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2014 in Film: Part Two – Auteurs and Unpopular Opinions

March 3, 2015

Last week, I posted the first part of a conversation I had with my friend Zack (check him out at @QuickFilmPile to find out what movies he’s been watching). He saw a ton of movies last year and is always game for this kind of thing. This conversation occurred in the week leading up to the Oscars, hence any conspicuous lack of Oscar talk you may notice. Read on to see what we had to say about 2014’s auteur landscape as well as our unpopular opinions.

Tony: What do you think? Time to see what the reigning auteurs were up to in 2014?

Zack: Staring down the entirety of the list I made for all the films I saw in 2014, it really shows what a ridiculous year it was for auteurs. Richard Linklater, David Fincher, Jim Jarmusch, Christopher Nolan, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Bennett Miller, Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, Lars von Trier – the list goes on.

LVT Nymph

I’m a fervent PTA supporter, as can likely be seen, so my feelings there are fairly apparent. But look at the rest of those names. Filmic constants still churning out great art. Did you have a favorite auteurist vision this year from a known name? And was there a new cinematic voice you found that you feel warrants discussion?

I’m eager to see what you say. I’ll respond in kind.

Tony: It’s always fun to see which directors are active in any given year. The list of big names was long this year and we didn’t even get anything from Tarantino, Spielberg, Soderbergh (I’m holding out hope that he hasn’t retired to TV permanently), etc.

So much to talk about here, so I’m going to veer off from the major awards fare for now. I’m woefully behind on seeing the nominees anyway. Plus, films from PTA, Fincher and Wes Anderson are basically genres unto themselves at this point. I’m going to do my best to zig instead of zag while staying on the topic of what I perceive to fall within the category of auteurship.

Snowpiercer – This one easily tops my sci-fi list for 2014. Bong Joon-ho is a formidable writer/director out of Korea. He’s made great films before (I think The Host is still on Netflix), but this is his first English-language crossover and it has a loaded cast headlined by Chris Evans and Tilda Swinton. Best of all, it’s genuinely surprising and loaded with searing imagery that sticks with you. I’m all in on Joon-ho’s next project, whatever it is.

Nymphomaniac – Both volumes. The myth is that Lars von Trier basically made this film on a lark after being teased by his director of photography on Melanncholia. Always an agitator, always a provocateur, von Trier made a two-volume epic of sexual obsession and just crushed it. It’s a very adult film, and yet it’s far from being an adult film, if ya know what I mean. Those who want to feel safe at the movies can have their Fifty Shades, but I’m riding with Lars. The 5.5 hour Director’s Cut currently on Netflix belongs in the “Things I Can’t Un-See” wing of the Movie Pantheon.

I have a couple more, but whaddya got?

Zack: I think I’ll pick one veteran and one rookie to get into here.

Many of the longtime auteurs that released films this year are (or were) in the discussion for big-time awards, so I’ll skip over those, as you did, to profess my love for what I thought was one of the low-key masterpieces of 2014: Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive.

Jarmusch knows all the right buttons when it comes to getting me to love a film, whether it’s with Night On EarthCoffee And Cigarettes, Mystery TrainBroken Flowers, or any of his other cinematic masterstrokes. Here he’s got Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton at his disposal, and they’re more than game to tackle this semi-anachronistic, cool hangout flick under the misleading umbrella of the vampire genre. Let me just be upfront about one thing: I groaned when I heard Jim Jarmusch was developing a vampire drama. Audibly. I could not have been more disappointed with the news. And then a year or so later, I saw the thing. And what a thing it is to behold. Jarmusch knows the tempos to beat and the flaws to magnify; he knows how to pull the right attitude out front and spread it over a moment. I couldn’t possibly say enough positive things about this film, so I’ll stop before I spoil anything plot-wise.

On the other end of the mood spectrum, 2014 brought us Damien Chazelle‘s intense, immersive Whiplash.

Maybe it’s too early to throw “auteur” at Chazelle, who expanded this film to feature length after he’d directed a short of the same name. But I don’t care. Whiplash felt like the singular vision of a man already inside the world he created. I saw a few horror films this year. A few adventure movies and thrillers too. Not a single one made me break a sweat like Whiplash. It’s a white-knuckle affair that sprints when you think it might crawl. J.K. Simmons deserves the praise (and the Oscar). Chazelle crafted something so deft and yet so pounding–the percussive editing and timing is on the nose (in the best way) with the drum tale.

