Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Best and Worst Films of the Summer - 2014.

That, as they say, is that. The summer movie season has finally come to a close, and awards season is right around the corner with the festival circuit in a couple weeks. However, before moving on to that time of year, I’ve decided to add a new feature where I’ll be talking about the best and worst films of the season.

For those who’ve been following my blog these last few months, I’ve made no secret for how poorly this season started out, starting with the disappointing releases of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Godzilla, but in spite of that, the movies released in the following months were progressively better. From How to Train Your Dragon 2 to Guardians of the Galaxy, the quality of the films improved by leaps and bounds, and in one unlikely instance, it has yielded one movie that has been near-unanimously considered to be a masterpiece. That being Boyhood from Richard Linklater. In comparison to last year, I consider it an improvement, and having yielded several superior movies. The worst film of this summer isn’t even as bad as the worst from last year, that being the utter failure The Lone Ranger.

So, now that that has been addressed, I’ll be doing my ranking of the fourteen films I saw this summer. Please keep in mind that I still haven’t gotten around to several big releases, namely X-Men, The Fault in Our Stars, and 22 Jump Street (frankly, I couldn’t care less about movies like Ninja Turtles or the latest Sin City), and I hope to get to those remaining films as they become available on home video. With that said, let’s begin...

Number 14
Though it‘s reviews may appear contradictory at surface value, Godzilla carried with it disappointment adequately comparable to Ridley Scott’s Prometheus from two years ago. Indeed, the film has sparked very divisive sets of audiences since its May debut, with those who look at the film with much appreciation, or with hatred. Unfortunately, I happen to be in that second camp.

I could have easily gone for an easier target like Transformers, but here’s why I think Godzilla is the worse movie. Unlike Transformers, a movie which I was mostly bored by, Godzilla is a film that made me angry with it. We knew Transformers was not going to be a good movie (we just didn’t know how bad it would be), but with Godzilla, we expected MUCH MORE than we got. Indeed, what we got was a downright lethargic, unengaging, frantic, half baked Spielberg tribute that wasn’t even the least bit enjoyable to watch.

This is not a proper creature feature. The monsters are never showcased properly (Those were not action sequences, those were build up), but that wouldn’t be a problem if the human characters in this film were at all interesting, and THAT is where the comparisons to Spielberg films such as Jaws are an insult to Spielberg’s films. Regardless of whether or not those films were character or acting showcases, the characters in those films were memorable, they had clear identities, and the actors still put their A-game into the roles.

Aside from these characters’ jobs, or how they look, name me ONE thing about them personality-wise, because I can remember NOTHING about them, and wasting so many great actors on material this poor is unforgiveable. It doesn’t help matters that the human with the most attention is the least interesting, and most wooden one of them all. I respect the film wanting to build suspense, but when you give us NO REASON AT ALL to care about these characters, there’s NO suspense to be felt. The only reason I don’t think worse of this film is because of the technicians who go out of their way to make this movie look and sound much better than it actually is.

Number 13
Transformers: Age of Extinction
Easy target, I know, but it’s not undeserved. I know Michael Bay is more talented than this film leads us to believe (just watch The Rock, the first Transformers, or Pain & Gain for proof of that), but this film takes every terrible Bay stereotype, and amplifies them through the roof. Gratuitous male teenager pandering, overlong running time (this movie should not be 3 hours long), stereotype characters and annoying gags, and complete rehash from the very beginning. There is NOTHING new in this film. This is the same movie as the previous three films, only longer this time, and in spite of the new cast, it’s essentially the same group dynamic (Jack Reynor is DETESTIBLE in this film). Give credit to Mark Wahlberg for trying to breathe life into it, but there’s only so much he can do.

I don’t want to call audiences stupid (because they’re much smarter than they’re given credit for), but I am calling us overly content when we should be demanding more challenging films than this. Now, I am not saying we shouldn’t have escapist fun, not everything needs to be completely serious, but this is not a good example. It’s cynical, it’s clunky, and even when we’re aware it won’t be good, we still eat it up. Even Bay has acknowledged that though people will hate the film, “They’ll still see it anyway.” I’m not kidding, he actually said that. Real classy!

