A Most(ly) Good Year (for Film)

21 Jan

Leader2014 was a crappy year for the world, but a wonderful year for movies. Just one look at the Oscar nominations (which I still don’t think matter that much) proves that. Yes, it is shockingly white and male, but that should not detract from the quality. Out of the eight nominees for Best Picture four can be defined as “independent,” with two indie darlings – Richard Linklater and Wes Anderson – getting Best Director nods. Importantly, with their respective films (one which I adored, one which I found vastly overrated), it was the mountain (Hollywood) that came to Mohammed (the directors), with neither of them sacrificing their artistic sensibilities just to get a bigger piece of the pie.

The biggest controversy regarding the nominations was the mostly snubbed Selma. Yes, it got a Best Picture nod, but nothing for director Ava DuVernay or lead actor David Oyelowo. Most decry this as a soft bigotry on Hollywood’s behalf, though it also comes just one year after 12 Years a Slave (a far better film than Selma) took home the top prize. I find the snub odd in that Selma is exactly the type of film Hollywood loves – historical, biopic-ish, liberal, and most crucially, “important.” It is also a good film, but not a great one.

Selma is not a typical biopic, as it only covers a brief chapter in Martin Luther King’s life. I have issues with biopics in that they are the most necessarily formulaic of all Hollywood films. Nothing says this more than the excruciatingly contrived The Theory of Everything (Grade: C-). Eddie Redmayne gives a solid impersonation of Stephen Hawking, and the film mostly works during its first (wheelchair-less) half. Once Hawking’s illness sets in, however, the movie is a paint-by-numbers best-of Hawking show.

The Imitation Game (B+) does not so much skirt what I call Biopic Hazards, as tiptoe right over them. There’s the girl who’s going to save him…except not really. There’s the grand conflict the main character has to overcome…except not exactly. One worry going into this film was how much of it would be about his personal life (his homosexuality in a country that criminalized it) and how much would be about his work during World War II. It turns out, the balance is nearly perfect. 

And now for some awards, both positive and negative. Links are to my original reviews.

Most Contemptible Bullshit

Guardians of the Galaxy (C). Here’s a film that seems like fun, that seems like a good film, but is mostly a fraud. It’s got some witty lines. It looks great. But it’s also cut from the same cloth as everything else in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It is a safe, risk-averse, empty-headed film.  Nothing in it is original. At most, it is hollow entertainment.

Worst Historical Revisionism

Admittedly, Selma and The Imitation Game have a boatload of historical inaccuracies. Dates are changed, individuals who really existed disappeared, and people who never existed suddenly became characters. Most of those reworkings were made to create conflict (the yeast to storytelling). LBJ was made more of an antagonist because Selma needed the conflict. Alan Turing’s co-workers in The Imitation Game were far more antagonistic in the film than in real life because he needed an obstacle to overcome. While facts are fudged, both films get the spirit of their historical offerings right.  

Then you have American Sniper (C+). Not a bad movie per se, as Clint Eastwood rarely makes those, but a weighty blob of a film. Bradley Cooper is very good, and each year proves that he’s more than just a pretty face. Still, his character here is placed on a pedestal by Eastwood which doesn’t allow much room for character growth or development. Then you get Eastwood’s Rah Rah-ing of a disastrous war. In fact, every single time the director has a chance to critique the war, he turns the other way. It’s not so much revisionism as willful blindness, like looking at someone sitting in a chair and seeing only the chair, but I digress…

The Hipster Award for Symmetrical Color Wheels

The Grand Budapest Hotel. (C) Uber-twee. Wes Anderson on acid. A sugary concoction with zero nutritional value. Yes, it’s nomination for Best Picture helps validate Anderson’s career, but couldn’t he have been nominated for Moonrise Kingdom?

Most Overrated Film No One Saw

Under the Skin (C+). An sexy alien goes around Britain killing men. Tries to be Kubrick, doesn’t quite work. Boring and full of itself.

