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The 10 Best Horror Movies of 2014

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People might tell you that 2014 was a lackluster year for horror. They would be wrong. Very, very wrong. In fact, 2014 was a superlative 365-days for the genre. So much so that piecing together a Top Ten List was exorbinately difficult as there were at a handful that may have earned a place in a lesser year but didn’t exactly have the goods to nose their way into the top slots. Among those notable contenders is Kevin Smith’s batshit walrus misadventure Tusk, superior alphabetical anthology flick The ABCs of Death 2, and a trio of delectable found footage flicks featuring werewolf realism – Wer – Altimizer’s gone demonic – The Taking of Deborah Logan – and a horrific vampiric flu – Afflicted. Cautionary internet tale The Den had a lot going for it as well, another strong contender for the year. Had I considered E.L. Katz‘ monstrously good Cheap Thrills a horror – I don’t – it might have topped the list but that’s an argument to be had in a separate space.

10. THE HOUSES OCTOBER BUILT

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It takes little imagination to find a souring brand of daunting realism in Bobby Roe‘s grizzly found footage account (one of four on this list) of a group of Halloween thrill-seekers who stumble too far down the rabbit hole. Going above the conventions of normalcy, The Houses October Built arcs at terminal velocity into the unforgiving maw of a real hellhole, offering scares that gingerly walk the fine line between reality and invention in which it’s improbable to parse the artifice of trying to scare the sh*t out of someone with actually, you know, trying to kill them. You’ll never enter a haunted house the same again.

9. THE BABADOOK

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A storybook nightmare come alive with electric performances from Essie Davis and youngster Noah Wiseman, the former of which offers a performance embedded with equal strands of motherly sacrifice and true terror, the later half-wittingly stumbling into one of the least self-aware performances from a child the year had to offer, regardless of genre. The Babadook may not present the bone-chilling frights some of the its chief pundits have claimed but its mightily well made, with fierce attention to relationships and an original enough concept to boot – an undeniably winning formula in our eyes.

8. THE BORDERLANDS

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The whole descent into hell thing has been done before (even once later on this list) and anyone a fan of the genre is no stranger to priests nosing into miracles-cum-hauntings but the way in which The Borderlands builds and builds while tightening and tightening makes it a fine study of found footage done justice. The other chief victory for director Elliot Goldner comes in his writing, which keeps us surprisingly invested in the characters, offering three-dimensional beings not often found in the found footage catalog. Robin Hill‘s wisecracking Gray clashes perfectly with Gordon Kennedy‘s damaged but devoid Deacon so that when things finally come to a head, and boy oh boy do they, you’re rooting for them, not against (as is too often the case.)

7. OCULUS

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2014 was a plugged full of studio misfires for the genre – a fact that has contributed to the misconception that it was a minor year for horror – what with Annabelle, The Purge: Anarchy and Ouija  all being marked gaffes and The Evil Within and The Quiet Ones failing to make much noise at all – but if there was one studio released scary movie that fans and critics were able to rally around it was this. Oculus thrives on its sense of internal consistency and increasingly high-stakes games of mindf*cking, and Karen Gillan s overly committed performance didn’t hurt. For a film about a haunted mirror, Oculus is able to inject an overbearing sense of dread into what could have easily been a disaster of epic proportions. That director Mike Flanagan  also managed to blend two time periods seamlessly into one, presenting a fully distorted picture that was great than the mere sum of its parts, is further evidence of his subtle mastery of the genre.

6. HOUSEBOUND

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Sam Raimi accidentally invented the horror-comedy in 1981, almost stumbling upon a wheelhouse hungry subcultures didn’t yet know they wanted, his whacked-out formula later taken by a young, tooth-cutting Peter Jackson to further extremes in the celebrated messterpiece Braindead. In the great tradition of wily horror-gone-funny, New Zealand’s very own Housebound jettisons the zany hallmarks of past horror-comedy successes – all the while very intentionally tipping their hat to them – giving it space to hone in on its very own import of yuck-horror and bloodspolsions. This tongue-in-cheek haunter may be bratty, puerile and claustrophobic but, most importantly, it’s laugh-out-loud funny.