Number 12
The Expendables 3
By all accounts, I should have enjoyed this movie. The first two films are such guilty pleasures, and yet this film was such a snoozefest. The film is at least mildly fun (thanks mainly to some solid set pieces, and Antonio Banderas as a chatty sharpshooter), but for the most part, it’s a chore to sit through. The same excellent chemistry between the stars is more muted this time around, especially with Stallone separated from his old buddies for much of the film (as well as a severely underused Terry Crews), and while the new additions try their hardest to make this film work, they just don’t mesh as well as you’d expect. That’s all I can really say about this film. Analyzing it piece by piece, it should equal a success, but the result is a vapid letdown.

Number 11
The Amazing Spider-Man 2
I introduce you to the film that started it all. You can see why I was so critical of the films released in May, and so worried about the state of the summer movie season, because if THIS is their best foot forward, it doesn’t inspire much hope. The sequel to the enjoyable first film from two years ago, this latest installment is overloaded with subplots and characters that run on fumes faster than Spider-Man 3 did. They aren’t a problem because they’re hard to follow in any way, but the script is spread far too thin between each of these elements (PICK A VILLAIN!!!), and doesn’t give them nearly all of the attention they deserve. Clearly trying to copy the world building that the Marvel Cinematic Universe did so well, it introduces too much at once when something much leaner would have sufficed. I can only imagine how worse that would have been had they kept in Shailene Woodley as Mary Jane Watson.

Credit must be given to director Mark Webb and the cast (especially Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone) who make this movie much more watchable than it has any right to be, but they aren’t enough to distract from this script’s overbearing structure and set up, as well as its incredibly confused tone that bounces between grounded realism and over campiness (Something Sam Raimi’s films always did better). Thankfully, the movies in summer got much better afterwards, but that still didn’t erase the sour aftertaste of the worst Spider-Man film yet.

Number 10
A Million Ways to Die in the West
Once again, you’ve got May to thank for this one. For me, A Million Ways to Die in the West was the biggest disappointment of the summer, and this is especially frustrating seeing how much director Seth MacFarlane managed to miss the mark… and yet, was so close at the same time.

Having appreciated his directorial debut Ted, I was hopeful that this parody of westerns would deliver on all of the comedic potential it had, yet it was so barely tapped. The cast assembled is ready and willing (including an excellent Charlize Theron), but after the film’s first hour, this movie goes downhill fast. It’s got several of the same problems that Ted did, but even worse so, including it’s over familiarity and its tonal inconsistency. The film is clearly trying hard to make the viewer laugh, and there are some true gems present, including a simple, but hysterical musical number about moustaches (it makes more sense in context). If the rest of the film had applied that same less is more way of thinking, this could have been substantially better, but as is, it doesn’t matter how many jokes you have if the set up and context isn’t good, and that is certainly the case for this film.

Number 9
How awful is it that this was the best film released in May? Maleficent is the latest live action reimagining of classic animated Disney films. This film, of course, is a retelling of the story of one of the most iconic villains ever, Sleeping Beauty’s Maleficent. It’s hard not to see why people would be angry with this film (and I absolutely understand), but… I think there’s still some good stuff in it.

For one thing, it does butcher the original film’s story. It nearly betrays everything that made Maleficent such a fascinating character in the first place (including a “twist” ending shamefully stabbing it in the back for good measure), and it turns Aurora’s fairy godmothers (arguably the main characters of that classic film) into inept, obnoxious idiots. That is what bad fan-fiction writers THINK the fairies were, and NOT what they actually were. The writing is overly convenient, supporting characters flat, and more a showcase for great visuals than decent storytelling.

However, there are still good qualities. Angelina Jolie embodies Maleficent with ease and sinister charisma, and even in the character’s more schmaltzy moments, gives the film her fullest commitment. Though more a case of style over substance, the visuals of the film (no doubt lovingly set up by debut director Robert Stromberg) are always enchanting. Sharlto Copley turns in another great performance for his portfolio, and the great James Newton Howard graces us with one of his very best musical scores to date. It’s a very mixed experience, but an enjoyable diversion.

