Tag Archives: Damien Chazelle

“LA LA LAND” Review (✫✫✫)

So does “LA” refer to music, or Los Angeles?

Musicals don’t exist in realms of reality. If you have this as your mindset when you go into a musical, 9/10 times you won’t be dissapointed. This expectation helped me to enjoy La La Land, a delightful, energetic musical experiment that is equal parts joyful, uplifting, and honest with itself. I enjoyed it very much even though I knew it wasn’t realistic, and that’s part of the influence of cinema: escaping one reality so you may be immersed in another.

Taking place in modern-day Los Angeles, La La Land follows two hopeful dreamers who aspire to be successful Hollywood artists. Mia (Emma Stone) is a down-on-her-luck actress who works as a barista while simultaneously auditioning for shows. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a jazz pianist who was recently fired from his performance job at a nightclub. As these two run into each other coincidence after coincidence, they soon fall in love with their artistry, and eventually, each other.

With La La Land being the third film written and directed by Damien Chazelle, it feels strange that he would want to come back and do a musical. His last film, the masterfully-paced and enthralling Whiplash, was a tense exercise in perfection and practice, while 10 Cloverfield Lane also demonstrated Chazelle’s characteristics of pacing with tension. La La Land, however, feels so starkly different from those films. From the emotional mood to the artistic direction, La La Land exists in ambiance, throwing you back to the classic musical days where characters broke out into song and dance instead of engaging in conversation with each other. If Whiplash is a vicious, violent train chugging down the tracks at a lethal pace, La La Land is like a feather, whimsically dancing in the wind as it quietly falls down to its next restful stop.

That change of mood is fine. What isn’t is sacrificing quality along with it, and La La Land definitely has a few things to answer for, particularly in the runtime. The movie is two hours and eight minutes long, and it definitely feels like it. From the writing to the editing, there were small things in there that were not needed and could have been resolved with a few quick rewrites and tighter edits.

Example: In the middle of the movie, Mia is caught in a love triangle between Sebastian and her boyfriend Greg (portrayed by Finn Wittrock). None of these scenes were needed. None of them. Greg served no purpose in the film other than just to have Finn Wittrock in it, who admittedly is a talented actor, but that’s not a good enough reason to have him awkwardly shoved in here. He offered no development in either Mia or Sebastian’s story, and the film would have moved on much more smoothly without him in there as a distraction.

There’s other small things, from the sudden dance montages to characters conveniently lacking cell phones in really useful moments (I.e. at Sebastian and Mia’s first meeting, when he asks her out on their first date, when she gets an audition callback, etc.). In an age where cell phones flood every part of our culture, it’s so hard to imagine two people lacking them so often, especially in the heart of a city like L.A.

Compare this to the tempo and flow of Whiplash. Nothing is wasted in that film. Nothing. Every practice scene, every beating of the drum, every fiery argument between Neiman and Fletcher drives home a point about passion and sacrifice. Whiplash was tight, effective, and masterful in its art. La La Land has more fun with it.

That’s not to say La La Land isn’t enjoyable. It definitely has an upbeat, feel-good rhythm to it, guaranteed to get you dancing on your feet and humming the song’s melodies out loud. Part of this is because of the wholly earnest energy sprouting from Gosling and Stone’s chemistry. With this being their third collaboration together (the first two being Crazy, Stupid, Love and Gangster Squad), this film is easily the best representation of their talents together. They do well no matter what scene they’re in, whether they’re subtly flirting with each other, sharing a moment of romantic passion, dancing the night away in a wonderful musical number, or are arguing in a heated moment. They make every moment come alive and immediate. Stone especially demonstrates immersive talent, and in her audition scenes as an actress, she feels like she’s playing two characters at once. That’s because she is.

I like a lot of things about this film. The music is catchy and meaningful, with each number saying more in each scene than character’s dialogue can sometimes. The set design is bright, vibrant, and colorful, with some scenes painting a more vivid picture than any painting or photograph can. The choreography is especially impressive, with characters moving, leaping, tap-dancing, and flying into synchronized rhythms in-time with the music.

