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2014 in Film: Part One – Impressions

February 27, 2015

I went non-traditional in expressing my Oscar opinions this year. It was a lot of fun. I also needed a good way spiritually move on from 2014 as a cinematic year and decided to have another conversation. This one with Zack (@QuickFilmPile), another friend from college, was actually conducted via email in the week leading up to the Oscars. Zack lives in New York City and saw approximately 150(!) films from 2014. I chose to exploit this fact by chatting him up about what he saw and it ended up being a great structure for discussing a great number of movies and topics.

Tony: So Zack, what did you think of 2014 movie-wise? Good year? Weak year? A Most Violent Year? I feel that a quick survey of 2014 makes it look like a pretty strong one, but it will be interesting to look back down the road and see what sticks. I think at least a handful will have staying power, which I guess is a good start.

Zack: Hey, Tony. I’d have to start off by saying I thought 2014 was, by and large, an entertaining and varied year for movies. I suppose this could be said most years, but maybe I can just appreciate it more this year. Some big-name directors (at least to me) released some great work. Some indie features blindsided me. There were unexpectedly fun adaptations and disarmingly original works.

Looking down my year-end list leads me to believe two things: 1. I’ve got to be at least a little insane for seeing so many movies (possibly at the expense of my personal and professional lives), and 2. The more I think about it, the more I think my ten or twenty favorite films from this past year will be ones I revisit often in the future, whether by catching them on cable or Netflix, or even just sitting down and forcing someone to endure something I loved so I can judge him or her based on the immediate reaction.

So I suppose that might bring me to a simple question to dive into: What were the biggest surprises for you in 2014? I’m speaking broadly, so maybe the abundance of Oscar-bait-ish biopics surprised you. Or maybe you were surprised by the artistry exhibited in Let’s Be Cops.

Tony: I enjoy watching people watch movies too! Is that creepy? Maybe don’t answer. I like talking about surprises too. There were a bunch of great movies in 2014 that did not surprise me, particularly by big name directors. Movies can be great, OK or terrible, but I’m not often surprised. I didn’t make it to the theater nearly as often as you did, but surprises still abounded. Here are my top three:

1. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was really good. I know you didn’t think much of Rise of the Planet of the Apes a couple years ago, and I was lukewarm towards it myself, but I think it got pretty overwhelming praise in most corners. That praise was frustrating for me as a big fan of the first few films in the original franchise. Dawn is a much better film and in an increasingly competitive environment, I think it snagged the title of best franchise film in 2014.

2. I was perplexed by the abominable marketing for Edge of Tomorrow. Over the course of its life cycle, it  has been referred to as All You Need Is Kill, Edge of Tomorrow, Live. Die. Repeat., and Live on the Edge. Some of these obviously work better as taglines, but I don’t think casual moviegoers even know that movie is still officially titled Edge of Tomorrow (it is, right?). It’s too bad really, because the film was pretty great and it still managed to make $100M domestic. It’s also easily the best movie Tom Cruise has been in since Tropic Thunder. Apologies to Jack Reacher fans.

3. I was very pleasantly surprised by Richard Ayoade’s The Double. I had no expectations or preconceptions going in and this ended up in my year-end top ten. This was my first Ayoade movie experience as Submarine is still in my Netflix queue. I think Jesse Eisenberg gave one of the year’s great performances playing two competing versions of the same character.

What surprised you? More importantly, are you prepared to go all in on Let’s Be Cops???

Zack: Let me just be upfront here: I thought Let’s Be Cops was awful. That, in itself, surprised me, as I’m a pretty big New Girl fan and have generally enjoyed Jake Johnson‘s small movie career. But let’s not get into television too deeply, lest we find ourselves in a wormhole we’d never anticipated. Time dilation, etc. Anyway, as surprising as Let’s Be Cops was, I wouldn’t label it as one of the major surprises of my year.

And since you presented your surprises as a list, I’ll take a similar route:

1. Locke: Tom Hardy as the only character on screen, in only one setting, and only delivering dialogue via phone calls? This was a potential disaster that snuck into my top twenty-five and confounded every expectation I could’ve had.

