This week, we asked our esteemed panelists the following question:
The best slipstream fantasy I saw this year was Birdman, starring Michael Keaton, saga of an actor once famous for playing a superhero who is now trying to respectability via a Raymond Carver adaptation for the stage; the fantasy elements are likely in his own mind, but that doesn’t stop them from being as eye-popping as anything you’d find in any genuine superhero film, without sticking around so long that audiences are forced to glance at their watches. It’s a fine examination of an actor’s ego and of the many voices, some internal, that seek to steer artists into more conservative choices.
Studios offered strong genre movies in 2014. And, if one wanted to stick strictly to mainstream fare that hit multiplexes this year, one could make a reasonable case for material as divergent as the Tom Cruise vehicle Edge of Tomorrow, Matt Reeves’s flawed but still worthy franchise entry Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and the often silly yet engaging Marvel effort Guardians of the Galaxy. Marvel’s other superhero effort proved no less worthy; Captain America: The Winter Soldier dressed itself in 1970s conspiracy movie drag to strong effect, while X-Men: Days of Future Past quaffed deeply from the time stream to tell its tale of mutants on the eve of destruction, circa 1979. Even Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, while nowhere near my own pick, has its adherents. It poorly marries Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey with Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life, but it’s hard to fault its ambition.
However, for me, the year’s best genre film also may prove the most obscure for casual palates. Under the Skin, Jonathan Glazer’s adaptation of Michael Faber’s cult novel, jars and baffles audiences from the opening credits and never relents, juxtaposing surreal imagery (Scarlett Johansson’s alien vixen leads men into a completely black lacquered room, where they are trapped like bugs in the darkest of amber) with cinema verité techniques (Glazer filmed Johansson picking up men as she drove around Scottish streets in her van surreptitiously; only after the men agreed to be picked up did they learn that they were in a movie) to create a disquieting work. Johansson’s performance, a mixture of calculation, detachment, and complete lack of empathy or curiosity is the movie’s biggest draw; she features in almost every scene, so the picture stands or falls on the audience believing in her as a stranger in this strange land. Johansson stars in two other notable 2014 genre pictures (including the outstanding Her), but her work in Under the Skin elevates it above the rest. It won’t be for every taste; the approach will alienate some viewers while the content likely will discourage others. However, for those who enjoy challenging work, Under the Skin will reward.
This year has seen a series of unexpected triumphs for science fiction in film. Guardians of the Galaxy’s James Gunn, along with newcomer co-scribe Nicole Perlman, was kind enough to give us all a piece of our souls back—a much-appreciated glimpse back at our lost youths. Matt Reeves’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes showed us the awe-inspiring realism and potential that Andy Serkis’s MoCap studio, The Imaginarium, has to offer; its all too relevant story served as a profound examination of the delicate machinery behind every war’s tragic beginning. And I’d be hard-pressed to think of any theatrical release I’ve enjoyed more for its good-humored, escapist fun than Doug Liman’s Edge of Tomorrow, a film that perfectly captures the booming subculture of videogame “speedrunning,” whether aware of it or not.
In spite of a few mentionable flaws, however, I found Interstellar to be the best, most memorable movie of 2014. It is every bit the sort of monumental achievement director Christopher Nolan set out to make in the aftermath of his eight-year stint at the helm of the Batman mythos. A tale of perseverance in the face of unfathomable odds, Interstellar explores the increasingly dire need for humankind to step beyond the immediate concerns of the living and begin to consider our ultimate destiny as a collective species, on a timescale of millennia and multiple galaxies. And it does so magnificently: You’ll never for a moment notice the considerable running time, at least until you’ve left the theater or turned off your media player.
While there are a few questions left unanswered, such as why NASA didn’t simply make an effort to contact Cooper themselves before he stumbled into their headquarters, or why Cooper’s gravitational ghost-presence needed to retrace the steps of his earlier iteration (iterations?) rather than just relaying the fabled “quantum data” of the singularity to his daughter, Murph, I ultimately feel as though the film makes good use of its theoretical-physicist consultant and executive producer, Kip Thorne. Furthermore, I’d say that the overall quality of performances by cast members like Chastain, Hathaway, McConaughey, and the unexpected Matt Damon make up for any shortcomings with the film’s script, which is at times a touch on-the-nose about its message.
