You will not agree with every movie on this list. You may not even agree with the terms of it. That isn’t the point.
I was hesitant to even make this list, because it had seemed to me that it was pretty well settled which “nerd” movies this year were great. And with Guardians of the Galaxy as the top domestic grosser thus far, it seemed like “our” movies maybe didn’t need defending any more. Then I read some of the other lists going around, and I realized that while some are indeed respected, others need their fans to defend what is still perceived as indefensible. That is a task I will gladly take upon myself.
First, let’s get our terminology straight – I use the phrase “nerd movie” as those in the business use the term “genre movie,” more or less. It’s an umbrella that includes sci-fi, fantasy, horror, animation, action, exploitation, and anything else with an element of unreality to it (think Kafka or David Lynch). It can also include documentaries and dramas specifically about those topics, or in the ballpark. It does not include some of my favorite films of the year, among them Nymphomaniac, Gone Girl and Nightcrawler. So do not take this as “Luke Y. Thompson’s Top Ten.”
Besides, in borrowing a device I first remember being used by my former colleague Gregory Weinkauf, I have decided that rather than trimming a list of 20 down to 10, I can pair them up and some great thematic double-features emerge. In most cases – but not all – these involve partnering a well-known film with one you may not be aware of.
I have also not included The Human Race, even though it is a movie I love as much as, if not more than, many on the list. Simply put, since I am in it, it doesn’t feel ethical or correct to have it in there beside, say, a Marvel film. I’ll just tell you it’s a balls-to-the-wall brutal bit of sci-fi that people who are into that sort of thing ought to check out, and leave it at that.
And if I don’t lose you with the first entry on my list, I hope you’ll read my actual reasons for liking things rather than focus on whether the specific titles match yours. Here we go…
10. Transformers: Age of Extinction and Sharknado 2: The Second One.
I get it. If Tim Burton’s Batman had been a typical Michael Keaton comedy, I’d have been pissed too. But four installments in, it’s time to stop being upset that Michael Bay’s Transformers universe isn’t the Generation 1 that you love, and take it on its own terms. If there’s any property that can sustain multiple realities, it’s Transformers, which has done so at times even with the same voice actors it different continuities. One thing I know from watching Hollywood – this will be rebooted someday anyway.
And Bay’s fourth film is stupidly entertaining, in no small part thank to the addition of Mark Wahlberg, a Boston jock cast completely and knowingly against type as a Texan robot inventor. His ability to stare at giant robots which aren’t there while mouthing dialogue I’m not sure he entirely understands cracks me up almost every time; meanwhile, thanks to the necessities of 3D and Imax, Michael Bay has calmed his editors the hell down, taken away their crack pipes, and the action sequences have a much better sense of pacing and scene geography than ever before.
Yeah, some people don’t like the intricate, fragmented looking robots in these movies. I always have – Transformers who already look too much like the thing they’re going to change into are less fun for me. Besides, these redesigns are no more “busy” than Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Batsuit, which most people were cool with, mainly because it allowed him to turn his head finally. And as the budgets of these movies have gone up, the robots are finally somewhat distinguishable and have bigger speaking parts, just like we all said we wanted.
When it comes to giant robot movies, I guess I’m just more of a “Marky Mark downing a Bud Light while wielding an alien sword-gun” guy than a “self-serious Charlie Hunnam brooding with a fake American accent” guy. There’s room for both types.
Sharknado 2 – which was indeed briefly in theaters as well as on TV – gets some grief for supposedly being deliberately bad. I took it another way; it played out as a parody of the brooding, “realistic” action hero epics we’ve seen so many of lately, and having interviewed Ian Ziering at Comic-Con, I don’t think he was fully in on the joke. He takes his role in these very seriously, and still somehow comes off as a rasping caricature of your best drunk friend impersonating Christian Bale’s Batman. Sympathetic supporting cast members are gleefully dispatched with impunity, and the main “heroes” emerge pretty severely fucked up, in a manner that no studio film would likely permit. Call it silly, call it bad, but I think it’s pretty clear that as long as these movies deliver Sharknados on a budget, the filmmakers are allowed to do whatever the hell they want, and it shows – in the best way.
A movie needn’t be great to make you feel great. The latter alone can be enough.
9. A Million Ways to Die in the West and The Final Member.
It’s tough to go to bat for a comedy that most people don’t like, at least on the most superficial level. If you didn’t laugh, no amount of argument from me will tell you that you did. Contrariwise, you can’t tell me I didn’t laugh. Humor elicits honest reactions one way or the other, and if you fundamentally just didn’t think A Million Ways to Die in the West was funny, that probably ends the conversation.
