2014 has come and gone, and while there were some definite highlights to the year of movies, overall I’d say it was a bit disappointing compared to years past. There were some movies that I really loved, but I wasn’t nearly as enthusiastic in 2014 as I usually am for the world of cinema. However, things are looking up for 2015, with a lot to be excited about, plus there are still a few movies I need to catch up on from 2014 that I either missed or haven’t gotten around to (Big Eyes, Selma, The Imitation Game, etc.). But now that 2015 is underway it’s time to take a look back at the highs and lows of 2014 at the movies. Instead of a traditional top 10 list of movies, I like to list out my favorite cinema-related things from the year. Some of them are movies, but others might be scenes, characters, moments, or even just announcements. So without further ado, here are my top 10 and bottom 3 of 2014 at the movies.
My Top 10 of 2014
1) The Philosophers
No other film impressed me this year as much as The Philosophers (also known as After the Dark in some territories). The movie tells the story of the last day of a philosophy class in Jakarta, during which the professor proposes a thought experiment in which there’s an apocalypse and a bunker which will only support 10 of the 20 students in the class. The students must use their assigned professions to determine who is worth saving and who can be sacrificed. However, this description just scratches the surface of a beautiful, thoughtful, fascinating film that deals with a wide variety of philosophical principles as well as the debate over philosophy itself. It’s exciting, thought-provoking, emotional, and often very funny, and writer/director John Huddles deserves an immense amount of credit for crafting such a unique experience. And in addition to being my favorite film of the year, my review/analysis of the film also was responsible for the coolest thing to happen to me since I started writing this blog, as it led to a personal interaction with one of the film’s creators which the most amazing and encouraging experience I’ve had since I started this blog.
2) Dancing Baby Groot in Guardians of the Galaxy
There was so much to love about Guardians of the Galaxy, from the offbeat casting to the hilarious script to the thrilling heroics, but as much as I loved Rocket, Star-Lord, Gamora, and Drax, no character got to me like Groot. The animate tree-creature, only capable of saying “I am Groot” in the voice of Vin Diesel was the quiet soul of the movie paired with Rocket’s heart. His equally gentle and ferocious demeanor, along with his combination of childlike wonder and maturity, gave the film a completely different feel than it would have had without him, reduced to simply a wise-cracking Star Wars ripoff. But the best Groot moment came during the credits, when, after having been seemingly destroyed, a twig was replanted in a pot and grew into a tiny version of the giant, quiet hero. But when Peter Quill loaded up some Jackson 5 in his tape deck, we got to watch baby Groot cut loose and dance in the most joyous, carefree moment in all of cinema this year. It ensured that everyone left the theater with a huge smile on their face, and it sent many of us scrambling to find a baby dancing Groot to sit on our desks at work.
3) The Star Wars: The Force Awakens Trailer
I normally wouldn’t put a trailer this high on the list, but not every trailer is a Star Wars trailer. There hasn’t been a new Star Wars movie in 10 years, and the Star Wars saga is my favorite film and the single most important story in my history as a film fan. I’ve listened to people bash the prequels for the last 16 years, typically defending them, and all of those debates resurfaced in the buildup to the trailer. There was seemingly no way the trailer could live up to people’s expectations, and the haters were probably already prepping their snark, but once it started people were entranced and intrigued. The trailer was dark, unsettling, and intense, feeling 100% Star Wars yet also 100% new. And then there’s that final shot of the Millennium Falcon swooping through the desert that blew everyone’s mind and we were all instantly hooked. It was all anyone could talk about for a few weeks, from debating the physics of a cross-guard lightsaber to racist complaints about the existence of a black stormtrooper. But regardless of your opinion on the trailer, it was definitely one of the biggest moments of 2014, and at this point my anticipation level for the 2015 film is off the charts, higher than anything else.
4) Michael Keaton in Birdman
Birdman is such a clever film, equally funny and tragic. It has a great cast, a clever hook in the illusion that it’s all filmed in one take, and meta commentary on the nature of fame and accomplishment. But all of that would be meaningless without Michael Keaton at the front. His performance as the former star of a superhero movie series who is trying to reinvent himself by directing and starring in a play in New York is simply electric. He brings a manic energy that keeps you on the edge of your seat as you watch, yet it’s also an emotional, fragile performance. In a year seemingly filled with cinematic spectacle, Keaton managed to stand out from the noise, delivering a role that was more memorable than any big-budget visuals or epic battles.
