Top 10 Movies of 2014

2014 was a great year for independent film. Every single one of my Top 10 movies was an “indie” release. The highest grossing was The Imitation Game with $61 million as of today. And the lowest grossing was Breathe In with a paltry $90,000 at the U.S. box office…truly a shame for such a great movie. A Most Violent Year and Locke made just over a million dollars each. So while I loved these films, hardly anyone else saw them. Cinema is in a tough transition right now with very few films in the middle. It’s either multi-hundred million dollar franchise/superhero films, or small indie films. I’m hoping that eventually this cycle reaches it’s inevitable conclusion and we get back to the full range of stories being told. In the meantime, I’ll let the movies below speak for themselves. You can read my brief reviews of the films by clicking on their names below and you can see my #11 thru #20 films on my Letterboxd list.

10. Boyhood  (4 stars)

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9. Wild  (4 stars)

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8. A Most Wanted Man  (4 stars)

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7. Whiplash  (4 stars)

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6. Chef  (4 stars)

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5. Breathe In  (4 stars)

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4. Love Is Strange  (4 stars)

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3. The Imitation Game  (4 stars)

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2. Locke  (4 stars)

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1. A Most Violent Year  (4.5 stars)

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Top 10 Directors

Seemed like it was time to commit to a list of my favorite film directors. #11 was Ron Howard, who just missed the list. It’s hard to leave off the genius behind Apollo 13 and Backdraft. But I had to get Terrence Malick on there for his incredible work with The Thin Red Line, The Tree of Life, and Days of Heaven. I’m pretty sure Kathryn Bigelow would be in my 11-20 rankings of directors for her stunning work with Point Break and Zero Dark Thirty. Eventually I’ll have to expand this list to a Top 25 to more fully recognize all the great influential directors out there.

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Top 10 Movies of 2013

2013 was a memorable year for movies, with a lot of great stories told. But not a single “perfect” 5-star movie for me. It’s the only year since the 1970’s that I don’t currently have at least one 5-star film for the year. That’s kind of surprising to me now that I know about it. I’ve seen 60 movies that were released in 2013 so far, but none of them grabbed me as being worthy of 5 stars…at least not yet. Maybe one or more of these films will move up at some point down the road, which has happened for other years. But I’ll settle for the 40 great to outstanding films I saw in the 3.5 to 4.5 star range for now. That’s probably better than most years.

My Top 10 is an eclectic mix of mainstream and indie films that range in box office receipts from $800 thousand to $800 million. So there’s probably at least one movie that you saw and one movie that you didn’t see. It’s exciting to see movie making at every level each year, bringing small films that surprise me at the last minute along with blockbusters that are expected years in advance. 3 of my Top 10 Most Anticipated Movies of 2013 actually made it on this list: Man of Steel, Mud, and 12 Years a Slave. Most of the other films I anticipated were very good, but they just weren’t good enough for this list. With all of this said, on to the list:

10.  Ain’t Them Bodies Saints  (4 stars)

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9.  The Hunger Games: Catching Fire  (4 stars)

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8.  Kill Your Darlings  (4 stars)

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7.  Prisoners  (4 stars)

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6.  Man of Steel  (4 stars)

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5.  Mud  (4 stars)

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4.  Captain Phillips  (4 stars)

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3.  12 Years a Slave  (4 stars)

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2.  Disconnect  (4.5 stars)

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1.  Before Midnight  (4.5 stars)

