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As anyone who knows me can attest, I have a constant, raging hard-on for Paul Thomas Anderson and his work, to an extent, I’m afraid, that might make my critique of his newest film, Inherent Vice, rather more subjective than usual. Be that as it may, I really tried to go into the movie (I think I’ve seen it three times now) without too may preconceived notions or expectations—a futile effort, it transpires, as Inherent Vice is a film that defies all expectations before laughing in the face of that expectation and then slamming it’s head in a car door.

Mr. Anderson, Mr. Anderson, why do I love you so? In large part, I think it’s the way he consistently defies any traditionally held perceptions of who and what we think an otherwise archetypical character might be, and eschews any pretense as far as how you think a traditionally noir/romance/comedy/crime drama ought to work. And indeed, the film is all of these and more, somehow miraculously hitting the bulls-eye at every turn. Adapted from Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel of the same name and written for the screen by Anderson himself, Inherent Vice incorporates all the trademark humor (visual gags, one-liners, etc.) that we’ve come to expect from this legendary director. I have no reservations about calling the film one of the hands-down funniest of the year, and there’s an underlying element of pseudo-surrealism that flows throughout, which work in tandem to give the audience a kind of contact-high as they spend more and more time in the drug-crazed, neon-saturated underbelly of the fictional Gordita Beach, California.

The films stars Anderson-verse veteran Joaquin Phoenix as the film’s protagonist, drug-addled private investigator Larry “Doc” Sportello. Phoenix, playing what is essentially this generation’s version of “The Dude” perfectly pulls off the effortless yet slightly harassed affectation of a hapless hippie suddenly finding himself in a world of incredible violence that he doesn’t fully understand. Josh Brolin also makes an appearance as the raving-mad LAPD officer Lieutenant Detective Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornson and, in one of those instances that the audience can tell that the actors are having a really good time onscreen, the casting simply couldn’t be better. There are cameo appearances abound as well, including the always-excellent Benicio del Toro as the reliable yet eccentric Sauncho Smilax, Esq. as well as a memorable a surprising appearance by Martin Short as coked-up Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd.

Inherent Vice is one of those movies that get better with age—and with multiple viewings. To suggest that the film is dense is an understatement, as there are often so many things happening in a single frame that scenes often get disorienting and overwhelming really quickly. In that respect, the jam-packed onscreen atmosphere serves to emphasize the tumultuous, confusing, and chaotic world that these characters are living in, without overburdening the audience with unnecessary expository dialogue. Anderson continues to be one of—if not my favorite—director because he’s a master the old cinematic storytelling essential, “show; don’t tell.” Accordingly, the film is visually stunning, as is to be expected with cinematographer Robert Elswit, having worked on every P.T. Anderson production to date, save Hard Eight.

The earlier comparison to The Big Lebowski was not made idly, either. Like the legendary Coen Brothers production, the plot of Inherent Vice is damn near impossible to follow upon your first viewing; thought like The Big Lebowski, the point of the film is not in the destination, but the journey. While I absolutely understand the frustration that some audience members may experience after having watched the film and feeling almost completely in the dark concerning the mystery the characters were supposed to be uncovering, I highly recommend that those folks go back and see the movie a second time, if the opportunity presents itself. There are so many nuances and details within details that one would have to watch the film a hundred times before worrying about it becoming stale, but the fact is that with every successive viewing, the appreciation for both Pynchon and Anderson’s storytelling chops will grow in equal proportion.

I could write volumes about how Inherent Vice is one of the most unique and engaging and just plain entertaining movies out right now, but, to be frank, this is one experience that you’re just going to have to see for yourself to believe.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

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Let’s pretend we’re writing a high school social studies essay and flex our “compare and contrast” muscles. The comparison: between World War II era biopics Unbroken, the review of which was recently posted on this very site, and The Imitation Game, which is incidentally a much better movie. The similarity ends there, however, as the plot of The Imitation Game centers around the struggles of an interesting, multi-faceted protagonist and incorporates some actual depth and complexity as opposed to merely wallowing in a lot of token and pandering “strength of the human spirit” nonsense.

