Tag Archives: John Green

Top Ten Films of 2015

2015 was the year of change.

As I sit here, thinking about how this year ends and the next one begins, that’s the thought that keeps coming to my mind. I’ve changed this year. Not just me, but everyone else this year. People changed after terrorists attacked the city of Paris twice in both January and November, killing more than 140 people in total. People changed when business mogul Donald Trump announced his campaign for presidency in June, and as voters continued to debate the upcoming elections and how important it is to elect the right leader for the future of the U.S. People changed when war raged on in Syria, consuming over 200,000 lives as they died trying to escape their reality and come into Europe or the United States.

People all around the world changed as tragedy struck it again and again. It is years like these that remind me that we need the movies now more than ever. Not just to comment and bring exposure to the different realities we don’t know about, but also to escape from them when we need to.

It is times like these where I am overjoyed that the movies decide to change with us. To not only bring us stories that we don’t know about, but also to give us emotions of insight, joy, angst, tragedy, anger, sadness, and hope as we see these characters growing and changing, just like we are.

A few notes I want to point out before going into this year’s top 10 list. First of all, this is my top 10 list, meaning not every critically acclaimed movie from the year will be on this list. Movies such as Steve Jobs and The Martian, for instance, were highly regarded by critics and audiences everywhere. Neither of those are in my top 10. If you want to see movies like those in your top 10 list, go to RottenTomatoes or iMDB. Or better yet, make your own and comment below. Either case does not affect me. Top 10 lists are supposed to be celebrations of your most cherished movies of the year. Not everyone will share your views, and indeed, you might disagree with one or two entries on this list.

And as another disclaimer, I have not seen every movie released this year. The biggest I have missed, perhaps, is Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s The Revenant, which is NOT a 2015 release despite claiming it is on Wikipedia. It’s doesn’t get a wide release until Jan. 9, and as such, I will not be able to review it in time for this year, which sucks, but it’s Inarritu’s own fault. So sorry if a movie deserved to be on this list but couldn’t be. I’m only human.

Before we get into my top 10, I want to start by announcing my special prize for the year. For those of you that don’t know, the special prize is a honorary recognition I give to a limited-release film that was not heard about or seen by many moviegoers, but deserves just as much recognition, if not more so, than most of the movies on my list. Last year, that honor went to the Roger Ebert documentary Life Itself. This year, it goes to Bill Pohlad’s music biopic Love and Mercy, which tells the wonderful yet heartbreaking story about Beach Boy’s singer Brian Wilson, his battle with mental illness, and his overcoming of drug abuse and childhood trauma. Pohlad, who also served as a producer for The Tree of Life and 12 Years A Slave, debuts as a strong filmmaker all his own, not only understanding and implementing the visual art of storytelling, but also accurately appealing to the aesthetics of this complicated and personal biography. Actors Paul Dano and John Cusack are exemplary at portraying Wilson at different points of his life, and do well at showing how much this talented musician struggled with himself at any time period of his life. A small-budget summer release that squeaked by unnoticed by most, but is just as deserving to be seen as any wide-release blockbuster out there. Four stars.

10) Creed

Creed lives and exists in the shadows of its predecessors, but just like it’s main hero, it breaks away from the mold and builds a legacy all of its own. Adonis “Donnie” Creed (Michael B. Jordan) is the illegitimate son of Rocky Balboa’s (Sylvester Stallone) rival, Apollo Creed. When he decides to step into the ring himself, he enlists in the help of the Italian stallion to train him and become a fighter all his own. Writer-director Ryan Coogler, who is most known for 2013’s Fruitvale Station, approached this not as a sequel to a popular franchise, but rather as an intimate, personal story about one fighter’s deep aspirations. Jordan and Stallone demonstrate great chemistry with each other, even challenging the dynamic between Rocky and Mick in the original film. A hot-blooded sports drama through and through, let alone one of the best Rocky films, if you can call it that. Three and a half stars.

