20. Kong: Skull Island
Okay, now the heavier stuff is out of the way, let’s get back to the smashy stuff and open up the Top 20 with one of my favourite smashy movies of the year. Honestly, I’ll admit, Kong: Skull Island is a movie that I was not really expecting to enjoy so much, nor is it a movie I’m going to champion as a piece of highbrow cinema. But sometimes you just want to see giant monsters fuck shit up and in the regard, this movie more than delivers.
Now, I brought this up a couple of times on my list last year, but I genuinely did enjoy the 2014 Godzilla movie. Sure it did have its flaws, particularly in regards to Aaron-Taylor Johnson doing his best impersonation of a living husk of styrofoam, but I thought it had a good eye for visuals, building up tension and some genuinely fantastic setpieces. Kong: Skull Island, however, is a very different beast and I mean that (mostly) in a good way. It doesn’t bother with the long build-ups and throws you thick into the action very early on, which is honestly kinda refreshing in this era of ‘Wait three hours for the monster to show up because ’tension/anticipation’” movies. Plus it gives the audience what it wants. Giant monsters and lots of them. No holding back like Godzilla did, Skull Island throws monster/setpiece after monster/setpiece and I really enjoyed most of them. Plus, with SLJ throwing sufficient amounts of ham, a cast that wasn’t too distractingly bland and an actually compelling character with John C Reilly, there was a lot to enjoy.
So yeah, as far switch-your-brain-off popcorn movies went, this was easily the best. And I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the Godzilla Cinematic Universe is probably the one non-Marvel Cinematic Universe I’m actually fairly interesting in seeing more of.
I never thought the words ‘I wish the Secret Society of Luchadors got more screentime’ would be a legitimate criticism of a movie this year, but here we are.
Seriously though, this movie was a very unexpected treat. I saw it at the London Film Festival, knew almost nothing about it going in aside from the premise and ended up really enjoying the hell out of it. Basically, it’s like an animated John Carpenter’s ‘They Live’ was set in the Mexico City slums, but with that extra level of inventive craziness that being an animation affords it.
Seriously, the movie is just a ton of fun. It has great characters, great designs, great humour, great action and fluid animation. It’s a great example of an animated action film leaning towards a more adult market without necessarily being Family Guy or overcompensating with the gore/adult materials to try and ‘make up’ for being animated. Honestly, I had just so much fun watching the first two thirds of it and I know the audience I saw it with felt the same, judging by how loud the laughter was. And, honestly, this movie could have very easily have made my top 10 if it had managed to stick the landing. Which… unfortunately, it did not.
See, while the first two thirds of this movie are inventive and imaginative and fun and set up loads of great plot dominoes for the final third, said climax is just kinda… meh. I suspect the budget may well have run out because compared to the first two thirds, the final third of this movie was slow, sluggish and focused on the least interesting plot threads, some of which weren’t even really a thing in the first two thirds. Plus it ends up leaving a bunch of stuff unexplained and even has the gall to end on a blatant sequel hook. (Note: I would still be entirely on board for a sequel to this, by the way, I just think it’s kinda cheap).
That said, while I wasn’t amazingly fond of the finale, I still entirely recommend this movie. The first two thirds are just so fun and enjoyable that this is an easy recommend to anyone interested in a bit of foreign animation that isn’t just anime or kids fare. The ‘They Live’ comparisons aren’t unearned, this really is fun in a way much like that movie, with some great characters, moments, action, jokes and everything else. So yeah, if you get a chance, go see it.
(But seriously, I do wish the Secret Society of Luchadors got more screentime.)
18. Kingsman: The Golden Circle
You know, there’s a lot of times I hear people say on here, in regards to poor critical reception of an anticipated movie, stuff like ‘Who cares about the critics? Just go and see it and make up your own mind.’ And, while I definitely can see where that sort of logic, it’s always been the sort of advice that has rung hollow for me because I tend to find that 90% of the time if critics dislike a certain big release, even if I go in with a ‘fuck the critics’ reactions, I end up walking out thinking ‘Yeah, that really wasn’t great, I can see why the critics weren’t fond of it.’ Usually these sorts of movies do just end up getting panned because they’re not very good, not because critics are stuck-up snobs or anything.
With that said, in regards to this movie, fuck the critics. I thought this was great fun.
Don’t get me wrong, Kingsman: The Golden Circle is kind of a stupid movie. I will admit that right off the bad. It’s not nearly as narratively tight as the first movie and there are a lot of problems, holes and stuff that really could’ve used a lot more polishing here and there. But fuck it, it’s my kind of stupid movie. A movie that’s so tremendously over-the-top, balls-to-the-walls insane and doesn’t give a shit who knows it.
Vaughn goes all out with the action, the characters, the world building and the jokes in this one and while there are definitely quite a lot of bits in it don’t exactly work (CGI robot dogs? Elton John? Killing off most of the previous cast? Elton fucking John?!!!) the bits that do work just work so well for me that I can’t help but love it. The acting is fun all-round, even in small bit parts, the worldbuilding is wild and interesting and enjoyably implausible in places and scenery is chewed like a mofo.
So yeah, you may not agree, but I personally loved the hell out of this movie. I had great fun from near beginning to end and no amount of critical drubbing can take that away from me.
17. Brawl in Cellblock 99
Saying it now. Anyone who didn’t see this in a packed theatre missed out. There is nothing more hilarious than hearing an entire crowd of people break out into ‘Ooooh’s’ and ‘Eeeeeeh’s’ whenever Vince Vaughn scrapes some guy’s face across the floor.
