(Favorite poster of the year. “Turn off all the lights. I want to see what it looks like from the street!”)
“I am easily moved to tears and rarely survive a visit to the cinema without shedding them, racked, as I am, by the most perfunctory, meretricious or even callously sentimental attempts at poignancy (something about the exterior of the human face, so vast and palpable, with the eyes and the lips: it is all writ too large for me, too immediate for me.)”
– Martin Amis
” There is a general “blah-ness” to the films we produce. Although we manage to produce an innovative film once in awhile, Social Network, Moneyball, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, we continue to be saddled with the mundane, formulaic Adam Sandler films.” – Leaked internal memo at Sony
“”fun” is a pejorative term to trivialize or infantilize pleasure…” – Richard Brody
Another one bites the dust. 2014 has come and gone. It started with such promise, the World Cup was on the horizon, Bill de Blasio had been elected mayor, Lays Potato Chips had finally launched their “Do us a flavor” campaign. Things were looking up.
But then the storm clouds rolled in. Ebola. Republicans taking over the Senate. Isis. The Torture Report. The ceaseless outrage of the New Left. The revolting actions of our police. Sigh….
Yet despite it all, Hollywood kept chugging along. The little engine the couldn’t resist those overseas markets. More sequels (22 Jump Street, Hunger games 3, Hobbit 3, Night at The Museum 3) and superhero tripe (Transformers 4, Spider man 2, Captain America 2, X-men 5). To be fair, some of these money makers were legitimately excellent (Guardians of The Galaxy and Dawn of The Apes), but most were crap. And should we worry when increasingly these cash grabs are all Hollywood seems to offer? Every year the number of films in wide release goes down and the number of superhero sequels in wide release goes up. At some point will we reach peak tights? Are we stuck with Robert Downey Jr. fighting hordes of CGI robozoids or whatever the fuck for the foreseeable future? That’s bleak. I guess I’m trying to say A24 can’t do it alone. So Hollywood, if for some reason you’ve mistakenly opened this page, in 2015 can we skim off a touch of that billion dollar Marvel foam and throw it to Adam Wingard?
Anyway, the tendency is to try and find a bunch of unifying themes for all the great films of 2014. I’ll be honest, I couldn’t do it. I guess there was some half-reckoning with our impeding climate disaster. Interstellar creates a world where the human diet has been reduced to corn and corn products, but our heroes are still able to stay more svelte than a beach volleyball team. SnowPiercer imagines a post-apocalyptic earth in deep freeze. A world so cold that even if you’re packed by the hundreds into a crowded train car you still need to wear like ten layers of grimy wool to stay warm. Even Only Lovers Left Alive mentions the idea that we should all be buying property in Detroit because in 20 years the south will be on fire. But that’s all I got. No grand connections.
Regardless, all the films on this list have one massive thing in common, I loved them. 2014 may have been a terrible year in the “real” world, but on the silver screen there were moments of clarity and moments of beauty and stories that achieved Transcendence!
Below are my top ten, followed by some superlatives. As I say every year, the list is incomplete. I never see as many foreign films as I should. And there are still films left to be released this year (American Sniper, Selma, A Most Violent Year). And you know what, I’m never going to see Ida. I’m just not. It’s probably gut-wrenching, haunting, adjective, ADJECTIVE! But I can’t do it. Call me a philistine. Fine. I just can’t convince myself to spend two hours on a black and white Polish film about the internal struggles of a nun. Sorry.
The Top Ten
10) SnowPiercer: When everything goes dark and Curtis yells to the back of the train that he needs fire and that kid runs forward with the torch and passes it on to the one armed guy and then forward and forward until it reaches our hero, I got this pit in my stomach. Finally an action movie with some gall, some teeth, and even at its most bleak…hope?
