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2014 Year-End Movie Review: David Medsker

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Let’s get this out of the way up front: there is a lot of popcorn on my list this year. That might sound bad, since critics are supposed to dislike what’s popular (that’s not true, actually: we just dislike anything we think is bad, whether or not it’s popular), but hey, I’m just happy that I liked enough movies this year to put a Top 10 list together. (This is my first full Top 10 since 2010.) There weren’t a lot of blockbusters this year, but some of the year’s biggest films were big for a reason: they were better than the others.

Of course, I say that, and yet the top four movies on my list barely made a penny. Let’s see if we can change that, shall we?

Check out Jason Zingale’s 2014 Year-End Movie Review as well for Jason’s picks.

My Favorite Movies of 2014

1. “WHIPLASH

The Battle of Alpha Males: it’s a timeless plot device. Usually it concerns two guys on the same level (“Tin Men,” “Pushing Tin”) and sometimes involves having sex with your enemy’s spouse (again, “Tin Men” and “Pushing Tin), but here it is the battle of student versus teacher at a music conservatory. Miles Teller, the prodigious drummer, and J.K. Simmons, the sadistic teacher, have never been better, but the movie’s best trick is that it gets the audience to root for both sides, even though both men are horribly flawed and unlikable. It came and went quietly in its theatrical run, but this is a must-see when it hits the video circuit.

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2. “NIGHTCRAWLER

It’s assumed that everyone’s soul has a price, that there is a limit to what people will do for money or success. “Nightcrawler” makes it painfully clear that when it comes to a functioning sociopath like Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal, who’s superb), all bets are off. Indeed, the uplifting corporate buzz speak that Louis uses to influence characters in the film serves a dual purpose: it gets him what he wants, and it warns the audience that if they work with or for anyone who uses that language, RUN.

3. “BIRDMAN OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE)

There are so many genius moments in this movie that it is hard to count. The entire movie is shot to look like it was done in one take, even though it takes place over several days (your move, Alfonso Curaón). Edward Norton is pitch-perfect casting for the part of Mike, playing on his own reputation as a difficult actor, but having Michael Keaton play the lead, a guy who did exactly what his character does in walking away from a blockbuster franchise, is just sublime. It is one of the rare films that uses mainstream pop culture as a means to make an artful statement about life. There are many unforgettable moments, but the movie’s last shot will be permanently etched into your memory.

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4. “FORCE MAJEURE

Everyone has a moment in their lives that they wish that they could undo. This Swedish import is a movie about that moment, and the unstoppable ripple effect that the moment has. A family goes skiing in the French Alps, when a supposedly controlled avalanche goes out of control and causes one of the family members to do something that they can’t take back, ever. I barely breathed for the second half of this movie, and it had nothing to do with what was happening, but because of what wasn’t happening. Make sure you and your significant other haven’t had a fight recently before watching it, though: otherwise, the movie might be a homewrecker.

5. “THE LEGO MOVIE

Until they prove me otherwise, I will go into any film that says “Directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller” with the utmost of confidence, because after this, “21 Jump Street,” and “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs,” they have proven their worth in spades. Funny, smart, and thrilling, with a great message about the perils of conformity, “The LEGO Movie” was far better than it had any right to be. It also has the movie song of the year. Sing with me now: “Everything is awesome…”

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6. “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER

Best Avengers movie by a country mile. On paper, Steve Rogers is the most vanilla of the A-list Avengers, but the script that they assembled for his second installment is a classic political potboiler – this is, without question, the most mature Marvel film to date – with a whole lotta kickass. As an added bonus, they slipped in a “Pulp Fiction” reference at the very end.

7. “THE IMITATION GAME

A deft hybrid of several genres (race against time, spy thriller, multiple forms of discrimination), anchored by outstanding performances by Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley. There is a lot happening here, yet it is remarkably well balanced. Also, Mark Strong is the UK version of Stanley Tucci, in that every movie he’s in is better because he’s in it. Fact.

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8. “EDGE OF TOMORROW

Tom Cruise’s best movie since “Mission: Impossible III,” and one of the most entertaining sci-fi shoot ‘em ups ever. We acknowledge that Cruise has damaged his brand of late, possibly beyond repair, but to paraphrase my colleague Jason Zingale, look at it this way: if you like Tom Cruise, you get to see him kick ass. If you don’t like him, you get to see him die over and over and over. Doesn’t that sound fantastic to both sides?

9. “BIG HERO 6

I love talking to people who haven’t yet seen “Big Hero 6” and telling them, “No one gets out of a bad situation by using their muscles; they have to think their way out of it,” and watching them light up. In an age where most movie heroes are the biggest guys on screen, it is great to see a group of brainiacs battle, and their only weapons are of the non-lethal variety. While Marvel’s animated Disney debut makes some radical changes from the source material (Baymax goes from monster guardian to inflatable robot health care provider. Just think about that for a second), their instincts were dead on.

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10. “A MOST VIOLENT YEAR

The Godfather” meets “Macbeth,” only the business is heating oil, not olive oil. This is a throwback movie in several ways, in that it not only takes place in 1981, but it has the pacing (deliberate) and intensity (red hot) of films from that period. Oscar Isaac is probably tired of being compared to Al Pacino (though he really shouldn’t) because of the resemblance between the two, but it isn’t just that: Isaac has a similar internal fire, the quiet one who’s constantly battling the urge to explode. Also, I’ve largely found Jessica Chastain to be adequate but unexceptional, but she is dynamite as Isaac’s tough, morally gray wife.

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GONE GIRL

Ben Affleck is going to be overlooked for his work here, and that’s a shame. Yes, Rosamund Pike has the flashier role (and boy, does she make the most of it), but Affleck is the rock of this movie, using his professional reputation to his advantage much like Edward Norton did in “Birdman.” And we’re calling it now: it’s a stone-cold lock that Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross win another Oscar for Best Original Score. Creepy, but so, so good.

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GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY

While it was great to see Marvel make a more grown-up Avengers movie, it was equally nice to see them make a different kind of adult superhero movie. “Guardians” has more swagger than all of the Avengers movies combined, and that looseness is intoxicating. Also, the soundtrack is gold. Any movie that opens with 10cc’s “I’m Not in Love” and closes with the Five Stairsteps’ “”O-o-h Child” is okay by me.

THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL

This was really well done, but it’s also hard to fall in love with after watching that hilariously accurate Wes Anderson horror movie spoof that “Saturday Night Live” ran earlier this year. Indeed, watching this after seeing the “SNL” skit, the film looks like Anderson himself saw the skit and said, “Challenge accepted” (though “Budapest” actually came out before the “SNL” bit). Massive cast, beautiful, fun, bonkers, but one viewing is enough, thank you.

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STILL ALICE

Unofficial subtitle: Every Man’s Worst Nightmare. Julianne Moore plays a highly influential professor of linguistics who’s diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. We watch as she forgets meeting people within seconds of meeting them, getting lost while jogging, and leaving detailed, harrowing instructions on video for her later self. It’s heartbreaking, and after decades as an industry darling who’s never taken home a statue, this seems like Moore’s year.

  
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