I can’t call 2014 a great year for movies, like the year that preceded it. In 2013 you could, if you lived in a major city, walk into a multiplex or art-house cinema every single week of the year and see a film that was well worth your time. Or if you’d only had time to see the nine features nominated for the 2013 Best Picture Oscar you would have viewed many of the year’s actual best pictures and come away with a good sampling of what made the year special. In 2014, however, you had to make an effort to seek out the gems, especially during the crowded award season.
2014 distinguished itself with movies that featured a leisurely, contemplative quality as opposed to a strong, driving storyline. With a few notable exceptions (like Two Days, One Night and Whiplash), 2014 did not contain a large number of lean, riveting, 90 to 110 minute films that tackled complex themes by way of simple, direct, expertly crafted narratives. Filmmakers did not seem interested in grabbing audiences by the guts and telling us stories that demanded our full attention at all times. Instead, most movies this year—good and bad, big and small, foreign and domestic, commercial and art-house—attempted to engage viewers intellectually with cinematic meditations on subjects, ideas, and states of mind. 2014 contained an astounding number of films with hefty running times ranging from 140 to 200 minutes. Directors constantly encouraged us, during these prolonged periods of sitting in the dark, to disconnect from the specifics of their narratives so we could ponder the comprehensive thoughts and feelings their movies evoked in us.
The poignant, reflective quality of 2014’s cinema was best exemplified in the Palm d’Or winner Winter Sleep and the Golden Globe winner Boyhood; and it colored many of the most acclaimed and popular pictures of the year like Birdman, Interstellar, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Leviathan, Mr. Turner, Under the Skin, and Wild, to name only the most prominent. As we watched the characters in each of these films, we couldn’t help but find ourselves ruminating on the relevance their experiences had for our own lives. This contemplation didn’t occur after the movies ended, but as they unfolded. Yet we never lost the films’ narrative threads because the storylines were intentionally minimal.
Even mainstream, plot-driven pictures such as Gone Girl, A Most Wanted Man, and Maleficent invited us to disengage from their mysteries and think about the larger intellectual concepts and emotional sensations that stirred in us as we watched. All these films seemed expressly designed for a semi-detached style of viewing. You certainly derived a great deal more pleasure if you watched in this way, and, in many cases, you might be encouraged to return for repeat viewings.
Frequently, these contemplative film meditations explored two universal, interrelated topics: aging and the passage of time. These themes were most obvious in Boyhood, but we saw it in Winter Sleep, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Interstellar, The Theory of Everything, Mr. Turner, Beloved Sisters, and dozens of smaller features like The Railway Man, I Origins, and Love is Strange. As if to shine a spotlight on this motif, 2014 gave us no less than five films about fictional aging movie stars played by actual aging movies stars: Michael Keaton in Birdman, Juliette Binoche in Clouds of Sils Maria, Julianne Moore in Maps to the Stars, Robin Wright in The Congress, and Al Pacino in The Humbling. You could also squeeze Chris Rock in Top Five into this group with a minimum of effort. Among documentaries, Life Itself, Elaine Strich: Shoot Me, The 50 Year Argument, and The Look of Silence were principally concerned with how time shapes a person, an institution, or a nation.
Of course, the penchant for long, introspective filmmaking yielded a lot of unfocused, overstuffed, self-conscious movies as well. Pretentious high-profile pictures like Foxcatcher, Inherent Vice, The Monument’s Men, Maps to the Stars, and Nymphomaniac could not deliver on their lofty aspirations. Instead of initiating an active, parallel, cerebral experience in viewers as we simultaneously digested the movie and contemplated our own lives, these tedious pictures caused a lot of us to simply check out. Similarly, many small indies aimed for profundity but achieved only pompousness. Lazy or convoluted misfires like The Congress, The Double, Jauja, The Blue Room, Eden, Third Person, and The Zero Theorem all failed to engage beyond their initial conceptual intrigue and their surface-level flash.
Given the trend away from tightly constructed narratives, it’s unsurprising that 2014 was not a year especially rich in great genre pictures. There were a few: the first rate ‘80s era crime drama Cold in July, the gleefully entertaining sci-fi action thriller Edge of Tomorrow, and the gorgeous, psychological chiller Oculus. 2014 also saw three acclaimed horror films from female directors—A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night by Ana Lily Amirpour, Honeymoon by Leigh Janiak, and The Babadook by Jennifer Kent. This trend suggests a potential resurgence and renaissance in horror might await us now that new voices are beginning to gain notice in this genre. Overall though, 2014 was not a stand-out year for genre fans. Even the top grossing pictures, Transformers: Age of Extinction and The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, drew mostly yawns and complaints from their intended audiences.
