Movies of 2015 – June

Nightcrawler (2014) – Dan Gilroy

nightcrawler reviewGyllenhaal’s character, Louis Bloom, is the protagonist of this movie about a guy who is just trying to make a buck in this crazy world by using his car, his assistant, and his camera to film crime scenes and other bloody and unfortunate events in the news. He’s also a sociopath who will do whatever he can to succeed at getting the video, getting it onto TV, and getting paid for it. I almost like Bloom despite him being an absolutely horrible human being because I feel that, while he’s obviously a metaphor for Hollywood and how it shows us exactly what we want to see even if what we want to see isn’t very pleasant, he’s also a person who is extremely driven and one-minded in achieving his goals. – 9/10

Jurassic World (2015) – Colin Trevorrow

150608103918-jurassic-world-training-780x439Hey, do you remember Jurassic Park!? That’s basically all this movie is, down to someone in the movie literally putting on a Jurassic Park t-shirt and talking about how he misses Jurassic Park but was lucky to find the shirt on E-Bay. Yes, that really happens in this movie. Also, there’s a dinosaur that’s apparently smart enough to know what a GPS tracker is and how to remove it from its body and leave it somewhere as a distraction. Oh yeah, I forgot about the part where there’s these two kids that have a sad subplot about being sent to stay for a while with their aunt who runs Jurassic World because their parents are going to get divorced, but that plot is dumped about halfway through the movie. Dang, I almost forgot about the part where the evil military guy wants to use some of the dinosaurs to help them hunt down the escaped big bad dinosaur, so Chris Pratt’s character punches him in the face for being so evil and trying to use the dinosaurs in that way then almost immediately agrees with the plan which is what they use to hunt down the escaped big bad dinosaur. – 4/10

Dope (2015) – Rick Famuyiwa

maxresdefaultMalcolm, played by Shameik Moore, the main character of this movie is a teenage boy in a punk band with his friends who’s very good at school, likes 90s music and fashion, and is hoping to go to Harvard after graduating. His two best friends fit the same mold. These three get involved through a series of events in a drug deal gone horribly wrong and end up going through a bunch of ridiculous, scary, and hilarious situations to try to figure out what to do with the drugs and a gun that they mistakenly got a hold of. It’s kind of like a black teenage version of a Seth Rogen movie like Pineapple Express. The movie does a great job of keeping the jokes coming while never getting away from the larger point at hand – that it’s very hard for a teenager growing up in an area with drugs and gangs to not get involved with them, even if they try very hard to stay clean. The visual style and soundtrack are also worth mentioning as being really fantastic. – 8/10

The Imitation Game (2014) – Morten Tyldum

From what I understand, a lot of this movie is historically inaccurate and does a pretty bad job of portraying Alan Turing as played by Benedict Cumberbatch. I understand that criticism, but I can only talk about the movie as it stands on its own since I was not altogether familiar with the details of his life before watching it. The criticism is that it teaches bad history and paints him in a way that’s not true, but ironically if not for this movie I would have never read about the real Alan Turing. Anyway, the movie is very slow as it trudges through Turing and his team making and using the Enigma machine to decode the Nazi messages during World War II. The characters are well written (again, I understand that they’re inaccurate) and the drama unfolding between them as they slowly realize that Turing is homosexual (which was a crime in England at the time) is functional. This movie was clearly Oscar-bait. That doesn’t mean that it’s bad; it just means that it sort of follows a formula for a biopic – misunderstood genius accomplishes something incredible despite dealing with personal or political issues. It’s a solid movie, and I know more about Alan Turing for it (or perhaps in spite of it). – 7/10

Movies of 2015 – May

Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977) – George Lucas

sw1Back when I was in middle school, a friend told me I should watch this cool movie his dad showed him because it has a really cool bad guy named Dark Vader. I watched it and enjoyed it as hundreds of millions of others have before and since. That was that, until it wasn’t because Episode I was announced right around that time, and there was a lot of buzz, even among middle school students who weren’t really familiar with the movies. I felt cool because I had already seen a Star Wars movie, which made me an expert among my peers. Of course, the announcement of the prequels reminded me that there were already some sequels, so I figured out some way to watch them (probably on VHS, I forget). I went to all of the prequel openings and saw the original trilogy rereleases in theaters. I played some of the video games. I read a few of the books. In short, I got burned out. (continued in Ep. V review) – 10/10

Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) – Irvin Kershner

Battle_of_HothIt took quite a while for me to watch another Star Wars movie. I think outside of showing A New Hope to my students in 2014 (which I only half-watched while grading papers or something like that), I hadn’t watched a movie in the series for at least five years if not longer. So, when I watched the trilogy again this month, I was pleasantly surprised at how much I loved every minute of it. The characters are so believable. The action is so tense. The revelations in the plot are so well done. The trilogy is every bit as great in 2015 as it was when it first released. (continued in Ep. VI review) – 10/10

Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983) – Richard Marquand

LvVI watched all three movies the same day. Ep. IV was the ICC movie of the week, so that Monday I went home and immediately watched Ep. V and Ep. VI. On one hand, watching them all on the same day in a row is exhausting, but it really was quite an experience – like binge-watching an entire season of a great show. I don’t believe I ever did it before with Star Wars. Anyway, this hasn’t really been much of a review, more of a personal exploration of my relationship to the movies. Overall, they’re great. It’s of course one of the greatest trilogies of all time. A New Hope is the best of the bunch despite many liking Empire Strikes Back more. Return of the Jedi is fantastic but slightly less so than its predecessors. – 9/10

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) – Anthony Russo, Joe Russo

captain-america-banner1When I first saw this movie last year, I rated it a 9/10 and talked about how it was both a great spy thriller and a great super hero movie. I stand by that description after watching it again a year later. Chris Evans is perfect as Captain America. Anthony Mackie is perfect as Falcon. Scarlett Johansson is perfect as Black Widow. Sebastian Stan is perfect as The Winter Soldier. The action is both believable and fantastic at the same time. Instead of just feeling like another MCU movie, it actually seemed to have a specific influence – the Brubaker run of the Captain America comics, which is one of my favorite runs in Marvel history. – 9/10

Men in Black (1997) – Barry Sonnenfield

Men-in-BlackMen in Black is one of the funniest sci-fi movies I have ever seen. Nearly 20 years after its release, I still laughed at almost every joke. It was a huge relief to me that my students were also laughing. One who had to leave the screening early told me that she was going to find the movie and finish watching it when she got home – something that rarely happens. This movie is a close second to my favorite “buddy cop” film, Rush Hour 2, and it also ranks highly as a science fiction film as well. Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones are the perfect pair, and I look forward to watching this movie every time I get the chance. In my opinion, this movie is flawless. – 10/10

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) – George Miller

6-MAD_MAX_FURY_ROAD_2015_TRAILERA lot has been about the new Mad Max in the past few weeks since its release. I went in with a mostly blank slate, never having seen any of the previous movies in the franchise and only having watched one trailer for this one. My expectations were middling, but they were exceeded in every way imaginable. I don’t think it’s crazy to call this the most exciting action movie ever made. I was invested in every single scene from beginning to end. The action scenes were exciting and full of novel shots and stunts, but the scenes between them which are a bit quieter and reflective also helped to keep the movie from just being an exercise in spectacle for the sake of spectacle. Of all the new movies from 2015 I’ve seen so far, this is the only one that I intend to watch again as soon as possible. – 10/10

All In: The Poker Movie (2012) – Douglas Tirola

1cb5604f24Documentaries that explore subcultures surrounding competitive games or sports have always been interesting to me. Some of my favorites include Senna (2010) – Formula 1 racing, 100 Yen: The Japanese Arcade Experience (2012) – arcade video games, and Kings of Pastry (2009) – pastry design and creation. All In is closest in feel to 100 Yen as it serves as both a history of the game and an introduction to the competitive side of things. However, in addition to documenting the rise of big money tournaments like the World Poker Tour, significant screen time is given to the fall of online poker after it was made illegal in the US. As someone who has only played poker for real money a handful of times, I learned quite a bit and got to know many of the personalities in the competitive scene. The movie performs its function adequately but isn’t cinematically interesting or even entertaining. I recommend it for fans of poker, but those fans probably already know everything that the movie sets out to tell them so I guess I really don’t know the intended audience. – 6/10

X-Men (2000) – Bryan Singer

x-men-eric-and-charlesThis is it. This is the big one for me. If not for this movie, I would have never taken classes in college to study movies. I would have never run the International Film Series or the International Cinema Club. I would have never developed a curriculum and taught a class covering the history of movies. I most definitely would not have started a blog in which I wrote short reviews of the movies I watch. X-Men  was the first movie I ever liked, meaning that it’s the first one that I went to the theater to see multiple times not because I just wanted to see a movie or that my parents were taking me out but because I wanted to watch this movie specifically. I read X-Men comics growing up, watched the fantastic Saturday morning cartoon, and played many of the videos games. When the movie came out in 2000, good comic book movies were pretty rare. In fact, it can be argued that X-Men was the catalyst that ushered in the era we are in currently in which comic book and super hero movies come out several times a year and keep making and breaking new box office records.

X-Men is better than any of them that have come out since. Aside from Joss Whedon who actually writes super hero comics, Bryan Singer understands the X-Men better than any of the other super hero movie directors do of their own characters. The X-Men are not just about fighting crime or villains; they are a stand in for civil rights, human rights, and LGBT rights activists. Singer effectively uses metaphor in an obvious and effective way. The casting choices made were almost all perfect – so perfect that I need an entirely different post to talk about them. Magneto still has yet to be topped as a super hero movie villain due to his menace, humor, humanity, hypocrisy, and principles. For the time, the special effects and action were better than anything of the sort save for The Matrix from the year prior. Wolverine being chosen as the main character had broad appeal and allowed for a great way to see the X-Men from an outsider’s perspective and allowed for the kind of exposition needed for a film like this. Everything could have been done through Rogue’s perspective as well, which would have been fine but might have made for a weaker overall series starting point as it would have probably been made for a younger audience. This film as a starting point for the now very long-running series is perfect, even if some of the other (non Singer-directed) movies aren’t.

