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ZACK CLOPTON’S 2014 FILM RETROSPECTIVE!!!”
Standing at the ass end of 2014, we critics of popular culture and cultural identity are besieged by temptation to attempt to sum up an entire year of events in as few, pithy words as possible. I used to try to do this. Now, the culture moves too quickly, too instantly, for any paragraph to accurately capture twelve months of tragedy, scandals, and world events. 2014 will doubtlessly go down in history as a year defined by racial conflict, protest, and upheaval, all of it dually deserved. I can’t joke about this. I can’t even joke about GamerGate. You know what I can joke about, what I can speak about with knowledge and understanding? Movies. It’s what we’re all here for anyway.
I’m never satisfied with my output. In 2014, Film Thoughts published more reviews and posts then any other year before. I completed eight Director Report Cards, a number I haven’t met since the blog’s first year of existence. The Halloween Horror-Fest went by with a rocket’s pace and I somehow kept up. I met my goal of 24 episodes of the Bangers n’ Mash Show, my fake podcast Youtube talk show thing. Better yet, the show has continued to grow, finding more listeners and fans and people who leave feedback, all of which I am eternally, truthfully, thankful for. My biggest personal achievement was that I finished and published a book, something I’ve been wanting to do my entire life. All of this is good news. Yet I’m not pleased. I wanted to do more, to complete more. Oh well.
Something else I do every year is make a short list of those entertainers who have died in the previous year. I considered not doing this as well, as it’s horribly sad and probably summed up on better, more appropriate places on the internet. Yet I have to because it’s how I pay tribute to their incredible lives. Robin Williams’ shocking passing is surely the one that touched the most people, especially people my age whose lives were so defined by his films and comedy. With the death of Carla Laemmle, the last bridge to the golden age of Universal Horror, a period of film that means so much to me, is severed. We lost cinematic icons like Lauren Bacall, Philip Seymour Hoffman, James Garner, Shirley Temple, Sid Caesar, Bob Hoskins, and Eli Wallach. We lost cult icons like Joan Rivers, Harold Ramis, Casey Kasem, Dick Smith, Christine Cavanaugh, Edward Herrmann, Menaham Golan, Richard Kiel, Marilyn Burns, Billie Whitelaw, and the Ultimate Warrior. And at the bottom of my list is Mickey Rooney, a man whose impending death I have joked about many times over the years. Now that Mickey truly is dead, I just feel sort of sad and bitter that I ever kidded about loosing a cinematic legend. Let’s have a moment of silence for all of them.
Good and depressed now? Fine. Let’s perks everyone up by discussing the Year in Cinema. Of all the years I’ve been doing these retrospectives, 2014 is destined to be one of my favorites. Just scroll down and look at my top 20 and see how many incredible films are listed there. It was a year of indie breakthroughs, important auteurs doing important work, and summer blockbusters that aspired to great art. As complete as this list is, I still didn’t see everything I wanted to, like “Whiplash,” the divisive “Birdman,” or “Inherent Vice.” Limited releases and deadlines will get you every time.
Without further delay, I present THE LIST, a comprehensive collection of mini-reviews detailing each new release I saw in the last twelve months. I saw 89 in total, tying with 2010 for my highest number yet. Let’s collect some memories together.
1. The Babadook
Director Jennifer Kent has a perfect grasp on tone and execution. She starts with creeping dread and continues on to full-blown terror. The fully committed performances and excellent production design cements the deal. After 90 minutes of total fright, the movie builds towards a cathartic ending, revealing itself as a touching parable about coping with trauma.
2. Guardians of the Galaxy
James Gunn has made a talking raccoon and a tree man two of the year’s most beloved characters. Despite their oddness, the characters are imbued with lovable neurosis. This, along with a hysterical sense of humor and highly quotable dialogue, roots the epic sci-fi story in a common humanity. Gunn made an awesome blockbuster without sacrificing his indie weirdness.
3. The Grand Budapest Hotel
Exquisitely designed with rocket-sled pacing, Wes Anderson’s latest masterpiece features a brilliantly comedic performance from Ralph Fiennes, a surprising amount of action, plenty of hilarity, emotional and touching story detours, and a nesting doll framing device that turns the film into a meditation on the nature of storytelling.
