Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Year-End Wrap-up 2014: Insanely Belated Edition

Well, we’ve come to an extra-confusing time here, because I’m writing my annual review for 2014 in June of the following year. For those of you who are just tuning in, I suggest clicking on the “Site Update” tag at the end of this post or on the far right of the screen; that should fill you in on what I’ve been up to and why this post is appearing now. For all those people who have been keeping up, and know that I’ve been slowly reviewing the “best” and/or “biggest” pictures from last year at a leisurely pace, then just keep reading.

2014 was a terrible year in my own life, and yet it produced a lot of great films. More importantly, it’s the first time in a long while (since before this blog even started) that I truly kept current with theatrical releases. I saw more high-profile movies for 2014 than in any year before the turn of the century – I’ve been in and out of theaters so much from last Spring to now...

Having reviewed all the movies that I was excited for or felt I “had” to see, it’s time for me to weigh in. Please note that no one ever suggested I change the ridiculous categories that I use (every year, I ask readers if I should), so this will be nothing like a Top 10 list.

Best New Movie (that I actually saw) - This is the most difficult call that I’ve ever made, as 2014 was exceptional. The result of all my viewing is that I’m thoroughly-confused as to which is “the best.” And so, I can only say that my favorite films are Wild, Grand Budapest Hotel, Only Lovers Left Alive, The Babadook, and Under the Skin. If you like, you can tell all your friends that for once in my life, I accepted taking a total f--king copout.

Wild was the most moving, to me. Grand Budapest was the funniest, and may have had the best story. Only Lovers had the best characters and – I think – maybe the best setting and premise. Babadook was a fantastically-scary story, an excellent theatrical experience with a fresh, rich horror tale driving the narrative. Under the Skin was wonderful, partly for being so challenging and different, and partly for the exceptional audio and visual elements.

Rest assured, other movies came close to the mark. Birdman was amazing, joined by Whiplash, The Lego Movie (this links to DJ's review, I never got to do a double dip for it), and Two Days, One Night as all being able to stake a claim to having an outstanding combination of story, acting, direction, character, and script, in addition to displaying superb visual and audio craftsmanship. That’s what “the best film” is, right? I can’t just choose Edge of Tomorrow because I enjoyed the holy hell out of it - this is a laurel that speaks to the power of film, and pure action films shouldn’t make that list very often.

S--t, now this is starting to sound like a Top 10 list. In any case, it’s hard for me to declare a true winner among all those fine and varied entries. I guess I could narrow it down to Budapest, Under the Skin, and Wild, but I’d be hard-pressed to whittle it down from there - and removing one or two just makes me want to add Whiplash and Birdman (especially Birdman).

Best Out-of-the-Blue Release - Three independent documentaries nearly snagged the title, namely Citizenfour (which I very nearly reviewed for this site), Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case, and Red Obsession. However, my personal favorite has to be Coherence.

Coherence came out of nowhere, and on the basis of a simple plot description, I decided I had to see it. I even flexed my blogging muscles to request a review copy – not only was my wish granted, but I was terribly impressed by this indie sci-fi gem. I can’t give this movie enough praise, so please just read my review and/or watch it immediately anyway. It’s on Netflix Streaming now, so it’s not hard to track down.

Most Internal-Conflict-Causing Film - Big Hero 6 would be a top contender for this title – it was one of the funniest movies of the year, a fun watch despite its major missteps with character and plot. And yet it’s Interstellar that I will struggle with the most. While Gone Girl had a lot of great elements, I wasn’t actually confused as to how I felt about David Fincher’s adaption of Gillian Flynn’s novel, whereas Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi epic did leave me with an ambivalent response.

No, not by that stuff, I mean story and character issues.

Interstellar looked beautiful, and it presented a great story that was told well. Above all, it was an original work, not some remake/reboot/sequel or franchise-building effort. It was also a movie packed with narrative nonsense – like the youngest surviving astronaut not knowing about a secret space mission when he’s exactly the guy that the mission needs, or the ludicrousness of the overly-cinematic actions undertaken by Michael Caine’s role. Seriously, even the prominence of that Dylan Thomas poem is overwrought to the point of ridiculousness; Thomas drank himself to death in a really s---ty bar, after all.

