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Reeling it in: The best and worst of 2014

Posted: January 8, 2014 - 7:55pm
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This film publicity image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan Baker and Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway in a scene from "The Great Gatsby." (AP Photo/Warner Bros. Pictures)  AP
AP
This film publicity image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan Baker and Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway in a scene from "The Great Gatsby." (AP Photo/Warner Bros. Pictures)

Every year I start this column off with some kind of sweeping statement about the year in film. “This was a good year for movies,” or, “This was a terrible year for movies.” Right now, all the critics are out there saying, “This is an amazing year for movies,” because they just saw “12 Years a Slave” or “American Hustle” or the new, bizarre love story “Her” which chronicles an affair between Joaquin Phoenix and his iPhone. (Naturally none of these movies are playing here, yet...)

All those same critics, however, were talking about what a bankrupt year it was when “The Lone Ranger” and “Pacific Rim” were tanking, but were singing praises while “Iron Man 3” was breaking box office records. It’s all up and down, and the movies that stick in people’s heads, the movies that win the awards, are usually the ones that feel the least corporate, but have the most money to spend on distribution and advertising, and come out during the last few weeks of the year. It’s the same thing, over and again. Lucky for me, I love the movies, so every year for me is a great one in film. Here are a few highlights, in no particular order, of the sixty-two 2013 films I got to see this year, followed by a few that made me think twice.

“Iron Man 3”

Robert Downy Jr.’s third solo outing as the billionaire playboy superhero genius worked great on several different levels. As escapist action adventure, few could hope to top it, but it was more than that. With subversive humor, big surprise twists, and great acting, “Iron Man 3” did something franchises rarely even attempt to achieve. It brought the character of Tony Stark full circle from where he started in “Iron Man” in the most fulfilling way possible.

“The Great Gatsby”

This was one of my favorite films of the year and is probably on exactly no other top ten lists you’ll read. Yes, the Baz Luhrmann extravaganza had problems, but it attempted to do something that Hollywood always shies away from. It took a great work of literature, something most people look at as homework and it brought it to life in the biggest, brightest way possible. This isn’t an adaptation that’s been glossed over and dumbed down, however, it’s one where Luhrmann is taking a work of art he clearly adores and using his unique skill to bring that art to life on the big screen. From the music to the cinematography to the production values, there is no one that can deny that “Gatsby” is labor of love.

“The Conjuring”

“The Conjuring” is not a movie I would have expected to like so much, but this very tightly composed tale of two real life ghost hunters coming face to face with a supernatural force kept me on the edge of my seat for the entire run-time. It’s also refreshing to see a movie made for adults, but without all the sex, language, and gore. “The Conjuring” is rated R, it’s true, but it’s for being scary, and little else. What else does it need to be?

“Blackfish”

I saw several documentaries this year, thanks, in part, to the Homer Documentary Film Festival, but one of the most riveting was “Blackfish,” the tale of a particular killer whale, Tilikum, who has been involved in the deaths of at least three people. Broadly an indictment of the practices of SeaWorld, “Blackfish” asks you to question at what cost do we continue to hold captive members of this gentle, long-lived, emotional, and seemingly sentient species.

“Gravity”

Wow. What a ride. “Gravity” was one of the most purely exciting and tense films I saw all year. An almost entirely visual experience, this high flying disaster movie features one of Sandra Bullock’s best performances to date. Alfonso Cuaron’s stunning and massive shots of the earth from space, however, are clearly the star of the movie.

“Captain Phillips”

If “Gravity” was tense and exciting in an entertaining way, “Phillips” is the same, but not nearly as much fun. Tom Hanks is great as the titular captain of a hijacked container vessel off the coast of Africa, but the break-out performance from Somali-born immigrant Barkhad Abdi is nothing less than chilling. Director Paul Greengrass has set the bar high for other action-dramas.

“Catching Fire”

I liked “The Hunger Games,” but you can definitely see how it’s feeling its way, trying to find its footing. “Catching Fire,” on the other hand feels much more assured as it follows the travails of the ever more impressive Katniss Everdeen. Also ever more impressive is actress Jennifer Lawrence, who’s rise can be described only as meteoric. Luckily we’ve got her on the hook for two more in this series, and, considering that she seems to have her head on straight, a whole career’s worth of great movies.

“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”

Ben Stiller, in adapting James Thurber’s classic short story, has created something beautiful and sweet and funny and inspiring. That other critics are disparaging this lovely film is a travesty. Had I been able to see some of the films I mentioned in the first paragraph, or “The Wolf of Wall Street,” which comes out this weekend, some of the above films would likely have been knocked off the list. But not this one. “Walter Mitty” was easily one of the best movies of the year.

