Most critics make lists. The 10 best. The 10 worst. Numbers get fudged, choices seem awfully familiar, and fanboys rage with righteous indignation that Guardians of the Galaxy isn't honored as this year's Citizen Kane.
Sure, there's a little of that here. But mostly this is a compendium of observations about the state of popular cinema today. The year was as surprising for the blockbusters that didn't suck (yes, Guardians of the Galaxy is on that list) as it was despairing for the indies that weren't given a chance to find an audience. The industry, the way audiences watch movies, even the way films are made, is in flux, and it's sometimes hard to discern whether any of the changes are for the better.
2014's most alarming trend was the notable lack of mid-budget, adult-oriented studio films. These are the projects that, if done well, attract appreciative audiences and modest profits. Dramas like The Judge or comedies like This Is Where I Leave You may not garner top ratings on Rotten Tomatoes but they deliver the kinds of characters and stories that used to be a staple of the cineplex. Today, not so much.
Movies have become a boom or bust market. Go big or go home seems to be the mantra. And much like the economic disparity that currently plagues our nation, the film industry has mostly abandoned middle budget films ($5-$50 million) and opted instead for big budget multi-national extravaganzas or micro-budget faux indies. Sure, there's a modest slate of Oscar bait released during the holidays, but the rest of the year is dominated by sequels, spin-offs, and bestseller adaptations. The studios are no longer run by iconoclastic tastemakers who love film but rather corporate managers who are adverse to risk. Whatever made money in the past is the template for the future. That's why we get toothless remakes of Robocop and an endless stream of Transformer movies. There's no longer any room for crossover artists like David Lynch (who hasn't made a feature since 2006), Steven Soderbergh (who has retired from film to direct for cable), John Waters or Spike Lee.
This has created an artistic vacuum, not only for established talent but also for up and coming film artists, who are choosing to pursue television and the Internet as their only chance for creative success. Will these new platforms fill the artistic gap? It remains to be seen. In the meantime all we can do is reward the best movies with our attendance and punish the worst by staying away (and posting the occasional contemptuous tweet).
Seriously, you went to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles instead of these?
The only thing the following three flicks share in common is an audacity of vision. Each is the creation of a film artist pushing against the boundaries of what is expected and delivering work that both challenges and enthralls. Jonathan Glazer's trance-like Under the Skin is a menacing sci-fi that forces us to consider what's hidden beneath the surfaces of humanity. Scarlett Johansson is haunting as a murderous alien who slowly embraces what it means to be human. Closer to Earth, Steve Knight's Locke features Thomas Hardy in a car fielding cellphone calls as his life collapses around him. That's it. Yet this taut and tense drama boasts the year's best performance. And redefining the sci-fi action genre, Bong Joon-Ho's savage, apocalyptic Snowpiercer features a steampunk train that circumnavigates a frozen Earth. Inside, war brews between the haves and have-not, resulting in an exciting and brutal allegory about class and power. And it stars Captain America himself, Chris Evans!
Why Boyhood deserves all the love it's getting
Forget that Richard Linklater shot his film over 12 years with the same cast. Forget the gimmick of watching its cast age in real time. Forget even that Boyhood contains one of the most sympathetic portrayals of single motherhood in God knows when. Focus instead on Boyhood as a movie, on what it is and what is does. For three where-did-they-go hours you experience young Mason's life, and it's as familiar as your own childhood. The setting and situations may be different, but the feelings are the same. Linklater does something miraculous — he takes the small, revealing moments that make up a lifetime and creates what feels like an actual life. Unsentimental, unpredictable, and achingly intimate, Boyhood doesn't just invite you to witness Mason's journey from boy to man, it makes you a part of his family. And when the lights come up you can't help but wonder when you'll see him again.
