As we say goodbye to 2014, we also say goodbye to an interesting and provocative year for movies that appealed to the nerd base. Amongst the genres of sci-fi, fantasy, action and horror, there were a number of very excellent contenders for the Best of the Year, all covering a wide range of themes, styles, and ideas which were brought to the screen by some very talented filmmakers, actors and artists. Amongst this year’s top choices was a return to space, both serious and adventurous. We also saw aliens who come to Earth, and future versions of Earth where humans are an endangered species. We saw vivid worlds imagined, and vivid worlds that never came to be. And we took a trip through the crime-soaked back alleys of Jakarta and the possibility-fueled streets of the Great White Way. Before spinning off into 2015, which may be the biggest year for nerdy movies ever, let’s take a look back at the Best Nerdy Movies of 2014.
10) The Raid 2: Berandal
If The Raid was The Godfather of martial arts movies, then The Raid 2 is The Godfather Part II. Bigger, bolder and more bone-crushing than what Gareth Evans produced in his first Raid movie, The Raid 2 broke out of the somewhat limited setting of the first film to tell a more complex story that flows through the streets and buildings of Jakarta involving factions in the police department, both legitimate and corrupt, as well as the various crime families in the city as some seek justice, others seek power, and others still struggle with loyalty. It’s a tale as complex as it is brutal and gritty, a movie that’s engrossing for its scope, but occasionally gross for its ultra-violent action and over-the-top stunt work. In this second Raid, Evans puts more emphasis on story and character, but when the action begins, he doesn’t spare the insane, like during the fight in the car where the camera is literally passed from one fighter to another. The weapons of choice are also more exotic, with characters like “Hammer Girl” and “Baseball Bat Man” being some of the most wonderfully silly thematic hench-people since The Warriors. There are a great many action movies in theaters on a yearly basis, but very rarely do they leave you sweaty and breathless as if you yourself had been on screen fighting. But as Rama walks away at the end, you, like him, feel wiped by the experience.
9) Jodorowsky’s Dune
There are fascinating stories to be told about all the movies that never got made, and one of the most fascinating is the version of Dune that might have ended up being made by Alejandro Jodorowsky. You may be forgiven if you had never before heard of Alejandro Jodorowsky, a Chilean filmmaker of the avant-garde variety whose works include El Topo and The Holy Mountain. Dune was to be his biggest film yet, an expansive and expensive sci-fi opus that brought together the talents of H.R. Giger, Jean Giraud and Dan O’Bannon, and would have starred Mick Jagger, Orson Welles and Salvador Dali. Of course, Jodorowsky’s Dune was too beautiful for this world, although the film crew survived and persevered, most notably forming the basis of the creative team behind Alien. The documentary, Jodorowsky’s Dune, is a time capsule of a film, a tribute to both the director’s unrealized vision and to all those works in which so much love and dedication is invested and yet is never realized as a finished film. Also infectious is Jodorowsky’s passion for the project, even after all these years, and it’s impressive that so much work was done on a project that never came to pass and still has so many artifacts that can be accessed, which gives the viewer a fairly vivid idea of what the movie might have looked like. Still, I’m not sure if I would be as equally enthusiastic about seeing Jodorowsky’s baroque and operatic 15-hour version of Frank Herbert’s classic novel, as I am about seeing this doc again.
It’s unusual for a Hollywood movie to go out of its way to try and explain the science in a literate way in a science fiction movie. But every once in a while, the effort is made, and leave it to Christopher Nolan and his super detailed world-building to try and yank Hollywood in the direction of 2001 rather than Star Wars. Of course that’s not to say that his efforts weren’t controversial. Since The Dark Knight Rises, there’s been a pretty strong blowback against Nolan, his process and his dedication to the “mystery box.” An argument can be made though that he’s one of the few filmmakers still working to expand the capacity of cinema for visual grandeur and Interstellar in IMAX was visual feast that was incomparable to just about any other blockbuster this year. It didn’t hurt that at its heart was a compelling and timely story about pushing the frontiers of science and discovery too. In a year that saw members of Congress basically wash their hands of concerns about global climate change by saying, “We’re not scientists,” the anti-intellectual future setting of Interstellar where the world dies as its people sticks their heads in the blowing sand is starkly plausible. The final scene will likely divide people with its hokey, perhaps Spielbergian, attempt at a bittersweet ending, but there’s a power and a vision through most of the rest of the film that’s tough to match. Filmmaking this justifiably confident at the studio level is hard to come by.
7) Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
It was something of a minor miracle that we got one awesome Planet of the Apes movie, but two? Who would have thought that in the year 2014, not only would this franchise still be relevant, but it would be producing some damn compelling sci-fi. Although some of that credit should go to screenwriters Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, not to mention director Matt Reeves, the lion’s share should go to Andy Serkis and a cast of motion-capture performers who brought the vibrant ape community to life. It really says something about the faith placed in Reeves, Serkis and their teams that the movie spends so much time “human” free, and allowing us to get to know the apes as their own society. What’s more is that the film is careful to not phrase the central drama as an apes good/humans bad conflict, but plays carefully with those assumptions to inform and infer a greater message to the audience. There’s something almost Shakespearean about Dawn, and one doesn’t say that lightly. What could have been gimmicky and over-the-top, especially in the wake of the surprise success of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, pushes the envelope in all the right ways. Hopefully, they keep making these Ape films with such grand aspirations, and hopefully, others in Hollywood might take away the right message from this film’s success.
6) Edge of Tomorrow
Edge of Tomorrow was one of the most criminally overlooked films of the year, and the fact that we’re saying that about a massive sci-fi action movie starring Tom Cruise makes this doubly amazing. Based on the manga All You Need is Kill, this movie plays against everything that makes a Tom Cruise film: he’s not heroic, he’s not awesome, and he has to learn how to save the day through repeated acts of cowardice and failure. In a surprising and compelling twist, it falls to Emily Blunt as a regular grunt to train officer Cruise to use his latent ability to rewind time upon death to defeat a vicious group of alien invaders. It’s a well-worn sci-fi concept, but director Doug Liman gives the enterprise such vim and energy it feels all brand new. Indeed, it might have benefited the movie more if the marketing had focused on the Groundhog Day character drama of the story instead of the big explosions and action sequences. It also should have focused on the dynamic duo of Cruise and Blunt, as it’s unusual to a) see the woman boss around the man (especially if that man is a movie star of Cruise’s caliber) and b) manage to save the world without making a romance of the situation. At least till the end, which was Hollywood pablum and we’ll overlook because of the awesomeness of the rest of the film…
Alejandro González Iñárritu is not the first filmmaker you think of when it comes to superhero films, or even if it comes to big, budget Hollywood blockbusters. He makes films about death, and family, and race, and how we’re all intertwined, movies like 21 Grams, Babel, and Biutiful. Not so shocking then that his latest, Birdman, thinks rather cynically about the superhero boom, but it still pays honor to one of the genre’s most celebrated icons. It’s hard to separate Michael Keaton from the role of Riggan Thomson, which I believe is the point. Riggan’s attempt to set himself apart from his antics in tights by writing, directing and starring in a Broadway play based on a short story by Raymond Carver could be read as allegory for Keaton’s own struggles post-Batman, and just as Riggan hopes his play will give him creative and spiritual rejuvenation, Keaton’s awards and accolades for this performance seem to be doing the same. Aside from the comic book nerd appeal, the movie technically is a treat for film nerds thanks to Iñárritu’s insistence on filming Birdman as if it were one long take. Filmed at a real live Broadway theater, the minimal but seamless use of digital trickery, and an excellent ensemble cast including Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis and Naomi Watts combine to make Birdman a must-see art house hit.
The Hunger Games movies are essentially about a smaller upper class who take all the resources and leave the majority of the population to scavenge for what’s left. Now think of that, and put it all on a train. It’s a simplistic comparison, but Bong Joon-ho’s first English-language film hits on a popular theme of class warfare as a group of steerage class passengers on a train carrying the last of humanity on a continuous global trek through a new ice age, fight to get to the train’s creator and overlord in the engine. Bong gives every car its own character, and builds a fantastical but believable world out of the potential silly concept, not to mention giving Snowpiercer some darkly serious overtones. In what world would you possibly hear Captain America talk about knowing that babies taste delicious? This one! The monologue itself may be somewhat campy, but Chris Evans’ performance makes it work, selling it for all the regret and shame it had to have. Tilda Swinton also made her monologue work, never has being compared to a shoe sounded so dignified and purposeful, another example of the film’s strong acting. A great many summer movies are about the end of the world, or about a small group of rebels trying to upset the established and oppressive order, but rarely is the story wrapped up in a package quite so original or stylish, or with the capacity to go to some very dark places. Snowpiercer is definitely a one of a kind effort, and a fine Hollywood debut for Korean filmmaker Bong.