9) Inherent Vice: Even half in the bag and having just finished a ten hour work day, Inherent Vice kept me up. More The Master than Boogie Nights. Josh Brolin eating that plate of weed will never be forgotten. And how the film was able to wring real romance and chemistry from all these bat-shit encounters was remarkable. Martin Short should win some kind of award (People’s Choice!). The only reason this isn’t higher on the list is because sometimes I can’t tell if Anderson is fucking with us. It’s almost like he writes the most juvenile, absurd scenes and then gets the best talent in Hollywood to make them half-believable. I can picture him saying “If we have Josh Brolin fellate a chocolate banana no one will say it’s stupid…because it’s me doing it!”. Are the choices he makes genius or are we giving him too much credit? I’m with the former.
8) Magic in the Moonlight: Remember when movies were allowed to be small? Remember when movies were allowed to be light? Maybe that time didn’t exist. As a matter of fact maybe small films have never been given their proper due. Cinema, especially American cinema, has always been obsessed with the huge, the bombastic. THE SCOPE! THE BIG SCREEN! The films we tend to award, whether it’s Lawrence of Arabia or Return of the King, they tend to be from the Cecil B. Demille wing of film thought. I mean look at number 2 on this list.
I understand the criticism of late Woody Allen, that his films are airy and light and return to the same themes over and over. But remind me why that’s a negative? When did big, heavy and new become a prerequisite for good? Sometimes you need 90 minutes of charming people in a gorgeous location having conversations with multisyllabic words.
And what’s more, I think most people dislike Woody Allen because his films are aggressively unmodern. I don’t mean in subject matter. There have always been period pieces. But I mean the actual film techniques, the acting, the pacing, all of it feels timeless. In an age where the everybody and everything is trying to stuff their RELEVANCE down your throat, timeless is a tough thing to be.
7) Foxcatcher: Front to back the entire film feels…off. You keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. The beauty of the landscape and the countryside only heighten the truly weird dynamics between Mark and Dupont. Steve Carrell is able to make non-reactions scarier than reactions. They way that Ruffalo and Tatum walk, it’s like their muscles won’t let them walk upright. They’re two rungs down on the evolutionary scale. This is what nightmares are made of.
6) Boyhood: Everyone loves it. I’m no exception. A lot has been written, and said, and thought, and forgotten about the 12 year process of making this film. But none of that matters if the movies blows. It doesn’t. It’s impeccably acted and restrained in almost all the right ways. Boyhood has the most courage of all this year’s films. Linklater doesn’t rely on major events. No prom. No shootings. No abortion. This isn’t a montage. It’s a life. The things you’d actually remember. Life doesn’t change in an instant. It builds, fragment by fragment, until one day you turn around and see it all behind you.
Why not number 1? I understand Linklater has sympathy for Ethan Hawke’s absentee dad, as he should. But he kind of went overboard in making all the other dads complete assholes. Both were drunks, and neither got more than one or two scenes aside from their drunkenness. Heavy is the hand that gives a character a bottle instead of a third dimension. And we won’t even talk about that waiter who reappears near the end. Unfortunate.
5) Only Lovers left Alive: Who knew the year’s most romantic film would follow a 2,000 year old vampire living in the burned out husk of Detroit. Best soundtrack of the year. The languid pace is completely in line with the boredom of the characters. Anton Yelchin needs to be in more stuff. If I’d been drinking milk during the scene where he tries to fit in at the rock show, the guy in front of me would still be cleaning it off his neck.
4) Listen Up Philip: The extended take of Elizabeth Moss’s face experiencing the entire arc of her relationship with Phillip was sooo good. Shot in brain-gasm inducing super sixteen. If only all the assholes I’ve known (self included) were this much fun…
3) The Grand Budapest Hotel: Hilarious. Gorgeous. So tactile you can feel the suede and the cake frosting between your fingers. Yet Grand Budapest is one of the best because real human tragedy hovers just off frame. By opening the world to the implications of global politics, Wes Anderson makes the strongest case yet for his distinct style of filmmaking. Yes, everything is fanciful and exact. Yes, everything is uber meticulous and mannered. But that’s because art and film are allowed to be. The world of the hotel is a bastion of politeness and standard in a Europe growing increasingly radical. The same can be said for the film itself against that previously mentioned tide of cartoon schlock and superhero shoot ’em ups. In its own way Budapest doubles as an argument for the continued existence of Anderson himself. Not only does he believe The Grand Budapest should be allowed to carry on, he believes they have a duty to.
