Monday, January 19, 2015

The Best and Worst of 2014

I'm going to be in my grumpy old man mode for this post, but I thought 2014 was a pretty mediocre year at the movies, especially for mainstream titles. There were very few movies I was genuinely enthused and passionate about, and the year was further proof that the pleasures of narrative story telling is a lost art.

I saw 112 2014 releases at the theater or on DVD. Despite my current freelance employment status, it's not as expensive as it sounds, as a first-run multiplex just minutes away from me offers $4.50 ticket prices until 6 pm. and $7 in the evenings. I'm also fortunate to have a large number of second-run theaters within a reasonable drive time at $4 a ticket with unlimited refills on any size soda and popcorn. If you don't mind waiting a bit, there's a third run theater chain in nearby Bloomingdale that offers tickets for $1.75 ($1 on Tuesdays). Independent, foreign and art films are shown at the wonderful twice monthly After Hours Film Society at the Tivoli Theater in Downers Grove, which is close enough for me to walk to in the nice weather.

Despite my lack of enthusiasm for much of this year's offering, going to the movies remains a life-long habit and one I don't see quitting any time soon, but I must admit my enthusiasm is waning.

I know I've griped about this before, but I'm rarely out and out entertained at the movies anymore. Most of the comedies are cringe-worthy, to say the least, generating more uncomfortable groans at the gross-out humor on display than any wit or the sense in how to build a gag. I know the days of Lubitsch and Leo McCarey are over, but does it have to be that way?

I remember leaving a packed theater following a week night showing of VICTOR/VICTORIA (1983) and DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS (1988) and it seemed as if everyone, strangers all, left the theater nodding happily to each other, grinning ear to ear, like we we were all new best friends who had just enjoyed the world's greatest dinner party. It's been years since I've experienced that coming out of a new movie. That used to be a regular occurrence, but it rarely happens anymore.

Several of the year's biggest hits left me unimpressed. I enjoyed GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY up to a point, but a final battle scene that seemed to go on for ages put it on the debit side for me.

The third and final Hobbit movie was probably the most tolerable of the three, but that's like being the tallest of three Hobbits. In the long run, it really doesn't mean anything.  (The things I see as a Christopher Lee completist. Sigh).

TO KILL A MOCKINGJAY: THE HUNGER GAMES III or whatever this snoozefest is called, bored me to tears. It could be talkiest blockbuster I've ever seen. Now talk is a good thing, but not here, with all line readings bordering on the catatonic. I enjoyed the first movie, and the second to a lesser extent, but this latest one was pure agony.

These movies may play better in marathon viewings with their previous films, but my main complaint with these films, such as DIVERGENT and THE MAZE RUNNER, is they're mainly exposition, building up to the next film in the series. Background has replaced narrative. DIVERGENT was especially guilty of this, with seemingly two hours of exposition and endless training sequences until the main plot kicks in for the remaining 20 minutes which, in turn, will be (somewhat) rectified in the next installment. It's like paying money to see a play but we only get Act 1. These aren't movies anymore, they're guidebooks. These have all been proven successful, so I'm afraid the trend is here to stay for awhile, but it's a trend I don't welcome.

Many of the critical favorites left me somewhat cold as well. BIRDMAN I appreciated for the acting (across the board superb) but the end result I found more exhausting than exhilarating. I'm not a fan of this intense, in your face style of moviemaking, but many are and they got more out of it than I did. I was sincerely glad when it was over.

I should have enjoyed THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL more, but it was a little too cartoony for me, Still, I welcome the chance to see it again, and was puzzled by my reaction to it, as I've enjoyed other Wes Anderson movies and this is the kind of movie I generally like.

When things got dire at the local theater, there was always the joys and pleasures of classic movies. The happiest classic film re-discovery of the year was MR. SKEFFINGTON (1944) starring Bette Davis as Fanny, a vain, silly, stupid, vapid woman who lives her life thinking only of herself, until it's almost too late. With Claude Rains (never better) as the title character, her husband, the aptly named Job, and a stellar supporting cast including Walter Abel, Robert Shayne, John Alexander, Jerome Cowan, and a beautiful performance by Marjorie Riordan as the neglected daughter. The film is artfully directed by Vincent Sherman and scripted by Julius and Philip Epstein of CASABLANCA (1942) fame. Like that film, the array of supporting characters is rich and textured, with each one given a standout scene or line of dialogue. Franz Waxman's musical score is a marvel, and the final scene offers one of his most inspired compositions. Spanning several decades, the movie runs two-and-a-half hours but there's not a wasted scene and when it was over, I could have happily watched it all over again.

Here is my admittedly personal and idiosyncratic picks for the best films of 2014.


