Dominick Mayer (DM): What a year. We’ve seen Hollywood get bigger than ever before even as the profits shrank, an embarrassment of great performances, the rise of VOD as a major force in filmmaking and film distribution, and all manner of other notable sea changes in the American (and global) film industry. So let’s get right into it. What’ll be the biggest takeaway, someday, when we look back at 2014 as a notable year in cinema?
Blake Goble (BG): For me, this felt like the year of comic book movie casting and release date announcements. Studios (Sony, Warner Bros., The Marvel/Disney Industrial Complex) were so over-anxious to drum up business for their products that movie news and reporting devolved into announcements. And while it clearly drives web traffic, it doesn’t guarantee success (or audience favor either).
I think big-budget film making finally hit a critical mass — with both studios and audiences — and this damn near busted studios this year. I wish I could remember where I heard this recently, and he can Tweet my address if I’m misspeaking, but Spike Lee nailed the movie business of late: studios want to spend $300 million on superheroes, so they can make a billion. No studio wants to produce a movie about Mookie anymore … unless Mookie’s wearing a cape.
Still, did you hear about Universal? They’re reporting their best year-end profits in the studio’s entire history. Yeah, they’re citing the reason for this as an admitted lack of tentpole filmmaking. They’ve made tons of money on mid-budget movies (Non-Stop, Dracula Untold, Ride Along, Lucy, Neighbors), all proof that you can get big audiences without annoying them under the franchise-y burdens of a $250 million price tag.
And movies like Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Robocop and Expendables 3 got left behind. Of course, the top 10 will still be the most marketed franchises, but people are noticing that there might be better money made not adapting action figures for the screen. God, you can just feel the sweat on those leaked Sony docs from executives pitching crossover after crossover (Jump Street meet Men in Black?), trying to gain money on marketability.
Here’s to (hopefully) smaller and more diverse movies from studios, everyone!
Leah Pickett (LP): The Sony leak has been fascinating, not just because it’s reminded us of how terrible much of their output has been over the past decade (especially 2005’s crop with Bewitched, Stealth, Zathura, etc. and 2010 with Burlesque, The Tourist, How Do You Know), but because of how much Sony apparently loathes many of its own movies and consistently relied-upon stars.
Adam Sandler, Kevin James, and Angelina Jolie, regular marquee names for Sony garbage vehicles, have been torn to shreds in e-mail correspondence between producers and studio execs, yet Sony still continues to pour millions of dollars into their movies. Why? Sony’s leaked PowerPoints, which are perhaps even more embarrassing than their leaked e-mails, reveal what is most important: building a marketable brand first, a good film a distant second.
Take, for example, the “target categories” to be hit for Grown Ups 2 (“retail,” “electronics,” “automotive,” “men’s issues/potty humor”) and the “Key Themes” outlined for The Smurfs 2, one of which is “the color blue.” Jesus. As a former film student and screenwriter who actually cares about theme, and who once aspired to be a producer, all of this makes me very sad.
Thankfully, the soul of cinema is still alive and flourishing, as long as you know where to look. The film distribution and production company A24 is having a bang-up year, and deservedly so, as the films that this relatively small and thriving indie studio has produced in 2014 include Under the Skin, Tusk, Obvious Child, and A Most Violent Year.
I agree with you, Blake, that big-budget, tentpole franchises have hit critical mass and are beginning to lose steam, little films like Boyhood and Obvious Child are going a long way, and audiences are craving more original stories, even if “original” means a brand-new film adaptation like Guardians of the Galaxy, which will likely hold its title as top-grossing film of the year. Who else do you guys think is holding down the fort and producing films worth watching?
Roy Ivy (RI): A24 is certainly killing it, although I hate Tusk and will gladly join ISIS if Kevin Smith will stop making films.
But I wanna go back to that Sony leak. It’s such a funny fiasco, and it’ll be even funnier if this is the straw that breaks The Pirate Bay’s back. Those emails are so acidic and cynical. They feel like a thrown-away David Mamet script about nasty Hollywood pricks (he’s probably writing this script right now). And those exposed tactics … they kinda siphon your sympathies for the studio system. Sure, plenty are still taking chances on maverick directors and uncompromising films (Warner’s Inherent Vice comes to mind), but too much money, too many screens thirsting for better movies, and too much of my goddamn time is being wasted by movies created by data crunchers and “Target Categories.” I won’t be surprised if next year’s biggest summer blockbuster is written and directed by a Facebook algorithm.
