My belated beautiful, dark, twisted list of my greatest film experiences of 2014 is an absolute jumble. All the stuff everyone talked about and certain organizations even rewarded? I haven’t seen ‘em. Boyhood? Not yet! Intersteller? Nope. Gone Girl? American Sniper? Selma? Eventually, he says. I briefly discussed plans to see Inherent Vice with the wife, but those plans fell apart. Many of the films bandied about by those-in-the-know, from Birdman to Whiplash to Still Alice are films I simply haven’t encountered. What can I tell you?
Writing about film may be a passion of mine, but for work I currently slog to and fro between three of the five boroughs of this great city, hop-skip-and-jumping from Queens to the Bronx to Staten Island. That, plus two kids, bills we can’t pay, and general unease about the world and where it’s going, have lead to a system where I throw a DVD on and fall asleep within 15 minutes of commencement with alarming regularity, such as I did last night with a James Franco/Kate Hudson thriller Good People and earlier this week with the obscure 1970s art-thriller, Stuart Cooper’s The Disappearance. I actually made it through 45 minutes of that one and it seems awfully interesting, so I heartily recommend 50% of it.
I did catch a few potential candidates that were disappointing: Woody Allen's Magic in the Moonlight never took off, and Nightcrawler was sleekly shot and well-acted, but belabored its one point towards a conclusion that seemed more inevitable to me than the filmmaker, apparently. As for the majority of Academy Award nominated films? Get back to me in 2016 for my rundown. 2017 at the latest.
So my list won’t be/can’t be a review of the best and worst films of 2014; it must be an accounting of the best and worst film experiences I personally had in calendar year 2014; films that were released in theaters for the first time, or released on special edition dvds or Blu-rays during the year, or as Kickstarter prizes (more on that later). And I threw in one streaming television show for good measure. Maybe next year Adaptation, a film I have been threatening to see since its release in 2002, will finally be viewed so I can call it “2015 film of the year!” But attentive readers will notice that I managed to watch a slew of other Nicolas Cage films in 2014. Ahem. Priorities, I guess.
TOP SIXTEEN FILMS OF THE YEAR (WELL, WITH ONE TELEVISION SHOW TOSSED IN)
Grand Budapest Hotel
Wes Anderson is the best currently active American filmmaker. I would say best filmmaker in the world, but that would be xenophobic as I haven’t experienced much foreign cinema in the last few years, so it would be dangerous, small-minded and too “American-White-Male”ish to crown Anderson international king. There very well could be some Romanian or Ugandan making superior works, what would I know at this point? The last great movement I was on top of was when Chow Yun-Fat and Jackie Chan were turning out the greatest action cinema the world will ever know in Hong Kong in the 80s and 90s. But Anderson’s films inhabit a wholly fascinating, detail-obsessed fantasy world unlike any other; the majority of his films do indeed feel like something the teenaged Max Fischer from Rushmore would make given a budget, and sometimes Anderson's work seems obsessively nostalgic; but if those are his limitations, then what chains for Anderson to sing in!
Adult World was rather alarmingly ignored upon release. Scott Coffey, an actor all 1980s teen comedy fans would remember by sight (he idolized Mary Stuart Masterson in Some Kind of Wonderful, and looked dumbfounded in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, for starters), has made a few indie flicks that I have never seen, but my dad liked Ellie Parker, his Naomi-Watts starring debut feature, and my dad’s a smart fella. But those who bemoan the great lost eras of filmmaking --- oh, the raw, gritty 70s! -- oh, the indie-fever DIY ethos of the 90s! – somehow didn't notice that this film channeled the spirit of 1990s sardonically clever indie filmmaking while creating a coming-of-age story that doesn't surpass but favorably compares to the all-time 1970s classic Breaking Away (just out on a gorgeous limited-edition Blu-ray). Anchored by a wonderful performance by Emma Roberts as a sheltered suburban girl who fancies herself a young Sylvia Plath, Coffey's film is neither sentimental or unduly cruel towards its somewhat clueless (young, mostly) protagonist, and features welcome support by personal hero John Cusack (who’s going to show up in this article a lot!) as a bad-tempered professor/poet. Filmgoers claim they want this sort of stuff, and dutifully ignore it when it comes along. Well, my role in life, or in this paragraph, anyway, is to right such wrongs! Anyone looking for an offbeat character-driven comedy that will make you smile more often than guffaw, but smile a lot, should track down Adult World.
Hickey & Boggs
While the whole Bill Cosby debacle is unfortunate, nay, devastating (only young, dumb minds think of him purely as some sort of 80s totem because of Cliff Huxtable), I can’t let the 2014 release of this 1970s gritty downbeat noir pass. His I Spy partner Robert Culp’s long forgotten directorial debut convincingly posits Los Angeles as one of the ugliest, noisiest cities on earth; Hickey and Boggs was unleashed on Blu-Ray and DVD in 2014 by the fine folks at Kino Lorber, who have been releasing all sorts of relatively obscure works in hi-def glory.
