Collin’s 2014 Film Year in Review

Hey, it’s the blog I write in, like, twice a year!  Neat!  Let’s have some fun with that.

Usually, I do my year-in-review film awards ahead of the Oscars.  But going through each category seems like a lot of work, so this year, I’m just going to provide some random lists, numbers and thoughts.  Because focus and organization is for the people actually making these movies.

1.  2014 was one of the more remarkable years for directing than I can remember in some time.  While I didn’t think the overall quality of all films was stunningly great, the direction was consistently awesome.  I mean, where to start?  Richard Linklater’s work on Boyhood, which is a work of once-in-a-generation-of-filmmakers genius.  James Marsh’s transition from “guy who made breathtaking documentary film” (Man on Wire) to “guy who made breathtaking biographical film (The Theory of Everything).  Jean-Marc Valee making a “find yourself through triumph over nature” film I actually found myself invested in (Wild).  Bennett Miller’s superbly-realized Foxcatcher, or a story about the drive to be a great musician (Whiplash) which somehow managed to be the most riveting and suspenseful film of the year, or the only post-Life Aquatic Wes Anderson film yet to be released (The Grand Budapest Hotel) which brought a consistent smile to my face.  I mean, damn, one of the throwaway films of 2014, the Keanu Reeves shoot-em-up John Wick, had one of the most gorgeously-directed action sequences I’ve seen since The Raid: Redemption (and this to say nothing of Joo-hoo Bong’s work with the overrated but gorgeously-realized Snowpiercer).

2.  Choosing a Best Picture, this year, is like choosing a NFL MVP this year.  There is probably a winner, but it entirely depends on what you look for from this award.  If you want the most impressive overall film, in terms of construction and execution, it has to be Boyhood.  If you want the most moving, art-inspiring-reaction film, it has to be The Theory of Everything.  If you want the film that inspired the most personal recommendations from me, in a “damn, you gotta see this” sense, it has to be Nightcrawler.  I wouldn’t know where to start unraveling the riddle of what “Best Picture” means this year, so my advice: just see all of these films, and you will be better off no matter your opinion.  There is something wonderful to appreciate in all of them.

3.  Though the film itself is entirely unspectacular and has a woefully-rushed final act, you have to catch Bill Hader in The Skeleton Twins.  It was a top 10 performance for me this year.  Incredible range.  Memorable, in a film that’s anything but.

4.  I went in to Foxcatcher not wanting to buy the hype on Steve Carell, but after seeing it, how can you not?  It’s a truly remarkable performance, in that it’s not just about delivery or defying standard genre expectations of Carell or liberal use of makeup and prosthetics.  It’s a physical performance for the ages.  The odd parallel I’ll draw is to David Cross as Tobias Funke in Arrested Development.  Tobias is an incredible character because of the physical comedy performed by Cross in that role, just the slight mannerisms that so uniquely define who he is as a man (or the man inside him, rather).  Carell’s performance is similar, but replace “comedy” with “horror”.  Carell’s portrayal of John du Pont is legitimately one of the most consistently unsettling performances I have ever seen.  Maybe there is a Ralph Fiennes performance somewhere in there, or Willem Dafoe.  But just the way Carell moves, and so painfully tries to blend in to normalcy; it’s something to truly appreciate from an actor with more talent than most ever realized.

5.  As great as Carell was, as great as Eddie Redmayne was in The Theory of Everything, as much as I appreciated Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game … my best actor performance still has to go to Jake Gyllenhaal for Nightcrawler.  That was one of the rare performances that made me want to immediately re-watch the film just to see it on display again.  It’s freaking absurd that he isn’t nominated for this one.  It was flawless.  It helps that Nightcrawler easily had one of the best scripts of the year; too bad it apparently went over most folks’ heads.

6.  Seriously, like I said above, this gun-fu scene from John Wick … simply gorgeous.

7.  I will never understand what anyone expected from The Interview, for it to be met with the dismayed reviews that surrounded its release.  It’s a freaking Evan Goldberg comedy, starring Rogen and Franco.  What did you expect?  I went in expecting a Goldberg comedy—not some genius political statement—and saw one of the funniest films of the year.  Finding that this film lacked the satirical bite you expected is such a Boromir opinion to have.

