An admission: I haven’t seen enough newly-released films this year to make a traditional Top 10 list (an admission I never would’ve needed to make a couple of decades ago). Instead, I’m offering a Top 10 list of movies I watched in 2014 that I’d never seen before. A couple of these films I saw in their theatrical first-runs (it will be obvious which two those are), but the rest I saw either on DVD or via on-line streaming. So here, in chronological order of when they were made, are my personal choices for the ten best films I was pleased to encounter in 2014.
William Wellman was on something of a roll at Warner Brothers in the pre-Code era. The year before, he’d directed the iconic gangster picture The Public Enemy (which put James Cagney on the map) and the even more brutal thriller Night Nurse (with a young Barbara Stanwyck at her gutsiest and Clark Gable at his scariest). Love is a Racket is a wickedly funny comedy-thriller starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as Jimmy Russell, a New York gossip columnist (patterned after Walter Winchell) who hobnobs with all strata of Manhattan society, from the upper crust to the underworld. Jimmy has become so smitten with a would-be actress (Frances Dee) that he’s willing to put everything on the line (including covering up a murder) to rescue her from a slimy mobster (Lyle Talbot) who’s trying to blackmail her into letting him, well, shall we say, have his way with her. The picture’s scene-stealing honors go to Lee Tracy and Ann Dvorak as Jimmy’s best buds.
One of the most endearing things about Warner Brothers was that the box office hit hadn’t been made that they couldn’t copy and often improve upon. (Maybe you’ve seen their knock-off of Algiers, a little film called Casablanca?) Northern Pursuit, the fourth collaboration between director Raoul Walsh and star Errol Flynn, was Warners’ answer to British filmmaker Michael Powell’s 49th Parallel, an anti-Nazi propaganda action-adventure set in Canada. Flynn’s plays a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who pretends to be a German sympathizer to infiltrate a group of Nazis who were delivered via submarine to carry out a sabotage mission at the Canadian-American border. As with Walsh and Flynn’s previous World War II adventure Desperate Journey, the action moves at a lightning-fast pace. And speaking of anti-Nazi propaganda…
When, in 1933, the German Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels offered pioneering filmmaker Fritz Lang an opportunity to make pictures for the Third Reich, Lang did what any sensible Jew in that time and place would do; he hopped the next ocean liner out of Germany. Lang’s hatred for the Nazis resulted in a quartet of anti-Nazi espionage melodramas, Man Hunt (1941), Hangmen Also Die! (1943), Ministry of Fear (1944), and arguably the best of the bunch Cloak and Dagger. Cloak and Dagger stars Gary Cooper as a nuclear scientist who offers to go to behind enemy lines to rescue a colleague before the Gestapo obtains the info necessary to build an atomic bomb. (Despite the predictable criticisms about miscasting, college educated Cooper is absolutely credible as a nuclear scientist.) The film’s most justifiably celebrated sequence is the hand-to-hand mano a mano between Cooper and Marc Lawrence (as an Italian Nazi agent), a brutal fight to the death involving real pain and sadism (i.e., fighting dirty) rather than Hollywood’s usual exchange of roundhouse punches. The dialogue in the opening scene, in which Cooper expresses misgivings about any world power having the bomb, undoubtedly contributed to the movie’s screenwriters, Albert Maltz and Ring Lardner Jr., being persecuted by HUAC.
Filmed by director Andre De Toth with a meager budget almost entirely on actual Los Angeles locations in just 13 days, Crime Wave is everything a film noir should be and more, swift, nasty, and hard-hitting. (This is the type of crime picture where characters literally burst through doors.) Song-and-dance man Gene Evans is cast against type as an ex-con newlywed whose attempts to go straight with the help his wife (Phyllis Kirk) are endangered by a gang of former partners-in-crime, two of whom have just escaped from prison. (You can’t ask for better noir villains than Ted de Corsia, Charles Bronson, and Timothy Carey.) Sterling Hayden owns the picture as an obsessive hardass of a homicide cop who plays Javert to Evens’ Jean Valjean.
In the last 33 years, there have been two misguided attempts to bring the Lone Ranger, that iconic western hero of radio and television, to the big screen, the laughable The Legend of the Lone Ranger (1981) and the even more disastrous Disney travesty The Lone Ranger (2013). Unlike those mega-budget turkeys, this more modestly-budgeted 1956 cinematic spin-off of the television series, with the definitive Lone Ranger and Tonto (Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels), got it right. Well-directed by Stuart Heisler, from a script by Herb Meadow, and with gorgeous Warnercolor cinematography by Edwin DuPar and a rousing music score by David Buttolph, The Lone Ranger is the perfect Saturday matinee feature for “kids of all ages,” as the old advertising cliché goes. In her last screen appearance, former child and teenage star Bonita Granville (wife of the movie’s producer Jack Wrather) plays the wife of the picture’s head bad guy Lyle Bettger. (The equally loathsome “dog villain,” as in “a guy who’s so evil that he’ll kick a dog,” is played by Robert Wilke.) Both Moore and Silverheels are given opportunities to take center stage; on his own, Tonto narrowly escapes a lynch mob, and periodically the Lone Ranger goes undercover as a grizzled old geezer. (It’s obvious that Moore was having a ball playing this comic relief persona.)
