By Jack Rico
Since the beginning of the year, I’ve seen a plethora of cinematic pieces and only a scarce few have affected me in profound ways, while others, have transported me to universes only my imagination could understand. Considering that all movies cannot be compared equally, specially when Hollywood’s fingerprints are all over one film and an auteur’s vision is all over another, I have divided them into two categories, commercial and independent. So far, only 17 movies are at the very top of my personal list, those that I would go to battle to defend for its genius or high level of enjoyment. I’ve also ranked them in order to show you the degrees in which I have reveled in them. I hope you use this list as a guide to ascertain what to see in a moment of indecision or spontaneous fancy.
There are films I still have not seen yet like: Nymphomaniac Vol.1, Only Lovers Left Alive, and thus, have not included them. As soon as I see them, I could or could not put them on my list.
What are YOUR favorite movies of the year so far? Please write them in the comments below and I’ll give them a watch.
8. Lucy (Directed by Luc Besson / Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Min-sik Choi)
Not your typical action movie nor your typical sci-fi flick, Lucy combines humor, an uber meta-premise and a fine performance from a seductive and convincing Scarlett Johansson. French director Luc Besson provides his trademark thrills, imaginative action sequences and some magnificent CGI effects. Lucy is is as fun as it is interesting.
7. Guardians of the Galaxy (Directed by James Gunn / Chris Pratt, Vin Diesel)
Along with The Lego Movie, GOTG is the most fun you’ll have at the movies this year. Its classic soundtrack, its innocent humor and its nostalgic childhood throwback sentiment is one to cherish. The fact that the characters are also very likeable and the action is entertaining, makes Guardians of the Galaxy a slam dunk in every facet of the movie experience. The retro soundtrack of classic 70’s and 80’s tunes is catchy and contagious, the charisma of the cast is irrefutable and the humour by itself is worth the price of admission. Marvel does it again!
6. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Directed by Matt Reeves / Gary Oldman, Andy Serkis)
When it comes to reboots and prequels, this new Planet of the Apes franchise is a case study on how to reboot them the right way. Draped in social commentary about prejudice and classicism, this film digs deep in substance, emotional grit supported by some phenomenal CGI effects and a powerful performance by Andy Serkis as the Caesar the Ape. It is very difficult to find in today’s action movies a wonderful balance between rousing action sequences and dramatic substance, where characters are well-drawn and storylines that are engaging and stirring. The apes in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes aren’t just CGI technology, they posses a realistic demeanor with emotional resonating spirits, which is where its true success ultimately lies.
5. Edge of Tomorrow (Directed by Doug Liman / Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton)
One of Tom Cruise’s best movies since MI4: Ghost Protocol, combines exceptional battle action sequences with a high amusement factor. Tom’s acting wasn’t anything to behold here, but he didn’t need to because the time loop concept was the true star here. Based on the Japanese book All You Need Is Kill, the story has Tom Cruise as a publicist for the armed forces who is forced to become a soldier and go to war with an alien race. He dies, but finds that he can revive the sequence over and over again until he can stop the aliens. Edge of Tomorrow is legit and if you’re looking for the full cinematic entertainment experience, you can’t go wrong with this movie.
4. How to Train Your Dragon 2 (Directed by Dean DeBlois / Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler)
Can a sequel improve upon its original? Sequels in general have the terrible assignment to be better than their original counterparts. Very few have pulled it off and so many have failed miserably, but HTTYD2 managed to achieve the rare feat. With the first film garnering an Oscar nod, HTTYD2 will have its eyes set on winning it all. Full of state-of-the-art animation, exciting action, universal humor and some deeply moving moments, this is arguably the family film of 2014.
3. Noah (Directed by Darren Aronofsky / Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly)
Darren Aronofsky is out to show-off his directing gifts and he delivers one heck of a wallop. Noah is so far the most definitive and innovative adaptation of the man/arc story brought to the visual medium. Bringing his own interpretation to the tale, our director allows us into Noah’s madness both in how obsessed he becomes with accomplishing the task from God to the overwhelming sense of family that ultimately grounds him in conflict. Aronofsky truly creates a complex protagonist that pulls you in from the very start.