4. Life Itself
A momentous achievement, a great film to sum up a great film lover’s life. Archival clips, interviews, and Ebert’s own words contrast with his sad, final days as a sick man. The film’s devastating climax is Chaz, Ebert’s beloved wife, tearfully discussing her husband’s final hours. Yet this is a celebration of Ebert’s great life too, a touching, beautifully realize tribute.
Nolan’s sci-fi epic is packed full of big ideas but grounded in plausible science. The images are vast and unforgettable. The worm hole or fifth dimensional finale are unlike anything ever put to film before. The execution is thrilling. The cast is compelling, right down to the awesome robots. Its greatest achievement is that the far-out plot is rooted in understandable, honest emotion.
Most importantly, the movie gets Godzilla right. He’s a destructive force of nature that saves the world, not necessarily humanity. The design is great and he’s treated with a sense of awe rarely seen in modern films. The other monsters are impressive too, the movie is beautifully shot, and features plenty of exciting action. Yes, the human characters are a bit dry but I still loved this.
7. The Guest
Adam Wingard’s follow-up to “You’re Next” starts out as dark comedy before exploding into full-blown action, with some sci-fi/horror thrown in. Dan Stevens gives a star-making performance as the titular psychopath. The plot reveals itself nicely. The electronic soundtrack is amazing. And the end is set in a Halloween haunted attraction? Holy shit, this movie is awesome.
Despite being a sci-fi allegory for class struggle, the latest from Jong-ho Bong doesn’t waste any time getting to the action, both frantic and balletic. The production design is amazing, creating a fully-formed world. A fantastic ensemble cast, including a dramatic Tilda Swinton and a hyper Allison Pill, gives the story its humanity, creating a well-rounded, thrilling and thoughtful film.
9. The Double
In equal measures hilarious and sad, director Ayoade brings out dark humor in the film’s Kafka-esque setting. The story is awash in neurotic impulses and real-world despairs, building to an ending that is up-lifting but doesn’t cheat. Eisenberg’s dual performance is impressive and he is ably supported by a great cast.
10. Blue Ruin
Revenge is a tangled path and that’s never been clearer then here. Deconstructing the vigilante film, the killer is a soft-spoken normal guy. Special attention is paid to the aftermath of violence, a quiet humor coming through. Violence begets more violence, until everybody’s dead. Brilliantly acted and directed, this takes “blood for blood” to its uneasy conclusion.
11. Cold in July
Pulp at its finest, the twisty plot heads down a number of unexpected paths. What starts out as an ice cold thriller eventually transforms into a captivating mystery, a bro-tastic dark comedy, and an incredibly gritty, violent action-crime film. The perfect electronic score, chilly direction from Jim Mickle, and an ideal supporting turn from Don Johnson solidifies this as a great modern noir.
THREE AND A HALF STARS:
12. The Dirties
Unflinching look at high school bullying. The movie-obsessed main character might be hard to stomach but his fandom characterizes the entire movie, especially the ultra-meta found footage device. Strong acting and an emotional gut-punch of an ending help disguise that this is actually a very familiar story. I related to far more of this then I’m proud to admit.
13. Big Hero 6
A joyously fun comic book yarn. Baymax is the film’s breakout character but the entire cast is quite lovable. The action sequences are dynamic. The visuals, especially near the end, are spectacular. The story eventually reveals itself as a touching metaphor about surviving grief. It’s also really funny, with plenty of quotable, memorable lines. Disney’s winning streak continues.
14. Nymphomaniac: Volume I
The narration has a hypnotizing effect on the viewer. The frank dialogue and explicit sex contrasts with the elegant music and emotional rawness, making this far funnier then expected. The unrelated fishing tangents are hilarious. Highlights include Uma Thurman’s gloriously bitchy cameo, a devastating meditation on loosing a parent, and the music-based montage finale.
Reconfigures the Bible story into an apocalyptic tale about the wages of faith. Noah becomes a morally ambiguous anti-hero, a nihilist who has to regain his trust of humanity. The direction is frequently amazing, such as the awe-inspiring “creation of the universe” sequence. Aronofsky’s Biblical revisionism will offend some but the changes make the universal tale resonate more.