Whether or not screenwriters Jonah and Christopher Nolan got the minutiae of Einsteinian physics correct every step of the way (something-something “escape velocity,” something-something “bulk beings” . . .), I’d argue that the film successfully compels its audience—at minimum—to the point of intellectual curiosity, which is more than I can say for the majority of cinematic science fiction being produced so far this century. Writing for The New York Times, Dennis Overbye observes that the film makes much more scientific sense in light of his having read Thorne’s book The Science of Interstellar, and indeed was even more enjoyable on a second viewing because of the knowledge he gleaned from the companion text. I’ve adjusted my reading list accordingly, and have little doubt that it will only enrich my deep love for this inspired and affecting vision.
It’s been a busy year for speculative cinema. If you wanted hard SF with a great actress at the center of an alien time-loop movie, you got Edge of Tomorrow (so vague as to mean nothing; they’ve wised up and are now trying to call it Live Die Repeat), a movie both sincerely committed and self-aware enough to know the main draw of having Tom Cruise in the lead role was because he has to die dozens of times. If you wanted an action fable that fleshed out its premise with a great cast and some amazing visuals (the classroom scene is an instant classic), there was Snowpiercer, riding the train of class warfare in an incredibly literal sense. If you like your genre impossibly meta, where the invocation of previous genre pieces becomes its own genre element, you got The Guest, in which the stranger-comes-to-stay horror movie merges seamlessly with vintage pet-monster flicks like Terminator 2, and even a dose of critique regarding those movies’ hypermasculine ideals. (A guy who is happy to kill to protect you, and then turns on you the instant you question him, is as neat a summation of online guys as this year has provided.)
If you like low-key sci-fi that trades on its actors and centers around the idea that love is inherently a creepy farce in which your partner will morph into a total stranger, The One I Love came out this year (which is really lucky, because that’s sort of a specific request). And if you like a movie that picks and chooses from several genre tropes to explore stylistic and thematic territory, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is an Iranian vampire Western that has a fantastic time playing fast and loose with all its influences, and then some.
But as for the one I’ve kept coming back to, it would have to be Only Lovers Left Alive, Jim Jarmusch’s latest, in which a pair of vampire old-marrieds hang out, have a bad family visit, and embody every bougie cliché you’d imagine from two age-old aristocrats. (Tilda Swinton lovingly fondles poetry and wanders through Tangier like she’s in a Byron poem; Tom Hiddleston is a musician who’s just, like, so over it, you know?) Full of sly humor, the sort of direction that renders a living room the love child of a Victorian parlor and the landscape of an alien planet, and two magnetic performances at its center, it’s a vampire story in which the weight of eternity reveals itself in oblique slivers rather than soliloquies, and endless love reveals itself in patience, not in tragedy. It’s the kind of movie that rewards multiple viewings, which is just as well, given how many times I saw it this year.
Asking me to pick a favorite anything is tricky. I like to add in copious caveats and exceptions and divisions. There are a lot of movies I enjoyed this year, lots I wanted to like (but, well, didn’t), and a few I was pleasantly surprised by. Since we’re focusing on the best, and I’ve got a limited word count, I’ll mention three: the movie that surprised me most, the one I looked forward to the most, and my overall pick for best sf/f movie of the year.
The surprise: Guardians of the Galaxy. I was sure this one would go the way of the 2011 Green Lantern movie, with flat, misplaced jokes, a villain that makes you cringe at his awkwardness rather than his villainy, and a hero that undermines his believability every time he opens his mouth. But, lo and behold, Guardians was a blast. It’s packed with fun, cheeky characters that don’t take themselves too seriously; an awesome soundtrack (really, how can you go wrong with “Hooked on a Feeling”?) and a story that doesn’t pretend to be something it isn’t (I’m still looking at you, terrible Green Lantern movie). I’ll even forgive it the “holding hands will save the world” ending (What would have happen had the villain been smart enough to grab on as well?). I definitely misjudged this movie, and I think it’ll be one I’ll watch again and again for years to come.