But I hold onto hope, because two of the year’s most cynically crafted, soul-crushingly soulless blockbuster-by-committee crapfests tanked thanks to lax Swedish laws. Although neither of ’em was gonna do Galaxy numbers, they both had a chance to triple their budgets, but downloads did them in. Expendables 3 reeked of endless e-mail chains. “SLY’S OLD AND GROSS. NEW GUYS WILL SAVE FRANCHISE, LIKE SHIA LEBOUF IN CRYSTAL SKULL. DOUBLE GROSSES WITH PG-13.” The final product showed that their algorithm failed so, so hard. No new formula’s gonna bring in new youngsters to a geezer-built franchise. Plus, it’s a real spit in the face to us fogey action fans. It would never have done gangbusters at the box office, and even if they got outta the red overseas, that leak hurt ’em hard.
And don’t get me started on Annie. The underrated Fury is the true victim of this. It’s great. It should be seen on a huge screen. They worked hard for their money. The other leaked flicks? Stuff pirates don’t care about. Let’s just say the guy who sells bootleg DVDs at the laundromat isn’t gonna offer you Mr. Turner any time soon. But the new Annie is a vile and charmless propaganda picture permeated by a terrible message: “Make that money. Get paid. It’s okay if you’re illiterate, as long as you can Instagram.” I thought I’d feel a sense of shame watching these films lawlessly, in advance. Maybe a pinch of that inner contempt people got from seeing the J. Law pics (my dealer says she looks exactly like J. Law would look naked). I’m jumping the gun assuming Annie will bomb. But I sure hope it does. It’s a movie made by megalomaniacal jerks. It waterboards all the great songs. And I think it’s dangerous. And thanks to those emails, we have a good clue how it was made.
But back to the top. A24 made their mark on me with this banner year, and now I’ll watch anything they put out (like I used to do with record labels like Matador, Sire, and K). AND: they’re pretty good at not letting their stuff leak online. I do wish IFC Midnight would have opened The Babadook wide instead of relying on VOD. It’s pitiful that I can see The Pyramid on 2,000 screens, but no ba…ba…dooook.
And I agree with Leah that lil’ films like Boyhood and Obvious Child are going a longer way. I just wish Obvious Child had gone a longer way. It’s one of the best rom-coms I’ve seen in decades, and I wish more people saw it on their first date. It could create better couples and help thin the population.
Michael Roffman (MR): You and me both, Roy. I’m still baffled Obvious Child went so unnoticed, but a part of me feels that it’ll really take off once it hits Netflix, which once again is a problem with cinema today. The comfortability at home, coupled with the rising costs at theaters in a tumultuous economy, trumps the once glorified life of a roving cinephile. But it’s more than just Netflix and VOD; it’s also television and video games and online shorts, and the list goes on. The New York Times’ own A.O. Scott discussed all of this in 2013 with his prophetic editorial, “The Big Picture Strikes Back”, by hailing “the infrastructure of a multiplatform future” and contending that “cinephilia is nostalgia.” He wrote, “We might keep going to the movies out of habit, or because it’s sometimes nice to leave the house, but we are losing the old, sustaining belief that this is a special and exalted cultural activity, the supreme mode of participation in the popular arts.”
While I agree that the times are changing and that television has certainly taken precedence over cinema, I don’t think the practice of seeing films in actual theaters will be a thing of the past — well, at least any time soon. I’m not alone in this thinking, either. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been obsessed with Bret Easton Ellis’ podcasts, and he addresses this very article in many of his episodes, and he argues that television isn’t on par with cinema. That not even the very best of the small screen — from The Sopranos to The Wire to Mad Men — captures the tones and moods of film because, at the end of the day, they still have to work within the traditional blueprint of series-making. He also laments the loss of theater-going, which he’s discussed with many of his guests — specifically, directors James Gray and Kevin Smith — and insists that the comfortability of the home can destroy a film.