Number 8
Get On Up
I don’t feel like I’ve got a whole bunch to say about this movie after my original review. It’s an intriguing concept of a film, and director Tate Taylor (best known for his 2011 surprise hit The Help) felt like a great fit for the material, but it just wasn’t executed properly. The simple but layered structure and great character interactions of The Help would’ve gone a long way in making this movie better, but the jumpy structure and shaky pace doesn’t allow that to flow as organically. The best thing in the movie is the acting, but even that’s not to the level that The Help was… With the exception of Chadwick Boseman, who is incredible in the role of James Brown, overflowing with energy and screen presence that perfectly fits the godfather of soul.

Number 7
Edge of Tomorrow
This film is the biggest surprise of the season. A movie that, by all indications, should have flopped, yet its creativity and utter enthrallment grabbed audience attentions, and never let go. A mixture of Groundhog Day and Source Code as far as plot goes, the film is a surprisingly smarter than average summer blockbuster. Much of this is thanks to Tom Cruise’s excellent lead performance, with the actor playing against type, and not afraid to toss in tongue in cheek jabs at his usual persona.

He plays especially well against co-star Emily Blunt, whose own traumatic experiences have morphed her into an outwardly steely yet inwardly fragile soul, and the connection that the two actors form is a genuinely engaging and poignant bond. However, the film still retains a sense of fun, with the time loop mechanics of the film delighting in the hysterical ways that Cruise’s character repeatedly dies, and does so in a way that brings to mind the respawn function of first-person shooters. The action sequences are no less great, carrying a frequent gravity, and are always high stakes. It should not have worked, but defied its expectations. Again…

Number 6
A film that has already been looked at as the Blade Runner of our time, Snowpiercer emerged alongside the glut of bombastic blockbusters, and provided a healthy, challenging alternative to the razzle dazzle. Give me ten Snowpiercers over a thousand Transformers any day.

The self-sufficient ecosystem of Bong Joon-Ho’s film is a fascinating one to look at, especially in the fabulous, theme specific sections in each train car, with richer passengers in the cozy and stylish frontward cars, while the starved and poor passengers scrounge in the grisly and worn down backward cars, no doubt done so to visually make allegories to the holocaust. The film’s societal divides may not be particularly new, but it’s the unique and grisly take on the issue that makes it stand out amongst the crowd. The film is grisly and bleak, the action is always high stakes, and the acting is aces across the board, especially Tilda Swinton in a riotous villain role. Minor plot points that go absolutely nowhere aside, it’s a film that stays with you long after it’s finished.

Number 5
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
This was perhaps the most intense film I sat through all summer. Continuing on from where 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes left off, this film plunges the viewer into a spectacularly realized, post-apocalyptic environment with no punches pulled. I’ve heard quite a few comparisons to The Last of Us regarding this film’s atmosphere… and they’re not far off.

The atmosphere of the film is very bleak and haunting, and the interactions between the characters are very emotional. The film is built upon classic Shakespearean and Roman tragedies, and makes clear commentary on issues of gun control and animal captivity. The film is especially intense in the way that it takes its time to build up to its best moments. It doesn’t start out playing its best cards early, but lets them fold out organically after we’ve established a connection to character, and these action scenes are the best of the year. What makes the film so good, however, is with the ape characters. The scenes with them are incredible, taking place mostly in silence with subtitles translating the Apes’ sign language, allowing freedom of expression to convey the tone. Above all, Andy Serkis gives the best performance of the summer, his Caesar an empathetic but stern commander. Much has been made of the fantastic motion capture bringing the ape to life, and the two elements work so well that, when I think of Caesar, I don’t just see CGI or a guy in a suit. I see a living, breathing ape right before my eyes.

Number 4
Life Itself
Roger Ebert, the greatest film critic of all time, was affectionately known as the man with a notepad in one hand, and a handful of popcorn in the other. But, through the fantastic documentary Life Itself, the man is shown to us as so much more. A man with a passion for life, friendship, and his profession, Ebert was never one to waste a single opportunity of life’s great wonders. Even when cancer robbed him of his ability to speak, his creative voice was never silenced, and pressed on as usual. It’s very inspiring – and also heartbreaking – to watch him go through serious hardships, but never let cynicism deteriorate his spirit. He was a master of his field, and never looked at it as an easy paycheck to write. I can think of people who are at the top of their field, and yet they can’t stand a second of what they’re doing. Ebert was always a pioneer for new talent, new ways of storytelling, and knew before any of us the potential that lie in film, that it could be high art, which is something that can’t help but be saluted.

