(This is an expanded version of an article I wrote for Daily Grindhouse)
Asking me to do a Top 10 list for the year is a dicey proposition. I’m rarely in a hurry to see movies, and it’s even more rare that anything excites me enough to expose myself to the pit of annoying human behavior which is the modern theatrical experience. But damned if I didn’t wind up seeing twelve movies in the year they were made available (spoiler: it was this year).
I also don’t care for ranking movies. All the movies on this list were of a pretty high quality, rendering placement squirellier than usual; overall, though, this list probably reflects that I am more colossal nerd than actual film buff. I look at other Top 10 lists and think, “Yeah, that does sound good. I should watch that some day.” Then again, the best movie I saw this year was made in 1943 – more on that later – so maybe there’s a bit of hope for me yet.
But let’s talk about 2014.
MALEFICENT – Frankly, this was going to be a hard sell to me; Sleeping Beauty is my favorite Disney animated movie, and that is due in no small part to its villainess. I like my bad guys grandiose and unrepentant, and Maleficent gives my favorite one a redemptive arc. Unsure whether to regard it as representation of how the Patriarchy subverts women of genuine power and motive, even to re-writing history, or simply as a cynical money-grab. Its very existence puzzles me , but it is well worth watching for Angelina Jolie, who is frequently magnificent as the title character. Especially when she’s being evil.
CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER – Was highly regarded as the best Marvel yet, a seamless marriage of 80s action with the money of the current Marvel Cinematic Universe. It is certainly that, a damned near flawless action flick that actually made me like The Falcon (the Widow gets her movie first, dammit. Sorry, Mr. Mackie). But me, I like a little cosmic in my superhero stories, and Winter Soldier felt too stuck in that 80s action mode. (Don’t worry, there’s stuff coming up on this list that will allow you to call me a hypocrite) Chris Evans, though, remains the best damn Superman who never got to play Superman, a perfect portrayal of an inspiring, noble comic character.
And now for the list that is probably going to get shuffled around right up until press time:
10. GODZILLA – I like big beasts, and I cannot lie. Yes, too much time was spent on Action Man while Bryan Cranston and Ken Watanabe were wasted, but frankly, spending too much time on boring human characters is a complaint I also lodge against most of the Japanese Godzilla movies. I want my Kaiju Big Battel, dang it. This one felt heavy and apocalyptic, just like the first Gojira, and I was a very happy monster movie fan. Also, people coming out of the woodwork to talk about how much they preferred the 1998 version allowed me to clean up my friends list somewhat.
9. THOR: THE DARK WORLD – I told you I like my superhero story leavened with the cosmic, and Dark World delivered. The production design of the Thor movies impress me with their visualization of science so far advanced it looks like magic (Thank you, Misters Clarke, Kirby and Lee). Jane Foster went to Asgard and didn’t turn into a sobbing wretch like her comics counterpart, We got much more Thor/Loki love/hate action, and I absolutely loved the final battle scene flipping through dimensions. (Bizarre battle chases like that make me very happy, one of the few reasons I find Shocker tolerable).
8. THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES – I see an astounding amount of hate directed toward these movies; bizarre, because I find them enjoyable and very entertaining. Still, I sadly realized, as I left the theater this time, that I hadn’t enjoyed any of these as much as I had the original Lord of the Rings movies – but it was still nice to have them to look forward to every Christmas season, and there’s a part of me that will miss that. And if you hate on Billy Connolly riding a war pig, you and I are going to have words.
7. THE LEGO MOVIE – Released in the movie wasteland of February, we all went, “Right. Another toy tie-in. Super.” But this was no Transformers or GI Joe or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. this was a frenetic ode to creativity and fun with an anarchic storyline encompassing (and making light of) The Chosen One, Objects of Great Power, Prophecies, DC superheroes, pirates, and spaceships (“Spaceship!”). I wasn’t a fan of the third act twist, but what are you going to do? Sing “Everything is Awesome”, probably. Like you are right now. You’re welcome. There will be a sequel – of course – but I don’t see how they can possibly keep this up.
6. SNOWPIERCER – Quite a lot of cinematic dystopias around lately, fancy that. This one is literally inescapable, as a world-circling train carries the last of humanity after an attempt to counter global warming turns the Earth into a frozen graveyard. After nearly 20 years, the Have-Nots in the rear car stage an uprising, fighting their way to the Haves in the front cars, with each car containing new hazards and new wonders. Science fiction, doing what it does best: exploring the human condition, and how we have a tendency to screw each other – and just as big a tendency to actually save each other, occasionally.
5. JODOROWSKY’S DUNE – Yes, this is a 2013 movie, but it was released on DVD in 2014, smartass, allowing those of us who don’t live near an art house to actually see it. I remember reading about Jodorowsky’s ill-fated movie adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune in the pages of Heavy Metal magazine when both were going concerns. Even if the movie had gotten made, I would likely have hated it, but watching Jodorowsky talk about the project, his passion undimmed by the years, and his belief he could change the world with this movie and his fellow “spiritual warriors”… well, it’s impossible to not fall a little in love with the man.
4. X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST – The return of Bryan Singer to the franchise he launched yielded such a remarkable movie, not only linking up the personnel from the original two movies with the younger versions of First Class via a time travel story that manages to wipe out the mistakes of the franchise-killing Last Stand, but also managing to be tremendously entertaining and gripping while doing it. This was the best Marvel movie last year, that Marvel didn’t make.
3. JOURNEY TO THE WEST: CONQUERING THE DEMONS – I love Journey to the West, one of those million word Chinese novels that influenced everything that came after it (and many, many film versions), so I was uncertain about a prequel. Silly me, Stephen Chow came up with a beguiling, raucous, funny epic tale with fantastic, thrilling set pieces and genuine emotion. This was the movie I kept grabbing people and forcing them to watch this last year. And Holy Jesus, look at that poster. It’s a throwback to the masters of the 60s and 70s, it’s art, not a Photoshop job. For that alone, the movie deserves all the views.