10. A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES – Terrific downbeat detective drama starring Liam Neeson, in one of his best performances. It reminded me of a 1970s crime drama like the great THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE (1973), where, like Robert Mitchum's performance in that movie, years from now, people will be wondering why Liam Neeson wasn't Oscar nominated. It's the kind of performance that never dates.  

9. EDGE OF TOMORROW – This science fiction time bending drama starring Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt was hugely entertaining, in addition to being the wittiest and funniest film of the year - a sad commentary on the state of contemporary film comedy.

8. THE FAULT IN OUR STARS - Years ago, Shailene Woodley would have likely earned a Best Actress nomination for her portrayal as a young woman battling cancer. But alas, these days it's likely deemed too commercial for consideration, which is a shame as it's one of the best performances of the year. I'm something of a softie (read pussy) and this one really choked me up (to the great amusement of the theater manager I've gotten to know over the years. He likes Randolph Scott, so you know he's an OK guy, in addition to being a fine manager).


7. WHIPLASH – This film would have been much higher on the list except for a story turn at the end, when J.K. Simmons' teacher character does something so out of character that it almost derailed the film for me. Still, one of the best uses of capturing the excitement of live music on film that I have ever seen.


6. BEGIN AGAIN – Speaking of music on film, this film about independent musicians in New York City was the most charming and likable film of the year, two qualities in woefully short supply this year.  The sequence where Mark Ruffalo witnesses Keira Knightley's acoustical guitar performance and imagines in his mind the proper full rock band musical accompaniment was my favorite sequence of the year. I wish more people had seen this one.  Speaking of Keira Knightley, she had an absolutely stellar year with this, THE IMITATION GAME and the sadly underseen LAGGIES. I'm looking forward to what she does next.

5. LIFE ITSELF – This documentary on Roger Ebert's life was a wonderful celebration of a life well lived to the fullest.


4. INTO THE WOODS – What a pleasure to hear a musical so well sung and see it so cleverly staged. Great acting and a marvelous production design anchor this adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim musical, the best movie musical in years.

3. NIGHTCRAWLER – Jake Gyllenhall's sociopath news cameraman was the scariest characterization of the year. I had no idea where the story was going, and the portrayal of nighttime Los Angeles repulsed as much as it fascinated.

2. THE IMITATION GAME – I found this Nazi code breaking drama fascinating in its WWII sequences, but could have used one or two less flashbacks of Alan Turing being tormented as a young boy at school.  Like last year's SAVING MR. BANKS too many flashbacks sidetrack the narrative. I have also yet to jump on the Benedict Cumberbatch bandwagon, and while I thought he was good, I felt there needed to be a little more spark – a little more zing – in his characterization. The film brightens immeasurably whenever Keira Knightley's character appears. 

1. BOYHOOD – Yes, I know a cliched pick, but I did find this the most rewarding film of the year, not just for its production (shot over a 12-year period) but for its look at how the big, and especially the tiny, moments in life help form us into the adults we become.  A beautifully acted panorama of the human condition which left me emotionally drained, in a good way.


WORST OF THE YEAR (In Alphabetical Order)

A HAUNTED HOUSE 2 – Not a laugh to be found anywhere.

A MILLION WAYS TO DIE IN THE WEST – It was great to see Monument Valley again in a movie, but otherwise a painfully long and deadening experience. Still there were a few mild chuckles to be had, so it rates ahead A HAUNTED HOUSE 2.

ANNIE – Everything you could possibly want in a musical -  grisly musical arrangements and club footed choreography (what little there is of it.), made by people who appear to not want to put any music in their musical. Genuinely unbearable.

DUMB AND DUMBER 2 – From the unending list of unfunny 2014 comedies.

EARTH TO ECHO – One of the few movies I've ever walked out on, just out of sheer boredom. Not an original thought or idea in its tiny space alien head.

EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS: I can't imagine a more uninteresting, passive or whispery Moses than Christian Bale's performance here. Charlton Heston's legacy remains happily secure. I love Biblical and ancient world epics, and for years thought M-G-M's THE PRODIGAL (1955) was the worst of the lot. And then I saw EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS. 

GOD'S NOT DEAD – I can't think of a movie where I so agreed with its message yet hated the simplistic, phony and condescending way it was delivered. For me, it's the opposite of the movie version of THE FOUNTAINHEAD (1949). I don't buy Ayn Rand's loony philosophy for a minute, but man, that is one entertaining movie.

I, FRANKENSTEIN – The worst in CGI exhaustion.

LEFT BEHIND – This Rapture drama starring Nicolas Cage was so bad, I considered turning atheist when it was over.

NEIGHBORS – Tied with A HAUNTED HOUSE 2 as the nadir of my 2014 moviegoing.

