Saturday, January 31, 2015

Wide Angle: 2014 in Review

Awards are silly.

Still, that hasn't stopped me from posting an annual recap for the past three years.  And it won't stop me from doing it again.  Consider this an attempt to commemorate the year in film - to beat back the receding tide of memory and acknowledge all the good, bad, and weird stuff that showed up onscreen in 2014.  Simply put, this is my best attempt to contextualize another year of seeing, feeling, and believing in the movies.

Top Whatever

Since adding new feature articles and a podcast to my docket, I sadly don't have the time to review everything I see, but I'm glad I caught up with Blue Ruin - a propulsive revenge thriller that corkscrews its way through a brutally simple yet thoroughly compelling narrative about the sins of our loved ones unfolding across generations.  On a completely different tack, The Grand Budapest Hotel continued Wes Anderson's stellar run, a melancholy comic romp that dazzles with both pure sentiment and continental cool.

Are ambitious international collaborations the future of action movies?  While the idea certainly isn't new, two 2014 films took it to the next level.  The first, The Raid 2: Berendal was a mind-blowing beat 'em up of epic proportions - the ideal marriage of video game action with cinematic verve.  And the second, Snowpiercer, was the freaky, fancy-free blockbuster that Marvel wishes it could make; it's a shame that it was barely released in theaters, but it's already well on its way to cult classic status.

"Lifetime achievement" took on a couple different meanings in Life Itself, a moving tribute to the reigning people's champion of cinema, the late Roger Ebert, and in Boyhood, the poetic longitudinal study of life's milestones and the sometimes profound mundanity that surrounds them.

Frank introduced us to one of the most fascinating characters of 2014, a troubled musical genius trying to navigate his headspace by enclosing it in a giant fiberglass facsimile.  It's a movie about letting the right ones in, however tentatively - which is also the subject of the documentary Harmontown, a portrait of an admittedly self-destructive personality and his army of misfits moved to embrace their own shortcomings as part of themselves.

A trio of voices debuted last year in three films that struck at the gut and the brain with equal force.  Dear White People combined two decades' worth of art-house sensibilities to poke holes in the post-racial myth of the Millennial generation.  Whiplash presented a rivalry for the ages in a story of pride and perfectionism, nicely resolving its central feud while somehow allowing both antagonists to look strong.  And Nightcrawler made satirical hay of a toxic meritocracy arising from the unfiltered spillage of content that's propelling the new American culture.

Finally, A Most Violent Year spun compelling tragedy out of the harsh truth that one person's survival sometimes must depend on another's suffering and sacrifice.  The nobility of our intentions has little bearing on the outcome of our actions - the opposite of which is true in the exemplary Selma, which refused the easy catharsis of other tasteful museum pieces for a full, honest embrace of the interplay of emotions, deeds, and dreams in one pivotal series of events.  If that isn't the definition of great filmmaking, then I don't know what else to tell you.

Other Good Stuff

Quality was found in all corners, from formally and intellectually challenging salvos like A Field in England and Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 & 2 to the pure pop pleasures of Gone Girl and Guardians of the Galaxy.

There was a great film for every mood in 2014.  The quietly devastating The Immigrant and the achingly personal Documented showcased how the other half lives, while Inherent Vice played a swan song for the '60s in an intoxicating, offbeat key.

Other Things I Liked That Deserve A Brief Mention

- the diabolically catchy The LEGO Movie anthem "Everything Is Awesome"
- Muppets Most Wanted's Constantine, the give-zero-fucks poster boy of 2014
- Kathy Bates dancing at a lesbian barbecue in Tammy
- the sound editing and mixing during the crash sequences in Unbroken
- the robot buddy voices of Scott Adsit (Baymax in Big Hero 6) and Bill Irwin (TARS the robot in Interstellar)
- Anders Holm's increasingly ludicrous O-faces in Top Five
- the garish rococo set decoration of the du Pont estate in Foxcatcher

Just The Worst

To be the worst, you've got to really want it, and only one film last year could combine the incompetence of Vampire Academy, the needy indulgence of Chef, and the hackery of A Million Ways to Die in the West in a single foul globule of cinematic antimatter.

That movie is Dumb and Dumber Too, a soulless, depressing cash grab that's best described as a Dadaist simulation of humor meant to expose the bone-deep desperation and moral emptiness behind the human need for laughter.

Flawed But Fascinating

Let's take a moment to mourn what The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and The Giver might have been had they not been as hamstrung by poor execution or the lame demands of the marketplace.  However, my choice for so-confounding-it's-good(?) goes to Lucy, a heaping scoop of Luc Besson insanity about a party girl who has drugs sewn into her body that turn her into an increasingly intelligent and vengeful human computer.  (Don't you just hate it when that happens?)  Spoiler alert - she eventually morphs into a flash drive containing all the secrets of the universe.  And Morgan Freeman is there to explain it all via PowerPoint lecture.  It's audaciously entertaining stupidity of the highest order.