9) Avengers: Age of Ultron

A summer blockbuster that aims to outdo the original and misses it only by a hair, which is not a bad thing. The Avengers team up this time to take on the wickedly manipulative artificial intelligence Ultron (James Spader), who was created by Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) to protect the Earth from super human threats. When Ultron goes rogue and become obsessed with human extinction, it’s up to the Avengers to stop him. Spader as Ultron is the best super villain performance I’ve seen in a Marvel movie to date. He doesn’t behave or talk like other androids. He is fluid and life-like, chaotic and radical in his thinking, acting more like a psychotic child rather than a logically driven A.I. Everything else in the movie lives up to the expectations you had from the first movie. The action is unique, visually complex, and eye-popping. The story is layered and intelligent, with characters bouncing witty and thought-provoking dialogue off of each other in perfect dynamics. The people over at Marvel continue to surprise me and make me believe in its cinematic universe. Let’s hope they can keep this up for the next 11 movies. Three and a half stars.

8) Concussion

A provocative sports drama that refuses everything we love about sports. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) is a brilliant pathologist who, after performing an autopsy on a notable football player, discovers a lethal disease that is caused by repetitive physical trauma to the brain. Now teaming up with doctors and scientists to defend his findings, he prepares to take on the NFL and reveal the problems the league has been hiding for a long time. There are many people who will not want to see this movie due to their love and commitment for the sport. Yet, it is these same people that need to see this movie the most. Writer-director Peter Landesman, who was previously criticized for his 2013 political thriller Parkland, finds his niche here in a story that not many people knew about, or maybe didn’t want to know about. Smith is exemplary as Omalu, and from the movie’s most bravura scenes to its most tender, he hits every emotional note spot-on, all while not breaking his Nigerian accent. An unconventional, nail-biting thriller that demands to be seen and heard. Three and a half stars.

7) Mad Max: Fury Road

Never before has a movie broken so many many rules and get away with it. On a desolate and deprived planet Earth, former patrol officer Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) is on the run from the tyrannical warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). When he gets caught up in a conflict involving Joe, road warrior Furiosa (Charlize Theron) and all of Joe’s wives, he needs to team up with them to escape the desert and free the women from Joe’s cruelty and control. There is no plot in this movie, only the resemblance of one. The plot, however, is not what matters. What matters is the spectacular, eye-popping action and explosions, and even a few moments of softly implied feminism in the picture. Hardy replaces Mel Gibson’s role well with hardened machismo and stiffness to his gesture and voice. Theron demonstrates great versatility, being firm and uncompromising in one moment, and emotionally exhausted and stricken in another. A film that’s politically driven and female empowering, all while being ridiculous and absurd in the most gleeful of ways. Three and a half stars. 

6) Paper Towns

The second of John Green’s novels to be adapted to film, with the first being last year’s The Fault In Our Stars. Quintin “Q” Jacobsen (Nat Wolff) is a regular high school student with regular friends, regular parents, regular life, and regular post-graduation plans. The one thing that isn’t regular in Q’s life is Margo Roth Spiegelman (Cara Delevingne), the girl on his block that he’s been in love with since they were kids. One day, after Margo completely vanishes, Q discovers clues Margo left behind for him to discover. Now convinced that Margo wants him to find her, Q starts piecing all of the clues together to find out where she has gone to convince her to come home.

It’s hard to look at this movie and not relate it to our own experiences in high school, in first love, in friendship, and in self-discovery. Wolff plays his role convincingly without overdoing it, portraying all of the joy, excitement, angst, ambition, and confusion a teenager has during his high school years. The supporting cast is just as essential in making John Green’s ordinary characters extraordinary. A genuine, funny, and passionate film that delves into both the truths and fantasies of growing up. Three and a half stars. 

5) Straight Outta Compton

One of the most compelling films I’ve seen this year. Straight Outta Compton follows the story of Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), Eazy E (Jason Mitchell), MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.), and how these five men grew up in the streets and eventually formed the iconic hip-hop group N.W.A. The parallels this movie draws on is ingenious, and director F. Gary Gray is exemplary in realizing the African-American struggle in a poverty-stricken neighborhood. What’s most captivating is the fact that the movie isn’t pro-police or anti-police or pro-gangs or anti-gangs. It shows the ugliness of every side of Compton, whether it exists on a badge or on a bandana. A great film that sets out not to show who’s right or wrong, but simply what is. Four stars.

Note: While among the year’s best, it’s important to note that ‘Straight Outta Compton’ deserves every syllable of its R rating and then some. F-words fly out like bullets from an uzi. Nude and scantily-clad women flock to rappers in herds, and in some cases engage in explicit sexual acts in public. Police and gang members also equally engage in very violent confrontations. This is your warning. If you hate hip-hop, you will hate ‘Straight Outta Compton.’ 