As you can probably tell if you actually read all of that, I kind of have a stream-of-consciousness overload when I try to talk about or write about this movie. I’ve probably watched it 30 times in the 15 years since its release, and I don’t think I’ll ever stop. It’s in my top 10 favorite movies of all time. It’s the best super hero movie ever made. It’s the most important movie in my life. – 10+/10

Tomorrowland (2015) – Brad Bird

tmrwIt’s a preachy movie with the message that special people get to go to a beautiful land of excitement and wonder so that they can ignore the real problems in the world because actually thinking about those problems is what literally, actually causes them. If you even try to remind people that there are real issues in the real world when at Disneyland, oops I mean Tomorrowland, they will kick you out and threaten to kill you! Many people will disagree with my thoughts on this movie, but I genuinely felt like this was the message, even if it was unintentional. I will say that some of the visual effects were pretty, and that the aesthetics of Tomorowland (meaning the place within the film) were sleek. – 5/10

Movies of 2015 – April

Kung Fu Dunk (2008) – Chu Yen-ping

Kung Fu Dunk photo 30Jay Chou is not a particularly funny actor. He’s not a bad actor, but I prefer him in more serious roles. I wish that Steven Chow would have just taken on the lead in this film like he did in its obvious inspiration, the much better and funnier Shaolin Soccer. The over-the-top basketball is just as fun to watch; however, and I can tell that the special effects team was going out of their way to make the wuxia-inspired basketball visually interesting. Unfortunately, the plot is paper thin. The characters are all very boring with the exception of Eric Tsang as the unscrupulous promoter who eventually takes on a fatherlike role for the main character. I can’t honestly recommend this movie to anyone unless they really just want to see a Chinese movie adaptation of NBA Jam. For those who do, check it out. For everyone else, watch Shaolin Soccer instead. – 6/10

Chinese Zodiac / CZ12 (2012) – Jackie Chan

cz Jackie Chan is one of the best action directors of all time. There’s no disputing this fact. He understands how to shoot and perform an action scene better than just about anyone else. What he doesn’t always do well is tell a cohesive story, which is why some of his movies are much better than others. He works best when he’s in charge of action and someone else is in charge of everything else or when he just makes a movie that’s very obviously just a means of putting himself into various situations that lead to fun action sequences. Chinese Zodiac tries very hard to be a movie with interwoven plots and that has an important message, but it utterly fails in both of those areas. In fact, the characters’ motivations are laughably bad. However, I watched this movie because I like to watch Jackie Chan in funny action scenes. From the opening to the very end, every action scene with him in it is great. The rollerblade suit, the fight on the couch, and the fight while skydiving are the standouts and almost make the movie worth watching. Unfortunately, you have to suffer through the rest of it if you want to see them. – 6/10

Back to the Future (1985) – Robert Zemeckis

bttf2203Watching Back to the Future in 2015 is about as fun as it gets. It’s fascinating to see what 1985 looked like from the perspective of 30 years later, and it’s just as fascinating to see what 1955 looked like from the perspective of 30 years later. Marty (Michael J. Fox) and Doc (Christopher Lloyd) are two of my favorite characters in all of movie history. This movie paved the way for my interest in science fiction and especially movies about time travel. I cannot even write an objective review of it. To me, the movie is perfect and holds a spot in my top 20 of all time. If you haven’t seen Back to the Future, please watch it. I don’t think I’ve ever met someone who has seen it and didn’t enjoy it. – 10/10

Back to the Future Part II (1989) – Robert Zemeckis

66840-341176If seeing 1985 from the perspective of 2015 is as fun as it gets, then seeing 2015 from the perspective of 1985 is somehow even more fun. The best sequel of all time (yeah, that’s right) takes everything great about Back to the Future and keeps the momentum going. The seamless transition from Part I to Part II (with the exception of course of the change of one actress) made it seem like it was really just one great, long movie. This type of serial storytelling in movies is pretty rare. There’s almost always a gap from one movie to another in a series. However, the last scene of Back to the Future is reshot for Part II as the opening scene. Having the time travel get even more complicated without sacrificing the story is one of the greatest achievements of this film. While most people of course enjoy the sequences in 2015 with the hoverboard, my favorite part of the movie is when Marty from Part 1 and Marty from Part 2 are both at the same dance in 1955 and how they affect each other’s actions, whether intentionally or not.- 10/10 [Since I didn’t watch it this time, I’ll comment briefly on Part III. It’s a pretty good movie, too, but I don’t think it’s an absolutely necessary film to see. If you’re a big fan of the series, you shouldn’t miss it, but if you just want to see the best the series can offer, stop after Part II]