Norwegian director Morten Tyldum became attached to the project after Warner brothers bought the screenplay, penned by novelist Graham Moore, for an unprecedented seven million dollars. Tyldum, also responsible for a smattering of foreign language films including Headhunters (2011) and Buddy (2003), has unquestionably launched himself headfirst into the spotlight with this film, having been nominated (at time of writing) for numerous academy awards. Interestingly, the screenplay for the film topped Hollywood’s blacklist in 2011, denoting the year’s best unproduced work. Even more interestingly, The Imitation Game marks Moore’s very first attempt at a screenplay, though he’s subsequently been slated to write an adaptation of Erik Larson’s novel Devil in the White City; Leonardo DiCaprio is starring.

The film stars Benedict Cumberbatch, know for his performance in the Sherlock BBC series, as the eccentric mathematics prodigy Alan Turing. In what might well be the performance of his career, Cumberbatch portrays Turing as a tormented soul caught in the crossfire of a secret war in a time when homosexuality was a punishable crime under British law. Turing, a man alienated from others by his own phenomenal intellect, becomes even more estranged from conventional society as his work regarding the Nazi Enigma machine embroils him in a world of secrets within secrets. Cumberbatch’s performance is impeccable, and really gives the impression of a man who, especially as the responsibility bestowed upon him continues to mount, may very well crack at any moment. Keira Knightley also makes an appearance as the gifted code breaker cum confidant Joan Clarke, and, though I’m not a particularly huge fan, gives an inoffensive and mostly serviceable performance.

To Moore’s credit, the film is an excellent study in long-form storytelling and is particularly well executed as far as structure goes. The majority of the film takes place across three temporal planes, incorporating a fourth at the very end, and the story moves across the multiple time frames with ease, minimizing audience confusion and providing the appropriate context at the appropriate times (a major shortcoming of Unbroken, incidentally) the use of flashbacks and flash-forwards.

Moreover, the story incorporates both the race-against-time style thriller with the much more intimate and engaging character study, as it’s gradually revealed to the audience how much stress Turing is under as both a member of a top-secret military operation and a closeted homosexual, without making either feel tacked-on or auxiliary. The finished product, I’m pleased to say, is a gripping mix of action, espionage, and drama, and deserves all of the praise it’s been receiving.

Rating: 4 out of 5

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Among the end-of-year cinematic powerhouses competing for Oscar nods this year, Unbroken is unquestionably the runt of the litter. As you might be aware, the film is based on the World War II exploits of Louis “Louie” Zamperini, subsequently purchased by Universal for a tidy sum, to be sure. From the word ‘go,’ Unbroken is in the unfortunate position of having to be compared to other war-dramas like Fury, and intimate biopics like Selma, and dramatically intimate biopics centering around war like The Imitation Game, all three of which are vastly superior.

The film marks Angeline Jolie’s sophomore directorial effort, after her 2011 debut In the Land of Blood and Honey. Now, I could take or leave Jolie as an actress, and I generally find her performances to be serviceable, but as a director I find her work incredibly bland. Far more interesting than the direction, however, is the screenplay and those who contributed to it. There are a few guys responsible, including Richard LaGravenese (Behind the Candelabra, The Fisher King), William Nicholson (Les Miserables, Gladiator), and—get this—the fuckmothering Coen Brothers; Joel and Ethan themselves. Now, it remains up for debate how much input the Coens actually had, but I’m willing to bet that they were included mainly for the publicity and to make the production as high profile as possible. There are some really basic problems with plotting and characterization that the Coens could have, and indeed would have, spotted in their sleep. The whole business just makes me weary, mainly. It’s one of those insidious little Hollywood tricks, but I guess it something that we all have to suffer through, especially as we get closer to awards season.