Being a parent, I love big splashy animation, and being me, I love big splashy summer blockbusters, and this was a good year for both. The kids and I had a great time at “Monsters University,” “Despicable Me 2” and especially “Frozen” which seemed to set a new standard for Disney princess fare. On the other side of the coin, while the rock ‘em, sock ‘em “Pacific Rim” seriously under-performed, I thought it was great fun. And in a startling turn of events, the Brad Pitt zombie epic “World War Z” seriously over-performed (how often does that happen?!) virtually guaranteeing a sequel. Bring it on!

“Identity Thief”

One of my favorite actors, Jason Bateman, and one of the hottest new comediennes in Hollywood, Melissa McCarthy, managed to make a movie that was neither hot nor anywhere near my favorite. This nonsensical road-trip buddy comedy is only for those who thought “The Hangover” was a little too highbrow. This movie is also an object lesson for McCarthy: “You’re the ‘it-girl’ right now. You don’t have to take everything that comes along. When considering a new project, look at the script, think about what made “The Heat,” a good movie, different from this mess, and act accordingly.”

“A Good Day to Die Hard”

I saw this movie on a plane, and honestly, almost nothing comes to mind. It was bad, I know that, but so lightweight that the plot, other than a few explosions, are completely gone. I could probably come closer to telling you the exact odometer reading on my car than I could tell you what happened to the villain in this movie. Needless to say, this is not what you want in your Bruce Willis action flick. “Yippee Kay-yay, mother ... oh who cares anymore?”

“Oz The Great and Powerful”

Sam Raimi directed this mess, and it’s too bad because the first few minutes are good fun and a nice companion piece to the original classic. Once we get to Oz, however, things go off the rails pretty quickly, finally cumulating in a terrible performance by Mila Kunis as the Wicked Witch of the West. This trip to Oz turns out to be a huge waste of time.

“The Internship”

“The Internship” is a great example of inappropriate casting. The characters of Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson, trying to break into the world of Google, should be a fun fish-out-of-water story, except for the fact that these two actors are simply way too young. I never once bought the premise, which made the movie a bit of a chore. Also a chore, the twenty minute strip club sequence on the “unrated” version.

“Kick-Ass 2”

What a disappointment, considering the subversive glee with which “Kick-Ass” snubbed its nose at traditional super-hero films. This time around Kick-Ass, Hit Girl, and a cadre of pathetic losers try to keep their names in the spotlight by fighting, alternately, jaywalkers, the mob, or each other.

“Lee Daniel’s The Butler”

Considering how the public, and many critics, flocked to this movie in droves, I can pretty much guarantee it didn’t make many “Worst Of” lists, but to me this movie feels like a sham. Some of the sequences depicting the early days of the Civil Rights movement are masterfully done, but most of the movie is over-dramatic, silly, and completely implausible, especially considering the marketing suggesting it’s based on a true story. More closely resembling a lesser “Forrest Gump,” I found the movie, unfortunately considering the importance of the times it chronicles, laughable.

“Machete Kills”

It may seem a little pointless to put a movie that is designed to be bad on a list of the year’s worst, but I’m sick of these quirky exercises in intentionally trashy filmmaking. What was cute in small doses has become tedious and annoying. Robert Rodriguez needs to go back to making actual movies before someone decides that trash is all he knows how to do.

“The Counselor”

This is easily the worst movie of the year. Legendary director Ridley Scott teamed with a hugely talented cast and a Pulitzer Prize winning author to create the most unwatchable piece of junk I’ve had to sit through in a long time. The only character with any redeeming qualities ends up beheaded and dumped in a landfill, but not before we have to sit through Cameron Diaz having sex with a car. Don’t ask — it’s just as disturbing as it sounds. My friends and I walked out literally stunned after this one.

The Rest

Two movies I really didn’t like, but couldn’t really put my finger on why were “Snitch” and “Gangster Squad,” neither of which are completely awful, but rather huge missed opportunities. “Squad” squanders the chance to revisit the glory days of “L.A. Confidential” and “The Untouchables,” with a lot of hammy acting, and “Snitch” makes the misstep of casting The Rock as a normal everyday guy who gets caught up in the dangerous world of drug smuggling. The Rock isn’t a normal everyday guy. I kept wondering when he was going to wake up and tear the entire cartel down with his bare hands but instead he does a lot of researching on the internet and talking to lawyers. This should have starred Greg Kinnear or Paul Giamatti, not one of the toughest men in America.

That wraps it up for the 2013. 2014 has plenty to look forward to, with a new “Captain America” movie and another “Spider-Man” in the works, as well as a few other, non-superhero movies, as well. But if you’re trying to handicap next year’s Best Picture race, it’s probably safest to wait until sometime around December 10 and start your picks then.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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