16. Nymphomaniac: Volume II
Though not as absorbing as the first half, “Nymphomaniac” remains captivating, just as funny, guileless and fascinating. Highlights include comparisons of trees, the involving lengthy S&M sequence, Lars von Trier goofing on his own “Antichrist,” Charlotte Gainsberg’s fearless acting, emotional catharsis, and an ending engineered to create debates.
17. The Raid 2
A bigger storyline bloats up the plot and doubles the runtime. The gang war plot is not always coherent. But who cares when every action scene is a brutal masterpiece? Which bone-crunching sequence do you prefer? The prison riot? Machete Man’s rampage? Hammer Girl on the train? The amazing car chase? Rama’s climatic beat down express? There’s plenty to choose from.
18. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Unusually quiet for a summer blockbuster. Much of the dialogue is subtitled sign language and the film concerns characters and their relationships. When the violence does explode, it’s visceral and sudden. The film continues the “Planet of the Apes” tradition of fantastic world-building. Serkis and Toby Kebbell give fully committed performances. The effects are mostly seamless.
19. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Rooting the story in real world paranoia lends this more weight then it otherwise would have had. The script is surprisingly risky, breaking the rules of the Marvel universe. Chris Evans gets Cap 100% right, a man lost in a world were his morality seems old-fashioned. Functioning fantastically as both a thriller and an action film, this is easily a highlight of Phase Two.
Despite starting with the 10% fallacy, that is merely the MacGuffin to launch into some weird sci-fi. This functions fine as an action flick, including a great car chase and some fun shoot-outs. As a sci-fi flick, this becomes a surprisingly, massively entertaining abstract head trip in the last half-hour. A very controlled ScarJo and a wickedly villainous Choi Min-Sik are the cherry on top.
21. Willow Creek
Considering how overexposed both found footage and Bigfoot movies are, it’s a surprise that this is quite good. A long sequence, depended solely on sound design, generates some real tension while the final scene is genuinely shocking. I like how ambiguous this is about its subject matter. Who would’ve thought that Bobcat Goldthwait could’ve made a good horror movie?
22. Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead
Successfully expands upon the original. There’s more Nazi zombies, more gore, and it’s way more hilarious. The American zombie squad characters are great, very funny addition. The story heads into all sorts of unexpected directions via a magical arm transplant and, yes, an army of Soviet zombies. The only flaw is the local police subplot that never goes anywhere.
23. Only Lovers Left Alive
Mostly about two pretty great actors playing off of each other. The vampire plotline is merely a device to create properly world-weary characters. The film is more concerned with two people with very different approaches to life and how they interact and love each other. Swinton and Hiddleston are mesmerizing, the soundtrack is excellent, and Jim Jermursch’s direction is lyrical.
24. The Lego Movie
Far smarter then expected, the script satirizes the “chosen one” story-arc and police state concerns. The jokes are rapid-fire, helped along by an incredible cast and a keen sense of the absurd. The animation maintains the charm of stop-motion while utilizing the freedom CGI allows. As far as toy-based, February kid’s flick goes, this certainly is awesome.
25. How to Train Your Dragon 2
Successfully expands upon the first film, with more dragons and a bigger world. Hiccup’s Mom is a worthy addition to the cast. The stakes are much higher and the battle scenes are impressive. A kaiju-sized dragon provides some wonder and thrills. The darker tone seems to counteract the fact that, at the heart of things, this is still a goofy kids’ flick about the power of friendship.
Brooding, entirely psychological thriller with an almost oppressive paranoid tone. The story, of a man confronting his doppelganger, is rooted in disturbing questions of identity, self and fidelity. The unexplained giant spider symbolism adds an extra-layer of creepiness. Jack Gyllenhaal successfully creates two characters, one of which is very twitchy and nervous. Great score too.
27. Grand Piano
Utterly preposterous thriller sold by very stylish direction, fun performances and an excellent score. The use of colors and cut-aways are fantastic. Elijah Wood and Cusack have fun doing their respective “nervous” and “psychopath” acts. The ending goes on a little long but this is still very entertaining thriller as long as you can go along with its absurd plot twists.