That said, the gratuitous violence isn’t the only thing to love about this movie. (Although it sure as hell helps). The story is almost a modern-day Dante’s Inferno as Vince Vaughn’s character descends deeper and deeper into the metaphorical hell that is this movie’s fucked up prison system, all in the hopes of reaching Cellblock 99 to save his unborn daughter’s life. And I’ll admit, if you had told me before this movie that Vince Vaughn would not just sell the presence of a stoic, tough-as-nails badass, but absolutely blow it out of the water, I… would probably not have cared that much, because much weirder stuff has/will happen. (Seriously, have you seen Black Panther’s opening weekened?!) But Vince Vaughn absolutely dominates this role, right from the moment where he dismantles a car with his bare fists, all the way to the tragic but inevitable conclusion.
The movie itself is directed with a great sense of tension and mood, feeling more and more uncomfortable and tense as Vaughn descends deeper and deeper, only stopping for quick bursts of good ol’ ultraviolence. Bone Tomahawks was one of those movies from 2015 that I was kinda disappointed I missed (and still haven’t really gotten around to yet) and this movie definitely makes me want to dig it out and finally watch the whole thing.
So yeah, this isn’t exactly a movie for the weak of heart or stomach, but it still is a really great movie all round. Plus, seriously, it was so much fun to watch with a crowd. Really. Soooo much fun.
16. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2
I think it’s safe to call Guardians of the Galaxy one of the real breakout hits of 2014. In fact, if you had told me ten years ago that a movie about a D-list superhero team, featuring a giant tree man and a raccoon with machine guns, would’ve ended being so incredibly popular… I probably would’ve been okay with that because eleven-year-old me would’ve found that concept completely awesome. But I digress. The first Guardians of the Galaxy was a real smash hit, not just because of how fun and exciting it was, but because it also had a lot of heart and depth beneath the humour. The characters felt fleshed out and we came to really care for them. So, as the sequel came around, the one question that was on everyone’s mind was, “Would it live up to the first one?”
More or less, yeah.
Now, I will say it’s definitely not as narratively tight as the first one and there’s definitely a lot more in the way rough edges. The original Guardians movie was well-paced and engaging from start to finish and this movie doesn’t quite get that balance right. But Vol 2 also has a lot of really great moments that more than live up to the first movie’s quality. There were moments which touched me or made me laugh just as much as the first movie, if not more. So yes, there are flaws in the movie, and they’re relatively noticeable, but I think the high points more than make up for it.
One of the things I liked most about the movie was how it managed to give satisfying character arcs and moments to pretty much everyone on the team, especially Nebula and Yondu. One of my bigger problems with Age of Ultron as a sequel was that, due to limited screentime, some of the team either ended up getting sidelined or stuck with lousy plotlines (like Thor or the Hulk/Widow romance). Guardians 2, on the other hand, has a good character moment for pretty much everyone (except probably Groot but it’s difficult for him) and nearly each moment really hit home. I’ve always said that characterisation is probably one of Marvel’s biggest strong points and it’s clear that James Gunn gets these characters and knows how to use them. As a result, it’s little surprise that the characters are probably the best thing about the movie for me.
The visuals were also a strong point. The movie has such a great, psychedelic colour pallet and visual imagination that really sets it apart from most sci-fi films these days. Even when it’s doing MoS-style super brawls or large space battles, it’s still fantastic and gorgeous to look at. Now, I’m not going to name names here, but it really makes you think that another certain superhero studio should consider adding a little more visual brightness to their movies, cough cough hint hint …Ahem. Anyway, as I was saying, the movie looks great and the visuals really match the light fun attitude it has going for it. Also, I don’t know what it is with Marvel and de-aging their characters, but damned if they haven’t gotten really good at it. Young Kurt Russell looked great.
Now, I have been hearing a lot of complaints about the movie having no/little story and, while I think that’s wrong, I do kinda understand the sentiment because there’s not really a solid story for the first third or so. There’s no major driving motivation for the Guardians compared to, say, the first movie where they were trying to keep/sell the orb and that’s what drove their actions. In this one, however, they’re just reactive characters, reacting to what’s going on around them for about the first half or so. And that can feel a little meandering and narratively unsatisfying. I don’t think it ruins the movie, but it’s something to keep in mind. Also, I initially thought Rocket was a bit too jerkass-ish/annoying to begin with in the first third or so, but that ended up having a great payoff, so I’m okay with it.
Also, this is the first Marvel movie where I think the claim ‘Too much humour’ actually holds some weight. Admittedly, I don’t think it’s too much humour that’s the problem so much as poorly placed humour, but it is noticeable. Don’t get me wrong, the movie is funny. Very very funny. There were a lot of moments that had me cackling in my seat. But there are also times when the movie takes a scene or a moment with a relatively serious tone and shoves in a cheap gag that really doesn’t feel fitting and takes you out of the moment. Compare to the dance-off in the first movie, where the serious atmosphere and build-up of a Ronan as a no-nonsense antagonist was what actually made the joke so funny, by being a completely unexpected subversion of expectations (while still being completely in character for Quill). Here, they take a serious moment and interrupt it with just cheap gags, with little build up and, rather than working off the serious atmosphere, just undermines it and the joke in the process. (The Pac-Man moment in particular was guilty of this).
That said, I really did like this movie. It was colourful, exciting, hilarious at times, touching at others and never really left me bored throughout its running. Ego was fine as an antagonist. Not exceptional, but he had some really good moments to shine. Yondu was definitely my MVP and had some of the best scenes with Rocket. But overall yeah. It’s a movie with clear flaws, but more than enough really great high points to make up for it,