2014 Year-End Movie Review: Jason Zingale

6. “THE RAID 2

It would have been all too easy for Gareth Evans to deliver a rinse-and-repeat sequel to his 2012 cult classic, so it’s refreshing to see the filmmaker take a risk with such a strikingly ambitious follow-up like “The Raid 2,” a slower, operatic crime saga with a lot more moving parts than its predecessor. The first movie was a non-stop action-fest with very little room for anything else, but while the added depth and drama is greatly appreciated this time around, Evans never forgets that he’s making an action film, sprinkling some bone-crunching, blood-spurting set pieces into each act. Many of the action scenes aren’t as memorable as the ones from the original, but they’re all ridiculously entertaining, including a fight inside a moving car that’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Some fans will undoubtedly be disappointed at how different it is from the original, but that’s exactly what makes it so great, because although “The Raid 2” may not provide the same adrenaline rush of its faster-paced, more contained predecessor, it’s a richer and more sophisticated action-thriller that ranks among the best crime films ever made.

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7. “A MOST VIOLENT YEAR

Over the course of three movies, J.C. Chandor has established himself as one of the most promising American filmmakers of his generation, and “A Most Violent Year” is his best one yet. A smartly directed character study of a man fighting to uphold the antiquated ideals of the American Dream, the movie is very much a product of its time period, owing a lot to the work of Sidney Lumet and other 1970s classics like “The French Connection” and “The Godfather.” You’d never imagine that a film about the heating oil industry could be so absorbing, yet that’s exactly what makes “A Most Violent Year” so unique, defying the typical gangster movie conventions every chance it gets. Oscar Isaac has never been better, commanding the screen with an ice-cold intensity that evokes Al Pacino in his prime, while Jessica Chastain delivers a deliciously fierce turn as his mob-connected wife. Much like this year’s underrated crime drama “The Drop,” “A Most Violent Year” is the type of movie that Hollywood doesn’t make enough of anymore, but with brave new voices like Chandor behind the camera, it’s hard to argue against the need for more just like it.

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8. “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER

Hands-down the best Marvel sequel to date, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is a major improvement upon the character’s first solo adventure, thanks in large part to Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely’s script, which provides a more interesting arc for its titular hero. The conspiracy plot not only ratchets up the suspense, but in addressing real-world issues like national security, it feeds into the moral battle that’s been waging inside Steve Rogers since joining S.H.I.E.L.D. in “The Avengers.” That distrust allows Chris Evans to play the character with a lot more complexity than the archetypal goody two-shoes Boy Scout, and he receives great support from a stacked cast that includes Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Anthony Mackie and Robert Redford. The decision to team up Evans’ Rogers with Johansson’s Black Widow was especially shrewd, because while they couldn’t be more different on paper, the two actors have such an effortless chemistry that it brings out the best in both characters. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo may not have much experience in the genre, but they acquit themselves remarkably well with top-notch action and the occasional bits of humor that fans have come to expect from every Marvel production.

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9. “EDGE OF TOMORROW

Though it shares a similar plot device as “Groundhog Day” and “Source Code,” Doug Liman’s “Edge of Tomorrow” is a truly original piece of science fiction that Hollywood should make more often. Clever, fun and surprisingly bold, it also happens to be the ultimate Tom Cruise movie. Those who like the actor will enjoy watching him thrive in one of his best roles in years, while those who hate Cruise get to watch him die over and over again. Emily Blunt is also in top form as the face of the war effort – a total badass who wields a helicopter blade as a sword – and Bill Paxton delivers a hilarious supporting turn as a scene-chewing Master Sergeant in charge of Cruise’s military unit. In fact, the movie as a whole is much funnier than you might expect, using comedy to break up the monotonous nature of the story, and it works remarkably well thanks to a combination of smart writing, great actors and pitch-perfect editing by James Herbert. “Edge of Tomorrow” runs into some issues in the final act, but those are minor annoyances for a film that proves to be such a satisfying breath of fresh air.

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10. “SELMA

Who would’ve thought that a movie that takes place nearly 50 years ago would feel so relevant today? And yet while the parallels between Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” and the current racial tension across the country are indisputable, the film deserves to be judged on its own merits, because it’s a deftly made drama that takes a page from Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” by focusing on a single (but incredibly important) chapter in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life. To DuVernay’s credit, she manages to make almost every moment – from the backroom politics, to King’s rousing speeches – as riveting as the last, and a big part of that success falls on the casting, even those in bit roles. David Oyelowo is fantastic as the pastor turned civil rights activist, playing him with an expected gracefulness, but also a hint of exhaustion and self-doubt that reveals the toll his crusade for equality has taken on him. It’s hard to envision the film being nearly as effective with another actor in the role, because it’s Oyelowo’s powerful performance that transforms “Selma” from yet another stuffy biopic into a stirring political drama worthy of Dr. King’s legacy.

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Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order)

CHEF
THE DROP
FOXCATCHER
FURY
THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL
THE IMITATION GAME
THE LEGO MOVIE
ST. VINCENT
STARRED UP
WISH I WAS HERE

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