Written by the awesome Walter Hill, Hickey and Boggs plays like an early, angry run at Hill’s later self-directed 48 Hours, and as directed by Culp, H&B plays like a sullen retort to the charming globe-trotting escapism of I Spy which made him and Cosby stars.
Culp, apparently, was his own worst enemy—he often felt he was the smartest guy in the room (and he likely often was), and apparently made life difficult for many around him on set (a friend, the late and very much missed screenwriter and musician Bob Sheridan, tells a story of complimenting Culp on his performance in Hannie Caulder on the set of Big Bad Mama 2 only to have Culp yell at him).
Culp never got a chance to direct again and it may well have been largely his own damn fault. But with Hickey and Boggs he scored a classic his first and only time out, a film that posits that “nothing matters anymore” and is populated by sociopaths whose moral compasses have warped under the blistering California sun. Culp is great in it. So is Cosby. I’ll say no more.
Here’s a link to my review of this from early last year. James Gray has made a series of absorbing, intriguing, imperfect films. His most recent release, a demented love story rich in mood and complex in character, is his most compelling and least imperfect work, anchored by brilliant performances by Marion Cotillard and Joaquin Phoenix. For some reason, it hasn’t even received a DVD release, but it is streaming on Netflix, so if you subscribe to the service, the strange love story of the year awaits you.
I’m cheating! I haven’t even seen this! I had a ticket to see it at this year’s New York Film Festival, but some family duty nonsense kept me from it. But it’s Abel Ferrara, so it has to be great. I just wanted to remind all of you who can actually make it out to the cinema regularly how miserable my life is. No general release date has been announced. Sigh. Okay, back to stuff I have actually viewed.
The Edge of Tomorrow
A big-budget sci-fi action take on Groundhog Day/Source Code, you might not be surprised this is great despite the presence of Tom Cruise and a out-sized budget: it didn't do particularly well at the box-office. A sure sign of quality!
Stephen Knight is my individual favorite film personality of the decade, having written Dirty Pretty Things, Eastern Promises, Amazing Grace, while both writing and directing Redemption (which I reviewed here) and now this. His humanistic perspective and unusual sensitivity towards the underclass and their underground economies is singular in this hipster-cynical time (this humanism escaped the highly clinical David Cronenberg when directing Easter Promises, which is why the final, highly emotional scene of that otherwise excellent film falls flat). In this distinctive tour-de-force, he shares 85 real-time minutes of the life of Locke (Thomas Hardy), a construction foreman as he drives from his job site to a hospital for an unusual circumstance. That’s it, and that’s more than enough; a work of moral complexity that had my students at both St. John’s and Queensborough Community College working themselves into a twist trying to determine if Locke is a highly ethical man or some kind of narcissistic monster.
Here’s one that got released on DVD and Blu-ray by Kino-Lorber this year to little fanfare and seems to be largely overlooked in history in general. But time has been kind to this 1960 Martin Ritt film about the jazz scene in Paris, starring Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier, Joanna Woodward and Diahann Carrol. Featuring Louis Armstrong and compositions by Duke Ellington? The cool atmospherics would be enough, but this is a film worth seeking out; for the pleasures of jazz, for the pleasures of Paris, for the pleasures of the cast. Find it. Watch it.
One of the less promoted new television shows to appear on Netflix in 2014 was this British import with a peculiar title. Created by my man Stephen Knight (see above, if you forgot!), it’s a moody look at gangsters in London after the first World War, with impressive performances by Sam Neill and Gillian Murphy. Humanistic in a way I find lacking in many of the other critically lauded dramas of the 21st century such as Breaking Bad and Sons of Anarchy, while still having much of the same mayhem and dread, it’s success is no mean feat. And I haven’t even made it to season two, when the redoubtable Thom Hardy from Locke, The Drop, and the new Mad Max reboot, arrives.
Road to Hell
The world’s most ambitious example of fan fiction, as an accredited veteran director, Albert Pyun, leads with his chin and his heart as he fashions an unauthorized follow-up to Walter Hill’s Streets of Fire, a film few saw upon first release but many have grown to love in the 30 years since its initial unveiling. As the film barnstorms around the country for special screenings this year, I will go into detail on its production and execution in a piece soon to be published on this very site but, whatever its flaws, it’s a one-of-a-kind experience done for anything but profit motive. Whether making it proved therapy or catharsis for Streets fans Albert Pyun and his co-writer/producer (and wife) Cynthia Curnan, I do not know, but I am eternally grateful for their Herculean efforts to put the movie of their minds on the screen. An imperfect humpback of a movie, but made with an energy, earnestness and a chasing-windmill romanticism that is most appealing; the film gets extra points for treating Michael Pare, the patron saint of 1980s B-Movie cool, as the legend he is.
