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Top Ten Movies of 2014

Let’s be frank: 2014 was a killer year for film. It was so murderous, you could call it Lou Bloom; so voluptuous, you could call it Eva Green. It was so sweet and sexy, you could call it Hello Kitty. If you were amongst the ranks of dissenters, whining on some Lazy-E-boy somewhere about how there weren’t enough Trans4mers movies or Hercules adaptations, you’re wrong. That’s all there is to it. 2014 popped cherries. It was violently mayhemious, hallucinatorily glorious, redonkulously fist-to-facey and totally, wholeheartedly, unapologetically weepy (yeah, I teared up more than once, what’s it to you?).

2014 was the year that Bill Murray aped a grump, Tom Cruise aped Bill Murray and Andy Serkis aped an ape. It was a kick-to-the-shinception of a year with title releases that saw anal polyps pop in sexplotitation flicks (Wetlands), hammer fights (The Raid 2), Ridley Scott falling on his face (Exodus: Gods and Godhelpmethismovieisbad), doppelgängers galore (Enemy, et al.), hungry games (some that involved auto-cannibalism, some that didn’t), Christopher Nolan falling on his face (Inter-mitently-stellar), STDemons (It Follows), Walrusfurmations (Mr. Tusk, Tusk, Mr. Golden Tusk) and lots and lots of bloody bloody vengeance (too many to list.)

It told the tales of Martin Luther King (Selma), of James Brown (Get On Up), Stephen Hawking (The Theory of Everything), Alan Turring (The Imitation Game), John Du Pont (Foxcatcher), Cheryl Strayed (Wild), Noah (Noah), Roger Ebert (Life Itself), Robyn Davidson (Tracks), Alejandro Jodorowsky (Jodorowsky’s Dune), Maziar Bahari (Rosewater), Jimi Hendrix (All is By My Side), Dido Elizabeth Belle (Belle), Joe Albany (Low Down), Cesar Chavez (Cesar Chavez), Abraham Lincoln (The Better (more like worse! heyooo!) Angels), and a dude named Sky Lord.

This 14th year of the 21st century crammed every element possible into the indie box, shook it up and spurted it out like spicy hot cream. From sci-fi (Space Station ’76, Young Ones) to DIY game shows (Cheap Thrills, Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter), road trips (Chef, The Trip to Italy) to Twilights Zones (The One I Love, The Double), there was more buried treasure than a pirate map. Trouble is, with all these untrumpeted indie releases, you often do need a map to find them.

Maybe the fact that I attended three film festivals (Sundance, SXSW and SIFF) and was able to eke out some hidden gems that would go on to sneak past most audiences (and critics. Poor, lonely, lonely critics) helped me come to the assertion that 2014 rocked the socks off of c*cks but even without those underground, super covert, keep-them-secret-keep-them-safe riches, 2014 had a trove of wide-releases to match.

Those who guard galaxies, John Wicks, men with X’s in their names, Hobbitses, noir Liam Neesons, Godzillas and lobby boys all helped transformed the mass media cinema culture of 2014 into one worth remembering, even in the face of a fast approaching year that will see Han f*cking Solo behind the wheel of the Millennium f*cking Falcon.

Honorable mentions won’t be ticked off as we’re in the process of cranking out a top 100 movies of 2014 list and that does more than the duty of a normal man’s honorable mentions section. So ten tops and ten only. No funny business. No ties. No b*llshit. So strap in, check yourself before you wreck yourself and let’s make a f*cking list.

 

10. ENEMY

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If 2014 was a year about blowing minds, none did it more casually and assuredly than Denis Villenue‘s total tonal WTF-fest Enemy. Starring not one but two Jake Gyllenhaals, Enemy tracks a man coming to terms with his own fracturing identity. Or did it? This existential experiment about giant spiders, locks’n’keys, balls’n’chains, dreamscapes, unrelenting ambiguity and twinsies might at first appear to be a bundle of malarky but once you dig your heels into it and break it down like a certifiable horse whisperer, everything miraculously makes sense. Not necessarily in a 5+5=10 kind of makes sense way but I’m willing to content that I have an explanation for this film (that I won’t divulge here) that will convincingly put the many aggressively jigsawed pieces into satisfying place. As the unholy apex of violently disorienting endings, there’s yet to be a movie this year that tops the complete and total f*ck you that Enemy seemingly ends on and yet, going back over it all with a fine-toothed comb (or a scalpel, it’s really up to you) it’s a masterpiece of a mind-game that isn’t as unsolvable as the casual observer may assume. For blowing my mind and allowing me to eventually recover it, Enemy sneaks into the tenth spot.