Directed by Don Siegel for Universal, this remake of Ride the Pink Horse (1947) became the first made-for-TV movie by default after NBC rejected Siegel’s previous film The Killers (1964), which was also a remake of a 40s Universal picture intended for television, for being too violent and was released by the studio theatrically instead. (The fact that the Kennedy assassination took place before The Killers was finished didn’t help its chances of premiering on national television.) Based on Dorothy B. Hughes’ novel Ride the Pink Horse, The Hanged Man stars Robert Culp as a burned-out gunman seeking revenge for the murder of a friend by blackmailing his former employer (Edmund O’Brien), who’s currently under congressional investigation on racketeering charges. With a supporting cast that includes J. Carroll Naish, Norman Fell, and Vera Miles (as the obligatory noir femme fetale), The Hanged Man is a testimony to Siegel’s expertise at coping with extraordinary challenges on a tiny budget. Universal decided that the remake should be set in New Orleans during Marti Gras, a requirement that Siegel achieved without any location shooting by using just one street on Universal’s backlot and lots of stock footage. The film’s also a must-see for jazz aficionados, with a score by Benny Carter and on-screen appearances by Stan Getz and Astrud Gilberto.
As riveting as the young, feral Robert Mitchum of the 1940s and 50s was, the older, sadder-but-wiser Mitchum of the 70s and 80s was even more fascinating and nuanced. In The Yakuza, directed by Sydney Pollock from a script by Robert Towne and brothers Paul and Leonard Schrader, Mitchum gives what may well be the finest performance of his career as an ex-cop turned private investigator who returns to Japan for the first time since the aftermath of World War II at the request of an old friend (Brian Keith) whose daughter is being held captive by a crime family. Once there, Mitchum finds himself betrayed by those he trusts and discovers an unlikely ally in a former enemy (Ken Takakura making his American film debut and perfectly matching Mitchum as a commanding screen presence). According to World Cinema Paradise founder and long-time resident of Japan Stuart Galbraith IV, The Yakuza is “one of the best films in terms of a Hollywood-based production accurately depicting how Japan is and how the Japanese behave and react,” and still remains “highly regarded” in Japan.
Just like Alfred Hitchcock decided to follow his most expensive picture ever, North by Northwest (1959), with his lowest-budgeted American film, Psycho (1960), Joss Whedon followed his most expensive movie to date, The Avengers (2012), with this self-financed adaptation of one of William Shakespeare’s best comedies. Shot in black & white on the grounds of his own manor in just 12 days during a brief vacation in between the principle photography and post-production of The Avengers, Whedon’s modern-day take on the Bard is a veritable love letter to classic cinema. Amy Acker and Alexis Deniof are wonderful as Beatrice and Benedict, Shakespeare’s urbane they-fight-so-much-that-they-must-be-in-love sophisticates, which became the archetypes for so many latter-day Hollywood screwball comedies. And sheer, out-loud belly laughs are provided by Nathan Fillion (as Dogberry) and Tom Lenk (as Varges), who manage to lampoon CSI-style TV cops shows while simultaneously channeling Laurel and Hardy’s physical schtick. (Fillion’s underplayed rendition of Dogberry’s “I am an ass” speech is the movie’s most sublime moment.)
This sequel to Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) proved that Marvel/Disney superhero movies could tackle serious issues without the overbearing pretentiousness and all-too-serious approach of DC/Warners’ equivalent pictures. In this case, the issue is America’s increasingly militarism in response to post-9/11 paranoia. As Cap (Chris Evans), the ultimate patriot, states about an elaborate preliminary-strike anti-terrorist weapons program advocated by a reactionary right-wing senator (an ironically cast Robert Redford), “This isn’t freedom, this is fear.” (The film is a deliberate homage to the political thrillers of the post-Watergate era.) Of course, more than anything else, this is an adrenalin-pumping action-adventure flick, with Cap getting solid support from fellow superheroes the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and the Falcon (Anthony Mackie), as well as S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Maria Hill (Colbie Smulders) and head honcho Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), in his fight against the Hydra moles who have infiltrated both S.H.I.E.L.D. and the highest echelons of the US military and government. (Yeah, there’s some Manchurian Candidate in this flick, too.) Directors (and siblings) Anthony and Joe Russo keep the action moving at bullet-train speed, eschewing CGI in favor of practical effects (or, at least, until the finale, which is the standard CGI-fest).
This was the one that the critics who’d long had their knives out for the Marvel/Disney blockbusters predicted would be Marvel Films’ first box-office disaster, mainly because it was based on an obscure comic book series that only the most dedicated fans of the genre were even familiar with. In an example of poetic justice, Guardians of the Galaxy not only wasn’t a financial flop, it also became the highest-grossing film of 2014. The lion’s share of the credit for the success of Marvel’s first out-and-out comedy film belongs to director-writer James Gunn’s quirky sense of humor. (The story goes that Marvel Films creative overseer Joss Whedon, who obviously considered Gunn to be a kindred spirit, handed the first-draft script back to him, requesting “more James Gunn.”) The goofy collection of mismatched, self-appointed “guardians” (who are actually a gang of intergalactic crooks and scam artists) are played appropriately with tongues-in-cheek by an inspired ensemble consisting of Chris Pratt (as Peter Quill aka “Star-Lord”), Zoe Saldana (as Gamora), Dave Bautista (as Drax the Destroyer), Vin Diesel (as the voice of anthropomorphic tree Groot), and Bradley Cooper (as the voice of talking raccoon Rocket). Gunn establishes the movie’s off-beat tone during the opening credits sequence, as Pratt, on his way to a heist, dances around a desolate, rain-soaked planet to the tune of Redbone’s 1974 hit “Come and Get Your Love,” a “Singin’ in the Rain” moment for the New Millennium.