Best Crappy Film

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (C). No, it’s not good. But it’s not that bad either.

Worst Missed Opportunity

Godzilla (C): The trailer makes it seem like it’s Walter White v. Lizard. But it’s Walter White’s Forgettable Son v. Not The Lizard You Came to See.

The Woody Allen Award for Most Uncomfortable Age Gap in a Romantic Pairing

Magic in the Moonlight (C+). Note to Woody: try casting Helen Mirren or Judi Dench next time. Or Maggie Smith. Definitely Maggie Smith.

The Bill Murray is Not Amusing Award

Monuments Men (C-) and St. Vincent (C-). The first is easily the worst film George Clooney has directed, an old fashioned WWII flick that constantly misfires. The second is pure Weinstein Oscar Bait. Cute, indie, got a kid in it, Bill Murray being Bill Murray. I’m sure Harvey Weinstein saw it as the second coming of Little Miss Sunshine. Instead, it’s a derivative, tone deaf vehicle that allows Bill Murray to waltz through the movie without flexing a single acting muscle.

The Red Dress Award for Emotional Manipulation

Named after the (in)famous Girl in the Red Dress in Schindler’s List, which makes us aware – in case we weren’t already – that the Holocaust sorta sucked. 

Selma (B) works for two main reasons. First, Oyelowo’s performance is no mere impersonation, but a portrait of a deeply conflicted man. Second, like Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, the best moments in Selma are not the speeches but the behind the scenes wheeling and dealing. Selma, however, has a tendency to linger over images of anguish and suffering similar to what Spielberg has been notorious for. Slow motion sorrow only makes for a longer film, not a more emotional resonant one.  

Solidest Film of the Year

Gone Girl (B+): Because that’s what David Fincher makes: solid, well-made movies. Not always good ones (see, e.g., The Curious Case of Benjamin…Ok, Ok, I’m Awake). He’s the Alan J. Pakula/Sidney Pollack of his generation.

Best Comic Book Movie

X-Men: Days of Future Past (B+): I don’t know why, but I’ve generally liked every movie in this series. Maybe because it’s not part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and therefore freed from some of its restrictions (e.g., trying). This was fun, breezy, and while it didn’t make much sense, I didn’t really give a fuck.

Best Summer Blockbuster

Edge of Tomorrow (B+). How do you get a good performance from Tom Cruise? Cast him as Tom Cruise. It seems weird to describe this movie as Starship Troopers meets Groundhog Day, but that’s basically what it is. And for a sci-fi romp, it’s a better examination of the horrors of warfare than American Sniper.

The Film Time Will Remember

I don’t know anyone who’s seen A Most Violent Year (B+), a film that came out on December 31, and which seemed primed for awards season. Both an homage to The Godfather and a moral anti-Godfather, the period piece is gorgeous, well-acted, crisply written, but for some reason it’s not making much of an impact amongst viewers. But let’s not talk about A Most Violent Year now but in five years once everyone agrees that it’s damned good. Let’s talk instead about, the best films of 2014.

First, I want to apologize to the following films for not having seen them, even though a lot of people I respect loved them. Life Itself, Jodorowsky’s Dune, The Tale of Princess Kaguya, Citizen Four, Leviathan, Blue Ruin, Ida, Love is Strange, Locke, Wild, 20,000 Days on Earth, Force Majeure, Dear White People, Obvious Child, A Most Wanted Man, Only Lovers Left Alive, Joe, Winter Sleep, Borgman, Goodbye to Language. Many of these may have snuck into my Top Ten. If I’d seen them. Which I didn’t. My bad.

10.    Nightcrawler (B+): Jake Gyllenhaal gives one of my favorite performances of the year as a man who is part Dale Carnegie, part Travis Bickle, roaming the streets of Los Angeles seeking the red blood that brings in the green cash. Okay, maybe less Dale Carnegie and more Count Dracula. It’s a perverse, dark take on the American Dream whose anti-hero is like a character out of a bizarre Horatio Alger story.

