Posted January 18, 2015

 

More than just about any other year since I began this website a decade ago, I had a monumentally difficult time of finalizing a list of the the best reasons why you should have rushed out to the cinemas in 2014.  And as with every year, I have opted to expand my Top 10 compilation to a Top 25, just so I can feel good about myself for mentioning and honoring such films that were truly superlative in the year that was, but nevertheless couldn’t find a way of including at the front of the pack. 

My screening output was cut short in 2014 by about 10 per cent, due to a variety of factors beyond my control (mostly time and money, but more of the former).  Alas, I endeavored to see a radical mixture of different films last year to expand my cinematic horizons as much as possible.  I think that my Top 10 list thoroughly evokes the rich variety that punctuated the movie world during the last twelve months.  The ten films mentioned below include a sprawling, near-3 hour family drama, a behind-the-scenes dramedy about theatrical stage life, a psychological thriller taking place at a jazz music school, a sci-fi comic book adventure, a murder mystery, an intelligence procedural with post-9/11 underpinnings, a hard boiled action film, a post-apocalyptic sci-fi film, a wacky and stylish period comedy, and an L.A. noir involving a very seedy profession.  These choices, of course, are deeply personal ones of mine.  The films here spoke to me in some manner or another well beyond the other films that saw the light of day in 2014.  These ten films reminded me of my love affair with the cinema. 

One final note: There still remains a series of films from 2014 that have not yet premiered in Saskatoon as of the time of this article’s publication (like BIG EYES, A MOST VIOLENT YEAR, STILL ALICE and WILD, just to name some).  Once I screen these films and feel that they deserve worthy placement on the following list then I will make every effort to modify this article.   

So, here we go!  Here’s my TOP 10 FILMS from 2014:

 

Watch me talk about some of my picks on CTV:

 
 

1.   BOYHOOD

 
 

I’ve been championing BOYHOOD since I screened the film earlier in the summer of 2014.  Richard Linklater’s pioneering film – a near three-hour family drama epic – was one of the great filmgoing experiences of my life.  On a basic level, the film could not have been any simpler: Linklater chronicled the upbringing a child from elementary school to his high school graduation…over the course of twelve years.  Here was the utterly fascinating hook, though: the character in question during this decade-plus time frame was played by the same actor.  No makeup.  No CGI special effects.  No movie trickery.  We get to see this child – and the actor that played him (Ellar Coltrane) effectively grow up on screen. 

How did Linklater achieve this?  He shot BOYHOOD every year over the course of 12 years and then edited the 39 days of shot footage together to create a rich tapestry of the lad’s upbringing.  Not only was this an endlessly audacious and courageous filmmaking endeavor (what if Coltrane – God forgive – died during the production?), but it also created a stark intimacy with this boy’s story.  We see this boy emerge from a precocious and inquisitive child to a somewhat rambunctious young adolescent to a thoughtful and independent minded adult on the verge of discovering what he wants to do in life.  And we see the adult characters grow – and age – on screen as well.  The results were nothing short of miraculous.  BOYHOOD cost just $5 million, which wouldn’t cover the catering of the last Michael Bay film.  Yet, it was a magical cinematic gamble that paid off.

BOYHOOD never felt like a three hour film; it sort of just rushed by at the blink of an eye.  Kind of, oddly enough, like life.  There has never been a film that has so meticulously captured the ebb and flow of life like this one.  BOYHOOD is a small-scale movie marvel of incalculable dramatic magnitude. 

WATCH my review of the film on CTV Morning Live Saskatoon HERE

 

2.  BIRDMAN

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s BIRDMAN was a rousing artistic triumph on so many levels.  Not only was it a masterful exercise in directorial choreography, but it also served as a rallying cry for the career resurgence of its star Michael Keaton, whom just may go on to win Oscar gold for his exhilarating performance here. 

