Tag Archives: Shailene Woodley

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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