It was no great shock that overall box-office numbers were down from 2013’s record-breaking windfall. Studios not only gave us more slow-burning features, they put out fewer sequels, remakes, and adaptations of popular preexisting materials. The two biggest commercial surprises were Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Guardians of the Galaxy—rare popcorn pictures that not only scored major box office returns, but also excellent word-of-mouth and across-the-board critical acclaim.
Of all the trends illuminated by 2014, perhaps the most welcome was the maturation of my least favorite kind of movie—the biopic. Always a mainstay of cinema, Hollywood studios and independent companies grow ever more reliant on fact-based material the more movies have to compete for audiences. As with bestselling novels, comic book characters, old TV shows, and nearly all preexisting properties, fact-based movies are easier to market than original material. When making a biopic or docudrama, film marketers can capitalize on the built-in curiosity of the increasingly “reality-”obsessed public. If the subjects of these films are still alive (or only recently dead), the real people (or those who knew them well) can make the rounds of talk shows and press junkets along with the movie stars. These individuals generate many stories in the non-entertainment press as well.
Judging by 2014’s crop of biopics and docudramas, filmmakers have reacted to the recent deluge of fact-based movies by finally finding more creative approches to these types of stories. In almost every instance this year, screenwriters, directors, and producers subtly circumvented the hackneyed, interchangeable formulas that so often characterize pictures of this sort. Both Mr. Turner and American Sniper treated the biopic as character study and left us with as many questions as insights about the men being profiled. Selma and Pride each focused in on small but important chapters in infinitely larger stories, illuminating aspects of the greater civil rights struggles in America and in the UK respectively. Wild and Tracks collected fragments of memories and images connected to personal journeys, resulting in intriguing emotional collages rather than stiff, informational bullet points. The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, Belle, and The Railway Man told their biographical narratives in the form of unapologetic, romantic melodramas; sweeping us up in old-fashioned movie grandeur instead of trying to present the basic facts of a life. To varying degrees, each of these pictures dispensed with contrived, reductive explanations for their protagonists’ actions in favor of exploring individual personas, movements, and ideas through behavior and relationships. The films elucidated aspects of complex individuals without trying to fully define them or put them in a box.
Of course, this year managed to deliver two traditional biopics, as if to remind us what these docudramas are usually like. Angelina Jolie directed the watchable, well-intentioned, but ultimately hollow WWII survival story Unbroken, and Tim Burton served up the stunningly contrived and overplayed Big Eyes. Jolie’s movie represents the type of reverent, elegantly produced, yet regrettably forgettable true-life war story that Hollywood loves to lavish money on, while Burton’s less successful art-world exposé plays like the typical plodding, artificial, simpleminded fare found on commercial TV or Premium Cable.
Several reality-based movies and award-show omissions made big news in 2014. Divisive controversies raged around how “the facts” were presented in Selma and American Sniper. Both pictures took the same kinds of dramatic liberties that all historical films use, but they stirred extraordinarily fervent debates. Biographical dramas always get called out for factual inadequacies or their supposed smearing of a historical figure in the service of petty drama. This was not limited to subject matter that touched on current political hot buttons. Academics were not pleased with the depiction of many characters in The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything, but their complaints were drowned out by praise for the films' leading actors. The way Mike Leigh supposedly misrepresents John Ruskin in Mr. Turner got Ruskin’s champions and biographers every bit as upset as Selma enraged those who represent Lyndon Johnson’s legacy. But outrage about the mistreatment of John Ruskin doesn’t become an Internet meme.
Selma was also at the forefront of the dustup around the Academy not nominating a single person of color in any of the acting categories for the first time in fifteen years. Selma’s Ava DuVernay seemed on track to become the first black woman ever nominated as best director. When both she and star David Oyelowo were passed over in favor of Foxcatcher’s Bennett Miller and Steve Carell, more than a few took to the Twittersphere with the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite to bemoan the lack of diversity in the Oscar nominations. 2014 will be remembered as a year when the killing of young, unarmed, black men by white police officers incited major protests. The disconnect between the Hollywood elite and people in the streets seems as shameful and awkward as when, at the height of the war in Iraq, the Academy tried to downplay their red carpet fashion show.