3) Under the Skin
Film in 2014, outside of the big Hollywood projects, could be summed up in one phrase: do more with less. There’s a couple of ways to take that, whether it’s a micro-budget production like The Babadook, or, in the case of Under the Skin, creating cameras small enough to fit inconspicuously in the dashboard of a van while still capturing high-quality digital images. New technological development kept Under the Skin under wraps for so long, but it was well worth the wait. Aside from the appreciation of the technical, Under the Skin carries with it timely themes about sex, gender, objectification, and alienation. It provokes the asking of tough questions about how women come to be seen purely as sex objects, and how they can overcome the male gaze and take back that power. It also alludes to the difficulty women have in pursuing their own sexual pleasure, and captures the complete terror and fracturing in the wake of sexual violence in the film’s heartbreaking conclusion. Accentuating the themes is the fact that director Jonathan Glazer cast Scarlett Johansson, a young women renowned for being one of the hottest/sexist/most beautiful women in the world as the alien who lures men for some mysterious purpose. The only real “actor” in Glazer’s cinéma vérité vision of the film, Johansson stands out capturing every emotion and beat as the nameless alien evolves from a kind of teasing terminator to a young woman looking to capture the vibrancy and joy of life on Earth. This is obviously not a film for all tastes, but it attacks societal and cultural themes in a way that only the best science fiction can, and it’s a standout role for Johansson to boot.
2) The LEGO Movie
Who could have guessed that The LEGO Movie would end up being more than a cynical ploy to cash in on a brand name toy beloved by kids the world over? Certainly not the people who thought that even if directors Chris Miller and Phil Lord made something watchable, it would be doubly unlikely that they could make something as spry and insightful as The LEGO Movie ended up being. A modern fable, and one ideally suited for the current trend in the toy it’s based on, The LEGO Movie tests “special” Emmet and his preconceived notions of perfection through conformity by forcing him to team up with other Master Builders to fight the evil Lord Business. The metaphor works rather cleverly, even up to and including the cameo by live-action Will Ferrell that almost breaks the fourth wall, but beautifully weaves together the various themes and ideas of the film. On top of it all, Lord and Miller lovingly pay tribute to the fun of LEGO, the creativity it inspires and the inspiration it provides, from the endless possibilities of those anonymous colorful blocks and yellow-pigmented people to the sets based on licenses like Batman, Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. As Hasbro tried once again to turn board games into pop art with Ouija, they could have drawn much inspiration from The LEGO Movie by learning that you’re only a soulless, corporate infomercial of a film if that’s all you choose to be. Everything, about LEGO Movie anyway, was awesome!
1) Guardians of the Galaxy
As the old saying goes, fortune favors the bold, and Marvel Studios’ boldness was favored greatly with fortune at the box office when Guardians of the Galaxy was released in August. For observers, this was a make or break moment for the studio, either it would prove Marvel capable of spinning wool into gold by making any of their properties a transmedia franchise, or it would show just how limited the endeavor was. Fortunately, the gamble paid off, and undoubtedly gave Marvel the right incentive to push further by announcing films of Black Panther, Captain Marvel and The Inhumans. Director James Gunn’s filmmaking sensibilities jibed perfectly with the movie Marvel allowed him to make, and like Joss Whedon on The Avengers, Guardians has a voice that definitely belongs to Gunn. Despite everything that could go wrong with Guardians, its potential demerits actually became its biggest assets. For instance, Gunn can basically write his own ticket now despite previously coming out of two small-budget films that could, at best, be described as having cult appeal. Chris Pratt is now a certified movie star and go-to everyman action hero. Rocket Raccoon and Groot are now space sidekicks on par with C-3PO and R2-D2. With the one-two punch of Guardians and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Marvel Studios took the top two spots in the 2014 box office, but without a tacit connection to the grander Avengers mythos, or even characters a non-comic book read audience had even heard of, Marvel proved that they could do anything with the right cast and crew. It’s an assertion that may be put to the test once again in 2015 and the tale of a man that can shrink himself and talk to bugs…
*As an addendum, you may have noted the lack of both Captain America: The Winter Soldier or X-Men: Days of Future Past on this list and be outraged. Understandable. But because I feared making this list nearly a one-third tribute to Marvel movies I decided from the outset to choose one, and that one was Guardians of the Galaxy. On the plus side, it did finish number one, but I didn’t want you guys to think I was ignoring either Captain America or X-Men in making (or not making) the Best of 2014 list. It was purely an editorial decision on my part.