My most anticipated: Interstellar. This movie has its problems, for sure–from picking and choosing which instances of time dilation to actually account for, to its somewhat strange vision of a global disaster-and-solution (really, blight? And this would cause everyone to become farmers, not biochemists?). And if you’re a fan of linear causality, the plotline could give you indigestion (whereas I’ve personally seen enough Doctor Who to never take my paradoxes too seriously ever again). But, the movie undeniably has heart. At its core it’s a story about family, and how those ties can boost us to a better tomorrow. It makes you want to root for humanity, and that’s always going to win points in my book. It also delivers big on the sense-o-wonder, and has some of the best non-humanoid AI characters since Hal (not to mention, they’re the antithesis of Hal).
My top pick: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. I know, came as a surprise to me, too. I love the original Planet of the Apes, but the series has steadily plummeted from there (hitting rock bottom with the Tim Burton reboot). And for me, Rise of the Planet of the Apes was just OK. James Franco is not my favorite actor, and I was not thrilled that–once again–The Planet of the Apes’ backstory was being fiddled with. But Dawn did something for the series that hasn’t been done since the original, I think. It gave us a different perspective on what it means to be human, and what it means to be the same, yet different. On the surface it’s about humans versus other primates, but on a deeper level it’s about how we treat each other when we group people together by superficial means. Caesar is more like Malcolm than Koba, despite one being a man and one being another Chimpanzee. Actions and emotions bind people, not what they look like–a lesson we’re taught not through a human perspective, but from Blue Eyes’ perspective. The sentiment in itself might not be anything new, but it was thoughtfully presented. Plus the movie is gorgeously executed. And–AND it has a chimpanzee riding a horse while double-fisting firearms, which in context I took totally seriously, only later realizing how laughable such a scene could have ended up. This one gets full marks from me.
There were so many great movies to pick from this year. I found it impossible to only mention one. I can only hope this trend will continue.
There is a special magic to a big-budget movie that truly has a sense of fun, and Guardians of the Galaxy has it. Chris Pratt is brilliant in the role of Star-Lord, bringing both charisma and humor. The pacing is deft and the character development effortless. The characters – and I am unfamiliar with the source material – are the reason that the movie worked so well for me. The movie is funny without relying on gags. Every time I laughed, it was because I understood something about the characters and their world. I cared about what happened to them. Yet, this is a piece of something larger and so I was left with a tiny, nagging sense of incompletion at the end. I was also a bit disappointed that Gamora – the kickass female character – was the least developed of the ensemble. I hope this will be rectified in the next installment. Even so, very few movies can so effortlessly kick off a new franchise the way Guardians did.
Interstellar wins for pure spectacle. I saw this at an IMAX theater, and the scenes in space and on the alien planets are just fantastic. The movie also has many smaller, interior scenes that, unfortunately, didn’t play quite so well on the enormous screen. Watching a closeup of a character in a hospital bed whose head is as big as a cottage, and whose eyes are the size of cars is a little – disconcerting. Despite the wonderful visuals, the overt emotionality and the intrusive – and frankly preachy – parts where the characters debate the meaning and function of love in the universe really stymied any emotional connection I might have made with this story. This movie had everything but the depth and heart of the great science fiction films by Tarkovsky and Kubrick.
The Runner Up:
It was a tough call between Snowpiercer and my stated “best movie of the year” below. It’s rare to see a truly allegorical movie make it into theaters in even a limited release. The heavy symbolism that pervades this movie is paired with a gritty realism that glories in a dystopic awfulness that recalls classics like of 1984 and Brazil. The visual naturalism of some of the scenes, and the deep humanity of the characters play against the highly symbolic nature of this movie. More than once I was bounced out of the story by the thought that some event or image was just too preposterous. Only after, did I realize that this movie isn’t interested in the rules that bound our muggle world.
