It’s been nearly a week since 2015 has begun to test our mettle. 2014 is now in the past and with it, a year filled with personal success that did not translate well into a lot of film watching and reviewing. It was, for me, an excellent year nonetheless, in which I was able to purchase my first property, finish my first marathon, visit Paris for the first time, and receive approval for a work visa to stay in the United States.
My blog suffered greatly in 2014 in part due to all of these activities and important “distractions”. I managed to post only 15 times in 12 months, and I watched 94 films that, when compared to 2013’s sum of 143 films, leaves a lot to be desired. With that in mind and with the resolve to improve greatly on these numbers, I look back at some of the best and worst experiences with film in the past year (following post to focus on TV and videogames). The following is not meant as a post about the “best films of 2014” (that will come in a later post when I begin to catch up), but rather as a summary of my own experiences with new and old releases.
Of the 94 films I managed to watch, a respectable sum of 21 of those I gave at least a 4 out of 5. Of the 21, only four received a 4.5 and, for a second year in a row, no new films joined the ranks of those that I consider absolute masterpieces.
If a single film had to be picked out from the rest, I would highlight Blue Ruin, which is only the second directorial effort from Jeremy Saulnier, who was also the writer and cinematographer for this small, yet electrifying thriller. Considering the author’s relatively short and questionable resume in small indie films of average quality, Blue Ruin appears to be the work of an artist who has finally found his voice, crafting a piece that is mature, entertaining and well-acted. The casting was perhaps the most inspired of all of Saulnier’s choices, giving a chance to a little known actor named Macon Blair (who has also been a close collaborator of Saulnier on his previous work) to showcase his talents under a scruffy and maniacal layer of anger and intensity.
Equally surprising was Joon-ho Bong’s endlessly interesting post-apocalyptic film Snowpiercer, starring a never-better Chris Evans, and a nearly unrecognizable Tilda Swinton in one of her goofier roles yet. The film brings a breath of fresh air into a fatalistic sub-genre that has found substantial appeal in recent years. Trapped in a self-sustaining high-speed train that has kept the last few survivors of the human species alive when the entire world around them has frozen over, Snowpiercer turns the leaps of faith that it asks us to make into useful plot devices that give the characters the kind of odd personalities that one would expect to encounter in such inhumane conditions. Chris Evans is, more or less, your typical hero, but one that is not without fault, or without a dark past that haunts him until the very end. If this was not enough, the film is also helped by an inspired bit of casting towards the end, and a sublime ending that perfectly summarizes the ridiculous voyage we have undertaken inside the train.
In a year that saw me exploring the wonders of South Korean film making, I finally watched 2003’s Oldboy by Chan-wook Park. As Snowpiercer, the film shares an interest for stylized cinematography that manages to turn difficult scenes full of violence and tragedy into sensory spectacles that entertain. In both films there are, in fact, a handful of combat sequences that are unlike anything I have ever seen before, giving Hollywood action films something to learn from. Oldboy also relies in the spectacular work of Min-sik Choi as the lead, an actor that deserves more opportunities in the West, if only based on his indelible presence in this awesome piece of cinema.
Oldboy is the kind of film that audiences in the United States and the rest of the globe should be watching if they want cool, fast-paced and entertaining cinema. I suggest we begin to abandon the dried-out, overdone and uninspired bunch of superhero films and franchises like Fast and Furious that have little to nothing of value to offer. Instead we should rally behind the valiant efforts of talented directors that don’t get the same financial opportunities afforded to them.
Though it may seem that 2014 was filled with violent and apocalyptic thrillers, there are a few touching dramas that also managed to stir my emotions. Back in February I greatly enjoyed Spike Jonze’s futuristic romance Her, starring a great Joaquin Phoenix and a bit of captivating voice work from Scarlett Johansson.
In terms of time pieces based on true stories, none was as effective and well-done as Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, which as we all know, swept the award season in most of the categories that matter. Chiwetel Ejiofor, along with Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong’o, clearly stole the show at every red carpet, not just because of their impeccable looks, but due to their immense talent and charisma.
Equally moving, though for entirely different reasons, was Dallas Buyers Club. It navigates a difficult subject like AIDS (which few studios are willing to explore even today) with tact and without recurring to the typical stereotypes that other similar films have opted for. Back in July, I was also floored by the simplicity of Blue is the Warmest Color, which is easily one of the best French films of the last few years. Sadly for those involved, it is a bittersweet memory of a great accomplishment that was riddled by post-filming disputes.