At times, the absurd premise is played straight. Like Michael Parks’ sincere performance or the horrifying walrus-modification. Other times, it acknowledges the ridiculousness. Like Johnny Depp’s baffling performance or the climatic walrus duel. The script is also about an asshole regaining his humanity. It might be Smith’s most polished film and is certainly his oddest.
29. Cheap Thrills
Potent, darkly hilarious satire that brings the one-percent’s abuse of the middle-class down to visceral, literal earth. An especially game cast, most notably Pat Healy and David Koechner, keep the story grounded, even as it spirals off in a more outrageous direction. The ending is a bit blunt.
30. 13 Sins
Pitch-black dark comedy that slowly involves into a decent thriller. The put-upon protagonist is likable and watching him break his moral code is fun. There’s enough gore to satisfy this horror fan. The ending packs a decent shock, even if it could have been better. The subplot exploring the Game was extraneous. This, coincidentally, makes a good double feature with “Cheap Thrills.”
31. Edge of Tomorrow
Clever sci-fi blockbuster. There’s far more humor then expected and a bit of pathos too. The mobile armor and squirmy aliens create dynamic and exciting action scenes. By taking the role of a coward, Tom Cruise creates his most humanistic role in decades. The final act is dark and routine which is a bummer since the preceding film is far better then it had any right to be.
32. Wolf Creek 2
Greg McLean understands sequel escalation. Essentially a distillation of slasher films, sadistic killer Mick morphs into a villain protagonist, cracking pithy one-liners while slaughtering victims in increasingly elaborate fashions. The film switches heroes several times, accordingly. When a victim distracts Mick with dirty limericks, it seems this sequel is actively mocking the original.
33. Night Moves
After the shapeless “Meek’s Cutoff,” Kelly Reinhart rediscovers pacing. Though this is still deliberately paced, it goes toward building a quiet, extended sense of unease, making for a potent thriller. The tension in the second half, after the dam explosion, becomes almost unbearable. Elle Fanning’s performance is one of her best yet. The ending is frustrating inconclusive though.
34. A Fantastic Fear of Everything
Freaky British comedy that makes good use of Simon Pegg’s manic charm. Pegg’s stream-of-consciousness rants actually power the whole film. Most of it is set inside a Laundromat, of all places. The madcap humor produces decent chuckles, the surreal segues into animation are appreciated, and the shift into serial killer horror/comedy is genuinely unexpected.
35. The Town That Dreaded Sundown
More even then the original film. The murder scenes are incredibly intense and viscerally gory. The direction is stylish. The meta elements are clever but I wish the movie did a little more with it. Turning the story into a whodunit seriously misses the point though. The reveal of the killer is easily the weakest aspect of an overall fairly decent horror film.
After a first half-hour overly dependent on voice-over narration, this evolves into the moody, quiet character study it was meant to be. Mia gives a typically excellent performance, saying so much despite usually being silent. A gritty sense of hopelessness sets in over the stretched-out story, which makes the hopeful ending earned. I wasn’t a big fan of the shoehorned in romance.
“Groundhog Day” reimagined as a teen sex comedy. While vulgar, the movie has likable characters and extends its premise to delightfully deviant places. The ribald dialogue is hilarious, mostly thanks to Craig Roberts’ brilliant performance as the perverted best friend. The quasi-racist Iranian characters are the only distasteful thing about this otherwise amusing high school comedy.
38. Open Windows
2014: The year of Elijah Wood starring in ridiculous thrillers. The twisty script keeps you guessing while the not-quite-found-footage visual gimmick is done well. The premise becomes increasingly unbelievable as it goes on, until it’s absolutely nuts by the end. You just have to go with it. The cast is decent, save for Sasha Grey who is terrible.
39. The Unknown Known
Errol Morris asks reasonable questions and Donald Rumsfield, more often then not, gives obfuscating, confusing, double-speak-and-mixed-metaphor filled answers. Thus, the film becomes about a deceptive and contentious historical figure rewriting events to suit his needs. Not Morris’ deepest reaching film but fascinating as a look into Rumsfield’s twisted logic.
40. Life After Beth
As an irrelevant take on the zombie apocalypse, this is frequently amusing, especially the talkative zombies’ obsessions with soft jazz and attics. As a zom-rom-com and metaphor for the end of a relationship, it’s less successful and hampered by a lack of focus. The actors are committed though, which contributes laughs and makes up for some of the broader moments.