Of course, no movie made bigger headlines than the Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg bromance, The Interview. The stoner-comedy allegedly provoked a cyber attack on Sony Pictures from North Korea, due to the film’s depiction of its goofball protagonists (Rogen and James Franco) accepting a CIA mission to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. President Obama spent almost a quarter of his end-of-the-year press conference discussing this hack and the threat of 9/11 style attacks on theaters that screened The Interview. Sony pulled the picture from general release, though many independent cinemas were only too glad to show it. In the end, it enjoyed considerable viewership when made available for download on Christmas week.
As for me personally, in 2014 I saw the most films I’ve ever seen in theaters in a single calendar year, just over 140 new releases and approximately 135 in revival houses. I’m not sure that high viewing count is anything to take any actual pride in. In fact, I may be reaching a tipping point in terms of my celluloid intake. I began 2015 by reading comedian Patton Oswald’s short memoir Silver Screen Fiend, in which he discusses his obsession with cinema that took him over like a drug during his 20s. At the height of Oswald’s addiction, he went to 250 films in a single year (about 25 fewer than I saw in 2014). Though I don’t think I’m quite as far gone as Oswald claimed to be in the ‘90s, I certainly appreciate his thesis about transitioning out of a mostly passive existence of absorbing the work of others and coming into a creative life of his own.
I began the film5000 project not only as an excuse to see all the movies I wanted to see, but also to devise a structured way to develop the discipline of daily writing. It’s been over two years now, and I can’t say that I’m quite where I want to be with my writing habits, but I do feel the urge to slowly begin transitioning back to the creative writing I all but abandoned a while ago. By no means do I think I’ll renounce my predilection for going to as many movies as I can, though I may devote less time to writing about them, in the hope of devoting energy to writing my own films, plays, and fiction. That’s not a New Year’s Resolution; it’s just a thought.
My lists of the best work of the year...
Richard Linklater - BOYHOOD
Joshua Oppenheimer - THE LOOK OF SILENCE
Ava DuVernay - SELMA
Abderrahmane Sissako - TIMBUKTU
Damien Chazelle - WHIPLASH
Matt Reeves - DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY:
Jim Mickle & Nick Damici - COLD IN JULY
Andrew Bovell - A MOST WANTED MAN
Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth & John-Henry Butterworth - EDGE OF TOMORROW
Frank Cottrell Boyce & Andy Paterson - THE RAILWAY MAN
Oscar Isaac - A MOST VIOLENT YEAR
Bradley Cooper - AMERICAN SNIPER
David Oyelowo - SELMA
Eddie Redmayne - THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING
Timothy Spall - MR. TURNER
Tom Hardy - LOCKE
Philip Seymour Hoffman - A MOST WANTED MAN
BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE:
THE LOOK OF SILENCE - Joshua Oppenheimer
CITIZENFOUR - Laura Poitras
THE 50 YEAR ARGUMENT - Martin Scorsese & David Tedeschi
LIFE ITSELF - Steve James
FINDING VIVIAN MAIER - John Maloof & Charlie Siskel
BEST COME BACK:
Michael Keaton - BIRDMAN
Matt Reeves - DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES
Wes Anderson - THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL
Tom Cruise & Emily Blunt - EDGE OF TOMORROW
Mike Flanagan - OCULUS
Tom Hardy - LOCKE
Reese Witherspoon - THE GOOD LIE
BEST YEAR OVER ALL:
2014 was a lousy year for female roles unless you were Patricia Arquette, who's 12 year stint making Boyhood paid off in spades, or one of these women...
Jessica Chastain: Gave us four distinctive and memorable performances this year with J.C. Chandor’s riveting A Most Violent Year, Liv Ullmann’s Strindberg adaptation Miss Julie, Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi epic Interstellar, and Ned Benson’s audacious début The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby.
Keira Knightley: Consistently better than I expect her to be, Knightley's charming and dependable screen presence enhances every film she's in. 2014 saw four pictures that benefited greatly from having her in a lead role: The Imitation Game, Laggies, Begin Again, and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Introduced herslef with enchanting ingénue turns in two strong films; Amma Asante’s Belle and Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Beyond the Lights. It's a shame these pictures didn't find bigger audiences. People who complain about the lack of representation of women and minorities behind the camera in Hollywood need to stop posting on Facebook and start voting with their dollars by actually going out to see movies directed by women of color, especially when the films are as good and as easy to find as these two were.