BIRDMAN also served as a meta-film commentary on Keaton’s past career successes and woes.  In BIRDMAN he plays a once A-list Hollywood actor that walked away from a lucrative super hero franchise film series in the early 90’s in search of more thoughtful dramatic fare (which, obviously, echoed Keaton’s own experiences with the BATMAN series two decades ago).  The actor in question wishes to rejuvenate his staled career by writing, directing, producing and starring in a Broadway play, and BIRDMAN chronicled the microcosm of the back-stage politics of putting a production on like none other.  That, and Inarritu’s overall technique in presenting it was fascinating and breathtaking: the entire film takes the look of one, long extended shot – without visible edits – to capture the comings and goings of the stage world.  This has been done before (Hitchcock did it in ROPE), but the overall result in BIRDMAN was astoundingly seamless.  The film was as technically masterful as any that I screened in 2014, but Inarritu matched his confident filmmaking hubris with a shrewd screenplay that had a thematic complexity and satiric tenacity.  

And Keaton was just an electrifying tour de force performance beast on display in BIRDMAN.  He reminded me here of his supreme – and thankless - gifts as both a dramatic and comedic actor.

3.  WHIPLASH

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WHIPLASH contained subject matter that I was not altogether interested in (jazz music) in a genre that I’ve grown tired of (the motivational mentor/student educational drama), but it miraculously emerged as one of the most feverously intoxicating psychological thrillers of 2014.   

At a cursory glance, WHIPLASH is about, yes, jazz music and about a young man attending one of the most prestigious musical universities in America to study with the greats and become successful in the field he loves so dearly.  Yet, Damien Chazelle’s (his directorial debut) film was not so much about music, per se, as it was about the intense and frightening battle of egos between the student and his teacher throughout the story.  Most educational genre films are uplifting and sentimental, whereas WHIPLASH’s primary modus operandi was to make viewers feel as uneasy as possible in exploring its central teacher/student relationship.  Beyond that, the film chronicled the whole damning undercurrent of the fanatical extremes that artistically inclined students go to in order to succeed and be the best in their field, and often at the expense of their very love of the art form.  WHIPLASH was spearheaded by two of the most breathlessly engaging and committed performances of 2014 by Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons, the latter playing one of the most toxically dislikeable and verbally and physically abusive teachers ever portrayed on screen.  

Everything built towards a humdinger of a conclusion; the final 15 minutes of WHIPLASH were arguably the most exhilarating and tension-filled final 15 minutes of any film that I’ve seen.  This, of course, was just one of the many reasons why the film was so diabolically spellbinding.

4.  NIGHTCRAWLER

Dan Gilroy’s NIGHTCRAWLER, one of 2014’s least-seen/great films, was like a hypnotic cocktail of the more distressing elements of Martin Scorsese’s TAXI DRIVER and Sydney Lumet’s NETWORK further crossed with the cold and calculating visual aesthetic of a Michael Mann film.  

And what a cocktail to have! 

Like Scorsese’s 1976 film, NIGHTCRAWLER was a deeply disturbing portrait of the slow burn mental descent of a sociopath.  Gilroy’s film focused on the dark underbelly of nocturnal freelance videography in LA and how one deeply ambitious, determined, and ultimately warped soul (Jake Gyllenhaal) resorts to every means possible to secure the best news footage that will net him the best financial windfall from a news station willing to buy it.  Like Lumet’s 1976 film, NIGHTCRAWLER also honed in on the media’s insatiable penchant for “if it bleeds, it leads” news coverage to garner big ratings, often to the detriment of covering more responsible and socially relevant stories.  And like many of Mann’s films, L.A. became an ethereal character in itself all throughout NIGHTCRAWLER, as Gilroy painted a bleak canvas of despair and desperation where the environment itself acted as a catalyst for the film’s characters to make truly immoral decisions.  Added to all of this was a tour de force performance of sinister creepiness by Gyllenhaal and what we are left with was one of the most intoxicating directorial debut efforts in a long while by Gilroy.   

Not enough people saw NIGHTCRAWLER.  That should be changed.   

5.  GONE GIRL

I've seen David Fincher’s GONE GIRL twice now and it’s impossible to shake this film from my mind.  Based on the celebrated novel by Gillian Flynn, Fincher’s film was a brilliantly macabre and intoxicating who-dunnint that contained such a labyrinthine narrative and thematic complexity that one viewing simply is not enough to take it all in.   

