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The 8 Ball 7.01.14: Top 8 Films of 2014 (So Far)
Posted by Jeremy Thomas on 07.01.2014

Welcome, one and all, to the 8 Ball in the Movie Zone! I'm your host Jeremy Thomas and as always, we will be tackling a topic and providing you the top eight selections of that particular category. Keep in mind that this list is meant to be my personal opinion and not a definitive list. You're free to disagree; you can even say my list is wrong, but stating that an opinion is "wrong" is just silly. With that in mind, let's get right in to it!

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Top 8 Movies of 2014 (So Far)

Hello and welcome to the 8 Ball folks! It's the middle of the year as of today; June has crossed over to July and that means it's time for our Mid-Year in Review! The review started on Saturday with the best albums of the year thus far and now we're onto the best in film in the first six months. 2014 has been an interesting year for movies, with some definite lows but impressive highs as well. We'll be looking at those highs, because we're optimists here at 8 Ball Headquarters. Indeed we are.

Caveat: If the film was released in 2014, it was eligible. Pretty straight-forward. Only minor caveat is that I haven't seen everything released this year and there are some films such as Enemy, Nymphomaniac, Only Lovers Left Alive, 22 Jump Street and How to Train Your Dragon 2 that I could have seen conceivably make the list. For the record, I've seen 56 films released so far this year, if anyone is curious.

Just Missing The Cut

Knights of Badassdom
Veronica Mars
Bad Words

#8: Godzilla

For decades, audiences have dreamed of Hollywood doing Godzilla right. And for almost two of those decades, audiences have dreaded Hollywood delivering another kaiju-sized disaster like Roland Emmerich's atrocious 1998 mess. Luckily, a studio finally managed to capture Godzilla's essence in a true big-budget blockbuster. Gareth Edward's American reboot of the King of Monsters may not have enough of the big guy in it to satisfy everyone, but it is a thrilling and thoroughly enjoyable popcorn film all the same.

The film's strengths lie in several places, but first and foremost is Edwards' direction. The director follows up on his own giant monster film Monsters by keeping the same sensibility despite the massive budget. Max Borenstein's script isn't perfect, but smartly balances the human characters with the kaiju and allows us to care about the former while not losing sight of the latter. Godzilla and his enemies are the stars and the humans are just there for us to identify with and accomplish some side missions, which is perfect. The performances are at least decent all around; the best come from Bryan Cranston, Kan Watanabe and Juliette Binoche who are all excellent. But Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, David Straitharn and Sally Hawkins are all fine as well. The film plays things serious but allows for some good humor moments and Godzilla himself is remarkably faithful to the source. Godzilla is one of the better popcorn films of the year so far and well-worth watching.

#7: The LEGO Movie

Unexpectedly fun and surprisingly smart, The LEGO Movie was the first real pleasant surprise of 2014. That's not to say I was expecting to dislike this; rather, it's a statement about how well Phil Lord and Chris Miller succeeded. The writing and directing team assembled a smart and funny script that appeals to both adults and children while managing to be a little bit subversive, fresh and even throw a few fun surprises in for good measure. The themes and basic story structure are familiar but not generic, and it always works thanks to consistently funny and sharp dialogue.

The characters of Emmet and Wyldstyle may be minifigures, but they're fleshed out better than most of your animated film characters (or even live-action comedy characters) today. Supporting characters such as Vetruvius, Lord Business, Batman, Good Cop/Bad Cop and more add their own elements of humor in and the voice work by all involved is sensational, with Liam Neeson being a particular standout. The visuals are impressively polished and yet carry the charming, low-fi feel of other LEGO animated projects, which works very well. What really elevates The LEGO Movie above the bar to shine, however, is its heart. A live-action sequence toward the end of the film is incredibly well-done and adds some real emotion to what we've seen up to that point, and the work by all involved gets us invested in the stakes of the film. The bar was set high early for 2014's animated films here.

#6: Under the Skin

Unconventional, disturbing and thought-provoking, Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin is not a film that will just be quickly banished from your mind whether you like it or hate it. Glazer has been working on adapting Michel Faber's alien psychosexual novel for some time, with a long time reportedly spent in the editing room to get it right. It is no insult to say that he doesn't quite succeed because he still manages to hit many of the right notes with a visceral movie with striking visuals and a fantastic performance by Scarlett Johansson. Johansson is one of the masters at balancing her blockbuster work with more artsy fare, and as the unnamed (not quite) woman who lures Scottish men to their deaths she is stunning here. It's a muted performance but it's all the more powerful because of it.

