by Philip Price
I typically put together a list of my least favorite films of the year rather than a "worst" list because I honestly try to avoid anything I think is going to be outright terrible. It is hard to consider anything the worst of the year when there could be plenty of reasons others might have found something to find interesting. For example, I found both “Under the Skin” and “Obvious Child” to be well, obvious in their intentions that were in some variation or another supposed to push boundaries. Many of the arguments in Jenny Slate's rom-com centered around abortion felt moronic while Jonathan Glazer's extreme indie lacked in any type of compelling material offering me nothing interesting to decipher. That said, there are plenty of people who find both of these films completely fascinating and even among their favorites of the year. I, of course, have no problem with that and can respect their opinion, but instead of damning a couple of obvious choices as the "worst" films of the year I figured I'd put that effort into a list of a few films that I thoroughly enjoyed and thought went unappreciated throughout the year. As I still haven't seen what I'd consider a few promising titles from 2014 this list only comprises of five flicks that I hope aren't overly obvious. Sure, there are films like the Tilda Swinton featuring “Snowpiercer” and “Only Lovers Left Alive” that are fine, but not all they've been made out to be I think. You also have quirky excursions like “Frank” (which I didn't much care for) and “They Came Together” which I would highly suggest if you liked “Wet Hot American Summer” at all. There are plenty of other smaller flicks that are more than solid entertainment you can find to rent or buy at this moment including “Joe,” “Cold in July,” “Stretch” or even “Dom Hemingway,” but the next five films left something of an impression on me while largely seeming to allude others.
Now available on both home video and streaming on Netflix, “Blue Ruin” is writer/director Jeremy Saulnier's second feature and with it he has created a film that distances itself from the pack with its ability to break down the walls of jaded movie-goers accustomed to revenge stories while delivering the goods as a suspenseful and thrilling action film. It creates this separation by delving into the philosophical ponderings of its situation through the fantastic performance of Macon Blair as lead character Dwight. This trip through Dwight's personal hell is documented with style to spare as it is beautifully captured by a cinematographer who just so happens to also be the writer and director resulting in a well-rounded product of singular vision. “Blue Ruin” is certainly worth a watch if not a few re-watches so as to really feel the effects of the near perfect execution.
From the outside looking in “The Drop” starring Tom Hardy and James Gandolfini (in his final screen role) should have sold itself as a Brooklyn-based crime drama. Instead, Fox Searchlight dumped it quietly into theaters at the beginning of September when the summer movie season had already come to a close and the Oscar bait hadn't started rolling out yet. One might imagine this is a good place for a smaller film to break out (“Drive”), but “The Drop” came and went without making little more than a peep and that's a real shame. What I love about Michaël R. Roskam's film is that while it centers around a robbery gone wrong and the investigation around that robbery it's not really about that at all. These elements are still very much a part of the film, but they aren't the centerpiece. As the viewer we aren't drawn into the plot as in the series of events that make up the story, but rather we become more interested in how these specific characters will decide the course of the story instead of the tropes typically employed in this genre. “The Drop” is now available for purchase in digital formats and will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray on January 20th.
Last fall we caught a glimpse of what director Adam Wingard could do with the crazy/fun “You're Next” and with his follow-up he only amps the fun up even more. I pretty much loved every single aspect of “The Guest” and only gave it a less than perfect score because it isn't something to be regarded as exceptional. It's not exceptional because it isn't necessarily innovative, but is still highly entertaining and well-constructed because it knowingly draws from very specific inspiration. Horror movies of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s as well as the thrillers of the same decade infuse every angle of Wingard's tale of uncertainty. He plows over every moment in the film with his unabashed soundtrack fueled by synthesizers and one note tones that dispel any notion we should take this seriously. Instead, seasoned moviegoers will acknowledge this as an exercise in form, of style and take note of how every story, even the most generic of ones, can be made fresh and interesting with a unique directorial approach. Not to mention, Dan Stevens serves at the titular guest in a role that will only lead to you seeing much more of him in the future. The film is set for a January 6th DVD and Blu-Ray release.
This is the one I truly don't understand. There has been a fair amount of hate for this adaptation of Lois Lowry's 1993 hit novel and though it was clearly made in the wake of this young adult adaptation boom that relegated it to the background, this is one of the select few that falls into that genre that genuinely deserves your attention. I somehow managed to never read the book in school and so I have no nostalgic connection to the material and still found it more than intriguing. The trailers purported a film filled with sci-fi style action and an artistic design in line with the Stephanie Meyer flop “The Host,” but “The Giver” is a much smaller-scale experiment that doesn't depend on its scope, visual effects or love story to pull the audience in as much as it does its ideas. The ideas are key. The focus lies on the ever expanding pool of knowledge form which Jonas is gathering from The Giver and how that effects the rest of his life and how his perspective on his world begins to change. Beyond this more introspective approach it also features a cast that includes Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep (any person who enjoys film should check it out on those merits alone!), but it was also a passion project of Bridges that he's been working to make happen for nearly two decades. It is a shame to see that effort be so easily dismissed by so many and so, if you haven't already, check it out as it is available on all home video outlets now.
“Kill the Messenger”
This may be the most baffling case of the year for me as “Kill the Messenger” is a genuinely solid investigative procedural. It's not surprising in the fact it didn't make much money, but in that it received little to zero attention from critics and showed up in theaters for a week before disappearing completely. There is a lot to admire about the film, but what I love most is its ability to effortlessly balance the reason our protagonist has had a movie made about him as well as the influences around what made him an interesting man besides that fact. Yes, Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner) is the central character of a major motion picture because he was a solid reporter who blew the roof off a major story and now, with a little bit of perspective, we can see the hard truth behind what he was punished for. More than this though, he was a human being who had a family, interests, and more importantly a set of ideals that composed a full human being-the only kind of human being that would have risked everything for the integrity of trying to spread the truth. It is sometimes difficult for films to find this type of balance when their narrative is so heavily plot driven, but besides the fact that Renner is excellent here director Michael Cuesta along with screenwriter and former journalist Peter Landesman have composed a film that first looks at the story the man is telling and then peels away the layers of the man behind that story. The film is set for a February 10th home video release and, once again, I highly suggest you give it a look.