5. CREEP

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Mark Duplass has always played something of an everyman. Even on The League – an FX comedy deliciously overstuffed with caricatures of characters – his Pete is snarky but believably human. Perhaps that’s what makes his turn in the delightfully eerie Creep so, uh, creepy. Starring opposite him is (first time) director Patrick Brice, playing a man who’s just responded to a mysterious Craigslist ad that enlists him as a cohort of sorts to Duplass’ increasingly odd asks. Never quite going the direction you expect, Creep relies sternly on the ever captivating presence of its two leads – who never disappoint – and their slightly askew developing relationship.   

4. HONEYMOON

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Rose Leslie melted many snowy hearts north of The Wall as Ygritte on HBO‘s winning Game of Thrones series but seeing her stripped of that throaty accent, her hoary nightgown and, eventually, her personality in Honeymoon showed a new side to her, one hemmed with dimensionality and rich with ambiguity. She was, in a phrase, a nightmarish panorama. Less a conventional antagonist than a harbinger of uncertainly and unease, Leslie’s Bea was one of the more interesting characters additions from 2014 and director Leigh Janiak knows just how to manipulate her stalwart tendencies and flip them on their head. In a film that’s all about marital bliss gobbled up, Honeymoon is one savagely appetizing gaze at alien femme fatality.  

3. AS ABOVE/SO BELOW

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Critically dismantled, criminally underseen, As Above/So Below was dealt a losing hand upon its unceremonious theatrical dumping. To get an idea of how little confidence Universal had in their picture, they screened the film at 7 PM the night of its official release. Meaning, they screening it a mere 3 hours before they started showing it to general audiences. Of all the entries on the list, this suffered the biggest blowback for its critical panning in the eyes of the suits – coming in with a shabby 21 million off an estimated 5 million production budget – but the true loss came on behalf of the audiences who skipped it assuming ineptitude. From the truly inspired Paris Catacomb settings to its litany of diabolical lore, As Above/So Below is stuffed with arcana and welcome scares, like a giddy, terrifying adventure of Legends of the Hidden Temple with an improved upon Laura Croft as your host.

2. STARRY EYES

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If there is one consistency from the year, it’s that 2014 was a moment for the woman in horror. From As Above/So Below‘s kickass Perdita Weeks to Honeymoon‘s subterfuging Rose Leslie, Oculus‘ exceedingly zealous Karen Gillan, The Babadook‘s sublime Essie Davis, Housebound‘s ever-angsty Morgana O’Reilly and It Follow‘s perfect casting in Maika Monroe, the stars have not shone brighter on the fairer gender within our beloved genre. But no entry on the list had as big an ask of their actress as Starry Eyes, a bone-dry, humorless waxing on the pitfalls of ambition. Alexandra Esso literally buried herself in the role and you won’t find another who chick on this list or any another that undergoes such a shocking 360. An absolutely blood-curdling series of dispatches – a barbell tops the gruesome weapons list – in the midst of Essoe’s particular brand of body dysmorphia makes it an unforgettable genre entry that’s slowly been earning a deserved cult following.

1. IT FOLLOWS

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The urban legend of the STDemon seems like one that’s been whispered amongst circles of throbbing-genitialed teenagers forever. Debuting at Cannes and making a hell of a festival circuit run, It Follows spins its own Are You Afraid of the Dark type mythos of a sexually transmitted entity that never stops, never sleeps, never reasons. Just follows. Brilliant in its simplicity, It Follows doesn’t squander time with getting to know you’s. Rather, it’s a raw, dirty, brilliant orgy of nail-crunching tension, rich with pregnant silences and offscreen moments of self-sacrificing, proving that sometimes the simplest of ideas are the best of them.

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Chris' Home for the Holidays Films: Top 10 2014 Movies to Catch with the Family this Holiday Season

In lieu of an official top ten, our finest satirist-in-residence Chris Bunker counts down the movies to crowd ’round with the whole fam-damily.

Honorable Mentions:

Horrible Bosses 2

Nightcrawler

Guardians of the Galaxy

The Interview (wop wop wah)

The Theory of Everything

Lone Survivor

How to Train Your Dragon 2

Begin Again

Sex Tape

Fury

10. Two Night Stand

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Christmas came early with Two Night Stand, which netted $18K (that’s thousand) at the box-office back in September. I’m pretty sure I’m the only person who’s seen this movie, which is really too bad because it is spectacular. Disclaimer: This film is not about two nightstands weathering a frigid blizzard while trapped in Miles Teller’s overly spacious New York apartment. At the onset it seems like we might be headed for something just as dull.