The acting? Yeah, it’s okay, I guess. And I know that sounds like a noncommittal answer, but despite the fact that the actors did the best they could with the material they had, the plot was so insubstantial and one-notey that it all faded into white noise by the end. They’re still letting Jai Courtney be in movies, I see—his diligent efforts at ruining pretty much every film he’s been in notwithstanding.

The main issue I’ve got with Unbroken is that there’s no character arc to speak of—meaning, subsequently, that there’s no reason for the audience to remain invested in the struggles of the protagonist. Neither the main character nor his comrades grow or evolve or learn anything over the course of the film, bringing into relief the main misconception that the writers where under; specifically, that “strength of character” is synonymous with “getting the shit kicked out of you.” Indeed, the characters are beaten up pretty badly throughout the film and subjected to some pretty inhumane treatment, but brutality alone does not a compelling story make. I consider it a symptom of lazy writing when a plot hinges mostly on happenstance as opposed to the choices and decisions of the characters, which, in my opinion is one of the film’s major shortcomings. I think I counted two actual choices over the course of the film, both of which were entirely predictable and only served to drag out a story already suffering from a meandering, go-nowhere structure.

Unbroken is the hardest kind of movie to write about because it’s so mediocre from almost every perspective. It’s neither particularly good nor particularly bad. It just sits there like a grey, flavorless blob of tofu amid a spectacularly extravagant buffet. It’ll likely be swiftly forgotten amid the shuffle of more impressive films this year. All in all, it’s boring, predictable, monotone, lukewarm, boilerplate, run-of-the-mill, average, humdrum, unexciting, routine, dull, tedious, uninteresting, insipid, standard, common, lackluster, dreary, mind-numbing, arid, tame, plain, mundane, toothless, and frankly, I’m tired of writing about it.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

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Well, I certainly can’t think of a better way to ring in 2015 than to write about some old movies from 2014. That being said, let’s take a look at the latest Mark Wahlberg vehicle, The Gambler. A remake of Karel Reisz’s 1974 film of the same name, the film was at one time being optioned by Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio, though they both presumably declined to follow through with the production in order to make The Wolf of Wall Street instead, to the immense relief of everyone on Earth. Eventually, the film ended up in the hands of director Rupert Wyatt and screenwriter William Monahan, and suffered for it.

Wyatt, previously responsible for Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) and The Escapist (2008), helms this wholly unnecessary reiteration of a perfectly serviceable, and more to the point, superior film. Wyatt’s style might best be described as competent yet unremarkable, but the real issue, as is so often the case, stems from the poor writing. William Monahan is a peculiar figure in the film industry because, over the course of his career, he’s been responsible for some real standouts like Scorsese’s The Departed (2006), as well as some absolute shit, like Joseph Kosinski’s Oblivion (2013) and Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014). Monahan is slated to write for the upcoming Jurassic World as well, and considering his rather checkered past, you might as well flip a coin to determine how that particular picture will turn out.

Mark Wahlberg stars as the titular gambler Jim Bennett, whose obsessive gambling addiction lands him in hot water with a collection of unsavory underworld figures as he tries to pay off his debts before they break his knees or shoot him in the head or something equally as unpleasant. Jessica Lange also makes a cameo appearance as Jim’s jaded and contemptuous mother, Roberta. Though her performance has garnered a positive critical response, I’m convinced now that Lange literally has only one role in the last ten years; that of the cantankerous fading beauty. Granted, she plays that one role passably well, but we’ve seen the same thing so many times now that it kind of fails to make much of an impact at this point. Wahlberg himself seems a little lazy in this production, and having given it a bit of consideration, I’m not sure that his natural, lovable earnestness is a good fit for the character he’s trying to play; it’s a bit like trying to fit a round peg into a square hole.

Now let me get back to the writing that I was harping on earlier. I’m having some trouble deciding where to begin, frankly. The protagonist is a whiney, pretentious, pseudo-intellectual; the chemistry between the Bennett and his love interest fizzles out like a cigarette in a thunderstorm; the intrigue is cliché and utterly fails to engage the audience in on any level other than the purely superficial; and instead of characterization being woven and gradually revealed throughout the plot, the audience is treated to mercilessly drawn-out and almost unwatchable expository monologues in which Wahlberg explains how great his character is to an eye-rollingly exasperated audience.

