Posts Tagged ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’

GotG_Vol2_posterGuardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

Starring- Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Sylvester Stallone, Kurt Russell, Elizabeth Debicki, Chris Sullivan, Sean Gunn

Director- James Gunn

PG-13- sequences of sci-fi action and violence, language, and brief suggestive content


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The Guardians of the Galaxy — Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper), and Baby Groot (voice of Vin Diesel) — face a new set of challenges when Quill bumps into Ego (Kurt Russell), a celestial being who also happens to be the father he never knew.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 will not win any new converts, and for once, I mean that in the best possible way — if you thought the first one was too weird, too trippy, too silly, just wait until you get a load of this. Only when a director has earned significant clout — or a franchise has a big enough built-in fanbase to guarantee profits no matter what — does a massive-budget blockbuster go this far off its rocker. Guardians 2 is the most delightfully insane blockbuster this side of Mad Max: Fury Road, and while it isn’t operating anywhere near that level of craftsmanship, God help me, I loved it.

The first Guardians of the Galaxy is one of my favorite tentpole films of the last several years; it’s exactly what I want out of my effects-driven junk food. By comparison, Guardians 2 is less consistent in its execution but also considerably more ambitious, so as far as I’m concerned, it evens out. The first movie is fairly straightforward; it exists in the same gleeful, boyish headspace throughout most of its runtime and mostly paints inside the lines, just with uncommon vibrancy. If it was a sci-fi action movie with a lot of comedy, Guardians 2 is a comedy with a lot of sci-fi action — except for when it gets weirdly emotional.

That’s the contradiction it invokes — it’s somehow both a lighter and darker version of its predecessor. It just depends on the scene. And despite running that far up and down the spectrum, it’s strangely graceful — it has room for the larger-than-life humor and the considerably more grounded drama.

Anyone worried that Marvel would moderate the tone somewhat now that Guardians of the Galaxy is one of its flagship film series (I would love to travel back in time a decade and a half and tell a comic book nerd that) will be relieved within the first five minutes — one of the most purely enjoyable opening sequences in recent memory, in which the Guardians battle a giant monster entirely in the background while Baby Groot dances to ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky.” If anything, Guardians 2 has doubled down on the original’s excesses — this is not, for the most part, a movie that takes itself at all seriously. It’s a Saturday morning cartoon of a motion picture, filled with slapstick, bumbling villains, and catastrophic antiheroes who still haven’t gotten far beyond the emotional maturity level of a thirteen-year-old.

Its strength, as with the original, is in its characters. The secret to these movies’ success — quite a lot of Marvel movies, actually — is that James Gunn understands these characters and knows exactly how to play them off one another, and how to to inflict them upon an unsuspecting galaxy. Their interactions are hilarious but also feel true on some level; they have a very specific relationship that makes it easy for the script to establish and develop their dysfunctional personalities. This entry also makes it clear that Gunn knows how to introduce new characters into that dynamic — I’m very excited to see what future entries do with the new Guardian, Mantis (Pom Klementieff). She’s an isolated being who’s never really socialized outside of Ego, and she also has empathic abilities, so the Guardians are essentially teaching her how people interact and introducing her to the concept of emotions, which…yeah, goes about as well as you’d expect (they can basically say or do whatever they want to her and then just tell her everyone acts like this, and they take full advantage of that). She’s funny here, and I suspect she’ll be a scene-stealer in future sequels, once the Guardians’ backwards behavior and broken logic are the entire foundation of her personality.

The returning characters are the same greatness, but expanded upon. I think Chris Pratt has the same problem I increasingly believe Ryan Gosling has — he keeps getting cast as a leading man, but he’s at his best when his character is at least kind of a loser. Star-Lord is the perfect middle ground — competent in action, but nowhere near as cool as he thinks he is, and his interactions with Ego really bring out the character’s endearing dorkiness. Gamora still functions more or less as the straight-man, the only member of the crew getting frustrated with everyone else’s antics, but her kind-of-sort-of-not-really thing with Quill and the narrative choices the movie makes give her life outside of her comedic function, which was somewhat missing from the original. Rocket is still mean and fragile, a volatile combination that makes for great comedy and occasionally great drama. Baby Groot is just as spacey and weird as the original, combined with a newfound inability to understand what anyone is telling him (Drax perhaps summarizes it best when he calls him “smaller, dumber Groot”). And much as there are those who dance and those who don’t, there are two types of people in this world: those who recognize that Drax the Destroyer is the greatest fictional character of all time, and those who are incorrect. Reason No. 82 of roughly four million why I am not in charge of the Motion Picture Academy is that I would probably try to give former professional wrestler Dave Bautista an Oscar for what Drax does to my funny bone. Even his first line in the movie had me in stitches. His blunt honesty is so undiscerning, he’s impossible to embarrass, and he suffers from one of the most specific cases of dumb-smart I’ve seen in a character like this. Seriously, how often is the muscle the funniest character in the movie?

I’m even more impressed with the way the movie takes Yondu (Michael Rooker), a mostly unmemorable supporting character the first time around, and not only foregrounds and deepens him but hangs a significant portion of its emotional weight on his shoulders — and actually pulls it off.