As a musical, La La Land fulfills every requirement and then some, with it being not just catchy and melodic, but also visually spectacular and dynamic. It could have been more effective in some areas, but at the end of the day, Chazelle is doing what he loves by telling this story about two unlikely lovers pursuing their dreams. We can learn an important lesson here. It’s easy to give up on the impossible. It’s hard to pursue your dreams. Imagine what it feels like reaching them.

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“10 CLOVERFIELD LANE” Review (✫✫✫)

You’re not safe inside. You’re not safe outside either.

Whether you love him or hate him, you gotta admit one thing about J.J. Abrams: he knows how to sell a film.

Take 10 Cloverfield Lane as a testament to his skill. When the trailer dropped out of nowhere back in January, nobody knew anything about the plot, characters, or premise of this movie. That’s rare in today’s industry, especially with all of the casting and production announcements circulating daily on today’s news platforms. The fact that 10 Cloverfield Lane’s producers, director, writers, and actors were able to keep it a secret up until now is genuinely surprising, and I think it will pay off for them. It’s built up anticipation for the movie in ways no major blockbuster can do, and it will equally fulfill it’s audience in ways only this movie can supply.

In their excitement, some fans speculated that this movie is a sequel to Cloverfield, a risky yet innovative 2008 monster thriller also produced by Abrams. You would be wrong. 10 Cloverfield Lane is about as related to Cloverfield as Star Wars is related to Star Trek. Same genre, different execution. Much different.

This time around, 10 Cloverfield Lane ditches the nauseating shaky cam from Cloverfield and chooses instead to focus on a few survivors in a bomb shelter as opposed to a collapsing New York City. These survivors consist of Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), and Howard (John Goodman), the last of whom built the shelter in the first place. These three are forced into the shelter after a chemical attack cripples the U.S..

Or so Michelle is told.

Before coming to the shelter, Michelle got into a devastating car crash that left her injured and unconscious. She wakes up chained to a small bed on the floor next to Howard, who doesn’t quite seem all there if you know what I mean. Michelle is left with a difficult decision. Does she choose to trust her instincts, or this man that’s telling her that the world has ended?

The special thing about 10 Cloverfield Lane is that it focuses on its setting and performances to provide suspense instead of an overflow of visual effects. This is not an aesthetic Abrams is unfamiliar with. Ever since producing Cloverfield, he’s mostly understood that it is not spectacle that provides thrills, but rather, perspective. And whether it’s through the eyes of a producer, or through the lense of directing Mission Impossible III or Super 8, he’s always been a filmmaker that’s understood the value of perspective.

Take, for instance, Michelle’s perspective in the movie. Through her eyes, she’s just a prisoner who woke up in someone’s basement chained up to a mattress on the floor. The man who says he saved her life isn’t entirely a friendly guy. He’s old, unsettling, awkward, unreasonable, and demanding, running his bomb shelter like a warden runs a prison. Michelle is understandably terrified with him, but then she’s told that there’s been an attack on the world outside. Now what do you do? Do you try to escape and possibly face death, or do you believe this stranger and confide in the safety of his shelter?

Such psychological dilemmas is what compels the film forward, and director Dan Trachtenberg handles this cast skillfully in the small space that they are confined in. Winstead and Goodman bounce off of each other perfectly in the film, like a cat and mouse locked together in the same cage. Winstead, who’s played the survivors role in quite a few films (Live Free Or Die Hard, The Thing prequel), displays her trauma and distress here effectively without overacting or reaching for an emotion. Goodman is just downright chilling. He’s a man who seems like he has good intentions, but has a dark side to him that he demonstrates with disturbing normalcy. Their dynamic together felt eerily resemblant of Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter from 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs, which also featured a chilling relationship formed more out of necessity rather than comfort.