5) Baymax in Big Hero 6
I have a soft spot for adorable robots (see also: Earth to Echo) so it’s no surprise that Baymax hit me hard. He was the heart of Big Hero 6, and also the source of most of its humor. His fist-bump noise has to be the winner for best vocal sound effect for the year. But what I might have loved most was his design. Adorable, sweet robots who don’t quite understand human behavior are fairly common, even if the healthcare aspect of Baymax makes him stand out, but having Baymax be inflatable was a stroke of genius, making the film much more visually interesting and offering many opportunities for comedy. It also goes a long way towards establishing his character as someone soft and comforting, making his transformation into a flying combat bot all the more impressive. Baymax felt like one of the most creative inventions of the film world in 2014, but his place in the story is really what earned him a spot on the list.
Pride was one of those movies that came and went with little fanfare or notice. However, it was one of my favorites and I’m so glad that I sought it out. Based on a true story, it told about the unlikely alliance between striking coal miners and LGBTQ rights advocates in 1984. It was hilarious, tragic, and heartwarming, and it combined one of my most passionate causes with the industry in which I work. It was perfectly cast, charmingly British, and one of my top films of the year.
7) Captain America: The Winter Soldier flips the script on Agents of SHIELD
I really didn’t know what to expect from The Winter Soldier. I’d enjoyed the first Captain America film, but the character was much more interesting in The Avengers. And while I ended up loving everything about the sequel, what had the biggest impact for me was the degree to which it shook up the Marvel Cinematic Universe at large and my favorite show, Agents of SHIELD, in particular. The revelation that HYDRA had infiltrated SHIELD all the way to the top made the show infinitely more tense and dramatic, especially when we learned that one of the show’s heroes was actually a villain. That kind of synergy between properties has never really been attempted, and all of a sudden the MCU felt much more exciting and dangerous than it ever had before.
8) “On the Steps of the Palace” from Into the Woods
There’s a lot to love about Into the Woods, at least there is if you’re a fan of musicals. But for me, the moment that stuck with me, and the song that I find myself listening to the most, is “On the Steps of the Palace”. The song occurs as Cinderella is fleeing the palace (and the prince) on the third night of the ball, only to find herself stuck in pitch that the prince spread on the stairs. Time freezes and she sings her internal debate about the decision with which she’s faced. She can either stay with the prince, she can pry herself loose and return to her old life, or she can leave behind a shoe and force the prince to decide for her. It’s the sort of song from a musical that I love the most, a song that gives us an inside look as what a character is thinking and feeling. Of course, it’s helped by the fact that it was written by Sondheim and is performed by Anna Kendrick, who not only is an excellent actress but who really understands musicals after years on the stage. It’s the song from Into the Woods that I most often find myself humming, earning it a spot on the list.
9) Angelina Jolie and Elle Fanning in Maleficent
The right casting can turn a good movie into a great one, and nowhere was that more evident in 2014 than in Maleficent. The twist on the classic tale of Sleeping Beauty cast Angelina Jolie as the villainous Maleficent and Elle Fanning as Princess Aurora, and those choices for the leads is what allowed the movie to work so well. Both Jolie and Fanning brought a high level of believability to the classic roles, with Jolie all bitter and resentful and Fanning wide-eyed and innocent. But the actresses are of such a caliber that they were able to play their roles both as we know them and against type. Fanning gave Aurora a strength that came from her goodness and openness, while Jolie showed us a wounded woman still capable of love. Without these two, Maleficent would have been a simple, if pretty to look at, reimagining of a fairy tale, but with them it became something more.
10) Frozen Fever
2014 was most definitely the year of Frozen. It started the year at the top of the box office, going on to become the fifth highest-grossing film of all time as well as the highest-grossing animated film ever. It followed that up with a pair of Oscars for Best Animated Feature and Best Original Song, along with bringing a lot of attention to Adele Dazeem, I mean Idina Menzel. From there it just grew into a sensation, and you couldn’t turn your head without seeing some reminder of it. “Let it Go” was heard everywhere, much to the annoyance of parents, and it felt like anyone with kids had to post a video of them singing it. Disney stores sold out of Anna and Elsa dolls, they completely changed their meet-and-greet procedure for the princesses in their parks, and they eventually showed up on Once Upon a Time. Of the hundreds of trick-or-treaters that came by our house on Halloween, there were far more Frozen characters than from any other franchise. And while I’m sure many people are sick to death of Frozen, I, for one, am thrilled at all of the attention it’s gotten. In addition to being a fantastic film worthy of recognition, its success proves that the traditional animated musical is still alive and well (something Tangled, despite its relative success, couldn’t quite do) and it was a huge win for Disney, a company I dearly love. With Moana due next year I have high hopes that Disney won’t let this tradition die. I hope the Frozen wave keeps riding high as long as it can, until the next great animated musical can take its place.