9.    Two Days, One Night (B+): Perhaps the most twisted premise of any film of the year. Marion Cotillard plays Sandra, a woman recently coming off disability who is told that either she will lose her job or her coworkers will lose their bonuses. She is forced to go around asking her coworkers to willingly sacrifice for her. It’s a film that walks the fine line between our hopes and fears of human nature.

8.    Snowpiercer (B+): Arguably the most fucked up movie of the year. But in a good way. Part classist allegory, part claustrophobic (it’s all set on a train) action flick, it is both subversive and subversive of its only subversiveness.

7.    The Lego Movie (A-): There are two types of people in the world, those who when asked: “Have you seen The Lego Movie?” scoff and say, “Why would I sully myself with that drivel?!?” and those who when asked the same question start singing “Everything is Awesome.” This is the most fun I had watching a movie all year. It’s not just a clever collection of pop culture references. It’s emotionally satisfying without being cheap about it and one of the best examples of world building in recent memory.

6.    The Immigrant (A-): The best movie no one saw. A multilayered period piece that tells the story of a poor Polish immigrant in 1920s New York who will do anything to survive. A thoughtful, humanistic look at a woman’s struggle for a place in the world.

5.    Mr. Turner (A-): Yes, it’s a two-and-a-half-hour long biopic of the British painter J.M.W. Turner. And yes, it’s a fairly slow costume drama. But it’s a gorgeous film, shot by cinematographer Dick Pope (a/k/a Dick Poop) like a real Turner painting. Like Nos. 1 and 3 on this list it’s the portrait of an artist as a self-absorbed asshole. Timothy Spall’s performance as Turner is one of the best of the year, portraying a brilliant curmudgeon with an eye for beauty.

4.    Interstellar (A-): Christopher Nolan is always derided by his biggest fans. They hated The Dark Knight Rises and now they poke holes through one of his most artfully imagined films. A strident, pro-science flick, it is to NASA what American Sniper is to the military: a full-on rallying cry. The comparisons to Kubrick are off-base; Interstellar is like the best of Spielberg: hopeful, naïve, at times too big for its boots, but also creatively ambitious and unforgettable.

3.    Whiplash (A-): The little film that could. Set in a de-romanticized New York City, this is an unapologetic look at what it takes to make it in the arts. Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons are both excellent as combatants in an exclusive music school.

2.    Boyhood (A): You’ve either seen this wonderful film or read enough raves about it to know how good it is. The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve come to understand that this film could have failed, miserably. There are no reshoots or do-overs when you film people aging over a twelve-year span. Not so much a coming-of-age story as a tale of an ever-evolving family.

1.    Birdman (A): Every time I think about this film, I feel a bit lighter, like I’m flying. And every time I think about it I understand it just a little less. But that is what I adore about Birdman, a film as tricky to craft as Boyhood, but one which moved me slightly more than that film. Michael Keaton brings it all as a washed-up has-been, a man caught up in self-doubt, self-pity, and self-reflection. The fluid “one take” style creates an out-of-body, otherworldly experience. Watching this movie (twice) was the only time(s) all year I felt like I had entered the film.

So that’s 2014. Will 2015 be any better? Will Marvel finally make a great film with Avengers: Age of Ultron? Will Woody Allen make a romantic comedy set in a hospice?  Will Fifty Shades of Grey ruin everyone’s Valentine’s Day? Will the boys in Hot Tub Time Machine 2 get Legionnaires Disease? Will Richard Linklater’s film That’s What I’m Talking About, described as a “spiritual sequel to Dazed and Confused but about baseball” be as awesome as it sounds? Will Chappie be as awful as its trailer indicates? Will Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight be a warmhearted family flick? Will anyone see the Entourage movie, and if so will they admit to it? Will Terminator: Genisys finally get spell checked? Will Star Wars: The Force Awakens be good? Please.

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