2) INTERSTELLAR: Gotta do it. Just when you thought the McConsaissance was over, Warner Brothers and Christopher Nolan drop a massive pleasure bomb. There were points in Interstellar where I felt like a cartoon coyote. My jaw dropped to the floor and my tongue rolled out like a carpet. Interstellar takes the most elemental human relationships and casts them against multiple galaxies, space time, etc. You can feel the sand beneath each character’s fingernails even when they’re a million miles from the farm.
Nolan has said that although he didn’t think about it during the writing process, he now believes the antagonist of Interstellar to be Time itself. This makes perfect sense. Nolan has always been interested in cinemas unique ability to compress, elongate, and juxtapose time. He did it with the backward editing of Memento. He did it with the layers of relative time in Inception. And now he’s expanded this infatuation beyond the known world. When Cooper and Brand return to the ship to find Romily has aged 26 years, it is a piece of fiction that could only have the maximum impact it does in the cinematic form. We experienced Cooper’s adventure on the planet in real time, alongside him. Meanwhile Romily aged and lived in excess of twenty years, outside the figurative and literal time frame. When Cooper returns to the ship, the film is crashing the immediate, the active, back into the implied. It’s really a genius thing.
Why isn’t this on every top ten list? There’s a weird undercurrent of people bashing Interstellar. Maybe because it’s Christopher Nolan and he’s got that Midas touch? People must feel the need to take him down a peg? So they quibble with tiny inaccuracies. They hold onto the rushed final minutes and use that to negate everything that came before. Get over it. Furthermore, if you leave the theater, after having witnessed this gorgeous web of moving color, an Escher inspired tesseract, tidal waves the size of countries, the docking of a fucking space ship juxtaposed against the burning of crops, and the first thing you discuss is a certain cameo by a certain famous actor… well, you’re not the intended audience anyway. You’re probably the person who went to see Gone Girl for Ben Affleck’s penis.
There’s a moment about halfway through the film, Cooper is up in space with Brand and Romily. Romily is downbeat. He doesn’t know if he can handle the loneliness of space. Cooper takes off his headphones and hands them to Romily. Romily puts them on and suddenly he hears the sounds of nature: thunder, crickets, rolls of rain and lightning. The sounds continue as we cut to a shot of the ship approaching one of Saturn’s rings. It’s a pure cinematic moment. Every tool in the woodshed is used in this one cut. The scope of the theater screen, the collision of sound and image, the compression of time. It’s equal parts Marker and Kaufman and Kubrick. How can you not love this movie?!
1) CitizenFour: I cried. It’s still unclear exactly why. Could be because we rarely see true selflessness anymore? Could be because CitizenFour makes stark the pervasive disillusionment we all feel so deeply? Or it could be because I had substituted coffee for lunch and it was giving me indigestion? Regardless, I don’t think a single day has gone by without me thinking about this film. CitizenFour isn’t just important, it’s also beautifully constructed. Even in moments of profound simplicity the context puts you on the edge of your seat. Edward Snowden combing his hair. Edward Snowden sitting on a bed. Edward Snowden walking out of a hotel. You know it’s great when an exterior shot of a hotel can make you break into a sweat. A moment by moment documentation of one man whose every move will have global ramifications.
You could write endlessly on the layers of reflection in this film. Snowden is warning us that we’re being watched and listened to. But isn’t that what we want? Not only that, he delivers the warning by allowing himself to be watched and listened to. In a time and place where more than half of Americans support torture, The richest 1% control half OF THE WORLD’S WEALTH, our elected officials are increasingly ineffective, this isn’t just a film about surveillance. It’s a film about where we’ve allowed ourselves to be taken. The implications of our vanity. By devoting so much of ourselves to the examination of ourselves, our ideas, our jokes, our photographs, what have we allowed to happen outside of the screen? It’s a film about what we think we know. Who we think we are versus the reality. Edward Snowden is out there sounding the alarm, not just about the NSA, not just about James Clapper, but about our assumptions. In the film Snowden keeps saying his only goal is to alert the public to what’s going on. To help us question the trust we place. The faith we have. He wants us to have a conversation about the world we’re allowing. This way before we look into the mirror we’ll know what we want our reflection to be.