2. Jodorowsky’s Dune: I generally find myself rooting for documentaries, and they’re easy to ingest on lazy days by way of Netflix, but I made it a point to check this one out in the theater. It’s the story of (what some might say is) the greatest film never made, and the depths explored here still have me pondering ‘What if?’ six months after I first saw it.

3. Chef: Favreau went back to his roots and made a little movie with a lot of heart. It wasn’t anything revolutionary, but it socked me right in the gut. I expected a semi-pleasant afternoon at the theater and left feeling fully uplifted and overjoyed.

Tony: Speaking of, I actually just saw Chef and, like you said, it was great. Favreau plays a lot of goons, he doesn’t usually get to play joyful and passionate. I have to say it was a good look for him and as writer/director/star, I think he really aced it here. But back to your list…


4. Snowpiercer: I went into this one cold on a blind recommendation from a friend. I didn’t so much as watch a trailer and had no prior knowledge of the source material. Saying more would be a disservice to anyone who hasn’t seen this wild one.

5. Obvious Child: I had a strong feeling this one would be good, but I didn’t expect Jenny Slate to deliver such a towering lead performance. I’ve loved her in essentially everything, but this was shoulders above anything I think she’s done.

Tony: You gave me some good recommendations with that list. I knew about Locke and now I need to check out Jenny Slate (Mona-Lisa from Parks and Recreation) in Obvious Child, not to mention Jodorowski’s Dune. I’m with you on both Jake Johnson and New Girl.

Zack: To your point on Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes: First of all, I agree with everything you said. I’d just like to take this moment to highlight what turned out to be one of my favorite shots of the entire year. From a fixed point, the camera watches Koba climb atop a tank during an already brutal battle sequence. He wastes no time and immediately unleashes fire with the firepower at his disposal. It’s a single take and largely computer-animated, but it’s downright gorgeous. The film didn’t contain my favorite cinematography overall this past year, but that one shot deserves some serious recognition.

Any comments on noteworthy shots or cinematography you feel warrants a mention?

Tony: Thinking about memorable cinematography, I’ll just go with the first two that came to mind. Captain America 2 was solid entertainment, but that car chase with Nick Fury was superb. I know from the Russo Bros.’ Blu-ray commentary that they shot a lot of that scene with Go Pro cameras mounted on the inside of the vehicles. The results were thrilling. Leave it to the long-time Community producers to reinvigorate filmed car chases.

Then, completely on the other end of the spectrum, there’s Ida. Ida is the Polish film about a nun who finds out she was born Jewish right before taking her final vows. It’s set in 60’s Poland and shot in B&W. There’s a real sparse vibe to the camera work and the aesthetic really nails that Sixties look. Reminds me of other B&W films from that era like The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (1965). It’s no surprise that Ida is up for two Oscars including the one for cinematography.

Props for mentioning the tank scene in Dawn by the way. What’s your favorite piece of cinematography from 2014?

Zack: In terms of cinematography, I don’t think there’s any answer other than the staggering year Robert Elswit put together behind the camera. Nightcrawler AND Inherent Vice? Untouchable. Two distinct visions brought fully to life by a certifiable master. To attempt to describe those visuals in words would be a fool’s errand; that photography begs to be seen.

Now, I don’t mean to show my cards too early in this conversation, but I’m lucky enough to live in New York City, which affords me some prime moviegoing perks. I was fortunate enough to attend the New York Film Festival this year and sat in the back row for the Inherent Vice world premiere. (I saw many, many films at the festival, but I’m sticking to this singular event for now.) Paul Thomas Anderson introduced it, and then there it was, gloriously sun-soaked and vibrant–and on 35-millimeter film. We can discuss this particular movie a little later on, but I think it’s important to recognize Elswit’s contribution (while still no doubt incredible) specifically as it relates to the use of real, honest-to-goodness celluloid. The depth of color and striking beachscapes of Gordita Beach may have felt slightly flat were it not for Anderson and Elswit’s conscious decision to avoid digital photography.