All of this builds to a well-paced, tense, and uncomfortable film driven almost entirely through performance, which is a very special thing in today’s industry. My biggest regret is that given the talent and the uniqueness involved with this production, it has to undercut its own success by throwing a CGI action spectacle in the third act of the film. While I won’t spoil it by saying what exactly happens, I will say it’s a severe shift in genre by the time the third act rolls around. We go from a tensely-wrought suspense-thriller to what is typically considered a Hollywood blockbuster. In making that transition, the film loses a part of its spirit and what makes it special from other thriller films.

“But it’s science-fiction,” you might argue with me. Yes, but did it need to be? Damien Chazelle made an incredible, heart-racing thriller in 2014’s Whiplash, and that was a film about the sharp rivalry of two passion-fueled musicians. Chazelle also worked on the script for 10 Cloverfield Lane, and I’m convinced that Howard’s uneasy presence originated from Chazelle’s ideas. The studio should have followed in his lead. The creepiest scenes in this movie remains to be from the tension between the characters and for what they can or can’t do to each other: not some supernatural force that threatens these people from outside the shelter. A quick rewrite of the ending and a few reshoots could have shifted this picture from a good movie to a great one.

All in all, 10 Cloverfield Lane is an effectively creepy film that you just wish would follow through on its intentions. The movie draws a line between fearing what is reality and what is fiction, and at looking at that line, isn’t it reality that seems more scary to us? That’s the thought that stuck with me when I left the theater. Well, bomb shelter.

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“WHIPLASH” Review (✫✫✫✫)

You won’t know what hit you.

I was a junior in high school when my dad took me out to a cabin in Montana for a “vacation.” I put “vacation” in quotations because we practiced music for nearly three hours every single day. I was a tuba player back then, and I practiced with my dad so I could make it into the All-Region band. One day, I wasn’t playing a single measure correctly. The notes I was supposed to play were on the downbeat, and I kept playing them on the upbeat. My dad made me play that verse over, and over, and over, and over again. He would get frustrated at me, yell at me, and push me harder and harder until I played that verse perfectly 100 times. I played that same frothy, infuriating verse for all three hours that day.

I say this to show you that the stuff you see in Whiplash isn’t fiction. It’s as feasible as the music you see, as vibrant as the drum beats you hear in a song, and as real as the passion that drives any musician, writer, and aspiring artist out there. Whiplash is special not just because it’s unique, but because it carries an uncanny truth for those who aspire to greatness. Perfection is never good enough. You’re pushing yourself over the edge just as much as the people around you are.

The kid aspiring to greatness in this story is Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), a mild-mannered college musician who aspires to be the next Charlie Parker or Buddy Rich on the drums. The man he thinks can make him great is Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), a brilliant but brash and at times violent instructor who will throw a chair at you if you’re either rushing or dragging the tempo.

If you think I’m saying that figuratively, I’m not. That literally happens to Neiman during his first rehearsal with Fletcher in the movie.

Neiman aims to be the best drummer out in the world. Fletcher aims to be the best instructor in the world. These two men and their intense passions for their goals builds into a riveting, thrilling, and emotionally vigorous journey that is more involving and exciting than most of the year’s biggest action blockbusters. Yes, I am placing this above the likes of Transformers, Godzilla, and Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s that good.

How is it that this movie leaves such a lasting impact, when most people haven’t seen it, let alone heard about it? One of the biggest reasons, I think, is conflict. This is writer/director Damien Chazelle’s sophomore effort into film, his debut feature being the 2009 jazz film Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench. Both films are about jazz musicians, both are about people aspiring to other’s aspirations, and both are about never being good enough for those end goals.

There, however, is a sharp difference in tone between both pictures. One is a romantic drama about two lovers struggling to reconnect after slowly growing apart from each other. The other is an unconventional thriller that poses two musicians opposite one another to build a steady sense of unease and tension between the two. The result is a severely nail-biting, teeth-grating, and heart-pounding experience because of it.