The film stars Miles Teller and Analeigh Tipton. She’s a dry speller: she hasn’t — you know, “done it” — in months, and as depression and unemployment seem to be taking over her life post-college, her friend tries to get her to hook up with someone for the holiday season. She sets up an online profile on whiteactorsmeet.com and Miles Teller is lucky enough to reel this stinky fish in. Tipton wants the D like misspelle, and he is more than obliging in giving her a New Year’s gift she can’t return to Best Buy.

After their hook-up, the two get stuck in Teller’s apartment after a huge blizzard puts the city on lockdown. Over the course of their “Two Night Stand”, Teller gets more slot than an old widow at Treasure Island and Tipton gets more dong than the Liberty Bell at two o’clock. Which, I guess is just three dongs.

There’s a lot more to this movie than just the “stand.” Stunningly well-written and at times an incredibly accurate depiction of today’s hook-up culture, this is a Christmas rom-com people really should see. And it got me thinking about those two night-stands. How did they get where they are? Who gave them their color, their shape, their embossing, their gloss? What are they supporting, what weight do they carry? How did they get their cracks, their stains? After all, aren’t we all just night-stands in the dark, hoping one day someone might come turn the light on and look to us for a little support, open our drawers and learn what’s inside? It’s lonely at night in the dark. Pop on Two Night Stand with a loved one and get in the giving mood.

9. The Judge

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Pretty much everyone can only take so much of their family during the holiday season before things go haywire. The Judge really isn’t a holiday movie, but it’s one you should catch all the same. Robert Downey Jr., a big-shot Chicago lawyer,makes a trip back to Buttcrack, Indiana to attend his mother’s funeral. His Dad’s the town judge (he’s also Robert Duvall), but the whole father-son relationship thing never really worked out between these two law-abiding men. As more to their history unfolds and Downey and Duvall chip away at each other’s’ cold hearts, the film catches fire. The dialogue is somewhat Sorkin-esque, but that was only a bad thing in Seasons 2-3 of The Newsroom. Catch The Judge and enjoy knowing that your family isn’t the only one that’s screwed up.

8. Ernest & Celestine

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My favorite animated film ever, Ernest & Celestine is delightful, playful, simple and warm enough to melt even the most frozen hearts (you heard me, Elsa). This movie is the equivalent of a warm blanket by the fire, as Ernest, a big bumbling bear, and Celestine, a delicate little mouse, cuddle up far from a society that can’t accept them. You’re only hurting yourself if you don’t get a taste of this beautiful movie this holiday season. Better hope Santa brings you this one for X-mas.

7. The Grand Budapest Hotel

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You really can’t go wrong with Wes Anderson, and his latest installment just might be his best yet. With a slow-paced humor that peppers famous actors everywhere and laughs in every moment, TGBH is tasteful and visually delectable. With Ralph Fiennes, Ed Norton, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafore, Léa Seydoux, Jeff Goldblum, Jeff Schwartzman, Jude Law, Harvey Keitel, Bill Murray and Owen Wilson to name just a few, get the old band together and cut yourself a piece of Budapest.

6. Snowpiercer

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Bong Joon-Ho’s frigid train-movie is among my favorites of 2014 and an absolute brain-wrecker. Chris Evans is getting way more hype for Cap’ 2, but this film is ten times better and a marvel of story-telling. Tracking the last survivors of an Earth-freezing apocalypse who live on a self-sustaining, endlessly running train circling around the frozen globe, Joon-Ho’s film is a must-see. If you’re in the mood for some snow this Channukah season, don’t miss Snowpiercer.

5. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

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In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit. Well, he’s not got much time before he gets buried by time. I’m going off of past experience alone, as I still haven’t been able to catch the last Peter Jackson LOTR movie ever (L). The LOTR series has been a hallmark of Christmases this entire century, and I’m so, so, so sad to see them go. As Jackson isn’t an asshole, and I’ve never been disappointed by a Middle Earth tale, this one’s sure to be worth the watch. Leave your Hobbit hole for a couple hours and join the adventure while you still can. How can you resist Bilbo and Gandalf?

