is a convincing and memorable action star, and shows that his time as Captain America has truly made him a leading man. In addition to solid work from Jamie Bell, Alison Pill, Octavia Spencer, Ed Harris, and John Hurt, the film also boasts an extraordinary performance from Tilda Swinton as Wilford’s disciple Mason. Snowpiercer is the futuristic sci-fi adventure film that last years Ender’s Game wishes it had been. 

4) Only Lovers Left Alive

In an era of Twilight and True Blood, it’s almost hard to believe that anyone could reinvent the vampire genre, but that is exactly what acclaimed writer and director Jim Jarmusch has done with this smart and intriguing film. Only Lovers Left Alive revolves around Adam (Tom Hiddleston) an ancient vampire now living the life of a recluse musician in Detroit. His wife Eve (Tilda Swinton), a vampire who has been living in Tangier with legendary writer and vampire Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), travels to visit her husband when she learns he is considering taking his own life with a wooden bullet. Adam, Eve, and Marlowe no longer feed on humans for blood, instead opting to steal from blood banks than kill the innocent. However, Eve’s immature vampire sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska), does not adhere to there philosophy and turns their world upside down when she visits from Los Angeles and feeds on one of Adam’s human friends (Anton Yelchin). 

Hiddleston and Swinton are extremely commanding in their roles, while Wasikowska is in perfect contrast with her justifiably out of control performance. Jarmusch’s unusual storytelling abilities are excellently utilized in Only Lovers Left Alive, allowing for tender moments to play out in a slow and quiet way. In the end, the filmmaker brings fresh life to an otherwise dying vampire genre. 

3) X-Men: Days of Future Past

A sequel to X-Men: First Class, X-Men: The Last Stand, and The Wolverine, as well as a prequel to the original X-Men trilogy, Days of Future Past is not only the best film in the X-Men franchise but one of the greatest super hero movies ever made. Based on the classic X-Men comic book storyline “Days of Future Past” by Chris Claremont and John Byrne, the film begins 10 years in the future where giant robots called Sentinels are killing mutants and humans alike. In a desperate final attempt for survival, Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) use Shadowcat/Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) to send Wolverine/Logan (Hugh Jackman) back to 1973 in order to stop Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from killing Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), which caused the world’s hatred of mutants and the advancement of the Sentinel program. Now in the past, Logan must unite an emotionally shattered young Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) with Magneto, (Michael Fassbender) who has been imprisoned for the assassination of JFK. With the help of Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult), and a mutant named Pietro Maximoff/Quicksilver (Evan Peters), they break Magneto out of jail and journey to stop Mystique before it’s too late, in the process, hopefully, changing the future for the better. 

The original comic book is only two issues long and the film does an excellent job of filling out the plot with the storylines from the previous films in the franchise. As a general audience member I thought the movie was perfect, mixing the right amount of drama with action. But as a hardcore super hero and comic book geek, I had a few minor problems with continuity. What the film does exceedingly well, and I think is what it set out to do, is with the help of the time traveling plot devise fix all of the horrible continuity problems that any X-Men fan can tell you plagued the previous films in the franchise. But in doing so, the film causes some minor continuity issues of its own, which happen before the future is changed. The continuity issues mostly involve the film not linking up with X-Men Origins: Wolverine and The Wolverine. However, I can let those issues slide. In fact, all of the super nerd problems I had are so minor that I can find a way to excuse them simply by saying that director Bryan Singer is not considering the Wolverine solo films as being in cannon. It’s a moot point anyways since by the time the movie is over all previous X-Men films take place in a parallel timeline with the exception of First Class and Days of Future Past, thanks to Logan’s time traveling. 

The cast members are all absolutely wonderful and there is not a weak link in the bunch. Jackman plays Wolverine/Logan now for the seventh time, more than any other actor has ever played a super hero on the big screen before. It is truly the role he was made for and I can’t imagine anyone else ever playing that part. But the movie hinges on the torn relationship between Xavier and Magneto, and for that, McAvoy and Fassbender really bring the gravitas. The tension between the two characters is perfect. Lawrence as Mystique really shines and brings the character into her own. Mystique is one of the best female villains that the comic books have to offer, however, she was somewhat sidelined in the previous films. In this movie, she is allowed to be the real threat that she was in the comics and not just Magneto’s puppet. Peters’ interpretation of Quicksilver brought freshness to all his scenes, and is one of the highlights of the movie. But it’s the return of classic X-Men franchise actors in one of the finals scenes of the film that really got hardcore fans excited. 