Again, going back to conflict. My college screenwriting professor once told us that conflict is what compels story, and character’s struggling with conflict compels their development in the story. I am reminded of this no better than when I watch Whiplash, and that’s just because Chazelle sets up conflict really well in the movie. In the film, Neiman is desperate to prove himself as a musician. He moves his bed out of his dorm room in the place of a drum set. When he goes to sleep, he listens to the music that he’s practicing in his ipod. When he knows he’s not playing fast enough, he pushes harder until his hand bleeds. When his hand bleeds, he puts a bandaid on and keeps playing. When his bandaid falls off, he presses his hand in ice water, turning the clean liquid into an ugly shade of red.

Yet, despite all of his passion and initiative, Fletcher continues to press him and push him harder not necessarily to make him a better musician, but just because it’s never good enough for him. The level of intensity Fletcher shows in the movie makes you wonder where all of this anger comes from. Did he have his own version of Fletcher when he was a music major in college?

Which brings me to the next point: the performances. Teller and Simmons give two of the best performances out of the year in their roles, fully inhabiting their characters to the point where we become entranced in full immersion. Teller, who before this has starred in a string of bad raunchy comedies (Project X, 21 and Over, That Awkard Moment), re-establishes himself as a finer actor here. He shows that he has more acting chops than he lets on and proves that he’s more than just a pretty face. Simmons is on a whole another level. He was so scary, intimidating and maddening as this arrogant, hard-headed music professor that he made wind ensemble feel like drill camp.

I can only name one moment I didn’t like in the film, and that is that the ending is far too abrupt. It’s a perfect film otherwise. Chazelle wrote and directed this film as a reaction to writer’s block, and while he pulled inspiration from being a drummer in high school, I think the film is universal as far as its language and messages go. We are both Neiman and Fletcher for the things that we are passionate about. We aspire to do great things, and we beat ourselves up when we don’t do those great things. We will push ourselves to and over the edge when we don’t measure up to our own expectations. But what’s the point of doing all of those great things if you’ve lost the joy in doing them? I quote my dad, who has always pushed me in a better way than Fletcher has: “You don’t have to be number one to be amazing.”

Post-script: In defense of my dad, some people might say he was going too hard on me, or that I didn’t deserve all of the strain that he would put me through. You would be wrong. I made third chair in the Texas All State band because he didn’t give up on me.

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The Unexpected Virtue of Being Nominated

I am never more conflicted with myself than when Oscar nominations are released. It’s the same time every single year, and every time I look at them I feel a strange combination of pride and disappointment. Of course many actors and filmmakers are nominated across the board, and most of them are well deserved. But then there are always a good amount of snubs that are equally undeserved. Example: Since when does The Fault In Our Stars, Interstellar and The Lego Movie deserve zero nominations in any of the major categories?

Snubs happen every year. I expect it at this point. But what I find particularly interesting is that this year’s ceremonies are more well-rounded in their nominations. The eight best picture nominees, for instance, are also the pictures with the most nominations in the show. I think that reflects well on the Academy, especially because the best picture award isn’t won by only being nominated for best original song.

Regardless, the nominees have been released and the Oscars race has officially begun. Here are all of the best picture nominees.

Birdman

Otherwise known as The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s black comedy epic stars Michael Keaton as Riggan Thompson, a struggling stage actor who is desperately trying to escape his image as formerly portraying a superhero. Considering the irony that Keaton has been most known for playing Batman in Tim Burton’s movies, I can’t help but think he relates more to the film than he lets on. Birdman is nominated in nine categories, including best picture, best director, best original screenplay, best cinematography, best sound editing and mixing, and best acting awards for Keaton, Edward Norton, and Emma Stone.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

A surprise standout out of the other nominees, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a comedic escapade about Concierge Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), who is framed for the murder of one of his hotel guests and for stealing her most cherished painting. As he tries to outrun law enforcement and the family assassins that are after him, he teams up with his lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori) to set out and prove his innocence. Written and directed by Wes Anderson (The Royal Tennenbaums, Moonrise Kingdom), The Grand Budapest Hotel has already won best comedy at the Golden Globes, so it is off to a good start in the Oscars race. The film ties with Birdman with nine nominations, including best picture, best director, best original screenplay, best cinematography, best costume design, best editing, best makeup and hairstyling, best original score, and best production design.