Anyway, what next?

Tony:

Nightcrawler First timer alert! Dan Gilroy has some solid screenwriting credits but Nightcrawler was his first shot at the holding down the director’s chair. I had a good feeling about this one before it came out, but I think one of the best surprises of 2014 was just how great Nightcrawler was. The writing was sharp, you’ve already praised the cinematography and Jake Gyllenhaal gave us one of 2014’s most memorable performances as a greasy, walking self-help book. The satire is definitely hyperbolic, but this skewering of televised news could just be our generation’s Network (1976).

Fading Gigolo – Digging deep here, because I want to make sure people know about this one. John Turturro wrote and directed it, and roped Woody Allen in as a collaborator. This was just delightful, zany, very New York and with a lot of heart. Or in other words, it was basically a Woody Allen movie that happened to be made by John Turturro.

Zack: Agreed on all points. Fading Gigolo was especially enjoyable for me; Woody Allen will always hold a special place in my chest as an artist, so it was exciting to see him in something he didn’t direct that wasn’t Antz.

My gut is telling me to discuss unpopular opinions with you quickly. Films you or I somehow viewed differently than an apparent consensus. You could also view this as a conversation about things we’d consider underrated or overrated.

Anyway, I’ve got a few in mind, but I envision this going back-and-forth, so I’ll limit myself.

I didn’t care for Big Eyes. At all, really. Tim Burton hasn’t rung my bell for a pretty good amount of time now, but I really found this one to be a slog. Amy Adams is expectedly great, but there was just nothing there. It’s a generic semi-procedural with no real heart. The generally fantastic Christoph Waltz is limited to one-note absurdity. I was bored by about minute ten.

On the flip side, I saw a lot of hate for The Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby, and that was a project I deeply loved. It deserves to be said that The Weinstein Company screwed the release a bit, which admittedly would’ve been a bit of a challenge no matter what. Director and writer Ned Benson took a fairly ambitious approach for his first feature: Dissecting the dissolution of a relationship from both points of view, two companion films, Her and Him. The incomparable Jessica Chastain signed on early, and I was certain there was no way this could be anything other than a spectacle, a possible career-defining performance. Anyway, the story goes that the Weinsteins watched the cuts of the two separate films and thought movie-going (and Oscar-voting) audiences wouldn’t have the patience to watch both films, so a compilation film was ordered, almost completely undercutting Benson’s original idea. The two films separately, seen back-to-back, serve as a showcase for what ambition, creativity, and focus can bring to conventional storytelling. And it’s a real shame they went nearly unseen and unloved because of a wonky release decision.

What about you, Tony? Any unpopular opinions you’d care to share? If not, anything you’d like to soapbox for?

Tony: I can wrangle up a few unpopular opinions from last year. Generally, the movies I thought were duds fizzled by other measures as well, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Divergent for example. I haven’t seen some of the more controversial films but I do feel like I’m in the minority in a few cases.

OK, so I didn’t think 22 Jump Street was as funny as 21 Jump Street. Phil Lord and Chris Miller really laid the meta-sequel-humor on too thick for me at times. This meta humor seems pretty responsible for a lot of the praise 22 has gotten, but I just found it overbearingly cynical. Scream is another meta franchise (if you will), that slathers its scripts with on-the-nose jokes and yet those movies all still seem to be embracing the genre. 22 Jump Street didn’t seem to be embracing anything other college culture and felt like a big middle finger to the genre it was skewering rather than a love letter. That said, I still enjoyed 22 and thought Jillian Bell was hysterical but I just can’t champion its case for being an improvement over 21.

Zack: 22 Jump Street was a fine comedy. Both entries in the series have been charming enough, with little flashes of brilliance, but I wouldn’t call either great.

Tony: Also, I liked The Monuments Men. With Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, Bob Balaban and John Goodman just to name a few, this was basically a parade of great character actors and not-quite-movie-stars. Generally, they had some decent material to work with, and I didn’t leave the theater feeling that anyone was particularly wasted. I admit the drama was not operating at a high level but the story of art preservation on the front lines of WWII was a fresh look for a war film. The Rape of Europa, the 2006 documentary on the same subject is a better doc than Monuments is a narrative, but I think anyone who likes a dash of history with their film would certainly enjoy both. It’s not the most ringing endorsement, but I liked Monuments Men more than one might think given the weak reviews and box office intake.