Tony: Very well said! Honest-to-goodness celluloid is glorious and every frame of Inherent Vice was gorgeous to behold. Elswit is basically a PTA repertory player, having shot most of his films. He’s like the Philip Seymour Hoffman (RIP) of the crew. Somehow, I missed that Elswitt also did Nightcrawler last year. That and Vice were two of my overall favorites and we will definitely be coming back to them.

Should we take a dark turn in this conversation? Should we talk about the state of franchise filmmaking?

Zack: I’m happy to go dark. Would you like to discuss the mega-franchise Hollywood machine of Marvel et al?

Tony: I would. I’m interested to hear what your thoughts are on the unrelenting barrage of movie franchises both from 2014 and those still coming down the pike. By my count, 12 of the top 15 grossing films in 2014 were sequels or at least have franchise aspirations. Two of the remaining three (Maleficent and Big Hero 6) are Disney properties but I’m going to be kind and give them the benefit of the doubt.

Is this the future? Do you see the general population fatiguing on seeing 4+ superhero movies every year (EDIT: it’s more like 5-6+ per year for the foreseeable future)? I know I’m already dreading the coming onslaught of the Marvel and DC universes. I don’t want to root for failure, but I’m a little relieved that Sony has pumped the brakes on the preordained Amazing Spider-Man franchise. Should we pour one out for the days when franchise aspirations were the exception and not the rule?

Zack: I’m not the type of person who was excited by superheroes and comic books growing up, so this recent, huge push toward franchises based around them has been especially surprising to me. That said, I’m not opposed to having some mindless fun in a theater in the middle of summer. I think this year is interesting to look at, at least in terms of artistic merit (whatever that is), when considering these specific kinds of blockbusters.

On one end of the spectrum, we’ve got Guardians Of The Galaxy, one of the most exciting, unabashedly fun movies I saw all year. It was a film that never took itself too seriously and was totally willing to go broad, and I was smiling through the credits.

On the other end, of course, there was The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which I personally ranked as the second-worst movie I saw all year. Perhaps I’ll reveal what I thought to be the absolute worst at a later juncture. If I was smiling through the credits for Guardians, I was just happy to see daylight when I left the theater after Spider-Man.

So I guess what I’m getting at is these mega-budget, CGI-laden flex-fests can swing either way, just like any other movie might. There are great rom-coms, and there are terrible ones. Same for horror flicks. The disconcerting part tends to be looking at a studio’s release schedule and realizing that a disproportionate amount of money is getting sunk into preexisting ideas. Sure, we’ve got Christopher Nolan as an exception, but he only earned his exempt status after tackling a semi-known commodity (albeit in a new and incredibly interesting way, but that’s an entirely different discussion). Sometimes I find myself dreading the experience of seeing a franchise film in the theater, if only because I know every ticket bought for that type of movie takes a few more dollars away from what could potentially be the next visionary.

Is it all a fad? I don’t know. Maybe. The idea that Marvel has films lined up to take us through the rest of this decade is a little scary. Where’s the fun in knowing what’s going to happen next? Their entire release schedule is the strangest spoiler I’ve ever seen.

Tony: A couple of great points there. I completely agree that, individually, any movie could go either way. Generally speaking, Marvel makes good movies. I don’t see them creating as singular an experience as The Dark Knight (which admittedly was the middle part of a trilogy), but I’ve really never been let down by anything from Marvel’s Avengers line.

In no way does “Superhero” equate to “bad.” It’s the combination of opportunity cost, diminishing marginal returns and the lack of suspense inherent in Marvelwood’s ten year plan that elicits groans from the likes of me. Strange spoilers is absolutely right. Totally bizarre, and now the stakes have been officially lowered for the next two Avengers installments.

Perhaps these film series/business plans/merchandising opportunities are just the price of the party. We need the tent poles in order for stuff like Birdman, Whiplash and Boyhood to get any traction.