The Imitation Game

This historical epic stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing, a brilliant physicist during WWII who worked with a team to crack Enigma, a German processing machine which masks German messages through cryptographic messages. Directed by Norwegian filmmaker Morten Tyldum and also starring Keira Knightly, Matthew Goode, and Mark Strong, The Imitation Game is nominated for eight academy awards, including best picture, best director, best adapted screenplay, best editing, best original score, best production, best actor for Benedict Cumberbatch and best supporting actress for Keira Knightly.

American Sniper

Based on the true story of Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), American Sniper tells his story working for the U.S. military, and the 120 kills he garnered throughout his military career. Directed by Clint Eastwood and written by Jason Hall, American Sniper is a late entry to the Oscars race, but it came out strong regardless. American Sniper is nominated for best picture, best adapted screenplay, best sound editing and mixing, and best actor for Bradley Cooper.

Boyhood

The 12 year epic that everyone is talking about, and the movie everyone is dying to see. Boyhood follows the story of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from childhood to adulthood, through puberty, love, heartache, loss, and life. Richard Linklater directs Coltrane among others through this masterfully crafted drama, filmed over the period of 12 years. Ambitious both in production and vision, Boyhood was nominated for best picture, best director, best original screenplay, best film editing, and best supporting actor and actress for Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette.

The Theory of Everything

The fluffy, inspirational adaptation of Stephen Hawking’s life, The Theory of Everything stars Eddie Redmayne as King and Felicity Jones as his wife Jane, and follows their relationship from college to their marriage, and covers the issues that they’ve had to face together. I personally didn’t find this film to be as imposing as the other nominees, but Redmayne’s performance and the film’s intentions are definitely something to be admired. The film is nominated for best picture, best adapted screenplay, best original score, and best actor and best actress for Redmayne and Jones.

Whiplash

One of the best under-the-radar films of the year. Whiplash follows Andrew (Miles Teller), a young college student who is enrolled in an orchestra and is working to be the best drummer there is. His teacher is Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), a narcissist conductor who treats his students like he is Gunnery Sergeant Hartman. As their rivalrous relationship builds to a tense climax, both men learn more about themselves as artists and teachers to each other. Written and directed by independent filmmaker Damien Chazelle, Whiplash is one of the year’s most standout films. Featuring strong performances from its leads and masterful direction from Chazelle, Whiplash is nominated for best picture, best editing, best sound mixing, and best supporting actor for J.K. Simmons. The movie is also nominated for best adapted screenplay, even though it’s an original idea crafted by Chazelle.

Selma

Directed by Ava Duvernay and starring David Oyewolo as Martin Luther King Jr., Selma follows the civil rights movement as it builds to a climax in the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. The interesting thing about this film is that it only has two nominations for the evening: best picture and best original song for John Legend and Common’s “Glory.” If that is the logic behind the nominations, should Selma even be nominated for best picture? It’s more than deserving of the nomination, but it certainly isn’t great just because of the song that’s in it. Where’s the best director nomination? Best actor? Best screenplay? I feel like this movie had potential in many different categories at the Oscars, and it was snubbed for mostly all of them. It’s an utter shame to see so many great films get snubbed at the Academy Awards, and this film perhaps has been snubbed the most out of all of them.

Other films that were nominated in other categories include Foxcatcher, Interstellar, Mr. Turner, Into The Woods, Unbroken, The Lego Movie and Guardians of the Galaxy. We can gripe more about which films deserved which nominations later on, but for now, let’s be excited that Barney Stinson is hosting the awards.

– David Dunn

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Top Ten Films Of 2014

Has anyone ever stopped to wonder why all of the best of the year lists have to be in the top ten? Like, what sort of critic was working on his list and thought that ten would be the magic number? Why ten and not twelve? Or fifteen? Five? Twenty? Eight? Why was ten specifically chosen as the big number? Was it chosen at random, or was it actually chosen for some relevant, significant reason?