41. Starry Eyes
Alexandre Esso’s brave acting centers this not-exactly-subtle horror metaphor for how Hollywood chews up and spits out fresh young talent. The film maintains a tone of disquieting creepiness throughout. The disgusting body horror segue midway through doesn’t truly work and the ending goes too far. I did like the murder-heavy last third though.
42. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
Visually spectacular, the film looks like a painting or a woodcutting brought to life. The last film from Isao Takahada is a charming, quietly funny fairy tale about raising children, destined to leave their parents behind. The flying sequence and the moon-set finale are the highlights. The film is too long and the lengthy scenes devoted to the princess’ suitors are extraneous.
Without the 14 years gimmick, I think this would have been less well received. The performances are admittedly impressive, especially Ethan Hawke as the coolest dad ever. However, there’s no real plot, its way too long, Linklater overdoes the pop culture signifiers, I could have done without the line-up of drunken stepdads, and the last ten minutes hammer home the film’s point.
44. The Sacrament
If the director’s intention was to create a disturbing, on-the-ground recreation of the Jonestown Massacre, he succeeded. The final third is horrifying in a very serious way. However, I wonder what Ti West’s plan was beyond that. Life in the cult, and a slow reveal of the abuse of power, should have been explored more. A well-made film but not one I’d ever want to rewatch.
45. 300: Rise of an Empire
As in the original, the highly stylized action and operatic violence is exhilarating before growing tiring. This sequel is slightly better paced and does attempt to address the problematic politics of the original, slightly. Mostly, it’s about Eva Green owning all of her co-stars so hard, especially the hunk-of-meat leading man. A movie all about her character would have been captivating.
46. Dinosaur 13
Engrossing documentary about the ownership issues of Sue, the world’s most complete T-rex fossil. The film’s drama mostly comes from the messy place where science, profit, and government bureaucracy meet. The court case drama is a bit tedious and the film is most engrossing when allowing the paleontologists to detail their love for the dinosaur.
Once the action shifts to the desert, focusing on the robots’ attempt to build their own society, this becomes a decent action-thriller with aspiration towards thought-provoking sci-fi. It certainly makes up for the relatively unimaginative first half. Antonio Banderas makes a decent lead though the cast around him is more uneven.
Campy cross between sword and sandal flick, a superhero movie, a deconstruction of myths, and an ensemble war movie. The Rock gives one of his most nuanced performances yet and the supporting cast is full of prime character actors. The action is silly but entertaining and the plot is routine but reliable. The CGI could have been better and some moments are a bit self-serious.
49. The Box Trolls
Odds are good that this is the most grotesque kids flick you’ll ever see. The villain swells up, the title monsters collect trash, and the female lead is a budding vore fetishest. The eccentric qualities sometimes work, like with the confused henchmen. Sometimes it doesn’t, like with the rickety ending. Laika still creates a fantastic on-screen universe but this is their weakest effort yet.
50. The Expendables 3
Too much time is spent on recruiting the New-pendables and their first mission. Because the cast has grown so large, established characters get less screen-time. The movie won me back with a bonkers action-and-reference-packed last act. Dancing Banderas, an eccentric Snipes, a monolouging Mad Mel, and even a dirt-bike riding Kellen Lutz are great additions to the team.
51. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Finally and at last, it’s over. Smaug is killed off far too quickly. Thorin’s greed quickly dissolves into melodrama. All the subplots we don’t care about from the previous movies are resolved. While some of the action swings into silliness, most of it is diverting stuff. The cast remains strong. The story refocuses on Bilbo and the movie only has four endings.
Unlike most indie mash-ups with outrageous premises, this one delivers. The WolfCop is fueled by liquor, quips cheesy one-liners, blows up a meth lab, fires a Tommy gun, and has a slow-motion sex scene. The laid-back first quarter actually prepares you for the wackiness to come. I found most of the dialogue genuinely hilarious. The ending’s a bit low-key but, eh, I liked it.
53. Before I Disappear
“Curfew” was a great short. This feature-length expansion maintains all the great moments, like the bowling alley dance scene. However, beefing up the runtime creates a number of unnecessary subplots. The film’s symbolism is frequently too pointed. Shawn Christensen and Fatima Ptacek remain fantastic and the film still looks great.