I’d have to agree. Even as we’ve been watching the various screeners this month, I’ve found myself either walking to my kitchen to grab a drink or pausing for a quick bathroom break, and in hindsight, I wonder how that has affected my focus. The best example this year is Under the Skin — a film that does not work as well at home. It’s built and constructed for a theater, from the long shots to the macabre score to the strangling darkness. Theaters are specifically designed to provide an appropriate and traditional slate for filmmakers to work off of — a cutting board, if you will. I do believe that a film’s vision is somewhat affected by knowing people will be staring at a screen (and only that screen) in the dark confines for however long the film requires. By shifting that to home — or by losing that experience — I agree with Ellis that we lose cinema altogether.
Here’s something I’ve been thinking about, though. What television does have is a sense of urgency. You’re more inclined to clean up your DVR than take in a new film because a.) you’ve already subscribed to the characters’ arc and b.) you want to know what’s going to happen next. If it’s a good show, you need to know what’s going to happen next. Not to sound like ol’ gramps, but in this digital age, we’re obsessed with longer narratives because, well, we live one online. We follow people’s lives on social networks without ever talking to them, and whether it’s an engagement photo or a piece of weird sushi or a video of cats celebrating a birthday … we’re always looking for “what’s next.” Perhaps that’s why Marvel’s Cinematic Universe remains the most successful enterprise right now. They get it; they’ve installed and capitalized on that sense of urgency.
Now, what does that prove? Does every studio need cinematic universes? No. Please no. (Rest assured, it’s already another medium the studios are currently burning to the ground.) But what it does prove is that we are inherently a different culture than we were even 10 years ago. However, at the end of the day, I hold on to the hope that story trumps everything. Humans are all about story. That’s how we live, evolve, and exist. So, if that stays true, I just hope they like hearing them outside the confines of their home. Otherwise, something will certainly be lost for sure.
Sorry, folks. I sort of rambled there.
The conversation continues on page two…
Justin Gerber (JG): We’ve talked a lot about the business surrounding cinema, and this has definitely been a year to warrant such a lengthy convo. After spending decades depending on sequels, studios are beginning to rip off Marvel’s model of a “cinematic universe”, but they’re going about it the wrong way. Marvel introduced many of their characters in their own features before bringing them all together for the film equivalent of an NBA All-Star Game (like when people actually cared about All-Star games). DC Films appears to be introducing most of their characters for the first time in one film and then making spin-offs. If you try to introduce too many people in one film, you get left with a Spider-Man 3.
Business aside, let’s not lose sight of why we’re here: we love #movies. We all had personal favorites that didn’t quite make the CoS Top 25 list, so I’d like each of us to name one movie that didn’t make the cut, but we feel is just as worthy of such high praise. For me, it’s They Came Together, the closest David Wain has come to reaching the zany (and I don’t use that term lightly) heights of absurdity he nailed with 2001’s once-neglected, now-beloved Wet Hot American Summer. His newest is an all-out blitz on romantic comedies made by people who clearly love that subgenre.
The mere thought of “parody” in this day and age recalls the dreadful Friedberg/Seltzer “satires” Date Movie, Epic Movie, and Meet the Spartans. What separates They Came Together from those pieces of shit (sorry, no eloquent critical prose available for those films) is that Wain and co-writer Michael Showalter riff on the recurring motifs of the movies they’re taking on, not clumsily re-tooling exact scenes and characters. There’s the bartender with a shoulder to cry on, the slightly immature baby brother, the sassy best friend, and of course, finding a way to balance love and climbing that damned corporate ladder. The laughs keep coming at such an insane pace that you really need to see it twice to hear which jokes you missed the first time around. It also contains the single funniest line of the year courtesy of Jason Mantzoukas’ character (“So who do you think did it?”). It made limited money at the box office, but it will be a cult fave in the years to come.
Adriane Neuenschwander (AN): I’m in the same boat as you, Justin. They Came Together is smart, hilarious from start to finish, and infinitely rewatchable. Five or ten years from now, people will hold it in the same esteem as Wet Hot. It’s easily one of my favorite films of the year, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I put a movie in my personal top-10 list that depicts Paul Rudd’s character trying to fuck his grandma. Maybe if it was Daniel Day-Lewis trying to fuck his grandma, They Came Together would be a legitimate Oscar contender.