Regardless of whatever the case may be, I’m choosing to be a little rebellious this year. For the past few years, I’ve seen enough films to make a “Top 15″ list if I wanted to, but if I had done that, my site viewership would go down by about twenty views.

So this year, to battle the preconceived notion that “best of the year” lists have to have ten movies, I’m doing two different things. 1) I’m adding an “honorable mentions” selection that while those films aren’t necessarily in my top ten, they are still significant films that have contributed to the year’s industry regardless. 2) In honor of our first full year without the wise, sometime snarky, words of film critic Roger Ebert, I’m offering a special Grand Jury Prize, which honors a film from the year which has made a notable accomplishment that fits outside of my year’s top ten.

As always, there is a few things you need to know before I get into my year’s best. First of all, I haven’t seen all of the films the year has had to offer. I’ve heard from so many people how Jean-Marc Vallee’s Wild was emotionally stirring, with Reese Witherspoon’s performance being the greatest highlight of the film. I’ve also read from critics that Selma, A Most Violent Year, and American Sniper were great movies as well, but guess what? None of those movies get a wide release until after Dec. 31, so I’m not able to even see those films until after the year anyway. So what am I going to do? Release a revision to my current list, or add those films to 2015 if they’re good enough? I’ll make a decision when it comes to that. It’s the studio’s faults for releasing those movies so late into the year anyway. Blasted film mongers.

Secondly, and perhaps more significantly, this is my list for the best films of 2014. Not yours. There has been high praise from many notable films of the year, including Edge of Tomorrow, The Theory of Everything, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. None of those films will be on my top ten list because I didn’t deem them worthy enough to be on there. It’s nothing against the films or the filmmakers: I just didn’t think they were good enough.

If you’re not satisfied with that, then please, make your own top ten list. I’d love to read it, and if your reasonings are sound enough, I’d like to share it with others.

Now then, let’s hop to it, shall we? Here are my top ten films of 2014:

10. Interstellar 

A mesmerizing, breathtaking, and exhilarating journey that may have only slightly exceeded it’s grasp. Based on an idea by physicist Kip Thorne and directed by Christopher Nolan, Interstellar takes place in the future on a dying planet Earth, where the only source of sustainable food is by growing corn. When former aircraft pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) stumbles upon a secret station that has been hiding NASA for so many years, Cooper enlists in a daring space mission to find a new planet that will be able to sustain and save the human race. A testament to the quality of film that Nolan is consistent in making, Interstellar is a brilliantly woven, thought-provoking plot, invoking the same themes of humanity and identity that Nolan exercises in all of his films. McConaughey reaches an emotional depth much deeper than past “Nolan” actors, and succeeds in making his character more human than hero. This is Nolan’s most emotional movie yet, but it’s also his most complicated and convoluted. But if Nolan’s only real flaw with this film is being overly ambitious, I don’t consider that a flaw at all. Three and a half stars.

9. The Grand Budapest Hotel

A crafty and artsy film that acts as a homage to the early days of cinema. After being framed for a violent murder of one of his former hotel guests, Concierge Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) teams up with his young apprentice Zero (Tony Revolori) to set out and prove his innocence through a series of weird, wacky, and crazy adventures. Written and directed by Wes Anderson, who was nominated for an Academy Award for The Royal Tenenbaums and Moonrise Kingdom, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a peculiar, quirky film, a fun and enjoyable ride in it’s own singular way. Anderson is very specific with the direction of the film, using practical effects and set pieces that gives the film a very distinct visual style and aesthetic. The antics Gustave and Zero go through are the stuff of slapstick gold, with these guys doing silly stunts and chase sequences that reminds me of the silent film days of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. It’s definitely seasoned for the art house crowd, and it’s definitely more difficult to appeal to the masses. But if you allow yourself to be lost in it and have fun with it, you’ll find that it is easily the most unique film of the year. Three and a half stars.