“What occurs as Enemy progresses is quaking, the earth below your feet seems to tremor faster and faster, moving its way up the Richter scale. A floating Tarantula as big as a Goodyear blimp slinks its way over Toronto. A woman’s body with a Tarantula’s head walks upside down through a corridor. At 90 minutes, it shrinks and expands the mind, then ends abruptly with no questions answered. Enemy is a rollercoaster personally designed by the Devil. Twist and turn, crash and burn.” (Full Review)

9. THE GUEST

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Heading into last year’s Sundance Midnight Premiere of The Guest, I had nothing to go on save for the above image – an armed, robo-faced Arayan slipping through a blood-red colorscape with all the wrong kind of intent. The film that followed knocked me out (and this is after seeing five (!!!) films already that day). The Guest left me humming and high on transcended genre thrills, shellshocked from grenades and ringing in the ears from some large caliber weapon or other. I was hooked like a junkie on that sweet blue sky. Dan Stevens is a dream in the eponymous role, guiding us through Adam Wingard‘s hallucinatory and unapologetically violent landscape with the cold-hard gusto of a seasoned pro, forcing smiles, guffaws, sneers and drop jaws in equal, calculated doses. The concept of the film could be reduced to “What if Bourne malfunctioned?” and the result manages to feel fresh, even through curtain after curtain of homage. When I caught The Guest for a second time, I found that my initial enjoyment hadn’t been stayed so much as intensified – this was clearly one of the most entertaining films of the year and for it, has earned a spot on this list.

“Slam Drive and Stocker together, rub them down in a spicy 80’s genre marinate and sprinkle with mesmerizing performances and dollops of camp and you have The Guest. Like a turducken of genre, Adam Wingard‘s latest is a campy horror movie stuffed inside a hoodwinking Canon action flick and deep fried in the latest brand of Bourne-style thriller. It’s clever, tense, uproarious, and hypnotizing nearly ever second.” (Full Review)

8. DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES

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There were no blockbusters this year that came close to topping Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. I mean, the freakin’ thing had apes firing automatic weapons on horseback. And tanks. And some of the most harrowing depictions of war ever set to screen. And tanks. That’s because Reeve’s film dealt with the idea of the anatomy of war and of a war mentality with a kind of sobering ideology that so few blockbusters dare to touch. It’s war sans glory. There are no heroes, just a bunch of wounded f*ck-ups. Andy Serkis‘ monkey-work was arresting as always (green screen bling king) but it was Toby Kebbell who stole the show as the year’s best villain, the emotionally-and-physically scarred Koba. There were few scenes this year that were more powerful than when all-out warfare erupts at the hands of Koba. That 360 tank sequence was a dream within a nightmare but when Koba literally drags an unwilling soldier to his death, you realize that the dreams of revolution can only be written in bright red streaks. These were haunting moments of filmmaking somehow stuffed into a PG-13 movie about monkeys ruling the world. What the hell? But even when you strip back all the ambitious themes of the film, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is still a mighty entertaining piece of blockbuster fare with unbelievably perfect FX work and stunning camera work. It really does work on every level.

“As Reeve’s film leaks historical allegories like a zesty geyser, his political astuteness pans to a smart dissection of why we choose war in the first place. War is a side effect of fear, fear a scar of misunderstanding. Koba’s are scars that cannot be healed. Dreyfus won’t stand for Three-Fifths of a vote. Peace is a process. Wars start inevitably. It’s not that these two civilizations could not peacefully co-habitate, it’s that sometimes a punch in the face seems like a more swift resolution than drawn-out talks.” (Full Review)

7. THE RAID 2

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And then there’s Gareth Evans borderline genius The Raid 2; an action movie that makes guns look p*ssy-shaped in the face of a fury of hand-to-hand combat, that unloads scene after scene of inhumanely choreographed fistsplosions and that delivers perhaps the best martial arts movie of all time (or at least of the last decade). What this second Raid movie has over the first is a good story, and a damn good one at that. Like Internal Affairs and The Departed before it, The Raid 2 tells the tale of a deep cover agent, set with all the angsty check-behind-the-lamp paranoia and grueling psychological breaks that such a position demands. But that doesn’t really matter once the car chase scene rolls around and is filmed by a dude disguised as a seat cushion. Evans – who wrote this before he wrote and directed the first film – doesn’t skimp on the narrative gooeyness and when he eventually launches into a balls-to-the-walls orgy of violence that’ll have your blood pumping in ungodly, death-inviting spurts, you’ll know that you were born to behold this film. It’s just all so righteous.