Number 3
Guardians of the Galaxy
If you want great, proper, zany popcorn entertainment, it doesn’t get any better than this film. A risky film for Marvel to have brought to the silver screen, it paid off with infectious glee and constant enthrallment. Guardians of the Galaxy could easily go toe to toe with The Avengers as Marvel’s best film to date.

By far the most hysterical and character driven entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe yet, director James Gunn’s quirky approach is an inspired one, less interested in serious minded morals, and more so in unabashed fun, and fantastic character chemistry. Led by Chris Pratt’s charismatic and goofy Peter Quill, the mismatched personalities and desires of each character (which include the phenomenal Rocket Raccoon, voiced by Bradley Cooper), as well as their priceless banter, equate to comic gold. This is the funniest film of the summer, and in fact, much of the time, the film’s humor plays out satirizing the trends of its own medium. This is to say nothing of the fabulous effects, rock solid action set pieces, and the killer 60’s-70’s soundtrack (Of which I own). I just adored this film.

Number 2
Universally hailed as a masterpiece of modern filmmaking, Richard Linklater’s nearly three hour experimental epic, Boyhood, rose above its gimmicks to deliver one of the most genuine portrayals of adolescence in cinematic history. Shot over the course of twelve years, the fact that the film even exists at all is a stellar achievement, but the storytelling is what especially makes this film so powerful.

There’s no sugar coating or demonizing, no intense stakes, just a boy continually aging into his adulthood… and that’s all you really need. Though deceptively mundane, Boyhood’s representation of life is spot on. Not many spectacular things happen throughout, but as in life itself, even the most mundane, simple, apathetic experiences make the biggest impact on who we are, and who we’re going to become. This is where lead actor Ellar Coltrane excels at, blending seamlessly with the character of Mason, and consistently keeping his core identity as the year’s progress. All of the actors are excellent at this, particularly Ethan Hawke as his father. These aren’t simply characters in Linklater’s film, but wholly realized, genuinely real people in realistic situations. This makes Linklater’s documentarian style approach absolutely refreshing, and while I hesitate to call it the masterpiece so many others have, for my money, it’s the best film the man’s directed.

Number 1
How to Train Your Dragon 2
Was there ever any suspense as to what the number one would be? It’s been the one to beat since its June debut, and though Boyhood may be a near-masterpiece, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is virtually perfect in every way. I initially had no idea how this film would top the fantastic original, but somehow it did, and did so in a way infinitely more mature than any of the films released this summer.

Darkening up the original film’s tone in a fashion akin to The Empire Strikes Back, the film is not a dreaded “More, more, more” rehash that regresses its characters, but an intelligent, proper continuation that moves it characters forward. Lead character Hiccup is continuing to learn more as a dragon rider, and the issues he finds himself having to come to grips with are genuinely relatable. His interactions with family and friends are the strongest aspect present in this film, though the dragons are such scene stealers, developing their personalities in complete silence and body language (which is the purpose of animation), and they are among the most charming things you’ll see all year.

The film also deals with heavy issues of loss (one so intense that you’ll beg for a Deus Ex Machina), as well as of animal cruelty, the latter of which will stick with a kid longer than any Sarah McLachlan commercial. That’s another reason I love this movie so much, in that it takes its child audience just as seriously as its adult audiences. Kids are much smarter than many pandering cartoons give them credit for, and deserve movies this rich and complex in presentation. It refuses to pull its punches when it wants to be serious, and doesn’t betray its own ethics.

On top of that, the visuals are spectacular (especially in IMAX 3D), the sound is exquisite (John Powell’s musical score will remain the best of the year. I guarantee it), and the quality of voice acting is just exceptional. The only downside is not with the actual film, but with its release. The film had lots of heated competition before, after, and during its opening weekend, and sadly got lost in the shuffle of weaker, but more highly buzzed titles, making it this year’s diamond in the rough. I just hope this unfortunate turn of events doesn’t dissuade Dreamworks from making a third film, and with two movies THIS good already under their belt, they BETTER make it.

I don’t know what else to even say about it. I just adore this movie, and I encourage everyone reading to give it a shot, and see what you’ve missed out on.

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