Ex Machina (2015) – Alex Garland

ex-machina-movieThere are only four characters in Ex Machina. One of them never even speaks. Just about the whole movie takes place in just one house. It’s very tight. It’s very slick. It’s very claustrophobic. The movie is about a seemingly randomly chosen coder named Caleb who works for search engine company who is chosen to fly out to meet his eccentric boss and stay with him for a week to administer the Turing test on a robot with AI. This robot’s AI is very convincing, and a romance starts to develop between the two of them. However, she is locked not only into the building but basically into just one room that she’s been allowed to leave. This sets in motion a brilliantly executed game of manipulation and deceit in which it’s really not clear who is in the right and who is in the wrong. By the end of the movie, both my empathy and my ire extended to each of the characters. – 9/10

Unfriended (2015) – Levan Gabriadze

CYBERNATURALREVI’m just going to come out and say it: I like gimmicks, and I like novelty in my entertainment choices. I generally prefer the unpolished indie video game with interesting game mechanics over the highly polished but predictable AAA games. The entire movie Unfriended is told from the screen of a high school girl’s laptop. This is a gimmick, obviously. A traditional horror movie about a girl who committed suicide coming back to haunt her bullies wouldn’t even be a blip on my radar. However, this movie handles its gimmick very well, and I think it shows what life is like for teenagers in the 2010s better than any other movie made so far this decade. Teenagers (and most young adults) spend most of their time online, whether on a computer or a phone. Why not make a horror movie that takes place totally online as well? Many critics (all adults of course) didn’t like the movie Earth to Echo, but my 12-year-old brother said was the best movie he has ever seen because it was the first time he felt like the characters (who were all 12-year-olds) actually acted like him and his friends – spending most of their time on YouTube and just hanging out riding their bikes around the neighborhood. Unfriended I think works equally well for people about five years older than that. I’d love to see how my high school students would respond to this movie, but when I asked if any of them went to go see it, they all told me they were going to wait until they could watch it on Netflix – on their computers. – 7/10

The Avengers (2012) – Joss Whedon

vrzq6In 2012, this was the biggest comic book movie event ever. Who would have thought that a bunch of B-list Marvel heroes could hold a picture together without the X-Men, Spider-Man, or the Fantastic 4? Well, thankfully, with Joss Whedon at the helm and the fact that the movie built off of the previously successful Marvel Cinematic Universe films, the movie was able to not only hold together but become one of the highest-grossing movies of all time. This was probably my fourth or fifth viewing of the movie, and it doesn’t really charm the way it did the first or second time. I guess any movie would lose some of its luster after seeing it that many times, but The Avengers suffers from this much more than many of the other movies I’ve seen several times throughout my life. The action is pretty corny. The dialogue is funny but not at all believable. The characters don’t have enough time to shine individually. I think the X-Men films do an ensemble cast better than The Avengers because they’re more about a group of people going through some kind of struggle together than a clash of egos who all try to rack up the most one-liners and cool action shots. However, the MCU has proven that its movies the focus more on just one or two characters, such as Iron Man and Captain America, are better than the X-Men films that only focus on Wolverine. – 7/10 (after 5 viewings) 9/10 (upon first viewing)

The Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) – Joss Whedon

avengers-age-of-ultron-screenshot-03-600x300Firstly, don’t see this movie in 3D. I’m not one of those people who lament the overuse of 3D in cinema these days. Many movies do it very well. This is not one of them. I couldn’t even really give the movie a fair review after watching it the first time. Everything was dark and blurry, which really distracted. So, I went back and saw it again in 2D for the better experience. Unlike the first Avengers film, I think this one handles the big cast without reducing the characters’ personalities to caricatures. Aside from the silly Bond-like cold opening which serves mostly to remind us of how cool these characters are, the movie is tight and solid throughout the majority of the running time. Ultron is a pretty cool villain who suffers a bit from being just as snarky and sarcastic as Loki who came before him. The addition of some new characters serves well as a bridge between the B-list Avengers to the C-list which we know is coming some time soon in the next few years. We’ll have to see how the MCU handles a future where the most recognizable hero is War Machine. The action is great, especially the one-on-one fight between Captain America and Ultron on the back of a semi truck. Using Hawkeye’s family life to show the human side of things was clever and well-done. I’m kind of all over the place with this review. It’s an all over the place kind of movie. I don’t know how I really feel about it. I guess it was okay. 8/10

Movies of 2015 – March

Kingsmen: The Secret Service (2014) – Matthew Vaughn

KSS_JB_D07_00960.tifIf there was a spectrum from 1-100 on which Skyfall (and other modern 007 movies) rested at 1 and Austin Powers rested at 100, Kingsmen would sit right at 50, nearer to the older Bond films than to the newer ones or the parodies. The plot is absurd, with a lisp-addled, McDonald’s-loving, swag-wearing tech genius played by Samuel L. Jackson as the main villain who must be stopped by the Kingsmen, a group of spies originally formed by a group of tailors who recruit young people by putting them through ridiculous, dangerous tests then naming the ones that succeed as Kingsmen and giving them code names that match up with characters from King Arthur’s court. Everything I described makes it seem like a movie I would hate. However, putting aside everything else, this movie has some of the coolest, most unique action scenes in the history of cinema. The bar fight, the church fight, the tunnels fight, and the henchwoman fight now all contend for the coolest fight scene I’ve ever watched. – 8/10

