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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

2014 Mid-Year Report Card: Movies

Happy Half-New Year! We're at the midway point of 2014, and thought this would be a good time to take a look at what our favorite pop culture items are so far. This week: Movies!

Our team picks our what each think was the best release in the first half of the year, the standout performance by an actor or actress, and lastly our choice for a specific superlative that we hope to see rewarded by the Academy Awards in the next Oscars.

You can purchase/pre-order a selected copy of each of these films by clicking on the title.


Best Movie: Grand Budapest Hotel

Although it had some stiff and varied competition (The Raid 2, Edge of Tomorrow), Wes Anderson's newest film just happened to blow me out of the water. I'm a pretty big fan, but I thought his last couple films have been his weakest. With GBH, I was thrilled to see the awesome cast, and it brought back the laughs that Darjeeling Limited and Moonrise Kingdom did not elicit from me. From the opening framing scenes to he little animated dancing man in the credits, I had a smile on my face throughout. Anderson found a really unique new setting for his style that happened to work absolutely perfectly and we get everything from a slapstick prison break to an absurd spy thriller. To this moment, I still can't think of any problems I have with the movie whatsoever, and if the blu-ray was sitting next to me right now, I'd pop it in without a thought!

Outstanding Performance: Andy Serkis, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

I know it just came out, I know. But as I looked over my list of 2014 movies, although I saw a lot of great films, I had a hard time thinking of one particular performance that stood out, except for one. If you've read my review, you know that although the human parts left me wanting more, I couldn't be more satisfied with the performance of all the Apes, mostly in Caesar, played masterfully by Andy Serkis. The level of dedication, research, and sheer craftsmanship that had to go into someone playing a different species but granting them that level of reality and compelling emotionality is something that deserves a lot of praise in my book. I dare you to try just for a moment to stand in front of a mirror and be Caesar for a moment, portraying all that power, sadness, and character–without speaking and with a bunch of motion capture crap all over your face!

Oscar Hopeful: Cinematography - The Raid 2

When I got a chance to see The Raid 2 at a local film festival, I felt so lucky that I got to see the new greatest action movie ever before it caught on in regular release–only it never really did. I often will take style over content (see my pick for best film last year, Stoker), and this is a movie with style punching itself through a brick wall, none of which is more evident than in its cinematography. Tied with smart editing, the sideways tracking shots, zooming birds eye, and tight closeups all keep the tense action exciting and interesting despite the 2.5 hours runtime. If you need more convincing as to why this deserves celebrating, just watch this video of how they accomplished the "through the car" shot.


Best Movie: Snowpiercer

This movie wasn't perfect - there was some clumsy dialogue and a fairly abrupt ending - but I was so surprised by each and every turn the film took, and I loved the Cube-like approach to unveiling each boxcar on the train. This movie is definitely a love it or hate it proposition, and though it's unlikely to get any Oscar love this year, it's top of my list so far.

Outstanding PerformanceRalph Fiennes, Grand Budapest Hotel 
This was another favorite film of the year, and I can zero in on the exact reason: Ralph Fiennes. Fiennes channels a formal, anachronistic leading male in what was probably both one of the most charming and funny performances I've seen in a long time.

Oscar Hopeful: Best Animated Movie - The Lego Movie 
This was actually in strong contention for my favorite movie of the year, but by a hair I decided to put it here instead. This is one of those movies that will always bring me comfort and joy. Taking an incredibly self-aware approach, The Lego Movie underscores the fact that the movie is a marketing vehicle and showcases the negative and positive facets of the commodity it promotes. 


Best Movie: Mistaken For Strangers 
The tale of Tom Berninger, the younger brother of The National's Matt Berninger, is a film I almost forgot was released in 2014 as we caught it in the earlier portion of the year. There's a lot of competition for this top spot between Only Lovers Left Alive, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Locke, Snowpiercer, and We Are The Best!; but I think that this fairly straight-forward narrative of brothers and the difficulty of being in the shadow of a much more famous sibling despite your own burgeoning talents is a wonder to behold. Tight, concise, and uproariously funny, Mistaken for Strangers is one of the best rock documentaries ever made.

Outstanding Performance: Tom Hardy, Locke
Imagine, a camera focused on a performer for the entirety of a film's running time, with no supporting players beyond a few ADR'd voice-overs. The pressure on an actor to deliver would be immense, and yet, Tom Hardy nails a tour-de-force of serene beauty, portraying a stoic construction foreman on a 90 minute car ride to rectify one of his greatest mistakes. I was mesmerized throughout, and with this role, Hardy has secured upper-echelon status amongst Hollywood's best character actors.

Oscar Hopeful: Best Score - Mica Levi, Under the Skin
I wasn't as attached to Jonathan Glazer's sci-fi think-piece as most; but I can say the most undeniable part of the film was Mica Levi's haunting score, which set the stage for some of the film's most memorable visuals. The utterly creepy three-note melody is still reverberating through my head months after much of the rest of the film has left me behind. This is the mark of fine auditory craft.


