Best Movies of 2014

1. Interstellar
science fiction, drama, adventure
★★★★★★★★★☆
Space science fiction as it should be: with sufficient depth, an interesting story line and focused on how human beings are affected by what they experience. Interstellar is as much about people, their motivations and relations, as about what they are exposed to: the dazzling effects of space-time. The ending could have been better, but despite that Interstellar is highly recommended.

2. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
science fiction, drama, action
★★★★★★★★★☆
Worthy successor to Rise of the Planet of the Apes, with a better and more interesting continued story. Seeing the first movie is certainly recommended, but not required to appreciate this one. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is extremely convincing in its portrayal of the apes. Ironically, they have the same basic hopes, dreams and wishes as people have, yet aligning their interests with the humans proves difficult, leading to heart wrenching scenes.

3. The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz
documentary
★★★★★★★★☆☆
This documentary tells the real story of Aaron Swartz: a child prodigy, prolific hacker and activist. Ending up in a legal battle that can not be won, he takes his own life at the age of 26. This documentary takes an honest and open look at the events that lead up to his death, shows the views of many of the people he touched, and makes one think about some of the twisted systems that are in place in modern society.

4. The Grand Budapest Hotel
adventure, comedy
★★★★★★★★☆☆
A strange, but highly entertaining movie about an eccentric hotel concierge and a lobby boy set in the fictional country of Zubrowka. Concierge Gustav is framed for the murder of one of his most beloved clients, after which a colorful adventure ensues. The way the story is told, the visuals and acting contribute to a rather unique ‘feel’. The Grand Budapest Hotel was definitely one of last year’s pleasant surprises.

5. The Lego Movie
animation, adventure, comedy
★★★★★★★★☆☆
Surprisingly fun movie about the famous toy bricks. Emmet, a construction worker, becomes the reluctant hero as he has to save the Lego world from the evil Kragle. Enough layered humor to be entertaining for both kids and adults, even those that did not play with Lego (but, who didn’t?). This is easily the best computer animated feature of 2014. “Everything is awesome! :)”

6. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
fantasy, action, adventure
★★★★★★★★☆☆
This final installment in the Hobbit trilogy primarily bridges the gap between Tolkien’s original “The Hobbit” book and the start of “The Lord of the Rings”. Though, the size of the ensemble cast is a bit overwhelming, the movie is well paced, entertaining and has good dramatic impact. Perhaps not as grand as The Lord of The Rings, but certainly worth watching.

7. X-Men: Days of Future Past
comic, action, adventure
★★★★★★★★☆☆
Easily the best X-Men film to date, surpassing even 2011’s X-Men First Class. The film shares similarities with Terminator’s storyline: sending someone to the past to prevent a dystopian future, in this case: Wolverine. Recommended thanks to a well developed story and what must be the coolest ensemble cast of an X-Men movie to date.

8. The Edge of Tomorrow
science fiction, action
★★★★★★★★☆☆
Though poorly marketed, the Edge of Tomorrow gives an interesting spin on the “reliving similar events repeatedly” genre. The movie achieves a nice balance between action and drama, perhaps best described as a mix between Starship Troopers and Groundhog Day. The end result is an entertaining ‘popcorn’ movie with a hint of intellectual gleam.

Other honorable mentions:

  • Guardians of the Galaxy
  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier
  • The Equalizer
  • The Maze Runner
  • Non-Stop
  • The Hunger Games Mockingjay Part I
  • Divergent
  • The Amazing Spider Man 2
  • Godzilla
  • RoboCop

Her

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Many people have a love-hate relationship with their computer, and probably: so do you, but have you ever thought of dating your operating system? Her explores the concept of affection in a whole new way. A look into the future which is both endearing and unsettling.

In 2025 people no longer write personal intimate letters by themselves. Instead they resort to beautifulhandwrittenletters.com, which has professional writers that compose these for you. Theodore Twombly is one of these writers. Her follows Twombly as he goes through a divorce with Catherine, his insecure, but talented wife. One day Twombly sees an advertisement for a new operating systems and installs it on his computer. To his surprise this `OS’ has a real personality: Samantha, with which he bonds and develops an intimate relation.