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The best and most surprising movie watching experience of 2013 for me was the “Before” Trilogy of movies from writer/director Richard Linklater. I had not seen either of the first 2 films, Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004), until a few weeks ahead of the release of Before Midnight in May. They just weren’t on my radar of interest until I saw the trailer for Before Midnight and heard the buzz out of Sundance. So I rented the first 2 films on DVD from Netflix and got to work. Before Sunrise was great (4 stars). But it was Before Sunset (4.5 stars) that really grabbed me emotionally and then made me appreciate Before Sunrise even more. And Before Midnight (4.5 stars) just cemented the trilogy into my heart and head forever. There’s something about these 2 characters, Jesse and Celine, as played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, that just capture something very real and human. Their relationship has gone through a roller coaster ride over 18 years and it’s amazing to see these actors age on screen and off in these roles and develop their lives as these characters and as actors. There’s really no other series of movies quite like the Before Trilogy. And that’s a big part of why Before Midnight is my #1 movie of 2013. It was a coin toss between Disconnect and Before Midnight, but I went with Before Midnight because of the weight of all 3 movies connecting with me.

Disconnect is a greatly under appreciated film that has been completely overlooked by critics during the end of year awards. Which is extremely sad to me because it’s both classic in terms of good storytelling and modern in its plot details and execution. The cinematography, music and performances in Disconnect are among the best of the year. Jason Bateman is fantastic as a frazzled father of a son who attempts suicide. And the rest of the ensemble cast deliver standout characters that feel fully alive and fleshed out as real human beings. Disconnect is the film I wish Crash (2004) had been.

As for the rest of my list, each film featured great scenes with incredible cinematic experiences. All 10 of these movies are stories I will definitely revisit over the years and experience again. And maybe, just maybe, one or two of these will endear themselves to me in a way that elevates them to “perfect” status with 5 stars. That’s the beauty of movies…the best ones almost always get better over time.

 

Top 10 Movies of 2005

Solid movies from 2005. All are easily re-watchable and have improved with age.

10.  Hitch  (4 stars)

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9.  Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith  (4 stars)

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8.  Two For the Money  (4 stars)

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7.  Munich  (4 stars)

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6.  Batman Begins  (4 stars)

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5.  Prime  (4 stars)

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4.  A History of Violence  (4 stars)

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3.  The New World  (4 stars)

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2.  Cinderella Man  (4.5 stars)

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1.  Brokeback Mountain  (5 stars)

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While Crash (2005) won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2005, I know I’m not alone in championing Brokeback Mountain as the better film of the two. I like Crash and have given it 3.5 stars out of 5. But in my opinion it’s not in the same league as Brokeback. I’m definitely due to re-watch Crash since I haven’t seen it in over 5 years and I’m curious to see how it stands up now, almost a decade later. But I know that Brokeback Mountain stands up extremely well because I’ve re-watched it several times over the years, most recently in its upgraded Blu-ray format, where it really sings in terms of its cinematography, sound, music and production design…not to mention Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal’s performances. I didn’t love Brokeback initially as much as I do now. It’s a subtle, dark and sad movie that’s hard to really love at first. Looking back on Ledger’s sadly short career though, this is the performance I wish he had earned his acting Oscar for. I think it’s his best performance, with his role as the Joker in The Dark Knight (2008) next, and then as William Thatcher in A Knight’s Tale (2001).

The bottom line is that director Ang Lee made Brokeback Mountain at a time when nobody really wanted a mainstream “gay” movie, let alone a “gay cowboy” movie starring two straight leading Hollywood men. He broke down the walls of what a good love story could be, making Brokeback a movie that can appeal to anyone of any sexual orientation. It’s a testament to Lee’s incredible craftsmanship and commitment to telling great stories that he went around all the stereotypes that could have made this film a disaster, and focused instead on the characters of Jack and Ennis, humanizing them and helping us expand the boundaries of true love.

Top 10 Movies of 2012

Even though we’re a month into 2013, it usually takes me that long to catch up with and finish the movies from the previous year, as well as wait for them to be released in my local theaters. I like to see all the movies that I want to see and that I feel I should see (from critic’s POV’s) to fairly weigh in on my Top 10 Movies of any year.