Grandma-fucking aside, it always bums me out that straight-up genre pictures rarely make it onto critics’ best-of lists. It’s just as hard to make a great comedy, horror, or action film as it is to make a great drama. If a film can terrify me, or make me laugh so hard I can’t catch my breath, then it deserves the same respect as a film that makes me cry or pontificate. The important thing is that the film makes you feel something. Frankly, I was disappointed by a lot of the prestige dramas released in 2014. This year didn’t have a film in the same league as Tree of Life or Her, both of which I consider masterpieces. And yes, I saw Boyhood. It just didn’t knock my socks off.
But what 2014 did have was a wealth of great genre films. In addition to They Came Together, I was a huge fan of John Wick. For my money, John Wick is the year’s best action film. The fight choreography is amazing, featuring long shots and long takes instead of Michael Bay–style quick cuts. The cast is a who’s who of my favorite character actors (Michael Nyqvist, David Patrick Kelly, Ian McShane), and Keanu Reeves kicks serious ass. I’ve never been Keanu’s biggest fan, but he’s great in this movie as a tired, over-the-hill hitman who’s avenging the murder of his dog. Plus, how smart is that plot device? I love action movies, but I can never relate when the protagonist is trying to save his wife or kids. But an adorable puppy? That’s worth fighting for, dammit.
What about you, Randall? Any unsung gems you’re dying to talk about?
Randall Colburn (RC): I had high hopes for 2014 being a banner year for horror. 2013 gave us You’re Next, We Are What We Are, and the underrated Lords of Salem, after all, movies that imbued classic horror tropes with a fresh perspective. And then there was the stunning Cheap Thrills this past March, a nasty pot boiler about escalating dares that was as hilarious as it was nauseating. I had reason to be excited, but now it’s December, and I’m a touch disappointed.
Sure, there was The Babadook and The Guest, two of my favorite movies of the year, as well as the brilliant Under the Skin. But they’ll get their due (just you wait!). But as for unsung gems? Well, it’s tough to say. Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer’s Starry Eyes arrived last month to tons of hype, and though they clearly have film making chops, I found its characterizations thin and themes heavy-handed. The same goes for Ti West’s The Sacrament, which completely falls apart in its third act, and Leigh Janiak’s Honeymoon, which anchored itself on this year’s most insufferable couple. Oculus was a mess. Horns was confused. And then there was V/H/S: Viral, a franchise-killer if I ever saw one.
I mean, I liked a lot of horror movies this year. Tusk, Alien Abduction, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night were all enjoyable, but none quite blew me away. One film, however, that has stuck with me is a true sleeper: Bobcat Goldthwait’s Willow Creek. Made on the cheap and released with little fanfare, Willow Creek follows an amateur Bigfoot enthusiast and his serious-but-not-too-serious girlfriend into the woods of Willow Creek, California, the Bigfoot capital of America, where they camp overnight in hopes of spotting the mythical beast. Predictably, things don’t go as planned.
Willow Creek owes more to The Blair Witch Project than any found footage movie since (which is funny, considering that film’s director, Eduardo Sanchez, ALSO released a found footage Bigfoot movie this year), as it wrings its mounting dread almost solely from suggestion and atmosphere. There are no monsters here, no action set pieces or discernible climax; as in Blair Witch, horror is derived as much from the elements as it is the threat of violence. It’d be easy to exclaim, “Nothing happened!” as its credits rolled, but that’s just the surface read. It’s not the best horror movie this year (I’d give that to The Guest, if you’d even call that a horror movie), but it’s easily the best found footage flick of this year, a reminder that the best films in that sub-genre understand that what’s most terrifying is always just out of frame.
How about you, Leah?
LP: I’ll go to bat for The Immigrant, which is beautifully shot, beautifully acted, and just gorgeous on every level, from the emotional to the aesthetic. I also love the movie formerly known as Edge of Tomorrow, despite its terrible marketing and name change to Live.Die.Repeat upon DVD release, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which is essentially a dark, subversive political thriller disguised as another flash-and-bang superhero flick. Others that impressed me but didn’t make our final cut: Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton were born to play vampires; I mean this as a compliment), Dear White People, Kill the Messenger, Before I Disappear, We Are The Best! and the documentaries Last Days in Vietnam, Finding Vivian Maier, and The Internet’s Own Boy.