Also — and you’d better buckle in for this one — a Marvel movie with a functional, interesting villain, who has a compelling connection with the heroes and is capable of meaningfully tempting them toward the darkness! I was starting to think there was a law against that. Anyway, the less said about that, the better; it’s best left a surprise.

In short, the cast once again perfectly matches the anarchic fun that comprises the majority of Guardians 2 — it’s fast-paced, hilarious, playful, and visually the best-looking Marvel movie to date (that may sound like faint praise given the wonky direction that has defined a bit too much of the MCU, but Guardians 2 is good-looking by the standards of movies in general, the neon colors of the 70s splashed across the canvas of a modern sci-fi flick).

But then, in the last half hour or so, Guardians 2 suddenly gets very emotional…and I’m not sure how, but it actually kind of works? More than “kind of,” actually — it’s some of the strongest stuff in either of these movies. The first movie, in keeping things simple, made the characters’ personal baggage secondary; it wasn’t about broken people fixing themselves so much as finding a home with each other. Guardians 2 actually forces its heroes to confront their flaws, and does so in a surprisingly organic and effective way. Of the bunch, only Quill’s abandonment issues resolve themselves in a way that feels trite, or at least generic. Meanwhile, Yondu wrestles with his legacy — the person he’s been, what he wants to be, the things he regrets about the way he raised Quill as well as the things he cherishes. He and Rocket (who I will remind you, once again, is a talking raccoon) find a strange sort of brotherhood in this regard, both of them deliberately driving people away because of how they were hurt and exploited in the past. Gamora and her sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan), a minor villain from the first movie, are thrust back together and act out a surprisingly nuanced story of siblings dealing with the long-term effects of their abusive parents and how that mistreatment affected the way they see each other, one child having been the less-abused “favorite.” And the movie allows the over-the-top comedy to play a part in this, which makes the shift feel less jarring — Drax’s exuberance only highlights the moments when something triggers a memory of his family and the light suddenly drains from his face. After the first movie, you’d be forgiven for going into this unprepared for these characters to make you cry, but consider yourself warned that they very well might — and you’ll probably be surprised which ones, too.

There’s a critical problem, though — the reason Vol. 2 is a bit more uneven than the first — and you can easily identify it with a close study of the above plot description: There kind of isn’t one. Guardians 2 is a movie that needs its third-act reveal in order to give it something to be about; prior to that, it just wanders. It makes the mistake of separating the Guardians, for one thing, and then otherwise either avoids intensive conflict or invents uninteresting conflict to keep from becoming an extra-weird relationship drama. So, Star-Lord is hanging out with his father and occasionally having tense exchanges with Gamora as they figure out what their relationship is; Drax and Mantis are on the same planet but off to themselves, doing their own thing; Rocket, Groot, and Yondu are halfway across the galaxy dealing with Yondu’s mutinous crew; and there’s an alien race pursuing everyone. There are essentially two plots here: the opening half-hour, which moves the characters to Ego’s planet, and then the third-act reveal, which sets the climax in motion. Both are excellent, but that makes the middle third’s slack quality even more noticeable. There’s fun to be had, of course, because the characters are enjoyable and the movie never runs out of absurd things to show you, but it isn’t going anywhere or building to much of anything, and the secondary villains aren’t particularly threatening and don’t really matter to begin with. The movie enters a bit of a lull until it shifts gears for the final reel. It’s rarely boring, but there could definitely be more to it.

Even so, the movie’s uniqueness and — yes — intelligence more than make up for it. Most of the time, it’s a fantastic ride, and when it’s through with that, it’s surprisingly engaging. Guardians 2 doesn’t want you to know how smart it is, but it is, in fact, very smart. And fun, and funny, and well-acted, and it has that “heart” we always seem to be looking for in our action comedies. Not quite a sequel better than the original, but still, in a lot of ways, how sequels should be done.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, it’s that time of year again — that time when people without access to theaters that play movies with projected box office takes of less than $100 million finally get to compile their year-end lists!

So, what did I think about 2014 in cinema?

It was…okay.

I didn’t expect I would be saying that; neither did you, probably. Around August 2014, I was already calling it one of the best years in cinema I could remember. The year had already given us a myriad of good-to-great films, and if that was what Hollywood thought wasn’t going to contend for awards, I could only imagine what the coming months held.

But it turned out to be a weirdly lopsided year. Normally, any given year in movies starts out bad and keeps getting better until the holiday season hits us with what the industry considers the cream of the crop. In 2014, it was almost directly reversed — a few of the year’s best films were in theaters before we even got to summer blockbuster season, which itself had a lot of quality offerings. But then, we got into awards season. That’s a time of year that always produces some transparent Oscar bait, but normally, there’s a lot of great stuff sandwiched in between. Not so in 2014. The awards bait was clearer and more cynical than ever; the majority of the art films were stale and unadventurous; and even the usually reliable Christmas blockbusters mostly didn’t deliver. It led to one of the weakest Best Picture fields in a while — left up to me, I think I’d only have nominated two of the films that made it. The year started with a bang and ended with a whimper — one letdown after another as the year’s most hyped projects collapsed right in front of us.

