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The Top 20 Movies of 2014 — Part One!

2014 was a fantastic year for movies.  I had so many films that I wanted to make mention of in my end-of-the-year best-of list, that I’ve decided to expand my usual Top 15 list into a Top 20.  Cheating?  Perhaps!  But it’s all in the service of spreading love for a great group of terrific films, so I hope you’ll forgive me.

Even with a Top Twenty list, there are still plenty of great films that I saw in 2014 that didn’t make this list: They Came Together, Gone Girl, Interstellar, Noah, Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon, Harmontown, Neighbors, Snowpiercer, Chef, A Million Ways to Die in the West, The Fault in Our Stars, The One I Love, Obvious Child, and lots more.

There were also plenty of 2014 movies that interested me but that I just didn’t have a chance to see.  These include, but are by no means limited to: Selma and Inherent Vice (neither of which had yet opened near me when I wrote this list), Whiplash, Foxcatcher, Rosewater, Fury, St. Vincent, Nightcrawler, Laggies, Big Hero 6, The Homesman, Force Majeure, Only Lovers Left Alive, Men Women & Children, and plenty of others.

With those caveats out of the way, let’s begin!

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Honorable Mention: Her This was technically a 2013 film but, like Selma and Inherent Vice this year, it did not open near me until well into 2014, so it wasn’t until late January 2014 that I saw it.  Had I been able to see it before writing my Best of 2013 list, it certainly would have been high on that list.  I wasn’t sure whether or not I should include it on this year’s list, so I’ve settled for giving it an “Honorable Mention”.  This gorgeous, gentle, heartbreaking story from writer/director Spike Jonze is mesmerizing, a fascinating piece of speculative fiction in which we see a vision of a society not very far removed from our own.  Joaquin Phoenix is wonderfully affecting as Theodore, a lonely man who has just been divorced from the woman he thought was the love of his life.  He purchases a new OS (Operating System), and gradually finds himself falling in love with this A.I. (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) who is with him everywhere he goes.  Is Theodore retreating dangerously from real life into fantasy?  Or is this a beautiful story of a man and a woman falling in love with the essence of each other’s character, entirely separate from any physical attraction?  That’s up to the viewer to decide.  Me, I was touched and intrigued by this a beautiful, unique film.  (Click here for my original review.)… [continued]

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Josh Reviews A Most Wanted Man

Gunther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a German spymaster who leads a small counter-terrorism group in Hamburg that seeks to develop intelligence sources within the Muslim community.  Gunther has been investigating a wealthy local Muslim man, Dr. Abdullah, on the suspicion that his charitable organizations hide a front for funneling money to terrorists.  When a Czechen refugee, Issa Karpov, enters Hamburg illegally in an attempt to access his father’s money, Gunther believs he might have found the key to exposing Dr. Abdullah.  But he must navigate the competing interests of the many foreign intelligence services also operating in Hamburg, including the Americans, and play all the pieces on his board just right in order to capture the “barracuda” he is hunting for.

Adapted from the John Le Carre novel of the same name, A Most Wanted Man is a deliciously twisty, dark little tale of spies in the post 9/11 world.  It features a magnificent performance from the late Philip Seymour Hoffman in what I believe is his final starring role.  Mr. Hoffman is astounding, and the act of watching this film makes his recent loss only more painful.  How can it be that this phenomenally talented, vibrant actor has been taken from us?  What a tragedy.  Mr. Hoffman has played spies before, but his work here is 180 degrees away from his loud, hysterically funny role as Gust Avrakotos in Charlie Wilson’s War.  Gunther Bachmann is a quiet man.  He is pale and unassuming, and has a gentle way with his co-workers.  But we can see that has steel behind his eyes.  He is fierce in his pursuit of his suspects, and he clearly has incredible talent for putting the million tiny pieces of an investigation together in order to hook his targets.  He drinks too much, he smokes too much, he lives alone, and he seems to have been discredited by something in his past that went down in Berlin (though one tantalizing scene suggests the possibility that is only a smokescreen).  In many ways, Gunther is more bureaucrat than James Bond, but we see his fierce intelligence and craft in every move he makes, both behind a desk and in the field.  What a performance.  Mr. Hoffman commands the screen in every scene he is in.  When the film ends, the feeling that overwhelmed me more than anything was regret at not getting to see what happens next, not getting to spend more time with this fascinating character and this marvelous actor.

