Friday, January 02, 2015

The Bottom 5 Worst Films of 2014

1) TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES You know you’re in deep trouble when you find yourself longing for the artful touch of Michael Bay… Taking the Emperor Palpatine-like producer’s chair for this wretchedly shrill, mean-spirited and crass exercise in nostalgia-baiting, the Transformers mastermind instead hands the directorial reigns to Clash of the Titans/Battle: Los Angeles “visionary” Jonathan Liebesman, who tries and miserably fails to ape his obnoxiously cynical – but technically proficient! - overlord. A revolting sewage-scented toxic waste pile of ugly effects, creepy misogyny, cringe-inducing stabs at humor and unimaginative, tedious martial arts combat, this update is utterly without merit (okay, pointlessly wasted co-star William Fichtner’s super-lame April pun gets a quarter of a point) and serves only to provoke fond post-viewing critical reevaluations of 1993’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III. Forget the three-hour Transformers: Age of Extinction, last year’s most punishing endurance test was making it through this thing’s 90 soul-blackening minutes without praying for a quick death by katana blade.

2) LEFT BEHIND – Hands down, the most consistently hilarious bad movie of 2014! This ultra-earnest second cinematic adaptation (the first was a 2000 Kirk Cameron cheapie) of the popular Christian rapture book series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins plays like a tone-deaf, campy mash-up of lousy TV soap opera and the goofy 1970 disaster epic Airport. Aspiring to achieve faith-based crossover success, Left Behind 2.0, helmed by legendary stuntman/second unit director Vic Armstrong, instead only manages to earn the sad, albeit notable, distinction of being the worst entry on Nicolas Cage’s problematic filmography (and the only one to feature a little person being kicked down a slide unironically!). Watching his lifeless, dreary performance – set predominantly in a plane cockpit that recalls Plan 9 from Outer Space – it’s impossible not to feel the once-and-still-great actor’s burning desire to join many of his onscreen colleagues in vanishing altogether.

3) I, FRANKENSTEIN – It ain’t easy to make the Underworld and Resident Evil franchises look like masterworks of genre genius by comparison but, man alive, does this rotting, mindless Aaron Eckhart-in-mascara vehicle come damn close! Based on a graphic novel that’s never actually been printed (shocker!), Stuart Beattie’s ghastly angels vs. demons action dud reimagines Mary Shelley’s classic creation as a ripped, middle-aged, hoodie-wearing emo dude named Adam who beats evil-doers up with sticks. A punishing, imagination-deficient demo reel of crappy CG overkill, I, Frankenstein is, fittingly, a lurching, patched together horror show driven by an idiot’s brain.

4) TRANSCENDENCE – This cyber-thriller slog-a-thon aims to be a grounded, cerebral Christopher Nolan-esque cinematic headtrip, yet really only inspires migraines from sheer boredom. Featuring a cheque-cashing Johnny Depp as an AI specialist who, following an assassination attempt, has his consciousness uploaded into a computer and starts going all Lawnmower Man on fools, Transcendence struggles incompetently throughout its run-time to outsmart even the dimmest members of its audience. First time helmer Wally Pfister – Nolan’s long-time master cinematographer – may be a genius at composing breathtaking shots (though not here, strangely), however as a storyteller he displays all the power and capability of a broken down Commodore 64.

5) WINTER’S TALE – Many thought Mark Helprin’s much loved 1983 time-travelling fairy tale romance unfilmmable. Turns out, they were really, really right! Of course, Akiva Goldsman – the Oscar-winning writer of A Beautiful Mind, and hacky scribe behind Batman and Robin, Lost in Space and I Am Legend – probably wasn’t the man to try. His directorial debut is a deeply silly, confusing and glacier-paced checklist of corny fantasy epic tropes devoid of coherence or directorial vision. That stars Colin Farrell and Jessica Brown Findlay escape with dignity intact (even after riding a flying horse that everyone calls a dog for some reason) is a profound testament to their gifts, as Winter’s Tale is a yawning, frigid void of terrible, adorned in phony starlight, sunshine and gems.      


