My year end list: movies

I always look forward to Quentin Tarantino’s favourite movies list at the end of the year because his choices usually diverge from those of most critics. Homogeneity in film criticism continues to irk me, but such is life. This year, more so than last year, I found myself disliking most of the critics’ picks. I typically avoid films that critics compare to the work of David Cronenberg or David Lynch, and anything that might be described as a commentary on loneliness, isolation, or despair. Also, on those rare occasions where I read a review of a film before seeing it, I am likely to run in the opposite direction if a critic uses the following words or phrases: “American dream”; “pitiless”; “audacious”; “alienation”; “class warfare”; “character study”; and “uncompromising intensity.” With that out of the way, here’s my list.

A Walk among the Tombstones

Why hasn’t anyone seen this? Noirish crime thriller. Rumpled private eye played by the craggy Liam Neeson. I bet he smells like Pinaud Bay Rum aftershave and that he cleans his teeth with a knife. Although the film is dark, and goes to places I didn’t expect, protagonist Matthew Scudder isn’t really all that dark. He’s a practical sort of fellow, and seems to have come to terms with the darkness around him. Yeah, he’s wounded like any great private detective, but he doesn’t have that self-loathing we’ve come to expect from the genre. Also, this is the only fun thriller released this year. Remember when thrillers were entertaining and didn’t need labels like “old school” to prove their charms?

Boyhood

Along with Guardians of the Galaxy, this is probably the most critic-friendly choice on my list. Critics often associate Linklater with the art house renaissance of the 1990s, but I think this does a disservice to how accessible his films are to people wary of pretension and cleverness. Boyhood is full of small moments that hit me on a gut level, conjuring half-remembered sensations from my childhood. It sort of washed over me, leaving something behind that I can’t describe. A feeling of peace maybe?

Edge of Tomorrow

How is that I am able to continue enjoying movies starring Tom Cruise? Think of it as a talent. Anyway, Edge of Tomorrow is surprisingly intelligent for a film that combines Groundhog Day with an alien invasion. Nothing new here, but Doug Liman has a unique ability to elevate predictable genre material. In other words, this is probably the best Groundhog Day/Starship Troopers hybrid you’re ever going to see. Of all the movies on my list, this qualifies as the session beer.

Grand Budapest Hotel

I don’t really get Wes Anderson’s films. They remind me of bow ties. I would never wear a bow tie, but when I see someone else wearing one I get a small pang of jealousy. Grand Budapest Hotel is ostentatious and self-indulgent. It’s not particularly funny, and like Anderson’s other films, it doesn’t really let you in. But, it nevertheless remains a feast, and I am happier for knowing it exists. I doubt I will ever watch it again, but thinking about it makes me both smile and shake my head dismissively.

Guardians of the Galaxy

The Star Wars comparisons are to be expected, given that everyone seems to be looking for that surprising gem that silences all cynicism with childlike wonder. Guardians does a pretty damn good job of guiding the audience away from their better judgment. Wait, there’s a talking raccoon? Oh, of course there is. I found myself breathless about twenty minutes in, and I couldn’t talk properly after leaving the theatre. To me, this is a film about joy, and you have to open yourself up to it. It can’t do the work for you.

Interstellar

Guardians of the Galaxy is more fanciful space opera than hard science fiction, and although the terrible Under the Skin has attracted some attention as SF, Interstellar is the only good example of the genre that I saw this year. It pales in comparison to SF literature of course, but filmically, it’s impressive and ambitious. I don’t think I’m being hyperbolic when I say it’s the best SF film of the decade. If the film has a weakness, it’s in its balancing of the personal story of love and loss with the SF elements, but it does it better than almost anything else I can think of now.

Life Itself

Roger Ebert’s legacy is that he read all the same fancy books that “serious” critics read, and he liked many of the same “challenging” movies, but he was able to talk about them in a way that functional human beings could understand. The documentary takes the usual difficult man approach, presumably to avoid being a puff piece. It seems to me, however, that Ebert was rather simple; he took films personally, as any good critic should.

Magic in the Moonlight

There are two types of people in the world: those who immediately fall in love with Woody Allen and those learn to appreciate his work. I’m in the second camp. For a long time I resented my film buff friends’ appreciation for Allen, but in the last seven or eight years I’ve become more and more enamoured with his storytelling. If you want to approach Magic in the Moonlight as a romantic comedy, you can certainly do that, but given Allen’s background in magic and his appreciation for Houdini, I like to think of this film as a commentary on deception and how we deceive ourselves. I also think there’s something in there about the sadness of reason and intelligence. You have to give something up to try to see the world clearly, and for some people, the cost is too high.

Particle Fever

I am one of those people who constantly has to relearn physics. I study it in spurts, have a few epiphanies, and then forget everything. Nevertheless, I am pro-science, and I can often get my wonder drug through osmosis alone. I think I felt everything a scientist might feel watching this doc. I am shocked by how little enthusiasm people have for the Large Hadron Collider. Come on, this is important! Why? Mysteries of the universe! Just watch the damn movie.

An Honest Liar

An Honest Liar is a fairly standard bio-doc, and it’s hardly perfect. It almost completely falls apart near the end, and the kickstarter campaign wasn’t managed well. Despite its faults, the film rises above its limitations. I am probably biased because I love James Randi, magic, and skepticism, but I can’t really help that, can I? When the documentary works it’s fantastic, and there’s enough there to get you over the bumpy bits like the awkward handling of Randi’s personal life.