Focus (2015) – John Requa, Glenn Ficara

Focus-Movie-Will-SmithI’m a sucker for con artist movies. I love Catch Me if You Can, Matchstick Men, The Brothers Bloom, and the first few seasons of the show White Collar. From the first trailer I saw for Focus, I knew it was my kind of movie. Will Smith back as a leading man after a few movies over the past few years I didn’t care about is just icing on the cake. Focus doesn’t do anything differently than other movies of this sort, and it really doesn’t live up to the movies mentioned earlier. But, it holds its own and never falls into the trap of trying to be overly complex without being able to handle the complexity. It has enough twists to keep a viewer guessing without giving too much away. The supporting cast deserves a mention here, too. Margot Robbie and Adrian Martinez especially complement Smith as the romantic interest and sidekick, respectively, and they play well off each other, too.  – 8/10

Rocky (1976) – John Avildsen

rocky-movieIt’s hard to say anything about Rocky that hasn’t already been said. It has earned its spot as one of the best movies of all time and possibly the single greatest sports movie ever. I actually slightly prefer Rocky II to the first one for entertainment purposes, but of course the first one was what I showed to the ECC International Cinema Club since they have never seen any of them. Rocky Balboa’s rise is much more interesting than his continued success and eventual fall. At some point, I will watch the movies that came after Rocky IV, but for now I’ll stick with the first two. – 10/10

St. Vincent (2014) – Theodore Melfi

vincent-trioBill Murray was trying very hard to win some awards for acting in this movie. He plays an old grumpy guy who ends up becoming the babysitter for a young boy who moves in next door with his mom. The movie tugs at every heartstring possible in the most obvious ways. It deals with divorce, bullying, death, poverty, prostitution, gambling addiction, alcoholism, religious expression, and stroke recovery. There’s a lot going on in the movie, and I guess the point of it is that you can be a terrible person most of the time if you occasionally do some nice things, too. Bill Murray is the saving grace and is the only reason to see the movie. – 6/10

Bend it Like Beckham (2002) – Gurinder Chadha

Bend-It-Like-Beckham-bend-it-like-beckham-11245312-1002-600I have to admit that I never watched this movie before this week. Despite not being the biggest sports fan in the world, I’ve always enjoyed movies about competition, sports or otherwise. My surprise with Bend it Like Beckham is that, while a great sports movie, it doesn’t fall into the trap of just being about an underdog team that miraculously wins a championship after struggling throughout a season. It’s clear from the beginning that the two leads, Jess and Jules, played respectively by Parminder Nagra and Keira Knightley, are the best soccer players on one of the best teams in the league. The conflict is never about whether or not they’re good enough. I think they win all but one of their games that we see. The conflict is about whether or not Jess is able to juggle her tenuous friendship with Jules, her crush on her coach and the resulting love triangle that emerges, her ability to play the game, and her parents’ desire that she stop playing and fall into line with her Indian heritage as a future housewife. Chadha does a great job of weaving subplots into the story involving both girls’ family issues as well as a seemingly tragic backstory for the coach. The only gripe I have with the movie is that it probably would have been better if the possible romance between Jess and Jules, which was rumored to have been explored further in the original script, would have played out instead of the less interesting romance between Jess and the coach. – 8/10

Life Itself (2014) – Steve James

328142446Roger Ebert is the only person who I never met or even communicated with aside from a few comments on his blog that I would say directly influenced my life. If not for him, I never would have cared about movies, which are not only a personal interest but define a small but significant portion of my career, and I definitely wouldn’t be writing this blog of my own. Steve James’ intensely honest look at Roger Ebert’s life and death brought me to tears several times throughout my viewing. To see just how much he affected the people around him as well as those who only knew him from TV and his writing was nothing short of breathtaking. The last few months and weeks of his life being filmed must have been difficult for him and his wife, Chaz, but I am grateful to have been able to share them in a small way. I wish that I had been able to see this movie earlier, but I am glad to have been able to see it at all. – Thumbs up/10

Movies of 2015 – February

Jupiter Ascending (2015) – The Wachowskis

maxresdefaultJupiter Ascending is a textbook case of how to use CGI to create pure, exhilarating spectacle in a movie. The Wachoskis know better than anyone else how to make every shot have something interesting to look at in it. I was never bored by this movie because I was constantly looking forward to the next environment, action scene, costume, or effect. Like the Wachowskis’ Speed Racer and Cloud Atlas before it, Jupiter Ascending will have its share of critics, but I go to the cinema to be thrilled, and this movie is thrilling. – 9/10

Wreck-It Ralph (2012) – Rich Moore

wreck-it-ralph-video-game-cameos-listI showed Wreck-It Ralph to the International Cinema Club as the CGI/3D animation representative for the theme of Exploring Animation. Instead of writing another summary here, I’ll just link you to my spoiler-filled review/summary of the movie I posted on this blog a while ago. – 10/10

Movies of 2015 – January

Unlike previous years, I am going to try to keep track of every single movie I watch in 2015, so these will be listed in the order I saw them and will include movies both from 2015 and previous years. Expect frequent updates.