There Can Be Only One:
As you can see, I’m not very good at picking one favorite, but if I have to: the best movie of 2014 was Edge of Tomorrow. Both the tentacled invading aliens and time travel theme that recalls Groundhog Day are nothing new, but this movie feels fresh. While I can forgive a movie that fails because it attempts too much, I love a movie that accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do with assurance and a sense of serious fun. Tom Cruise is excellent in the role of Major Cage. He has the range to play a loathsome, smart coward who transforms himself to embrace the courage he’s always avoided. Emily Blunt’s character, Rita, is a refreshingly strong female lead with agency and depth that indicates a life beyond the story. What impressed me most was the use of the repeated scenes as Cage cycles through the time loop that he’s trapped in. Not only did these scenes show his character’s transformation, they also increased the suspense as the movie progressed. This made the resolution feel earned. It sounds heady, but trust me, it’s all fun, albeit of the first person shooter kind.
I don’t know why the producers didn’t call this movie All You Need Is Kill, the vastly superior title from the source material (a novelette by Hiroshi Sakurazaka). Maybe legally they couldn’t. The marketing department seems to have wised up as the studio title has all but disappeared from DVD, replaced by the movie’s tagline: Live Die Repeat.
There’s no denying, 2014 was a great year for speculative fiction in cinema. It’s not easy to choose the best film of the year when there are so many great contenders. X-Men: Days of Future Past earned my grudging respect. Guardians of the Galaxy warmed my heart and made me laugh. Snowpiercer seemed to come out of nowhere to blindside us all. Though disappointing in other aspects Interstellar was a stunning visual experience. There are author SF/F films that wowed me this year, from the underrated The Amazing Spider-Man 2 to the bombastic Captain America: Winter Soldier, but one film managed to impress me more than all others — Edge of Tomorrow.
I read All You Need Is Kill, the book Edge of Tomorrow is based on, years ago. I didn’t much care for the light novel by Hiroshi Sakurazaka despite the interesting premise. I laughed when I heard that they were making a film adaptation of All You Need Is Kill. I laughed even more when they cast Tom Cruise to star in it. And then when the first photos of Cruise in the power armor leaked? You guessed it — I laughed even more. I fully expected this film to get lost in development limbo and if it somehow miraculously made it to the big screen I believed it would flop. The first trailer released for the adaptation (renamed Edge of Tomorrow) did nothing to change my mind.
And then the positive reviews started to trickle in…
And then a new trailer released…
And before I knew it I was a convert. I got so excited for the release of Edge of Tomorrow that I even went out, bought the tie-in edition of the book, and re-read it. I can’t say that I enjoyed reading it any more the second time but it did serve to whet my anticipation for the movie. Finally the movie hit theaters and I went to see it.
And then I went to see it again, as is proper protocol for a Groundhog Day style flick.
Tom Cruise may hold some nutjob beliefs but the man can act. Some people can’t separate Cruise’s personal life from his acting career but Edge of Tomorrow served to remind me that the man has some serious acting chops. He does an admirable job playing Major William Cage, a coward that you love to see die in a variety of horrible ways again and again and again. But he’s not without his redeeming qualities and I found it easy to sympathize and finally cheer for Cage. He’s not the typical action hero and it’s a refreshing change.
And then there’s Emily Blunt. Oh. My. God! Edge of Tomorrow was the first I ever noticed Emily Blunt but she stole my heart. She plays such a convincing badass that as much as I love Scarlet Johansson I can’t help but wish that Blunt had gotten Marvel’s Black Widow role.
Also Bill Paxton as Master Sergeant Farell? Absolutely perfect.
The plot was loopy and faced paced. The action had some real punch to it. The battle suit design was utilitarian but functional and cool (with three different variants featured). The alien Mimics were visually interesting as well as fast and dangerous. The soundtrack was non-traditional and dark. But best of all? Edge of Tomorrow doesn’t take itself too seriously. Despite the continuous loop of death and destruction there are frequent moments of levity. It would have been easy for director Doug Liman to dwell on the bleakness of it all but instead he infuses Edge of Tomorrow with humor.
I agree with the comparisons between Edge of Tomorrow and video games and I think that makes this film even cooler. Cage gains experience or XP with each new life and whenever he screws up and dies the game simply resets back to the last checkpoint. Live. Die. Repeat. It plays with the Groundhog Day angle. And in doing so it shakes up the typical structure. In Edge of Tomorrow death isn’t defeat, it’s a learning experience.