2. THE RAID 2 – And after dissing 80s action movies in the first section, what do we find here, near the top? Possibly one of the finest action movies ever made, by one of the best action directors we have seen in an age. Gareth Huw Evans, forsaking the rapid-cut, what-the-hell-just-happened style that murdered action cinema in this country, to present a more calculated, but still frantic, visceral palette. The only thing that kept this movie from the number one slot is an overly familiar storyline (a decent cop going deep undercover to infiltrate a crime family). Otherwise, acting, camerawork, the superlative fight scenes and stunt crew are all top-notch. And any final fight scene that has a grizzled old vet like me curled up in a fetal position in his chair grunting, “Ah! Oh! Gaaaah!” is some intense shit.
Which leads us to –
1. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY – Am I a huge nerd or what? Who expected a Marvel movie with no hook, no established characters hailing from an earlier movie (except for Thanos, one of the most ineffectual villains ever – so far, anyway), and in fact populated with characters it would take a Marvel geek of long years to recognize – to deliver so satisfyingly? Each of these “Guardians” are dealing with their own form of grief, and they find out in the course of the movie that they do not have to do it alone; or, in the parlance of motivational seminars, “Sometimes misfits are the right fit.” Nobody went into a movie with a tree monster from the 50s and a talking raccoon expecting to cry – but they did. There was some loose talk of Guardians being this generation’s Star Wars, and that may be true; I left the theater with the same buoyancy and sense of pure cinematic joy I felt on a certain summer day back in 1977.
Now, you may ask, what was all that about a movie from 1943? This is where things get a little strange, as I had to finally distill down what were my Top Ten Movies seen in 2014, for my Letterboxd Year in Review. Which is when I realized something: there were repeats between the two lists, of course, but their orders shuffled because of the picture in the #1 slot. This was not something that had occurred to me. So what were the Top Ten I Saw (for the first time) in 2014?
10. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY – That’s right, the #1 got shuffled down to the #10 spot, as I reconsidered my rankings in light of the movies in the top two slots. Ranking movies numerically is pretty stupid, anyway.
9. HIGH AND LOW – Kurosawa’s film version of an Ed McBain police procedural about a kidnapping gone wrong delivers on all fronts, especially when we get to the “Low” part of the equation. As in Ikiru, Kurosawa makes Japanese nightlife look like revelry on another world, so familiar and yet alien; and that sidetrip into Junkie Alley becomes a horrifying glimpse into Hell. All this, and Toshiro Mifune, too!
8. THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE – Silent movies are good for you. Director and star Victor Shölström delivers a melodramatic portrait of a hateful, worthless human being and somehow still gets us to root for his redemption. Charlie Chaplin and Ingmar Bergman were both big fans, and now I am, too.
7. JOURNEY TO THE WEST:CONQUERING THE DEMONS – For some reason, ranking this above Guardians on this list made good sense at the time. Maybe it was the multiple viewings. Anyway, here we are.
6. THE GOLD RUSH – Hey, another silent movie! It’s incredible to me that I managed to get this far in life without seeing one of Chaplin’s feature-length movies. I picked a good one to break that particular fast.
5. THE RAID 2 – Yes, even the mighty Raid 2 dropped a few slots, under the onslaught of quality that is to come. I still want to see Gareth Evans’ next movie noooowwwwwwww
Please don’t hurt me, Hammer Girl. I still love you.
4. HELLZAPOPPIN’ – The quality is coming, I assure you. I had wanted to see this for years, and Dave finally managed to dig up a copy of it (there’s some sort of rights issue with the original Broadway show script that kept it from getting a legit home video release). I was so smitten by it, by what Olsen and Johnson managed to pull off, even with a studio-mandated romantic storyline (and spending most of that opening ten minutes lampooning the studio that was screwing with them) – well, I’m sold. I went and sought out my very own bootleg copy. (Wheeler & Woolsey’s Diplomaniacs almost made the list, but Olsen and Johnson accomplished a lot more while under the Hayes Code, no less.)
3. CHILDREN OF MEN – Like I said, it takes me a while to see some movies. I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t watch Children of Men because I thought it was going to be another macho shoot-em-up, and boy howdy, I was wronger than a Nazi trying to pick out the Holy Grail. Brilliant movie. I have rarely been gladder to be wrong in my life. Ironically, I watched it the night Cuaron picked up the Oscar for Gravity, but I’m pretty sure that was just making up for not even nominating him in 2006. (The winner was Crash. Oh, yeah. Remember Crash?)
2. WILD STRAWBERRIES – Oh, the fight for first and second place was a wild and bloody one. Like I said, rankings are dumb, and both movies deserve to be #1. Here’s Victor Shölström again, this time coaxed out of retirement by Ingmar Bergman, and such a wonderful movie. Any words I’m going to babble out are not going to do it justice. Just watch it.
1. THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP – I was expecting it to be good. I wasn’t expecting it to be superb. Again: Just. Watch it. Instead of merely showing you a clip, here’s a special guest to tell us about the restoration of the movie:
HONORABLE MENTION goes to A Hard Day’s Night, another stunning restoration on Criterion (especially with that 5.1 remix!). But I had seen it before.
And to all those other fine movies I re-watched this year: Targets, The Three Musketeers (1973), Sorcerer, The Quiet Man, Yojimbo, Sanjuro, The Holy Mountain, Samsara, The Untouchables, Vampyr, RoboCop, and Koyaanisqatsi.
Happy New Year. Go watch a movie.