Inherent Vice (2014) – Paul Thomas Anderson

inherent-vice-trailer2Inherent Vice was pretty much Chinatown+marijuana. I never read the book, and I probably never will since Pynchon’s works usually go over my head. The movie, however, was great but mostly for the smaller funny moments throughout and the ridiculous characters rather than the overarching plot. – 8/10

Whiplash (2014) – Damien Chazelle

Whiplash-4I wish I would have watched Whiplash last year because it probably would have made my top ten of 2014 in 2014 list. Whiplash explores the physical, emotional, interpersonal, and mental sacrifices that have to be made to truly be good at something, in this case drumming, and it doesn’t hold anything back. The duel of egos between the two main characters is incredibly intense, and the way the cinematographer shot the scenes of jazz music being played reminded me of the way Edgar Wright shoots action scenes. – 9/10

 Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) – Wes Anderson

fmf2Watching my students laugh their cusses off during Fantastic Mr. Fox during the ECC International Cinema Club screening helped me realize that it is probably Wes Anderson’s best movie. Anderson doesn’t sacrifice a single bit of his signature style but manages to actually add to it with brilliant stop-motion animation and a story that can appeal to both kids and adults. – 10/10

Foxcatcher (2014) – Bennett Miller

foxcatcher_aI should probably like Foxcatcher more than I do. While the acting was great, the whole movie (including the acting) was just off-putting to me. The slow pace, the color palette, the awkwardness of the characters, the look of Tatum sticking out his chin, and the look of Carell sticking out his nose just made for an uncomfortable experience. I honestly felt like the two leads were playing their characters as if they were autistic, and I’m not sure if that was intentional or not. This movie also includes the most obvious use of Chekhov’s gun I’ve ever seen in a movie (and this is coming from someone who didn’t know the ending before seeing the film). I know that there is someone who’s going to read this who will hate me for writing this review (hi, Paul), but I can’t honestly say I enjoyed it at all.  – 5/10

Coherence (2013) – James Byrkit

Emily-Baldoni-and-or-Foxler-in-Coherence-movie-620xThis is one of those mindbending/timebending/realitybending movies that have popped up in recent years after the cult success of Primer and Triangle. These movies tend to have a very strong premise and clearly are crafted expertly in order to keep viewers guessing the whole time. Coherence does this pretty well but doesn’t really live up to the standards set by the two other movies I mentioned. One of the things it does really well like Primer, however, is create a sense of confusion while at the same time leaving hints for viewers to find in a second viewing. Maybe I’ll give it another shot in the future and will appreciate it more then. – 7/10

John Wick (2014) – David Leatch, Chad Stahelski

_1416165890Everything I read online about this movie made it seem like it was going to be the coolest action film of all time. Instead, I found it to be mostly a run-of-the-mill action movie that was a little more self-aware than some others of its kind (like Taken, for example). The fights were cool. The premise was silly. The casting was great, with Keanu Reeves and Alfie Allen both perfect in their roles (even if their roles were pretty much caricatures of other roles both have played in the past. I do want to add that this movie doesn’t shy away from showing real violence and people really getting hurt like some other big action movies such as The Expendables, which glorifies the violence but doesn’t show it honestly the way John Wick does. – 7/10

Tokyo Godfathers (2003) – Satoshi Kon

Tokyo-GodfathersThis movie continued the ECC International Cinema Club’s series on animated films. I showed Millennium Actress (one of my top 10 favorite movies of all time) last year to the club as my annual Satoshi Kon representative, and I taught it in my class as well, so I thought that I would change it up and show Tokyo Godfathers this time instead. I must admit I had never watched it before, so I took a chance and watched it for the first time with my students (something I have never done before). The movie is probably Kon’s weakest overall since the plot is just a series of completely absurd coincidences one after the other from the first scene all the way to the last. The characters are totally compelling though, and the atmosphere and tone are poignant. – 8/10

Selma (2014) – Ava DuVernay

selma-bridgeThis film encapsulates the drama, tension, strategy, tragedy, hardships, and victories of the entire Civil Rights movement by focusing on one specific city and one specific struggle – that which led to the Voting Rights Act. I did not think I would enjoy it as much as I did. DuVernay pulled no punches in her honest portrayal of Dr. King, the SCLC members, Gov. Wallace, Pres. Johnson, or anyone else involved in this chapter of history. While many may write this movie off as a boring biopic, I found it to be extremely compelling; it felt more like a political thriller than a biography, and the film succeeds because of this. – 9/10

Movies of 2014 (update 12/10)

1397564754_gone-girl-zoom-640x345

Movies released in 2014. Months released are according to Wikipedia. I may have seen the movies after their initial release dates due to limited releases or waiting to watch at home. TBD scores mean that I am 100% planning to watch the movie but just haven’t had a chance to yet.