GONE GIRL was purely Hitchockian in the manner that it delightfully teased, tormented, and manipulated audiences.  It was unlike just about any other murder mystery thriller that I’ve seen in the manner that it subverted our very expectations of the genre.  Most examples here are fairly linear in approach and payoff, but Fincher had more twisted tricks up his sleeve.  There was an enthralling mystery to be solved here, to be sure (a wife goes missing, husband is blamed, the media joins in on the assault of the husband’s character, and doubts emerge as to the husband’s guilt or innocence), but GONE GIRL – by about the halfway point – radically departed from genre staples and plot conventions and segued into even darker and seedier territory (many films strain to shock us with their plot twists, but this one carefully orchestrated them to the point where they felt deserved).  And well after the film shook viewers up with all of its dastardly narrative shifts, it careened towards one of the bleakest and most hauntingly ambiguous endings of any mainstream Hollywood film in recent memory.  GONE GIRL married cunning directorial ingenuity, brave and invigorating performances, and unnerving scripting better than most in past year.

WATCH my review of the film on CTV Morning Live Saskatoon HERE.

 

 6.  GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY

Big budget studio tentpole films never seem to get respect on lists such as these every year.  GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY had no business being as popular – or as immensely entertaining – as it turned out to be.  After all, it was a $200 million dollar science fiction film – set within the Marvel Cinematic Universe – that was directed by James Gunn (whom previously made the low-budget super hero flick - hated by me - SUPER) and was based on a comic book series that nearly everyone entering the cinema to see it – myself included – had barely heard of.  Yet, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY immerged as one of the most implausibly enjoyable escapist films of the summer of 2014.  It was the most giddily pleasurably time I had at the movies all year.

Like STAR WARS before it, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY washed away the vile cynicism that was tainting the movie world and simply reminded audiences to have “fun” at the movies again.  It was also – unlike just about any other sci-fi film or space fantasy before it – much more satisfyingly self-aware and subversively funny with its own underlining material.  If George Lucas and Quentin Tarantino had a love child then Gunn’s film would be the end result.  GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY had the look and feel of the sprawling and epic space adventures of old, but it also contained endearingly flawed characters – some human, some not – that were given scenes of droll wit in large parts due to Gunn’s gifts as a writer with a knack for quirky dialogue.  In a relative age when super hero franchise pictures take themselves with a grim faced solemnity, it was ultimately bold and most refreshing to see a film like GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY that had fun and laughed with and at the expense of its characters and story. 

I.  Am.  GROOT!

WATCH my review of the film on CTV Morning Live Saskatoon HERE.

  7.  THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL

Wes Anderson has made many wonderful films, but THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL was arguably his career high work.  It audaciously brought everything together that the eclectic filmmaker is known for: exaggerated and quirky characters, colorfully surreal environments, an ethereal storybook-like aesthetic look and feel, and stories that blend hearty laughs with dark pathos.  Many – including myself – have found Anderson’s overall style to be impenetrably cold and impersonal over the years.  THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL fully enraptured me and never let go. 

The terrifically envisioned characters all lived harmoniously within Anderson’s dreamlike palette here.  In shot after shot, the director reveled in meticulous love for his craft: there was not one moment in THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL that didn't feel joyously engineered and envisioned, from the makeup, hair, costumes, and production design.  There was an exactitude to detail here – as well as filmmaking self assurance and exuberance – that set Anderson's film well apart from the pack, so much so that it helped elevate THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL above the petty moniker of a purely idiosyncratic work.  That, and the film was – largely thanks to an incredibly game Ralph Fiennes – impeccably droll throughout.  THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL led all other 2014 films with the most Oscar nominations, so exceedingly rare for movie comedies.  It was deserved.

8.   DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES

 

The new PLANET OF THE APES films had a mighty large shadow cast over it.  2011’s RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES had the unenviable and thankless task of rebooting one of the most iconic and popular film franchises in industry history, especially coming off of Tim Burton’s critically panned 2001 re-imagined effort.  Thankfully, the new Apes-redux was a solid retooling of the “damn, dirty, talking apes” mythology, but I was thoroughly surprised by what an even stronger film DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES was; this was the eight film in the long-standing series of APE films…and it just may be the best of the bunch. 