Edge of Tomorrow is the best military science fiction movie since Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers.
There has been quite a few science fiction and fantasy films of varying quality released this year. A number of them were films I could get excited about.
Luc Besson, a director whose work I typically enjoy, gave us Lucy, a film based on the scientifically discredited premise that human beings use only a small percentage of their brains. Unfortunately, Besson seemed to use only 10% of his talent in making this movie and it was a dud.
Christopher Nolan came up with a much stronger contender for the year’s best SF film with Interstellar. I loved the visuals and there were strong, compelling, emotional scenes throughout the movie, but it felt a bit short for me in characterizations and plotting department. I was able to predict the plot twists with ease and some of the characters made astoundingly poor decisions with the sole purpose of driving the movie plot in the direction the scriptwriters wanted it to go.
For me, top honors went to the unpretentious, fun flick Guardians of the Galaxy, directed by James Gunn.
Unlike the other two films I mentioned, I wasn’t excited about this one in advance. I never read the corresponding comic book and the idea of a machine gun-wielding racoon seemed more than a little ridiculous. I’m very glad the crazy amount of social media buzz sent me to the theater, because I enjoyed the movie thoroughly once it got past the sappy opening scene.
This film is funny, irreverent, and full of pop-culture references from the ’80s. What’s not to like? More importantly, it’s a departure from a typical comic book movie, which tends to take itself a little too seriously for what it is. Guardians is more The Fifth Element than Iron Man, if The Fifth Element slipped on a banana peel. It’s light, fun, and funny, and the closest we get to a dark brooding hero is a genetically modified raccoon. Gunn manages the trick of weaving this film into the overall Marvel lore seamlessly — you needn’t know anything about comic books to follow the plot, and it doesn’t feel like a superhero movie. Instead, Gunn offers a delightful blend of space opera and comedy that kept me entertained and never bored for its entire two-hour run.
I hope other studios make note of this film’s commercial success, because I would sure like to see more grandiose, lighthearted space operas. And if they don’t, I can at least console myself with the fact that Guardians of the Galaxy 2 has already been scheduled for a 2017 release.
I would have loved to say that the best SF/F movie of 2014 was a quirky, lesser-known flick filled with interesting puzzles or actual science, that explored complicated societal issues, like 2012’s Looper or 2013’s The Purge.
It was a goofy science fiction-comic book crossover featuring an anthropomorphic raccoon and a giant talking tree, all the while blasting the pop hits of the sixties and seventies at you and daring you to dance. Guardians of the Galaxy pulled no punches–it tossed you into the deep end of the pool, confident you’d hang around long enough to figure out what was going on. While it was an origin story, it skipped a lot of unnecessary drek and kept on moving at full speed, treating the audience as intelligent beings (yah!), something recent adaptions of Spider-Man and Superman haven’t bothered trying.
This one threw together a ton of new characters, whole new races even, and yet managed to make them all come alive. The design is both detailed and well thought out, with just enough touches from the comic book to keep the fans happy. There’s enough action and explosions to keep everyone happy.
Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord is the lovable rogue for a new generation of movie-goers, girls kicked ass (Zoe Saldana as Gamora and Karen Gillan as Nebula), and Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) was rock solid and literal to the core. Yondu Udonta (Michael Rooker) was a properly motivated piratical type–just give him some cold, hard cash (and then run!) and Lee Pace as Ronan the Accuser brought the crazy, oh yes he did. Unabashedly so.
And don’t forget Yondu’s Ravengers, the protective Nova Corp, and Gamora’s adoptive father, Thanos. Or Taneleer Tivan, a business associate of Gamora with a fascinating collection.
There are space vehicles, from various mining craft to Peter Quill’s Milano to Ronan’s Dark Aster to the ships of the Nova Corp. Planets and space stations and prisons.
It was silly, unexpected, filled with pure joy, and ultimately an incredibly satisfying experience. A feel-good movie that worked for fans and non-fans alike, that had people singing and dancing as they left the theater, desperate to cuddle new, baby Groot.
I hate being predictable.