SEX TAPE – That unfunny 2014 comedy train just added the biggest caboose ever.

TRANSCENDENCE – Probably the best film on this worst list. It had some good ideas and with a different execution could have been a very interesting cautionary science fiction tale.

TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION – I may have to end my policy of seeing movies filmed in Chicago.

WINTER'S TALE – This time travel romance was a laughably bad fiasco from top to bottom, with all-time worst performances from Russell Crowe, Will Smith and Colin Farrell. It's THE STORY OF MANKIND (1958) of the 21th century.  

I'm hoping 2015 will be a good year. There's a new 007 film to look forward to – always a treat, and the new MAD MAX movie FURY ROAD looks jaw droppingly amazing based on the trailer. There's two westerns starring Kurt Russell (yea!), and new movies from Steven Spielberg and  Martin Scorsese.  And while I'm not a STAR WARS fan, for those millions looking forward to the new one in December I hope it meets or exceeds their expectations. 


Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

This, in spades:
"I know I've griped about this before, but I'm rarely out and out entertained at the movies anymore. Most of the comedies are cringe-worthy, to say the least, generating more uncomfortable groans at the gross-out humor on display than any wit or the sense in how to build a gag. I know the days of Lubitsch and Leo McCarey are over, but does it have to be that way?"

I enjoyed your comments on these films, and I can't add much because I rarely see current films anymore--it's just too disappointing and not worth the price to me. (And the cineplexes are about as charming as a gulag.) Though I'm curious to see INTO THE WOODS, and I admire many current actors, I find myself unmoved about the usually trite storytelling of today's films.

Caftan Woman said...

"A Walk Among the Tombstones" compares favourable to "The Friends of Eddie Coyle"? I'm sold.

Outside of "The Imitation Game", which the hubby and I caught on New Year's Eve, the only contemporary releases I see are the animated films. It is fun to share the experience with my daughter who is an animation student. She reciprocates by coming to silent movie screenings with me. It works.

Kevin Deany said...

Jacqueline: I know what you mean, but like I said, I can't seem to break my movie going habit, but this year really took a lot out of me, bad movie wise. But I can't resist the low prices by me. You're right, much of today's storytelling is incredibly trite, and sometimes it seems to me directors are afraid to go for the gut emotionally. Those are the films I respond to.

CW, be warned. As good as it is, A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES is pretty violent, especially compared to EDDIE COYLE. But they both have the doomed lives quality I like.

Liam Neeson has enormous charisma and presence, and like Mitchum, can communicate a million things by just sitting there and staring. A marvelous actor who elevates everything he's in. And like Mitchum, he's appeared in a lot of crap, but he's always good.

R. D. Finch said...

Nicely considered round-up of the year's films, Kevin. Your top two picks are the two that appeal to me most, but I live in a rural area and will have to watch on DVD. They're both on my Netflix queue. I like everything I've seen by Linklater, a director who seems completely without ego or pretension.

I agree about "Mr. Skeffington" being a real find. Bette Davis is sensational as a very self-centered, unsympathetic character and Claude Raines' patient restraint complements her flamboyance nicely. She did once say he was the most talented actor she ever worked with.

Patrick said...

Of those movies on your list I've seen I pretty much agree with your comments. I just want to tell you that it is ok to have a problem with Grand Budapest Hotel. I thought it was just a silly inconsequential movie, with possibly some pretensions towards very faintly hinting at more, but really not delivering. Absolutely don't know what the fuss was about. Good production design. maybe that was it.

Kevin Deany said...

Richard, I've always liked Mr. SKEFFINGTON but hadn't seen it in a long time, and it was a real revelation to me. Maybe its because I'm older and got more out of it. Or, more likely, I've seen so many clunkers at the theater that the sheer professionalism of the acting, writing, and the marvelous supporting cast just resonated with me. If I had to name the best movie I watched in 2014, it was MR. SKEFFINGTON.

Patrick, thanks for writing. Based on the trailer, and the talent in front of and behind the camera, I thought for sure GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL would be one of my favorite movies of the year. To my great disappointment, I did not respond to it at all.

Laura said...

Enjoyed your post and agreed with everything you said about THE IMITATION GAME. Enjoyed it but with the same reservations you expressed.

2014 was a good "new movie" year for me -- I see very few "new" movies but saw many more this year than the year before. I enjoyed several "middle of the road" films like DRAFT DAY, MILLION DOLLAR ARM, THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY, JACK RYAN, NON=STOP, and a few more. Nothing special but solid entertainment.

I see a lot of movies but all but a handful are "old" LOL. You try out an impressive number of brand-new titles!

Best wishes,

Jeff Flugel said...

