Tuesday, October 6, 2015

My favorite movies of 2014

(Originally appeared on my Facebook page)

My annual list.

1. Boyhood (Richard Linklater) - A story that encompasses many years, involving the same characters and actors, and simply Richard Linklater at his best. Of course I’m referring to Before Sunrise / Before Sunset / Before Midnight. Boyhood is in the same vein. At first it seems nothing much happens, but life is like that, you realize how rich it has been only when you sit still and look back. In a year of gimmicky Oscar baits and the usual effects-heavy blockbusters, here is a slice of life captured on film that feels natural and authentic, suprisingly rare in feature filmmaking. The best movie of the year.

2. Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn) - Finally, a Marvel movie that captured the tone and spirit of Marvel comic books (unlike the X-Men movies and the others that are just too darn serious.) There were noble attempts to do so in the past, specifically the Fantastic Four movies and especially Sam Raimi’s Spider-man movies, but what’s different this time is I actually CARED about the characters. Star-Lord! Gamora! Drax! Rocket Raccoon! Groot! Little Groot! Not many people knew about these characters before this movie, but now, they’re huge favorites, including mine. And that soundtrack! I can’t wait for the next one!

3. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson) - This barged into my top 3 Wes Anderson movies (after The Royal Tenenbaums and Fantastic Mr. Fox.) Such an intricate work of art and an enjoyable romp. This movie also proves that Ralph Fiennes can do ANYTHING.

4. Godzilla (Gareth Edwards) - I’m still puzzled by the level of hate that this movie got when it came out, to the point that people were saying that it’s the worst movie ever, or that the horrible 1998 Godzilla movie was better, and that (gasp) the craptastic Batman and Robin movie was better. Like, whut?? People on crack? What were they expecting, Jurassic Park XL? King Kong with an interpreter? For me, the great achievement of this movie was that it was able to strike a balance between a modern day blockbuster, and a tribute to the original Toho studio movies from the 50s to the 70s. In many ways, it was this franchise’s Skyfall, looking back into the legacy with respect while moving the property forward.

5. Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch) - Vampires. Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston as said vampires. Jim Jarmusch. Vintage hardbound books. Literature. Analogue audio. Records. Rock and classical musical score. History. Morocco. Goth. Noir. There’s no way I would not like this movie because it speaks to many kinds of nerds. No, this isn’t a horror movie. Oddly, the tone of the movie reminds me a lot of Sofia Coppola’s “Lost In Translation,” including the humor.

6. Interstellar (Christopher Nolan) - You know I could care less about the science behind this movie’s story since one of my favorite movies of the year has a talking raccoon. I watched this on 70mm film IMAX; I’m not sure how this looks like on smaller (digital) screens, but what I saw was a movie comparable in ambition to 2001: A Space Odyssey, and I certainly don’t think anybody had the guts to question Kubrick about his movie’s science.

7. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (Isao Takahata) - There are two geniuses within beloved Studio Ghibli: Hayao Miyazaki (“the Walt Disney of Japan,” but he’s more than that), and Isao Takahata, who was responsible for classic films such as Grave of the Fireflies, simply one of the best anti-war movies of all-time. It is tragic that in 2014, both Miyazaki and Takahata made known that they are retiring, with their latest films to be their last (Miyazaki’s was 2013’s The Wind Rises), putting the future of Studio Ghibli as a production company in limbo. Takahata’s work is quite distinct from Miyazaki’s because, unlike Miyazaki’s blockbusters that are decidedly light and fun and such crowdpleasers, Takahata’s is a bit more serious. Like a lot of Japanese art though (Edo paintings, haikus, Kurosawa productions), there’s a lot of wit and humor beneath the surface of Princess Kaguya. The hand-drawn animation is quite an achievement in itself, not to mention the story (an adaptation of a Japanese folk tale). If Takahata is indeed serious about retiring after this, then he’s bowing out with a winner. (note: watch the original Japanese version and not the Hollywood-dubbed one)

8. How To Train Your Dragon 2 (Dean DeBlois) - I did not expect that I would love this movie. It’s a sequel, with the kind of title usually reserved for direct-to-video cash-ins. I watched this because I loved the first one. This sequel surpassed that first movie in all areas, especially in the uplift and feel-good department. This has happened before: Spider-Man 2…Toy Story 2…Shrek 2…(Godfather Part 2??)