8. How To Train Your Dragon 2

A wildly exciting and entertaining animated ride that appeals to both kids and adults. When a crusade of dragon-hunters reach the land of Berk and begin their hunt for the flying beasts, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) must team up once again with his dragon Toothless to stop the brigade and save Berk’s dragons and dragon riders. Written and directed by Dean DuBlois, who returned from directing the first film, How To Train Your Dragon 2 is a near-perfect follow-up. It hits on every note it needs to, from the comedy, to the animation, to the action, to the emotion. Hiccup is a much stronger, yet more vulnerable, character now, and needs to face more mature situations now as a grown man rather than as he did when he was a boy. In many ways, How To Train Your Dragon 2 is to it’s first counterpart as Hiccup is to his younger self: they both grew. Three and a half stars.

7. Gone Girl

A brilliantly frustrating thriller that exercises themes of infidelity and media harassment. When Nick Dunne’s (Ben Affleck) wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) goes missing, all eyes turn to Nick for what happened to his wife. When clues slowly surface and more details surrounding the disappearance reveal themselves, everyone is asking the same question: did Nick Dunne kill his wife? Directed by David Fincher and written by author Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl is a masterfully orchestrated thriller, equal parts daring, inventive, intelligent, and unpredictable. Fincher propels Flynn’s brilliant plot forward with expert direction, eye-striking camerawork, and a cast that Fincher pulls the best from. This movie is like a game of cat and mouse, except no one really knows who is the cat or mouse. There is not one note in the film that you can guess is coming. Three and a half stars.

6. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

A compelling and exciting survivalist-drama that looks at the human/primate condition as two sides to one coin. After the chemical attack on planet Earth that took place at the end of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes follows the story of Caesar (Andy Serkis) and Malcolm (Jason Clarke), the leaders of the apes and the humans, respectively. As the human-primate war rages on violently, Caesar and Malcolm begin to see that the apes and the humans aren’t so different from each other, and they begin to explore any possibilities of peace between two races. Matt Reeves builds an intelligent, in-depth story around Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and handles its premise with skill and precision.  It surprising that the basis of this film wasn’t grounded in action or ridiculous CGI stunts, but rather in small, intimate moments of conversation and ape-sign-language that characters share with each other. Serkis is a revelation in the movie, and deserves an Oscar nomination for both his physical and emotional performance. Four stars.

5. Birdman

One of the most mesmerizing, unique, disturbing, shocking, and darkly funny films I’ve ever seen. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu writes and directs this ingenious dramedy starring Michael Keaton as Riggan Thompson, a washed-up movie actor trying to escape his image in a former superhero role by adapting his favorite broadway play to the stage. Keaton is a natural in the role, relating his own experience to portraying Batman in order to further authenticity for the character. Cinematographer Emanuel Lubeski contributes to the visual design of the film, shooting and editing it to look like one, continuous shot rather than multiple longer takes. But Inarritu is the most essential storyteller here, making a visual and emotional masterpiece that is so distinct in its own language that it is impossible to define it, let alone replace it. Four stars.

4. Whiplash

One of the most edgy, thrilling, and provocative films of the year. Miles Teller stars as Andrew, an upcoming college student who is majoring in music and dreams of becoming one of the best drummers in the country. A series of events lands him in the top jazz orchestra of Shaffer Conservatory and under the tutelage of Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), a brilliant but harsh and antagonistic instructor who is known to go very hard on his students. Andrew and Fletcher both develop an intense rivalry that both hurts Andrew, angers Fletcher, and yet equally compels them both to become the very best they can be. Writer/director Damien Chazelle conducts both actors through his sophomore effort, and does a great job in producing a tense, electric vibe consistently throughout the film. Teller and Simmons’ chemistry with each other is equally perfect, with the both of them bouncing off of each other’s words and emotions as perfectly as a drum beat. This film is about more than just music. It’s about the human desire to be great and what sacrifices we’d make to get there. Four stars.