And in the end, while the films from the first half of the year were surprisingly good, they weren’t enough to counterbalance the disappointment of the second half. Overall, for me, the year emerges as somewhat mediocre.

Which is not to say that there wasn’t some good stuff — there absolutely was! I’ll say this for 2014: There might not have been as many truly great films as there have been in past years, but there seemed to be a lot more really, really good ones. Other years may have registered more 9s or 10s, but no year in recent memory registered as many 8s. That’s the paradox behind this list — my feeling toward the year as a whole is one of disappointment, but my feeling toward my Top 20 is that way too many films got left out that would’ve made it in any other field. I agonized over this list like none other I’ve compiled. I’m actually hurting over some of the movies that didn’t make it.

So, for the first time since I started doing this, I’m going to kick this off with a complete list of honorable mentions. Starting with…

Movies That Were in Consideration for the Top 20 But Were Eliminated Fairly Early On and May or May Not Have Made the List in a “Weaker” Year: The Babadook, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, The Guest, How to Train Your Dragon 2, Joe, Mr. Turner, The Theory of Everything

Movies That Fought Really, Really Hard and Just Barely Didn’t Make It; They Would Almost Certainly Be on the List Any Other Year: Force Majeure, Inherent Vice, We Are the Best!

Movies That I’m Physically in Pain Over and Not Entirely Sure Why They Didn’t Make This List, Much Less Any Other Year’s: Fury, because if it wasn’t for that clumsy third act, it’d not only be on the list but probably somewhere in the top five; and Pride, because it’s absolutely the most fun I’ve ever had watching a sermonizing special issues movie.

Movie I May or May Not Regret Excluding Depending on How Well It Ages: Interstellar. I saw it a second time and was surprised to find that my estimation of it improved. Who knows how I’ll feel after a few more viewings? Unfortunately, it’s too late for the list, but maybe I’ll be kicking myself over its exclusion a few years down the line.

Movie I Didn’t Get to See Yet: Two Days, One Night. Fun fact: The reason I waited so long to do this list is that Netflix said this movie would be available for streaming on June 16. On the morning of June 16, I logged in, and it was like, “Whoops, sorry, we meant August 16.” I figured that was too long to wait, so I decided to just post this and if Two Days, One Night ends up competing, it ends up competing.

Anyway, I’ve skated around this long enough. Without further ado, I give you… My Top 20 Favorite Films of 2014!


20. A Most Violent Year — There was a hard-fought battle for the last slot on this list, and even now, I’m glancing at Fury and Pride and wondering if I made the right call after all. But I’m sticking with my guns here. I think A Most Violent Year is J.C. Chandor’s strongest film yet, taking the best of both worlds from his previous projects and fusing them into a cerebral, atmospheric crime drama. I like its perspective — it’s essentially The Godfather told from the point of view of one of the ordinary people on the street, caught in the middle. And I love how organically it develops its characters through that — I’m fascinated by stories that force their protagonists to make tough decisions and moral compromises and then examine the consequences of those actions. A Most Violent Year is a good one. Also, I can’t wait for Star Wars: The Force Awakens to make Oscar Isaac a star; honestly, I have no idea how it hasn’t happened already. Dude is the real deal.


19. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes — If 2014 was the year when the “serious art” — the biopics, the historical films, even a lot of the art scene — let us down, at least it was also a year when the big, silly, fun blockbusters stepped their game right up. American Sniper got nominated for Best Picture, but Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was the year’s best — and smartest — war movie. Yes, I’m serious. No film in recent memory has explored the root causes of war and violence as intelligently as this goofy movie about chimpanzees with machine guns. That intelligence also allows it to tell an emotionally engaging story on the way to making those points: There’s a clear sense of cause and effect in the events of the story, there’s strong character development, and it governs the ebb and flow of its plot based on its emotional needs rather than an action sequence quota. I’ve seen a lot of great blockbusters over the last few years, but I can’t remember the last one where I went into the climax feeling like none of the characters were safe. The only reason this isn’t higher on the list is that, like its predecessor (though not to the same extent), the human half of the story isn’t as strong as the ape half. Everything else is shockingly well done. In any other year, it’d make the Top 10.

18. 22 Jump Street — Like I said…the mainstream cinema of 2014 was inordinately strong. The year as a whole may have been a disappointment for me personally, but I’m nevertheless thrilled that it allowed me to compile a Top 20 as eclectic as this one. 22 Jump Street is the funniest and smartest comedy in a long time. The script is multilayered enough to be worthy of Oscar consideration. I’m still somewhat at a loss for words to describe it — it goes so deep with its relentless self-parody that it becomes a parody of a parody of a parody that mocks itself, you, society, the people who made the movie, the people who greenlit the movie, and everybody in between. And yet, it’s not hateful or posturing like it’s smarter than you. It’s still just as hilarious on the surface level as it is beneath all those layers. It’s possibly the first comedy sequel in history to be better than its predecessor. Of course it’s going to make the list!