9. Citizenfour (Laura Poitras) - The Edward Snowden documentary. There are scenes that are every bit as suspenseful as anything by Hitchcock, except that they were actually happening. And like in those Hitchcock movies where protagonists are pursued and cornered, you root for the hero. Unlike in those movies though, we have all been cornered for real without knowing it. Yes, you.

10. Selma (Ava DuVernay) - It defies logic that this movie got a lot less attention and recognition than some less-deserving ones (listed below under “Underwhelmed.”) Admittedly, there are moments in the movie that felt like the audience is being slapped left and right with Oscar trophies, but they don’t take away the fact that this movie has more heart and balls AND cinematic values than the likes of “The Theory of Everything.” And this could have been the year when a black woman would be nominated for Best Director. Until she wasn’t.

11. The Book of Life (Jorge Gutierrez) - More than an enjoyable animated movie musical, it is a colorful and euphoric celebration of Mexican culture, a labor of love by its mostly Latino crew. If afterlife exists and it’s as fantastic as the movie portrays, who would want to live? (Also, dig that soundtrack that reworks popular songs like Radiohead’s “Creep.”)

12. Birdman (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarittu) - Had I seen this movie yesterday, it would have been ranked higher on this list, top 3 even. However, as time passes, I could not help but feel that this entire movie was a stunt, a gimmick that’s not going to stand the test of time. Enjoy it while the novelty lasts.

13. Under The Skin (Jonathan Glazer) - A slow burner of a film, saying more would give its secret away. Memorable performance by Scarlett Johansson. Fantastic synth soundtrack by Mica Levi.

14. Finding Vivian Maier (John Maloof, Charlie Siskel) - Vivian Maier: a nanny, hoarder, pack rat, oddball, and apparently, one of the greatest photographers ever, whose work was discovered only after her death in 2009.

15. The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness (Mami Sunada) - This is a documentary about Japan’s Studio Ghibli right around that time they were making Hayao Miyazaki’s “The Wind Rises” and Isao Takahata’s “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya,” and right before the two filmmakers decided to retire. For fans, this behind the scenes look is quite the privilege because these famous filmmakers and the Studio rarely let people into their private world. We also get to know Hayao Miyazaki and the people around him more, as humans and not as the icons that they are considered to be. Miyazaki’s announcement that he was going to retire was a shock to fans. Watching this film, I realized that the kind of work that they do is truly difficult and time-consuming, and I now understand why they deserve a break after their remarkable run. I also like how this documentary is very austere, very Japanese (if you’ve seen Jiro Dreams of Sushi or documentaries on NHK, then you’d know what I’m talking about).

16. Big Hero 6 (Don Hall, Chris Williams) / The Lego Movie (Chris Miller, Phil Lord) - Very entertaining, very witty. Big Hero 6 feels more like golden-age Pixar, while The Lego Movie is simply one of the funniest of 2014.

17. Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman) - What struck me most about this movie was, it’s probably the only film in memory that is able to show exactly how video games work (and it’s not even a “video game movie”). You try and try until you perfect it, and even if it’s already game over, you reboot and do everything all over again. Simply one of the smartest movies of 2014.

18. Gone Girl (David Fincher) - I’ve got nothing to say except that this fits perfectly in the David Fincher filmography, from the story to the style to the cinematography and music.

19. Still Alice (Wash Westmoreland) - I don’t like movies concerning diseases, and if they’re really good, I like them less so!, simply because when they’re too realistic they make me feel nervous about the possibility of said disease afflicting me or people close to me (I’m weird that way). However, the craft involved in the making of Still Alice is just undeniable, especially Julianne Moore’s performance as a person afflicted with Alzheimer’s. Sometimes she would blank out and seem lost like how people with Alzheimer’s would, and it’s just too accurate and devastating.

20. A Most Violent Year (J.C. Chandor) / Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy) - I like these movies because they have such a ‘70s vibe that recall those gritty urban crime/morality films in the ’70s directed by the likes of Sidney Lumet (Serpico / Dog Day Afternoon / Network). Great performances by Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain in Violent Year (nope, no award recognition for both), while Jake Gyllenhaal gives probably his best and certainly creepiest performance ever in Nightcrawler (nope, no Oscar nomination for him either). Both of these movies are very much underrated or overlooked; I think their stature will rise as the years go by.