8.  Speaking of comedies you guys expected too much from: 22 Jump Street.  It was funny, self-aware and still directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who can do no wrong.  It also featured the best credit roll you will ever see.

9.  I know it’s cool to swing the pendulum the other way and lament about the unspectularness of Boyhood, but I’ll just go off my first reaction, which was to come out of the theater speechless at the execution of the art piece I had just seen.  “I just thought there’d be more” (paraphrase Patricia Arquette’s character) is the point.  I don’t even really think you have to appreciate what went in to making this film to appreciate this film.  It’s the best of Linklater, in my opinion—philosophical but not masturbatory, a keen eye for the finer details of the moment, and always open to greater possibilities.  I was fascinated, and despite everyone telling me the film was overlong, I didn’t want it to end.

10.  Film that most surprised me this year—Wild.  I thought it would be a patronizing tale of “young woman no one expects to be tough defying the odds and finding her inner strength”.  Instead, it was a layered, intelligent exploration of the human reset button.  Though she was entirely too glamorous for what the character was ostensibly doing, I loved Reese Witherspoon’s betrayal in that her realization of the character was the embodiment of a complete, flesh-and-bone character.  It wasn’t some unnecessary statement on femininity which would take away from the greater realism, but at the same time, it was a genuinely strong female character whose femininity was clearly part of the identity (just not all-assuming in aforementioned patronizing way, as tends to be the case in 99 percent of female roles written by men).  She was a troubled but brave, strong-willed woman doing what she had to do.  I respected the hell out of how much the filmmakers really seemed to get this character right, instead of make this character a statement that detracted from the overall film.

11.  Film that most underwhelmed me this year—A Most Violent Year.  Sure, Oscar Isaac was very strong in it.  I don’t understand the hype for Jessica Chastain at all; what a completely average, marginally-involved performance that was!  This felt like a film aiming for Coen Brothers subtext, but lacking any of the interesting elements of a Coen Brothers film. What was left: an extremely boring portrait of the marriage of violence and capitalism at a specific point in time, and characters you were strained to give a damn about.

12.  J.K. Simmons needs to play more bad guys.  If you ever saw HBO’s Oz, you were not at all surprised that he managed to be such a bastard in Whiplash.  There are a dozen or so “character actor” performances each year that make me think wow, we’re really lucky to have this guy in the industry.  This was one of those performances.  (Related to HBO and an above item, W. Earl Brown’s very small role in Wild was another one of those performances; just obligated to relate that!)

13.  Snowpiercer was incredibly stupid in too many ways to dissect, but you can’t deny the genius of the choreography and cinematography that went into so much of the second act in particular.

14.  Film I most hated that you probably most loved—Birdman.  Look, I’m a huge fan of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.  Biutiful is one of my favorite films ever made, and I was that artsy kid in middle school who rented Amores Perros on VHS from the local library.  But damn, I hated this film.  One of the more pretentious films you’ll see, and what bothered me most was how clever I thought Inarritu thought he was being with the STATEMENTS he was making about ART and EXISTENTIAL QUANDARIES and THE INDUSTRY FORCES THAT DRIVE VALUATION, when this was a film and message that’s been made so many times before, so much better before, in so many more palatable iterations.  This industry is markedly better for Inarritu’s presence in it, but this was a really weak effort, and I’m shocked so many find it so brilliant.

15.  This year’s indie film to come out of nowhere and kick ass is almost certainly Predestination.  Well-scripted, well-thought-out, and tremendously well-acted, especially considering the film basically hinges around just two performances—those of Ethan Hawke and Sarah Snook.  Major credit due for Snook; I’d never seen her prior to this role, but she absolutely made this movie work.  Very difficult role to pull off (explaining why would spoil too much of the movie), but it was in a similar light to what I’ve seen Tatiana Maslany ace in recent years.  My biggest takeaway: if we haven’t already been keeping an eye on the Spierig Brothers, after the far-better-than-it-should-have-been-in-theory Daybreakers, we absolutely should be now.