4. Divergent

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Just kidding. I’m dauntless! F*ck. This. Movie. Just wanted to say it one last time this year. #CANDOR

4. Boyhood

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The “12 Years a Boy” thing seems kind of boring, but Richard Linklater has given the world the best cinematic present anyone could ask for this year. Following Ellar Coltrane’s childhood and family as 12 years fly by, you’ll be reminded why that screwed up family of yours might not be so bad after all. I don’t rank this nostalgic movie any higher (though it certainly deserves to be higher) because no one needs to shed a tear for Christmas. That’s what Christmas Shoes was for.

3. Blended

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Sorry, this is also a joke. Couldn’t pass this up: “WE’RE GOING TO AFRICA!!!”

3. Edge of Tomorrow

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Tom Cruise has subtly been churning out quality movies for the past two years now. Edge of Tomorrow was his best. The “Live, Die, Repeat” premise is fun and well-executed, and there’s enough action, humor and Tom Cruise running to make this one an ‘A’ for me. I’ve seen this film four times now and it’s only gotten better with age. Cruise may not be a fine wine but he’s at least two Forty’s and a FourLoko. Can you think of a better combo for the holidays?

2. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

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This one tops my “Best Films to Watch On an International Flight” and “Best Andy Serkis Performance Since LOTR: The Return of the King” lists. This film is just flat out fantastic from beginning to end, with amazing graphics from Weta Digital, inscrutable performances from Serkis, Gary Oldman, Jason Clarke and Toby Kebbell (playing the best villain of 2014, “Koba”), and so much more. Stuff your stockings with DOTPOTA. Don’t do it for me. Do it because Jesus would want you to.

1. Gone Girl

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If you’re concerned a significant other might be cheating, bring them along to Gone Girl and see how they react. Based off of the incredible Gillian Flynn novel of the same name, this film is the best I’ve seen all year and traumatizingly good. Sure to net Oscar nominations all across the board (notably “Best Actress” for Rosamund Pike), Ben Affleck’s latest film is notable just for his unit alone. David Fincher directs a twisting, blood-clotting, brain-breaking suspense-thriller that transcends genre and classification. If you watch any movie this Christmas season, it needs to be Gone Girl. Trust me; it’ll bring the whole family together.


Dishonorable Mention: Jingle All The Way 2

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Every Holiday movie list needs at least one Christmas movie; enter Jingle All The Way 2, starring everyone’s favorite, Larry The Cable Guy. This straight-to-video film produced by the WWE (seriously) had a budget of $5 million, which I’m assuming all went towards Christmas lights and fake snow. Considering this is a sequel to the (Minneapolis-filmed!) 1996 Schwarzenegger movie that most consider to be the worst Christmas movie ever, you can’t get much better than Jingle All The Way 2. If you love bad movies, put that gingerbread cookie down, grab some popcorn and revel in this holiday mess.

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Out in Theaters: NIGHTCRAWLER

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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. His politeness is alarming, starkly juxtaposed by the edgy vibration of his piercing, bulbous eyes. His word choice; precise as a bone saw. His demeanor; direct but detached. Like a drone. He’s a bug-eyed Terminator sans the metallic endoskeleton; a top-knotted Patrick Bateman without the 401K. In the role, Jake Gyllenhaal is angelic. He’s equally demonic. He’s perfect mopping up uncomfortable silences, guttural laughs and wry grins like a janitor in a milking cow factory.

Caught in the high beams of a night patrolman, Lou materializes from the shadows like an apparition. A ghoulish grin masking his face. He notes his trespassing is accidental. He also notes the pricy hunk of watch adorning the wrist of the Paul Blart eying him with petulant suspicion. The next scene, it’s Lou wearing the watch.

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.

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When we meet Lou, he’s a drifter; fencing fences and manhole covers. Begging for jobs with an armory of interview-friendly terminology and all the manicured motions of a “respectable” human being. At a car crash, he yanks his beatermobile to the shoulder to observe its burny grotesqueries and runs into Joe Loder, a TV news freelancer who roams the nights to capture domestic implosions on film. Loder (Bill Paxton) says the job is hell. The next scene, Lou has camera in tow, hunting down the next suburban calamity. It isn’t long before he’s whipping up his own crime scenes and hiring a slacky intern (Riz Ahmed).