The Top 10 Best Films of 2014

1) SNOWPIERCER – An anguished howl of rage disguised as post-apocalyptic thrill-packed nightmare, acclaimed Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s gritty, uncompromising and deeply unsettling sci-fi allegory is a revolutionary mission statement against the dehumanizing effects of capitalism. Set in an unspeakably bleak future, the film stars Chris Evans as a resistance leader guiding a cruelly subjugated group of earth’s last inhabitants on a vicious uprising through a hellish unstoppable train that divides its population by social class. Showing an astonishingly hyper-focused eye for world-building detail, black humor (Tilda Swinton, take a bow!) and visceral technical expertise, Joon-ho has engineered a haunting, smart and challenging feel-bad action extravaganza guaranteed to shock and awe. A passionately pure cinematic expression from its first frame to ambiguous last, Snowpiercer is, hands down, the coolest ride of 2014 and an unrelenting, axe-winging juggernaut of slam-bang, "fight the power!" cinematic release.

2) BOYHOOD – Twelve years in the making, Richard Linklater’s follow-up to the suberb Before Midnight, is a miracle of a movie, and maybe even his masterpiece. Chronicling the development of Mason (Ellar Coltrane), a quiet, curious Texas-born kid from ages five to 18, the celebrated writer/director achieves unassumingly profound heights in conveying the transformative journey of childhood and how our relationships shape and form what kind of adult we grown up into. It's a sensitive film of boundless warmth and poignancy - buoyed by fantastically realized, authentic turns by Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke as our lead’s divorced parents - that mesmerizes with its pleasantly relatable every day simplicity. At one point in the picture Mason, out for a walk for his father, inquisitively asks if magic exists in the real world. Watching Boyhood unfold is joyous proof that it does.

3) WHIPLASH – Words just can’t convey the spine-tingling electricity generated by the final moments of writer/director Damien Chazelle’s enthralling indie about one obsessively single-minded drummer’s battle to win over his draconian jazz teacher. Fuelled by the combustible, profane chemistry of dueling stars Miles Teller and a sadistically terrifying J.K. Simmons (give this man the supporting actor Oscar, already!), Whiplash is a superior take on the Rocky-esque underdog story that more than lives up to its title. Although the film poses tough questions about how best to foster artistic virtuosity, Chazelle never leaves an ounce of doubt that he’s in complete and total control of his own pulse-quickening gifts.