The Best Movie Inspired Halloween Costume Idea That I Unfortunately Didn’t See At Any Parties: Amy from Gone Girl after she’s killed Doogie Howser and returns to Nick covered in blood and draped in a hospital gown. Seriously terrifying. For some reason the staff at Missouri Regional decided it’d be a good idea to allow Amy to leave the hospital without showering. Thanks a lot Obamacare.
My future son’s favorite film: That Man From Rio – If you were to take a James Bond movie, filter out the gadgetry and fitted suits, but add in more broad humor and roguish charm, you’d end up with the 1962 French film, That Man From Rio. After Interstellar it was the best theater experience I had this year. Proof you can make a a jaded group of New Yorkers laugh to tears without swear words or shit jokes. It’s also crazy to see how much Lucas and Spielberg stole from That Man From Rio for Indiana Jones. I’m talking like shot for shot. You will love this movie.
2nd Annual Freddy Adu Award: Neighbors – I thought it would be the millennial Old School. It seemed like the next logical step for the college comedy. The idea of a former party couple moving in next door to the current generation is perfect. I so wanted to love this movie. Instead I left feeling like I hadn’t seen a movie but rather spent two hours in a crappy writer’s room with everyone talking over one another. Pay offs with no set up. Jokes out of nowhere. Nonsensical characters. A film with absolutely no build. It starts at 60 and only tries to maintain. The fraternity feels flat. The college is non-existent. A bummer on all levels.
Perfect Final Shot from A 90s Film: Dangerous Liasons – Who knows why I’d never seen Dangerous Liasons before this year? It won a couple of Academy Awards. It launched the career of Uma Thurman and solidified the careers of both Malcovich and director Stephen Frears. Not to mention it’s a phenomenal piece of soapy, 1600’s backstabbery. You can never go wrong with cruelty and powdered wigs. But it’s the final shot that launches Dangerous Liasons from the atmosphere of great into the stratosphere of masterpiece. I should say the film begins with an extended montage of Glenn Close getting primped for the day. The ritual of her preparation is studied. By the end of the film her greatest ally is dead. She’s been publicly shamed. All the dangerous games, the double crosses, the manipulation, has caught up with her. So she sits in front of her vanity, and begins to remove her makeup. Her face: its skin, its slack, the bright red capillaries seep up from under the white mask of make up. And we see that under it all is a woman. It was more than a mask. It was a shield. It’s heartbreaking and revealing and completely earned.
Poor horse award: Dawn of the Apes – Even in the future, after mankind has been reduced to a glorified tribe and apes have retaken the wilderness, the horse as a species can’t catch a fucking break. Why are the apes riding horses? Have they no sympathy for their animal brethren?
The Ryan Gosling Blandroid of the year award: Jason Bateman in Bad Words – If Bateman were a tumor we’d be in the clear, cause he’s completely benign! Rim shot. Watching Jason Bateman in Bad Words is like watching a man shaped mold filled with luke warm porridge, controlled by a sleepy puppeteer. Lifeless doesn’t even scratch the surface
The Natalie Portman at Harvard Grading on a Curve Award: Captain America 2: Money Never Sleeps – A couple token references to modern political events doesn’t excuse the other two hours of completely uninspired kung-fu gun battles. Why does the bad guy look like Scott Stapp? How can there be any tension in these silly superhero movies when we already know that the characters are going to re-unite in the next installment? Critics have been grading Marvel on a curve for a long long time. This year was no exception.
Alright! There you have it. One more for the books. Not really the books I guess. One more for the pages of the internet. Pages and pages and pages of text, pages against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Thanks for reading everybody. See you next year!