The premise of Her may sound a little strange. Yet, the movie raises interesting questions: what really is love? Is a relationship between a person and an artificial intelligence any less real than one between two people? What responsibility do partners have towards each other and do those still apply in this situation? Her has some parallels with Artificial Intelligence (2001). Though, it is much more intimate and less melancholic despite the movie taking place in a dystopia.

Though it may take some time before software is as sophisticated as Samantha, it is not unthinkable that we may live to actually see similar Artificial Intelligence. However, the many mediated relationships nowadays serve as an in-between step to think about this: Catfish is a good example.

Beautifully shot, Spike Jonze’s Her leans heavily on the performance of Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore Twombly. Phoenix, already strong in The Master, gives a performance nothing short of excellent here. This combined with Scarlett Johansson’s voice as Samantha, and Amy Adams as Theodore’s closest friend, makes for an enjoyable two hours. There’s little to fault here. Highly recommended.

★★★★★★★★★☆

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Copyright © 2013 Warner Brothers Pictures.

300: Rise of an Empire

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With a single arrow the Greek Themistocles kills the Persian king Darius. This leaves Xerxes, Darius’s son, deeply troubled and determined to take revenge. Rise of an Empire is the follow up to the original 300 which appeared in early 2007. That film was based on a comic book written by Frank Miller. Both this new movie and its predecessor are heavily fictionalized versions of the Battle of Salamis. Where the first movie focused on the battle of Thermopylae, Rise of an Empire focuses on events taking place in parallel at the Straits of Artemisium.

300: Rise of an Empire starts with a long-winded narrative that ends with Xerxes transformation into an evil warlord. This suggests that the movie is about Xerxes and Themistocles, but that’s a deception. Though it is indeed a revenge story, the main antagonist is Artemisia: the Persians’s female naval commander. The conflict between her and Themistocles starts to become interesting when she is repeatedly outsmarted by him. Despite Artemisia having a much larger army, Themistocles uses clever naval battle tactics to defeat her several times. Unfortunately, just when that starts to get interesting the movie takes a completely unrealistic turn. This turn completely flips Themistocles around from capable smart leader to clueless commander with weak knees. From that point onwards the story slides straight downhill.

The original 300 was noticeable for its `testosterone’ visual style. This consisted of overexposed images combined with slow motion hand-to-hand combat. While this style is also used in this new movie, the Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) is a rather mixed bag. The naval scenes are nicely done, which is quite a feat considering all water was digitally added. However, there is more than a handful of scenes that look like they came straight out of a computer game: not something that appeals to cinema goers. The same applies to the excessive and mostly poor looking slow motion blood spurts, which lack any aesthetic. Rise of an empire also tosses in smashed faces and beheadings like they are nothing. This is not necessarily a problem, provided it is really an integral part of the story. However, when Artemisia calls up a Greek prisoner just so she can cut his head off, I really wonder: what were the writers thinking?

One would think that the underlying theme, the democratic freedom of the Greeks versus the feudal oppression of the Persians, would make for an interesting part of the story. The title “rise of an empire” also implies that this plays a central role. Unfortunately, this is yet an other deception: the movie does not even skim the surface of this conflict. Instead it relies on empty dull freedom rhetoric. Some feeble attempt at military drama is included in the form of an extremely predictable subplot involving a Greek father and son. Perhaps the subtitle should have been “the fall of storytelling” instead of “the rise of an empire”.

300: Rise of an Empire has some decent action scenes and good acting by Eva Green as Artemisia. However, it does not have anything else going for it. Furthermore, both the trailer and the movie’s title are misleading. This is definitely one to skip. If you really like the cinematographic style of 300 your time is better spent watching Starz’s Spartacus.

★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆

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Copyright © 2014 Warner Brothers.

RoboCop

2014-02-27-RoboCop
Nearly everyone is familiar with the original 1987 RoboCop. Exploring the boundary between man and machine, that film became a critically acclaimed sci-fi classic. Hopefully many have forgotten the disappointing successor RoboCop 2 and the even worse RoboCop 3. Not long ago a new RoboCop film was announced: not a sequel, but a remake of the original. Would this be any good? I was skeptical.