16.  I’ll admit, I couldn’t make it through the first 20 minutes of Mr. Turner.  Just couldn’t.  I love British film.  I love that entire cast (note: hire Nina Gold to cast your everything).  But nothing can get me into this film, and I’ve tried a couple of times.  Sorry.

17.  Speaking of Brits, look out for Jack O’Connell (also in Unbroken, which I haven’t yet seen, honestly).  He’s been brilliant in a few things, including one of the only interesting performances in the Skins (UK) series we don’t like to talk about.  But his performance in Starred Up was next-level.  It was Tom Hardy in Bronson good.  That’s a weird comparison, but I’m going to stick with it.

18.  This is the first year I really agree with all of The Hobbit criticisms.  In past years, I just thought Tolkien worshippers were expecting too much in terms of loyalty to parent text.  It’s the same thing we went through with Rowling fans and the Harry Potter series, or the continual struggle to get George R.R. Martin fans to stop bitching about Targaryen eye color.  I thought the first two Hobbit films were exactly what they should have been: fun to watch, fun to look at, entertaining and not afraid to try their hand at a few clumsy-but-exciting action sequences.  The third Hobbit film, though?  Everything about it just felt so obligatory.  Here’s the obligatory exit from this love triangle.  Okay, here’s the obligatory stubborn protagonist.  Okay, here’s the obligatory speech or action that changes the heart of the stubborn protagonist.  Here’s the obligatory battle.  Here’s the obligatory hero scene.  This was one of the most by-the-numbers films I have ever seen.  I never thought I’d see a Middle Earth film where I was bored to tears, but alas, we got The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.

19.  American Sniper was just OK, if you ask me.  It felt oddly-paced and the last 15-20 minutes were just baffling in the greater context of the film.  I do like what Bradley Cooper brought to the role, even if I don’t consider it a top 10 performance.  It would have been easy to basically be Jeremy Renner 2.0 and copy the same blueprint as The Hurt Locker.  Cooper went a different route, and I thought the film was much better off for it.

20.  I really, really liked The Imitation Game.  It sounds like I’m ignoring it so far, I’m sure, but it falls in a weird place of “just” being the second or third best in most categories for me.  It was probably the third-best film released in 2014, probably featured the second or third best male and female performances, etc.  Fascinating story, though.  I knew the ending going in, courtesy late-night random history reading, which actually made it all the more riveting.

21.  It was really nice to enjoy a Wes Anderson film again.  I’ve long maintained Rushmore is in my Top 10 ever, but I’ve felt most of his films have been on a downward trajectory since (though I’m a bit back-and-forth on The Fantastic Mr. Fox), hitting bottom with Moonrise Kingdom, which was one of maybe two or three films I have ever considered walking out on in theaters.  But clearly, The Grand Budapest Hotel was a (big) step back in the right direction for Anderson.  It wasn’t twee for the sake of twee.  It was outrageously funny, and M. Gustave is by far one of Anderson’s best characters.  Of course, Ralph Fiennes’ impeccable performance really made that possible.  I’m not-so-secretly hoping for an Anderson film that’s nothing but Ralph Fiennes and Bill Murray playing off each others’ comic timing.

22.  I have an unpopular view of Selma, I suppose: I thought it was too unfocused to be considered a snub in this year’s awards chase.  I mean, great writing, great performances, an actual freaking human representation of an imperfect man who is (rightly) regarded as a hero, and it brought something new to the biopic table in that it didn’t just paint a life by numbers but rather showed the difficult choices that could have branched off in different directions at every point.  That said, I never really felt like this film had a handle on who or what it wanted to spend time on.  As a result, I felt like the movie was basically MLK and a bunch of characters you would be hard-pressed to remember outside of how often they interacted with MLK.

23.  I usually get geek hype, but Guardians for the Galaxy didn’t do much for me.  Maybe it was just overhyped by the time I saw it, but…I don’t know.  I didn’t think it was really all that fun, or funny, or memorable.  It was a really standard, predictable Marvel plot.  I don’t really even evaluate superhero movies by that metric, even if it’s my least favorite part about superhero movies (seriously: watch every hero vs. villain fight in a superhero movie; they all play out exactly the same, which is why something like The Dark Knight gets applauded for upsetting the formula).  Just felt like, for the budget and cast, it could have been a lot more entertaining.  This coming from a guy who thought Serenity was tremendously entertaining, mind you.

