by Hanajun Chung.
Happy New Year! I’m happy to be a guest/contributing writer for the base line magazine. All the film reviews and pieces I would usually write for “The Breeze” will now premiere at the base line magazine first.
If you wish to see more of my work, follow me on twitter (@hanajun) and follow my blog about action films on Tumblr (http://hanajun.tumblr.com/).
I believe the common verb for films put out in January is “dumped,” since studios release their remaining, serviceable movies then. One reason is to focus on cinema’s award season. As you’re reading this, Oscar votes have closed, the Golden Globes have already happened, and we’re just a few key ceremonies (DGA, WGA, and BAFTA) before hitting Oscar night on Feb. 22. It’s around this time that people both inside and outside the Hollywood machine can catch up with some of last years finest.
Not only will studios re release some notable features in theaters before the event, there’s a whole lineup from summer, as well as festival darlings that made up the fall and winter releases.
Before I begin, some notes:
• I personally do not get screeners myself. I haven’t seen everything in contention, but l still can watch screeners at the production company I work at with their respected owner.
• I decided not to rank these. These are ten equally amazing films.
• Most of these I’ve seen in theaters or through home release.
• These aren’t my favorite films per say, but films that I think are amazing works of art that showcase strong talent through a technical and storytelling level. You’ll probably see a few of these being named during awards season.
Alright! Here it is:
The Grand Budapest Hotel (Dir. Wes Anderson)
Director Wes Anderson’s filmography is easily one of the most distinguishable among modern filmmakers. Visually, Anderson paints the frame with his colorful mise-en-scène and specific symmetry that it has even spawned many imitators replicating his style, but lacking in what makes Anderson’s films usually work. In the performances, Anderson does quirky better than most filmmakers, making the many zany subplots not feel out-of-place.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is probably the most “Anderson” out of all his films, but purposefully so, servicing the narrative. As the story of this hotel changes characters and plot with each specific time in history, the frame jumps to different aspect-ratios, mirroring the technological capabilities in video and filmmaking of the time. While anachronistic at times, it is done purposefully to create this bizarre reality in which bakers, concierges, socialists, and secret societies all comically clash during a time of war. The actors are amazing, especially Ralph Fiennes in the lead as the hotel’s concierge, Gustave H. It’s funny, emotional, clever, and one 2014’s most colorfully gorgeous pictures.
It may be Anderson’s masterpiece.
Guardians of the Galaxy (Dir. James Gunn)
The highest grossing film of last year is also the one that proved itself admirably, against large odds. While characters like Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America have been more notable in comics and pop-culture, the Guardians of the Galaxy have been widely been unknown beyond longtime Marvel readers. Who knew that Rocket Raccoon and Groot would end up being a couple of the year’s most favored characters?! Even my local comic book stores can’t seem to hold onto any action figures or statuettes of these characters. Not only because they’re cute and adorable (especially in toy form), but the film was able to make their characters matter in their little adventure.
Like Rocket and Groot, many of the characters in Guardians of the Galaxy are fairly obscure, but director James Gunn infuses his signature humor (see: Slither and/or Super), lighthearted fun to the standard Marvel formula, creating a cosmic adventure film for the whole family. Boasting one of the best soundtracks of licensed tracks all year, Guardians of the Galaxy is a summer blockbuster with scope and scale, but one that’s also quite feel-good.
The Lego Movie (Dir. Phil Lord and Chris Miller)
As annoying as the title song “Everything is awesome” can be, it great descriptive of one of this year’s best animated features. It’s insane how a film based on a toy-line can actually create a compelling, thematically rich story. The film franchises of G.I. Joe andTransformers have been successful financially, but met middling to extremely negative criticism from fans and critics. The Lego Movie is on the complete opposite end of that spectrum: it’s funny, inventive, and praised for creating something substantial with the small blocks that used to cut my feet when I accidentally stepped on one.
The animation style is CGI that looks stop-motion, providing the illusion that resembles hands playing with these blocks. The voice-acting is star-studded, comedy coming from talent such as Will Arnet, Chris Pratt, and Will Ferrell. But the real winner of the cast is Morgan Freeman.
It’s crazy how Lord and Miller were able to get Freeman to emote in such hilarious fashion. Lord and Miller are probably the hottest working duo in Hollywood today, making hits from unexpected properties (much like their successful sequel this year, 22 Jump Street). But once again, it’s the narrative that’s incredibly affecting. The Lego Movie is an amazing animated feature that reminds us that while Legos can bring the Batmoblie and the Millennium Falcon to life, they can also push our imaginations much further.
