Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Top 10: Favorite Films of 2014 (Part 2)

5. John Wick
One of the biggest compliments you can pay a movie is to say that it knows what it is and John 
Wick suffers no identity crisis. It's a slick, stylish action thriller that delivers exactly what its initial trailers promised: loads of gun-toting, blood-spattering retribution and a ridiculous sense of humor-- nothing more and nothing less.

Michael Nyqvist is in on the joke, hamming up his role as the Russian mob leader, Viggo Tarasov, who's dim-witted son mistakenly murders John Wick's (played ever so coolly by Keanu Reeves) dog and steals his car. As it turns out, John Wick used to be the Russian mob's go-to contracted killer whenever they had a job too big to handle themselves. Ouch.

John Wick smartly abides by the Law of Keanu, which states that less is more. True, Reeves is no Robert Downey Jr, but in the right role and with little to say, Reeves can be a reliable option. John Wick is such a role and definitely the best fit for Reeves since Neo in The Matrix. With Keanu Reeves as its sturdy center, John Wick relies on one heck of a supporting cast to smooth out the edges. Talented actors such as Ian McShane, John Leguizamo, Willem Dafoe, as well as the aforementioned Nvqvist, all lend a hand in giving a sense of identity and history to the world of John Wick; a rich world that I personally would love to see explored further in any future installments.

Like I said, it isn't anything fancy. There is no profound, life-changing view to walk away from this movie with. It's a well-choreographed, well-shot popcorn flick packed to the brim with action and bursting with cheeky flair.

4. Guardians of the Galaxy
Speaking of which, perhaps no film last year unabashedly expressed cheeky flair as much as James Gunn's The Guardians of the Galaxy. From the talking raccoon and the walking tree, to the prominent protrusion of its 70's pop playlist, Marvel's latest is about as subtle as a David Bautista punch to the face. In lesser hands, the joke would have been on the filmmaker, but James Gunn has a real knack for pastiche and thus 'Guardians' serves as an amusing send-up of the superhero genre, something Hollywood was in real need for, too.

Of course, Writer-Director James Gunn's unique ability to fascinatingly fuse comedy with earnestness would only get him so far without the right cast. With such a stubborn squad, it could have been a nightmare to strike the perfect balance, but they nailed it. Special recognition goes to Chris Pratt for being the consummate Star-Lord for Gunn's interpretation of the material and the glue who convincingly holds the group together, and Bradley Cooper for packing so much sympathy into such a small window of his character's back story and giving credence to Rocket as a character rather than caricature.

Over all of it, 'Guradians' is stuffed with action and brimming with laugh-out-loud dialogue, as well as rewarding references and on-going gags. This film has definitely earned its spot among Marvel's best film adaptations and superhero films in general.

3. Nightcrawler
Jake Gyllenhaal's news footage gatherer Lou Bloom ranks towards the top of cinema's all-time great sociopaths and his performance is on par with the likes of Anthony Perkins in Psycho and Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs. Everything Gyllenhaal does in front of the camera illustrates a complete character: the slouching, the almost anorexic shape of his body, and even the perpetual, nervous blinking. It's a devoted performance. Now, it's definitely not new territory for Gyllenhaal, having made a name for himself in Donnie Darko, but that doesn't make his performance here any less special and it's a shame, albeit not a surprise, that he wasn't nominated.

Nightcrawler also impresses from a technical standpoint. The cinematography is gorgeous. if a tad bit simple; the sound design truly captures horrific atmospheres of each crime scene Bloom investigates; and the musical score captures the emotions going on inside Bloom's head rather than what the audience is seeing on screen. Everything about this movie is designed to take the audience inside the character of Bloom and it works as a fascinating and captivating character study. It's a sickening delight watching this seemingly soulless individual take advantage of everyone and everything around him in order to achieve maximum success.

I walked away from this film disgusted with Bloom, our media, and myself for enjoying every last minute.

2. Birdman
There are a lot of things you could say about Birdman, and indeed a lot of things have been said. What I'll say about Alejandro González Iñárritu's film is that it's special. It's special in the way that it stars Michael Keaton, who played Batman, as a fallen Hollywood star who yearns for his glory days as a blockbuster superhero icon. It's also special in the way that it's made to look like one shot within the claustrophobic confines of an off-Broadway music hall.

Keaton's darkly quirky performance as the self-deprecating, guilt-ridden Riggan serves as the centerpiece of the film and indeed it's a career highlighter for sure. However, Keaton isn't the only actor who's earned an Oscar nomination for Birdman. Both Emma Stone and Edward Norton give electrifying performances as Riggan's daughter and Broadway co-star, respectively.

What's also special about Birdman is its kinetic, almost infectious energy. Everything keeps moving so new information is constantly being revealed and nothing feels stale. Despite its star's obvious age, Birdman has an abundance of fresh, young supporting talent that aid the film's continuous flow of fast, witty dialogue; intimate development; and even a fistful superhero-esque special effects. The upbeat, up-tempo score also invigorate a number of its scenes, specifically where Riggan envisions himself once again dawning the now-famous Birdman getup. It's a bizarre experience for sure, but a lot of fun. This film almost seems to dare its audiences to fall asleep.

1. The Babadook
After I saw directorial newcomer Jennifer Kent's The Babadook, there was no doubt in my mind what my favorite film of the year was. She's crafted a brilliant slow burn with two of the most impressive but overlooked performances of the year, from veteran actress Essie Davis and first-timer Noah Wiseman.

Davis plays Amelia, a single mother still haunted by the death of her husband and the seemingly unfortunate birth of her son, Samuel (if you've seen the film, you'll know what I'm talking about). One night before bedtime, Amelia finds a mysterious red velvet book on Sam's shelf titled "Mr. Babadook" and mistakenly reads it out loud to him. It doesn't take long for the shadowy, titular beast to make its presence known. At first it's a couple of knocks and then it's glass shards in Amelia's soup. Before long, Amelia is receiving late-night bedroom visits from The Babadook himself. It's some truly disturbing stuff.

What's more impressive about Kent's feature debut is that it transcends its genre in a way that very few horror films from recent memory have been able to do. The Babadook's not just scary as hell, it's also an expressive allegory for grief and the destructive aftermath of loss. From the seemingly inexpressive set decoration and wardrobe to the mostly immobile but chillingly refreshing cinematography, everything about Kent's film is designed to give the viewer an overwhelming sense of oppressiveness and hopelessness.

Not only is The Babadook my favorite film of 2014, but it's one of the best movies of the year as well as one of the best horror films of the past decade. You should definitely let this one in.

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