2014 in review: My Buffalo News top five

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One more 2014 list from me: Here’s my top five from the films I reviewed last year for the Buffalo News. It’s a limited list, obviously, but some fun picks here.

From the News’ most frequent contributing movie critic, Christopher Schobert, a list of his Top Five of 2014:

Vampires. LEGOs, sullen teens, and pot-smoking octogenarians would make for a wild party, and all figure in my top five News-reviewed films of 2014. Several just missed the list – Marvel’s “Big Hero 6,” the Bill Hader- and Kristen Wiig-starring “Skeleton Twins,” Scottish musical “God Help the Girl” – while the ludicrously enjoyable “Endless Love,” missed by a mile. Here are five of the year’s cinematic treats.

  1. “Only Lovers Left Alive”: Jim Jarmusch’s mesmerizing vampire love story “Only Lovers Left Alive” is an idiosyncratic gem that feels utterly, thrillingly alive. Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston created 2014’s most memorably romantic couple, and the hypnotic, Detroit-set film ranks among the “Mystery Train” director’s finest, most hypnotic efforts.
  1. “The LEGO Movie”: You would be forgiven for thinking an animated film called “The LEGO Movie” would be a soul-crushingly corporate nightmare, but you would be incorrect. For even with the LEGO name, it is a colorful, fast-moving affair with a wildly clever message of creativity. The film is also a rare creation with all-ages appeal.
  1. “Palo Alto,” a rarity in recent American high school cinema – a downbeat drama focused on the sudden, foolish accidents of teenage life. First-time director Gia Coppola has her aunt Sofia’s eye for adolescent ennui, and deftly captures how it feels to be young, bored, lustful and a little bit scared.
  1. “In Bloom”: A somber but electrifyingly vivid Georgian drama, “In Bloom” is a gripping portrait of thwarted adolescence in war-torn, early-90s Republic of Georgia. The film rightfully earned worldwide praise as an insightful document of semi-recent Eastern European history.
  1. “Land Ho!”: As the exclamation point in its title indicates, “Land Ho!” finds just the right crowd-pleasing tone. This wonderfully entertaining travelogue buddy-movie about two seniors vacationing in Iceland is the antithesis of the tired dudes-on-a-road-trip comedy.

Review: “Lego Movie” builds on fun premise

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A February 1 screening of The Lego Movie was a milestone for me: It was the first time I brought my three-year-old son to a movie I was reviewing. And it went … pretty well. WE made it through the whole thing, which admittedly was a bit much for a viewer that young. But since seeing it, he cannot stop talking about it. And I have talked about it quite a bit, too. Here is my 3 ½ star review from the Buffalo News.

In a 1998 episode of “The Simpsons,” forever-10-year-old Bart was spellbound by a television show seemingly created by the Gods of Product Placement: “The Mattel and Mars Bar Quick Energy Chocobot Hour.” It was a gloriously astute parody of the kind of boardroom-crafted “entertainment” that all too often bludgeons children into submission.

You would be forgiven for thinking an animated film called “The LEGO Movie” would be just as cynical a corporate creation, but you would be incorrect. For “LEGO” is an unadulterated pleasure, a colorful, fast-moving treat for all ages. This bold, original film has a wildly clever script with a message of creativity that should resonate with even the most hardened viewers.

Helmed and written by “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” and “21 Jump Street” directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, “The LEGO Movie,” opening Friday, takes place in an alternative world that is visually familiar to anyone who ever attempted construction with the ubiquitous interlocking blocks.

It can reasonably be claimed that LEGOs foster creativity, but the universe of this film is the opposite – one gripped by cheerful conformity. No one adheres to the formula of endless instruction and orderly work/play more than Emmet, a big-hearted, adorable LEGO figure.

Emmet is voiced by one of the most likable young actors in filmdom, Chris Pratt. The “Parks and Recreation” regular gave fine performances in films including “Moneyball” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” but “LEGO” is the first movie to fully make use of his essential sweetness. His Emmet, a construction worker, is happy, friendly and utterly ordinary.

The masses, Emmet included, are enraptured by the secretly tyrannical Lord Business, voiced by a perfectly cast Will Ferrell, and cannot get enough of the one song played endlessly for their enjoyment, “Everything is Awesome.” (Canadian duo Tegan and Sara collaborated with Andy Samberg’s Lonely Island gang on this deliriously catchy tune; it’s like an audio Pixie Stick.)

But Emmet’s life is suddenly turned upside down when he meets the mysterious Wildstyle (Elizabeth Banks), a cool customer who believes Emmet could be the Special, a Neo-like “Master Builder” who just might lead a rebellion against Lord Business.

Soon, she is introducing the Special to the Gandalf-y wizard Vitruvius (a game Morgan Freeman) and the other Master Builders, as well as her boyfriend Batman — yes, Batman, voiced with devilish pomposity by Will Arnett (“Arrested Development”). Other “famous” characters include Superman, Abraham Lincoln, and, of course, Shaquille O’Neal.

All are quickly suspicious of Emmet’s Special-status … with good reason. To keep Lord Business from gluing the world together (just go with it), Emmet and his new friends will have to discover what they are each capable of.

If the plot sounds a little bit overdone, it is, and that’s OK. In the context of the whirling dervish that is “The LEGO Movie,” it feels just right. So does “Everything is Awesome,” a song you will be singing for days, like it or not.

“LEGO Movie” is not flawless. The film’s pace lags a bit in the midsection, and the ending is drawn-out to an exhausting degree. At 100 minutes, it’s a good 10 to 15 minutes too long. However, the many pleasures of “LEGO” more than make up for these issues.

The cast is a major part of the fun. Liam Neeson stands out as Bad Cop/Good Cop, Lord Business’s chief enforcer. The “Taken” star sounds as if it’s the most fun he’s had on screen in years.

What really makes “The LEGO Movie” stand out, though, is the script from Lord and Miller. As the film speeds along, it becomes more than just bright kids’ fare. It’s also an insightful embrace of the joys of play.

The world of “LEGO” is, in fact, just the kind of wild, wooly, winkingly silly place a child might dream up on a daily basis.