In his junker motorcade of journalistic un-tegrity, Lou rips a hole through the banality of the LA night, hunting down the next big tragedy like a slobbering machine, manipulating it when need be and selling it off to the news producer running the graveyard shift, Nina (Rene Russo). Camcorders are his business cards. Bloody car crashes his boardrooms. Murdered families, the money shot coup de grâce to end a good night on.

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Nina knows the business is blood sport. Local news is nothing but modern day gladiatorial work. She’s titillated by promises of gory plane crashes. B&E’s are her bee’s knees. She wets herself over triple homicides. Russo holds the performance together by the skin of her teeth, refusing to reveal weakness behind that modernized beehive and liberal thrashing of makeup. As the tension mounts between Lou and Nina, a new dynamic takes shape: one that’s uproariously creepy and carnally delicious. Watching Lou sic Nina is watching the hungry wolf lick his chops before he preys.

Piggybacking on my earlier Patrick Bateman comparison, Nightcrawler deals in a similar brand of corporate black humor as American Psycho, taking aim at the blanket sensationalization of news and, to a lesser degree, our woeful economic state. It’s wickedly funny in a deadpan, threatening kind of way – like Nick Nolte – with Gyllenhaal’s knockout performance informing the laughs like a conductor with a rosewood baton. He is the slaughterer of the lamb, we the vultures come to pick the bones. And if you’re anything like me, you’ll eat up the meaty sarcasm like roast beef on Christmas.

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To see the transformation of the shmuck with the Wall Street name from lowly drifter to certifiable media mogul is enough reason to see the film, even though it drags along some basic fixer-uppers that stick out uncomfortably. James Newton Howard‘s score – the man responsible for music-ing such clunkers as Maleficent, Parkland, After Earth, Snow White and the Huntsman, Green Lantern, The Green Hornet, The Tourist and more – often feels out of place, as if it were teleported in from an entirely different movie from an entirely different genre. Howard was scoring a straight thriller as we watched a brutally dark comedy unfold. It’s never in junction with the piece so much as it detracts from it with blast after blast of heavy-handed straightforwardness and a tonal lack of understanding the subtle transformations of character. Were Trent Reznor or Cliff Martinez behind the music, it would have stood out that much more.

Further, the film lacks an entirely solid starting and finishing point. The meat in between is so tender, so perfect, but it kind of drifts in and drifts out without the slap in the face that I both wanted and expected. Come on, punch me. I can handle it. But I guess it makes metaphorical sense for a movie of this nature to creep in and creep out without warning. If not for those few minor miscalculations, Nightcrawler could have driven itself into a sheer state of perfection.

A nightcrawler, not to be confused with the blue Russian teleport from the X-Men comics, is a bottom feeder. A succubus. A drive by job with a camera. They find you in your weakest moments – battered, bloodied and broken – and display it for the world to see. There’s no scruples in the line of work; no lines. It’s a brawl. A exploitative, invasive, harrowing brawl. And the public eats it up like pigs at the stye. They feed on it like vampires. They need it. The supply and demand chain is self-fulfilling. The watchers become the watched. Karma’s a bitch. Nightcrawler finds its target audience like a lumpy tumor, poking it and prodding it with the precision of a surgeon. It’s often equally as brilliant. Lou likes to say that if you’re seeing him, it’s the worst day of your life. Quite the opposite can be said about this film.

A

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Out in Theaters: FURY

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You don’t have to consult Fury to know that brutality is an inherent vice in us humans. What started as an instinctual necessity built into our animal genetic programming – case and point, you never see a polar bear grant mercy to its victims – brutality has become a defunct and dangerous emotional appendage for humankind. Modern normative behavior tends towards passivity. The act of civilizing quells our need to destroy. As functionless as those pesky wisdom teeth and as potentially explosive as your appendix, the tendency towards violence is all but forbidden in 2014. Like planes into a building, fury is civilization’s undoing. In shaping the way of the modern world though, it was what separated the conquerors from the conquered. The writers of history from the victims of it. In a bit of “well duh” war wisdom, Brad Pitt‘s Wardaddy tells us, “Ideals are peaceful but history is violent.” This only scratches the surface. In the 236 years that America has been a nation, it’s been at war for 214 of them. That’s almost 90%. If our history were a soup, the stock would be so overpoweringly bloody any rational person would tuck their tail and go vegan. Brutality, it would seem, is all encompassing.