Birdman (Dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu)
Ińárritu’s recent film is an examination of what it’s meant to be a true artist. Birdman follows fictional and forgotten movie star Riggan Thomas in his attempt to come back into public consciousness in the theater, starring in a stage adaptation of Raymond Carver. He tries his best to keep things under control, but Riggan’s family, friends, colleagues, and production don’t make it simple. You feel the stress as Iñárritu shows through seamless camerawork the chaos and rush the live theater can bring prior to opening night.
The thing that must me mentioned is that the cast is absolutely dynamite. Zach Galifianakis plays Riggin’s tortured producer, making you really feel for his character always having to clash with Riggan’s demands. Edward Norton is fun as the pretentious yet brilliant replacement actor. But the true star of this film is Michael Keaton. Mirroring the character’s career, Keaton playing the lead increases the immersion and believability when the character wrestles with a defining role that haunts him years after his success.
We’ve never seen the superhero Birdman in our universe, but we have seen Keaton play Batman. Take that memory with you to this film and witness Keaton’s best performance in recent years.
Whiplash (Dir. Damien Chazelle)
While Birdman examined what it takes to be considered a true artist, Whiplash effectively presents a scenario in what it takes not only be considered a great artist, but the absolute best. When this indie film hit Sundance last year, it took top honors by gaining the audience award and the Grand Jury Prize. On paper the premise is less than exciting: An incredibly talented young drummer named Andrew aspires to be the greatest jazz drummer out there, leading him to an instructor that pushes Andrew beyond his breaking point. We’ve seen dramas about teachers that inspire — shoot — there are even action films that have gotten away with that setup before. Here, it’s absolutely horrifying and nerve-wracking to follow Andrew and the lengths he goes to become the best. I was physically uncomfortable throughout most of this film, especially during the scenes when Andrew performs. But those last 10-15 minutes of the film deliver one of the best finales I’ve seen all year. I was sweating, face forward the whole time.
Andrew is wonderfully realized in actor Miles Teller. It was reported that the young actor had to learn how to play jazz drum for the role, so when the camera pulls back to show Teller pounding away at the kit, the actual performance impresses on multiple levels. But the true star of this film is supporting actor J.K. Simmons as the brutal instructor. Simmons has a presence that demands the attention of the audience and the characters, making us truly believe that this man is respected, and simply one of the best in his field. Whiplash is an outstanding, truly inspiring achievement by a young filmmaker (dude’s only 29) that celebrates music as much as the people who not only perform it, but truly live and die by the art.
Gone Girl (Dir. David Fincher)
Gone Girl starts out like the hundreds of procedurals:a wife is missing, and the unsuspecting husband is prime suspect. For the first hour, we follow the story o f Amy and Nick’s relationship, the disappearance, and the effect her unexplained absence has on Nick and his family. Then right as the investigation reaches a hight point, Fincher pulls the rug out from under in one of the best reveals in the past few years.
To really get into why this film is amazing with plot development and narrative would be to reveal several enormous spoilers. But my audience and I were blown away when the big reveal happened — there were actual gasps, followed by quick whispers among certain patrons.
There is a lot to recommend in addition to the twisty plot. Rosemund Pike is astonishingly great as Amy, who is the star of the film despite Ben Affleck being on the marketing. He’s great too as the dim, yet suspicious husband. I must also mention the great performances by Kim Dickens, Carrie Coon, and Tyler Perry. The trio are the closest to an audience surrogate in this film, guiding the viewer to feel a certain way at certain moments of the investigation. The film looks and sounds amazing as well, creating a sense of unease and pulse due to the score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. It’s important to note that director David Fincher isn’t known for ending his stories with butterflies and rainbows, but one of the best at thrillers. It’s a dark film, but riveting throughout. There’s hardly a dull moment in Gone Girl.
Nightcrawler (Dir. Dan Gilroy)
Lou Bloom is the type of human being that you never want to meet, but you know are plenty like him out there working and living in the fringes of society. In Dan Gilroy’s directorial debut, Jake Gyllenhaal gives us his best performance yet as the seedy protagonist. Bloom is a bit crook that one day happens on a freeway accident. There, he discovers a small camera crew whose sole purpose is to film gruesome crime scenes for the highest bidding news network. Intrigued, Bloom finagles his way into doing his own video work, immediately finding his new calling. It’s a sobering look at how destructive the instantaneous access to information can be to many, especially for those who really know how to manipulate on a sociopathic level.
Lou Bloom is one of those people. Gilroy and Gyllenhaal paint Bloom as the worst thing to come out of the age of information in an interesting fashion. Scenes in which Bloom monologues about his demands and negotiates with his producer are highlights, because Gyllenhaal gets really despicable with his delivery.