There are so very few sequels these days that systematically emerge as superior to their antecedent.  DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES did what all-great sequels should do in terms of expanding upon the original’s storyline while intrepidly taking the narrative in new and refreshing directions.  That’s what director Matt Reeves (replacing Rupert Wyatt) did, and he crafted an even richer, more thoughtful, and more thematically engaging film than its predecessor.  Featuring some of the most jaw-droppingly realistic CG visual effects I’ve ever seen in a film, poignantly rendered performances that packed a punch (Andy Serkis gives one of the most textured performances of the year – motion captured or not – as the emotionally plagued ape leader Caesar) and a script laced with chilling parallels to the present day, DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES fully emerged out of the shadow of the Charlton Heston 1968 original and stood proudly on its own two feet.  It’s a daring and stunningly innovative post-apocalyptic sci-fi drama. 

  
 

9.  A MOST WANTED MAN

 

Masterful espionage thrillers are not a dime a dozen.  So many try, but fall short of greatness.  That’s why I was so ultimately won over by A MOST WANTED MAN, one of the most mournfully overlooked films on the awards circuit from last year.   

Anton Corbjin’s (THE AMERICAN) film – adapted from the book of the same name by John le Carre – did what so very few spy thrillers do: it fully immersed us in the unglamorous minutia of the men and women that work in the intelligence gathering field.  They fight the long, hard, arduous fight that’s rarely presented on screen.  Better yet is that A MOST WANTED MAN was a reality-based thriller dealing with tangible post-9/11 concerns and anxieties that was not from the American prerogative, but rather from a European standpoint (specifically Germany) and how one intelligence operative (played in one of the most underrated performances of 2014 by the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman) deals with mounting political pressures and roadblocks to get his job done in a timely manner before more terrorist attacks take place.  A MOST WANTED MAN was ingenious for how it generated suspense in the most understated ways (it contained very little, if any, action) and emerged in 2014 as one of the finer post-9/11 procedurals in a long time, and one that maximized thrills in unlikely and uncommon ways. 

10.  JOHN WICK

 

JOHN WICK.   

JOHN.  EFFIN’.  WICK. 

I’ve all but given up on action films.  Really.  I have.  So many recent ones have no freshness of approach or novelty.  Alas, along came this gloriously absurd, but deliriously stylish, brutally efficient, and intensely entertaining Keanu Reeves staring vehicle to wake the genre up out of pathetic apathy.  The film’s overall plot could be adequately described in a tweet (Reeves plays a retired hitman that lost his wife to cancer.  Russians kill his puppy and steal his ’69 Mustang.  He gets mad).  Seriously.  That’s about it.  Yet, director’s David Leitch and Chad Stahelski (both of whom were former stunt performers on THE MATRIX TRILOGY with Reeves) have obviously seen the coming of so many despicable habits that modern action film directors – some novice, and some veteran – have used as of late: shaky cam histrionics, hyperactive editing, framing action sequences without clarity or sense of spatial relationships, and blatantly obvious CG effects.  These guys don’t partake in any of that: they kept the camera still and allowed us to linger on and appreciate the stunt choreography, something that’s so painfully lacking in so many big budget Hollywood action flicks as of late.  

Even more awe-inspiring was witnessing the 50-year-old (that’s *50*…with a five and zero) Reeves sink his teeth into his grim and determined anti-hero with the robust bravado of his younger self.  He fully embodied one of the most coldly calculating and empowered killing machines in recent film history. 

I have no shame putting this film in my Top 10.  This was one unstoppable animal of the movie. 

 
  ...and now to round off my TEN BEST FILMS OF 2014 with my selections from 11-25:  
 

11.  LOCKE: Tom Hardy proved why he's one of the finest and most versatile acting talents working today in this bravura one-man show of a film.