I rate and rank movies both from my perspective and the perspective many critics take of what movies are important and relevant to cinema as an art form and “should” be seen by others. But to try and rate and rank movies without my personal bias for or against a film, as frivolous as that may be sometimes, seems like a completely fruitless exercise. At the end of the day, movies are EXTREMELY PERSONAL to each and every human being, and there’s no way to be some sort of unbiased critic picking “the best” movies for any other person or for the cinematic art form as a whole. So this Top 10 is and always will be my Top 10.

As of the writing of this post, I’ve seen 67 movies released in the U.S. in 2012, most of them in the theater on the big screen. And here are my Top 10 from that selection:

10.  The Perks of Being a Wallflower  (4 stars)

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9.  The Master  (4 stars)

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8.  Robot & Frank  (4 stars)

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7.  Skyfall  (4 stars)

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6.  The Hunger Games  (4 stars)

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5.  Safety Not Guaranteed  (4 stars)

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4.  Argo  (4 stars)

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3.  The Impossible  (4.5 stars)

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2.  The Dark Knight Rises  (5 stars)

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1.  Zero Dark Thirty  (5 stars)

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I’ve been torn between Zero Dark Thirty and The Dark Knight Rises as my #1 movie of 2012 for the last month. Flip-flopping back and forth between the two. And that’s the main reason this post is coming out now, seemingly so “late” in the season. The Dark Knight Rises was the only film seriously vying for the top of my list since I saw it twice in July. I kept waiting and waiting for a “better” and more “serious”, “critically important” movie to top it. It seemed like I shouldn’t have The Dark Knight Rises at the top of my list for so many reasons: it wasn’t as great as the two in the trilogy before it to most people (although I like it the best of the three), I’m 39 years old and shouldn’t love a superhero movie so much, I’m a serious dramatic character-driven movie fan, etc. But I flat-out loved the experience I had of seeing, hearing and feeling The Dark Knight Rises in digital IMAX twice this past Summer. It simply grabbed me so viscerally and emotionally and never let go. I still need to watch it a third time in my home theater to see if it holds up as well on the small screen. But on the big screen, it’s hard to beat in so many ways!

I’ve seen Zero Dark Thirty twice on the big screen as well. And the last 30 minutes of that movie are some of the best in movies, period. And now I’ve settled on Zero Dark Thirty as my #1 movie of 2012 because I think it has one little thing going for it that The Dark Knight Rises does not: the real history of the events at the center of the story (regardless of their supposed level of accuracy). While both movies have incredible villains at their core, there’s some kind of gravitas to ZDT’s hunt for Bin Laden in response to the terrible tragedy of 9/11. It just grabs me as being so relevant to my own life and the lives of everyone on the planet, which took a dramatic turn for different because of that event. The Dark Knight Rises is very relevant too, in a more abstract way. But over time, I predict Zero Dark Thirty will be a movie I choose to re-watch more than The Dark Knight Rises, and that is always a factor in ranking my films, as “arbitrary” and personal as it may be.

As always, there were a number or great movies that didn’t make this list of 10…at least not yet! Over time, a couple might sneak in…you never know. Here are 15 other movies that were in considered for this Top 10 and round out what would be my Top 25 Movies of 2012:

11. End of Watch  (4 stars)
12. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel  (3.5 stars)
13. Lincoln  (3.5 stars)
14. Prometheus  (3.5 stars)
15. Life of Pi  (3.5 stars)
16. Sound of My Voice  (3.5 stars)
17. Your Sister’s Sister  (3.5 stars)
18. The Lucky One  (3.5 stars)
19. Killing Them Softly  (3.5 stars)
20. Promised Land  (3.5 stars)
21. The Bourne Legacy  (3.5 stars)
22. Flight  (3.5 stars)
23. Jiro Dreams of Sushi  (3.5 stars)
24. The Grey  (3.5 stars)
25. Lawless  (3.5 stars)

Top 10 Most Anticipated Movies of 2013

(Updated January 26, 2013)

One of my favorite activities every January is to start anticipating the movies I want to see in the new year. It’s always tough to narrow it down to just 10, but I took the 25 or so that have been on my mind here and there as I’ve heard about them, and narrowed it down to these. I’m sure this list will change slightly as movies get pushed to 2014, or trailers come out that disappoint. Or simply new films come on to my radar that I missed or didn’t know about. But regardless, as of the first day of 2013, here are the 10 movies I can’t wait to see this year.

