So, what's a 3 1/2 star movie to me? It's a movie that just misses being a superlative experience, comes really close to being a movie I'll tell you that you really MUST see. There are flaws, of course, but not particularly serious or crippling ones. I still recommend the movie. If a 4 star movie is a movie you HAVE to see, a 3 1/2 star movie is a movie you SHOULD see. And here are the movies that fall under that category that I saw in 2014.
Very Good – “You should see it.” (29) – Recommended
Bears (2014) – Alastair Fothergill, Keith Scholey - *** ½
Disney documentary follows a mother bear and her cubs over a difficult year of life; surprisingly bracing and beautifully filmed, which allows the viewer to overlook the occasional sappiness.
Beauty is Embarrassing (2012) – Neil Berkeley - *** ½
Documentary about gonzo, iconoclastic artist Wayne White is a tribute to living your life with freedom, no matter how ridiculous that freedom may look to others.
Before Sunrise (1995) – Richard Linklater - *** ½
Engaging film follows Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy as they meander through Vienna on a single night; has dead periods, but mostly sharply written and characterized.
Blue Jasmine (2013) – Woody Allen - *** ½
Devastating lead performance from Cate Blanchett anchors a fine ensemble in this tragedy of a wealthy woman brought low. Occasional clichés can’t really diminish the film’s ultimate impact.
The Book of Life (2014) – Jorge Gutierrez – *** ½
Gorgeously animated tale of a love triangle in Mexico is surprisingly well characterized and only occasionally too silly; mostly, it’s an eye-popping marvel.
The Boxtrolls (2014) – Graham Annable, Anthony Stacchi - *** ½
Wonderfully, grotesquely animated tale of strange creatures and the small boy they take in is often hilariously funny, if occasionally just too gross. Also features Ben Kingsley’s best performance in a decade or more.
Dead Ringers (1988) – David Cronenberg - *** ½
Jeremy Irons plays twin gynecologists in a tour de force performance in this tale of sex, obsession and love; a shame the film isn’t really going anywhere and has no idea how to end.
Dirty Dancing (1987) – Emile Ardolino - *** ½
Surprisingly dark, very well-acted musical only gives in to cheese at the very end; the film raises some thorny, character based problems, but then resolves everything with a musical number.
Edge of Tomorrow (2014) – Doug Liman - *** ½
Witty, action-packed sci-fi film delivers on the great premise of a soldier that keeps reliving the day that he dies, but it sadly falters at the end, slipping into cliché and giving the audience a frustrating cheat ending.
Facing Fear (2013) – Jason Cohen - *** ½
Short documentary tells the story of a crime and the chance meeting of perpetrator and victim years later; clichéd story, but it’s message of forgiveness and redemption is undeniably moving.
Feral (2012) – Daniel Sousa - *** ½
Eye-popping, strange, wordless animated short that follows the life of a young boy abandoned in the woods. Unique and visionary in its visual style, if clichéd in its story.
Finding Vivian Maier (2013) – John Maloof, Charlie Siskel - *** ½
Intriguing documentary about a nanny that led a secret life as a brilliant street photographer is slightly undercut at the end by too much moralizing.
Gone Girl (2014) – David Fincher - *** ½
Superlative as a methodical thriller, this story of marriage dysfunction suffers from mixed messaging and occasionally spotty acting.
The Grapes of Wrath (1940) – John Ford - *** ½
The disappointing final act attempts to mitigate the dark despair of the original novel, but the body of the film remains bracing and wonderfully acted.
A Hard Day’s Night (1964) – Richard Lester - *** ½
There’s a certain tone of British humor here that I simply found too silly, but the film remains a witty and wistful look at fame through the lens of the Beatles; great soundtrack, obviously.
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014) – Peter Jackson - *** ½
Jackson ends his fantasy trilogy on a high note, though it still runs too long and features plenty of non-compelling characters; but the central story of Thorin and Bilbo is well and emotionally told.
Locke (2013) – Steven Knight- *** ½
Tom Hardy is brilliant as a desperate man on a journey; the entire film takes place in real time as he drives toward London and an uncertain fate; the film’s ending leaves a lot to be desired, but the film is riveting and a mostly successful experiment in visual storytelling.
Lone Survivor (2013) – Peter Berg - *** ½
Visceral story of soldiers in Afghanistan has a great cast and wonderful, taut direction from Peter Berg. It fails to bring the story home with as much power as the rest of the film has, but that’s a minor complaint.
The Maze Runner (2014) – Wes Ball - *** ½
A group of young men awaken in a giant maze with no idea who put them there or why in this suspenseful, often very intense dystopia. Heart-pounding and tense, but lazily characterized.
Medora (2013) – Andrew Cohn, Davy Rothbart - *** ½
Grindingly bleak documentary examines poverty and hopelessness in a small town. A bit too long, but definitely effective and devastating.
My Bloody Valentine (1981) – George Mihalka - *** ½
Somewhat cheesy slasher film manages to deliver genuine scares, some genuinely shocking and horrifying imagery as a pick-ax wielding miner terrorizes a small town in February.
Non-Stop (2014) – Jaume Collet-Serra - *** ½
Wonderful ensemble support Liam Neeson in this surprisingly fantastic mystery-thriller; plenty of twists and turns as Neeson’s air marshal confronts a murderer on a transatlantic flight.
The Nutty Professor (1963) – Jerry Lewis - *** ½
Lewis is terrific in this surprisingly deep examination of personas and the masks we wear in life; the film is so thought-provoking that it’s a shame so much of the comedy is dreadful.
Oculus (2013) – Mike Flanagan - *** ½
Engaging horror film about a haunted mirror features great atmosphere, some very tense moments and a solid cast playing well-written characters; the last twenty minutes get increasingly ridiculous, but taken as a whole the film is quite good.
Saving Mr. Banks (2013) – John Lee Hancock - *** ½
Exquisite acting from all concerned, even Colin Farrell (maybe career best) mostly keep this warm-hearted movie about the making of Mary Poppins from falling into sentimentality.
Synecdoche, New York (2008) – Charlie Kaufman - *** ½
Strange, magical-realist film about a theatrical producer, ably played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, and his attempt to stage an exact replica of his own life is hilarious, challenging, and heartbreaking. It’s also occasionally too obtuse, but most of the time, it works.
That Wasn’t Me (2012) – Esteban Crespo - *** ½
Disturbing, violent short film about child soldiers in Africa; it’s rote, but the performances and the direction create a chaotic, intense atmosphere that overcomes the clichés.
Thor: The Dark World (2013) – Alan Taylor - *** ½
The Thor-Loki-Odin dynamic remains the most fascinating character drama in the Marvel universe and, while the villains leave something to be desired and the Aether is a strange, uncompelling MacGuffin, the film has energy, real wit and interesting character dynamics.
The Trip to Italy (2014) – Michael Winterbottom - *** ½
Mockumentary follows comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon around Italy as they visit landmarks, eat at fancy restaurants, get hugely on each other’s nerves and face the existential emptiness of life. Yes, it’s a comedy and a very, very funny one. The film is a bit long and some subplots could be excised painlessly, but it’s striking and unique in its blend of silly comedy and cynical weariness.
Room on the Broom (2012) – Max Lang, Jan Lachauer - *** ½
Half-hour animated film from Britain about a lonely witch that finds herself gathering a strange coterie of fellow travelers; warm-hearted, witty and with a moral about the strengths of families that are more than a little odd, it’s a sweet, but never sappy, fable.