3. Boyhood

The most revolutionary film of the year, ambitious in both production and vision. A twelve-year project pioneered by writer/director Richard Linklater, Boyhood tells the story of Mason’s (Ellar Coltrane) childhood, chronicling his entire life from when he was six years old, up until when he turns 18 and leaves for college. The movie isn’t so much a story as it is a scrapbook of memories, and Linklater is pulling each photograph out of it just to show it to us. When he is younger, Ellar isn’t acting but living, behaving like any other child would in the moment because he is in the moment. As he gets older, his performance gets more stagnant and Coltrane becomes more of a surrogate for us to express our emotions through, rather than experiencing his own. In this day and age, it’s rare to find a film as real and honest as Boyhood is. Four stars.

2. X-men: Days of Future Past

The best entry out of the X-men franchise, and the best superhero movie of the year. Serving as a sequel to both 2011’s X-men: First Class and 2006’s X-men: The Last Stand, X-men: Days of Future Past is set in the apocalyptic future where mutants are being exterminated by humanoid robots called “Sentinels”. Having only one chance to go back in time and stop this future from ever happening, Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) send Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) through time to their younger selves (Portrayed by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender) so they can stop the triggering event and save the future. Directed by Bryan Singer, who formerly helmed the first two entries in the franchise, X-men: Days of Future Past is a game changer. It is not only a visually-dazzling and highly climactic sci-fi blockbuster: it is a vastly intelligent and contemplative story that focuses on its recurring themes of racism and xenophobia, once again bringing the consequences of discrimination to the forefront. X-men: Days of Future Past is one of those movies that restores your faith in the superhero genre. Four stars.

And finally, my number one film of the year is —

1. The Fault In Our Stars

Surprised? I’m not. The Fault In Our Stars is one of the most magical, heartbreaking, and genuine films you will ever see, and is more than worthy of being called the most emotional film of the year. Based off of the novel by John Green, The Fault In Our Stars follows the love story of two Cancer-stricken teenagers: the shy and book-loving Hazel Grace (Shailene Woodley) and the optimistic amputee Gus (Ansel Elgort). Written and directed by independent filmmaker Josh Boone, The Fault In Our Stars is one of the best stories ever translated from book to film. I initially was skeptical on seeing this film, considering how much it seemed to have been doused in rom-com syndrome. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth. Boone adapts Green’s story perfectly to the big screen, retaining everything in the novel from the visual details to the words that were written. But its Woodley and Elgort that sells it so well, their chemistry that vibrates so wonderfully with each other and leaves such an impression on you. Trust me when I say this isn’t your typical rom-com: it’s a heartfelt drama disguised as a tween movie, and it is the best of it’s kind. Four stars.

And finally, this year’s first Grand Jury Prize appropriately goes to Steve James’ documented biography Life Itself. Following Roger Ebert’s life and career from him growing up in Chicago, to when he got his first reporting job, to when he won the Nobel Prize for film criticism, to when he lost his best friend, to when he got Thyroid cancer, this film is everything that Roger Ebert is: funny, honest, heartfelt, unabashed, unflinching, and real. It doesn’t give you a peppered-up look at his life: it’s whole and accurate, as genuine as any of the reviews he’s written. I’m probably biased towards this subject, but the subject doesn’t count as long as it is handled well. James’ handles this story with respect and humility, and ends up telling a story about life itself rather than just limiting it to Roger’s story. It’s my favorite documentary of the year, and it brings me great pleasure to award my first Grand Jury Prize to this wonderful film tribute.

Honorable mentions include the creepy and morally ambiguous Nightcrawler, the funny yet stylish Guardians of the Galaxy, the humorously innovative The Lego Movie, and the quietly thrilling The Imitation Game, featuring the year’s best performance from actor Benedict Cumberbatch. Not all films can be honored at the end of the year compilations, but this year I was glad to have seen so many films and give each of them a chance to shine in their own way.

All the same, if you feel differently about some of the films on my list, or you have seen another film that deserves to be recognized, please comment about it. Or make your own list. Movies are deemed as great films not from individuals, but from the masses, and the only way you can tell if a movie has truly accomplished something is if it has the same effect on all its viewers.

On that note, my fellow moviegoers, I end with a classic line from my favorite film critic: “I’ll see you at the movies.”

– David Dunn

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