I think I’ve got one more soapbox/opinion but I’ll kick this back to you first.

Zack: I can’t rightly disagree with anything you’ve said here.

I was a little bored by The Monuments Men, but I would never say it was a bad film. I think it suffered mostly from its afterthought-like February dump, even though it had initially seemed like an awards season contender back in 2013.

Here’s the thing (and I’m now realizing I should have mentioned this one with the other franchise-minded movies of 2014): I didn’t really like Neighbors. With a 73% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a 6.4 out of 10 on IMDB, it doesn’t seem like the film was universally loved, but with a sequel in the works, I feel confident enough that I’ve got a fairly unpopular opinion on this one. Rose Byrne and Seth Rogen are typically two actors I enjoy watching. Dave Franco and Zac Efron less so, but still a bit. Nick Stoller wrote and directed one of my favorite rom-coms of the last decade in The Five-Year Engagement. Everything just felt so telegraphed and worn out in Neighbors. Maybe it was the incessant, brash trailers I saw for the movie, but I felt like I’d seen the movie ten times over before I got to the title card. One audible laugh aside (an admittedly inspired setup regarding Robert De Niro), the movie ultimately fell flat for me.

Now, please, share your last soapbox-worthy opinion. I’m honestly excited.

Tony: We might have to call it a mini-soapbox draped in a couple of mildly unpopular opinions.

I thought Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was solid. Michael Bay‘s name and fingerprints were all over it as a producer, and it looks especially good next to Bay’s own Transformers sequel (Trans4mers?). If anything, I was expecting the opposite. On one hand, Turtles was pure nonsense that I won’t even attempt to synopsize. On the other hand, Turtles may be exactly the nonsense we deserve right now. It’s not defensible in any rational way, but armed with subterranean expectations, I honestly couldn’t knock it afterwards. It was probably the best role Megan Fox has had since the first Transformers.

I actually like Transformers (2007) a lot and the second one a little bit. The third one wasn’t very enjoyable and 2014’s reset was the worst of the bunch. I’m not alone in panning Trans4mers, but I may be a little more alone in being a Michael Bay fan. His films are entertaining, his attitude is fascinating, and he’s an undeniable explosion auteur. In fact, given a choice, I wouldn’t entrust my explosions to anyone else.

I’m all in on whatever Bay is directing next, so long as it doesn’t involve Autobots or Decepticons. I’m sure the world will get more Transformers at some point, but we don’t need more BayFormers. He’s already given us more of that than we could possibly want. Beyond explosions, Bay is an auteur of bad taste – like a more mainstream Paul Verhoeven. He has shown that bad taste in spades, but he’s also shown he is capable of making excellent movies.

Zack: Here’s the thing: I’m essentially in full agreement with you on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I thought it was supremely mindless and fluffy, but I’m not sure I was looking for anything else. Megan Fox was fine enough, I suppose. Will Arnett was Will Arnett, which was perfect for his role. There was even a killer, subtle Arrested Development gag that left me chuckling to myself in the theater for at least five minutes (much to the chagrin of the several children seated in my vicinity). Look, it’ll end up nowhere near the top of my list, and I can’t justifiably call it a “good”movie, but it was a sufficient summer blockbuster. Consider me a semi-fan.

Now, regarding Michael Bay, I can’t really agree. I didn’t see the newest Transformers (Age Of Innocence? Bark At The Moon? Marky Mark At The Moon?), nor do I care to. But Bay is good at what he does, at least in terms of box office success. For my money, there’s no director who touches the technical mastery of the explosions of Christopher Nolan. Maybe the practical effects he employs are just romantic to me. I don’t know. I don’t know that I have the gumption to get into a debate here.

But let’s stop discussing schlock. Let’s get to the good stuff, eh?

(EDIT: I vote that Zack gets to name all future Transformers films, but without seeing the script first. Also, long live Nolan. Good practical effects are balm.)

Stay tuned later this week for the third and final installment of Zack and I rambling about the movies of 2014. In the final segment, we promise to get to the aforementioned “good stuff.”

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