If the film has one saving grace, it’s John Goodman’s cameo appearance as the shady loan shark Big Frank. It seems like Goodman is the only actor in the entire production that realized what a shit-show he was involved in, and brings across his character’s bored, contemptuous indifference with admirable aplomb.

The Gambler is a movie that has no reason to exist, and even more mind-bogglingly, Paramount was initially in favor of a limited-release, in an attempt to facilitate an Oscar-qualifying running strategy. If we’re to take anything away from that little piece of info, it’s that Paramount does not think very highly of the movie-going public, and/or that they have the self-awareness of a dead dog on the side of the road. Do yourselves a favor and skip this one.

Rating: 2 out of 5

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The first film from writer, director, producer, and actress Lake Bell, In a World… is a near perfect indie comedy. With an all-star cast of B-list celebrities, many of whom co-star along side Bell in the hit web series Children’s Hospital, and Bell’s heartfelt and unique comedic voice shining through in every beat, In a World… is a supremely entertaining film that sets a high standard for the quality of Bell’s directorial work in the future.

Following in the footsteps of her father, Carol Soloman (Lake Bell) has high hopes of becoming the first female voice to break into the sexist and male dominated world of voice over. Though I do find the subject material particularly interesting after recently watching a great documentary about voice acting, I Know that Voice, the thing that really makes this film stand out are the dysfunctional, and seemingly genuine relationships between characters throughout the film. It’s rare for a film to exist without any stock characters, and yet even the secondary characters have their own little quirks to set them apart.

While demonstrates that she has some serious acting and writing chops, Bell is certainly not the only star of this film. Demetri Martin and Rob Corddry were bright spots of this film, offering both strong comedic notes and also giving a very organic and believable soul to this movie.


Rating 4.5 out of 5

I really thought 2014 was going to be a bad year for movies. There were only a few projects I was excited about, and a very disappointing series of spring and summer releases seemed to solidify this initial belief as the year dragged on towards “Award Season”. But boy, did things ever turn around. The past few months have had some really fantastic films, and in my mind easily made up of the lackluster first half of the year. Here are a few of my favorite films from 2014:

10. Calvary | John Michael McDonagh

A sorely overlooked and under-appreciated pitch black comedy from John Michael McDonagh (The Guard), Calvary is a bleak, dark, and perhaps profound look at religion in today’s world. Brendan Gleeson gives an absolutely stellar performance as a priest in a small Irish village who must cope with the fact that a stranger has vowed to kill him at the end of the week. As always, McDonagh is a master of dark comedy, and delivers a very enjoyable, albeit bittersweet film.

9. Edge of Tomorrow | Doug Liman

By far the biggest surprise of the year for me, I never would have expected Edge of Tomorrow to end up on this list after I saw the commercial. But damn, was it good. This Groundhog Day-esque sci-fi film is a nearly-perfect summer blockbuster in my mind, and a perfect environment for leading man Tom Cruise to shine as a charismatic, manipulative member of the military, dragged into the role of unlikely hero. With the exception of a pretty mediocre ending, Edge of Tomorrow far exceeded my expectations for a summer sci-fi flick.

8. The Theory of Everything | James Marsh

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More than just a biopic of one of the world’s greatest scientific minds, Theory of Everything is a tragic and incredible story of triumph and struggle. Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones deliver two of the most powerful performances of the year as Steven and Jane Hawking. The storytelling is compelling and extremely well-paced, and Redmayne’s role of Hawking offers a perfect outlet to show off his serious acting chops like never before. For my money, he is a serious contender for Best Actor this year.