Month

Movie Name (Director) [my score out of ten]

 

January

Yves Saint Laurent (Jalil Lespert) [6/10] – The acting was decent, but plot was not compelling at all. A talented and successful person continues to be talented and successful for a long time without many speed bumps along the way.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (Kenneth Branagh) [3/10] – I can’t believe the guy who directed Hamlet (1996) made this movie. It’s horrible. Every decision made by every character is incomprehensible.

February

The Lego Movie (Phil Lord, Chris Miller) [8/10] – I went into this movie the first time thinking it was going to be a good time-waster. Instead, it was a very clever movie that insulted the idea of  corporate-backed silly pop culture while also being corporate-backed silly pop culture.

The Wind Rises (Hayao Miyazaki) [8/10] – Unfortunately, I saw the strange English dubbed version in which Joseph Gordon-Levitt voices the main character, a Japanese airplane designer. It was still a visually stunning movie and made me care for a character whose primary job was building machines used to bomb people during WWII, which is not at all how I expected to respond when I first heard about the film.

March

The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson) [9/10] – This is definitely the funniest movie of the year. I admit I’m a bit biased towards Anderson movies, but I think anyone would find the humor in this one. There’s also a really cool framing technique used both in the narrative and with the cinematography that I personally enjoyed as a fan of frame stories.

Captain America: Winter Soldier (Anthony Russo, Joe Russo) [9/10] – Winter Soldier is a much better spy movie than the Jack Ryan film and a better superhero movie than The Amazing Spider-Man 2. It works on all levels and managed to both broaden and ground the Marvel Cinematic Universe at the same time.

The Snow White Murder Case (Yoshihiro Nakamura) [9/10] – This is a wonderfully crafted murder mystery movie that ignores detectives and instead focuses on the media, both social and traditional, as they manipulate the public’s view of a suspect. In a lot of ways, this movie is like Gone Girl (which I saw before this even though it came out earlier). Both films have unique ways of handling a typical mystery (missing wife or grizzly murder) and keep you guessing the entire time.

Divergent (Neil Burger) [4/10] – It’s not The Hunger Games.

Neighbors (Nicholas Stoller) [6/10] – It’s one of those Seth Rogen trying to toe the line between adulthood and adolescence movies. Great for a few laughs, but I am writing this in December, several months after seeing the movie, because it was so forgettable. The only reason I even remembered that I saw it is because I was looking at a list of the movies released in 2014 to see if there were any I still wanted to watch but didn’t have a chance to yet.

April

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (Marc Webb) [7/10] – Personally, I found the sound editing of this movie to be the most interesting element. The dubstep-inspired fight scenes with Electro were especially exciting. The rest of the movie was pretty fun, too, but it just doesn’t hit the sweet spot that the first two Tobey McGuire films did for me.

Case Closed / Detective Conan: Dimensional Sniper (Kobun Shizuno) [7/10] – Detective Conan is the Japanese equivalent of Scooby Doo. There are a million episodes of the show, and a thousand movies based on it. This most recent one was fairly interesting because all of the suspects were military snipers, which made for some intense scenes in which people were shooting at each other from huge distances. Too bad Conan is somehow a better shot than with a soccer ball than some of these trained snipers are with scoped rifles.

May

X-Men: Days of Future Past (Bryan Singer) [10/10] – The X-Men movie series is probably my second favorite long-running series after Harry Potter. They both utilize the best actors possible for their roles to tell fantastical stories that have real meaning behind them. Days of Future Past takes one of the best stories from the X-Men comics and does it justice even though a large number of details were changed. It also effectively works without any confusion to the audience despite time travel and a gigantic ensemble cast.

The Normal Heart (Ryan Murphy) [8/10] – I watched this on a whim thinking it would be similar to last year’s Dallas Buyer’s Club. I was right. There’s not too much that would make me recommend it over DBC, but it’s worth watching in its own right.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 (Dean DeBlois) [8/10] – The first movie in this series did not impress me, but everything about the second film kept me smiling the whole way through. It’s my pick as of now for the best animated movie of the year with fantastic visuals and action as well as a compelling story and likable characters.

Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman) [7/10] – Tom Cruise has been an A-list action movie star for more than 20 years for a reason. This sci-fi action take on Groundhog’s Day does everything just about right but doesn’t really stand out aside from its interesting premise.

The Double (Richard Ayoade) [10/10] – Ayoade’s take on Dostoyevsky was a complete surprise to me, since I know him primarily as that goofy guy from The IT Crowd. The visual style of the movie combined with Jesse Eisenberg’s brilliant acting as Simon Jame and James Simon worked together to form a confusing but brilliant film. It’s definitely in my top 5 of the year.