2. The Lego Movie (Directed by Phil Lord, Christopher Miller / Will Arnett, Alison Brie)
“One of the most clever comedies I’ve ever seen” isn’t a sentence you’d think of when you first hear of The Lego Movie, but once you see it, there isn’t a truer statement. Brimming with exuberance, ingeniousness, nostalgia and laugh-out-loud moments, this film will perhaps end up being the best comedy of the year and an automatic frontrunner for Best Animated Movie at the Oscars. When kids and adults can laugh at the same jokes, that’s when you know a movie is special. But the idea of maybe even choking up is the kicker. The finale twist and cameo should seal the deal for all involved.
1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo)
This is unlike any superhero movie I’ve ever seen. It is the most balanced film of the year: it has drama, suspense, action, nostalgia, thrills, you name it. Played out like a Tom Clancy thriller, I seriously don’t know how any director, producer or screenwriter can come up with a better story or film narrative for The American Hero. This was such a major improvement from the first one, that it almost feels like they rebooted the franchise. For my money, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is one of the best superhero movies I’ve seen and one of the best sequels ever done, period.
9. Begin Again (Directed by John Carney / Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, Adam Levine)
Does fame change people and is cheating on their better half a part of that? Those are some of the themes that director John Carney explores in Begin Again. Within that exploration, Carney provides us a marvelous soundtrack full of poppy folk music that is too cute and too catchy to stop humming. Carney knows a thing or two about music in movies since his 2006 film Once won an Oscar for Best Original Song. But it’s the mix of simplicity and heart that ultimately gets you wrapped around its charm and it doesn’t let go of its grip until the last frame. This is a charming, witty and romantic gem of a film that will light up your heart.
8. Fading Gigolo (Directed by John Turturro / John Turturro, Woody Allen, Sofia Vergara)
Directed, written and starring John Turturrro, this comical, simple and sincere indie, explores themes such as human reinvention and the complex layers of love. The result is a film full of sincerity, heart and humor. The main attraction here is seeing the contrast of actors – Woody Allen, Sofia Vergara, Sharon Stone and John Turturro – all together in one movie. Vergara doesn’t appear much, but when she comes out, the Colombian Bombshell is indelible. What about Woody Allen? He is undoubtedly the star here. He steals every scene in which he appears. I don’t understand why other directors don’t hire him more frequently.
7. The Raid 2: Berandal (Directed by Gareth Evans /Iko Uwais, Yayan Ruhian, Arifin Putra)
The original Indonesian action film The Raid was easily the best action movie of 2011. Because of it’s international success, this sequel offers more characters, more battles and more violence. Continuing exactly where the first left off, our hero (played by Iko Uwais) has to infiltrate the ranks of a crime syndicate to protect her family and discover the corruption in his own police force. Although the story is melodramatic and the acting histrionic, the hand to hand combat fights are first rate. The movie takes a while to rev up, but once it does during its second hour, you’ll be flooded with brilliant martial arts battles and an exhausting finale which I can only describe as one of the longest and most violent one-on-one fights in the history of modern action film.
6. Under the Skin (Directed by Jonathan Glazer / Scarlett Johansson)
Starring Scarlett Johansson, this movie will go down as one of the trippiest movies you will ever see. With an absolute abstract premise, it probably won’t make sense to many, BUT… if you give it a chance the results could be hypnotic. This part science fiction, part philosophical investigation is a blend of dream and nightmare that is a sensory immersion which breaks with traditional narrative schemes and attempts to elucidate how an alien sees Earth civilization. Original, visionary and disturbing, Under The Skin is not for the common moviegoer. One will require a certain degree of curiosity, patience and intellectual appetite to enjoy it. Many will probably think that it is too slow to enjoy, but if you’re searching for something really different, this might just do the trick!
