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Is there a more instantly iconic cast in Hollywood?

I am pleased to report that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (I’ll refer to it simply as Vol. 2) is, as many of you have found out for yourselves over the past week, every bit as good and in some ways much better than even the first one. Vol. 1 was a great surprise and still the boldest movie Marvel has yet made. Vol. 2 doubles down on the world it created and the characters that inhabit it, losing the freshness a little (which is being overstated as a complaint) but managing to improve on those few significant weak spots the first one did have.

One of those is the way certain characters were shorted much of an arc as the plot took over the movie. In Vol. 2 this never happens and no character, and there are so fucking many of them, gets shorted. They all have satisfying arcs, even Kraglin (Sean Gunn), wisely depending on interactions with each other. For people who like Marvel movies and fans of The Fast and the Furious franchise, this will feel familiar. It’s in pairings, parallels and polar opposites, that juggling so many characters and arcs becomes possible. Vol. 2 pulls this off with aplomb and manages to weave through tonal shifts, some of which are pretty shocking and risky. A stronger commitment to the sadness and loss hinted at in Vol. 1 is also demonstrated here, giving this goofy space movie an emotional core that is hard to find even in serious dramas. If I could compare that to something, it’d be a Pixar movie, where they definitely understand that the juxtaposition of light heartedness, humour, and fun against deeper, darker, and unresolved feelings provides a strong base for engaging drama and characterization. Not only this, but James Gunn managed to infuse this one with some pretty heavy existential and philosophical weight, which I’ll get to later on. I didn’t expect that.

All the way back when testing revealed that Vol. 2 was the MCU’s first movie that scored 100s (whatever that means), the hype has been real. There’s already a pretty misguided mini-backlash against this movie, fixated on gags that don’t quite land or the way the second act dismisses the overarching plot in favor of briefly becoming a shaggy hangout movie, but this stuff seems nitpicky to me. At the same time, I totally understand just how hard it is to deal with a movie as anticipated and hyped up as this one was. Your mind always wants to find that one thing wrong with it, so I take these nitpicks as a great sign personally. If the worst someone can say is that the space fruit ripeness joke feels a little forced then this is one helluva movie, right? It so is. Read the rest of this entry »

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I usually like to try and find some theme that applies to the best and worst movies of the year. It’s always an interesting challenge, and meant more as a focusing tool than as some rule that the movies released in a given year magically adhere to. Framing is helpful when discussing fundamentally subjective things, in other words.

If the worst movies of 2014 shared a common theme, it was probably a lack of effort. If the best movies of 2014 share a common theme, it’s the presence and ultimate validation of effort. This is a year when the very best movies were fun, compelling, cathartic, and ultimately entertaining because the people who made them gave a shit enough to really go for it.

Disney is becoming a titan in entertainment all over again, showing up on my Top 15 lists more and more every year, perhaps owing most of that to giving a shit. 2014 has also been a year full of great genre films, especially in science fiction. For every bad movie trying to cash in on the pervasive nature of genre in contemporary entertainment, there have been two or three examples where cashing in felt like a distant priority and the drive to tell good stories took precedence.

You might also note the number of sequels on this list. I think it’s about time we did away with the time-honored but recently less accurate notion that sequels are usually either just bad, or at best worse than the “first one”. I think those days are over, as the penchant toward franchising fictional sandboxes has led, in many cases, to high quality works. For every Transformers 4 or The Hobbit 3, there are two or three amazingly strong sequels.

I didn’t do as many reviews this year, but I saw just as many movies as ever. Hopefully in 2015, I’ll have more time and more focus and be able to write way too many words about way too many movies. Please check out last year‘s list if you’re curious, and enjoy this year’s!

The usual disclaimer:

I acknowledge that this is a subjective list. Trying to objectively compare the quality of any of these movies, one to the next, is impossible. It’s apples and oranges. You can like one move more than another easily enough, but it’s far more difficult to make a case for why one is better whether you like it more or not. For me, writing film criticism has most often been about trying to get at those qualitative things that exist in spite of your preferences, it’s about trying to objective in an arena that is usually assumed to be subjective. It’s about not conflating what I like with what is good, to the fullest extent possible. My Top 15 lists are not about these things. They are about ranking my favorite movies, about summarizing the year, and about taking stock.