17. A Most Wanted Man — It’s Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last film (apart from his supporting role in the upcoming Hunger Games finale) and a powerful testament to what we lost with his passing. It’s one of the first movies, in my opinion, to meaningfully wrestle with the emerging post-9/11 security state — albeit less in the omnipresent technological espionage and more in the complex political realities. Ultimately, there are no simple answers — it’s a film that’s constantly weighing justice against security needs and never providing a simple out on the question. It’s a realistic spy thriller — slow-moving and largely unembellished — but it makes its routine plot absolutely riveting through its sense of character and consequence. It’s anchored by another one of Hoffman’s genius performances — one whose last five minutes have a permanent place on his highlight reel.


16. Frank — What a wonderfully bizarre film. I love it. On one hand, it’s a comedy, and it appeals very directly to my taste with its dry, dark, straight-faced, absurd sense of humor. On the other hand, it’s a surprisingly stirring tribute to great art and the weirdos who make it. Despite its darkness, it’s sweet and warm — never cloying, though. It’s effectively critical of negative attitudes toward the creative process and how it works. And its portrait of mental illness may be slight, but it’s well handled, ultimately about how we all need each other and how sometimes a great thing should just be allowed to be great, whatever that means. Also, the music, bizarre as it is, is actually pretty fantastic.


15. Calvary — If you’d attached bigger names and a bigger studio to this film, there’s no doubt in my mind it would’ve cleaned up at the Oscars — especially for Brendan Gleeson, who does some of the best work of his career in this one. In fairness, it’s not something well positioned to appeal to a wide audience — it’s a character-driven drama lacking in clear, precise plotting and shot through with a wry, almost imperceptible sense of humor that’s guaranteed to be off-putting to some. If you can get through that — or if you find those elements personally appealing — what you’ll find is one of the most nuanced portraits of religious faith in modern cinema. Calvary’s Father James struggles against the comfort of modern religion; he strives to determine what it means to follow Jesus Christ and to represent his example in the culture that surrounds him. The film offers no easy answers but plenty worth discussing — for the religious and non-religious alike.


14. Whiplash — A breathless, relentless, incredible ride of a motion picture — not normally something you’d call a movie about students practicing at a prestigious music academy, but that’s just what makes Whiplash so special. It’s easy enough to appreciate the film’s surface level — namely, J.K. Simmons’ insane, over-the-top performance as the academy’s drill sergeant of a jazz band director. But what really gets me about the film is how it picks apart the concept of greatness in art and wonders what it truly is — pure technical skill, or something deeper? I love conversations like that, and I love where Whiplash ultimately seems to end up on the subject. The film has so much life after the credits roll — it’s so easy to speculate about where the characters end up and what the consequences of their actions will evolve into long-term. It’s a short, simple film but one that’s jam-packed with detail, insight, and yes, pure entertainment value.


13. Under the Skin — That this type of film ordinarily isn’t up my alley whatsoever is a testament to how great Under the Skin ultimately is. It’s oblique, abstract, suggestive sci-fi, telling its strange story almost exclusively through visuals, what dialogue there is feeling improvised (it often was) and more part of the atmosphere than anything. And yet, on every level, it’s incredibly skillful — despite its silence and abstraction, it isn’t difficult to make emotional sense of it. You won’t leave it understanding everything about it — not in the literal, concrete details, anyway — but you don’t need to. It’s an exercise in tone, in pure emotion, in visual storytelling. It’s beautifully constructed and haunting. And Scarlett Johansson’s absence from the 2015 Academy Awards was one of the year’s worst snubs — her work in Under the Skin is unquestionably one of 2014’s best performances.


12. Blue Ruin — One of the strongest directorial debuts in quite a long time, and one of the best films of the year more generally, Blue Ruin is one of those movies that’s just plain good. Everything it sets out to do, it does well, with very few exceptions. What’s fascinating about it is the way it drifts between so many different tones and styles without ever compromising itself. It’s a film that genuinely has its own voice. It’s part bloody revenge film, part drama, part indie thriller, part crime film, and part black comedy. Every tonal diversion arrives organically from the movements of the story and characters. The revenge film part of it is self-aware and effectively explores the consequences of violence and other bad decisions — another movie that’s interested, as I am, in the little moral compromises that inevitably lead us to bigger ones. It’s a story that brings its characters to a point where there no longer is a right decision — they simply have to pick their victim. That’s the kind of ambiguity I adore in a movie like this. The drama and indie thriller components of the film are natural extensions of the characters and their motivations, sketched gracefully through a combination of dialogue and effective visual storytelling. And the comedy stems from the general awkwardness of life. It pulls everything together beautifully and proves that you don’t need millions of dollars to tell an involving story. I’m excited to see what Jeremy Saulnier does next.


11. Snowpiercer — Speaking of films that navigate an insane tonal quagmire and somehow emerge on the other side unscathed…Snowpiercer is the uber-example. I’m obviously not prepared to call it the year’s best film, but it’s certainly the most…singular. It’s storytelling as pure metaphor — it’s not interested in the science or the world or the facts of its characters’ lives day to day. Instead, it outlines a situation, defines the characters’ motivations relative to it, and spends the remainder of its time developing that into a statement about revolution, systemic injustice, and power structures. It uses its tone and style as a tool in that arsenal — as the characters move from scene to scene, they seemingly encounter different genres, ranging from action to horror to outright comedy. The feeling of each scene informs us about its position in the central metaphor. Somehow, it comes out feeling cohesive — mainly because it does such a good job of anchoring its characters in the middle of the satire. They’re the consistent thread, the element that doesn’t change even as everything else in the film rockets from one extreme to the next. Snowpiercer isn’t perfect, but it’s smart, stylish, and somehow both fun and disturbing in equal measure. I suspect it’s destined to become a cult favorite.