“To try to boil down what is so sublimely excellent about The Raid 2: Berandal is a futile exercise in tilting at windmills. It’s like boxing a griffin, outthinking a Sicilian, or KY-Jelly wrestling an anaconda. Instead of trying to describe the irrepressible satisfaction this balls-to-the-walls, smarter-than-your-dad actioner elicits, instead conjure up what it felt like to lose your virginity, if you lost your virginity in a ten-on-one man brawl in a pit of mud.” (Full Review)

6. BOYHOOD

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Boyhood topped my most anticipated list for 2014 and for some time, I considered it my favorite film of the year. There is something undeniably magical about watching young Ellar Coltrane grow up before our very eyes in Richard Linklater‘s ambitious 12 year experiment and that something makes for a film that demands our uninterrupted empathy like few others have. It truly gave me all the feels. Some have confused Linklater’s long-gestated gimmick as a form of indie-cred beating off where it’s really just offbeat genius. Watching Boyhood for the second time didn’t ignite all the fiery passions that it had the first so it’s lost a little traction throughout the year with me, but nothing can make me forget that first magical experience I had with it, sitting amongst the first audience to behold its glory in a giant Sundance screening room. Revisiting the oh-so-true growing pains of adolescence was heart-rending enough but Boyhood really thrives in the quieter moments where we just sat back and watched an unextraordinary young boy mature, awkwardly bragging about hooking up with a girl from out of town, huffing back on a doobie and having the cavalier gaul to admit his highness to his mom, chatting with his dad about girls and Star Wars. It may be the film on this list that I’ll re-watch the least, but it shouldn’t be.

“Calling it a coming-of-age story feels slight as Boyhood tracks the joy and pain of growing up, one delicate moment at a time. We find ourselves in Macon, a perceptive youth, in his strength and in his weakness, in his whiny teenage angst and his youthful abandon, in his quasi-stoned prolific moments of reflection and his meekest helplessness.” (Full Review)

5. FURY

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I’m willing to admit that David Ayer‘s Fury is a bit of a mess. Then again, aren’t most of Tarantino’s films? (If you say no, I’d like to direct you to the Django Australian miner scene…) Django was my favorite movie of 2012 because it was big and weird and overwritten. And dazzling and savage and brilliant. It was great not in spite of its giddy flaws but because of them. Fury shares the same traits. Somewhere in the midst of it, the crew settles down to an impromptu dinner party (a scene that has divided critics and audiences alike). It sticks out from the rest of the movie like a sore thumb and yet is one of the most beautiful, affecting scenes of 2014. Then Ayer follows that up with Fury‘s tracer-fire highlighted Tiger tank battle and you can forgetaboutit. It’s a movie that works scene-to-scene maybe a touch better than it does as a whole but as an assemblage of scenes, Fury is a big, beautiful, bent out of shape ball of fire and I unabashedly loved it. Ayer dares to air out old things in new light (war as a job. As a mostly shitty but sometimes awesome job) and his film features the best ensemble cast work of the entire year. Push back all you want, Fury is here to stay.

“To boil Ayer’s masterful Fury down to “war is hell” is to ricochet off the mark. To call it a movie without subtext is to poke holes in a block of swiss. The themes stare you in the face, they thump into your cranium and they sick in your soul. They bear witness to wartime masculinity pig-piling on itself in a nasty, self-fulfilling  prophecy that causes and perpetuates war. The rally speeches become just as dangerous as the nuclear weapons. The hoorahs build into their own Manhattan Projects.” (Full Review)

4. NIGHTCRAWLER

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We’re getting down to the big ones at this point and there’s perhaps no movie bigger, bolder and more bonkers this year than Dan Gilroy‘s Nightcrawler. From the very moment we stumble upon Lou Bloom, the sociopath with a banker’s name, everything feels like a happy accident, as if Gilroy’s camera just happened upon this X-manly-purported slip of a human and decidedly followed him like a nightly news crew. But there’s no accidental filmmaking in Nightcrawler (there are many accidents, though mostly of the vehicular kind) and as Gilroy bends his titular Nightcrawler into bigger and odder shapes, he makes room for one of the most important and mind-altering filmic trips of the season. With the borders filled in by revivalist performances from Rene Russo and Bill Paxton – and a whole chunk of space dedicated to Riz Ahmed‘s consciously unconscious thespian discharge – Gilroy’s perfectly written diatribe to greed and America’s obsession with suburbian horrors becomes the most arresting and visceral thematic account of where we stand as a nation and featured the best performance of the year in Jake Gyllenhaal. Greed is good is dead. Long live all is greed. Long live Lou Bloom. Long live Jake Gyllenhaal.