June

22 Jump Street (Phil Lord, Chris Miller) [7/10] – It’s like 21 Jump Street but newer. That exact joke is made in the movie. It’s fun; it’s funny; the actors are hilarious. But, it’s exactly what you expect, and the directors knew it. It may have the best epilogue/credits scenes of all time, though.

Earth to Echo (Dave Green) [8/10] – I did not expect to like this movie, but it is basically the ET of the Youtube generation, and I use “Youtube” specifically because the entire movie is shot as if it’s a Vlog by a pre-teen Youtuber. The movie has heart; the young actors are convincing; the not-quite-found-footage camerawork is great. My twelve-year-old brother who loves to spend his free time watching Youtube (in other words, the exact target demographic) said it was the best movie he has ever seen.

July

Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn) [9/10] – Marvel movies seem to be on a roll this year, whether it’s Marvel Studios, Sony, or Fox in charge. Gunn takes a less-than-popular comic series and turns it into a major blockbuster movie using a great lead actor and a very sharp script, just like Marvel Studios did previously with Captain America and Iron Man. I’m interested to see how the plot of this movie is going to fit in with the rest of the MCU.

Boyhood (Richard Linklater) [10/10] – This ambitious project made over the course of 11 years could have been a gimmicky mess. Instead, it is a movie about exactly what it claims to be about – boyhood. The movie documents the life of a fictional boy named Mason from the time he’s about 8 years old and in elementary school until he’s 18 and in college. The movie had to be made over an 11 year period because Mason was played by one actor, Ellar Coltrane, and they had to wait for him to grow through his boyhood years to shoot the scenes set during those specific periods.

August

Birdman (Alejandro Inarrito) [8/10] – Technically this movie came out in August, but I didn’t see it until late October. It was very hyped up by the people on various movie-based discussion forums I frequent as one of the greatest movies ever made. I found it to be technically impressive and very well-acted, but the plot meanders. I think this movie is aimed at people who appreciate film making and metacinema, which I do, but it probably doesn’t do much for anyone else.

September

The Maze Runner (Wes Ball) [6/10] – Another decent adaptation of a decent young adult novel makes its way onto the screen. I like the premise of this movie, and I found the book to be a bit better than some of the other popular series at the moment. However, the shortcuts taken in the adaptation make for a movie that probably doesn’t make much sense to non-readers. Some characters were strangely overlooked despite being important in the rest of the book series, and one incredibly important plot point is completely disregarded, which makes me wonder how they plan to proceed with the inevitable sequels.

October

Gone Girl (David Fincher) [10/10] – This is a perfect example of why I love movies. It has everything I want from a tense psychological thriller. The motivations of each of the characters are fresh and interesting. The development of the plot through the eyes of the two main characters running parallel to each other create a bunch of great moments of dramatic irony. The multiple twists and turns the story makes are all well-crafted. At the time of this writing (11/18), Gone Girl is my favorite movie of the year.

Dear White People (Justin Simien) [9/10] – I love movies about school life, school politics, students, and teachers. Dear White People is about a few different people at an Ivy League school that don’t really fit in – whether for their skin color, sexual orientation, place of origin, or parental heritage. The complex interrelationships of these characters with the underlying racial tensions clashing with traditional Ivy League values is handled with a deft hand by Simien. Unfortunately, many people are going to be turned off by the title, but I encourage anyone of any skin color to watch the movie.

November

Interstellar (Christopher Nolan) [9/10] – This is another stunning, epic film from Nolan. As a fan of some of his work but not all of it, I was surprised by one thing above all: Christopher Nolan can actually direct something with some feeling and emotion in it. I never thought I would care about a sarcastic robot that looks like a Kit-Kat bar, but I did. The movie is not perfect, and I understand why some people may not like it or may want to not like it because it’s hip to hate what’s popular, but I will probably watch this movie at least a couple more times. I recommend for the full experience to see it at a real Imax theater such as the one at Navy Pier in Chicago.

Big Hero 6 (Don Hall) [7/10] – What would you get if you crossed The Incredibles with anime? The answer is Big Hero 6, a story about a super genius 14-year old who has his ludicrously advanced technology stolen from him, so he uses more ludicrous technology to make his group of college aged friends as well as a medical robot into superheroes to find the guy who stole it and take it back but absolutely unbelievably does not give himself any special abilities beyond slightly magnetic pads to hold on tight to the robot. I like the movie. It’s fun and has a great visual style, but I wouldn’t choose it over How to Train Your Dragon 2 as my pick for action-packed movie for kids.

December

Movies I haven’t yet had a chance to see

Foxcatcher

Nightcrawler

Boxtrolls

The Imitation Game

Rosewater

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Pt. 1

The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies

The Gambler

Top Five

Under the Skin

Goodbye to Language

Winter Sleep