4) Sicario

A permanent, chilling, and disturbing portrait that remains with you long after you’ve left the movie theater. FBI agent Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt) is recruited for a special op with CIA officer Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), who tells Kate they’re going to bring down the Mexican cartel. As Kate digs deeper into the pursuit of its leader, she soon discovers secrets darker than any drug lord or government official can hide from her. This is a nearly perfect film in which all of the elements form together into an excellent scope of filmmaking. The cast is brilliant and could catch your attention just by reading their lines. Director Dennis Villeneuve evokes a sense of hopelessness and desperation from its setting. The cinematography by Roger Deakins captures the aesthetic perfectly, while editor Joe Walker cuts skillfully in between angles and shots to help construct coherent ideas in the viewer’s minds. Sicario is Spanish for hitman. I don’t know what disturbs me more: knowing who the Sicario is, or who are the people that he’s hunting. Four stars.

3) Spotlight 

A necessary film that makes you think about the people that you don’t normally think about, the problems that you don’t think exist, and the secrets that you don’t think are being hidden behind prayers and confession booths. Based on the Boston Globe story on the 1990 Church abuse scandal, Spotlight follows the investigative reporting team that discovered that the Catholic church was covering up for priests that had sexually abused children at their parishes. When they find out how big the problem really is, they work to get to the bottom of the story and hold the people accountable for the grave sins they’ve committed. Featuring an all star cast including Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James, Liev Schrieber, John Slattery, and Stanley Tucci, Spotlight is a movie that uses its actors not as the foundation for its story, but as the catalysts to show how urgent this epidemic really is. Writer-director Tom McCarthy, who was raised Catholic, juggles this behind-the-scenes story with real people’s traumas and emotions in mind, resulting in a portrait that is genuine, astounding, mind-blowing, and heartbreaking all at once. Not the best film of the year, but easily the most important. Four stars.

2) Inside Out

Another colorful Pixar masterpiece that uses reality as its springboard for creation and fantasy. The emotions Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Anger (Lewis Black) make up 11-year-old Riley Anderson (Kaitlyn Dias), who just recently moved with her family from Minnesota to San Francisco. As Riley goes through the changes in her life, her emotions go through a roller coaster of an adventure to make Riley’s life a happy, sad, fearful, disgusted, and angry one. The animation reaches out to you in vivid detail through its vibrant colors and ambitious landscapes, creating a beautiful universe in Riley’s expansive mind. What’s most meaningful, however, is its story. Writer-director Pete Docter (Monsters Inc., Up) uses the human psyche as his narrative playground, telling a thoughtful story on the emotions we experience and how they all make up who were are. Like the wacky emotions in Riley’s curious little head, Inside Out is a uniquely original force to be reckoned with. Four stars.

1) Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Are you really that surprised? Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a sheer blast of nostalgia, meaningful and joyous from it’s opening scroll credits to when John William’s score crescendos in the last shot. Taking place 30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi, Star Wars: The Force Awakens follows a new group of misfits as they suddenly get tangled into this intergalactic conflict involving heroes and villains both old and new. J.J. Abrams revitalizes George Lucas’ cherished sci-fi series for a new age, updating it with creative and interesting characters that makes this a strong story on its own, not just a strong Star Wars story. The cast is exemplary, with newcomer Daisy Ridley shining the most out of the whole group. We’ve seen an updated Star Wars for a modern audience before, and that was in the lopsided and disappointing prequel trilogy. Now we have The Force Awakens, and it’s so good that it’s eligible to compete with the original. Four stars.

Honorable mentions go to the smirkingly funny and genuine Trainwreck, the thought-provoking sci-fi drama Ex Machina, the intelligent and maddening The Big Short, and the disgusting yet wickedly genius western The Hateful Eight. All of those deserved a placement on this list, but unfortunately, did not deserve it as much as others. They are still among the year’s best.

Thank you to my readers for experiencing 2015 for me. I look forward to the changes we will go through in 2016, as I do with the movies.

– David Dunn

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“PAPER TOWNS” Review (✫✫✫1/2)

Just a paper boy living in a paper town.

The frames we see in Paper Towns are the stuff of fantasies, the kind that we think about and dream of late at night in our bed while staring at the ceiling. It’s hard to look at this movie and not relate it to our own experiences in high school, in first love, in friendship, and in self-discovery. At one point, I was watching the movie and wondering if I was watching someone else’s story, or my own.

