Monday, 29 December 2014

Film Ramble: Top 10 Fantasy and Science Fiction Films of 2014 (Part 1)

So in a sense I'm only doing this because I did one last year, and in another sense the fact that I did it last year means that a part of my brain has been planning this post for the entire last twelve months.  Which makes it particularly disappointing that 2014 has been, well, ever so slightly disappointing.

Now I hasten to admit that there are some major and not so major releases I've yet to catch, and it's possible the film that would otherwise have been my number one was among them.  I mean, there's a chance that The Hobbit Part 27 will turn out to be the classic that the first however-many chunks lumberingly failed to be (it won't) and that Under the Skin was the best Science-Fiction movie that I failed to catch (it just might.)  Therefore I make no bones about the fact that the following is completely personal and largely arbitrary.  Heck, I celebrate it.  That may even be the point!

Also, due to the fact that this post has got so wildly out of control that it's making Blogger creak, I'm splitting it into two parts...

10)  The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Pt 1

Oh how I wanted to love The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Pt 1, and oh how hard the crass, money-grabbing decision to split one book needlessly into two movies made it, and then oh how confused that left my feelings when I got to the closing credits and realised that almost everything I genuinely did love in the movie was a direct result of that undeniably wrong-headed decision. 

Because if you once get past the fact that Mockingjay Pt 1 is a film whose primary reason for existing is to set up another film containing all of the actual events that should have been in this one, there's an awful lot to like.  Its enforced slow pace makes it feel almost like a director's cut of another, shallower movie, padded with functionally superfluous but visually and emotionally thrilling odds and ends, and the subjects it dwells heavily upon - the nature of grief, propaganda, the impossible moral conundrums of conflict and social upheaval - are as far from the stuff of usual Hollywood fare as you could hope to get.  Mockingjay, Pt 2 will no doubt get all of the things happening that were missing from Pt 1, and will likely be objectively better for it, but it's hard to imagine it being quite this odd and interesting.

9) X-Men: Days of Future Past

 My hopes for having Singer back on the X-Men franchise - X-Men 2 remains perhaps my favourite superhero movie of all time - were tempered by the fact that he just hasn't been making particularly great movies of late.  And sure enough, Days of Future Past turned out to be neither as wonderful as I'd hoped nor as lousy as I'd feared: infinitely superior to the aptly named and almost franchise-killing X-Men: The Last Stand, a touch ahead of First Class, about a thousand times better than Singer's half-baked Jack the Giant Slayer, and yet still undeniably a letdown.

In the end, though, Singer's direction proved to be neither Days of Future Past's salvation nor its major failing, as it ended up being a good and solidly fashioned film about characters that the franchise has already explored to death - in a couple of cases, literally.  It's impossible to imagine how this wouldn't have been more interesting had it followed the comics in having Kitty Pryde as its time-traveling protagonist and left Wolverine to sit one out; likewise, even with four of my favourite actors playing them, the Professor X / Magneto storyline is surely about tapped out by now.

Nevertheless, 2014 was the year that the X-Men franchise finally got back on track and retconned its greatest failing* out of existence, and for that I'm all sorts of grateful.

8) Godzilla

On paper this was very nearly as dumb and futile as every other attempt by Hollywood to repackage and Americanise another nation's beloved intellectual property.  Read in synopsis, its plot is all sorts of lazy and culturally imperialistic and by-the-book. And perhaps it's only my huge affection for his debut Monsters making me say this, but I can't help feeling that the only thing stopping it from being all of that was the presence of Gareth Edwards behind the wheel.

It seems to me that there are basically two ways you can go with a tentpole giant monster movie: either you take the route favoured by Pacific Rim and show off your monsters as much as you possibly can, or you pretend like all those other giant monster movies never happened and approach your subject with the sense of awe and terror that a 350 foot tall radioactive lizard would really inspire.  Both approaches make sense, but given that we already have Pacific Rim, I'm glad that Edwards' chose the path he did.  Because for me, despite its leaden script, despite its rote plot, that earns the new Godzilla its place at the table: I've never seen a film, perhaps excepting Monsters, that conveyed so determinedly the sense of teeny, tiny human beings facing off against a threat of plain unimaginable scale.

Still, that's really only a trick that you can pull off the once.  So Godzilla 2?  Maybe a bit more of the giant monsters punching each other.

7) Edge of Tomorrow

Edge of Tomorrow, you came so close to being the best Science Fiction movie of the year.  You were tremendous fun, you were smart, you were slick and shiny and exciting and you had some excellent action sequences, two great leads playing entertainingly against type, and getting past that whole "Groundhog Day meets Starship Troopers" thing you were surprisingly novel.  So why did you have to blow it all in the last twenty minutes, huh?  If ever there was a film that cried out to not have a traditional Hollywood action movie ending, with a traditional Hollywood idiotic last minute "twist", it was this one.

On a side note: it still sure as hell didn't deserve to flop.  As long as people keep not going to see films like this, Michael Bay is going to keep making Transformers movies.  Is that the world you want to live in?  Responsible film-goers, only you can save mankind.

6) Guardians of the Galaxy

There's not much to be added about how great Guardians of the Galaxy is, is there?  It won almost everyone over, critics and audiences alike, proved that Marvel can basically make films about whatever the hell characters they like and people will pay to see them - my long dreamed-of Moon Knight movie draws one step closer! - and made a sex symbol out of Andy Dwyer, which is just never going to stop being weird.

So why aren't I rating it higher?  Well, mostly for personal and nitpicking reasons, it has to be said.  I'm one of those people who think Star Wars was an entertaining popcorn movie that killed off the greatest period of Sci-fi film-making ever seen, so my affection for this sort of bubblegum space opera is always going to be a touch muted.  I find it all a bit low stakes by the end, and unnecessarily so; who would really have cared if, say, Xandar had been exploded?  I'm growing entirely bored with Marvel movies that end with either spaceships or helicarriers crashing into the ground and / or buildings; that is just not a versatile enough formula that you can use it to end every single movie.  And a strange criticism but one that I couldn't shake on a second viewing: there's nothing anywhere in the film as powerful as that gut punch of an opening sequence, and in my imagination there's a version of GotG that somehow manages to carry those emotional stakes through to its end, and it's a masterpiece for the ages.

But hey, let's end on a positive, shall we?  I can't think of another film this year with such a flawless opening quarter of an hour, and for sheer, unadulterated fun this was surely the highlight of 2014.

Right, that's it for Part 1.  Yeah, all of those words and we're still only at the half way point.  Can you tell I've over-thought this?  Check back in a couple of days for the final five...

* Actually I'd argue that X- Men Origins: Wolverine is an even worse film than The Last Stand, but hey, that's also now out of continuity as well, right?  Bonus points, Mr Singer!**

** Although presumably X-Men and X-Men 2 are also now defunct.  Aargh, time travel paradoxes!  Damn you, Singer, I think maybe.

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