54. Not Safe for Work
Affable thriller and quasi-slasher featuring some decently constructed tension and an amusingly charismatic killer. At only 70 minutes, the movie has no problem putting its decent premise to good use. The cast is likable enough too, providing some humor here and there. Only a lame last minute twist and non-ending damage this entertaining, light weight snack.
55. Under the Skin
Visually spellbinding mindbender? Deconstruction of the male gaze? Needlessly ponderous arthouse remake of “Species?” Scarlett Johannson’s second best role as an inhuman character this year? All of the above. Though artfully constructed and occasionally lyrical, the film mistakes “underwritten” for “meaningful.” I really liked the scene with the deformed man.
56. X-Men: Days of Future Past
As a conclusion to the original “X-Men” series, this proves satisfying. The future scenes are gritty and exciting. As a sequel to “First Class,” it disappoints. Wolverine is forced into the story, the script is jumbled, and other characters are simplified. Still, the mutant power filled action scenes are very well done and I liked the retcon-heavy happy ending.
57. V/H/S: Viral
The “V/H/S” series grows increasingly rough. The framing device abandons the VHS gimmick, is incoherent, and ends obnoxiously. The magician story is cheesy with overdone effects. Nacho Vigalando’s segment is nicely perverse. The final segment features some fun gore and uses the camera creatively. The result is not entirely satisfying. It might be time to put this series to bed.
The latest from Alexandre Aja starts out strong. Daniel Radcliffe gives a soul-barring performance, there’s plenty of twisted dark comedy, and the murder-mystery plot takes some appropriately devilish detours. However, a flashback heavy structure cripples the pacing. An absurd last act, which features a CGI-assisted fight scene, ends this one on a major sour note.
59. Return to Nuke ‘Em High Volume 1
An unfiltered glance into Lloyd Kaufman’s brain. High-lights include show-tune singing cretins, the inability to remove Kevin the Duck, a weirdly sincere lesbian romance, exploding nerds, acidic breast milk, and unprovoked dog murder. The Troma-ness is at maximum levels, so it’s endlessly grotesque and crude, incredibly bizarre, barely coherent, and sometimes inspired.
60. Walk of Shame
Elizabeth Banks is talented. The cast is packed full of likable performers, doing their best to charm the audience. This counts for a lot since the screenplay for “Walk of Shame” is fairly dire. The ridiculous escalation of events calls too much attention to themselves and jokes are frequently repeated. A little more audacity, or less lazy gags, would have made this far funnier.
61. The Purge: Anarchy
Expands on the original while sacrificing focus. There are a handful of exciting moments, like the flamethrower-aided tunnel chase or the government death squads. However, the characters mostly wander from set piece to set piece, the story never finding a rhythm. This is likely to be best remembered as a vehicle for up-and-coming action hero Frank Grillo, who is capably badass.
62. The Amazing Spider-Man 2
Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone and Sally Field work great together, each getting amazing moments to themselves. The action perfectly recreates how Spidey moves on the page. However, by shoving the Green Goblin in at the end, it winds up rushing an important, emotional story. There’s so much build-up here that the whole movie feels like one long first act.
If you want to see beautiful women fight to the death in brutal ways, this flick is for you. As a vehicle for Zoe Bell’s strengths, as both a fighter and an actress, this is fairly successful. However, the rest of the cast is weak. Mostly thanks to the bone-crunching violence, I was with this one up until the unnecessarily downbeat ending.
64. The ABCs of Death 2
Slightly more consistent then the first go-around with more fun and less up-its-own-ass weirdness and pretensions. There are some fantastic shorts here, like “S,” “M,” “R,” or “Q.” However, there are still many annoying, needlessly vulgar, or just plain pointless segments, like “G,” “L,” “N,” or the excretal “P.” There’s still too wide a variance of quality here for a healthy recommendation.
65. Dracula Untold
Turning Dracula into a misunderstood victim is a problem that hampers the whole film. The conditions they impose on Drac are fairly silly but his outrageous superpowers are a lot of fun. Like when he’s killing a whole army or making a bat-fist. However, the rest of the movie is as generic as possible, with its slick editing, shaky action, bland actors, and route origin story.