“With a name as innocuous as Louis Bloom, you wouldn’t initially suspect the lead character of Nightcrawler to be so dangerous. But the virulent Lou is the kind of guy who dissolves into shadows; who feeds vampirically in the darkness. He’s not a villain so much as a force of nature. Silent but deadly. Throughout the film, Lou’s facial expressions percolate with a kind of serpentine other-worldliness. As if his tongue could dart from his mouth at any moment to nip at the night air. It doesn’t. He remains squarely within the realm of the human. No matter how inhumane he is. A testament to Dan Gilroy‘s narrow degree of restraint and Gyllenhaal’s tightrope-walking ability.” (Full Review)

3. WHIPLASH

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The fourth (and final) entry to this list that I caught at Sundance 2014, Whiplash knocked me on my ass. Adapted from an award-winning short film, Damien Chazelle‘s Full Metal Jazz Kit is a whirlwind of genre. It’s a sports movie blanketed in a war movie and punched in the face by a character study. JK Simmons roars as a drill sergeant of a conductor and we gratefully whimper in response. His performance is monsterous and marked by some of the best one-liners of the year (“That’s not your boyfriend’s d*ck; don’t come too early). Whiplash is a film that’s all about keeping tempo and getting walloped when you don’t. That beady stare that Fletcher’s perfected promises a hearty verbal wallops if not a lashing or two from those unnaturally muscled 60-year old guns. Like the most studious graduates of the school of hard rocks, Chazelle keeps tempo like Buddy Rich, chugging us along to a grand finale that is nothing short of grand. Really, really f*cking grand. If you don’t want to explode up from your seat with hands full of applause at curtain time, you’re probably deaf. Or at least tone deaf.

 “Through Chazelle’s assured hand and Blacklist-topping script, Whiplash is fantastically dynamic – a perfect ode to that musical constant acting a central catalyst to the film’s narrative. While students get smacked for being the slightest bit off tempo, Whiplash is unmistakably paced to precision –  the loving design of a satisfied perfectionist.” (Full Review)

2. GONE GIRL

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Ben Affleck‘s grin can eat shit like none other and only a genius like David Fincher could cast on a grin alone. If there’s but one linchpin moment to Gone Girl (there’s so many) it might be his solitary poo-scarfing beam. Planted next to his wife’s missing poster, smirking like a grinch, the man looks a positive jackass. And this is the brilliance of Gone Girl – to present two sides and make us uncomfortable choosing either. As much a dissection on media as it is on marriage, Gillian Flynn‘s adaptation of her own novel presents a darker Amy and a less reasonable Nick. In this dark tale, no one gets away with being called “amazing”. Backed up some of the best score work of the year (Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor solely backing Fincher’s horse is just too perfect to be true) and one-upped by the preeminent kill of the year, Gone Girl is a masterclass stroke of jet black intelligence.

“Always going, going, gone, David Fincher absolutely knocks it out of the park. Gone Girl is one of the best, and darkest, visions he’s ever dished up. Always one step before the action, Fincher demands we race to catch up. Each shot ends just marginally too quickly. His vision is frantic by design. Things get lost in the dark that are never recovered. You just have to pretend along with it.” (Full Review)

1. BIRDMAN

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Ka-KAW! Number one. Explosions in the sky. Theater in the streets. Birdman is the most relevant, important and downright entertaining film of the year. Kind of a comedy, kind of a drama and 100% a showcase of actors doing their best acting, Iñárritu’s jeremiad on the death and resurrection of art in the 21st century is as bitingly funny as it is boldfaced misunderstood. Existentialism has never seemed so moody and hysterical as Michael Keaton, Edward Norton and Emma Stone tear up the world stone-by-stone and try and piece it together to fit their narrow-minded narratives. Their undressings are their undoings and Iñárritu shoves the camera oh-so-perfectly down their throats. No film this year played with the mounting importance of social media, the unbecoming preeminence of superhero culture and the distressing role of celebrity status while meticulously piecing together a construct of high art like Birdman was able to and from the no-cut gimmick to a firing-on-all-cylinders ensemble cast, Birdman left me as intellectually rock hard as Mike Shiner on dress rehearsal night. No need to fade to black, this is what movies are made for. Period. The end.

“Steeped in an exacting degree of irreverent relevance, Iñárritu’s able to pull off the rare feat of raising existential questions in the same scene that he blows up a cityscape. It’s like seeing Black Swan and A Beautiful Mind fist-fighting in a Charlie Kaufman play; a crossroads of cinema and theater that’s entirely novel and entirely brilliant.” (Full Review)

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So there you have it. Ten magical films to cherish from henceforth until happily ever after. Ten Bountiful beauties that will transport you to a better (or worse) place, regardless of your potentially feeble headspace. No need to thank me, just doing my critic-y duty. If you happen to disagree, I’m willing to afford you one spoonful of words. Anything more than that is a waste of breath and probably warrants a punch in the mouth.

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Has the Summer of 2014 Been the Best in Years?