A Most Wanted Man is a very quiet film.  There is one foot-chase, but don’t go into this film expecting action.  Everything in this film is quiet, subdued.  The film doesn’t glamorize espionage, rather it … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Master

Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood) returns to our cinema screens with a wonderful, perplexing yet phenomenally engaging new film: The Master. It’s a film that I’m not quite sure what to make of, but one that I’ve really been thinking about ever since seeing it.  It’s a hard movie to shake, one that I found to be weirdly captivating despite it’s often stately, leisurely pacing.  Without question it’s the work of a true master of cinema.

Joaquin Phoenix (appearing in his first film since 2008, not counting his weird sort-of-not-really documentary I’m Still Here) plays Freddie Quell.  A navy-man during World War II, in the film’s opening section we watch Freddie repeatedly trying and failing to make a go of any sort of regular life in the years after the war.  He seems to be suffering from some sort of post-traumatic stress, though the film lets us draw our own conclusions.  He’s clearly unstable, an angry, intense, young man with a serious habit of heavy-drinking.  Out of work, he stows away on a boat that it turns out is hosting a lengthy excursion to sea by a man named Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a self-described “writer, doctor, nuclear-physicist, and theoretical philosopher.”  Despite their being complete opposites in nearly every way, Freddie and Mr. Dodd have an immediate connection.  They bond over their love of the potent alcohol that Freddie likes to whip up, and while Dodd feels he can help Freddie and straighten him out, Freddie seems to find in Dodd a friend and father figure absent in his life.

As soon as one of Dodd’s followers refers to him as “master,” we know there might be another side to this charismatic writer and speaker.  Indeed, as Freddie (and the audience) spends more time with Dodd and his close-knit family and followers who seem to be constantly with him, we begin to see how many in his group are following his writings and his philosophies as a complete way of life.  Much has been made over whether the film is or isn’t based on L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology.  I did not read the film as an attack on scientology in specific, nor did I feel the point of the film was in critiquing any religion or cult.  (And please note that I am not equating the two!!)  There are definitely moments when one might raise one’s eyebrows at certain things we see Dodd’s followers saying or doing.  The film shows the positive power of the community of close-knit followers who surround the man they call “master,” and also the dangers of creeping, unquestioning group-think.

But it seems to me that … [continued]

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Josh Reviews The Ides of March

It’s been a while since I’ve seen a good, angry political thriller, so I quite enjoyed George Clooney’s latest directorial feature, The Ides of March. Perhaps thriller is the wrong word, since that word conjures thoughts of films featuring mysteries or action/suspense or damsels in distress.  And while there is an unfortunate damsel in The Ides of March who is subject to a great deal of distress, when I write “thriller” I refer not to the presence of any violent murder in the plot, but rather to the film’s bubbling sense of dread and urgency, which builds to a fierce boil as the story approaches its climax.

George Clooney is a fine actor.  I’ve long held that he — like Brad Pitt — is a far better actor than he needs to be, what with his movie-star looks.  But while Mr. Clooney might be a fine actor, he’s a damn magnificent director.  His first feature, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, remains one of my very favorite films ever (and the movie that cemented my abiding appreciation for the great Sam Rockwell), and his second, Good Night, and Good Luck, is an equally beautiful, confident, urgent piece of work.  There’s a direct line that can be drawn from the beating political heart of Good Night, and Good Luck, about Edward R. Murrow’s stand against McCarthyism, to the Ides of March.

Set during several tumultuous days leading up to the Ohio Democratic primary, The Ides of March stars Ryan Gosling (who blew my mind, back in the day, in The Believer — and, if you’ve never seen it, go out and find that searing film about a young Jewish boy who becomes a neo-Nazi) as Stephen Meyers, the idealistic number two in the campaign of Democratic presidential hopeful Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney).  I’m loathe to reveal any details of the plot, but suffice to say things get a little rough for Stephen and his candidate.  The Ides of March casts its gaze at the dirty back-room political in-fighting that goes on behind the scenes, far away from the bright lights of the network camera crews.  The film clearly has some broad points to make about our modern political races, but the film is first and foremost a gripping dramatic tale.

Ryan Gosling is terrific, charismatic and compelling as Stephen.  He plays the film’s light early scenes with grace and charm, clearly showing us why Stephen has, at a young age, become such a skilled political operator.  When things turn increasingly desperate, Mr. Gosling takes us right down the rabbit hole along with him, and the genius of the film is the way in which we’re forced to wonder, in the final … [continued]