5. Blue Ruin (Directed by Jeremy Saulnier / Macon Blair, Devin Ratray, Amy Hargreaves)
I first heard about this movie when director Andrew Stanton had tweeted, “Second favorite film this year (so far)? BLUE RUIN #youheardme”. For Stanton to publicly announce it was something I now had to see for myself. I called the studio and got a copy right away. Immediately, I could tell that this wasn’t your typical thriller. Anchored in revenge, this genre film pushes the boundaries on character grief and anguish, but director Jeremy Saulnier executes it with an anesthetized sensibility. Unlike other revenge films, Blue Ruin takes a much more artistic approach, one without catchy one-liners or clichéd slow-mo shots. This feels almost real, from a POV sense. If you are looking for a thriller with much more heart, then Blue Ruin should more than satisfy you.
4. Life Itself (Directed by Steve James / Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert, Gene Siskel)
Rarely has a documentary brought me almost to tears. I’ve reserved that for feature films like Julian Schnabel’s “Le scaphandre et le papillon” or Giuseppe Tornatore’s “Cinema Paradiso”. But a documentary? That’s what Roger Ebert’s biopic did to me. It affected me, it affected me in a way that made his loss even greater. A majority of it had to do with the way documentarian Steve James directed it. Stylistic, innovative and a true storyteller, James is now in the conversation as one of the best documentary directors I’ve seen. Life Itself is such a great journey into the life of a man who’s influence on the business of cinema is irrefutable. The nostalgia I felt when watching scenes of At The Movies took me to a happy place where I felt smart and giddy, a glance at the memories of my beginnings in understanding the true power of cinema. Much of who I am today as a critic and professional were inspired in Ebert and Siskel, more Ebert. His battle with cancer, so graphically portrayed here, is crushing, yet, we saw a courage in him to continue to live on, not just for the movies, but for life itself.
3. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Directed by Wes Anderson / Ralph Fiennes)
Directed by acclaimed director Wes Anderson, this ambitious film, full of a stellar and magnificent actors, focuses on the story about the theft and recovery of an invaluable Renaissance painting that pits family members against the manager of a hotel for its immense fortune. If you have not seen a film by Wes Anderson then prepare to experience a movie unlike anything you’ve seen before. If you have, then you know what you’re in for. Known for creating visually and eccentric characters, Anderson once again uses beautiful color, panoramic sceneries and inventive set designs to explore his magnificent and imaginary ideas. There is a charm to the way the scenes, the cartoonish characters, the clever and quick dialogue are constructed. I really enjoyed this film inspired in the early classic Hitchcock films and recommend it for those looking for something smart and different.
2. Chef (Directed by Jon Favreau / Jon Favreau, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson)
This is Jon Favreau’s finest work as a director and arguably as an actor, though it’s hard to argue against his performance in Swingers. Directed with grace, charm and sentiment, Favreau brings together a cast of Latin stars which includes Colombians Sofia Vergara and John Leguizamo with magnificent results. Chef’s secret lies in its authenticity – the authenticity and integrity given to the food and dishes, the authenticity of its characters (we finally see a toned down Vergara), the authenticity in the kitchen politics and the authenticity in a father/son relationship. Favreau is not a master actor, but he’s a convincing one, one who knows how to pull you in with his universal plights and insecurities (don’t we all have those?). This “failed man who rises from the ashes to be a good model of success, and above all, a good dad” story is a memorable movie, one that should be seen with the whole family, specially a Hispanic family.
1. Boyhood (Directed by Richard Linklater / Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke)
I consider this movie to be Richard Linklater’s masterpiece and the best film of the year so far. Not so much for it’s direction, acting or story, but for something bigger than that – it’s piercing emotional connection to its audience. It has a transcendental scope and emotive sincerity unrivaled this year… so far. For some, it might not be something special. It might seem slow, not entertaining enough nor conflicting enough. But this isn’t a blockbuster juggernaut meant to fulfill our Hollywood fantasies, this is an ambitious piece of cinema centered in looking at the evolution of life from infancy to adulthood, and with it, a reflection of our own evolution as well. No film has managed to capture that so honestly. Expect Boyhood to be the talk of the Oscar season and grab at least Best Director and Best Picture nominations.