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What a bunch of a-holes.

This is the best Marvel movie. It’s funny how each has been better than the last. It’s amazing that you can actually subcategorize each one to say what they’re best at, because it isn’t simply a matter of hierarchy. Each of these movies is after something else. This is why The Avengers can be the best out and out superhero movie and The Winter Soldier can be the best proof of concept that Marvel movies can and should be genre movies alongside being superhero movies. But as a complete, self-contained whole, Guardians of the Galaxy is by far the best. It’s no contest.

But why is Guardians the best? Because it’s got it all. It’s fun, exciting, action-packed, heartfelt, and so well executed that you get that awkward feeling about other big budget movies where you sort of want to pat them on the head for trying. Guardians makes being a blockbuster look easy. Maybe it’s the love affair with the 80’s that James Gunn (writer and director) infuses in the movie. The 80’s was the time of the fun, high concept blockbuster with heart. The 80’s was the time of Star Wars and of Steven Spielberg, really.

And, well, Guardians has Spielberg and Star Wars beat too. Hyperbole? Maybe. But if you’ve seen this movie, you’re probably thinking hard about whether that claim has some merit. Especially these days. If you haven’t, you’re probably shaking your head. Go see Guardians. Don’t read this review until you have, because I’ve got to gush. I mean it when I say this is a definitive blockbuster movie. Every now and then, a movie comes along that makes you believe in the awe and spectacle possible if more filmmakers and studios put real love into their creations.  This kind of shit is the reason blockbusters exist at all. How wonderful, then, that it pays the debt it owes to Star Wars and Indiana Jones by surpassing them? It is the bastard child, the space-faring orphan, of the precious movies that influenced its creators and us. All parents exist for their children to surpass them and that’s why it’s beautiful when they do.

THINGS ABOUT TO GET SPOILERY IN HERE.

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Thor is still ultimately about these two fellas.

A little over two years ago, I wrote a positive review for Thor fueled mostly by very pleasant surprise that they dared so much, let alone accomplished anything by it. Thor is probably one of the weaker stand-alone Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films, but it was elevated by one of the better casts and a functional emotional story of a type for which I have a confirmed soft spot. What held it back was its smallness, its breeziness, and a certain lack of conviction that kept it from fully owning its cosmic scale.

Thor: The Dark World succeeds its predecessor in every way it faltered. Not only a bigger and better film in terms of spectacle, it maintains the emotional narrative and strong sense of familial drama that drove the first film and has helped make Loki (Tom Hiddleston) the best Marvel villain and one of the greatest film baddies of this era. Rather than breaking from its lesser roots, The Dark World returns to them and builds on them, crafting a science-fiction fantasy film that is the envy of all other science fiction fantasy films (though there aren’t many of them) since probably the last good Star Wars. It is so audaciously, apologetically a movie of ridiculously huge ideas and creatures and characters, that anyone who grew up on Final Fantasy and Masters of the Universe, let alone the comics, will feel like it was made for them.

There’s also that it’s one of the funniest, funnest movies of 2013. Thor: The Dark World in no way felt like a movie that should be as out-and-out entertaining as it is, going in, but I laughed my ass off. It may even be funnier than The Avengers. One might have fairly expected a greater degree of verisimilitude with Alan Taylor directing (he did a lot with limited resources on Game of Thrones) but I don’t know that anyone expected him to have such a sharp ear for the comedic inside the dramatic, or the cosmic. I would not have envied the job of trying to make some of the stuff in The Dark World work on the straight, let alone trying to make it amusing without undermining it. Here, that is the accomplishment. It also paves the way for the crazier, bigger world of the MCU’s next phase of development, a world wherein we’ll be connecting the grounded (ish) realities of the Phase 1 films and The Avengers with things like talking trees, Space Jim Jarmusch, and fucking Rocket Raccoon. Because yes, sportsfans, part of Thor: The Dark World‘s purpose is to prepare audiences for that big step upward and outward, to a place where we can receive Guardians of the Galaxy with only the good kind of head-scratching.

The Marvel films make it an exciting time for moviegoers and superhero fans. Thor: The Dark World makes it an exciting time for fantasy fans, and even the ones who don’t care about Thor or Marvel should really give this a look.

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