If we are watching someone else’s story, that someone is Quintin “Q” Jacobsen (Nat Wolff), a regular high school student with regular friends, regular parents, regular life, and regular post-graduation plans. Just about everything is regular to Q except for one thing: Margo Roth Spiegelman (Cara Delevingne), the girl on his block that he’s been in love with since they were kids.

Q and Margo are the epitome of opposites. Q is shy and introverted. Margo is confident and extroverted. Q likes to play it safe. Margo likes to take risks. Q likes to look ahead and plan for his next step. Margo thinks not knowing where you’ll end up is the most fun part of anything.

One day, Margo completely vanishes. Her parents, her friends, nobody knows where Margo may have gone. As time passes, however, Q discovers clues Margo left behind for him to discover. A piece of paper in his door. A page torn out of a map. Writing on an old gas station wall that reads “You will go to the paper towns, and you will never come back.” Now convinced that Margo wants him to find her, Q starts piecing all of the clues together to find out where she has gone to convince her to come home.

The second of John Green’s novels to be adapted to film (with the first being last year’s The Fault In Our Stars), Paper Towns is a truly unique and invigorating experience, refreshing in its comedy, in its drama, and in its truth. It reminds me so much of The Fault In Our Stars, and yet, it’s so different from it too.

I’ll start with the best thing from both movies: the characters. Green’s novels have such a unique way of making ordinary characters extraordinary, and that’s just as true with the movies as it is the books. Margo is a spur-of-the-moment, lively and rebellious teenager who serves as more or less an enigma of what adventures high school students fantasize about and aspire to. She’s almost too ecstatic to be believable as a character, and that’s exactly the point. As Q says it best in the movie, “It’s so silly, it can only be true.”

The moments where she takes Q on her midnight adventures are probably some of my favorite scenes in the movie. While Margo was pushing Q to get out of his comfort zone, I was reminded of a scene between the two leads from Martin Scorsese’s 2011 film Hugo.

Isabelle: We could get in trouble.

Hugo: That’s how you know it’s an adventure.

Every other supporting character is just as interesting and likeable as Margo is, however less mysterious. Q’s friends, Radar and Ben (Justice Smith and Austin Abrams), are the mischievous sort that talk about high school rumors and made up sex stories just like immature high school students do. Halston Sage portrays Margo’s best friend Lacey, and while she’s convincing and bubbly in the role, she’s a little too old to convincingly look like she’s still in high school. Most of the younger cast is ages 18 to 20. Sage is 22.

The one that most impresses me is Nat Wolff. Originally a supporting character in The Fault In Our Stars, here Wolff transitions front and center as the lead role in Paper Towns. His versatility as an actor is pitch-perfect here, portraying all of the joy, excitement, angst, ambition, and confusion a teenager has during his high school years. Actors in these roles tend to overplay them, either with an over exaggeration of joy or sadness. Not Wolff. Hearing him crack his voice or watching his eyes tear up gets more of a reaction out of me than the overabundance of tears and sobbing we get out of actors who overdo it in other movies. Wolff plays his role convincingly without overdoing it. He doesn’t miss a note.

Everything else in the movie is primed to near-perfection. The comedy is fresh and wholehearted without being on-the-nose or over-the-top. The drama is grounded and believable, and hits on issues that most teenagers experience on the verge of growing up and moving on to college. The only minor complaint I would have with the movie is that some of the plot elements seem so out there for teenagers under 18, but the movie addresses that near the end of the third act.

All in all, Paper Towns does what its supposed to and when its supposed to do it. It made me laugh abundantly and uncontrollably. It made me choke up and quiver. It made me intrigued and interested. And it made me eagerly happy and excited, not unlike the excitement these characters experience with each other throughout the film. I may have been too much of a romanticist while writing this review, but I’d like to think Green was one while he was writing the book. The movie delves into both the truths and fantasies of growing up. Just because not everything happened, doesn’t mean it’s any less real.

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John Green visits Dallas for new movie

In the midst of the screams and cheers of excited fans, John Green signed as many autographs as he could when faced with an onslaught of books and movie posters.

The Indianapolis-based author behind novels like Looking For Alaska and The Fault In Our Stars recently came to Dallas to promote the recent film adaptation of his 2008 novel Paper Towns, which tells the story of a suburban teenager searching for his classmate and love interest when she goes missing. He came to the “Get Lost, Get Found” tour 4 p.m. Thursday at The Bomb Factory in Dallas and was accompanied by actors Nat Wolff, Halston Sage and indie band Saint Motel.