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Quite simply: yes. We’re not even mid-way into July and we’ve already seen the meteoric rise of many masterclass takes on the summer tentpole. With the nearly perfect Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the breathtaking X-Men: Days of Future Past, Tom Cruise‘s thrilling sci-fi actioner Edge of Tomorrow, Phil Lord and Chris Miller‘s hysterical 22 Jump Street, Dreamwork’s stunning and heart-breaking animated follow-up How to Train Your Dragon 2 and Gareth Edward‘s crazily awesome Godzilla, the season’s blockbusters have been just that: blockbusters.

We’re not even half way into the season and we’ve got more certifiable showstoppers than ever before. And we’re not just talking superhero movies, a facet that has made 2014 stand out even more. We’re talking a wide array of films with varying perspectives and takes on what is great about a summer blockbuster. They’ve topped the charts and for good reason: they’re quite simply good movies on a bigger scale, and we’ve only yet mentioned the hundred million dollar ones.

On the indie side, we’ve seen Bong Joon-ho‘s wildly unconventional Snowpiercer, David Michod’s deeply unsettling The Rover and Jim Mickle‘s unpredictable Cold in July, each made in the traditional of big screen excellence but seen by a smaller, more niche audience and using with a smaller change purse to make it happen. But even this independent cinema has unleashed a pantheon of unforgettable big screen debuts this summer season, each in the tradition of the summer tentpole.

And when we do add superhero movies into the mix, even the overrated Captain America: The Winter Soldier was solid as was The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (a vast improvement over the original). Plus we haven’t even gotten to Guardians of the Galaxy that’ll debut the beginning of August and has the potential to be a breakout hit.

And sure the vastly inferior Transformers: Age of Extinction and Maleficent may have shown them all up in the box office ring but we have to take into account that old habits die slow. People take time to learn what’s good for them. The aforementioned blockbusters are Filet Mignon, it just so happens that people are used to eating hamburger. But so long as we continue to praise these movies and show up to buy tickets for them, things may just continue to trend in a positive direction. I’m no box office guru but I know that at the theater, your money is your voice. Make sure that you’re speaking up for the ones that matter.

Taking into account this fact, just compare with me the quality of 2014 Summer’s blockbuster to recent summer seasons past and you’ll see just how easily it eclipses anything from the past few years. Last year held the decent to middling to just plain bad; Iron Man 3, Fast and Furious 6, Man of Steel, R.I.P.D., Star Trek into Darkness, Pacific Rim, The Heat, The Hangover 3, After Earth, White House Down, The Lone Ranger, Red 2. Sure I purposely left some of 2014 lesser films out of my analysis for the sake of making my argument but look at how many clunkers we have above. Just one after another.

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Blow for blow, 2014 trumps 2013 at every turn. And though 2012 had Dark Knight Rises, Avengers and the like-it-or-hate-it Prometheus, it was also filled with crud like The Amazing Spider-Man, The Expendables 2, Snow White and the Huntsman, Total Recall, Battleship and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Save for one or two exceptions (nearly all from the superhero camp), it was once again a summer left in the wash.

2011 had more Transformers, another unwanted Pirates of the Caribbean movie, Cars 2, the water-dump Green Lantern, the brutally bad The Hangover: Part 2as well as the truly awesome Mission Impossible 4, the conclusive Harry Potter installment, the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Cowboys and Aliens and the very solid Fast Five. It also introduced us to Thor and Captain America but it still doesn’t compare to 2014 in terms of originality and vision. Superhero movies and sequels do tend to dominate these summer months but you’re gonna have to spend your hard-earned dollar on things like Edge of Tomorrow if you want to see the summer movie zeitgeist head in a positive direction. It means you taking a risk, or at least reading critical response to movies and knowing what you’re getting into. The good stuff is out there, you just have to be able to not be seduced by the golden arches every time round.

What I’m trying to say is: in terms of the big picture, 2014 is the year of the summer blockbuster puttering back to life and don’t let the big box office performance of Trans4mers or Maleficent tell you otherwise. If you’re still amongst the naysayers calling 2014 a bad year for movies, remove your head from your ass and actually head to the theater. I could recommend ten movies playing right this second that would simply wow you (just take a look at top tier of the 131 2014 films I’ve reviewed so far this year for proof of that). Summer 2014 really has been a showstopper and one that you probably oughta stop talking smack about. But with less and less people going to the movies, the onus is those who do care about the future of cinema to step up and gently herd the box office in the right direction. Spend your money wisely, unless you’re content seeing Transformers 29: Attack of the Robot Nazi Ninjas.

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Out in Theaters: DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES

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Too many times, that overused phrase “It made me feel like a kid again” has stood as a defense for liking sub-par movies. But with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a truly magical work that had me giddy, mouth agape in sheer wonder (like a big-mouth bass caught hook, line and sinker) I will happily cloak myself in that tired sentiment. Dawn of the Apes made me feel like a kid again, and it was amazing.  