Very interesting post, Kevin! I caught far fewer 2014 movies on the big screen or otherwise than you did (being a father of a 2 year old doesn't help, nor the expense of a movie ticket in Japan; also, many of the year-end prestige pics have not yet opened here). I did see GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY twice in the theater and absolutely adored it, but then, it's exactly my cup of tea. The third HOBBIT was OK, better than the middle film but not nearly as good as the first, in my book. I also enjoyed THE EQUALIZER and CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER, but that's about all I was able to see this past year. I did manage to see EDGE OF TOMORROW on Blu-Ray and thought it great fun.

I am looking forward to catching up with BOYHOOD, WHIPLASH and A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES once they hit DVD.

Overall, I'm probably more sanguine about modern filmmaking than you (though we are 100% on the same page re: the so-called comedies that clutter the cineplexes). As long as there are a few fun blockbusters and interesting independents coming out each year, then I'm reasonably content...after all, there are still so many great old movies for me to catch up with.

Kevin Deany said...

Laura, I enjoyed all those "middle of the road" movies as well, but unfortunately those kinds of solid entertainments were, for me, few and far between this year. I did read your review of THE IMITATION GAME and had a chuckle to myself, as we saw eye to eye on that one, though I think I enjoyed it more than you did.

Jeff, I hear what you're saying and agree with you for the most part. I guess my gripe is Hollywood used to put out very entertaining movies in their sleep, but that rarely happens anymore. I did enjoy the CAPTAIN AMERICA movie quite a bit, and it almost made the top 10.It definitely was a contender for Top 15.But I even look at, say, the Best Oscar winners and nominees from decades ago and would watch most of them again in heartbeat. Those Oscar offerings from the last 10 years or so? Not so much.

Sam Juliano said...

Wonderful list Kevin!! The year is elevated when you include the foreign language stuff - LEVIATHAN, IDA, WINTER SLEEP, STRANGER BY THE LAKE, BAD HAIR, etc., but you are not the first to log complaints with the year in general. BOYHOOD is masterful no doubt. My own favorite film of the year is INTERSTELLAR.

Kevin Deany said...

Thanks, Sam. Hope you are well. The only foreign film on your list I saw was IDA, which I liked but not enough to put on my top ten list. Loved the b&w photography, though. INTERSTELLAR would have made my top 15 or so. It's the first Christopher Nolan movie I've seen since MEMENTO that I liked.

My local film society has some great titles coming up in the next couple of weeks: FORCE MAJEURE, THE BABADOOK, TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT and MR. TURNER. Looking forward to all of those.

joe baltake said...

Kevin! Terrific list. Not that I agree entirely with the picks. (Don't get me started on "Whiplash.") But I love how personal it is and that it's not a list of The Usual Suspects. That may sound odd to say, but I so many year-end lists seem compromised, bending towards what's been critically popular. Not yours. Totally original and, I assume, totally you.

Kevin Deany said...

Thanks so much, Joe. A friend of mine liked WHIPLASH as much as you did. I found it a very interesting dynamic on the student-teacher relationship, but wish it wasn't so melodramatic. I know people who don't like old movies, saying they are too unrealistic and over the top in their dramatics. The most extreme Bette Davis or Joan Crawford movie doesn't have a thing on something like WHIPLASH. I saw from your list that you also picked BEGIN AGAIN. I really wish more people had seen that. A wonderful film.

joe baltake said...

Kevin! I was really anticipating "Whiplash," but frankly, I found the film ludicrous - and J.K. Simmons's character (and, by extension, his performance) also ludicrous. Music as a blood sport doesn't do it for me, I guess. I also guess that great minds don't always think alike!

Kevin Deany said...

WHIPLASH Spoiler Alert: Yeah, Joe I was with with the film pretty much to the end, but I couldn't see the teacher changing the song at the concert at the last minute just to throw the kid off. The concert was too important to him, and I didn't buy it for a minute. A friend of mine who liked the film a lot thought the teacher was nuts from the start and that only confirmed it. He lied about the suicide of his former student so he would have no compunction about throwing the concert at the last minute. I still don't buy it. But there were enough things in the movie I really liked.

I usually agree with Joe about 75-80 percent of the time, but it would be a dull old world if everyone agreed with everyone all the time.

I highly recommend Joe's site, The Passionate Moviegoer, to one and all. He champions films that should be better known and has pointed out some unsung musicals that have proven real gems. I'm thinking in particular of the 1955 MY SISTER EILEEN with Jack Lemmon, Janet Leigh and Betty Garrett. That movie is pure, undiluted joy.

joe baltake said...

Thanks, Kevin, for the generous plug. Also, for what its worth, my wife really liked "Whiplash." It took a lot of restraint for me not to try to convert her. She calls me The Contrarian because my tastes rarely conform to the norm.