“Dude, I love Dallas,” Green said. “I love Dallas so much. Yes, to 4 p.m. on a blistering July afternoon. This is an amazing place.”

The event was hosted by YouTubers Allison Raskin and Gaby Dunn, who produce the channel ‘Just Between Us.’ Dunn said Green favorited a video where they were talking about “duck penises.” It wasn’t long before Green personally asked them to host the fan event.

“I had read The Fault in Our Stars, then I read Paper Towns when I heard they were making a movie about it,” Dunn said. “I think I was already following him and when he followed me back. I was like ‘What is happening?’”

Dunn wasn’t the only one to read book by John Green after hearing about the movie coming out. UTA sociology junior Skyler Vasquez did the same thing when she heard that The Fault In Our Stars was being adapted into a film in 2014.

“I read the book before the movie came out,” Vasquez said. “I immediately fell in love with John Green.”

She started reading Paper Towns when she heard it was being made into a film as well, Vasquez said.

Paper Towns is a little hard to get into at first, but it’s a great story,” she said. “You just kind of got to hang on for the first few chapters and then it’ll pick up.”

One element that fans of Green praise about his writing is his style. Burleson high school student Alie Shipman described it as “interpretive”, going so far as to compare it to finding clues to solve a bigger mystery.

“It was a really good book,” Shipman said. “I like the style that he writes in. I’m kind of a bookworm.”

Vasquez said she likes how Green immerses the reader in his characters.

“John Green has a unique way of developing characters that are so different from one another,” Vasquez said. “It’s almost as if you can put yourself in that character’s place.”

Green’s novel was based on his own road trip experiences, and his reactions when he and his friends came across a real “paper town.”

55ad5c45d33b2.image“I really wanted it to be a movie about imagining other people complexly, and how difficult it is to understand what it’s really like to be someone else, and how difficult empathy really can be,” Green said. “I think Jake Schreier, the director of this movie, did an amazing job of bringing that to the screen.”

With Paper Towns being his second book to be adapted to the screen, Green said this is supposed to be a less sad movie than The Fault In Our Stars. Also, unlike his scene that they ended up cutting out of The Fault In Our Stars, he will have a cameo in Paper Towns.

“I have a cameo. It’s in the movie. Almost no one notices it, but it’s there,” Green said enthusiastically. “I know it’s there.”

With Paper Towns releasing on Friday, fans are more than excited for Green’s second big-screen adaptation.

“I just feel so incredibly lucky, not just to have them made, but to like them,” Green said. “I like both of the movies so much, and that’s very rare for authors. I’m really grateful.”

– 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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“THE FAULT IN OUR STARS” Review (✫✫✫✫)

And the stars have never shone brighter.

The Fault In Our Stars is one of the most magical films you will ever see. It is also one of the most tragic, heartbreaking, funny, genuine, and real films you will ever see. It does exactly what the book does, and exactly what movies are supposed to do: it sweeps you away, transporting you, making you forget about your own reality and immerses you into the reality of these fictional characters that don’t seem so fictional. While I was watching the movie, someone in the audience leaned over to me and asked if this was a true story. “No, but it deserves to be,” I thought to myself.

Based off of the highly popular book of the same name by John Green, The Fault In Our Stars follows the story of Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley), a spirited, spunky, and sarcastic teenager who loves to read books, watch horrible reality TV shows, and question everything her parents tell her to do. Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort) is another spirited, spunky, and sarcastic teenager who loves to watch movies, play video games, and ponder the many questions about the universe. Hazel and Gus are both like any regular teenager but with one significant difference: they’re cancer survivors.

Note that I said survivors. They’ve had cancer in the past, Hazel in her lungs and Gus in his right leg, but both have since moved on from their ordeals to try and tackle their lives as any other teenager would. Because of Hazel’s lungs, she has to carry around a respiratory machine (Oxygen tank instead? Machine sounds intensive) with her everywhere she goes, and what would seem like a simple task to anyone else (I.e. standing up, or walking a flight of stairs), nearly exhausts Hazel after doing so. Gus, on the other hand, has a prosthetic replacing his right leg in exchange for being cancer free.