Moreover, I cannot get past other odd weaknesses that are endemic to Christopher’s work. He plays for strong emotional reactions, yet has a scene where a man leaves his daughter’s deathbed because she basically says “you gotta go see about a girl.” Oh, and also his grandchildren act like their grandpa, humanity’s savior, isn’t even in the hospital room, all of which suggests that the writer-director didn’t understand how people work. SPOILER ALERT for the ending of the movie:

And this is all before we get to Nolan’s deeply-flawed use of female characters. A woman in a Christopher Nolan feature is, invariably, a psycho or a plot device, ever in service of a man. The male leads (it’s always a male lead) get some depth and development, whereas the notable females are: (a) “inspirational” figures like Rachel Dawes in the Batman movies, Piper Perabo’s part in The Prestige, or the wife in Memento, who is listed on IMDb and Wiki as “Leonard’s Wife” - they give our hero “something to work toward,” or die to make the protagonist feel pathos; or (b) an insane quasi-idiot who punishes our hero and feeds his guilt complex (Mal in Inception, Miranda in tDKR (played by the same actress, nice touch there Chris)); or (c) frail, unchallenging creatures who are wounded by the male lead’s (of course, understandable/justifiable) behavior, like The Prestige’s Sarah Borden, who kills herself instead of leaving with her child, or (oh, yeah) The Prestige’s Olivia Wenscombe, who falls for and leaves the lead in a way that only makes sense if she’s just there to add “drama;” or, finally, (d) brilliant neophytes who exist to aid in exposition for the audiences (like Inception’s Ariadne).

My plan would never work, but I'm crazy so I don't caaaaaare!

Long story short, in addition to Interstellar’s other problems, Chris still hasn’t figured out how to write a more than one-dimensional woman (see what I did there?), and he does this despite making Murphy Cooper (Jessica Chastain) and Dr. Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway) into figures that are supposed to be central to both the storyline and the emotional content of his movie. How such a strong writer can overlook this is astounding to me. So, yes, this combination of excellence and senselessness as well as an ongoing flub of writing for 50+% of the population left me more conflicted than any other 2014 picture – and I can write all that despite having enjoyed Interstellar a lot.

Worst Movie - Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Adult Fans of My Little Pony. I don’t want to beat up on any film that doesn’t have a bloated cast or budget, but my 2014 viewing was pretty narrow. Both life and my own interests kept me from watching many pictures that I thought would be disappointing. As a result, I have to fight my love of and respect for independent cinema and give this distinction to the documentary about the lives of male fans of the My Little Pony TV series.

As I wrote in my review, I was ready for anything, here – and yet I got a doc that didn’t delve into its subject with nearly the depth that it could have, and was often difficult to follow. I feel bad about panning it, but that doesn’t change the fact that scanning through a list of new movies that I reviewed in/for 2014 leaves B:tEUAFoMLP as the worst of the lot.

Best Theatrical Re-release - I avoided all of them - not on purpose, but for time and scheduling reasons - save Rocky Horror, which is always being re-released, on a weekly basis. Rocky Horror was great, and I described why it’s so good last Halloween.

Best Re-watch - Hook snagged some joy from me, providing comfort (and a fresh, happier look on a pic I originally hated) during the difficult period after Robin Williams’ suicide... and yet I could still recognize that it’s a deeply-flawed work. The clear winner, though, is Wes Craven’s Scream. Not only did I enjoy my re-watch to pieces, but I was inspired to write a second, full-length review of the film, and it features what is probably the best opening sentence that I’ve ever written:
The start of Wes Craven's Scream seizes your attention, like dirty words spoken at the moment of orgasm.

Best I-Should've-Seen-This-Before - I’m tempted to give this one to You’re Next, but somehow that doesn't feel right. My final judgment has Europa Report tying with Man of Thai Chi for this title. The reviews for each were incredibly positive – in the case of the former, for a found-footage movie (no, really, a good found footage movie) and, for the latter, a modern-day homage to the kung-fu films from the magical days of Hong Kong cinema.

