MovieBuff’s Top Eleven Non-2014 First Viewings of 2014

Posted: January 17, 2015 by moviebuff801 in Lists

By: Michael “MovieBuff801” Dennos

For the past two years, like my colleague PG Cooper, I’ve made lists of the best films I watched for the first time over the past year that weren’t brand new releases in that same year. 2014 introduced me to quite a few classics that had been on my radar for a while, along with a few more recent ones that were just as great. Here now are the eleven best first-time film viewings I had last year that weren’t 2014 releases. Why eleven?  Well, to quote The Nostalgia Critic: “To go one step beyond.”  Feel free to leave comments, as always.

  1. A Clockwork Orange (Watched on November 5th)

As I watched A Clockwork Orange, I found it to be pretty brilliant for the first 2/3rds, but then it sort of lost me in the final act where the plot seemed to venture over in the coincidental territory a bit too much for me. Maybe it was supposed to show that there was hardly a person in the city whom Alex hadn’t wronged, but I dunno, him running into past victims or enemies one right after the other once he was released made me go, “Really?” However, upon reflection, I’ve realized how Stanley Kubrick was using that portion as the ultimate form of poetic justice, and while I’ve come to accept that, I’m not sure if it works any better for me now. Other than that, everything else about A Clockwork Orange is pretty tremendous. Malcolm McDowell gives a riveting performance as Alex, tapping into the realms of sociopathic behavior with pretty terrifying ease. He’s clearly one of the main driving forces of the film, and he’s fantastic. I’m not sure if I was ever sympathetic towards Alex once he was cured, but McDowell at least sells that transformation fairly easily. Stanley Kubrick’s direction also brings a lot to the film too, of course. The way he films much of it adds to the whole aura of bizarreness and the off-kilter nature of the story. He even finds little ways of working in some black humor here and there. With most of Kubrick’s work I’ve seen thus far, save for a few, my most common complaint is that his films feel emotionally cold, and while I would probably say the same for A Clockwork Orange, the craft here is so strong that it ultimately doesn’t matter much this time.

  1. M.A.S.H. (Watched on September 7th)

Robert Altman’s M.A.S.H. isn’t a movie driven by plot, but by characters, and these characters and their dynamics with one another are definitely enough to hang a film around. Altman’s intention here is to capture the day-to-day aspects of a soldier’s life when they aren’t on the battlefield, not unlike Sam Mendes’ Jarhead, and he captures it in a really unique way, considering the genre: through humor; and very good humor, at that. The fact that a sitcom was borne from this film should’ve given me a basic idea of what tone to expect, but still, I was surprised (and pleasantly so) to discover just how funny this movie is. And the best part is, it never has to try too hard at all to get laughs, because the situations portrayed are so outrageous given the setting, that you already laugh at some of the absurdity, but then you laugh because the film does a pretty excellent job of sustaining the humor. That can be owed in large part to the performances from actors such as Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould, who sell the absurdity with real conviction. It’s all smartly silly stuff, to sum it up. The big football game that basically serves as the film’s climax is proof enough of that.

A little bit after seeing M.A.S.H., I watched Nashville, and while I wasn’t as crazy about that film as I was this one, I’m nonetheless very interested to see what else Robert Altman has to offer.

  1. Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (Watched on June 30th)

Apocalypse Now is a triumphant masterpiece, not only one of the best war films ever made, but one of the best ever made, period. It’s also the film that topped this very list last year. So naturally, I felt inclined to check out Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, the documentary which details the exhaustive and hellish experience in and of itself it took to get the film made in the first place.

This is a fascinating documentary, as captivating as any straightforward dramatic piece. Before watching it, I’d heard most of the stories of the troubled production of Apocalypse Now, but seeing those events and problems play out is another experience entirely. The use of interviews and recorded conversations and behind-the-scenes footage comes together in a very fluid way, and considering everything that director Francis Ford Coppola had to endure in order to get the film finished, it’s a miracle he ever managed to do so in the first place. But I’m incredibly thankful he did, because all this hell he went through was certainly worth it in the end. The documentary is also effective in giving a clear portrait of Coppola’s state of mind during production, and it really does make you sympathetic for the guy, even when you know he ended up succeeding finally.

A great documentary, when all’s said and done.

  1. Platoon (Watched on December 14th)

While falling just short, in my opinion, of true war genre classics like Saving Private Ryan, Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket, Platoon is nonetheless a legitimately excellent achievement on Oliver Stone’s part. The incorporation of standard war movie aspects in the first fifteen to twenty minutes honestly felt more arbitrary than anything else, but from the first gritty attack scene and on, this film adopts a pace and intensity that makes it very riveting. All of the various environments, types of character interactions and the fighting itself have this blunt rawness to them that lends the movie its feeling of authenticity, and that’s both not surprising and appropriate, seeing as how Stone drew from his own personal experiences in the Vietnam War while writing the script. I really enjoyed the representation of two kinds of experienced soldiers in the characters played by Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe, especially since a lott of the film’s most interesting dramatic aspects involve the two of them and their philosophies concerning war. Charlie Sheen turns in a rock-solid performance as well, and there’s enough humanity present in him to counterbalance all the brutality we bear witness to throughout. But something I find most interesting about Platoon, though, is that in spite of the presence of thoughts and ideas concerning the nature of war, there’s still a straightforward quality to everything meant to capture what it was really like in Vietnam, and from what I can tell, Oliver Stone sure as hell succeeded with that. I may not have personally found it as emotionally resonant as the earlier films I mentioned, but there’s no denying the effectiveness of this movie.