10. Selma — This is how you do historical films. In terms of its premise, release date, cast, and presentation, it’s certainly very awards friendly, but it is not awards bait — and those are the films I most hope for when Oscar season rolls around. The difference, of course, is simple — Selma is dangerous, Selma is risky, Selma has real thematic depth, Selma has a point and a perspective, Selma is not trying to please everyone. In short, Selma is good. I like its limited take on the civil rights movement — most films would try to capture the bigger picture, but Selma is content to pull out this one moment in time and express itself through that story. Martin Luther King Jr. — insert obligatory praise of David Oyelowo’s performance here — certainly commands the most screen-time, but Selma truly feels like a story about the movement, one where all the characters are unique and interesting and have a role to play. The storytelling is focused but rich, using its limited scope to bring out as much detail as possible. I don’t love Ava Duvernay’s direction quite as much as everyone else — a few too many scenes came off as stagey, and I got tired of her placing the camera behind people’s heads rather quickly — but she gets the biggest moments exactly right; the Bloody Sunday march is one of the most harrowing scenes in 2014. I also love the film’s focus on the political causes, effects, and implications of the civil rights movement; not only does it capture the interconnected, systemic nature of the events, it also takes the opportunity to recast them as a sly parallel to the modern world. It’s not necessarily the most groundbreaking film ever made, but it is really, really good and puts a rich and vital new face on an important piece of American history.


9. Ida — I wouldn’t say that I’m a fan of minimalist cinema; it would be more accurate to say that I could take or leave most of it but would die for the best of it. Ida rates among the best of it. It’s such a masterful exercise in visual storytelling. There’s very little dialogue, not because it’s forcing silence but because it isolates its characters so often. That puts a lot on the shoulders of the actors, and they deliver some of the year’s best performances. The two women at the center of this story are detailed and wholly understandable human beings, and that’s expressed almost entirely through the acting — you see changes in behavior and demeanor, you see their reactions to events in their eyes, you read it in their bearing. The characters themselves provide an interesting contrast in the titular character’s youthful naivete and her aunt Wanda’s haunted weariness; they deal with their respective situations in surprising but logical ways. They play off one another really, really well; their detailed and lived-in relationship is the film’s strongest point by far. But it’s also very well made on nearly every other level as well. It’s meticulously constructed, deliberate, and beautiful.


8. The Immigrant — There’s something wonderfully old-fashioned about The Immigrant. It isn’t flashy, it isn’t pretentious. It’s a return to the drawing board — a story told with the most basic elements and the most standardized means. And it proves that not only can it be done well, but extraordinarily — it breathes fresh life into the familiar. There’s little to be said about it other than that it’s just plain a good story, but that’s all it needs in order to achieve greatness. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have Marion Cotillard and Joaquin Phoenix in the lead roles — both of them are in the conversation when we start talking about the best actors of our generation. And they both do predictably stellar work in The Immigrant. Everyone does stellar work in The Immigrant. The Immigrant is, itself, stellar.


7. Song of the Sea — The fact that I don’t like Song of the Sea as much as Cartoon Saloon’s first, The Secret of Kells, says a lot more about The Secret of Kells than Song of the Sea, which is beautiful, unique, and thoroughly amazing. The storytelling here may be a step down from The Secret of Kells, but it’s still stunning and welcome to see a children’s film with such thematic depth, such emotional ambition, such wonder and awe. And, of course, the studio’s animation is only getting better — here, they further refined their style, and it’s gorgeous. I want to cut out every frame of this film and hang it on my wall. The animation is detailed, fluid, colorful, and textured; the world it conveys is unique and imaginative. Cartoon Saloon stands a good chance of filling the void left in the wake of Studio Ghibli closing its doors — its films a spiritual, original, and rich with both real-world and invented mythology. I am so excited to see where the studio goes from here.


6. Locke — Can someone please explain to me why Tom Hardy isn’t the most famous person in the world already? He is idiotically good. No movie asked more of its star than Locke, and Hardy more than met the challenge. It truly is a one-man show — a story set exclusively inside a moving vehicle, presented almost in real time, and focused on a single character. No one other than Hardy so much as walks across the screen. He’s the most vital element in ensuring the film works — no amount of directorial flair or storytelling depth is going to matter if the only character in your movie isn’t believable. Fortunately, Hardy took the material and crafted what is certainly the most fully rounded character of his career. Whether he says it out loud or not, you will know absolutely everything about Ivan Locke by the time the credits roll. Hardy fully inhabits the part; there are no seams. Of course, it helps that he is working with a great script. It’s a smart and incisive film, and it explores the moral gray areas of its story very evenly and very well. As I’ve said in the past, I love films about consequences and how we deal with them. Ivan Locke has done one dumb thing; the movie shows us the hour and a half of his life where everything comes to a head. There isn’t really a “win” scenario for him, nor one where he can truly be said to have done the right thing. He just has to pick his poison. Watching him deal with that is fascinating. Locke in general is fascinating. Unquestionably one of the best movies of the year.