From the very first opening sequence that gently reminds us of the outcome of the first film, director Matt Reeves shows a delicate patience and proclivity for understatement that will go on to define his picture as a whole. A collection of news clips detailing the global calamity that has been termed “Simian Flu”  fill in the outline of countries and continents as a spiderweb of the virus’ migration connects the world as if in an Indiana Jones flyover sequence. A solitary piano note rings out as the lights of Earth are slowly extinguished, blip by blip, until darkness reigns. The title card creeps from the inky black with a brown note fanfare: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Chills race up my spine.

From here, Reeves takes us into the world of Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his super-simians. These uber-intelligent apes are New Age noble savage; they live harmoniously with the land, hunt in packs, have a cool, Endor-like treetop village and don’t need the extraneous comforts that humans rely so heavily upon, likes beds and fast food and cars and electricity.

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Since the events of Rise, Caesar and his Hominidae cohorts have established their own utopia where apes don’t kill apes and a dwindling human population poses little threat to their way of life. Like the phoenix from the ashes, they rule in peace in their hard-won isolation. That is until a band of human travelers wander into the outskirts of their village and happen upon two young apes – one of whom is Caesar’s son, Bright Eyes (a name you may recall from Rise as that of Caesar’s deceased not-quite-super-ape momma). Fearful and jittery, Carver (Kirt Acevedo) plugs a bullet into one, inviting the entire troop of PO’ed apes to come swinging into defense. Our homo-sapien protagonist Malcolm (Jason Clarke) steps up to decry the incident as accidental but when Caesar barks “Go!”, the ragtag band of human survivors realize a. they’ve opened a whole box of Pandora’s boxes and b. holy shit, apes talk now.

This chance encounter leads to rabbling discussions on both sides. Gary Oldman‘s Dreyfus, who seems the de-facto leader of this scrambled human brigade, lays into Malcolm on why they must return to the ape enclosure in hopes of accessing a downed electrical dam. But Malcolm’s already on the same page as him. You see, when the lights went out years back, unspeakable things happened in the darkness. Things he won’t allow his new family to revisit.

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Back in the ape world, Caesar is pressured by milky-eyed confidante Koba (Toby Kebbell) into a show of force. They’ve crossed a line in the sand and must be put in their place, Koba roughly signs out in ape sign language. Though weakened, humans possess the power to destroy all that we’ve built and must be put in their place. As the Ape leader with a royal name and his (si)minions march in on horseback, the humans of this blown-out San Fran are as dumbfounded and outraged as Charlton Heston at a Gun Control meet-and-greet. Again, holy shit.

The remainder of Reeve’s film is history. Cowboys and Indians, The Civil Rights Movement (with strong analogies to Malcolm X and Martin Luther King), Manifest Destiny, WWI and the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. War; what is it good for? Asserting yourself as the dominant species.

As Reeve’s film leaks historical allegories like a zesty geyser, his political astuteness pans to a smart dissection of why we choose war in the first place. War is a side effect of fear, fear a scar of misunderstanding. Koba’s are scars that cannot be healed. Dreyfus won’t stand for Three-Fifths of a vote. Peace is a process. Wars start inevitably. It’s not that these two civilizations could not peace co-habitate, it’s that sometimes a punch in the face seems like a more swift resolution than drawn-out talks. History however says otherwise (look no further than the 11 year War in Iraq for proof of that). Peace isn’t easy but it sure saves on carnage.

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That said, boy oh boy does the carnage look good here. Though much of the beginning of the film is occupied by a sense of quiet contemplation and even quieter sign-talking – a bold stance in a blockbuster in and of itself – when things do get heated, the conflagrations rise quickly. A mid-stage set piece involving Koba (who could easily go down as the best villain of 2014) is so masterfully rendered, so perfectly shot, and so breathtakingly epic that I had to collect my jaw from the floor after watching it. And this is where the effects wizards over at WETA, whose anthropomorphic achievements are simply unmatched, should take a bow.

And when I say wizards, I don’t mean it lightly. Dawn is not the work of some pea-brained Hogwarts first years so much as a cloned army of Dumbledores, who’ve worked tirelessly to make CGI characters so picture perfect that sometimes you have to pinch yourself to remember that these are not actual talking apes onscreen. Maurice the orangutan in particular is the product of effects on the edge of tomorrow (in addition to being a joy to watch.) The hairs on his body alone boggle the line of what is and isn’t real. While Rise proved that these visual acrobatics were possible, Dawn takes them to the next level, plants them on horses and charges them over flaming barricades while pumping off automatic rifles in both hands. Epic is the only adjective that fits.