I like that our list, for the most part, highlights more underappreciated and underseen fare; but since it doesn’t include The Imitation Game or The Theory of Everything, I also feel obliged to point out that these are solid biopics, as award bait-y “prestige” as they present, with some stellar performances, especially from the always on-point Benedict Cumberbatch in the former film and the affecting duo of Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones in the latter.
DM: Leah, I’ll wholeheartedly second you on The Theory of Everything. As a critic, it’s usually important to try and go into any film with as few expectations as possible and to always appreciate it on its own merits. That said, I’ve been doing this long enough to have seen a few too many onerous, insufferably grandiose biopics (looking harshly at you, The Iron Lady), and in the case of that particular subgenre, it’s hard not to come in just a tad cynical. But it’s a wonderful film and manages to give a lot of grace to what on paper is a pretty boilerplate story of triumph over adversity.
However, for my real slept-on pick, I want to go with one of the few films from my own year-end top 10 that didn’t make our final cut as a group, that being Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive. I’ve never been particularly taken with most of Jarmusch’s stuff; I get his value as a ’90s alt-cinema iconoclast, and Coffee and Cigarettes is enjoyably nuts most of the time, but Lovers is the first time where I’ve not only been impressed with one of his films but genuinely moved by it. The story of a pair of disaffected vampires (Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston) who find pleasure in one another and in the undeniable high of human blood but little else after a couple thousand years on Earth, it’s a film that exudes a kind of genuine cool that’s fallen by the wayside in the recent years with the world’s collective embrace of “adorkability” as an existential ideal. That’s not to say it’s the film version of your obnoxious uncle lamenting how rock music used to matter, maaan, though there’s admittedly a bit of that; one digressive trip to Jack White’s house feels especially pandering.
But what Jarmusch understands, to perfect effect, is that any idea of what it is to be hip or cool or cultured will eventually change and mutate and largely abandon whatever it once looked like, and that’s what Only Lovers Left Alive truly mourns. The film is in love with … well, love, for one, and also books and vinyl records and guitar music and lots of other things that his vampires came to appreciate from the modern times and are watching slip away just with the rest of us. It’s also a sneaky paean to Detroit, lamenting what became of one of America’s formerly brightest cultural hubs, even as the film finds beauty in the ruin it left behind. And the whole thing ends with a wistful, ironic touch, before blindsiding audiences with a punchline that’s more heartbreaking, and funnier, than any comedy managed this year. What’s not to like?
BG: Gosh, you guys hit on so many terrific movies, I don’t want to seem moot! I’ll say, Leah, We Are The Best! made me smile more than any other film this year. It made my personal top 10. Justin,They Came Together was hysterical, at least, upon that initial viewing. It kind of faded for me fast afterward. Hell yeah, John Wick, Adriane. Randall, actually, as all you guys know, I’m just a big scaredy cat, and you’re going to have to duct tape me to a wooden chair to watch scary movies, but I promise to get to some of your radical horror flicks eventually. In a sunny room. With understanding company. You guys mentioned some truly great movies, as well as stuff I need to start queuing.
So I’ll just leave a few wandering recommendations that made my personal year-end love-in of movies in 2014. You guys have to see Leviathan, the anti-Putin Russian melodrama about a family scorned by a greedy mayor and the sad, even fatalistic, toll that politics takes on people’s lives.Violette was a mesmerizing and bitter historical story about author Violette Leduc’s struggles with depression and artistic expression, and it’s lingered with me because this woman’s strife was so huge, and the catharses so moving, when they actually occurred.
Michel Gondry’s Mood Indigo was a French delight, and come on, that guy has more innovation and creativity in his pinkie than dozens of directors combined. It had a herky-jerky car chase wedding, guys! Oh, Denis Villenvue’s Enemy was heady and fascinating, and it showcased not one, but two Jake Gyllenhaal performances. 22 Jump Street might be one of the funniest comedy sequels ever made as well, not to mention a great bromantic actioner. Did anyone mention the Snowden doc, Citizenfour? That’s required viewing for 2014 as well, not to mention, close-the-blinds and smash-your-computer and go-off-the-grid upsetting.
