With the month of June coming to a close, we've reached the halfway point of 2014. As I annually do, it's time to rank what has been seen so far. The goal is always to get to a full and complete year-end "10 Best" in December, and we know the end of the year is always back-loaded with the major awards contenders. That doesn't mean the winter, spring, and summer haven't offered a few winners that deserve credit.
Here are my picks for the "Best of 2014 (so far)" with a halfway count of the five best instead of the full ten. Half the year equals half the list. It must be said, that I have far from seen every possible 2014 film entry. Plenty of mainstream and arthouse films have eluded me and my busy schedule, but there is enough to talk about here. Despite being on vacation last week and missing "How To Train Your Dragon 2" and "22 Jump Street," I'm pretty confident that those two sequels and the remainder of the June slate which includes "Think Like a Man Too," "Jersey Boys" and "Transformers: Age of Extinction" aren't going to make a dent in this list. As always, in matching with the theme of my website, I couple the best-so-far selection with the film's best life lesson. Enjoy!
These films just missed the cut as four-star reviews:
There are just two. Everything else is three stars and under, or didn't even get seen. There are some smaller celebrations out there, like the sexual tension and fun of "That Awkward Moment" the football fan geek-out of "Draft Day," and the serious balls of "Godzilla," but all were still a large step down from being called the best of the year at this point. As aforementioned, the end of the year is loaded with contenders to knock out these early five. I predict just #1 and #2 from this list survive when the snow settles on 2014 this December. For a look at the films I'm circling as 2015 Oscar contenders coming out this year, check out my early prognostication editorial that I wrote the day after this year's Academy Awards. Until then, enjoy the movies!
#1: "The Grand Budapest Hotel"
For the second year in a row, I'm choosing art over dazzle. Last year in this position, "The Place Beyond the Pines" topped "Man of Steel." This year old school beats new school with Wes Anderson's "The Grand Budapest Hotel." In my review, I couldn't stop showering its praises from both the writing and performance ends and to the superior technical and artistic talent on display. It's 2014's most perfect and complete film so far. This was a no-doubter for me.
ITS BEST LESSON: REMEMBERING AND EXPERIENCING A DECLINE OF GREATNESS-- This film's story is a passed down saga of oral history, experienced by a former lobby boy reminiscing to the fascinated audience of an eager writer who appreciates the former greatness being described. Every little dated old place in this world, from a declining grand hotel all the way down to a simple park bench, were once new, were once perfect, and have been the setting for someone's greatest moments and fondest memories. Like many say often: "If these walls could talk." Those old places and objects might not look their best anymore, but they are still special to everyone who had those experiences. People have their periods of greatness too that decline with age. The unassuming old man you see on a bus or in an obituary may look unremarkable, but, chances are, they too have their own poignant and rigorous history and stories.
#2: "Captain America: The Winter Soldier"
At #2 is where the dazzle takes over. For the second year in a row, I've got a comic book masterpiece at this spot. When I said in my review that "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" might be the best Marvel film to date, I wasn't lying. Superior to its original, it may not be the most action-packed or funny, but it's the best actual film. The deft merger of a superhero adventure with the tones of a political thriller was simply brilliant and thrilling. The movie has an edge and a smartness above the usual superhero episodes of staged action. This one has meaning and impact. If it holds up, "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" should be the perfect lead-in to "The Avengers: Age of Ultron" sequel next summer no matter what buzz "Guardians of the Galaxy" can kick up in August. "The Grand Budapest Hotel" and "Captain America: The First Avenger" garnered my only five-star reviews so far in 2014. Those are the cream of the crop.
ITS BEST LESSON: STAYING A GOOD MAN-- This is the part of the review where it's hard to not reveal spoilers. I could do better, but I will stay general. The first lesson is a repeat from "Captain America: The First Avenger." While able to do things above and beyond his fellow soldiers as the reluctant government agent and historical icon, Steve Rogers retains the chivalrous, courageous, and heroic traits of that Brooklyn kid who won't back down from any challenge or bully. Fame and power don't change him, rather it enhances the initiative, effort, and cause towards what he can accomplish to only be greater.
#3: The Lego Movie
All you Disney fans out there can have the formulaic "Frozen" from last year. This manic adventure is where original family entertainment should get its new measuring stick for the next decade. This is how you dazzle. Just as the theme song repeats, "everything is awesome" about "The Lego Movie." It has something for everyone. The storytelling, humor, inventiveness, wonder, pacing, and vocal performances are all above and beyond its recent animated peers. Never before has a blatant product placement movie been this effectively created with quality. This is not just a good family film, but a great one.
ITS BEST LESSON: CONFORMITY ISN'T THE ONLY WAY TO FIT IN AND SUCCEED-- In the end, "The Lego Movie" is talking about happiness and finding pleasure in whatever pursuit you have. Too many people, in and out of the movie, think that conformity is the best and sometimes only way to fit in and succeed. However, we all know that the world is equally helped and shaped by the radical thinkers and their ideas. We all contribute and all get to bring our own strengths and abilities to the masses in our own way. Sometimes that doesn't have be like your neighbor's.
The highest rated four-star movie I've seen so far this year is a no-doubter. When people have asked me what movie they need to see this summer, I haven't told them "The Amazing Spider-Man 2," "Godzilla," "Neighbors," or other blockbusters. I've been beating the drum for Jon Favreau's little passion project about a failed high-end chef that regains his passion for his craft by going back to his smaller roots, which echoes the writer/director himself. The film has broad appeal on all levels spanning foodie love, romantic comedy notes, workplace strife, social media connection, family drama, and flashy locales and celebrity appearances. This is the best date movie I've seen so far this year and that date doesn't even have to be a romantic one. It can be you and a take-out menu.
ITS BEST LESSON: THE FINER DEFINITION OF FATHER-SON "QUALITY TIME"-- When you take the food away, "Chef" is about becoming a better father to your kid. "Quality time" isn't just going out and doing things while together. It's about removing the "while" and actually doing them together. A few hours, days, or weeks actually completing tasks, talking, and learning together beats any movie, show, roller coaster ride, or shared activity that lacks real interaction. Do things with your kids, not just show them things. Talk with them, not to them. Put in real effort and you'll be a real parent with a real relationship with your children.
#5: "The Railway Man"
Here's where the arthouse gets its props on my list. After seeing this film combined with his recent award-winning resume, I have been prepared to call Colin Firth the second-best British actor of his generation after triple Best Actor winner Daniel Day-Lewis. "The Railway Man" is a fascinating and involving true story of World War II post-traumatic implications told with past flashback and present forgiveness. Firth does an excellent job in the lead and brings out the best Nicole Kidman performance in years to boot. This is a stellar smaller film that you need to put on your radar.
ITS BEST LESSON: WHEN IS REVENGE DESERVED AND WHEN IS FORGIVENESS DESERVED-- The punishment and torture young Eric Lomax experienced is inhumane, cruel, and unjustifiable. For most who witness this or experience it, the atrocities go beyond even the strongest belief of "turn the other cheek" or acceptance of the soldier's exemption of "just following orders." There is a fascinating and powerful struggle in this story of what is deserved more, revenge or forgiveness, and how one can be healed by either action.