Beneath that FX artistry, Serkis shines as much as ever. His Caesar is more confident, more defined in his role as a leader, and all around more stoney than before. But it’s this resolve that makes his oncoming break so much more potent. Assuming the Academy won’t be budging on their ancient rulings anytime in the near future, it’s still worth taking time to note just how much of an avant-garde artist this man is. Props.

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But it’s not Serkis alone this time round who furthers the medium of motion capture. Toby Kebbell as Koba is the teeth-baring, power-seeking, fear-totting equivalent of Lion King‘s Scar in that his devious maneuvering are matched only by the penchant for fire-filled battles. A scene when he switches from playful circus monkey to dead-eyed killer ape lets the chills fly fast and loose, reminding us this is not an ape to be f**ked with and that Serkis has taught his co-stars in the art of mo-cap well.

Although the human side doesn’t really have an equal to Dawn‘s simian counterpart, Clarke is a strong lead; wide-eyed, charismatic and caring, even without much of an arc of speak of. At one junction, Caesar calls him a good man and that about sums up his characterization. Malcolm’s small familial unit, including son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and whatever they call a girlfriend after the pretty-much Apocalypse, Ellie (Keri Russell), get even less fleshing out, but still provide just enough to give Clarke’s Malcolm the needed stakes to take big risks. If anything, they’re ample window dressings to move the larger story forward.

For the first time this year, I cannot wait to rush back to the theater and shell out all the money to see Dawn of the Planet of the Apes on an even bigger screen. Because this is the definitive movie that demands an IMAX screening, even if it does mean wearing those obnoxious 3D glasses. Not only is Dawn the best Apes movie since the 1968 original, it’s one of the finest sci-fi movies to grace the silver screen in decades.

It’s that impossibly rare blockbuster that shimmers with intelligence and has the FX razzle-dazzle to leave you dazed and amused, grinning from ear-to-ear and stunned by it’s impeccably told story. If we’re lucky, we’ll see a follow up tagging close behind (hopefully with Reeves returning) and I’m willing to wager a pretty penny they call it War for the Planet of the Apes. But no need to look too far into the future, just start lining up for this one right about… now.

A+

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30 Most Anticipated Films of 2014 (20-11)

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For those of you who missed yesterday’s segment on my Most Anticipated Movies of 2014 (30-21), check it out in full by clicking the link. Otherwise, take a look at slots 20-11 for some upcoming movies you definitely want to be aware of.

20. Dom Hemingway

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Mixed reviews saw this film out of the gates at TIFF but I have confidence that what may turned many off about Dom Hemingway will work wonders for me. A violent crime caper with Jude Law playing a machismo, coked-up safe cracker, Dom Hemingway has been called a “second cousin to Nicolas Winding-Refn‘s Bronson” [RoS] a film I tremendously enjoyed. I love an interesting protagonist and Law’s Hemingway certainly seems like a character who’ll grab your attention and won’t let it go until the movie finishes. Hopefully, I’ll be on the side of the supporters when this one lands.

Dom will likely only arrive in a small number of theaters when it hits on April 4.

19. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

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Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a staggeringly successful revival of the 60’s sci-fi pop franchise and although it had some serious issues (pretty much all of the human characters were lacking), Andy Serkis and the WETA digital team knocked it out of the park. Gone were the hackneyed makeup jobs and inherent silliness found in later installments and Apes all of a sudden had a purpose again. This sequel sees the return of Serkis and features a whole new cast of human actors including the always reliable Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Jason Clarke, and Kodi Smit-McPhee. Since the events of the first film, all out war has broken loose so it’ll be interesting to see things going ape shit against the backdrop of a post-apocalyptic human race. 

I’m guessing this one will be my birthday movie with a July 11 release date.

18. X-Men: Days of Future Past

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Since before superhero movies were even a thing, Fox has known they had something on their hands with the X-Men movie property and although not everything from the franchise has been great, their track record so far has been largely in the green, both financially and critically. So while just another X-Men movie might not quite be enough to really amp up the anticipation levels, the idea of combining the original cast of the first trilogy with the cast of X-Men: First Class, a film I adored, is enough to get my blood boiling. Just seeing that post credits scene of The Wolverine was enough to get me amped and I’m really hoping this is the superhero movie of the year.

May 24th will unveil whether X-Men is truly looking toward the future or has run out of steam.

17. Exodus

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This won’t be the only biblical epic on the list (hint, hint) which means this, depending on how you look at it, will either be a good or bad year for Christians at the cinema. Exodus isn’t quite garnishing the same controversy that its biblical counterpart is at the moment but the fact that we have Ridley Scott behind the camera really means that anything goes. Scott has definitely been on a strange path of late and though many have laid claims that he’s become too out there with films like Prometheus and The Counselor, I’m very much interested in his recent career and find almost as compelling as his inauspicious beginnings. The always terrific Christian Bale will portray Moses (a strange choice physically but hell, is there anyone out there better than Bale?) as he leads Jewish slaves from Egypt.