But…and there’s a but here…as my comedy teacher in film school used to say, “Laughter is symptomatic of comedy, but not endemic to it.” Comedy, in its origins, is about bringing characters down to earth by depicting their human frailties. In the classical Greek sense, it was about depicting the gods as having embarrassing bodily functions just like us. In the case of Seth MacFarlane, the speech at around the end of the second act, in which he pleads for his life with a speech about what a “nerd asshole” he is feels like an achingly honest confession, and a desire to be loved by a community he feels part of but that mostly rejects him and his humor as being beneath them. He was criticized for casting himself in the lead, but it would have been less of an honest statement had he not – the entire theme of the film is that Seth MacFarlane, while loved by the beautiful people he works with (as represented by Charlize Theron and a verbally referenced Mila Kunis), feels like the rest of the world is dangerous and out to get him.
For a guy who usually hides behind smirking irony and references, this spoof western felt like the most truthful thing he’s ever made.
And now, just because I can, I’m pairing his movie on this list with an extended dick joke. The Final Member is a documentary about Iceland’s penis museum, and the competition between two men to become the first human to have their schlong severed and stuck in a formaldehyde jar for all eternity. It’s like something Peter Griffin would mention in a cutaway, but it’s real, and it’s fantastic.
8. 300: Rise of an Empire and Sin City: A Dame to Kill for.
Let’s be honest – these are the same movie, set in different time periods. Prequel/sequel/simul-quel hybrids starring Eva Green as both the ultimate male fantasy and fear, laden with absurd amounts of violence and sexual immaturity that one would expect from an adolescent fan-fiction writer – which is more or less where Frank Miller’s head is at right now.
The debate about high art versus low art is one that has long since been won – even the snootiest of my critic friends will usually admit to liking at least one Fast and Furious movie nowadays. The next battle, it seems to me, is to justify art that is arguably immoral. And that’s a tougher call. The Sin City and 300 movies are hardly Birth of a Nation, either in artistic skill or in their level of provocation, but the people who dislike them tend to do so on the grounds that they find the subject matter and themes repugnant (the visuals and technical aspects are pretty indisputably stunning). One friend of mine likened both films to a glass-bottomed boat ride through the ugliness of Frank Miller’s soul, and he’s not wrong. I just don’t feel that’s necessarily a bad thing – the best writers ought to vomit forth their truest essence upon the page, before perhaps attempting to form pretty pictures from the puke.
I don’t know that Miller himself separates fiction from reality as clearly as one might hope – his immature rant suggesting Wall Street protesters should all join the military, as if the two things were even related, was of a piece with the Batman versus Al Qaeda fantasy of Holy Terror. Do I think his stuff is full of nihilism, misogyny, anti-humanism, self-destruction and whatever else you’d care to throw in there? Probably, in most cases. But in the right mood, can I deny I get a kick out of it? No. And nor should anybody. It’s fantasy like pro-wrestling, a chance to air baser emotions like a superfan at a sports game. Pornography for the aggressive urge rather than the sexual one, though it borders on the latter at times too. And it’s really good at that. So long as I don’t start acting like Marv in real life, I want the chance to vicariously thrill to him defeating evil scum.
Likewise, I don’t want any history classes teaching 300: Rise of an Empire as fact, but I can dream that those sea serpents are real for a second or two.
7. The Imitation Game and The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Prior to Eric Diaz’ list a year ago, I hate to admit I was not familiar with Alan Turing, who cracked the Enigma code machine during World War II, developed the “Turing Test” for artificial intelligence, as notably copied in Blade Runner, and was promptly prosecuted for being gay. For anyone else in the same situation I was, The Imitation Game is a fine, old-fashioned Hollywood biopic of the man, filled with quality actors, an entertaining script, and the inevitable degree of minor fact-fudging to make things move along a little quicker.
I don’t mean to diminish concerns about the film’s inaccuracies – certainly, most of my gay friends feel its portrayal of Turing’s sexuality is overly simplistic and pandering. I would argue that it isn’t the primary point of the movie, but that’s not really an excuse; rather, educated audiences should look upon biopics as a good jumping-off point to examine the real story if it piques their interest, rather than a 100% factual depiction.