Director Bryan Singer shows why the two X-Men films he directed (X-Men, X2: X-Men United) and the one he wrote and produced (X-Men: First Class) were the best of the series. He has a real understanding for these characters, and knows how to direct character driven action sequences. Singer is able to embrace the comics and give fans what they want, but at the same time adapt it for the big screen and make it look cinematic. Time traveling movies are tricky and I thought (with the exception of a few minor comic book geek continuity problems) that he navigated those waters well and connected every plot thread to make sense. While the comic book nerd in me had a few minor issues with continuity, they are all forgivable and overall I think X-Men: Days of Future Past is now the best film in the series and one of the top five comic book adapted movies ever made!!! 

2) Dom Hemingway

I’m a sucker for a good British crime drama, and Dom Hemingway definitely fits the bill. The movie follows the title character, brilliantly played by Jude Law, as he is released from prison after 12 years. Now free, Hemingway seeks payment from his former crime boss (Demian Bichir) for refusing to rat him out over a decade ago. Along with his best friend Dickie (Richard E. Grant), they travel to the French countryside to collect his fortune. When that doesn’t go as planned, they return to a modern London that Hemingway no longer recognizes where he tries to pick up the pieces of his broken life, including reconciling with his estranged daughter (Emilia Clarke) and her son. Dom soon learns that life has marched on with out him, and he is no longer the master criminal that he once was. 

Law, who gained weight and grew some nasty facial hair for his role, plays his part like a bull in a china shop, chewing up the scenery every chance he gets. In the opening sequence of the film, Law gives a master class on delivering powerhouse monologues on screen. Wonderfully written and directed by Richard Shepard (The Matador), Dom Hemingway is equally entertaining, brutal, touching, and satisfying, while the soundtrack balances a beautiful assortment of classic British rock songs. 

1) Captain America: The Winter Soldier

The best movie of the summer opened on April 4th! The official sequel to Captain America: The First Avenger, the film plays more like a follow up to the super hero team-up The Avengers. The result: arguably the best film ever made by Marvel Studios and I think, one of the top three comic book adapted movies of all time. Captain America: The Winter Soldier picks up after the events of The Avengers and follows Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) as he is trying to adjust to life in the 21st century. Now working with Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) for Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and S.H.I.E.L.D., Cap soon begins to question the secret government agency’s way of doing things. After an attempt on Fury’s life, Cap and Widow find themselves out in the cold fighting an enemy within their own organization. Not to mention battling the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), who may have ties to Steve Roger’s past. In the process, they partner with Sam Wilson/The Falcon (Anthony Mackie), a pararescueman trained by the military in aerial combat using a specially designed wing pack. 

Evans is at his best, showing a lot of growth in the role over his last two on-screen appearances. Johansson, now in her third film as Black Widow, is given much more to do in this sequel, while Jackson is solid as always. Mackie is also fantastic as the newly introduced fan-favorite character. Stan, and the underrated Frank Grillo are equally excellent as two of the film’s villains. However, it’s legendary actor Robert Redford as Alexander Pierce that gives the movie legitimacy and gravitas with his presence. The unexpected directing duo of Anthony and Joe Russo (You, Me and Dupree) beautifully helm this superhero movie and fashion it into an espionage thriller akin to classic Redford movies like Three Days of the Condor. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the S.H.I.E.L.D. movie that Marvel once promised its fans. However, the film’s finale will have lasting repercussions on the Marvel Universe, both on television and film, while it’s end credit scene perfectly sets up The Avengers: Age of Ultron. Many minor characters from previous Marvel projects appear in the movie, and it also introduces some important players for future films. Captain America: The Winter Soldier elevates the superhero movie genre and is not only one of the best super hero movies ever, but it is also a great overall film!!!

From everyone here at IAR … have a safe and happy 4th of July weekend!

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