Hoping to part the Red Sea and head straight for the Oscars with a December 12 release date.

16. Guardians of The Galaxy

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So while I admitted that I’m fully expecting X-Men: Days of Future Past to be my favorite superhero movie of the year, I can’t deny that I’m very interested in Guardians of the Galaxy. For the first time since Iron Man, it seems that the Marvel folks are stepping outside of their comfort zone. With a talking raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper and a talking tree courtesy of Vin Diesel’s gravely vibrato, this is surely the most risky endeavor Marvel has taken in quite some time and, hopefully, will be a welcome break from the monotony of their core Avengers films. Plus, with James Gunn (Slither, Super) behind the camera, we’re sure to be in store for something unexpected.

Alien superhero gang set to show up in 3D IMAX on August 1.

15. Sabotage

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So you probably didn’t expect an entry starring Arnold Schwarzenegger so high on this list but, in this case, it’s all about director David Ayer. In 2012, Ayer delivered one of the finest and certainly the most unexpected picture of the year with the stunning End of Watch and ever since, I couldn’t wait to see what he cooked up next. Although the name Schwarzenegger has become more of a punchline since his tenure as the Governator, this film which co-stars underdogs Joe ManganielloMireille Enos, Josh Holloway, Terrence Howard, and Sam Worthington looks to be a revival for the badass that once was. 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FeHpSdQSH0c

Bursting down theater doors on April 11.

14. Big Hero 6

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Marvel + Pixar = Big Hero 6. Yes, you heard right, Big Hero 6, although not so well known to the world at large, is a Marvel property being handled by the old big guns over at Pixar. Although Pixar has been on a slumping trajectory of late, the inspired idea to play in the superhero world just sounds like a recipe for success. Pixar already proved that they can do superhero fare with The Incredibles and, with it, have set themselves a high bar. I know it’s been a while since we’ve seen something truly original from Pixar and although this is an already established property, it’s unknown enough for them to have a true hand in creating something innovative and magnificent. They have a sandbox to play in, now let’s just hope they bring their imaginations.

A near holiday release with a November 6 opening.

13. The Raid 2: Berenthal

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The Raid is one of the single most over-the-top ridiculous action movies I have ever seen and yet I loved every single second of it. I watched it in bed and found myself cheering. I mean, come on, when do you do that?! You’re in bed to relax, not jump up and down like a little kid. Well that was the effect The Raid had on me. I felt like a little kid again, watching The Matrix for the first time. Picking up right where the first one left off, The Raid 2 follows the trail of corruption unveiled in the first film. But let’s be honest, these movies aren’t about plot, they’re about bone-breaking action and so long as director Gareth Evans can keep things fresh we’re hopefully in store for another unforgettable action movie. Keep in mind, this is the second film in a planned trilogy so it’ll be interesting to see how much the world does open up and how self-contained the story is.

Debuting at Sundance, The Raid 2 will strikes American theaters on March 28 with nearly 2-and-a-half-hours of action.

12. The Monument’s Men

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Originally slated for a Oscar-qualifying run in 2013, George Clooney‘s The Monument’s Men got pushed due to incomplete post-production work. While the move is enough to make some nervous, the fact that Clooney’s WWII caper has taken the often unforgiving early February slot is hopefully inspired by financial reasons and not suggestive of its lacking quality. But honestly, even a bad Clooney movie is pretty good and from everything we’ve seen from this so far, there is absolutely no reason to think that this is bad. In fact, it looks pretty great. The trailers have showcased the comedy of the thing, which in my opinion is a great step away from the stuffy high-nosery that could have come from a movie focusing on art and Nazis. Backed by Matt Damon, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, and John Goodman, how can this not be a score?

In may not be Oscar season with a February 7 release but could it have what it takes to stick around all year?

11. Transcendence

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Wally Pfister makes his directorial debut with Transcendence, a story about a terminally ill scientist who synches his consciousness with a computer before he dies. Up to this point, Pfister has spent his career as a cinematographer, most notably for The Dark Knight trilogy and Inception, and hopefully his time spent with blockbuster guru Christopher Nolan has rubbed off in a serious way. Although I’ve approached anything with Johnny Depp in a lead role with trepidation over the past few years, this looks like it could be a return to form for the wacky actor.

Will land across the nation on April 18.

That’s it for today folks. Check back tomorrow for the Top Ten Most Anticipated Movies of 2014. (Which will actually have 11 films because of my miscalculation. Whoops.)

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