5. Guardians of the Galaxy — Ah, you know, just one of those boring art films I love so much. This is one of those entries where personal taste has an important influence — the last few films on this list are almost certainly “better,” but none of them are pop sci-fi/space operas, so Guardians of the Galaxy it is! And it’s also a great movie — please don’t take that last sentence as me trying to ghettoize it. It’s extremely well made and a ton of fun. It’s formula, sure, but its characters and emotional beats are built into that so well. The characters, especially, are fantastic — this movie is as much comedy as sci-fi, maybe even more so, and each of the actors gets to play into that dynamic. The members of the cast have great chemistry, and the comedic interplay arises so organically — and hilariously — out of that. Yeah, there’s no commentary on the human condition here or anything, but occasionally, everybody needs to eat a nice, big bowl of ice cream. Guardians of the Galaxy is one great bowl of ice cream.


4. Nightcrawler — I was always going to love Nightcrawler. I love great movies, and I work in the media, so any story about that is inherently going to appeal to me. I didn’t expect exactly how much I was going to love it, though. The cast is great, especially Jake Gyllenhaal; the themes are surprisingly well realized; the film is well engineered emotionally; and I’ve even come to appreciate the look of it with repeat viewings. Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom was, for me, one of the year’s most memorable characters — one of the most purely loathsome film protagonists of all time, a character who seems to get more and more awful with each passing scene. I love the way the film is structured around that; I love the way it builds its arc into the audience rather than its characters. I love the commentary on the state of our sensational and narrative-driven news media. I love the tone — it sometimes teeters on the edge of black comedy but never quite falls in. It’s wry but quite sincere. It exists in a heightened version of reality, constructed to act as satire on the real-world state of affairs, but it also feels like a logical extension of our own culture — something that maybe isn’t happening right now but certainly could happen. I love everything about Nightcrawler. It’s absolutely fantastic.

3. Noah — Does everyone recognize this as a classic unfairly overlooked in its time yet? No? Then my task remains incomplete. I wasn’t entirely sure how to feel about Noah on my first viewing; I knew that I liked it but was struggling to piece certain things together. Repeat viewings have settled it — Noah is great and even has flashes of outright genius here and there. The surface elements are all excellent, from the production design to the effects to the score to the cinematography to the editing and even to the acting — Russell Crowe is still playing an emblem of stoic, embattled masculinity, but it comes off as more textured here, something that emerges very naturally from the established traits and motives of the character. It’s what’s under the surface that makes the film soar; despite the marketing, it’s no mere blockbuster. The more I watch the film, the more I think Noah’s character arc is its strongest element; he wrestles with so many questions regarding man’s relationship to God, the nature of morality with or without a higher power, the darkness and light inherent to human nature, and quite a lot more, all of which resonated with me because of how closely they mirrored some of my own experiences. The film expresses these questions beautifully, telling its story not as an adaptation of the source material but as a commentary on its spiritual and cultural significance. Like I’ve said time and time again — if I get my way, this is going to be the Blade Runner of the early 2010s. History needs to remember this one.


2. The LEGO Movie — Believe me, this shocks me as much as it shocks you. If you’d told me — and most other reviewers, for that matter — in 2013 that, in 2014, I’d declare The LEGO Movie one of the best films of the year, I’d either have laughed you out of the room or assumed that 2014 was set to be a legendarily awful time for cinema. But here we are — The LEGO Movie is one of the best films of 2014, and not for lack of competition. It’s just that good. If nothing else, 2014 is going to be remembered as the year that Phil Lord and Chris Miller arrived — their previous projects had been good enough, but the one-two punch of 22 Jump Street and The LEGO Movie proved they were genuine talents (with, apparently, an exclusive interest in making great movies out of unlikely premises). The LEGO Movie isn’t just a well-made piece of entertainment (though it’s super fun all the same); it’s dense and complex in its storytelling, its humor, and even its themes. On one hand, it’s a fun, funny little movie about plastic toy people having an adventure; on the other, it’s a deconstruction of the “chosen one” archetype and a commentary on childhood and family. Of course, I can’t conclude without mentioning that the animation is absolutely resplendent; Lord and Miller went the extra mile in filling out the absurd little world they created and making sure every corner of every frame was packed with detail and imagination. The LEGO Movie absolutely should not be as good as it is; in the hands of any other studio and any other director, it’d almost definitely be a soulless piece of cinematic merchandising. Instead, it’s a really great…piece of cinematic merchandising. Hey, it is a LEGO movie. Honestly, I’m grateful we got something so wonderful out of this unlikely setup. This is a movie the kids of today will be showing to their own children 20 years from now.

