Heat Vision's Top 10 Films of 2014

The year's high points in comic book movies, original sci-fi, studio films and indie gems
20th Century Fox
'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes'

While awards pundits debate and complain about how 2015 produced few truly great movies and few clear frontrunners, that same cannot be said about the genre-fanboy fare that graced the screens. This year saw high points in comic book movies, original sci-fi, studio films and indie gems. The 1980s are often said to be the great decade of sci-fi and genre movies that laid the geek seeds for future filmmaking generations. Well, 2014 could easily find itself tucked away in that decade as it felt very much like 1980-something.

10) Jodorowsky’s Dune

“Movies have heart. Boom boom. Boom boom” says cult filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky in his thick accent in this documentary recounting his ill-fated adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic Dune back in the 1970s. And the heart of this doc resided in its great subject, who is not only lively but also slightly crazy, like any good artist. Man, what dreams could have come: a movie that would have combined the acting talents of Salvador Dali, Mick Jagger, Orson Wells and Gloria Swanson, designs by H.R. Giger, and special effects by Dan O’Bannon. While the movie never happened, its influence propelled forward, and movies like Alien would not have been created without it.

9) The Guest

Dan Stevens glowed in Adam Wingard’s slightly ludicrous but incredibly fun horror-action movie that harkened to the lower-budget genre movies of the 1980s. Blue-eyed Stevens, playing a man claiming to be the friend of dead soldier, oozed charisma, his killer smile drawing you in just like it draws in the family that makes the mistake of taking him in. The movie performed a cool little trick: It made you root for the psycho, fall for him and cheer him on and want to be cool like him, even as you want the family to snap out of it and stop him. The hero and villain were one and the same here. And like the classic muse director-actor pairings such as John Carpenter and Kurt Russell or James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger, you want more Wingard-Stevens.

8)  Edge of Tomorrow/X-Men: Days of Future Past (tie)

Two time-travel movies that used their conceits to opposite effects. Tomorrow was the great Tom Cruise movie that most audiences didn’t go see, in the process depriving themselves of some vintage sci-fi cinema: a coward forced to fight (and die, and fight and die) aliens in a time loop a la Groundhog Day. Future Past brought the casts of the Bryan Singer X-Men movies and the Matthew Vaughn movie together for a time-spanning adventure to fix the future. Tomorrow was inventive with an undercurrent of dark humor (even though in the end it faltered under its own weight). Future Past was a quintessential Marvel Comics comic bought to the screen, with melodramatic situations, character angst, and set pieces to remember (the Quicksilver sequence is easily one the best of the year). There’s no real character arcs to speak of, but the illusion of characters changing, something comics do really well, was there. And both had redemptive qualities: Tomorrow redeemed Cruise while Future Past redeemed X-Men: The Last Stand and brought a satisfying conclusion to Singer’s core movies.

7) The Raid 2

Simply put, the best action movie of the year. Gareth Evans burst onto the scene with The Raid, the film that introduced the Indonesian martial art silat to the geek masses. It told of a group of police officers stuck in a corrupt tenement and fighting to get out over the course of one night. With Raid 2, Evans expanded the canvas: Over the course of years, we see the survivor from the first movie, policeman Rama, going undercover and working his way up through the ranks in the Indonesian gangland scene. It’s not just the story that gets bigger. Evans, freed from the constraints of one building (not that the inventive filmmaker had many to begin with), takes the action to prison yards, subways cars, restaurants, and yes, even a bathroom stall. Gunplay, hand-to-hand martial arts, street fights, knife fights, car chases — all seen in beautifully composed cinematic g(l)ory.

6) How to Train Your Dragon 2

Yes, the thrill of discovery and the high cute factor wasn’t off the charts as it was in the 2010 movie, but writer and director Dean DeBlois went Empire Strikes Back on us with a more mature and deeper fantasy adventure movie that organically expanded the mythology of the first movie. The dragon rider Hiccup is now older, discovering parental secrets as well as experiencing personal tragedy and personal responsibility. The flying sequences still kicked, the animation was unbeatable, and the dragons, quite frankly, cool as ice.

5) Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Marvel tackled some big and timely ideas in Winter Soldier —  government surveillance, terrorism — as it turned its comic book franchise into a paranoid political thriller. It even brought in Robert Redford, the poster child for these kinds of conspiracy movies back in the 1970s, for added gravitas. But one of the movie’s strengths was having Chris Evans play Captain America as a straight-up idealistic soldier, with his clear 1940s moral compass intact, tested but never turned into some post-ironic or sarcastic, wisecracking hero. It made him all the more relatable and easy to root for when friends and colleagues evilly turned on him.

4) The Lego Movie

What could have easily been a big-budget toy commercial was, in the hands of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, instead turned into a movie that tackled creativity and conformity. The visual gags come fast and furious, there’s a segue into stonerville, and it featured the best big-screen Batman since The Dark Knight. And just when you thought it couldn’t go any crazier, the animated movie went live-action and showed the unexpected beating heart underneath it all.

3) Snowpiercer

In the hands of South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho, what was essentially a prison-escape conceit got the big-idea treatment in this stylized sci-fi actioner. On a frozen, post-apocalyptic Earth, the only survivors are housed on a train that continually speeds around the planet, with each train car, from front to back, representing a different class, highest to lowest. Chris Evans, giving one of his best performances, leads the back-to-front revolution, facing off against a maniacal Tilda Swinton. The movie had a lot of say about humankind and suffering, was violent and downbeat, but was also off-kilter enough to be endlessly compelling.

2) Guardians of the Galaxy

There was no better time, no more fun time, to be had at the movies than with this Marvel blockbuster. Harking back to the many early and sometimes wacky sci-fi features that came after Star Wars in the late 1970 and early 1980s, Marvel trotted out the most memorable characters of the year with Star-Lord, Drax the Destroyer, Gamora, Groot and Rocket Raccoon. Chris Pratt brought a Han Solo/Jack Burton charisma and became a star in the hands of director James Gunn, whose quirky B-movie sensibility were just what was needed here.

1) Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Reboots and sequels have (usually well-deserved) reputations of being nothing more than monkey dung flung at walls. But from the opening moments of this film, you were drawn in to a society of apes and made part of it in such a complete fashion that you forget that you are watching CG and motion-capture creations. That was the power of this film, which accomplished world-building like no other this year. The well-written and well-acted Shakespearean tragedy that put the apes on a collision course with humans, with the wise ape leader Caesar (Andy Serkis) powerless to stop it, were just beautiful extras. Matt Reeves could be the most intelligent and thoughtful director working in franchises today.

Honorable mentions:

Big Hero 6, which included the world I most wanted to visit and the character I most wanted to hug, and Interstellar, which was flawed, frustrating, bold, demanded multiple viewings ... you know, ask me in five years.

Read more Todd McCarthy's 10 Best Films of 2014

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