And with my viewing of Platoon, thus ended my quest to watch all of the AFI Top 100 Films — from both the 1998 and 2007 editions of the list. It feels good to finally be finished with that.

  1. Inside Llewyn Davis (Watched on August 4th)

The Coen Brothers always make absurdly strange or fascinating movies either way, and Inside Llewyn Davis is one of their most absurdly and strangely fascinating ones. It’s also not a film for everyone. Case in point, I watched this with my Mom, who’s relatively unaccustomed to the Coens’ sense of humor, and the first words out of her mouth when it was over were, “I HATED this movie!” It’s true, Inside Llewyn Davis feels like a film that only fans or at least people very familiar with the Coen Brothers and their style can fully appreciate, and while my Mom may have hated it, I found myself more and more fascinated by this movie as it went on, and despite its overall “down tone”, I really enjoyed it.

That trademark Coen sense of humor is here in spades, with many weirdly funny and just downright strange moments that only they can deliver. Oscar Isaac is great, as are all the other actors. John Goodman in particular has a strong, small role. I’m not entirely sure if I was rooting for Llewyn or not, but I DO know I was always interested to see where his journey would take him next. Actually, I felt more sympathy for the cat(s), especially since my family has an orange cat that looks almost exactly like the one(s) in this movie. Also, the movie is shot wonderfully by the great Bruno Delbonnel. And as someone not into folk music at all, I have to say that the songs in this film were pretty damn good.

Inside Llewyn Davis is another great offering from the Coens, and also one that stayed with me and made me think about it after it was over, mainly due to its storytelling structure. For all those who’ve seen it, you know what I mean.

  1. The Lives of Others (Watched on April 13th)

The Lives of Others is a German period drama/thriller dealing with the monitoring of East Berlin by Stasi agents that occurred during the 80’s. Specifically, the film is centered on a seasoned agent named Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Muhe), who’s assigned to spy on a playwright named Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koche), who’s carrying on a relationship with one of his actresses (Martina Gedeck). But Weisler soon not only comes to be fascinated by these people’s lives, but also discovers there may be another reason behind them being monitored.

Overall, this is a really engrossing, atmospheric and well-made film. Director/writer Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck does a fantastic job of putting you right in the middle of both the time period and the story. He effectively builds senses of paranoia and suspense not through the typical ways, but rather in how he lets his characters interact with each other and how they react to all these various situations. The Lives of Others, I thought, was actually pretty comparable to a Hitchcock film in quite a few ways, and if that’s what von Donnersmarck was going for, then he certainly pulled it off. The acting is all uniformly strong, too. The performances themselves really do complement the tone and atmosphere while still being quietly powerful. Plus, the story itself really is fascinating, both in the way the plot develops and in the dynamics that develop between the main characters. The more I let this film marinate after I watched it, the more I loved it.

  1. 12 Angry Men (Watched on March 6th)

12 Angry Men details the deliberation of a jury on a case that seems open-and-shut, but which one of the jurors believes warrants debate. For a film with such a simple premise, though, 12 Angry Men soars. I had already seen the made-for-cable remake from the late 90’s, so I generally knew what to expect, but I was still majorly impressed by this film. To start with, Henry Fonda is terrific as Juror #8. He captures the moral quandaries of the man extraordinarily well and succeeds in being convincing in his arguments. The interplay between him and the rest of the jurors is also very captivating to see play out, and the beauty there is each person gets their moment to shine, and each character feels distinct rather than one or two feeling more developed than the others. Plus, their conversations aren’t strictly limited to the case. The script does a pretty great job of weaving in a few issues such as racism and bias of any kind, which gives the material more meat. Director Sidney Lumet doesn’t really employ overly impressive visual treats in filming this story, but then again, he doesn’t really NEED to because the material is more than able to stand on its own. But in thinking back on it, I do think Lumet was able to subtly create a sense of claustrophobia as things went on, and that was really appropriate. All in all, 12 Angry Men is a first-rate film in every sense of the word and I’m glad I finally got around to seeing it.

  1. The Deer Hunter (Watched on November 29th)

The Deer Hunter is such tour de force, unrelenting filmmaking, yet sheer raw power comes not from aggressive or fancy direction, but just the opposite: from director Michael Cimino’s blunt and confident storytelling that delivers the film’s effectiveness like a blow to the gut. This film runs just slightly over three hours and devotes much of the first sixty to seventy minutes to a Russian orthodox wedding and its buildup and aftermath, yet there’s not one boring moment to be found anywhere in the 183-minute running time. The real beauty of that first hour, though, is that it establishes its main characters in such a vivid way that when the transition to the horrors of Vietnam occurs, seeing the toll that it takes on their lives from there on out has as much impact as possible. During that whole Vietnam sequence is what has to be one of the best and most tense scenes ever put on film: the Russian roulette scene. Robert De Niro gives what has to be one of the best performances of his career as Michael, an already-tough guy whose experiences hollow him out and Christopher Walken is equally tremendous as Nick, who goes through the same transformation, but with much more tragic connotations. The final scenes between those two are riveting and heartbreaking at the same time. We’ve obviously seen many great war films by now, but The Deer Hunter distinguishes itself by dealing more with the aftereffects of the violence rather than the violence itself. It’s an incredible piece of filmmaking and one not to be missed if you haven’t seen it already.