And my favorite movie of 2014 is…


1. Boyhood — Don’t lie; you all saw that coming. It might not have been as obvious as Her taking the top slot in 2013 was, but I’ve still spent the better part of a year raving about this one. Honestly, I never considered it an outright guarantee for the top slot; it struck me, upon my first viewing, as the sort of thing that might not play as well the second time. Fortunately, it did — better, in fact. I think of Richard Linklater as being not so much a great storyteller (though he can be, when it suits him) but a great cultural documentarian. No one is better than him at capturing the feeling of a certain time and place and age. Boyhood feels like the movie to which his entire career has been building, weaving together his fascinations with time and culture and people’s relationship to both into a singular epic that captures the evolution of a generation through the eyes of one kid. What’s so striking to me about Boyhood is the way it’s simultaneously so broad and so specific. It adopts a lot of nuance — in the characters, in the relationships, in the generational shifts, in the cultural trivia — so that the film always feels like it belongs to a specific point in human history, but it also captures, perhaps because rather than in spite of that, the feeling of growing up and moving on, something universal to all of us, regardless of age. I don’t always find myself in the characters; their experiences diverge from mine. But I do watch the scenes where the kids are fighting for their parents’ attention or their dad has taken everyone bowling or the family’s first camping trip or those first crushes or those post-high-school anxieties and find that the feeling of them is immediately recognizable to me. Boyhood is the story of one person’s life, but it’s also the story of all our lives. It was great the first time I watched it but absolutely transcendent the second time. It’s well written, well directed, well acted, insightful, emotionally involving, and honest. I can’t think of a worthier film to name the year’s best.

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Starring- Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Djimon Hounsou, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Benicio Del Toro

Director- James Gunn

PG-13- intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for some language


Guardians of the Galaxy is some kind of masterpiece of idiot cinema. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a dumb action movie more open and confident in its awareness that its viewers are only there to watch some cool explosions and laugh themselves silly that subsequently delivers exactly that, and only that, with such gusto. It doesn’t try to be smart, it doesn’t bother itself with grit and realism, and it barely even tries to do that pesky “story” thing.

I kind of love it a lot.

Marvel’s kind of starting to frustrate me a little bit now — I want to keep complaining at it for being the driving force behind franchise mania, but no other studio is making as many movies that appeal directly to the squealing eight-year-old in me. And believe me, my inner child was totally mesmerized throughout the entirety of this stupid, stupid movie.

It opens with outlaw Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) — who calls himself Star Lord — stealing an artifact from a desolate planet with the intention of selling it. It turns out he’s not the only one who wants it — Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), a vengeful Kree angry about his people’s peace treaty with the Nova Corps, is also after it.

So is Ronan’s traitorous former assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), who tries to steal it from Quill only to find that he’s as persistent as he is full of himself. Then, bounty hunters Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper) and Groot (voice of Vin Diesel) decide to take advantage of the chaos and collect the price on Quill’s head, leading to a fight that lands all four of them in prison.

They decide to put their differences aside and team up with fellow inmate Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) in an escape attempt, after which all five reinvent themselves as the Guardians of the Galaxy — the only force standing between Ronan and intergalactic genocide.

And then there’s some explosions and some jokes, and that’s about all there is to it, really. You can’t accuse Guardians of the Galaxy of not knowing what it is. It knows it’s dumb — not in the sense that it’s constantly winking about it (though there’s a tiny bit of that, in acceptable moderation). There are dumb movies that are dumb and have absolutely no clue, and they’re pretty easy to identify. Guardians, though — Guardians knows it’s the new dumbest thing in the history of forever, and it just doesn’t care. So, it plays that totally straight and wears its dumbness like a badge of honor. It’s also one of the most brazenly weird movies I’ve seen in ages. I mean, you knew that already; two out of the five heroes are a talking raccoon and a sentient tree, respectively. And really, that’s just scraping the surface of this movie’s bottomless pit of weird. There’s something liberating about the way Guardians of the Galaxy just does whatever the heck it wants.

Storytelling is not, in this instance, something that particularly captures its fancy. Guardians of the Galaxy is action-heavy bordering on pervasive. This movie is 95 percent laser guns and space ships. The little dialogue bits between big, stupid action sequences only serve to get you from one place to the next and sometimes, barely, to establish something about the characters or the universe they inhabit.

Unsurprisingly, the pacing is a little on the fast side, and character development tends to happen in spurts. The climax just kind of gets thrown at you out of nowhere, and its stakes are high only in the numbers sense and not in terms of their personal connections to the characters.

And I’ll never say this again, but honestly — who cares? Guardians of the Galaxy is fun. Remember when movies used to be fun? We would go to the theater to see Indiana Jones jump around on top of moving vehicles, and it wouldn’t bother us that the villains never annihilated an entire city or that the heroes never sat down to wallow in personal-issues misery. We liked humor more than grit and fantasy more than stark realism.

And lest we forget, films like Raiders of the Lost Ark are not pieces of storytelling. They are extraordinarily well-mounted spectacles that specialize in getting you from one set piece to the next with efficiency and interest and successfully speckling the spaces in between with dashes of heart. Guardians of the Galaxy is, in a lot of ways, the Raiders of dumb pulp sci-fi. It gets you from Point A to Point B with a sense of fun, passion, and wild imagination. If anything, my complaints about the breakneck pacing have less to do with how it bogged down the experience and more with the fact that it left me wanting even more. This movie is over two hours long, but it feels like a brisk hour and fifteen.

