Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Best of 2014 ... So Far (Part II)

Yesterday I began a short two-part series taking a look at the Top 10 films released in 2014 so far. Numbers 6 through 10 included some early year comedies, some brand new September releases and a money-making summer blockbuster. But before the wave of Fall Oscar contenders begin crashing into theatres all across the country, here are my 5 best films of 2014 so far.

I'd be the first to admit that I had zero interest in another Marvel superhero franchise sweeping across the globe. However, they got it right with Guardians of the Galaxy. Superior even to the overly-loved Avengers, the latest team of misfit superheros provided enormous laughs without watering down its running time with useless action sequences. After Peter Quill (played by Chris Pratt) discovers a mysterious orb in the farthest reaches of the galaxy, he becomes the target of a manhunt led by the evil fanatic Ronan. Peter must team up with an unlikely group of not-so superheros featuring an assassin named Gamora, a muscled-up maniac named Drax, a vulgar raccoon named Rocket, and a tree-like creature known as Groot. Together they must unite to save the galaxy from Ronan's powerful destruction. Director James Gunn offers a winning formula of hilarity and tasteful thrills that's sure to generate many future Guardians of the Galaxy installments.

On one hand, I'll never understand what sick and self-torturing audiences crave seeing intentionally sad and emotional pieces of work like this summer's The Fault in Our Stars. But on the other hand, when such a film successfully delivers its power message in an entertaining (albeit heartbreaking) way, I finally "get it". Adapted from a 2012 John Green novel of the same name, Shailene Woodley stars as Hazel Grace Lancaster, a cynical 16 year-old girl stricken with a form of thyroid cancer that has compromised her lungs and forces her to travel around with an oxygen tank. While at a cancer support group she literally bumps into Augustus Waters (played by Ansel Elgort), a care-free and spirited young man who possess a prosthetic due to his form of cancer. Together they experience a profound love that can only be highlighted by a crippling backdrop of sickness and inevitable loss. Powerful performances by both young leads transforms The Fault in Our Stars from a hokey tearjerker into a beautiful examination of love.

One of the most unlikely finalists on my Top 10 list comes in the form of the festival circuit favorite, Cheap Thrills. Pat Healy stars as Craig, a hardworking husband and father struggling to make ends meet. But on the same day he loses his job and receives an eviction notice, Craig wanders into a local bar to drown his sorrows before confronting his wife with the terrible news. While there he runs into an old friend (played by Ethan Embry) and a mysterious couple who have an intriguing game in mind. They decide to offer some high stakes to see just how far these old friends are willing to go for a massive pay-day. With an escalating madness and desperation that's beautifully paced into an 88 minute thrill-ride, clever writing and a knockout role from Pat Healy leave Cheap Thrills as one of the finest thrillers in recent memory.

2. Chef

Attempting the rare feat of writing, directing and starring in his own film, Jon Favreau delivers one of 2014's most memorable movies, Chef. Carl Casper rules the kitchen in an upscale restaurant, but when he decides to deviate from the normal menu in order to impress a powerful food critic, the restaurant owner gives him an ultimatum. So rather than losing his job, Carl sticks the the routine menu and receives a terrible review. After a social media feud that spirals out of control, Carl quits his job and desires to find a way to make a profit off of his creative culinary freedom, all while trying to build a connection with the son he hardly knows. Not only does Chef offer a zestful soul-searching message of inner happiness, the film pairs that together with a fantastic father-son story that never disappoints. Providing legitimate laughs and a heartwarming tale, Chef stands out as one of 2014's finest cinematic offerings.

There has never been a film quite like Richard Linklater's Boyhood. The ambitious 12 year project featured Linklater shooting his entire film in bits and pieces for more than a decade, creating a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Mason (played by Ellar Coltrane) is a starry-eyed boy whose life unfolds before your very eyes. We see Mason's beginnings as a young child of divorce and his mother's attempt at trying to create a whole new family environment after she falls for one of her college professors. All of these experience shape Mason's perspective on life as he matures towards adulthood. It's difficult trying to capture the right words to describe the groundbreaking achievement that is Boyhood. Linklater is a true visionary who creates a unique coming-of-age-tale that's sure to top many critics' end of the year lists.

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