One day, they both meet each other at a cancer support group meeting. Hazel notices Gus having a bounce to his step, despite only having one full leg. Gus notices Hazel’s beautiful face even though she’s deoxygenated. As they continue to meet and see each other, they soon realize that they have a special relationship with each other, one that no “normal” human being could ever possess.

From a first glance, some people may look at this movie and see it as an overly optimistic tween romance, where two characters fall in love, and their love beats all things, including their ailments. I know I did when I first heard about it, and why wouldn’t I? Romantic dramedies have a way of underemphasizing conflicts just so characters can have happy endings. As a result, we get movies that are more cheesy and insincere than they are genuine and heartfelt, much like those ungodly Nicholas Sparks movies.

But The Fault In Our Stars is different. It is not manipulative of it’s emotions and it doesn’t downplay the severity of character’s problems. It’s honest and up front about the challenges these teenagers face, and doesn’t shy away from the severity of it just because they’re children. In fact, Hazel Grace herself dispels the notion at the beginning of the film, saying to her listeners “That wouldn’t be the truth. This is the truth. Sorry.”

I know, I’m late on writing this review. Why am I writing this in October, when the movie has already come out on DVD? I was waiting, dear reader. Waiting to read the book and see not only how faithful the movie was to it’s source material, but also to it’s emotions. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: you can bend the plot of the original story, but you cannot bend the emotions and still remain faithful.

Now I have read the book, and I can tell you firsthand from my experience that the movie held up to the book on both counts. The Fault In Our Stars is a breathtaking experience: touching, deliberate, and beautiful all at once. To say it’s faithful to the book is an understatement. It’s quite possibly one of the best book-to-movie adaptations I’ve ever seen.

The things that work so well in the movie are the same things that work so well in the book: the writing and the characters. At the heart of the entire story, movie and book included, is Hazel Grace, who is such a fascinating and singular character that it makes me sad to think that she doesn’t exist. Hazel isn’t like other cancer-ridden characters. She neither has an overly defeatist attitude of her ailment, or an overly optimistic perspective one either. She’s in the neutral realm, seeing her sickness as a part of her no matter what she does, and choosing to accept it because she’s more or less forced to.

And yet, she’s so much more than her sickness. In many ways, she’s just like any other regular teenager. She has a favorite book. A favorite author. A favorite show. A favorite food. A crush. And like any other teenager her age, she’s bursting with opinions, hopes, fears, and desires, all of which combine to make a completely fascinating, involving and passionate character. We quickly learn to love Hazel not because she has cancer, but because she is unique.

On that note, let me talk about Augustus. Can I just say that I love this kid? Gus is filled with spirit and enthusiasm, having a bounce to his step that contrasts with Hazel’s shy trotting. I find it interesting that even though I don’t like it when characters are unrealistically happy, here Gus is almost nothing but happy. He thinks it’s cool that he has a metal prosthetic leg, seeing it as him being half-cyborg. He likes video games, zombies, and heroism, seeing himself as one of the brave movie heroes who sacrifices himself for the sake of the people he loves. In many ways, that’s who he is: the hero of the movie, bringing all of the love and affection he could for the woman he loves. He’s so great in the film, he could have a movie all to himself if he wanted to.

You’ll notice that I’ve referred to both of these persons by their characters, not by the actors that portray them. That’s because Woodley and Elgort slip so wonderfully into their roles that they’ve completely disappeared into them. I didn’t think about The Descendants when I saw Woodley tear up and cry, or when she picked up her BiPAP and exhausted herself walking up the stairs. I didn’t think of Divergent when Elgort so tenderly cared to her needs, or sweetly telling her that he would be honored to have his heart broken by her. I saw these actors and was so immersed into their performances that I no longer thought about what they were and thought more about who they were. These two are not Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort. They are Hazel Grace Lancaster and Augustus Waters.

Everything else in this movie was made to near perfection. The screenplay by Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber adapted the story and emotions wonderfully from the book. The camera work by Ben Richardson was elegant and harmonic, much like the great work he did with 2012’s Beasts of the Southern Wild. And director Josh Boone guides the actors through the blissfully tragic story created by John Green, whose wondrous words were what made this entire movie possible.

That ends the review with one question: which is better? The book, or the movie? Neither. I could argue that the book is better because it has more content, or I could argue the movie is better because it brought the story to life visually. Both arguments are pointless. They are both two different mediums, but they both tell the same wonderful story.

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