Europa Report looked beautiful and was so well-made I kind of kicked myself for not seeing it on a big screen. Man of Thai Chi showed a lot of great choices by first-time director Keanu Reeves (!), never losing sight of the characters and emotions behind all the punching and dodging.

Best Unanticipated Rental - Bobby Fischer Against the World was a good movie that I caught with my roommates during a post-party chill out session; it was a truly depressing look at mental illness, one which also provided great context for historic events that are hard to relate to today. And yet the big winner here has to be Dredd, which I expected to turn off 20 minutes in, only to find myself transfixed by the tight pace, strong characterization, and well-filmed ultraviolence.

I felt incensed when I realized that Dredd in no way merited the D grade it received from a trusted reviewing site. This feeling – I would’ve caught it in a theater, just for a change of pace – was overwhelmed by how good the finished product was. It’s damn rare that I even try out a movie that has been described to seem totally bereft of any redeeming factors. And my life would have been poorer, save that I will watch junk when I'm under the weather. But I shouldn't choose Dredd, because it neither came out nor did I watch it first last year, and 2014 offered up some great contenders.

So, instead, the big winners are three superb b-movies: The Machine (I'll review it soon), a serious independent sci-thriller that really displayed as much strength as any non-big-budget sci-fi movie before it - I liked it much better than Ex Machina, because of its more consistent and intellectual approach to the same subject matter; Wolf Cop, an exceptional b-movie with a vibe that reminded me of From Dusk Til Dawn and Bad Santa; and Space Milkshake, a tongue-in-cheek sci-fi/horror picture wherein George Takei voices a mutating rubber duck. All three are excellent examples of the mature-yet-silly entertainment value offered by b-movies, and all of them display blockbuster-level talent and artistry despite their modest budgets.

Biggest Vicarious Disappointment - Transcendence. You gotta love Wally Pfister, even if only for what he's done and where he's come from. For one thing, he's the cinematographer behind every Christopher Nolan film from Memento to The Dark Knight Rises - and even if you didn't like Inception or Batman Begins or The Prestige, you will likely agree that the visuals in all those pictures are just great.

Even better, Wally used to be the camera man (scroll down) behind many, uh, adult films, so you gotta love that he rose from shooting smut to taking home an Oscar in 2010. This is basically the career path that dozens of underdog movies have been centered around, from Lucas and Rudy to A Beautiful Mind and Forrest Gump, and I salute him for being a real-life, artistic example of same.

So, after his Academy Award win, I heard about Pfister directing a picture with a high-concept sci-fi premise, starring Johnny Depp, who - recent work aside - I have always loved (I mean, I saw him die gloriously in his first role, and then adored his undercover cop on 21 Jump Street). And then I hear that the result is a dry, boring mess and that the story is ultimately not interesting and I feel a great big pang. New sci-fi ideas aren't filmed very often - at least, not without being watered-down action vehicles for Will Smith and other high-profile male actors to convince us that... that they can always kick lots of ass, I guess.

This has always been a weird category, as I might have loved the movie that I looked forward to, regardless of its critical thrashing... And yet the kind of criticism that this movie received contained complaints that I always listen to. And it came from all corners of the critical world, including people I trust when it comes to sci-fi and horror efforts:

Most Embarrassing Moment - Snowpiercer. Man, even forgetting all the times that I called Richard Linklater’s hit film "Boydhood" and was not referring to either Justified or making an intentional connection to Birdman, Snowpiercer was an embarrassing experience for me.

On the plus side, I think it led to one of the best reviews I’ve ever written. On the negative side, I tried to see this movie at least five times. Not counting the multiple last-minute cancelled plans, the penultimate attempt ended when the film reel wouldn’t synch with the audio, causing the theater to refund our money and give us free passes. The actual showing was great, but ended up with me just missing every train I needed, so I got back home at like 3AM from an 11PM showing.

Well, ladies and gents, I have finally finished my run through 2014's big films. I hope you enjoyed reading the reviews and this ludicrous wrap-up post. Expect a few reviews and a site update to clarify what's going on and what has been up with me over this last spell. Good night, and good luck.

Half A Film Student

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