I have to wonder; would PTA be able to get Boogie Nights made today if we reset his resume back to Hard Eight? Would George Lucas be able to turn Star Wars into an Empire of Dreams if that troubled production was subject to social media scrutiny at every turn before even getting to the review aggregators? Big, risky projects have less and less opportunities in Marvelwood.

Look at the Wachowskis who have had three misunderstood bombs in a row. I have a lot of respect for their visions, even when they fail. Who’s going to give them another large budget to play with any time soon? Anyone? And yet, I already know I’d rather see whatever they care to do next before seeing another Transformers.

Sorry… Did I black out?

Zack: I’ll defend Cloud Atlas (but NOT Jupiter Ascending) to anyone who’ll listen, but I don’t think we’re here to discuss 2012 (or even 2015 just yet).

Anyway, I think there’s something to be said for audiences’ tastes when these tentpole movies are making hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars. I don’t think it’s fair to say movie audiences have gotten “dumber” or “lazier,” but I think it’s fair to apply those words to studio advertising strategies.

Also, throw in “loud.” I find myself shuddering for about twenty minutes before every film I see in a theater because every trailer (whether it be for Thor or The Theory Of Everything) seems intent on blowing my eardrums out. It’s as if the the campaign can be boiled down to the idea that a moviegoer might only remember a trailer if it hurt.

But I digress.

I understand studios need boatloads of cash to fund the smaller stuff from their arthouse film subdivisions, which is part of the reason why I do find myself at indie theaters like the Angelika and IFC Center at least as much as (if not more than) any Regal or AMC. The smaller stuff tends to feel a little more focused to me, like the studio got out of the way and let a director see his or her vision to the end without a lot of interference. Some results are bristly and strange, like, say, Listen Up Philip or Joe. Some results are a bit more crowd-pleasing and transcendent, like Boyhood.

Sure, I’ve seen some boring indies. But it’s rare to see something whitewashed and ordinary when it doesn’t come out of a major studio.

Tony: I will stand beside you in defense of Cloud Atlas but, back to the task at hand. We really can’t indict audiences at this point. Then again, I wonder, if the Mouse House/Marvel movies continue crossing the $200 million mark routinely, at what point do we (“The Royal We“) have to admit that we are submitting to and/or directly asking for it? I guess, as always, the people will vote with their dollar.

As for general loudness, I’m glad you brought that up. Otherwise I may not have remembered one of my first movie experiences of 2014. I saw the new Robocop in​ faux I-MAX (Lie Max!). Can’t say I remember the trailers, but that was the single loudest theater experience of my life. It was like the theater was over-compensating for the fact that it wasn’t equipped to show actual large-format celluloid prints by sonic-pummeling me senseless. I remember being pleasantly surprised by Robocop, even though it was physically painful to sit through.

Since it was actually a year full of solid franchise entries, I’ll tender my top 5 before we move on.

  1. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
  2. Guardians of the Galaxy
  3. Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier
  4. 22 Jump Street
  5. Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

You know what I just realized? Part of the reason I get worked up over these sequel-churners is that I’m not big fan of numbers, dashes, or colons in movie titles. Even though complaining about titles is totally like judging a book by its cover, short and unadorned titles are the way to go. Look at PTA’s filmography!

Zack: By my count, I saw fifteen franchise-minded films in 2014. I’m bending the rules a little here, but with John Wick and Big Hero 6 having heavily rumored sequels in the works, I think it’s fair enough to include them. Anyway, here’s how I’d rank them:

  1. Guardians Of The Galaxy
  2. The LEGO Movie
  3. John Wick
  4. Big Hero 6
  5. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1
  6. Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes
  7. 22 Jump Street
  8. X-Men: Days Of Future Past
  9. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
  10. Muppets Most Wanted
  11. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
  12. Ride Along
  13. Horrible Bosses 2
  14. Divergent
  15. The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Tony: Wow. Totally botched my list by forgetting about The LEGO Movie.

Zack: And that’s all I really need to say about franchises.

Check back next week for Part 2 of our three-part discussion which includes talk of auteurs, unpopular opinions, and more!


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