Dec. 28th, 2014

It's the end of the year, and once again I can't resist doing a movie wrap-up. Below I'll list the ten best science fiction and fantasy films I saw in 2014. The top five will probably end up on my Hugo ballot. I say "probably" because there are a few well-reviewed movies from last year that I haven't yet seen. They are:

Only Lovers Left Alive (I'll see that in another week, as I've set the DVR to record when Starz airs it on January 5th.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya
Song of the Sea

The most prominent titles that miss the cut are:

The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies. I didn't like the first Hobbit movie, and haven't yet read anything that convinces me the other two are worth paying to see.

Interstellar: There's some truly beautiful visual work here, and some big ideas. Sadly, it felt crowded, clunky, and overlong, and had several moments where I didn't believe the character actions and reactions.

Edge of Tomorrow: It's a great example of what it is. What it is is a video game, complete with infinite replays.

Godzilla: The Godzilla fans I saw it with loved it. It wasn't made for me.

And I recommend The Wind Rises, but it's historical biography, not science fiction or fantasy

On to the list:

10: X-Men: Days of Future Past. A good, solid superhero movie, with a fine cast. The big battle scenes dragged on a little long for my taste. Still, there's a lot to like.

9: Big Hero 6. Disney storytelling (that's more of a compliment than a criticism, honest) applied to an anime-ish concept. I had a wonderful time, even while recognizing how safe some of the choices were. A great all-ages movie.

8: The Lego Movie. I think it's been just a little overpraised, but there's no denying that it exceeded expectations. I loved the rapid-fire stream of gags, Chris Pratt's slightly idiotic everyman optimism, and the non-animated scenes that gave it a surprising depth of emotion.

7: Captain America: The Winter Soldier. As much a spy thriller as a superhero movie, and completely successful in both genres. What sticks with me the most is the easy banter between Cap and the Black Window – non-romantic male/female friendships this good shouldn't be this rare.

6: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1. The only real complaint is that it's not a whole story, which I knew going in. Jennifer Lawrence continues to impress, there were a couple of plot twists I didn't see coming, and the technical aspects, from pacing to visuals, kept me in the story throughout. I'm looking forward to seeing Part 2.

5: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Proof that motion capture, with the right actors, can be a tool to build memorable characters. I cared about Caesar as much as I did any protagonist this year. Put those characters into tense situations and beautifully-crafted action scenes, and you have my full attention.

4: Into the Woods. As maybe 2% of the people reading this don't already know, I'm a Stephen Sondheim fanboy. And this is the best screen adaptation to date of any Sondheim musical. (Granted, there haven't been that many of them.) Go knowing that this is a dark take on fairy tales, and there's not much happily ever after to be found, but do go.

3: How to Train Your Dragon 2. The best animated film I saw (in a year filled with good animated films), and the best Dreamworks animated film to date. The visuals are stunning, but don't overwhelm the story. And the characterization, especially the relationships, is fully believable. In fact, what elevates the film this high in my list is a single scene, in which Viking chief Stoic woos his long-lost wife with song.

2: Guardians of the Galaxy. I'll be genuinely surprised if this isn't next year's Hugo winner. I left grinning, unable to name a single thing the filmmakers and cast did wrong. What a fun ride.

1: Her. I'm doing something unprecedented here, and putting the same movie on two consecutive best lists, and two consecutive Hugo nominating ballots. My rationale for doing so is that it opened in limited release in late December of 2013 (to make it Oscar-eligible), then in wide release in early 2014, so it really counts as more of a 2014 release. My reason for doing so is that it's the best science fiction movie of the last several years, and deserves recognition within our community. (It already has the Oscar, the Golden Globe, and the Writer's Guild award for best original screenplay.) The world-building is detailed, rich, and plausible. The ideas are brilliantly developed. The acting, especially by Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlet Johansson, is top-notch. If you haven't yet seen it, find it.

Overall, a damn good year, I'd say.

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