Glazer is adept at visuals, something we've seen before both in Sexy Beast and Birth. There are many striking images here but they aren't just thrown together for no real reason; they form a fascinating tale that explores the concepts of humanity and isolation. This film will not be for everyone and is sure to polarize; many things aren't answered and that will irritate many. But for those who like an unconventional take, Under the Skin is a great little sci-fi film.

#5: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson is a very particular type of artist, and it takes a very particular type of person to enjoy them. I am one of those particular types. So it comes as no surprise that I deeply enjoyed The Grand Budapest Hotel, a film that presents all of Anderson's best traits as a filmmaker and few of his flaws. The tale, which is inspired by the writings of Stefan Zweig, is a wonderfully creative story that draws you into its world and charms you into accepting the quirky comedic fugitive caper for the joy that it is.

Anderson's strongest attribute has always been his visual style, and that is certainly on display here. I would go so far as to say that this is his most visually striking live-action film; several of the images will stay with you for quite a while, whether the tied-up Mendl's pastry boxes or the wonderful shot of our heroes at an observatory in the snow, Jeff Goldblum's lawyer racing from an assassin through a darkened museum room of armor and more. His writing here is its typically idiosyncratic style but there's an accessibility that his earlier films lacked. It doesn't quite have the sharpness of Moonrise Kingdom but it isn't far off the mark either. The characters are interesting without being pastiches and the performances are uniformly excellent. If The Grand Budapest Hotel isn't Anderson's best work, it at least falls within the top 3 and is the best indie drama thus far in 2014.

#4: Edge of Tomorrow

First and foremost, it must be said: Edge of Tomorrow is the funniest action blockbuster of the year. That's not a backhanded compliment suggesting that it's laughably bad or silly; this one is legitimately funny. What's more, it accomplishes the rare feat of having humor in a sci-fi action film without it seeming forced or out of place. Doug Liman's film based on the Hiroshi Sakurazaka All You Need is Kill is the most unexpectedly good film of the year so far, surpassing my (and many others') expectations. Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt are fabulous as two soldiers in a near-future war against an alien race and they make a potent team both in and out of action scenes. Much of the rest of the cast is great as well including Bill Paxton, Noah Taylor, Brendan Gleeson and others. They all contribute and make their characters the fullest that they can in a film that really makes the most out of every second of its running time.

That economy of quality is impressively achieved by Liman, who delivers his best directorial effort since The Bourne Identity. In fact, this equals that one and may even top it. The war scenes are amazingly shot and feel gritty and chaotic. Even with very CGI'd aliens everywhere, the whole thing just feels very real and you never get taken out of the film by a single unconvincing visual effect. The film avoids most suspension of disbelief problems because as long as you can get past the concept (which shouldn't be hard), all of the "that's so implausible" heroics actually make perfect since as the heroes have had dozens, maybe hundreds of times to try it. Cruise makes the transition of William Cage from craven PR man to bad-ass soldier believable and Emily Blunt's Rita Vrataski is one of the better heroines to come around in a long time. There is nary a missed slip in this blockbuster, which even subtlety touches on certain social and pop culture commentary themes quite nicely. Edge of Tomorrow may not be an all-time blockbuster champion in terms of grosses but it's one of the better ones to come around in a while.

#3: The Raid 2: Berandal

Anyone who saw the Indonesian action extravaganza that was The Raid: Redemption had to be looking forward to its sequel. I certainly was, even if I didn't think that it could be topped. Gareth Evans' 2011 martial arts-infused epic was an action-lover's dream, full of stunning sequences and just enough story to make it engaging as more than just an extended orgy of violence. I didn't think that a sequel was necessary and I had a pretty good idea that Evans couldn't outdo himself, but I still wanted to see the film regardless.

And as it turned out I was wrong; Evans actually did manage to improve on the first film by upping the stakes and throwing in a more interesting story as well. The film builds off the previous one by giving Iko Uwais' Rama a revenge storyline and putting him undercover with one of the crime families of Jakarta. The acting is very good, not only by Uwais but also Arifin Putra as Uco, Alex Abbad as up-and-coming gangster Bejo, Cok Simbara as Rama's boss Bunawar and more. But the action and the story aren't the primary appeals of course; people come to The Raid films looking for fantastic action and Evans delivers on an even more epic scale than he did the first time around. A prison yard battle royale is stunningly choreographed and thrilling and the battles featuring Julie Estelle's Hammer Girl are stunning and brutal. In terms of pure action films, I can't think of a single film in years that even comes close to delivering at the level of The Raid 2. Evans is taking a break from the franchise but has said he'll be back with The Raid 3 in a few years and how he'll top this, I don't possibly know. But I'm certainly looking forward to finding out.