10. The Place Beyond the Pines

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After repeated viewings and continually increasing appreciation for Blue Valentine (2010), I’ve been highly anticipating writer/director Derek Cianfrance’s next feature film. With Ryan Gosling starring again and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt bringing his extraordinary eye to the visuals of this film, The Place Beyond the Pines has all the right ingredients to be a small independent masterpiece of cinema.

9. At Any Price

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The story and actors Zac Efron and Dennis Quaid are what have me anxiously awaiting this small indie that premiered at the Venice Film Festival last year. It’s gotten mixed reviews form the festival circuit, but I’m still hopeful and very interested.

8. Mud

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Mud was on my list for Most Anticipated Movies of Fall 2012, but it didn’t get released, so here it is on this year’s list. It now has an official release date scheduled for April. While I didn’t fall head-over-heels in love with Take Shelter (2011), I did like it and I really appreciate the filmmaking and style of writer/director Jeff Nichols. Combined with Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan from The Tree of Life (2011) and an intriguing story, this one looks like it could be the right fit for me.

7. All Is Lost

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After writer/director J.C. Chandor’s perfect feature film debut with Margin Call (2011), my #1 movie of 2011, whatever project he created next was going to be highly anticipated by me. With Robert Redford starring in this interesting story idea, it’s definitely on this list for 2013. I just hope the film gets released this year and I don’t have to wait until 2014!

6. The Wolf of Wall Street

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I just mentioned how I loved Margin Call (2011), so it should be no surprise that this financial thriller directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo DiCaprioJonah Hill, and Matthew McConaughey, is high on my list for this new year.

5. Twelve Years a Slave

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This is just an amazing combination of artistic and creative filmmaking forces combined with an intriguing and potentially controversial subject matter. Just like Shame (2011), writer/director Steve McQueen’s incredible and fantastic dark look at the modern male sex psyche. Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender…what an incredible pairing of actors. Throw in Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Paul Dano for what could be a fantasy five of acting talent. And once again, cinematographer Sean Bobbitt and McQueen are working together to create what I’m sure will be stunning visuals. I simply can’t wait to see what comes out of this collaboration.

4. To The Wonder

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I have a love-hate relationship with writer/director Terrence Malick…probably like most cinephiles. I always HIGHLY anticipate with GINORMOUS expectations every single project his name gets attached to from the very moment of conception. Then I see the film and it’s not exactly what I expected. I’m kind of disappointed. Then I ponder it for awhile. I try to figure out its pandora’s box like puzzle of a narrative and its deeper meaning. I struggle with the fact that he doesn’t use as much dialog as I wanted. I Admire it’s incredible visuals, music, editing, production design, and craftsmanlike details. And I gradually fall more and more in love with it until I can’t wait for his next creation. I predict the same for To The Wonder, starring Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Rachel McAdams, and Javier Bardem. The first peak at the trailer didn’t inspire me enough…and yet now it does. The mixed reviews from the Cannes Film Festival disappointed me…but I’m ignoring them. The news that there’s even less dialog and structure than The Tree of Life (2011) scared me…and yet I remember how much I now love that film and its focus on feelings. So here I am again, despite all of the negativity, highly anticipating the release of another Malick Masterpiece. I guess I’m a glutton for punishment. And yet I write that with a smile on my face!

3. The Counselor

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All I need is “A Ridley Scott Film” and I’m in. Simply one of my Top 10 directors of all time. And just like director Steve McQueen, Scott has chosen to pair Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender in this curious Cormac McCarthy scripted story. And with Javier Bardem attached as well, I just can’t wait to see what happens.