66. Killer Legends
Connecting the killer clown legend to James Holmes and the crime scene photos are tasteless. The documentarians are too eager to put themselves on-screen. Some insight is given to the poisoned candy and babysitter legends. Unlike their previous film, this one doesn’t connect unrelated threads too much. Yet an urban legend documentary should have been much more.
67. What If
Fancies itself as an improvement over the usual rom-com formula when it actually plays most of the clichés straight. Yes, Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan’s chemistry goes a long way and the dialogue is frequently hilarious. Yet the supporting characters are caricatures, the production design is needlessly twee, and the super-happy ending is in no way earned.
68. A Field in England
Don’t do mushrooms, kids, especially if you live in 18th century England. The film is almost plotless, the characters aren’t very distinct, and the actors are lost amidst the craziness. The film’s real value lies in its wacked-out images, many of which are haunting, lyrical, and longingly strange. Ben Wheatley stumbles a bit with this one but remains promising as a filmmaker.
69. Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie
Considering this was made completely independently, the movie does some impressive things. The film survives off James Rolfe’s limitless charm and a decent supply of jokes. But it’s too long, the pacing falters, and none of the new characters are endearing. The in-jokes will make fans cheer and that’s ultimately who this (somewhat self-congratulatory) labor of love is for.
70. Sin City: A Dame to Kill For
A ludicrous final segment, which features Ghost Bruce Willis, Jessica Alba trying to act like a badass, and absurd action, drags down the whole movie. The other stories are a little better, though the visuals are not as fresh and it’s just as overheated and sexist as the first film. If nothing else, this way-late sequel supplies solid parts for Powers Booth and a pitch-perfect Eva Green.
71. Lucky Bastard
“Porn shot gone horribly wrong” premise differentiates this from the found footage lot. The actors are solid and the execution is grim. However, the anti-porn message is fairly immature. The plot starts running out of ideas halfway through, throwing scenarios around until it’s time to end things. I admire the filmmakers’ moxie but I’m not sure this one was worth the investment.
72. The Rover
Not a lot happens in this Australian-made, post-apocalyptic thriller. Guy Pierce is suitably intense in the lead but Robert Pattinson is insufferable as the Faulker-esque manchild he befriends. While the production design is handsome, the plot is simplistic bordering on monotonous and the minimalistic musical score quickly grates.
73. Blood Glacier
Mediocre monster movie mostly notable for its reliance on practical effects over CGI. There’s a certain trashy fun to be had here, with its rubber monsters, cheesy dubbing, and shallow characters making bad decisions. However, that fun is not enough to sustain the whole film. This one peaks half-way through. You’re likely to forget most of it by the next day.
74. The Muppets Most Wanted
By removing Kermit from most of the story, it neuters the movie’s emotional heart. Constantine isn’t that amusing and centering an entire film around him was a mistake. The laughs are there but badly hampered by lame jokes about the French. Even the music isn’t as good, relying heavily on catchy but forgettable hooks. It’s not the worst Muppet movie but far from the best.
75. All Cheerleaders Die
Lucky McKee let me down. The tone pinballs between goofy comedy, high school satire, and serious horror. There are too many characters and few are properly developed. Some bizarre moments are amusing while others were thrown in for the hell of it. The lead actress is a bore but some of the supporting parts are decent. The end promises a sequel I am not looking forward too.
76. Very Good Girls
Covers ground other, better films have before. Elisabeth Olsen and Dakota Fanning are talented but underserved by their thin characters. The girls talk energetically but never feel like real people. The script mines obvious drama from them making dumb decisions. The movie spins into an especially contrived, melodramatic direction near the end. The soundtrack is good.
Director Jose Padilha has some interesting ideas. He understands that “RoboCop” is a satire and a character study in addition to being an action film. However, a void of a leading man, a routine plot that unfolds in the least interesting way possible, wonky CGI, and a last act descent into boring conspiracies makes for yet another mediocre remake. Michael Keaton has fun.
78. Almost Human
Alien abduction-themed slasher is mostly worth it for some gory kills and a few inspired gross-out images. Even with a cast this small, there’s still not enough time to develop every one properly over the brief runtime. The shaky-cam direction is tired but there’s one or two decent moment of drawn out tension.