24.  Did anyone actually see The Equalizer?  Did anyone actually realize that someone made a movie in which Denzel Washington was an ex-assassin working at Home Depot, in which he used Home Depot tools in an elaborate Home Alone trap to maim and kill the bad guys in the climactic final battle, which took place in Home Depot?  Really?  Did anyone else know that this was a thing that happened, and a script that really netted a profit?

25.  My genre-lovers only pick of the year: The Guest.  You have to have a soft spot for 80s slasher flicks to really tolerate the insanely dumb twist and ending, but damn, this movie was just a blast, and Dan Stevens was tremendous in something that probably should have just been pure camp.

26.  My go-to activity on cross-country flights is watching movies, because 1.5 movies will get me from Indianapolis to San Francisco without my brain eroding.  I, then, almost have to applaud This Is Where I Leave You for being so incredibly dull and lifeless—with such a spectacular cast, nonetheless—for actually making me pine for the sound of a jet engine hum.

27.  It won’t win any writing or acting awards, but from a pure visual/technology perspective, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was the first film to make my jaw drop since the Avatar IMAX 3D experience.  Just incredible, what that film managed to do.

28.  I’m glad everyone else loved The Babadook.  I didn’t.  No, you don’t have to explain the allegory to me.  I get it.  It was just a grating watch.

29.  The award for Most Condescending Film Ever has to go to Men, Women and Children.  Even if you’re not a fan of Jason Reitman, I think you’d agree that compared to his earlier work, he absolutely fell off a cliff with this one.  It was like Ed Wood setting out to direct an episode of Black Mirror or something.

30.  You could do a lot worse than watching Chef for an easy, light watch.  But add this to my list of movies this year that completely botched the last 20 minutes (or in this case, felt like the studio demanded the film cut 20 minutes off its run time, and the script condense accordingly).  I almost wonder if there’s a director’s cut of this anywhere, because that version could legitimately be a top 10 of 2014 candidate for me.

31.  Brad Anderson’s directing career will always baffle me—you began with Session 9 and The Machinist, for God’s sake!—but Stonehearst Asylum was batty (if entirely clumsy) enough to make me smile.

32.  By far, my weirdest viewing experience had to be They Came Together.  As anyone who knows me is already aware, I am a huge David Wain fan.  Wanderlust did nothing for me, but I love everything else in his filmography: every film, every series.  I don’t quite know how to describe TCT.  It was almost the closest thing I’ve seen to Wet Hot American Summer humor since, well, WHAS.  But since it wasn’t quite there, and wasn’t quite the same, it mostly just had an uncanny valley effect in which I felt like I should be laughing my ass off, but wasn’t quite there in terms of peak hilarity.  This is entirely my fault, as a viewer, for expecting a certain brand of comedy when, clearly, Wain has continued to evolve.  But every time it came close, I waited for a certain payoff that never quite happened.

33.  Movies I still haven’t seen as of publish, but intend to as time allows:  Inherent Vice, Unbroken, Still Alice, Kill the Messenger, Pride, It Follows

Gun to head, you’re gonna make me rank my top 10 films of 2014?  OK.  Loaded question.  I’m just going to rank on what I felt were the films that delivered the best overall experiences.  Not chasing awards.  Not standing the test of history.  Just my overall satisfaction at the end credit.  Here goes.

  1. Boyhood
  2. Whiplash
  3. The Imitation Game
  4. Nightcrawler
  5. The Grand Budapest Hotel
  6. The Interview
  7. Predestination
  8. The Theory of Everything
  9. 22 Jump Street
  10. Wild

Gun to head, top 10 performances of the year?  Fine.

  1. Jake Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler
  2. Steve Carell, Foxcatcher
  3. J.K. Simmons, Whiplash
  4. Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game
  5. Ralph Fiennes, The Grand Budapest Hotel
  6. Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything
  7. Sarah Snook, Predestination
  8. Bill Hader, The Skeleton Twins
  9. Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game
  10. Reese Witherspoon, Wild