In Fury, David Ayer addresses the art of war with iron-knuckle tact and unrestrained brutality. He takes on wartime mentality and masculinity with an iron stranglehold, questioning what place brutality has in our lives. He delivers his answers like a punch in the face. Followed by a punch in the gut. If you’re not on the edge of your seat, you must be broken. Written and directed by Ayer (End of Watch), Fury is a rare he-man weepy; an unrelenting emotional powerhouse that’s part perfectly-paced marathon of mud-soaked barbarity and part meditation on the dopey writs of men of war. A scene where Pitt’s brusquely named commander forces a new recruit to execute a POW is Ayer’s visceral response to the cold chill of war. The devil is in the details, stopping a war is trumped up janitorial work. Clean up on aisle Berlin. Ayer’s aisle is the final Allied push in Germany as WWII runs to a close. The crew, a ragtag assemblage crammed in a junky USA Sherman tank.

Outmatched by the far superior German Tigers, the Shermans were a patchwork of scrap metal and bolts; a power keg waiting to be lit. Inside, our half-witted heroes bond. Their company the only solace afforded in war. And from LaBeouf to Bernthal, the ensemble is simply stunning. Each performance literally floored me. Floating like a butterfly, stinging like a bee, the many top tier performances of Fury will beat you down and bruise your soul.

The film is devised of three well-articulated acts, each circling the inevitable inner transformation of newcomer Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) as he settles into his new life as a unwilling tank gunner. At first, Norman refuses to fight. He pussies out and almost gets his crew killed. He’s the laughingstock of half of Nazi Germany and a liability as dangerous as Mecha-Hitler and his legion of flying SS officers. Even benevolence cannot go unchecked, Fury suggests. Morality can only exist in a vacuum. Some men just deserve a bullet. Even if they’re on their knees. Crewman Grady Travis, for one, adheres to this callous sentiment.

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As the venereal Travis, Jon Bernthal is a rabid Lenny. He’s brutish and wild-eyed; a heavily armed savage dullard. Thick-skulled but just sentient enough to register as a legitimate threat, he slobbers like a beast foaming at the mouth. His guffaws are filled with malice and yet he’s willing to die for his brothers. In the confines of society, he’d be a menace. Here in the theater of war, he, like the rest of the crew, are tight on Wardaddy’s leash. Bernthal’s is a revolutionary performance in a film filled with them and as the least household-friendly of the bunch, his should be a name Fury launches into more pronounced roles.

Bible-thumper Boyd Swan, played by an overly committed but nonetheless revelatory Shia LeBeouf, is just as vivid and colorful. An uncommonly complex character, Boyd is one given equally over to the word of God and the spoils of war. He’s the kind of guy who will engage in depravity, almost as if a hostage to his own body, but weep through doing it. Tragedy reigns surpreme. But Boyd is such a compelling character because he can stand there and dish Bible verses while sharpening a knife or reloading tank armaments. He’s an inherently disjointed man. As a result, he’s a perfect representation of our incoherent national values.

David Ayer had the crew fistfight on set every day in order to create a sense of camaraderie amongst them. Maybe that’s what spurred Pitt, now famously, to comment that LaBeouf was one of the best actors he’s worked with. Overstatement? Sure. Is this his best stuff yet? Absolutely.

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Though Norman is the beating heart of the troop, I think I fell for “Bible” Boyd most and that’s a testament to LeBeouf’s spirited performance. And yet still, I couldn’t stop thinking about those self-inflicted facial wounds. The thirst for self-destruction is strong with this one. His recent arrest saga (and rich telling of the story on Jimmy Kimmel) should prove that the fury of man lives on in him.

But society loves a louse. Nowadays, those brutal tendency that once kept us alive and outside the tangle of some saber-tooted creature or other is nothing more than a modern flaw. Kids are sent packing to therapy if they display aggressive behavior. Students are expelled for schoolyard brawling. Young girls are (finally) embarrassed of their Justin Bieber tattoos now that he’s a known scoundrel. Resolving any form of conflict through fisticuffs – be it at a bar or with Orlando Bloom on the streets of Ibeza – is entirely unacceptable and antisocial behavior. It’s a mark of the misanthropic. Were Bernthal’s “Coon-Ass” Travis outside the combat zone, he’d probably be padlocked in some jail. Violence is to be caged until it’s forcibly unleashed. Then what?