21. Dracula Untold (Gary Shores) - I would certainly not call this a bad movie. Unnecessary perhaps. This is now meant to be the first movie in a reboot of the Universal Monsters universe, and it does feel like that was a belated decision since the movie lacks the usual excitement of a franchise starter. However, an additional scene (the eventual ending) was shot to set up the planned franchise. Now I'm excited. If it doesn't work out, please turn this into a TV series.

22. WolfCop (Lowell Dean) - A comedy. A cop comedy movie. A werewolf cop comedy movie. #throwback

23. Finding Fela (Alex Gibney) - Nigerian superstar Fela Kuti was one of the greatest and bravest artists who ever lived, but not many people know him (unlike Bob Marley for example, he did not have his own “Legend.”) I think it’s because Fela left this whole universe of music and legacy behind that people who want to get into him do not know where to start. This documentary by Alex Gibney (Taxi To The Dark Side) is a great introduction to his life and music.

24. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Anthony Russo, Joe Russo) - Speaking of the 70s, here’s one superhero movie that feels less like a comic book movie but more like a full-fledged political thriller, in which the events serve as a turning point in the Marvel cinematic universe. Even the TV show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. got a lot more interesting after the events in Winter Soldier. Heil Hydra! 

25. Force Majeure (Ruben Ostlund) - You know that feeling when you’re on holiday when you’re supposed to be relaxing yet everything just got messed up and you’re really pissed off because of it and you just want people to shut their faces and you just don’t wanna be here anymore but you’re stuck here for days and can’t really do anything about it? This movie gets that feeling right.

26. PK (Rajkumar Hirani) - The highest-grossing Indian film ever. It’s also one of the most hilariously subversive movies I’ve seen, and it’s an Asian film (!). In this movie, the absurdity of certain aspects of religion gets skewered, and nobody is spared. Aamir Khan is one of Bollywood’s most popular and outspoken, and doing this movie certainly was a big risk that seems to have paid off.

27. Coming Home (Zhang Yimou) - Actress Gong Li and master director Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern, Hero) reunite for this Chinese drama about the after-effects of the Cultural Revolution to ordinary people’s lives. Since this is Zhang Yimou, the actual theme is much bigger than that, and this movie fits in nicely with the rest of his body of work. Gong Li’s is one of the year’s finest performances.

28. The Raid 2: Berandal (Gareth Evans) - If you saw the first movie, you’d know what to expect. Just a reminder that this movie is extremely violent — Tarantino’s Kill Bill at least is funny — and the banning of it in some countries is justified. If you do watch it, see the original Indonesian version with English subtitles because the English-dubbed version is just atrocious.

29. What We Do In The Shadows (Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi) - A mockumentary about vampires living in New Zealand, perhaps the funniest in the genre since Best In Show. ‘Nuff said!

30. The Missing Picture (Rithy Panh) - The emotional and harrowing story about life under the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, as told by the director (a labor camp survivor), accompanied mainly by shots of wooden hand-made dioramas as well as propaganda videos shot by the Khmer Rouge. Essential viewing.

Some more that I liked:

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves)
We Are The Best! (Lukas Moodysson)
Queen (Vikas Bahl)
The Babadook (Jennifer Kent)
Lucy (Luc Besson)
Paddington (Paul King)
Noah (Darren Aronofsky)
Particle Fever (Mark Levinson)
Into The Woods (Rob Marshall)
Big Eyes (Tim Burton)
Magic In The Moonlight (Woody Allen)
Starry Eyes (Kevin Kolsch, Dennis Widmyer)
The Interview (Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg)
Dear White People (Justin Simien)
Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson)


The Theory of Everything - it’s amazing how unremarkable this movie is
The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies
The Imitation Game

My bests:

Actor: J.K. Simmons (Whiplash)
Special mention: Ralph Fiennes (The Grand Budapest Hotel)

Actress: Julianne Moore (Still Alice)
Special mention: Gong Li (Coming Home) / Mira Grosin and Mira Barkhammar (We Are The Best!)

Ensemble: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Director: Boyhood
Screenplay: Boyhood
Cinematography: Ida
Editing: Boyhood
Production Design: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Costume: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Visual Effects: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Musical Score (all great, in alphabetical order)
Birdman (Antonio Sanchez, et al)
Godzilla (Alexandre Desplat)
Interstellar (Hans Zimmer)
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (Joe Hisaishi)
Under The Skin (Mica Levi)

1. Guardians of the Galaxy
2. Only Lovers Left Alive
3. Selma (note: the overrated theme song, though, sucks.)
4. Boyhood
5. Inherent Vice

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