It is 2028. Robots are widely deployed to provide security in in other countries that are occupied by the United States. The American public does not want those machines on their own streets. This is legally prohibited. Instead, people want safety and security to have a human element: a machine should not be able to pull the trigger by itself. Playing into this demand, the country’s market leading manufacturer of military security robots, OmniCorp sets out to combine man and machine. The CEO of Omnicorp, Raymond Sellars, asks one of his key employees, the brilliant doctor Dennett Norton, to spearhead this ambitious project.

The recently seriously injured Alex Murphy is chosen for the program with the consent of his grieving wife. After waking up in his new body, Alex’s first reaction is to panic. He has major problems adjusting to his new situation, and is also much less effective in combat than the fully computer controlled robots. However, the public loves the man in the machine dubbed RoboCop, leaving Sellars and Norton with a dilemma. Furthermore, RoboCop’s human “Alex” part also wants to take revenge on those that caused his injury in the first place.

There are many parallels between this new version of RoboCop and the original, but I would not call it a remake. It’s a story with roughly the same ingredients: a maimed cop that becomes a cyborg, a vengeful arms dealer and corrupt cops and businessmen. However, the mixture and emphasis is different. This re-imagined version is a more human story, with less focus on technology and pure action. Undoubtedly, this shift is likely to disappoint fans of the original, but it makes the film more accessible.

Strangely, RoboCop himself (Joel Kinnaman) is not the main attraction of the movie. The heated conversations between doctor Dennett and Raymond Sellars give the film its gravitas, with excellent performances by Gary Oldman and Michael Keaton. They become tangled in juggling public perception, business interests and scientific goals, and have to deal with their differing moral points of view.

Like other contemporary films, RoboCop also has parts where the viewer is addressed directly. Via newscasts presented by the, obviously biased, news anchor Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson). Though this is good for laughs and intended as satire, it is also distracting. Novak hardly flinches when a machine kills a young child, which seems contradictory to his commitment to safety and security.

This 2014 RoboCop manages to evoke a better emotional connection with the characters as the original, but also manages to mix in enough humor to keep things digestible. Though the film is enjoyable for eighty percent, it suffers from a predictable and too slow cliché ending. Nevertheless, it is certainly not as bad as I expected it to be. A good choice if you enjoy not too serious rough action science fiction.

★★★★★★★☆☆☆

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Copyright © 2013 Sony Pictures.

Ender’s Game

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It is 2086. Fifty years ago the earth was attacked by the Formics, an ant-like alien species. They wiped out a significant part of the Earth’s population before being stopped kamikaze-style by the legendary human pilot Mazer Rackham. Though the Formics have not returned, an attack is still feared. Hence, the people of Earth need to be battle ready: they need a new Mazer Rackham.

The unpredictable nature of the Formics makes it highly difficult to combat them. Only children’s minds are capable of adapting quickly enough to defeat them. The brightest children are selected so that they can defend against those feared future attacks. Andrew “Ender” Wiggin is one of these. He was selected based on his excellent reflexes and how he handled being bullied at school. Commander Hyrum Graff sees in him a great talent and enables him to go to battle school.

Ender shows both great tactical insight and leadership in battle school. Though, he also has problems with authority. Nevertheless, Graff’s faith endures. Perhaps, he reasons, Ender is the right candidate to lead a preemptive strike on the Formics.

Ender’s game is the film adaptation of the book with the same name written by Orson Scott Card. I have been told it is fairly faithful to the written version. Graff is well portrayed by Harrison Ford. In contrast Asa Butterfield’s role as Ender seems to be a better fit in the early stages of the movie than at the end.

Ender’s game is a decent military teen sci-fi film. It reminded me of the underrated cult-hit Starship Troopers, though Ender’s game is much less satirical. Because of the more serious tone, I would have expected more explanation about the Formic’s motivations, which are left more vague here then in the book. This would have brought more balance to the movie. Nevertheless, recommended especially for sci-fi fans.

★★★★★★★☆☆☆

Official Site | IMDB | Wikipedia

Copyright © 2013 Summit Entertainment.