7. Whiplash | Damien Chazelle

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An intense and unsettling character study, Whiplash is a film about the cost of excellence. MilesTeller stars as a borderline obsessive jazz drummer striving to surpass his classmates and become the best who ever lived. The films biggest credit is the building conflict between Teller and his professor, played by J.K. Simmons, who abuses his students emotionally and verbally in an attempt to push them to become better musicians. The tension between the two actors is palpable, and their intensity carries the film.

6. Gone Girl | David Fincher

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Yet another excellent dark and psychological film from David Fincher, Gone Girl really tries to do something different with the thriller genre. Despite a few missed beats throughout the film, Gone Girl is airtight, and packed with a few very satisfying twists throughout, including a pretty unconventional and unexpected ending that really made the film for me. Affleck is great as always, and proves yet again that he is fully capable of handling demanding leading roles.

5. The Imitation Game | Morten Tyldum

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As someone who has a strong interest in programming, it’s unsurprising that I would have a soft spot for this film. However, this movie is so much more than a film for those interested in the material. The cracking of the German Enigma machine is a fascinating piece of history, but the film is really more of a look at the life of Alan Turing, the father of modern computing and the man put in charge of the project to crack Enigma. The film focuses heavily on the issue of the treatment of homosexuals during the World War II era, and Benedict Cumberbatch shows some serious acting chops in portraying a socially inept and emotionally conflicted Turing. I would not be surprised in the slightest if this film is awarded best picture this year, and would be entirely satisfied with that verdict.

4. Foxcatcher | Bennett Miller

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Foxcatcher was one of the most talked-about films this year due to Steve Carrel’s transformative star turn as wrestling-lover and obscenely rich guy John Du Ponte, and after seeing the film there is clearly a reason for all the commotion. Carrel is incredible, disturbing and ominous; however it would be a disservice to the film to not also talk about Channing Tatum as Olympic gold medalist Mark Shultz, who gives an equally powerful and unexpected performance. Aside from the acting, Foxcatcher a very slow build to a very satisfying payoff, ratcheting up suspense as all the characters become more and more fragile and spiral towards the eventual climax of the film.

3. Wild | Jean-Marc Vallée

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Yet another “based on true events” movie this year, Wild tells the story of a former heroin addict’s journey hiking the 2000+ mile Pacific Crest Trail alone. I was by no means enticed by this premise, and in addition am not a particularly big fan of Reese Witherspoon. That being said, this film was hugely impressive. Witherspoon absolutely nails it, and director Jean-Marc Vallee’s use of quick cutting and flashbacks are extremely effective at giving emotional weight to the movie as we slowly learn more about Sheryl Strayed’s past. I have now seen the film twice, and the second viewing only solidified this movie’s position on my top 10.

2. Nightcrawler | Dan Gilroy 

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Sinister and charismatic, Jake Gyllenhaal easily delivers the best performance of his career as a free-lance video-journalist in Nightcrawler. The film is methodical, slowly building tension and a profound sense of dread. Throughout the entire movie, it is impossible to shake the feeling that something could go horribly wrong at any moment. Nightcrawler is by far the most gripping film I have seen this year, and I was completely enthralled from start to finish.

1. Birdman | Alejandro González Iñárritu

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Without a doubt, Birdman was my favorite film of the year. I have now seen it multiple times in theaters, and something I fully intend to see several more times. It’s extraordinarily well-acted and written, both Michael Keaton and Edward Norton shine, but it is the cinematography that cinched this as my number one choice, as there is a visual gimmick throughout the film that I was pretty taken with. The film is not just about the desire for fame or redemption, but taps into the most basic human need to find significance and recognition in life. Birdman is a little surreal, and more than a little funny, and while it might not be the film of the year for everyone, it is definitely a must-see.

I feel unwilling yet obligated to post a Top 10 list this year. Attempting to strong-arm my way into the critical culture that surrounds cinema is often exhausting work, and let it be known that all critics, not just me, have to sort through a lot of chaff to get to the good stuff. But I feel it’s necessary to recommend a few of last year’s films, not least of all because the year began so shakily, and you would be forgiven, as I was tempted to do, to write-off 2014 all together. But, without further ado, here’s a collection of films from the past year that I enjoyed, and which I grudgingly have to refer to as my Top 10 (in no order).