79. Space Station 76
Less a parody of seventies sci-fi then a not-that-funny satire of ‘70s social foibles set in outer space. Most of the humor comes from Marisa Coughlan’s insecure, overly medicated mother and reoccurring visits to a robot psychologist. The production design is great and, aside from a typically wooden Liv Taylor, the cast is game. But this collapses into dour psycho-drama before the end.
80. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Has a decent grasp on the Turtles’ personality, which goes a long towards mitigating the horde of other problems. Like the needlessly rejiggered origin. Or the unsettling designs. Or the shaky-enough-to-be-incoherent direction. Or the bland visual sense. Or an uninspired Megan Fox performance. I guess what I’m saying is, this movie has a lot of problems.
81. Stage Fright
The perfect slasher-musical has yet to be made. None of the songs are particularly memorable. Giving the killer a metal scream is clever on paper but obnoxious in execution. Every time the slasher scenes build up some momentum, the movie cuts away. The mystery is obvious and the humor falls flat. Only a hammy Meat Loaf and some cute girls stand out.
82. Stonehearst Asylum
Derivative attempt to resurrect the Victorian costume drama psychological thriller. The cast, full of recognizable faces, play exaggerated caricatures. The various twist and turns of the story are easy to spot. The biggest issue is a mood that can’t decide between breezy and comedic or grim and brooding, which the far-too-lighthearted score and super-happy ending empathizes.
ONE AND A HALF STARS:
83. Knights of Badassdom
Until the director’s cut of this long-shelved nerd-friendly would-be cult classic emerges, we’ll never know if it could have been better. There are few laughs, the characters are broad and simplistic, the overqualified actors seem embarrassed, and the whole film comes off as very cheap and reductive. Joe Lynch’s next movie probably will be better.
Annabelle, the creepiest thing about “The Conjuring,” plays only a small role in her own movie. Most of this is devoted to dreary studio horror clichés: Deafening sound designs, jumps scares, overdone effects, and dumb things done to prolong the plot. Many of the scare sequences are unrelated to the overarching plot. The ending is hella’ anticlimactic too.
85. The Big Ask
Being a Gillian Jacobs and Melanie Lynskey fan, I watched this strictly for them. The premise is too thin, so the script throws in cameos from Ned Beatty, a cactus-man and a verbally abused dog. The second half features characters coming to melodramatic, easily avoided assumptions. There are few laughs and little reason for the audience to care.
86. Mr. Jones
Centering a found footage thriller on an outsider artist isn’t a terrible idea. However, this falls into the pitfalls of the genre. The leads aren’t captivating and make increasingly stupid decisions. The movie does not earn the nightmare-like scares it aspires too. The insipid, unending last act is torturous. Turns out, spooky looking scarecrows aren’t enough to build a movie around.
Begins as a series of jump scares delivered with a jackhammer’s frequency and a sledgehammer’s subtly. Eventually devolves into overly elaborate attack scenes and shitty CGI. The script is overheated and the film leans hard on Pino Donaggio’s verging-on-self-parody score. This is a shame since the cast is talented. It’s all so overheated that I wonder if it was meant to be funny.
Adaptation of a controversial anime that sucks out everything interesting about the source material. The setting is grimy, the actors are bored or bland, the directorial style is overdone, the story is tedious, and the obnoxious dub-step music desperately wants to be the Chemical Brother’s “Hanna” score. Even the excessively gory action is self-serious and boring.
89. Leprechaun Origins
Ever wonder what a gritty reboot of the perennially goofy Leprechaun series would look like? Pretty people wander into a horror set-up boldly derivative of better films. Spam-in-a-van victims, shaky-cam direction, a generic monster design, lazy gore, overused visual gimmicks, and everything else about this is utterly uninspired. Where’s Warwick Davis when you need him?
So that was 2014, a pretty great year for film. Last time I had a list that long, I broke the post in half. This year, I didn't much see the point. These retrospectives are always insanely long anyway. Might as well cram it all in at once.
Return to Film Thoughts tomorrow for my annual Film Preview of my most anticipated new releases of 2015. Until then, have a safe New Years and, as always, thanks so much for reading. See all of you again soon.