  1. Disconnect (Watched on April 7th)

Wow. After the “Crash with computers” comparisons this movie had received, I wasn’t sure what to expect from Disconnect. But what I got was a film SO much more powerful and effective than Crash, and smarter, too. The whole “Internet is bad” theme is only one of the many others being explored here, with trust, guilt, responsibility and grief just as much at the forefront. Plus, these characters feel real; they aren’t archetypes, but rather human beings whose personalities and flaws come through in their actions. So that means this is also an impeccably acted film, too; everybody shines, with not a bad performance in the bunch and considering that this is an ensemble piece, that’s even more impressive. Jason Bateman in particular gives what has to be his best performance to date. Each one of these different storylines are engaging. They all deal with heavy stuff, but Disconnect never feels like it’s being emotionally manipulative – just honest. Henry Alex Rubin’s direction has a lot to do with that, because he puts you right in the middle of these situations with unapologetic authenticity. In fact, this whole movie just has a hypnotic quality about it that makes it hard to look away from. Disconnect is smart, powerful and engaging, and a film that’s highly worth recommending.

  1. The Sweet Hereafter (Watched on July 25th)

A small town community is still reeling in the wake of a devastating bus accident that claimed the lives of all but one of the local children. Meanwhile, a lawyer (Ian Holm) comes into the town, claiming that the community can sue for damages on the grounds that the bus was faulty, and he’s willing to represent them in court. Such a set-up is already a tricky, fragile thing for The Sweet Hereafter — not because of just the heavy subject matter, but for the possibility of it falling into the trap of being overly sentimental. Well, not only is this film a genuinely powerful and moving experience that feels completely honest and real, it’s just a great film, period. To me, the thing that stood out the most about The Sweet Hereafter, and the thing which gave it so much weight in the first place, is its decision of story structure. More conventional filmmakers most likely would’ve felt the need to put the bus accident somewhere in the first twenty-five minutes and then just go from there, but writer/director Atom Egoyan is able to make the story much more compelling and the drama much more impactful by jumping around in the timeframe, and showing the accident only after we’ve gotten a vivid sense of these characters and their relationships with one another; like I said, this approach makes the accident as much of a tragedy for us the viewers as it is for the characters. Building off that, the resulting emotions are powerful without feeling manipulative, making for a number of great scenes. As a result, the performances are all incredibly moving, Sarah Polley’s, Bruce Greenwood’s and Ian Holm’s in particular. Also, without giving much away, I thought the film ended on a very natural and honest note. The Sweet Hereafter is a powerhouse of a film, the rare kind that’s both moving and hypnotizing, and never strikes a false note.

  1. The Exorcist (Watched on October 22nd)

Up until this past year, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist had been one of my biggest “movie blind spots.” On average, I’m not THAT into the horror genre, and this film has a reputation of being “the scariest film of all-time.” I guess you could say I’ve been intimidated by it for the longest time, especially with my younger self being very creeped out by the brief glimpses of it I’d seen here and there. But now, I’ve gotten more horror under my belt and have become more accustomed, more or less, to the tricks of the trade when it comes to the genre, so I finally decided to plunge into this heavily-hailed classic.

Would I call The Exorcist “scary,” per say? Not really, but it IS still incredibly creepy and atmospheric, to the point where throughout its 2-hour running time, I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the screen. This is owed to the skillful direction by William Friedkin, along with the gripping screenplay by William Peter Blatty, adapted from his own novel. Together, these two build up a sense of dread that becomes more and more pronounced with every passing scene, but at the same time, they also use the build-up to properly establish the main characters and ensure that they feel like real people rather than pawns on a chessboard. By the time Regan’s possession fully takes over, along with her mother finally committing to the idea of an exorcism, there’s a real vested interest we have in these characters, and it makes the film all the more gripping. Friedkin’s style is also a factor there, because while I personally was never outright scared by the film, there were still many scenes and aspects that nonetheless managed to get under my skin and unsettle me. The scenes that center on Regan’s possession are especially that way, and there’s a certain frankness in the way Friedkin presents it all that adds to the effectiveness. Of course, the acting from Linda Blair, Ellen Burstyn, Jason Miller and Max von Sydow is excellent, and again, it’s their sense of realism that lends the film a lot of its power.

I’m extremely glad I finally saw The Exorcist, and I can indeed agree with its place as not only one of the best horror films ever, but also one of the best films ever made, period.

  1. ianthecool says:

    Nice choices. Some of my favourites are in this list, like Mash and Exorcist.

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