Friday, 2 January 2015

Film Ramble: Top 10 Fantasy and Science Fiction Films of 2014 (Part 2)

Here we go, then, with the final five of my hopelessly long-winded top ten list of 2014's Fantasy and Science Fiction movies...

(You can find part one here.)

5) Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

What with this and The Hunger Games, it seems increasingly that how attached I get to a franchise is inversely related to how much I was looking forward to it in advance, because I'd never particularly been a devotee of the original Planet of the Apes series and now two movies in I can't wait to see where they take these prequels next.  Rise was a solid, surprisingly intelligent adult Sci-fi movie, and Dawn takes all of that and runs with it, in some distinctly interesting directions.

Because Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is basically a two hour movie about people (and people-like apes) trying to avoid conflict, and there's something fascinating in just how much that makes it unlike almost every summer blockbuster out there.  It's not a film that you spend eagerly anticipating the big action climax, it's a film where you dread its inevitability, because the minute the explosions and shooting and apes-riding-horses kicks off is the moment when decency, common sense and our species' ability to not wipe itself off the planet by being achingly stupid have all failed.  As such, it has plenty in common with The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Pt 1; but for me Dawn edges that film out by intentionally being about its subjects rather than forcedly discussing them because some studio exec decided it can't end for another year's time.

4) The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wait, this isn't a Fantasy and / or Science Fiction film, stop trying to sneak your filthy Art House movies onto the list, Tallerman! is what I imagine someone, somewhere saying.  But even if, as is far more likely, I'm only arguing this one with myself, nevertheless it's been puzzling me ever since I saw The Grand Budapest Hotel just where Wes Anderson's latest fits with my ideas of what genre movies are supposed to be.  And the conclusion I keep coming back to is that somewhere in the last decade, Anderson went from being a director of largely great, precious, over-directed movies about people talking and became the most interesting film fantasist working today.

It all began with The Life Aquatic, I think; that's the tipping point where Anderson's films stopped clearly belonging to any definable 'real world'.  But The Grand Budapest Hotel is the peak of Anderson's budding fantasist tendencies: it exists entirely in its own strange, tangential reality, an alternate Europe of Prisoner of Zenda-esque invented countries, larger than life characters and hotels that look like giant goddamn cakes.  That makes it a very specific kind of Fantasy for sure, and a kind that absolutely no one else seems interested in creating, but for me that only makes it that bit more exciting.

3) Captain America: The Winter Soldier

 As a huge fan of Ed Brubaker's already-legendary run on the comic, part of me had been looking forward to this film from the moment that the first Captain America was announced; and with that weight of expectation, the fact that The Winter Soldier didn't disappoint is just plain astonishing. 

One reason for that is surely how it treats its source material and subject with the utmost respect and intelligence.  More than any superhero movie I can think of, it feels like an adaptation of a particular arc, which is absolutely weird because it plays just as fast and loose with its source material as any other - yet in a way I can't quite put my finger on, The Winter Soldier nails the tone and characterization of Brubaker's run perfectly.  It certainly hews closely to the author's take on its protagonist, perhaps the most interesting interpretation of one of Marvel's most interesting and generally misunderstood heroes.  Captain America the character has been more about critiquing his nation than representing it for a long time now, and the script, not to mention Evans's nuanced performance, captures that spirit, of a man who stands for his country by representing it better than it itself does or can.  The outstanding fight choreography, the wonderful core cast, the film's success in giving them all time to shine without losing focus, and the way that The Winter Soldier casually upends the status quo of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe at a time when critics were beginning to grumble that such a thing was never going to happen are also definite bonuses.

2) Interstellar

Though a part of me can see exactly why Interstellar has been so divisive, I wonder if sometimes we genre fans don't get so caught up with what we want or expect that we miss what we're actually getting.  Interstellar has flaws aplenty, some of them gaping and undeniable and practically film-breaking, but it's also an epic, giant-budget, standalone Science-Fiction movie that at least nods in the direction of scientific rigor, (even if it does subsequently kick it into some kind of black hole / space library plot gimmick), and I for one was beginning to fear that I might go the rest of my life without seeing another one of those. 

Point being, I can certainly imagine better Sci-Fi films than Interstellar, and I can even imagine a film quite close to Interstellar that's better than what Nolan actually delivered, but neither of those facts detracts from how grateful I am that I got to spend three hours in a cinema watching the thing and being awed and entranced by its sheer scale, ambition and imagination.   Because judged on those terms - that is, on what it does, and does astonishingly - Interstellar is almost without equal.

1) Lucy

Even more so than Interstellar, I find it hard to blame anyone for criticizing Lucy.  It is without a doubt the dumbest smart movie, or perhaps the smartest dumb movie I saw all year, but either way it's both of those things, in some combination that has no right at all to work.

Its blurb on IMDB, in fact, sums this up nicely: "A woman, accidentally caught in a dark deal, turns the tables on her captors and transforms into a merciless warrior evolved beyond human logic."  "Beyond human logic" ...  yup, there's the rub.  Lucy does not care one jot about human logic.  It takes its thoroughly, blatantly silly premise - if we could just use all of our brains instead of a teeny bit of them we would have crazy super god powers! - and then runs with it as hard as it can, oblivious as its protagonist to the fact that reality and story-logic are busily exploding around it, like that football player in The Dark Knight Rises.

For this, I love it.  And the fact that in a great but nevertheless faintly disappointing year for genre film-making, in which so many promising movies were flawed to a greater or lesser degree by commercial logic, Lucy just goes for it, regardless of jarring tonal shifts or narrative logic or any other damn thing, makes it my favourite Science Fiction film of 2014.  If only more dumb movies were so smart.

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