Usually sharing the scene with Gyllenhaal at these moments is Rene Russo. She’s absolutely fantastic as the struggling broadcast producer who uneasily gives Bloom a platform for his work. I should also mention how darkly comedic certain moments can get without taking anything away from the experience.
Tough to watch, but impossible to look away, Nightcrawler is another assured debut that engages on many levels.
Jodorowsky’s Dune (Dir. Frank Pavich)
I regret to not having seen many documentaries this year. This one, though, I had to watch, mainly because I’ve seen the film directed by the documentary’s subject — Alejandro Jodorowsky. People who have no idea of who he is as a filmmaker might not find much to like, since it’s mainly driven by the filmmaker’s eccentricities. Jodorowsky’s films are dreamlike and surreal, and his adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune had the chance to be the ultimate expression of Jodorowsky as a filmmaker and artist.
What intrigued me the most is the story he tells of how he assembled his actors and crew for the film, especially when it came to convincing notable figures like Orson Welles and Salvador Dalí to be in his film. Whereas most people imagine their own fantasy team or supergroup in their head, Jodorowsky did the same, but then went out and got almost everyone he wanted. And while he never got to make his version (David Lynch ended up directing the adaptation in 1984), it’s fun to imagine what this sci-fi adventure — pre-Star Wars, mind you — would’ve done for cinema and popular culture. As a film geek, it’s awesome to see the impact that a film never made can have on the history and future of cinema.
The Babadook (Dir. Jennifer Kent)
This Australian indie horror doesn’t go for the cheap scares. It’s a horror film that builds dread and discomfort before the menace even appears. I admire the level intimacy in the story and the writing, making the audience feel a specific way about the relationship of a mom and son. Here, Essie Davis plays Amelia, a woman who becomes a widow and a mother on the same night, following a tragic accident. After a few years, she tries hard not to see her son as a reminder of that night, but it’s difficult for Amelia, since Samuel seems to get into trouble constantly, despite his best efforts. One night, she reads him a pop-up children’s book entitled “The Babadook.” Once starts, the supernatural happens.
What’s amazing about Jennifer Kent’s debut is how the horror resonates in meaningful ways within the story. Scares aren’t just dumped onto scenes for the sake of just providing thrills. Those moments are built through characters becoming more than what they ultimately represent, at times on-the-nose obvious. Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman are fantastic as mother and son. You feel their relationship grow and take important directions that just immerses in the horror. If you don’t connect with these two, then the film simply might not work. For me, that’s what kept the suspense going in the finale. Also, fuck that pop-up book. I still shake thinking of the images.
Boyhood (Dir. Richard Linklater)
Richard Linklater is filmmaker that many cinephiles and other film geeks love. Dazed and Confused, Slackers, and his Before Trilogy have been cited as some the best films during their releases and beyond. Boyhood is similar to the Before Trilogy in the way that it follows a set of characters over a long period of time, only Boyhood does it in one film. Over the course of 12 years, Linklater shot bits of this film with the same actors, focusing and following the growth of his lead as he and the character start the film as a boy and ending the story as a young man.
Fun fact: this was President Obama’s favorite film of the year. People speculate that this is the one that’s going to take best picture and you can see why. To quote a filmmaker I admire by the name of Joe Lynch: “It’s a movie in which nothing happens, but everything happens.” I can’t think of a better way to put it. There is no overlying goal or specific plot point the characters need to overcome —they just live life like most suburban, middle-class families. Considering what happens, coupled with filmmaking and performances, Boyhood is possibly one of the best films that captures such growth in people that’s rarely seen outside a documentary or biopic. The fact that nothing really happens can hurt its chances with not only the Academy, but with general audiences as well. But it’s impossible to deny the impact of the journey, even when mundane. It’s a journey most of us have taken.
Blue Ruin (Dir. Jeremy Saulnier), Snowpiercer (Dir. Bong Joon-Ho), We Are the Best! (Dir. Lukas Moodysson), Edge of Tomorrow (Dir. Doug Liman), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Dir. Matt Reeves), Big Hero 6 (Dir. Don Hall & Chris Williams), The One I Love (Dir. Charlie McDowell), The Raid 2: Berandal (Gareth Evans), The Guest (Dir. Adam Wingard), and Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Dir. The Russo Brothers)
The few that I really wanted to see but couldn’t:
Inherent Vice (Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson), Selma (Dir. Ana DuVernay), Citizenfour (Dir. Laura Poitras)