4) LIFE ITSELF – Given Roger Ebert’s immeasurable Pulitzer Prize-winning influence in the arena of film criticism, it would have been easy to crank out a superficial, fawning tribute to the man’s brilliance and impact. Thankfully, Steve James, the celebrated director of Hoop Dreams, resisted that urge. Loosely based on the legendary newspaperman’s memoir of the same name, the picture instead offers a warts and all glimpse into the mortal behind the icon, honing in on his industry-changing work, personal triumphs and failings, ravaging illness and the extraordinary marriage that gave him peace and strength. This is a genuinely moving, funny, surprising – the segments recalling Gene Siskel’s swinging single days are jaw-dropping – and perceptive documentary that acts as a majestic testament to both its subject’s legacy and his passionate zest for, well, life itself.
5) NIGHTCRAWLER – Plainly put, no performance last year was as riveting as Jake Gyllenhaal’s unnerving transformation into reptilian sociopath Lou Bloom, the soulless corporate slogan-spouting opportunist driving writer/director Dan Gilroy’s sinister L.A. neo noir. Emaciated, bug-eyed and operating like a detached alien wrapped in human skin, the actor hypnotically disappears into his juicy role as an observant, immoral loner who sets out to conquer the TV news world by capturing the most grotesque footage possible. A near perfect blending of live wire performance and moody, character-focused storytelling (recapturing the spirit of edgy 1970s classics like Network and Taxi Driver), Nightcrawler keeps you precariously on the edge of your seat, trying - yet never quite succeeding - to anticipate which way its unrepentantly slimy protagonist will veer next.   
6) HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 – A sensational family entertainment, this enchanting return trip to the tiny Viking island of Berk matches the first chapter in terms of pure eye-popping exhilaration and wonder, while adding an unexpected layer of darkness. Adapting Cressida Cowell’s best-selling children’s novels, returning writer/director Dean DeBlois has lovingly fashioned another delightful adventure yarn, full of heart and breathtaking sights, which also serves as a refreshingly mature warning about the importance of humane animal treatment and responsible pet ownership. How to Train Your Dragon 2 is also a pitch perfect case study in sequel world expansion done with imagination and wit, opening up intriguing new terrain for Hiccup and Toothless – one of modern cinema’s most winning creature creations – to spread their wings and fly.
7) JODOROWSKY’S DUNE – There’s was never any doubt that Alejandro Jodorowsky, the surrealist Chilean director of such head-tripping hallucinogenic odysseys as El Topo and Holy Mountain, is one odd duck. However, as evidenced by Frank Pavich’s hilarious and engrossing documentary, he’s also a wonderfully engaging storyteller and thoroughly misunderstood visionary. A retrospective look at Jodorowsky’s failed attempt to adapt Frank Herbert’s science-fiction classic “Dune” into a bizarro artistic masterwork in the mid-70s, the film weaves priceless behind-the-scenes anecdotes, insightful critical commentary and page after page of beautiful concept art into an inspirational tale of thwarted genius nevertheless changing the cinematic landscape forever. 

8) INTERSTELLAR – Filmdom’s premiere large scale showman Christopher Nolan may have bitten off a tiny bit more than even he could chew with this dense, sprawling and intensely immersive space-faring epic, but his go-for-broke ambition sure led to one awesomely invigorating trip to the movies! Containing huge sequences of indescribably gripping power, and plenty of emotional pull, Interstellar is an expert work of crowd-pleasing craftsmanship, made with sharp intelligence and an unrestrained dedication to grand sci-fi concepts and innovative motion picture spectacle. There’s a reason Nolan has become a reliable brand name, and this is yet another shining example of the moviemaker at the height of his powers, dreaming unabashedly big and inviting us all to join him on a remarkable and unforgettable trek into the unknown.    
9) DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES – It’s easy to bemoan the modern Hollywood blockbuster-crazy paradigm as being doomsday for riskiness in filmmaking. However, as long as canny artistic voices like Matt Reeves are able to smuggle their ideas into tentpole studio projects, interesting and complex pictures will emerge from the pipeline. And there was no better example of this phenomenon in 2014 than Dawn of the Planet of the Apes! This eighth (!) installment in the historically forward-thinking franchise tragically raises the bar set by its 2011 predecessor by painting a disturbing portrait of the dangerous fallacies of civilization across an impressive canvas of warrior apes, desperate, grime-streaked human survivors, terrible misunderstandings and shattering violence. Eschewing black and white morality, Reeves’ superlative entry – the best since the 1968 original – gazes deeply into the wounded souls of its characters, stressing the sad reality that the horrors of the past are ultimately fated to cast grim shadows over the future.
10) NYMPHOMANIAC – Controversial cinematic provocateur Lars Von Trier’s two-part magnum opus of button-pushing excess should probably have been unwatchable. A four hour meditation on female sexuality, maturation and, uh, fly fishing, Nymphomaniac is an utterly relentless, uncomfortable and overwhelming experience that follows its erotically fixated protagonist (fearlessly played, at differing ages, by Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stacy Martin) from her earliest stages of na├»ve experimentation to the darkest depths of self-destructive compulsion. And yet, despite the heaviness of its downward spiral structure, Von Trier infuses the film with so much energy, offbeat humor and engaging enigmatic oddness that it leaves you mentally unpacking its many mysteries long after you’ve dazedly reached its disquieting conclusion.