 

12.  THE LEGO MOVIEEverything was awesome about one of the most delightful and inspired animated films of 2014.

 

13.  HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2: The second best animated film from the year that was contained awe inspiring visual wonders, rich and textured performances, and a willingness to darken the continuing storyline from the first film.

 

14.  JOE:  For a brief moment, Nicolas Cage reminded us in this David Gordon Green film of why he once was a proven Oscar winning talent; not enough people saw this moody, small scale masterpiece.  

 

15.  CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLIDER: If it weren't for GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY then this follow-up to the already wonderful 2011 film would have been my go-to Marvel super hero film of choice.

 

16.  ENEMY: French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve's 2013 film PRISONERS was one of that year's best films and he returned to fine form in this nightmarish, surrealistic, and hypnotically engaging thriller.  

 

17.  CHEF: Writer/director Jon Favreau took a break in 2014 from big budget studio filmmaking and made this terrific low-budget comedy that returned the director back to his indie roots.

 

18.  FOXCATCHER:  Bennett Miller's fact-based crime drama featured a career-changing performance by Steve Carrel and dynamic, awards nomination worthy turns by Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo.

 

19.  THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING: An unexpectedly moving and powerfully performed biopic about Stephen Hawkings' life and times.

 

20.  A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES: Criminally underrated mystery thriller featured yet another stalwart and commanding performance by Liam Neeson.

 

21.  SNOWPIERCER:  An exceedingly rare visual effects/action-heavy sci-fi film that contained a provocative socio-political underbelly.

 

22.  EDGE OF TOMORROW: How this Doug Liman directed/Tom Cruise starring sci-fi thriller was not a huge hit still baffles me; it was a fiendishly inventive and surprisingly whimsical alien invasion flick.

 

23.  JODOROWSKY'S DUNE:  An utterly enthralling documentary about a film version of DUNE that never made it to the cinemas.

 

24.  THE DROP:  Another Tom Hardy-led film led the pack in 2014, this time in a sensationally scripted Dennis Lahane mob drama.

25.  FURY:  David Ayer's frequently exhilarating, moving, and magnificently performed WWII-era film about tank warfare.

 
  Beyond my TOP 25, here's a further selection of films that are definitely worth seeing, but just not quite great enough to make the final cut:  
 

UNDER THE SKIN: A gloriously trippy and deeply disturbing sci-fi alien invasion thriller that was more effectively interested in mood and atmosphere than action and spectacle.

NON-STOP:  Liam Neeson has carved quite the recent career rejuvenation as an unlikely action hero, and NON-STOP joyously continued that tradition for the star. 

X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST: Director Bryan Singer made a triumphant return to the X-MEN film franchise with arguably the best film in the series since X2: X-MEN UNITED.  

BAD WORDS: Jason Bateman is the best deadpanner in the movies, but he also demonstrated shrewd directorial chops in his filmmaking debut here.  

 

NEIGHBORS: This Seth Rogen comedy cheerfully delivered on its promises of all-out debauchery and frat house shenanigans.  

 

THE FAULT IN OUR STARS: A rare cancer melodrama that showed an uncommon respect for both its characters and audience members.

 

NIGHT MOVIES: An intense and understated eco-thriller that showed a keen focus on character dynamics and building suspense in observational details..

 

THE TRIP TO ITALY:  The uproarious sequel to the equally hysterical 2011 road comedy further established Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as the funniest dynamic duo of the movies. 

 

ATARI: GAME OVER: A thoroughly involving documentary about one of the longest standing urban legends in video game lore finally being put to bed.

 

JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT:  Kenneth Branagh directed reboot of the Jack Ryan cinematic universe was a fresh and most revitalizing franchise re-starter.

 

LABOR DAY:  Josh Brolin and Kate Winslet were an the main reason to see this otherwise cornball and predictable romance drama from director Jason Reitman.

 

ROBOCOP: Nothing will replace the original Paul Verhoven original, but this well-oiled ROBOCOP remake unexpectedly focused on its story and characters first and action a distant second.  

 

3 DAYS TO KILL:  Kevin Costner owned his role as a CIA hitman in this preposterously entertaining spy thriller.

 

MUPPETS MOST WANTED:  A delightful follow-up to the 2011 entry.

