Just in time for The Oscars, screenwriter and UMKC film professor Mitch Brian weighs in on 2014's forgettable sequels and the innovative outlier films that were must-sees.
2014 may go down in film history as the year a major studio capitulated to terrorist threats and halted the release of a movie. That film, “The Interview,” a broad comedy about a couple of dopes talked into an assassination plot aimed at Kim Jong-un proves, if nothing else, that comedies can be taken very seriously. Equally serious in 2014 were the huge box office grosses. The 10 at the top all surpassed the $600 million mark and “Transformers: Age of Extinction” took in more than $1 billion dollars. In all cases but one (Christopher Nolan’s space odyssey “Interstellar”), the top grossing 10 were sequels, spin-offs or based on comic books.
“Guardians of the Galaxy” may have been an obscure title, but the combination of the Marvel brand and promises of spaceships and comedy made it the surprise hit of the summer. Spiderman, Captain America, and X-Men sequels continued the superhero craze, while Disney re-imagined Sleeping Beauty’s nemesis in the film “Maleficent” much the same way as Fox did with its “Planet of the Apes” sequel, solidifying that franchise. Fox also scored with “How To Train Your Dragon 2” and the third film in the “Hunger Games” series rolled in with part one of its two-part conclusion. The $7.5-billion box office total for 2014 was impressive, but the movies themselves were mostly forgettable.
The more interesting films of 2014 were found on the fringes, and predictably, at the end of the year, when Hollywood eschews money for prizes, hoping to bag a few gold statues. Several of the most interesting were innovative and experimental, some pushing the boundaries past what Oscar voters consider suitably “classy.” Thankfully, home video makes them available to those who missed their limited theatrical runs. Here some of the most interesting narrative films of 2014.
“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” – Michael Keaton plays a burned-out actor famous for his role as a movie superhero. Shrewd casting is just one of many notable things in this well-acted black comedy. Its technical style is dizzying, with the film appearing to have been photographed in one long, continuous take.
“Boyhood” – Richard Linklater shot this story over a period of 11 years, chronicling a boy’s coming of age, weathering family dysfunction, love and loss. The sheer spectacle of watching a cast age before our eyes is enough to make the film noteworthy. True to Linklater form, it rambles and occasionally lapses into cliché, but it also achieves a deep sense of wonder and (obviously) transformation.
“Dear White People” – With a sure-hand, first-time director Justin Simien takes stylistic cues from Kubrick and Bergman as he focuses on the African-American college experience at Ivy League schools. American movies have shied away from contemporary stories of race, preferring to soften the topic in period nostalgia, so the sheer immediacy of it all makes it feel particularly fresh as it satirizes stereotypes and exposes hypocrisy.
“The Imitation Game” – Benedict Cumberbatch delivers a complicated and touching performance as Alan Turing, the prickly savant who led the effort to crack the Nazi Enigma code in World War II. The film manages to both create suspense and explore a character who’s a true outsider, uncomfortable in his own skin yet certain of his abilities. Along with the Stephen Hawking story “The Theory of Everything” and the romantic artist bio “Mr. Turner,” 2014 was the year of the “very special Englishman.”
“Journey to the West” – Director Stephen Chow (“Kung Fu Hustle”) combines his outrageous sense of humor with a huge special effects budget to retell the ancient Chinese legend of the Monkey King and a Buddhist demon hunter. That should be enough to sell this one, right? It’s every bit as entertaining as any of the 2014 Marvel entries.
“Locke” – With the entire film taking place in an automobile driving from Birmingham to London, Tom Hardy’s sharply controlled performance runs the emotional gamut. Hardy plays Ivan Locke, a married man who is shocked to discover that a casual infidelity seven months earlier has resulted in the pregnancy and premature labor of a woman he hardly knows. Determined to reach the hospital and attend the birth, we watch his entire life come apart in the span of 90 minutes of pained phone calls to wife, family and employers. This is a reminder that a great performance is better than any special effect the cinema can muster.
“Nightcrawler” – Jake Gyllenhaal’s plays Lou Bloom, a blithely charming sociopath who finds his true calling in photographing crime scenes and accidents for the local TV news affiliate. Fueled by motivational self-improvement mantras, Bloom is determined to achieve success at any cost in a film that works both as a taught suspense thriller and razor- sharp media satire.
“Only Lovers Left Alive” – Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston play long- distance lovers who reunite in the sublimely beautiful and desolate Detroit. Sadly, he’s suicidal, so she arrives determined to raise his spirits and celebrate by drinking some of “the good stuff”: pure, unpolluted, environmentally safe O Negative blood. Here is a vampire tale that’s pure grown-up romance, undercut by a knowing sense of humor and punk rock spirit that only director Jim Jarmusch (“Dead Man”) could pull off. And he does it with aplomb.
“Under the Skin” – Surprising, scary and innovative in its improvisational style (some of which features people unaware they’re being filmed by hidden cameras) this is probably the most arresting movie of the year. Scarlett Johansson plays a predatory female whose beauty is only a skin-deep covering of another form. To give anything else away would be to spoil the experience but seldom has a film felt more unworldly.