And last, but not least, I think the best animated film to come out in 2014 (at least in the U.S.) was Studio Ghibli’s heartening, happy, and harrowing The Tale of Princess Kaguya. It was illustrious and serene, thoughtful and saddening. It was a completely masterful and alluring fable, sans the spastic needs of small children that bogs down most popular animation.
And that’s all I have to say about that. I am spent! So much movie. Very good films. Wow.
MR: You’re right, Blake. This year turned out to be fairly impressive, though it started out falling face first into the trenches. For about two or three long months — at least until South by Southwest — I had one film I could safely call essential viewing: Peter Berg’s highly underrated Lone Survivor. Unfortunately, they tossed that Mark Wahlberg-led war film during Oscar season with the unfortunate hope of thinking anyone would actually care. (A lesson Mr. Clint Eastwood will soon learn next month with American Sniper. Maybe he already has. Shame.) While it’s not Oscar material — and apologies if that just sounded like something a snotty dean would say — the film was one of the more riveting experiences I had in a theater all year. Berg poured his heart into that film, and each actor, especially Ben Foster, went the extra dozen or so miles to make that a compelling film. Then again, maybe I’m still too obsessed with Friday Night Lights, as the inclusion of Taylor Kitsch and Explosions in the Sky made the true life story feel like a spiritual sequel of sorts.
But that’s technically a 2013 film, so if I’m going to give due credit anywhere, it should be towards the smaller films that grabbed my eyes, shook my head around, and tossed me through a glass window. This year’s South by Southwest did just that: I loved Hugh Sullivan’s minimalistic time travel romantic comedy The Infinite Man, an Australian export that’s yet to find life here; nearly stood up and applauded Josh Lucas for his hilarious work in John Magary’s surreal NYC drama, The Mend; and cried my eyes out during Jeffrey Radice’s extraordinary documentary, No No: A Dockumentary, about Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Dock Ellis. Jon Favreau’s Chef might be the best film about the admittedly overwritten field of cooking, while David Gordon Green managed to slap Nicolas Cage hard enough for his finest two hours in almost a decade with Joe. Also, Leah name-dropped this one already, but the undervalued Edge of Tomorrow/Live. Die. Repeat. deserves all the latter-hour hype it’s receiving. It’s my favorite blockbuster of 2014.
But, what about you, Roy? Close this sucker out.
RI: Some years, movies make me feel like Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo, desperately foisting dresses and hair dye upon ’em in hopes that they’ll look more like the movies I loved. But this year, I became one of those pathetic souls on To Catch a Predator. No, not the truly heinous ones that you hope to see publicly castrated. I’m talking about those really sad pockmarked sacks forever trapped in the endless cycle of chasing the things that turned them on in their formative years. And while I regret this comparison already, 2014 delivered plenty of sweet tea.
I’ll always crave another Airplane. I’ll always need another Airplane. Any spoof worth its weight in spit-takes should warrant repeated viewings with jokes you missed the first time around, because you just couldn’t stop laughing that loudly. They Came Together was my Airplane.
Mankind will always itch for another Die Hard or Hard Boiled. Movies scripted on sheets of beef, shot on 35mm beef, and delivered with the rigor and rhythm (and attention to coherent fight framing) that keeps you watching year after year after year. John Wick was my Die Hard. I guarantee I’ll spend the next Christmases watching it again with a beer in my hand and a dog (whom I’d avenge) in my lap, and if Action God exists, he’ll answer my prayers for John Wick 2. The Raid 2 is obviously my Hard Boiled of the year: bloated beyond comprehension and fucking righteous.
This year’s Star Wars? Guardians of the Galaxy, but I’ll lump that fantastic Live on the Edge of Die Tomorrow Repeat in as well (and pick a fight with Five-Year-Old-Me by declaring that Guardians and Tomorrow trumps A New Hope).
2014’s a funny year for me. Blockbusters I’d dreaded became the new classics by being more clever and subversive than they had any right to be. Some highly anticipated prestige pictures left me cold and mad. And the most unexpectedly exciting ones (for me, at least) were about a nun and a jazz drummer.
Don’t forget to check back on Friday when we unveil our Top 25 Films of 2014.