If The Big Bang Theory were not a broad caricature, it might be like this – Benedict Cumberbatch is the genius Turing, incapable of understanding many basic social niceties, while Keira Knightley is the smarter-than-she-might-seem blonde who takes an interest in him and the code-breaking project. Watchmen‘s Matthew Goode has to settle this time for being the world’s second smartest man, as the battle to break Nazi codes is mostly depicted as a lively social comedy…at least, until the ending turns tragic, as it inevitably must. Compared to The Theory of Everything, which paints Stephen Hawking’s life as a by-the-numbers formula as rigid as E=mc squared, it’s a nicely fresh and irreverent take on the scientific genius as uncomfortable protagonist.
The Grand Budapest Hotel deals with Nazis and World War II in overly broad and fantastical strokes as well, but is established as such by several framing devices which let us know it’s a story inside a story inside another one. In theory, we all should know that stepping into a theater automatically makes what we are about to see a story within a story – but director Wes Anderson delights in showing us the artifice, while the Weinstein Company doesn’t necessarily let all the facts get in the way of a good movie.
6. Captain America: The Winter Soldier and X-Men: Days of Future Past
Even though I got real sick, real fast, of Marvel using “’70s political thriller” as a buzz-phrase, I’m glad there is some recognition by the massive conglomerates who provide our entertainment that the ’70s was indeed one of the best times for movies, with the production code gone and the big corporate takeover yet to happen. Stakes were real back then, because movies could just as easily end with the heroes dying and failing as they did with triumph. I don’t think Marvel is ever really going to swerve us with a bummer finale, but in both their in-house, ’70s-inspired film and their licensed, mostly ’70s-set sequel-prequel, they showed an awareness of past mistakes and how to correct them.
The Winter Soldier has issues, not the least of which is that it fails to resolve the actual storyline involving said Winter Soldier in any meaningful fashion. But it finally made Captain America into a good character about whom I wanted to see a movie – Joe Johnston’s endless origin story didn’t do much for me, and I won’t even touch the Matt Salinger version. Now, Marvel, if you can make a movie where you have a guy like Nick Fury “die” and I actually believe he’s going to stay dead for even a millisecond, I will be that much more impressed.
Days of Future Past wasn’t quite the epic I was hoping for, but that’s my fault – Bryan Singer doesn’t do “epic.” I’ll just sit back and appreciate that he retconned the Wolverine origin flick out of existence (I don’t hate X-3 like others do, so that’s whatever), gave Magneto the purple outfit at last, and totally nailed that Quicksilver sequence.
5. Song of the Sea and Godzilla
This might be the biggest comparison-stretch on my list, but both feature mythical creatures that come from the sea, and the quest to get them back to full power and reunite a family. The Selkie (were-seal, if you prefer) wouldn’t stand a chance against the big G, but her movie is the better of the two – the most Irish animated film I’ve ever seen, from its realistically unromanticized depiction of Dublin to the fairy folk who post a sign saying “Feic off” on their secret lair. By the time the two main children’s insufferable, authoritarian grandmother is cranking up the auld radio for an impossibly slow and scratchy rendition of “Baidin Fheilimi,” anyone who has ever grown up in the Emerald Isle will be in stitches. And even if you’ve never been there, it’s a sweet journey of love and loss through Celtic mythology with a unique animation style that continues to surprise as it evokes a particular place and time. My wife, in tears at the end, simply commented, “God-dammit, Ireland!”
Godzilla was just a solid take on the giant monster movie. I get the complaints that the title character wasn’t in it enough, but they seem to neglect the fact that (a) most Godzilla movies feature long stretches of plot you don’t care about and (b) there was plenty of action – and enemy monster chaos – in the meantime. I was no fan of Gareth Edwards’ monster-hiding in the movie actually called Monsters, but here I think he achieved a very difficult balance, maintaining a solid build-up to final climax while making the threat feel real and still somehow presenting Godzilla as a “good guy” in a way that didn’t come off cheesy.
But I did see it in 3D Imax, which preserved the right sense of scale. Not sure I’ll ever need to watch it any other way.
4. The Raid 2: Berandal and John Wick
They fight…and fight. And fight and fight and fight.
Fightfightfight, fightfightfight…The Wicky and Raidy show!
The first Raid was overhyped. That’s right, I said it, and I thought that even before Raid-heads started bitching about Dredd being similar. Arriving with a reputation for being the most ass-kickingest movie ever, it slightly bored me with characters I couldn’t tell apart.
The sequel remedies all that. With an undercover cop story that’s more involved than the “storm a high-rise” simplicity of its predecessor, I had a hook I could get into, and one that made the bone-crunching scenes of extreme violence have some serious stakes for the physical and mental well-being of our hero.