Hey, I helped produce this movie! Hal Hartley, one of the kings of 90s independent cinema who has traveled the world looking for production money in the last 20 years, found in Kickstarter an opportunity to get the necessary funding otherwise so elusive. The third film in his Henry Fool trilogy, this characteristically sardonic and dry dialogue-based work focuses on the confused child of Fay Grim and Henry Fool. People talk (rightfully, although as I haven’t seen it, maybe wrongfully) about the impressive scope of Boyhood, where Richard Linklater filmed over a course of 12 years. But Hartley shot Henry Fool in 1998, Fay Grim in 2007 and now Ned Rifle; all focus on the genesis and dismantling of a wildly dysfunctional family over this extended period of time, and it’s been quite a trip.
Under the Skin/ Lucy
Jonathan Glazer’s entrancing, understated Under the Skin, which plays as an art-house answer to Species, is well worth seeing, even if it might make you angry and confused. That's all I'll say on that one. Luc Besson's Lucy can’t keep up the promise of its far-out premise, falling apart quite a bit in the final third. Still it is the most unique and interesting of the big action releases this year, save Edge of Tomorrow. Props to Scarlett Johansson who has largely used her talent and physical attractiveness as a force of good, early on by starring in Woody Allen projects that perhaps sold more tickets on her name than his, and continuing by taking some tricky and interesting roles outside of the comic-book nonsense most actors (and her, on occasion) spend these days making.
Impressively sleazy and amoral, Sabotage feels like a film made by degenerates for degenerates. Several completely unlikeable corrupt D.E.A. agent protagonists are gorily executed (by one of their own?), and team leader Arnold Schwarzenegger may be the slimiest of them all. An unusual role for Schwarzenegger, unlike anything he’s ever done, this was probably the most dishonorable and therefore biggest guilty pleasure I had this year. And special props to the brilliant Olivia Williams playing the alcoholic-cop-babe-in-the-woods investigating all this grotesque mayhem. And the director David Ayer's next film? Brad Pitt’s World War 2 tank warfare picture, Fury, which many talk up as one of the films of the year. But, yes, I didn't see that one. I saw the sleazy one.
Flawed and largely ignored film by the talented David Gordon Green (George Washington), based on a novel by Larry Brown which I have never heard of but has a bit of a reputation. This is an example of the trend in cinema I discuss here, where increasingly stars are taking paychecks to make lower-level projects that barely get theatrical release in this country. Many of these films are surprisingly good, some are ridiculously bad. This one stars Nicolas Cage, giving an honest performance of integrity that should be noted, particularly as he comes in for some heat in my worst-of-the-year list below. I didn't wholly love Joe; it was quite involving but fashionably nihilistic. Nevertheless, it’s a well-made and well-acted film many haven’t heard of, and it shouldn't be overlooked.
Maps to the Stars
David Cronenberg's "vicious lurid fever dream" (to quote costar John Cusack) is just that, a grim, nasty piece of work that at its worst verges on smug and condescending , and towards the end apparently wishes us to empathize with two rather hateful characters while passing harsh and holy judgment on all the rest. And one scene featuring a head smashed in in rather graphic detail comes off wholly wrongheaded, as the film seems to insist the perpetrator has somehow been wronged and the victim somehow deserving. And yet, the film has stuck with me, a rather unsettling road map to a world where its probably better to get lost in the woods. The entire cast is excellent, with Julianne Moore giving a ferocious, exposed performance that should be seen by anyone interested in the craft of film acting. A film I wholly respect and am repulsed by. There are times when I hate the thing. But then I come back...
And Now....The Worst!:
Dear Jesus. I’ll forgive Denzel almost anything, particularly in a year he masterfully played (at 60!) Walter Lee Younger in a fine Broadway production of Raisin in the Sun. But this plays at a sub-Steven Seagal level and is just the latest in the fashionable aging-guy kicks ass genre established by the lousy-in-the-first-place Taken. From minute one, Washington is simply the superior warrior to all the Nimrods around him, and he spends two endless hours killing bumbling Russian gangsters all over Boston while nary a police officer appears interested. The first action sequence, where he kills a bunch of baddies in a Russian restaurant, is the best. It’s therefore hardly suspenseful at the end when a bunch of incompetent Russian mobsters invade his home turf of the Home Depot, as he’s already shown he can annihilate, mutilate, and perforate the bad guys on their own turf. This final sequence goes on and on and on, and despite the lustrous rain and sinewy darks of the cinematography, might be the worst recent example of an action climax in a film made by major talent (the director, Antoine Fuqua, made Training Day, which also fell apart at the end but was nevertheless a good film). For the final scene, after slaughtering 100s of Russians (with witnesses) and blowing up a ship (!) Washington is seen the next day buying groceries and walking home as if nothing happened. Idiotic and atrocious cinema designed, apparently, for sub-literates. This wired-up comic book exploits the pent-up frustration and rage people feel in the face of endemic corruption and in some key way I found it deeply hateful.