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Lerman’s Norman is a child of coddling; the anti-soldier. A learned youth. A wannabe pacifist. His moral integrity is respectable anywhere but on the battlefield. And yet here it’s as useful as a pin-less grenade on your belt. On a global scale, physical force is the only way conflicts are ultimately resolved. History (sadly) suggests there is no alternative. The self-propelling force of violence cannot be quelled. Fury requires force and force requires fury.

Hitler required more than a stern talking to. Mussolini needed that noose like Michael Fassbender needs an Oscar. The time for spanking Kony has come and gone. In schools, we punish the bullies. In war, they’re awarded metals of honor. In politics, they move their way to the top. The dichotomy of war and peace, of good and evil, becomes foggy in the midst of mayhem. Good and bad lose meaning. There’s victory or there’s defeat. Mussolini’s ragged body was displayed for the world to see. Even the pacificts cheered. Men abandon their Christian names in favor of war names like snakes shedding their skin. Only on the front line is Wardaddy an agreeable, if not entirely complimentary, moniker.

Less a southern drawl, Pitt steps into the similarly-sized Nazi-hating shoes that Aldo Raine once occupied and though less pulpy and chewy, Wardaddy is a character with three dimensions. He commands his platoon with the unrequited cool of a Mohawk. Each of his subordinates refuse to fight for anyone but him and we believe we know why. His battered war scars go unexplained. His search for goodness goes unrewarded. He is the crossroads of peace and war.

Just as his ragged band of brothers refuse to quit on “the best job they ever had”, Ayer refuses to speak with a whimper. Loose flaps of facial features debunk Spielbergian romanticization of the past. Tank-flattened bodies take it a step further, screaming out just how menacing (and nonchalant about its menacing) antiquity truly is. It’s so far worse than buck up or die. You have to shrug too.

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Half-way through, Ayer taunts us with a flicker of normality. Wardaddy and Norman play house with a pair of defeated German vixens. The holed up frauleins shutter at what Dennis Reynolds would refer to as “the implications.” But as Wardaddy disrobes from his camos, he becomes Don Collier. Humanity hides behind a uniform. Uniformity hides our humanity. Sans his battle wear, Don Collier is just another man in desperate search of normalcy. But entropy rules all and unless you’re Sergeant Keck blowing off your butt, you can’t contain a bomb in war. While War Horse neighed it’s way to an Oscar nom, Ayer presents War Whores before blowing it all up. Our orchestrated response is the difference between sentimentality and sin mentality. Only when every last sacred thing is destroyed do we fully become monsters.

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. It’s only when people are faced with making a humane decision out from under the proverbial spotlight that they can choose to not necessarily be the monsters that they pretend to be. A final moment circles this truth and provides a poignant and biting truth. Hope exists.

With Steven Price‘s smoky, chanting, eerie and entirely unsentimental score ripping through, we see but a faint gasp of humanity under the malevolence of battle. The largest blow back of war is not the death of humans, Ayer reiterates, but of humanity. With Roman Vasyanov elevated cinematography, Ayer shines a light into the maw of hell and but doesn’t necessarily report back what he sees. Maybe it takes silence to overcome the cycle. Because if violence begets violence, world politics is on an infinite domino track. The next 236 years of America will likely be uninterrupted wartime. The continuum is a Rube Goldberg of death and destruction that always circles back in the end. Fury rules all. The bullies in life may find themselves suspended but they’ll likely end up policing the world.

Fury harnesses the spirit of war, of unchecked testosterone, of sacrifice and mayhem, wads it up into a spitball and blows it in the face of the politicians, the warmongers and the jingoistic, all of whom, ironically enough, will probably love this film. Though my thoughts on it are yet to be fully fully formed, it’s a film that I absolutely loved every second of. I’m still working through some of the thematic elements that many others have hurriedly pushed off to the side. One thing is certain: Fury houses the best ensemble cast 2014 has yet seen. Each blew me away in one form of another. If my thoughts seem scattered, it’s because they was forged in an emotional whirlwind. Even five days later, I’m still spinning.