And either way, Guardians of the Galaxy only ever needed to get two things right: character and chemistry. On those points, it delivers in a big way. Ladies and gentlemen, Marvel Comics just did the impossible: It elevated the Guardians of the Galaxy to potential A-list superheroes. These are wonderful characters who play off each other perfectly and who are each portrayed by the absolute best actor for the part.

Mostly, they’re hilarious. Guardians of the Galaxy is funnier than most of the outright comedies I see in a year. It even puts The Avengers to shame on this front. I don’t know that there’s a single bit in this movie that falls completely flat, and there are a lot of bits. Moreover, they’re character-driven bits that find humor in the commonplace interactions of this band of idiots and miscreants. The humor doesn’t come at the expense of your ability to take each individual scene seriously — well, as seriously as one takes as movie such as this.

It’s not surprising that Rocket and Groot are funny. They were marketed as the movie’s Those Two Guys. And anyway, they’re a raccoon and a tree. It’s also not surprising that Quill is funny. Chris Pratt is arguably the best thing about Parks & Recreation, a show funny enough that it’d still be funny if he wasn’t in it.

I think, approaching this movie, I was skeptical about Gamora and Drax. They seemed like characters I’d seen before. I figured Gamora for the hard-edged, quiet, assassin type, and I figured Drax for the dark, self-serious warrior guy. Gamora, unfortunately, does, to an extent, live up to expectations, though the script is kind enough to at least give her plenty to do within that context. She might not contribute much to the comedy, but she’s part of the reason it works — somebody’s got to be around to do the “surrounded by idiots” routine, after all.

Drax, though — and in a larger sense, Dave Bautista — was a genuine surprise. He is, by a comfortable mile, the funniest character in this movie. A lot of that’s the writing, and a lot of that’s Bautista’s pitch-perfect comedic performance — the kind of thing that, played right going forward, could easily make him the next Dwayne Johnson, a real breakout from professional wrestling into an acting career. In a lot of ways, Drax actually is the character you’d expect him to see — he is dark, brooding, and self-serious. But the movie plays all three of those things to the absolute extreme, so far over-the-top that they become the funniest things about him. Then, you throw in the fact that Drax speaks like a warrior poet, is totally incapable of understanding sarcasm and figures of speech, and is also kind of a moron, and you’ve got a recipe for comedy gold. Seriously, the guy is already one of my favorite fictional characters. Marvel could announce tomorrow that they were making a Drax the Destroyer spin-off movie, and my response would be, “That’s probably a very stupid idea, and where can I buy the tickets?”

Guardians is, at its heart, a team movie that needs to focus more on the dynamic between the characters than on any particular protagonist. And every single one of them fits perfectly into the personality of the crew: Quill’s overly self-confident idiocy, Gamora’s surly independence, Rocket’s grumbling sarcasm and innate meanness, Groot’s huggableness, and Drax’s…everything. You quickly get adjusted to the way these characters behave around one another, and the movie never takes a step with them that rings false.

And that’s the reason why Guardians, despite being an action movie with an extremely limited interest in anything else, works emotionally, to the extent that it needs to. The action sequences here aren’t terribly dark affairs, and the movie isn’t shooting for the tone of, say, The Lord of the Rings, which every other blockbuster seems to be doing these days. They’re never too long or too chaotic, and more importantly, director James Gunn is smart enough to ensure that the action reaffirms aspects of the characters and sometimes introduces new ones. Things are exploding gloriously, yes, but they are doing so in such a way that we’re seeing how each of these people approach problems and life in general.

This is how Guardians of the Galaxy — and this is kind of shocking — actually manages to be a thematically complete movie. Each of the Guardians is subtly damaged in one way or another — Quill is carrying around some guilt over the circumstances surrounding his mother’s death; Gamora is dealing with a troubled past that stripped her identity down and left her unsure of her place in the universe; Drax is driven exclusively by hatred and revenge, both of which cloud his judgment; Rocket feels like a freak and a monster and hates the way everyone condescends to him all the time; and Groot…well, okay, Groot is just a big lug with the mind of a small child, but even he’s important in the sense that Rocket clings to him. He’s the only friend Rocket has who’s incapable of seeing him as inferior. The movie mainly hints at these things and doesn’t waste time pontificating or overburdening the plot with misery. But it gives you a real sense of the space that the Guardians end up filling for each other. You could argue that the ultimate point of Guardians is that all these messed-up criminal sorts really need is a friend. And yes — that is simple and dumb and cheesy, and I think the movie even realizes that. It treats the whole thing with enough sincerity to make its characters’ growing connection actually a bit touching, but it also slyly acknowledges the childishness of the whole ordeal — the scene where Drax discovers the Magical Healing Power of Friendship is probably my favorite bit in the whole movie. (“This dumb tree, it is my friend.”)

Huh. It’s almost like Guardians of the Galaxy is secretly kind of intelligent. Very secretly. Like, buried way down. Way beneath the machine-gun-wielding raccoon and Benicio del Toro dressed like a member of a funk band with a sci-fi twist. And only intelligent in the way that it delivers its totally brainless goods. But it is there. And there’s something of a beating heart buried right next to it.

Guardians of the Galaxy is an absolute blast. Awesomely stupid pop sci-fi is back, people. Rejoice.

-Matt T.