2. The Monuments Men

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George Clooney writing and directing with this tagline: “In a race against time, a crew of art historians and museum curators unite to recover renown works of art stolen by Nazis before Hitler destroys them.” Starring Matt Damon, Daniel Craig, Cate Blanchett, George Clooney, Bill Murray, and John Goodman. Unless Clooney takes this in a very comedic direction like Ocean’s Eleven (2001), this has the potential of being an absolutely incredible WWII drama. It’s kind of like Saving Private Ryan (1998) meets Raider of the Lost Ark (1981). With 007 thrown in. Who wouldn’t be HIGHLY anticipating this film?

1. Man of Steel

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When I first heard that director Zach Snyder was going to reboot the Superman franchise after the miserable failure that was Superman Returns (2006), I sighed a big groan of “Uggghhhh!”. I was not ready for another butchering of the beloved man of steel series so soon. While I loved his graphic novel approach to ancient history in 300 (2006), I did not want another fanboy comic-book style version of a super hero story brought to the screen. I wanted a realistic and serious dramatic look at Clark Kent via Christopher Nolan’s style for the recent Dark Knight Trilogy, mixed with a bit of what Alfred Gough and Miles Millar brought to the table via Tom Welling and John Schneider in the Smallville TV series (at least in its early seasons). While I adore the original Superman movies with Christopher Reeve and Gene Hackman, they do feel awfully campy and light 30 years later, even though they have a serious & dark dramatic edge as well.

But news of the casting of British actor Henry Cavill gave me my first ray of hope that this reboot effort could work out under Snyder’s vision. Cavill just seemed like the perfect pick for Superman to me. Combined with a story written by David S. Goyer, the casting of Diane Lane as Clark’s earthly mother Martha Kent, Kevin Costner as Clark’s earthly father Jonathan Kent, and Russell Crowe as Clark’s Kryptonian father Jor-El, and things were magically coming together the way I wanted them to. And to top it all off, the story was bringing back my favorite Superman enemy, General Zod, played by the fantastic Michael Shannon.

But even with all of these positives on paper, we’ve seen this kind of scenario fail so many times. The first teaser trailer really got me believing though. And now the first full trailer has me completely believing that Man of Steel could be what I’m looking for. Both trailers  focus on the emotional character and development of Clark Kent into Superman, much to the chagrin it seems of today’s young fanboys. But for me, as a middle-aged fanboy, this is what I want paired with what will surely be incredible action and fight scenes. I want to get into the conflicted feelings of Clark that are most certainly a part of how he becomes the alien super hero that we call out for in times of need. Director Richard Donner touched on this in his original Superman (1978) and Superman II (1980) especially.

Man of Steel is still nearly 6 months away and my expectations are now sky high, so we’ll see what happens. But the 12-year old boy within the 39-year old adult me is really hoping that Man of Steel puts Superman back on top, which will be hard to do considering The Dark Knight Trilogy put Batman there very solidly. After completely loving Christopher Nolan’s close to his Batman series, The Dark Knight Rises (2012), that film is now my #1 super hero movie of all time, beating out Superman and Superman II which reigned supreme for over 30 years.

Other Movies I Considered for this Top 10:

2013 looks to be a pretty spectacular year for film. The potential is there as you can see in the 10 movies above. In addition to these 10 that made my list, there were another 15 or so that were very close contenders:

The Green Blade Rises
Star Trek Into Darkness
Parkland
The Great Gatsby
Elysium
Runner Runner
Captain Phillips
Labor Day
Ender’s Game
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Jack Ryan
The Company You Keep
Nymphomaniac
The East
The Zero Thereom
Kill Your Darlings
Jobs
After Earth

And there are ALWAYS the big and small movies that completely take us all by surprise. Personally, I can’t wait to dig in to 2013 at the cinema.