Lots of horror flicks, only one good scare
Well, it took almost the entire year, but finally we have a scary movie that's actually — ahem — scary. Meanwhile you've been wasting your precious money and time on Hasbro game tie-ins (Ouija) and yet more found footage horror flicks. Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, As Above, So Below, and Bigfoot shockers Willow Creek and Exists only offer the 20somethings getting slaughtered on Go-Pro shaky cam. Bad acting and a few jump scares do not a scary movie make. That's why Jennifer Kent's The Babadook is such a revelation. Spinning the monster-in-the-closet premise on its head, she sets about tormenting an emotionally traumatized mum and her precocious young son with a terrifying character from a hellish nursery-rhyme pop-up book. Kent's inventive direction delivers big frights, even as she slyly examines the repressed rage of motherhood.
The great God almighty inspires some pretty shitty movies
This was the year when Christians supposedly made their mark at the multiplex with "faith-based" films. God's Not Dead, Son of God, and Heaven is for Real all made respectable box office coin. But let's face it, these abrasive, preachy and smug attempts at sermon-as-cinema are pretty God awful. It's saying something when you lower the bar for a Nicholas Cage film. But that's just what Left Behind did. Odious Kirk Cameron made a year-end cash grab with his execrable ode to conspicuous consumption, Saving Christmas, earning him the lowest ranking on IMDB but $2.5 million on what looked to be a $300 investment. Even Hollywood tried to reach into the pockets of the faithful with Ridley Scott's failing $140 million Exodus: Gods and Kings. Which leaves us Darren Aronofsky, a Jew, to bring home the holy bacon (as it were). His biblical action spectacle Noah racked up more than $360 million worldwide. The Lord works in ironic ways.
Truth is stranger (and more depressing) than fiction
Scanning the marquees of local movie theaters you wouldn't know that 2014 produced some outstanding documentaries. If you're bemoaning the death of investigative journalism on TV and in our newspapers, why not add a few of these docs to your Netflix cue. First off, CitizenFour is mandatory viewing for anyone who values their right to privacy (that means you). Explosive and terrifying, it's a fact-based thriller that lays bare the insidious secrets whistleblower Edward Snowden uncovered. On a similar (and equally depressing) note, The Internet's Own Boy is a heartbreaking chronicle of how idealistic boy-genius Aaron Swartz was driven into despair (and eventually suicide) by a system that protects the interests of corporations and institutions over individuals. This year's reminder of the damage humans inflict upon the natural world comes courtesy of the excellent yet disturbing Virunga, which pits the corruption and greed of man (and oil companies) against an ever-dwindling population of mountain gorillas. Like The Cove, it is a call to arms that one can only hope more will hear. And lest you fear this year's docs offer all misery all the time, check out Jodorowsky's Dune, which presents the greatest film never made. Or so director Frank Pavich and talking head Nicolas Winding Refn enthusiastically claim. For film geeks and Frank Herbert fans, this energetic what if story is necessary viewing.
2014 releases deserving of praise: What We Do In The Shadows, Dom Hemingway, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Rover, Foxcatcher, Cold In July, The Guest, Nightcrawler, The Theory of Everything, Inherent Vice, The Book of Life, John Wick, A Most Violent Year, Selma, The Lego Movie, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Coherence, Only Lovers Left Alive, 22 Jump Street, Inherent Vice, Like Father, Like Son, Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, Ernest & Celestine, Blue Ruin, Calvary, Love Is Strange, Boxtrolls, The Overnighters, Whiplash, The One I Love, The Skeleton Twins, Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me, Mr. Turner.
Overrated: Birdman, Gone Girl, Interstellar, Wild, Neighbors, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Godzilla.
2014 releases deserving of scorn and derision: Horrible Bosses 2, Dumb and Dumber To, Blended, Dracula Untold, I, Frankenstein, Drive Hard, Tusk, Hector and the Search for Happiness, Atlas Shrugged Part III, Walk Of Shame, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, The Expendables 3, Transformers 4: Age of Extinction, A Million Ways to Die in the West, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Transcendence, Pompeii, The Purge: Anarchy, Winter's Tale.