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Wednesday, January 7, 2015

2014: A Year of Unique Movies

Plus: My Favorite Film and Other Random Musings

By Chris Sabga

Let's face it: so many movies look the same, sound the same, are the same. It's very rare to watch something that truly feels new and fresh. Of course, there is a certain comfort that comes from those familiar storylines and well-worn formulas. Sometimes it's easier to just kick back and relax, to be spoon-fed exactly what you expect. I'm as "guilty" as anyone else of scanning Netflix and picking a TV movie starring Mark-Paul Gosselaar and Amy Smart ("12 Dates of Christmas") or a silly Christmas special with The Miz in it ("Christmas Bounty") instead of something a little more, ahem, substantial. There's nothing necessarily wrong with that. It's safe and easy – and sometimes that's what we need in life.

Even genuinely good movies – such as St. Vincent, for example – tend to cover similar ground, but they do it in a way that elevates the material. My favorite film of the year – see below – isn't particularly unique, but it's the best example of "comfort food" that I can imagine.

With that said, it's exhilarating to watch movies that push the boundaries, try new things, and deliver original experiences. 2014 was a great year for that.

Boyhood: Filmed over a period of twelve years with the same actors, Richard Linklater's ambitious experiment of a film follows its young protagonist, Mason (played by Ellar Coltrane), from kindergarten to college. "Boyhood" has its critics, but there's nothing else like it. (Michael Apted's "Up" series of documentaries comes close, and possibly inspired this, but even that only chronicles its subjects once every seven years.) Any list of unique films in 2014 has to begin with "Boyhood." A full review is forthcoming.

Cheap Thrills: The premise is simple: What would you do for $200? What would you do for much more than that? "Cheap Thrills" is a violent, shocking film with no redeeming morals or values – I wish Roger Ebert had lived long enough to pen one of his scathing zero-star reviews – but I have to give it credit for being original and entertaining. Don't say I didn't warn you though.

The Grand Budapest Hotel: All of Wes Anderson's films are unique. "The Grand Budapest Hotel" is about the madcap misadventures of a hotel owner and his lobby boy. In many ways, it's a throwback to older movies – but Wes Anderson gives it its own distinct look and feel. His movies can only be considered normal if they're being compared to each other.

Ida: A Jewish nun. Need I say more? Okay, I will. If I didn't know any better, I'd think "Ida" was actually made in the 1960s. This black and white foreign film feels like one of those rare cinematic treasures you're exposed to in a dusty film class.

Her: A lonely man dates his computer's operating system (think a near-future version of Windows or iOS with Siri on steroids). The movie, I'll admit, did not entirely work for me – but I can't help but admire its attempt to do something different.

Locke: Films that take place primarily in one small area have been done before – "Twelve Angry Men," "My Dinner With Andre," "Death and the Maiden," and the more recent "Buried" are among them – but it remains a brave and risky cinematic choice. "Locke" takes place entirely behind the wheel of a car. We only see the driver, Ivan Locke. He interacts with several other people throughout the course of the drive, but we only ever hear them – through his cell phone. In order for that to work, a strong cast is essential. Tom Hardy owns the screen with an intense, incredible performance, but the other actors deserve equal credit for breathing life and humanity into a series of otherwise faceless voices.

This is, I'm sure, by no means a comprehensive list of 2014's most unique films – just a few that stood out to me. But none of them were my favorite. That honor belongs to a more traditional slice of movie heaven.

My Favorite Film of 2014 – Chef: There were more innovative movies released this year – see above – and probably more "important" ones too. But what can I say? The heart responds to what the heart responds to. "Chef" made my heart sing and my tastebuds salivate. It's the kind of movie that just plain makes you feel good after you see it. I walked out of the theater floating with joy. That's an all-too-rare experience. I cherish "Chef" for having that effect on me.

Other random musings

My favorite television show of 2014 was "Gracepoint." The American remake of "Broadchurch" was billed as a ten-episode mystery event. Was "Broadchurch" better? Probably (I still haven't seen it), but there's something to be said about seeing famous American actors like Nick Nolte in a high-class miniseries. That's also why I gravitated toward the U.S. remake of "Life on Mars." Its 1970s American cop show setting and Harvey Keitel tickled my nostalgia bone in a way the original and apparently superior British version would never be able to. "Gracepoint" had its flaws, to be sure, but for ten glorious weeks, it created a fevered conversation among those unspoiled by "Broadchurch" as we traded theories about who killed Danny Solano. Honorable mention – "Forever": It's a unique blend of genres that combines a cop procedural with mystery, history, and a dash of supernatural fantasy. I hope more TV viewers give it a chance.

My favorite performance of the year came from Tyler Perry in "Gone Girl." Were there better actors and roles this year? Probably. Some of them might have even been in "Gone Girl" with Perry! But none of them made me smile the way Perry's slick lawyer did. He was, to put it in scientific terms, the man. There was no performance I enjoyed more. Will Oscar agree with me?

Of course, I saw several older movies too. Among them, perhaps because of of the shocking death of Robin Williams, "Bicentennial Man" stands out for me this year. Watching "What Dreams May Come" would have been too much to bear, but "Bicentennial Man's" futuristic setting provided an oddly comforting odyssey about life, death, and the value of both.

My biggest disappointment of the year – sorry "Gojira" fans – was "Godzilla." Too long, too slow, people I couldn't bring myself to care about even after an excess of character and plot development, and action scenes that bored me more than thrilled me. In one "titanic battle," the two beasts looked like they were having sex. No, I'm not kidding. I couldn't even bring myself to write a review afterward – that's how little I cared about what I'd just seen. 2013's "Pacific Rim" was much better in every way. Watch that instead.

On a brighter note, today marks the second anniversary of Silver Screen Surprises. Thank you so much for reading, following, and commenting over the past two years.

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