#2: X-Men: Days of Future Past

The X-Men franchise has been fighting for its credibility for almost a decade now. The Fox-produced Marvel franchise was one of the first to truly get superhero films right in this current "Golden Age" of the genre with the Bryan Singer-directed first two entries, but X-Men: The Last Stand badly lost its way and X-Men Origins: Wolverine dragged the whole thing even further down. Ground was made up by Matthew Vaughn's X-Men: First Class but to truly make its way back, Fox had to turn to the man who got them off on the right foot in the first place in Singer. X-Men: Days of Future Past accomplishes everything that the failed films couldn't. It successfully juggles a massive cast without making any of them feel shoehorned in unlike The Last Stand and takes on two very different tones (past and future, in this case) in a way that X-Men Origins couldn't with its origin drama and action spectacular. The script by Simon Kinberg nails all the right beats, treating its characters like actual people and not just action chess pieces while the themes of mutant persecution are put back in the forefront nicely.

It's strange to say this about what is essentially an action franchise, but what really makes Days of Future Past shine are the characterizations and performances. Jennifer Lawrence, Hugh Jackman, Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, Peter Dinklage and the rest bring their skills nicely while Evan Peters becomes the latest breakout star of the franchise with his supporting turn as Quicksilver. Singer does fantastic work with the special effects, whether it is Quicksilver's big scene or Fan Bingbing's Blink making enthralling use of her teleportation abilities. What's more, without spoiling anything this film literally fixes almost any problem you may have had with the franchise up to this point. Singer's return to the franchise is an amazing one and the redemption of the X-Men films is complete.

#1: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

There are some people who were not entirely enamored of Marvel's early Phase Two films, taking issue with Iron Man 3 and Thor: the Dark World for various reasons. I am not one of those people, but I understand why they might feel that way. Whether you fall on the side of the Phase Two doubters or lovers, it's hard to deny that Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the best of this run of MCU films to date. The latest in Steve Rogers' saga smartly fuses elements of espionage thrillers to Cap's more real-world grounded nature to create an exciting and intriguing film that most people will be able to enjoy.

Now, notice that the words I used were "elements of espionage thrillers." This is not a 1970s political thriller masquerading as a superhero film the way it was billed, but that's fine. The overtones are there and that's all we need, helped along by the performances. Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson continue to shine as Cap and Black Widow and their chemistry is undeniable without the need to throw in the tired "will they or won't they" bit. It's nice to see a Marvel film where the female role isn't there to be a love interest; only the slightest element of that is included thanks to Emily VanCamp's Agent 13. VanCamp is fine in that minor role, by the way. Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Samuel L. Jackson, Frank Grillo and especially Robert Redford bring the goods for their respective roles as well.

What surprised me the most was how well the action worked. That's not to say I had doubt in Marvel, but Anthony and Joe Russo are newcomers to action films and the work they do with the action scenes is fantastic. The film is thrilling and while there is an occasional preponderance of quick cut action, it's kept fairly restrained. Instead they allow the action to unfold as naturally as possible. I honestly didn't believe I would say this before seeing it, but this is officially the second-best Marvel Cinematic Universe film behind only The Avengers and, in my estimation, the best film of 2014 thus far.

Disguise of the Episode

Current Series/Season: Season One (2001 - 2002)
Episodes Watched: 18
Last Serial Completed: Masquerade - While on a case to track the activities of Khasinau, Sydney runs into her ex-lover, Noah Hicks, who broke her heart and left without saying goodbye five years earlier. Meanwhile, Sydney tells Sloane that she wants to find her mother; Jack is ordered to see a CIA psychiatrist to help him deal with his churning emotions after discovering that his wife may still be alive. Will and Francie become suspicious of Sydney's activities after finding one of her airline ticket stubs.
Episodes Remaining: 87

And that will do it for us this week! Join me next week for another edition of the 8-Ball! Until then, have a good week and don't forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at 411mania.com! JT out.


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