Best Movie: The Double

Believe me, the top of my Best of 2014 list is getting crowded real fast.  Two strong contenders for the top of the list (the two that are at the top of my list right now) have already been covered with The Grand Budapest Hotel and Snowpiercer, a pair of masterpieces.  Whew.  But this was still a hard battle between two other, very different movies (more on this below), in the end, I had to give this to The Double, Richard Ayoade's (Submarine, The IT Crowd) comically surreal take on a Fyodor Dostoevsky story.  The film finds Jesse Eisenberg playing a tragicomic office drone straight out of Terry Gilliam's similarly dystopian Brazil.  He spends all day working in a bureaucratic mess and pining away for copy girl Mia Wasikowska when his life is upended by the appearance of someone who looks exactly like him - something no one else seems to notice or comment on - but with ten times more confidence and half as many scruples.  The Double didn't quite stick the landing for me, but the ride getting there is thrilling, unpredictable, and often shockingly funny.

Outstanding Performance: Agata Kulesza, Ida

Ida is almost certainly going to be on my Best of 2014 list, and actress Agata Kulesza plays a huge part of that (as does, obviously, the gorgeous cinematography).  Kulesza plays Wanda Gruz, a powerful woman in the Polish Communist party who has just met her long-lost niece, a nun seeking to learn about her family before she takes her vows.  The two - polar opposites in the best way - go on a road trip across the Polish countryside, and learn how intimately their family's past is tied to Poland's World War II sins.  It's a powerful story, but Kulesza stands out even within it, a bitter woman harboring decades-long pain that we come to know only in fits and starts.  If lead actress Agata Trzebuchowska is the cipher granting the film its remarkable stillness, Kulesza is the quiet avenging angel wondering how it could have all gone so wrong.

Oscar Hopeful: Best Adapted Screenplay - 22 Jump Street

Typically, if you want to know what the most underrated movie of any given year is, a good rule of thumb is to look to either horror or comedy.  And while this year's horror hasn't really impressed me - I liked Oculus, but it didn't exactly blow me away - this year is the first really excellent one for big screen comedy in awhile.  Michael Bacall is proving to be one of the most formidable comedy writers on the big screen today, working with Phil Lord & Christopher Miller on the Jump Street movies and Edgar Wright on Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, and here, Bacall did the impossible: He wrote a really excellent comedy sequel.  Comedy sequels are hard to do (almost impossible, really), but 22 Jump Street manages to not just be funny without repeating its excellent predecessor; it manages to be funny about repeating its predecessor.  No one expected a Channing Tatum/Jonah Hill 80's TV remake franchise to become a bastion of whip-smart comedy on the big screen, but that's the world we live in.


Best Movie: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Yes this is a relatively recent release, and, in all fairness, I should probably allow my initial thoughts to sink in just a bit more.  But then...to hell with it, I'm going to go with my gut.  2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a huge surprise in a lot of ways.  Not being a huge fan of this particular franchise, I really had no expectations whatsoever.  So of course, like many, I found myself blown away by the action, depth, plot, and pitch-perfect CGI/motion capture.  Three years later, Dawn takes what there was to love about the first film and amplifies it significantly.  A story which is so utterly captivating paired with jaw-dropping special effects, you honestly forget that these apes are not real, finding yourself lost in Caesar's struggle to maintain a functioning society.  Half Shakespearean societal drama, half human drama about the struggle to survive in a post-apocalyptic waste land, Dawn of the Apes is easily my favorite movie of 2014 thus far.  An almost perfect sequel.

Outstanding Performance: Chris Evans, Captain America: The Winter Soldier

This pick should be prefaced with something I bring up quite a bit on the GeekRex podcast.  Unlike the rest of our team, I do not live in an area which receives all the latest indie hits or niche foreign films that only film bloggers know.  Where I live is like much of America in that it only receives the widest of releases.  Thus, my pick for outstanding performance, while fitting, is also a result of my not having seen very much of 2014's independent offerings.  Nevertheless, The Winter Soldier is one of the best action films of this year, and it is all because it is grounded by the fantastic job Chris Evans does of portraying the title character.  Steve Rogers is very different from most superheroes, and Evans dials in on that.  His selfless, others first attitude is one that most superheroes strive for, but Captain America is truly the only on screen comic book hero we have seen reach that ideal.  Evans has perfect chemistry with each of his co-stars, but he also shows viewers just how underrated an actor the man has become over the years.  Pending Guardians of the Galaxy, it is quite possible that Winter Soldier will end up being the best of Marvel Studios' Phase Two films, and that is no doubt due, in part, to how outstanding a performance Evans gives.

Oscar Hopeful: Best Documentary - Life Itself

Admittedly, I was very much so about to concur with Hannah's choice of The Lego Movie in this category.  That being said, I definitely wanted to continue the trend of each of us selecting a different Oscar category for our selections.  With that in mind, I went with what is my most recently viewed film: the documentary on the life of film critic Roger Ebert, Life Itself.  Ebert is a man who took himself from simply writing movie reviews for the Chicago Sun-Times and turned it into a career that not only made itself legitimate, but was just as much an art form as the films it criticized.  Any fan of cinema cannot claim to be so without knowing the name of Roger Ebert, and Life Itself gives more insight into why his legacy on film and film criticism is so indelible.  Also detailing the health struggles Ebert faced late in life, the documentary is both heart-warming and tragic.  It would be easy for the film to make Ebert out to be a monument of cinema history, something more than a man.  But for the simple fact that the documentary continuously reminds us just how human and fragile the man truly was, it makes you appreciate his contributions to this world even more.  I'm not usually great with Oscar nominee picks, but I would be shocked if this does not at least get a nod come next year.

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