Well, this should be fun. Instead of simply publishing my usual annual top 10 list, I’ve decided to take it up a notch and instead post a top 30 list, slowly revealing my picks over the course of the week. We’ll begin with the bottom of the list, and this will also be the longest of the five installments, taking us from number 30 all the way up to number 21. Then, starting tomorrow, each installment will have just five films, culminating in my top five on Friday. So now, without further ado, let’s get started.
As frustrating as Marvel’s commitment to its own brand has become, the results speak for themselves when it comes to its impact on the moviegoing public. There’s no better example of that than James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy, which became the year’s most financially successful film despite its relatively low-profile cast and source material that’s not nearly as recognizable as other Marvel names. It helps that this really is a thoroughly enjoyable film, mostly thanks to a memorable ensemble of characters that each have their own personality and story. It struggles on the villain front (like other Marvel films) but Guardians gets its heroes so perfectly right that you won’t want to spend much time with the bad guys anyway.
Darren Aronofsky’s bold, ambitious Noah is different from nearly all other biblical epics in one notable way: it takes its subject seriously, and is unafraid to explore its less glamorous side. Not content with a simple retelling of the famous story of Noah’s Ark, this film instead examines the realities of Noah’s mission from God, and how a man such as him would choose to process the task that has been placed in front of him. All these questions come into focus on Noah‘s dark, smaller-scale second half, and that is when Aronofsky’s film becomes the most fascinating. It also features one of the best Russell Crowe performances in ages, and he perfectly captures the soul of a man who has lost faith in all of humanity, including himself.
The directorial debut of Belle & Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch, God Help the Girl is an impossibly twee (but rather irresistible) musical that follows the young Eve (Emily Browning) as she escapes a psychiatric hospital and forms a bond with two fellow misfits: aspiring musicians James (Olly Alexander) and Cassie (Hannah Murray). It’s an energetic, rambling and occasionally melancholy thing that will undoubtedly be like nails on a chalkboard for some, but in its most joyful moments its downright sublime.
You know you’re having a good year when you direct a film that makes $331 million worldwide and its only the second biggest movie of yours to be released in 2014. Such is the case with Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who suddenly find themselves on top of the cinematic comedy world. Two years after the surprisingly excellent 21 Jump Street, they returned to direct the sequel 22 Jump Street, and the results turned out to be nearly as enjoyable. The success of these films can be credited primarily to their leads Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill, who have an incredible chemistry that I’m not sure anybody could have seen coming. This sequel may rely a bit too much poking fun at its own sequel-ness, but whenever it brings out the character-based humor and chaotic action gags, it operates at an admirably high level.
One of the year’s biggest surprises turned out to be Doug Liman’s Edge of Tomorrow, which was probably the most purely enjoyable action movie to hit theaters. (Too bad it didn’t do great at the box office.) The premise isn’t exactly new–hero must live the same day over and over again until he gets it right–but this film tackles it in unusually smart fashion. For the first two acts, it clicks along at an impressive pace and barely stops to take a breath, and only toward the end does it start to lose some steam. This is also the best Tom Cruise has been in a few years, and Emily Blunt is so effortlessly cool that it almost seems unfair. If nothing else, I weep for this movie’s failure only because her awesomeness deserves to be known by every last person on earth. This time will come, of course, but I’m growing impatient.
Before the brouhaha of The Interview at the end of the year, Seth Rogen was a producer on one of the year’s best comedies: Neighbors, directed by Nicholas Stoller. A fairly straightforward exploration of what would happen if a married couple with a baby moved in next to a frat house, this film is elevated by wall-to-wall terrific performances and actual ideas about coming to terms with the adulthood. In all of the hilarity, the movie’s MVP may well be Rose Byrne, who has yet to give a bad performance in anything I’ve seen her in. Seriously, try and find a flaw. YOU CAN’T.
Steven Knight’s Locke is the closest thing the movies will ever give us to a one-man show, and what a one-man show it is. The titular character, Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy), is driving across England to tend to a very important matter, and in the process he must call up several people in order to 1) inform them of his decision, and 2) try and make sure his life doesn’t completely fall apart. It’s a tense, intimate, and consistently enthralling drama that plays out entirely within Locke’s car, and when people look back on the year’s best performances they’d be wrong to overlook Hardy’s impeccable work here.
It’s so rare these days that a big-budget film actually tries to do something different, and when we finally get one like Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla, we almost don’t know how to react. This film steals many tricks out of the Spielberg playbook, but it uses them to maximum effect, and it all builds up to a fantastic final act that finally lets the famous monster off the leash. Edwards isn’t terribly interested in the human characters–something many have thrown back in the movie’s face–but that turns out to be exactly the point. In this film’s conflict, the humans are completely powerless at worst, and a minor annoyance to the creatures at best. The film communicates this idea gracefully, and without unnecessary plotting or explanation.
J.K. Simmons towers over Whiplash, the breakout film from director Damien Chazelle. His character immediately takes over every room he’s in, and even when he feigns vulnerability, it is barely a few seconds before he grabs control back and reveals himself to be the master manipulator he is. The latest to fall into his trap is an aspiring jazz drummer played by Miles Teller, and Simmons’ brutal leadership pushes Teller to dangerous, and even bloody, extremes. Certain plot developments along the way strain credulity, but Chazelle rarely deals in subtlety here, and it all leads up to a breathtaking final scene that takes 100 minutes of built-up tension and detonates it all over the screen.
It’s rare that a documentary allows an audience to be in the room at the beginning of a major news story, and that alone makes Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour an unusually fascinating film. Poitras was one of the first people contacted by now-infamous NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, and she has made a film that puts viewers right in the middle as she, Snowden, and journalist Glenn Greenwald decide how to go about communicating Snowden’s claims to the public. This is an urgent, haunting movie that often feels more like a spy thriller than a documentary, and the camera intently watches as three people cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room suddenly find themselves at the center of the news universe.
Come back tomorrow for the next five films on the countdown!