Bonus: “Goodnight Danny Trejo” from Muppets Most Wanted
My favorite joke in all of the movies I saw last year occurred in Muppets Most Wanted. Among the many cameos in the film was Danny Trejo as a prisoner in the Russian gulag run by Tina Fey’s character, Nadya. At one point in the film, Nadya locks up the prisoner’s cells for the night, including Kermit’s and Ray Liotta’s, and they all say goodnight to each other, Walton’s style. She says goodnight to prisoners with names like “Big Pappa,” “Prison King,” and “Skullcrusher,” and then she says “Goodnight, Danny Trejo.” So apparently instead of playing a character in the film, Danny Trejo is playing himself, a famous actor who also happens to be a murderer who was sent to a gulag. It’s a great gag that flies by so quickly you might not catch it, and the line was supposedly improvised by Tina Fey. It still gets the biggest laugh from me every time I watch the film.
My Bottom 3 of 2014
1) Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robin Williams
There are celebrity deaths every year, from both golden age actors who have reached the end of a long and productive life to younger rising stars just reaching their prime. But 2014 was marred by two deaths that were shocking and saddening both because of the vast talents of the men and the reality that despite being middle-aged they still had decades of fantastic work ahead of them. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death from drug overdose, after years of substance abuse followed by years of sobriety, was particularly surprising as his career seemed to be hitting its peak. Of course, substance abuse doesn’t follow a logical path, and hopefully his death helped to further discussion and awareness of the issue. He left behind a career full of charismatic performances, including my favorite in Twister, with a final role in the finale of The Hunger Games still to come.
But nothing that happened in the film industry in 2014 was as shocking to me as Robin Williams’ death from suicide at age 63. Williams, one of the funniest people to have ever lived, starred in many of my favorite movies, including Aladdin, The Birdcage, Happy Feet, Dead Poets Society, Mrs. Doubtfire, and Ferngully. I still haven’t been able to bring myself to watch Hook, my all-time favorite film, and whenever it comes on TV I have to change the channel. Part of the shock was the juxtaposition of someone so hilarious with the thought of his suicide, and if his death helped further the discussion on depression and suicide then it wasn’t completely in vain. Still, it felt like such a tragedy, and it still stings months later. In many ways, the deaths of these two men seem to mark 2014 in cinema more than any successes could have.
2) Into the Storm
I do my best not to see any movies that I expect will be bad. I don’t get paid for this, so I have to spend my own money to go to the movies, so I generally just see things I think I will like. This probably artificially inflates my movie ratings, as I’m predisposed to like what I’m seeing. The exception to that in 2015 was Into the Storm, a movie I saw as part of my birthday movie marathon. I saw it because Twister is one of my favorite movies, I enjoy disaster films in general, and I thought the found footage aspect of the film could give it a unique feel. What I didn’t expect was just how horrible the script would be. It was tonally dissonant, going from scary, dramatic moments to insane, unbelievable comedy at the drop of a hat. The characters were one-dimensional, the effects were variously poor or silly, plot developments were telegraphed long before actually happening, and the found footage style was thrown out whenever they wanted a really impressive shot of the tornadoes that couldn’t believably have been filmed by a person with a camera. Beyond just being bad, it made me angry to the point where I pretty seriously emotional about it, upset about the wasted potential in the film. I had to rush back home and watch Twister just to get the bad taste out of my mouth.
Into the Storm was actually just a symptom of a disappointing year at the movies in which I only went to the theater 27 times. I feel like that barely allows me to call myself a movie reviewer at all. It was my lowest total since I started keeping track of my film viewing habits in 1999, and you’d probably have to go back a good way before that to find a time when I saw less. (My record is 69 We had some extenuating circumstances this year, including some major health issues and a fair number of trips, but the bottom line is that there were considerably fewer films we wanted to see this year than there have been in years past. There were plenty of times this past year where I remember wanting to go to the movies but not feeling inspired by any of the options. I’m optimistic about this trend turning around in 2015, as the slate of films has me much more excited, but as far as I’m concerned 2014 was kind of a dud.
Now it’s your turn! What were your favorite and least favorite film-related things of 2014? Favorite movies, performances, songs or scores? Favorite news or trailers? Favorite scenes or quotes? Let me know in the comments!