And now we've reached the ugly side of the current boom of straight-to-video releases featuring very familiar faces. All the budget of this Taken ripoff apparently went to the three leads, as the film feels largely unpopulated, especially when major action sequences take place in public locations and no police officers appear to notice. The big finale has an entire office building filled with bad guys taken down by our hero, who leaves the premises wounded and dragging his drug-addicted daughter into bright sunlight and cars driving and people walking who apparently didn't hear the machine gunning and screaming and garroting going on inside. And don’t be tricked – second and third billed Cusack and Willis barely show up, and when they do, they look sleepy and disinterested. As Cusack is one of my personal faves, I did tweet him with a question about why he took on such a thankless role, and the highlight of my week was his surprise response:
Well, we all have bills to pay!
Yet another Taken homage, this time mashed up with Mystic River overtones, with a dour, vaguely depressed Nicolas Cage avenging his daughter’s death and basically torturing all the wrong people in the process. Pretentious and endless, with poor Danny Glover playing the thankless part of “cop who shows up every now and then.”
Gee, Nic Cage had a busy year, doing solid work in Joe, honorable work in Paul Schrader’s The Dying of the Light, and then Rage and this fundamentalist Christian remake of the immortal Kirk Cameron classic of 2002. Well, our hero can apparently be proud of being outclassed by Cameron, whose original made more money than this mostly ignored rehash. Cage isn't terrible, and he doesn't appear to play down to the material or anything. But it would be nice if he'd stop making so many awful movies.
The Bag Man
Cusack again! De Niro cashing it in! Read my detailed report here; my anger hasn't yet abated!
This incoherent, romantic big-budget mishmash is based on a novel beloved by many; the film is hated by everyone and made multiple year-end Worst Lists. I saw it and hated it too! “Kicking it While Its Down” is apparently my middle name.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Okay, it’s not “terrible.” But this juvenile narcissistic obsession with comic book films that has taken over society, where “geeks” get to both dominate pop culture and still act like outsiders, has gone too far. I sat down to watch this one because Robert Redford signed on, and sure enough, money has been spent and I guess I can see what fans of the genre find appealing. I found it ridiculous and dull with one overproduced and endless action scene following another, interrupted occasionally by breathless dialogues scenes where redoubtable actors like Redford, Samuel Jackson and the above-lauded Scarlett Johansson do their best to make the utterly idiotic (and rather pretentious) material play. I couldn't comprehend what was going on and by hour two I didn't care. Yes, I “don’t get it.”
Subject for Further Research: The Strange Case of John Cusack.
It was a busier year for Cusack than for even Cage, and while Maps to the Stars is an intriguing and controversial Work of Art, and I will find the nearest mountain and shout and shake my fist at the sky about the qualities of Adult World, I have to admit he seems to have temporarily lost interest in his craft. His increased interest in politics is well documented, and it seems he’s choosing films based on shooting location more than anything else; two of his many 2014 releases, Drive Hard and Reclaim, are not terrible. Not impressive, but hardly terrible, their main selling points probably are what drew him in – the first was shot in Australia, the second in Puerto Rico.
But what’s distressing is the rather eccentric and alarming turn he’s taken in his performances when they aren't in "films that matter"; from his “I just flew in, where’s the damn script” laziness in the ridiculous The Prince, to these two films,, where despite the hot, sunny climes, two very different characters both dress in black and smoke vapors (e-cigs).
It’s like he finished shooting on one film, hopped on the nearest plane without changing, and arrived at the other set, e-cig in hand, and shouted “begin shooting! Now, dammit!” He may have justified the electronic cigarettes featured in both as eccentric choices to enliven the characters, but as they served no dramatic purpose it seems mostly like a lazy choice made by an actor who used to care more.
So I’m still the world’s biggest John Cusack fan, but his strange case is worth paying attention to. He does have the promising, well-reviewed Love and Mercy in the can, and the intriguing Dragon Blade co-starring Jackie Chan and Adrien Brody also slated for release. I still have faith:but no on-camera e-cigs in 2015, okay, buddy? Recent reports indicate my friendly advice may save your life, Mr. Cusack.
My work here is done. Now to go fall asleep 15 minutes into Birdman...