Friday, January 23, 2015

The Best Movies of 2014: The Honorable Mentions (#s 16-11)

Nearing the finish line in our countdown of 2014 releases, we're just inches away from our top 10, which means it's time to present the year's honorable mentions. But first, in case you missed it, here's what we've covered so far.

Nos. 92-79 (Tiers 12 and 11)
Nos. 78-71 (Tier 10)
Nos. 70-64 (Tier 9)
Nos. 63-56 (Tier 8)
Nos. 55-48 (Tier 7)
Nos. 47-40 (Tier 6)
Nos. 39-32 (Tier 5)
Nos. 31-24 (Tier 4)
Nos. 23-17 (Tier 3)

Tier 2: The Honorable Mentions

16. Snowpiercer (directed by Bong Joon-Ho, 95% Rotten Tomatoes, 84 Metacritic). Snowpiercer's opening crawl briskly informs viewers of the film's post-apocalyptic setting, one in which the world's remaining population huddles from sub-zero temperatures within "the rattling ark". In other words, this is a movie about a bunch of angry people stuck together on a train. But the use of the artful phrase "rattling ark" suggests that Snowpiercer is not your ordinary action movie, and Bong uses this simple conceit as a launching pad for an extraordinarily fertile film, one bristling with tantalizing ideas even as it's also bustling with kickass action. The movie is painstakingly linear, and it begins at the back of the train, where a throng of refugees live in squalid conditions. Snowpiercer isn't coy about its allegorical caste system; when a bigwig named Mason (a spectacular Tilda Swinton) ventures to the rear to deliver an exasperated oratory about haves and have-nots—one that distills the principles of despotism into three little words: "be a shoe"—she might as well be reading a press release from Wall Street. It's cute, but Bong isn't the type to get bogged down in politics. He's too obsessed with moving forward, as is Curtis (Chris Evans, effectively subdued), a bearded plebian who stages a bloody revolt and leads his comrades (poor choice of words?) toward the front of the train, car by car. As they advance, so too does the movie's aesthetic, shifting from the dingy, smeared greys of the tail section to a dazzling array of vibrant colors and discordant sights, such as a luminescent aquarium. (My favorite interlude involves the sudden appearance of Alison Pill as a bubbly kindergarten teacher spewing dogma and bullets.) Snowpiercer's momentum flags a bit once it runs out of surprises, but for the most part, it's an unpredictable, rip-roaring ride. During her riveting speech, Mason insists that a productive society is founded on order, with chaos as its enemy. It's a notion that Snowpiercer, with its careening turns and striking visuals, gleefully throws back in her face.

15. The Fault in Our Stars (Josh Boone, 81% RT, 69 MC). The Fault in Our Stars may be a modern movie—when its characters exchange text messages, the words pop onto the screen like sunny thought bubbles—but its sensibilities are proudly old-fashioned. There is nothing especially surprising or even original about this warm, sensitive weepie. Based on a bestseller by John Green, it's the story of Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley, magnificent), a cancer warrior who informs us during a startlingly frank opening voiceover that she is presiding over a tale of death. But first there must be love, and Hazel finds it in Gus (Ansel Elgort, quite good), a fellow survivor who flatters Hazel incessantly but always in a cheerful, respectful way that never broaches harassment. The Fault in Our Stars is nominally the story of Hazel and Gus' shared battle against disease, but it's also much more than that. Hazel is not your typical wilting flower but a strong-willed fighter, one who bluntly acknowledges the fact of her cancer even as she attempts to defeat it. And her interactions with both Gus and, more notably, her parents (Laura Dern and Sam Trammell, both excellent), spark with honesty, warmth, and even anger. Hazel may be an archetype, but she feels like a fully fledged person, and all credit goes to Woodley, who delivers yet another effortlessly natural performance that is as free of vanity—she spends virtually the entire movie with oxygen tubes stuck up her nose—as it is full of vitality. The Fault in Our Stars is entirely her story, and it unfolds with uncommon compassion and grace. Yet it is also, in its tender way, strangely merciless. It's an undeniably heart-wrenching film, but its aching depiction of one teenager's struggle to survive seems almost engineered for maximum emotional trauma. This is a lovely movie, but be warned: It will break your spirit, and it will have your tears.

14. The Guest (Adam Wingard, 89% RT, 76 MC). Even with his piercing blue eyes and gleaming smile, there is something not quite right about David (Dan Stevens) when we first see him darkening the doorway of a rural New Mexico family, announcing himself as an Army pal of their slain son. That sense of not-quite-rightness persists for some time, until it curdles into downright wrongness, which is to say, flat-out awesomeness. But first, the simmer: David smoothly ingratiates himself into the lives of this unhappy foursome, behaving with unfailing politeness and charm. In addition to helping around the house—he proves an able drinking buddy for the family's patriarch—he generates some sexual tension with their surly teenage daughter, Anna (Maika Monroe), and serves as a protector for their timid son, Luke (Brendan Meyer). Yet even as David is playing the hero, Wingard makes clear that he has a screw loose, and Stevens—known to legions of television fans as Matthew from Downton Abbey—deftly reinforces that perception through his unblinking gaze and confident swagger. The Guest could have coasted indefinitely on its vibe of lurking malevolence, but at its rough halfway point, David gets his hands on some guns, at which point the movie becomes—and I'm using technical terminology here—batshit crazy. But even as The Guest squanders its delirious tension, it more than compensates with sheer cool, whether it's through Steve Moore's pulsing Halloween-esque score or Wingard's knack for stylish set pieces, as when a high-school dance arena becomes a stalker's playground. (Lance Reddick also shows up, which never hurts.) The Guest is pure, campy fun, which is not to say that it is tacky; Wingard is a professional who proves that meticulous craft and a smoldering lead performance can transform a genre exercise into art. Early in The Guest, Luke asks David what he plays to do to a gang of bullies they've tailed to a local bar. "Nothing bad," David responds. He's lying, of course—the wolfish glint in those blue eyes makes that plain as day—but then again, maybe not. When David breaks bad, this slick, lively thriller can get awfully good.

13. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, 92% RT, 88 MC). The hotel looks like a dollhouse, with its manicured fa├žade, its intricate latticework, and its perfectly symmetrical construction. And The Grand Budapest Hotel is its own form of exquisite manufacturing, boasting pristine camerawork, fastidious framing, and immaculate production design. In other words, it's a Wes Anderson movie. But unlike some of his prior work, in which Anderson's obsession with artistic perfection sucked the soul out of his filmmaking, The Grand Budapest Hotel exhibits a robust, even wild energy that contrasts beautifully with its unfailingly precise staging. Perfectly embodying this duality is the film's protagonist, Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes, wonderful), the concierge at the title retreat. The ideal caretaker, Gustave is tireless, dedicated, and resourceful. He is also conceited, horny, and delectably vulgar, and Fiennes takes visible relish in chipping away at Gustave's enduring politeness with bouts of selfishness and bursts of profanity. Yet while the movie's frantic plot is a great deal of manic fun—there are chases and gunfights, prison escapes and globetrotting escapades—it is also tinged with a melancholy that feels revolutionary for an Anderson picture. Parts of it are very funny (never more so than when a cat makes an abrupt exit from a parlor), while parts—particularly when Saoirse Ronan graces the screen with her presence—are downright joyous, but its lingering impression is one of sadness. There's an unvarnished sincerity to the storytelling here that both undercuts and elevates the punctilious presentation, and this emotional texture—in conjunction with his prior effort, the sublime Moonrise Kingdom—suggests that, after 18 years and 8 features, Anderson is finally growing up. Like all of his films, The Grand Budapest Hotel will dazzle your eye and tickle your funny bone. But it also reaffirms its director's newfound willingness, and ability, to ever-so-gently tug at your heartstrings.

12. Dear White People (Justin Simien, 92% RT, 79 MC). At a time when race relations in America are an absolute mess, Dear White People feels vital, even if it's more of an agitator than a salve. A blistering critique of how the veneer of political correctness shackles open debate, the movie takes place at a fictional Ivy League university where racial tensions are constantly seething, threatening to boil over. They eventually do, thanks to a brazenly racist frat party that, as the end credits reveal, bears alarming similarities to real-life events. Most of the film, however, takes place in flashback, chronicling the buildup to the eruption. Simien splits his focus across a number of characters, some more interesting than others, but his greatest creation is Sam (Tessa Thompson, very good), a light-skinned black student with a radio show and a gift for provocation. Sam casually instructs her white listeners about the dos and don'ts of contemporary racial mores—apparently, using the term "African-American" is actually bigoted, as it's an overly formal label that betrays an underlying fear of upsetting black people—but Simien isn't a lecturer. He's more interested in fostering a discussion, and Dear White People is refreshingly frank in broaching a topic that the cinema too often treats with wariness and anxiety. Yet what's really impressive about Dear White People is what a good movie it is. Simien's volatility naturally recalls Spike Lee (whom the film name-checks), but his formal discipline is more evocative of Wes Anderson, composing crisp, steady frames with economy and flair. He also stays grounded in his characters, no mean feat for a film that's so boisterously topical. Dear White People has a lot to say, and it speaks loudly and without fear, but it's never more arresting than when quietly allowing Sam to relay a painful childhood memory. As Simien well knows, the political means nothing without the personal.

11. Proxy (Zack Parker, 57% RT, 57 MC). Proxy does not fuck around. It opens with an act of violence so unspeakable that it seems designed to test audiences' endurance. From there, things grow less visibly upsetting but infinitely more creepy, with Parker using silence and mood to invest the characters' seemingly inconsequential actions—shopping in a department store, ambling through a windswept parking lot, moseying to the refrigerator for a snack—with unbearable tension. Initially, the movie focuses on Esther (Alexia Rasmussen, unsettlingly blank), a vacant twentysomething woman who has recently suffered a profound loss. She shuffles to a support group, where she meets Melanie (Alexa Havins, on point), a perky blond who seems a bit too sanguine, given her own tragic circumstances. From there, Proxy progresses with shocking unpredictability. It is rare to watch a movie where you have absolutely no inkling of its trajectory, but while Proxy takes one sharp turn after another, it never feels like a cheat. That's because, even as you're processing its haywire twists and its shifts in point of view, you're also caught up in its quicksand-like tone, a disquieting sensation where everything somehow feels off, like you're looking through a fractured prism. For the most part, Parker's technique isn't flashy; he points and shoots, and he lets his actors' tentativeness enhance the film's aura of unease. (Rasmussen is particularly unnerving—her Esther always seems strangely out-of-place.) Now and then, however, he lets loose with an operatic flourish—one slow-motion sequence is especially heightened, not to mention flat-out nuts—at which point Proxy becomes both ridiculous and completely spellbinding. You'll be relieved to escape this movie when it's over. You'll also wonder if it has really let you go.

More coming soon.