 

DRAFT DAY:  Kevin Costner returned to the sports genre with this assured and entertaining look at the back stage politics of the NFL draft day.

 

THE MACHINE: TRANSCENDENCE was the high marquee 2014 film about artificial intelligence, but this $2 million dollar British genre effort beat the higher costing American film at its own game.

 

GODZILLA: Gareth Edwards unleashed a new GODZILLA film that all but washed away the awful aftertaste of the dreadful 1998 Roland Emmerich iteration.  

 

MILLION DOLLAR ARM: Reality-based drama of a sports agent looking in unlikely places for new Major League Baseball recruits showed why star John Hamm is an unqualified movie star.

 

FILTH: The title here is very apt for this James McAvoy comedy of ill manners, based on the book from the writer of TRAINSPOTTING.  

DOM HEMMINGWAY: Richard Shepard's black comedy/satire featured a fiery and gutsy go-for-broke performance by a vanity-free Jude Law.

22 JUMP STREET: The mostly hilarious follow-up to 21 JUMP STREET was also sly and subversive for mocking the very conventions and clichés of sequels.

 

SABOTAGE: Many were expecting this Arnold Schwarzenegger cop thriller to evoke some of the star's brawny and brainless action flicks of old, but it was more surprisingly dark and compelling as a character driven film.

 

LIFE ITSELF: Touching and extremely inspirational documentary about the late film critic Roger Ebert.

 

LET'S BE COPS: Silly and juvenile, but laughs were definitely aplenty is this madcap screwball farce.  

 

SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR: This critically trashed box office bomb was a decent and consummately made follow-up to its landmark 2005 antecedent.

 

TO BE TAKEI: This funny and frequently moving documentary about STAR TREK actor George Takei's life revealed him to be a man of fortitude and courage during his life and career.

 

THE MAZE RUNNER: A rare young adult fiction movie adaptation that was built on a solid foundation of a tantalizing premise and great forward narrative momentum.

 

THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU: Under-appreciated family reunion comedy that featured a well assembled cast elevating the otherwise maudlin material.

 

THE EQUALIZER: Denzel Washington was his steely-eyed best in this very loose, but mostly action-packed and intense adaptation of the cult 1980's TV series of the same name.

 

SPACE STATION 76: One of the most peculiar sci-fi comedies that I've ever seen; its peculiarity, though, is what made it all the more endearingly offbeat.  

 

THE JUDGE:  Robert Duvall and Robert Downey Jr. made for a splendid performance tandem in this legal dramedy.

 

ALEXANDER AND THE TERRIBLE, HORRIBLE, NO GOOD, VERY BAD DAY: A crowd-pleasing and mostly amusing family comedy about one family having the worst day...ever.

 

THE PURGE: ANARCHY: This sequel to the 2013 sci-fi allegory was a slickly made and intense urban action thriller that improved upon the first film's premise.

 

INTERSTELLAR:  Christopher Nolan's space trekking epic was undeniably sprawling and ambitious despite its narrative missteps.

 

BIG HERO 6: A fun, lively, and colorful super hero themed animated film. 

 

THE INTERVIEW: The pre-release controversy certainty overwhelmed this film's release, but this Seth Rogen/James Franco farce spiritedly mocked targets of both American and North Korean varieties. 

 

THE GAMBLER: This remake of the iconic 1974 James Caan original featured stylish direction by Rupert Wyatt and a thankless lead performance by Mark Wahlberg.

 

THE IMITATION GAME: Benedict Cumberbatch's electrifying performance led the charge of this mostly gripping WWII-era spy drama. 

 

SELMA: A terrific humanistic portrait of Martin Luther King set against the backdrop of the Montgomery Civil Rights Marches of 1965. 

 

A MOST VIOLENT YEAR: Director J.C. Chandor followed up his Oscar nominated ALL IS LOST with this atmospheric and well acted period crime thriller.

 

WILD: Reese Witherspoon gave her best film performance ever in this fact-based drama about a women that went on a solo 1100-mile hike up along the western U.S. coast.  

 

 

   

 

 
     
 

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