As always, I’m limiting my top films to those that I’ve seen this year, which unfortunately means I have to exclude Selma and Inherent Vice outright, thanks to their “limited release” status.

Foxcatcher | Bennett Miller

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Dark, atmospheric, and tense, Foxcatcher is a slow-boil, character driven film that rises to a chilling climax. This well-executed film includes a transformative performance by Steve Carell as mysterious and deeply conflicted billionaire John DuPont, which, in my opinion, ought to earn him an Oscar.

Gone Girl | David Fincher

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Fincher has done it again with this twisted and compelling thriller. Solid acting and an omnipresent bleakness of tone help to elevate this film to a top-tier production. Though not without its faults, Gone Girl primarily succeeds thanks to its excellent screenplay, written by original author Gillian Flynn, and rightly deserves it spot on the list.

Whiplash | Damien Chazelle

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Whiplash is at once supremely human and oddly terrifying. Starring Miles Teller, perhaps the hottest up-and-coming young actor in Hollywood, as well as the always-terrific J. K. Simmons, the film is a high-energy yet intimate experience that is sure to keep you hooked until the very end.

Nightcrawler | Dan Gilroy

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Are we sensing a pattern here, perhaps? Another supremely dark film, Nightcrawler represents the benchmark in Jake Gyllenhaal’s career thus far. Superbly acted and filled with unpredictable twists and turns, the film is an entrancing journey into the dark depths of a sociopath’s psyche.

The Drop | Michaël R. Roskam

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This film, despite the contention it raised among my Simply Film colleagues, remains one of my favorites on this list. A dyed-in-the-wool crime thriller, The Drop features some outstanding acting by both Tom Hardy and the late James Gandolfini, and climaxes in one of the most beautifully understated endings that I’ve ever seen, period.

The Raid 2 | Gareth Evans

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Endlessly imaginative and gleefully brutal, The Raid 2 is one of the most flat-out fun films released this year. Though the story may be a bit bare-bonesey, the focus is firmly fixed on the action—to the film’s credit, I think. I mean, there’s a blind woman who fights with a pair of hammers. What else do you need to know, really?

Edge of Tomorrow | Doug Liman

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Edge of Tomorrow was sort of a surprise entry on this list, but decidedly earns its place here nonetheless. With a clever little story and some truly impressive action sequences, the film is one of the best original science fiction properties to be released, I’d argue, in the last decade.

The Grand Budapest Hotel | Wes Anderson

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Perhaps one of the most auteur directors ever to come out of Hollywood, Wes Anderson has admittedly had some misses in his time, but The Grand Budapest Hotel isn’t one of them. At once viciously funny and strangely poignant, the film includes Anderson’s signature sugary-sweet, dollhouse aesthetic sensibility while maintaining a tight focus on the vibrant characters that populate his world.

Snowpiercer | Bong Joon-ho

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Director Bong Joon-ho proves, once again, why he remains the premier South Korean filmmaker in the West, with his newest film. Starring Chris Evans as a scrappy revolutionary, Snowpiercer is a high-concept sci-fi odyssey that portrays the decaying state of the human race, all while maintaining an undeniably beautiful visual style and atmosphere.

The Lego Movie | Phil Lord, Christopher Miller

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The thing that you’ve got to understand about The Lego Movie is that no one, myself included, really expected it to blow up like it did. What I had initially pegged as merely a glorified advertisement for Lego turned out to be so shamelessly funny and imaginative that I felt no recourse but to include it on this list.

A couple of films, listed below, were good enough to deserve at least a mention, but fell just shy of a coveted position on the Top 10 list. They include:

How to Train Your Dragon 2 | Dean DeBlois

Big Eyes | Tim Burton

Listen Up Philip | Alex Ross Perry

 

That’s all there is. There isn’t any more. Good riddance to 2014.

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