Biggest Disappointments

Hyped over the moon, The LEGO Movie was essentially a feature-length commercial that dispensed with any satirical pretense after its first 10 minutes.  It's not a bad film by any means, but it had the potential to be so much more.  I was similarly bummed by The Sacrament, which seems like a big step back for horror prodigy Ti West as he hops onto the found footage bandwagon and loses his unique voice in a musty Jonestown: The Movie premise.

And at the risk of exposing myself as an apostate, I must admit that I was incredibly let down by Captain America: The Winter Soldier.  In truth, I've never been fully on board with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but Winter Soldier shattered any illusions that these films are anything but a salable product line, a way to string people along with half-resolutions and vague promises of cooler things to come - a way to make individual stories less satisfying.  That's an incredibly worrying trend.  To many, Cap 2 is the current apex of the MCU; to me, it looks more like the beginning of the end.

Most Pleasant Surprises

"Fat people comedy" is usually a slippery slope toward ridicule and/or condescension, so I was understandably wary when approaching Cuban Fury, a rom-com starring the stout Nick Frost as a former salsa dancing champion who rekindles his passion to impress his office crush.  But the movie hits all the right notes of sweetness and silliness thanks to Frost's effortlessly charming performance and a genial tone that lets its characters just be themselves without pushing them to extremes.

Whatever you decide to call it, Edge of Tomorrow was one of the freshest summer blockbusters in years, a strange brew of influences from other visual media - manga and video games - that typically have not lent themselves to cinematic adaptation.  Edge has style to burn, yet it's the rare popcorn flick that keeps you thinking after the credits roll; Tom Cruise's playful tinkering with his action hero persona is just the cherry on top. 

Best Performances

As always, my watchword here is inclusivity, which is another way of saying that I try to avoid the performances that have already been lavished with plenty of attention and awards.


Is there anything Tilda Swinton can't do?  From the doddering heiress of The Grand Budapest Hotel to a globe-trotting vampire in Only Lovers Left Alive to a gender-bending fascist martinet in Snowpiercer, Swinton's consistently positive contributions deserve greater recognition.  The word "chameleon" is used to describe a lot of actors who bring a physical affect - a paunch, a walk, an accent - to a role, but Swinton is one of the few who can also change their emotional timbre just as drastically.  Meek or assertive, compassionate or cruel, Swinton makes it all look easy.

Let's be honest: Jake Gyllenhaal has been a very good actor for quite a while.  Those who are trying to frame his 2014 as a renaissance of McConaughey proportions have either forgotten his filmography (there are more Zodiacs than Prince of Persias) or are ignoring the importance of both good timing and good material.  Gyllenhaal guided the audience through the inscrutable Enemy as a timid college professor and his more aggressive doppleganger, an arrogant actor with serious relationship issues.  Yet it's his amazing performance in Nightcrawler that impresses the most, a for-the-ages portrait of an ingratiatingly weird sociopath in which Gyllenhaal is bends the movie to his will the same way his character convinces the world to accept and reward his insanity.


One of these days - perhaps as soon as the release of the next Star Wars and X-Men installments - people are going to revisit the oeuvre of Oscar Isaac and discover gems like A Most Violent Year, where he gives another understated yet immensely impactful masterclass.  Playing a character who's both a
 beguiling rascal and a sympathetic underdog, Ralph Fiennes is the key cog in the clockwork comedy machine that is The Grand Budapest Hotel.  And Tyler James Williams is the not-so-secret superhero of Dear White People, a shy, gay black nerd who doesn't want to have to answer to any of those labels but finds it necessary to validate his identity in the face of ignorance.


Jenny Slate finally gets a showcase for her comedic gifts in Obvious Child, combining a flair for vulgarity with a low-key vulnerability that gives the film its unexpected emotional punch.  In a similar way, Melanie Lynskey elevates the generational comedy of manners in Happy Christmas by portraying a complex counterpoint to Anna Kendrick's self-involved Millenial - it's obvious that we're supposed to see the future of Kendrick's character in Lynskey, but she pulls it off with grace and subtlety.  Finally, Marion Cotillard absolutely nailed the "costume drama realism" vibe of James Gray's The Immigrant, a film that benefits immensely from her quietly heartbreaking performance.

Duo or Group

Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck were a pleasure to watch as they spun yuppie love into something cracked and twisted in the marital farce that was Gone Girl, simultaneously portraying and defining 21st century archetypes.  Type-A personalities clashed in Whiplash, where J. K. Simmons and Miles Teller took an exaggerated academic deathmatch and made it believable.  Bickering musicians also took center stage in Frank, but Michael Fassbender and his band ultimately showed that blood runs thicker than water, even in a makeshift family unit.

The Golden Ham

It's really difficult to overlook the inspired craziness of DMX singing/barking Charlie Chaplin's "Smile" during his brief cameo in Top Five for my annual salute to superlative scenery-chewing.  However, Alison Pill's manic turn as a pregnant schoolteacher cheerfully indoctrinating little ones on the brutal caste system of Snowpiercer is an all-timer.  In the space of just a single breathless, bug-eyed monologue, Pill unequivocally establishes herself as the most batshit character in a movie full of lunatics - an impressive achievement on any actor's résumé.


  1. In all seriousness, that has to be one of the best "year in reviews" I've read in a long time.