A+

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Out in Theaters: 22 JUMP STREET

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A truly great comedy movie requires three things: pitch-perfect chemistry between its charismatic stars, a treasure trove of visual gags (preferably sans dongs, ball sacks, and/or fecal matter) and a waterfall of jokes that feel rightly organic; ad-libbed zingers that don’t come across like sweat-shop products whittled down by mouth-breathing jurors in some distant focus-lab. Overstuffed with these three golden characteristics, 22 Jump Street has all the makings of a comedy classic. A healthy improvement over the original, this higher budgeted follow-up chiefly takes on sequels and bromance in a deeply meta and surprisingly charming manner. Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller‘s saucy avenue for comedy is aptly winking and righteously unbarred, stirring up just the right amount of chagrin for the platitudes of (notoriously lame) studio sequels. In acknowledging the shortcomings of what their product could have been, Lord and Miller’s film is transcendent. It’s smart, funny and flowing with in-jokes for industry insiders and casual filmgoers as well. It’s a comedy for movie lovers by movie lovers and joke for joke, the funniest movie of the year. Further, it’s one that will likely remain in the “best of” comedy conversation for years to come.

The table is set with a playful “Previous on 21 One Jump Street” recap that doubles as an homage to the original Johnny Depp-lead television program while still providing a brief summation of the first film for people like me who haven’t seen it in a number of years. We reacquaint with odd couple cops Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) as they’re about to intercept a drug deal, or so they think. A hilariously off Mexican gangster impersonation follows and hijinks quickly sour with Schmidt receiving hickey by octopus and Jenko strung up from the heels.

Even though they majorly biff their first outing, these two flunky street cops soon find that the higher ups have them squarely in their sights. After the success of their first “mission”, the Mr. Money Bags on top are gambling even more on Schmidt and Jenko this time around. They’re dished out more money to throw around but expect an even greater degree of success. “You need to do things exactly as you did last time,” Nick Offerman‘s mustache of a Deputy Chief commands. The only way to achieve success after all is to play it safe. As the film pitches this very concept, the bastions of this artfully devious script do all they can to switch hit and deliver much meatier blow for it.

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Screenwriters’ Michael Bacall, Oren Uziel and Rodney Rothman‘s gumming is a devilishly obvious allusion to the studio system’s tight grip on franchising – whose “creativity” is more in tune with reproduction by assembly line than true originality – with third wall breaking so mightily pronounced that Hill and Tatum all but stare directly into the camera. But the irreverence of the entire cast and crew is deeply comic. Its seven layers of meta has sarcasm running so deep that their pot shots come fast and loose. Tatum essentially acknowledges how bottomed out White House Down was just as they later acknowledge how easy it would be to milk this franchise for all its worth. Also with a higher budget, we get things like Ice Cube‘s Ice Cube office. That’s right, Ice Cube has an office shaped like a cube of ice.

Schmidt and Jenko make their way to their next assignment, investigating a hybrid drug called WHYPHY (pronounced wifi and standing for Work Hard? Yes, Play Hard? Yes) at a local community college. While there, the two best buddies/partners begin to tear in different directions as Tatum and his bulbous throwing arm fall into the frat bro crowd, leaving Schmidt to find sentimental solace in gallons of ice cream and Friends re-runs and the artsy, fartsy community.

As far as ying and yang go, Hill’s wounded fay routine synchs perfectly with Tatum’s prom king duncemanship. As a college football announcer says (however not about their two characters) “They’re two peas in a pod.” Their comic timing is perfect as it their oddball dichotomy of character. Tatum’s cob-webbed thought process is blunted by Hill’s smart aleck ways and Lord and Miller find many opportunities to exploit their differences in hilarious and oft-kilter ways. Even if some of the laughs are expected, the amount of them will catch you off guard. It’s a non-stop flight of guffaws, a bullet train of side-splitters. Also, be sure to stick around for the credits which will likely have you rolling on the floor.

With their tongues planted deeply in cheek, Lord and Miller bring the same slapstick routine that defined The Lego Movie to this more adult adventure and it’s nothing short of a riot-fest to watch them peel back the many layers of this joke onion. But licking your way to the creamy center, one might be surprised to find some real heart buried amongst the awkward and yet sweet relationship between Hill and Tatum. While their matching at first looked like some kind of Frankenstein’s monster, in 22 Jump Street, they really are two peas in one hell of a funny pod.

A-

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