The hero of John Wick, meanwhile, was just sad about his dog, which represented his dead wife. But that is apparently motivation enough for Keanu Reeves to look more driven than ever, as he navigated a world in which normal people don’t exist and everyone is a criminal. That the final showdown – after everything that had come before – boiled down to just two men fighting in the rain is a testament to how boiling things down to just the basics is as effectively pleasing at times as a simple, barely seasoned steak can be when compared to a stir-fry.
3. Edge of Tomorrow/Live. Die. Repeat. and The Scribbler.
Self-improvement can be painful, and both these films took that to the extreme, with repeated death being essential to becoming the hero you need to be. It’s a passable allegory for the writing process itself – every possibility exists in your head until you nail one down on paper or the screen, killing all the others off in the process.
Tom Cruise basically lives out a real-life Nintendo game set on hard when he keeps trying to thwart an alien invasion, only to get killed and respawn again and again, jumping through the same hoops to get back to the point where he screwed up and can try it one more time. Yes, it’s also a little similar to Scientology’s thoughts on reincarnation, except that in this case, maintaining the attachment to the alien soul proves important in achieving victory.
In The Scribbler, based on a little-known comic, Arrow‘s Katie Cassidy must kill off her multiple personalities one by one – even if the one she thinks is her own must also become a casualty. Because the one who scribbles words over everything seems to be the dominant one, and it wants out. On what must be a low-budget, director John Suits creates a brightly colored dystopia that mirrors the palette of superhero comics while the sets themselves resemble the grimy imagery of industrial music videos. Yes, there are some great nude scenes, and there’s also a talking dog. And Billy Campbell hamming it up as only he can, probably wondering why Helix isn’t this much fun.
2. Guardians of the Galaxy and Journey to the West.
This is an easy one – two action-comedies about a hero who collects an unlikely crew of creatures with unusual abilities to form a super-team. The latter is based on a centuries old foundational myth from China, while the former is a Marvel comic only hardcore readers were really aware of. In both cases, the directors – Stephen Chow and James Gunn – were previously known for well-regarded exploitation films, but the jury was out on how well they’d handle the kind of big-spectacle legends you aren’t allowed to screw up.
Both excelled by being their irreverent selves. Gunn got a semen joke into a Marvel/Disney movie and managed to resurrect Howard the Duck in a way that people actually liked, while Chow changed the story around so much that only by the end did I realize I was watching the legend of the Monkey King that I’d read as a book and seen done so many times before.
I’ll gladly watch sequels to both.
1. The Lego Movie and Rocks in My Pockets
On many levels, these two animated films seem like opposites. One is a massive-budget, 3D CG/stop-motion, multifaceted, multi-branded comedy about how “Everything Is Awesome,” while the other is a small-scale hand-drawn/stop-motion hybrid about depression and suicide (the title refers to a method of drowning oneself), with more Kickstarter backers than actual crew.
Beneath the surface is another story. I’ve written a thing or two about The Lego Movie before, but after another viewing it became even clearer just how the live-action segment underlies the main story. More so than The Dark Knight, it is about how you either die a hero or live long enough to become the villain. Rather than a Joseph Campbell hero’s journey, Emmet’s journey is that of a child with a father. He begins thinking the father figure, President Business, is perfect and has his best interests at heart. Along the way, cracks appear in the fa?ade as he realizes that everyone else doesn’t feel the same way. With the father revealed as flawed, the son takes that further in his mind and makes him the arch-villain. Only when the father accepts the son’s grievances, and both stand revealed as fully human, do they reconcile…at which point the son finds himself painted as the villain to the next generation, i.e. his younger sister. I made that same emotional journey with my own father – though thankfully my younger siblings are so far different in age from me that I haven’t found myself demonized there yet.
In Rocks in My Pockets, Signe Baumane finds herself the latest in her family line to be struck with mental illness, and must crack the mythology of her idealized Latvian grandmother to discover the hereditary roots of it all. Like The Lego Movie, it begins as a weird sort of fractured fairy tale, and leads to a point of reckoning with the truth, all via whimsical animations of drawings and hand-crafted sets. Baumane’s narration – the only speaking in the film – takes some getting used to, and at times I wished she had hired an actress to do it. But then it would be a different movie; the confessional nature of the story is essential to breaking the myth that nothing is wrong, and forgiving the past in the process. In a year when Robin Williams got us all to open up about depression, this movie felt more essential on that topic than any of the late comic’s final roles.
Your own list will be different. And it should be.