Recently I was also taken by the much talked-about Boyhood by Richard Linklater, one of the few true storytellers working in Hollywood today. As of right now, it seems the film is gaining training traction among critical circles on the race towards awards season. Hopefully we will see the talented Linklater finally get the recognition he deserves after many years making touching films that speak about very human ideas.
OTHER NOTEWORTHY FILMS:
Edge of Tomorrow, Interstellar, The Fisher King, The Reader, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Serpico, United 93, Prisoners, Captain Phillips, Under the Skin, Happy People: A Year in the Taiga, American Hustle, The Signal.
When I speak of disappointments of the last year in terms of film, I am referring to those that I was really looking forward to, but that left me wanting more.
One of those was the so-called classic Thelma & Louise which suffered from a general lack of pizzazz. It is no wonder that the ending is among the most famous in film history, but there was little else to write home about.
Another one of those that left me wanting more was Enemy. Generally, I appreciate films that make me think and ponder about what I had just seen. I remember, for example, Donnie Darko, Primer and Pi just to name a handful. These are, by general consensus, brainy little films that require multiple viewings to begin to unravel and appreciate. Enemy is NOT one of those. This is the first misstep in the career of Denis Villeneuve. Maybe it is best for him to stick to passionate and intense drama, and leave the odd and absurd to film makers like Terry Gilliam or Darren Aronofsky.
Given my extremely high expectations, you could also say that Interstellar was slightly disappointing. Sure, Christopher Nolan’s film is very interesting and oozes skill and high craftsmanship as my 4/5 score would attest. However, Interstellar relied on too many theoretical concepts that were conveniently used to push the story forward. If the film had concentrated on a few key plot points, like that of the distant father that ages more slowly than his daughter on Earth, then the film might have been a bit more moving. In cinema less is often more.
Gone Girl suffers from a similar fate. David Fincher is a director that I greatly respect even if his films are not always my cup of tea. There was certainly plenty to appreciate in Gone Girl, especially when it comes to its satirical content and irrational characterization that leaves you guessing about each of the character’s true intentions. However, Gone Girl could have used a little less cleverness, and may have even benefited from a shorter running time that could have possibly left us with a different kind of ending. Easily a 3.5/5, but I don’t really think I can give it any more credit than that.
There is plenty to pick from in terms of acting from the last 12 months. Perhaps, it is best I begin with those actors that surprised me, in some cases because I had not seen them before, while in others because it represented a change of pace for the thespians in question.
In the first group I can place Macon Blair, star of the aforementioned Blue Ruin. His is a performance I will not forget anytime soon. He showed range and depth that are sometimes lacking in more seasoned and famous actors. At first, his character is a man set on revenge, on a mission to give purpose to his life. Soon after, he begins to show his cracks, and how his anger and hate come from depression and alienation. This is a man that pushes for violence, but who doesn’t get any satisfaction from it. The ultimate doomed hero and Blair does wonders to make it believable.
In a very similar type of performance Min-sik Choi was captivating as Dae-su Oh in Oldboy. His is as intense and unrelenting a performance as that of Macon Blair. I am amazed in both cases not so much by the skill they both display, but on the amount of primal energy they bring to their portrayals. Truly remarkable stuff.
Adèle Exarchopolous and Léa Seydoux both impressed me to the brink of tears in the cinematic ode to love that was Blue is the Warmest Color. Both were so natural and comfortable inhabiting the young female lovers that discovered passions that they had never experienced in their lives. Their love is palpable and believable, and rarely does director Abdellatif Kechiche shy away from their faces, leaving nothing out of the frame.
In terms of known actors, Chris Evans had a great 2014, but none better than his portrayal of a man on a quest to bring justice in Snowpiercer. Once again, here is a very intense performance in an emotional and physical level. Even in the films calmer and more nuanced moments, Evans delivers, showing the kind of subtlety that gets diluted in films like Captain America.
A similar thing can be said of Scarlett Johansson, who in 2014 finally began to show off her chops. With Under the Skin, Scarlett produced a character that was literally other worldly, communicating an array of conflicting emotions without saying much in the way of words. With a simple stare Scarlett conveyed a sense of bizarre wonderment that was perfectly in line with the theme of the film. It is a minimalistic performance that finally made perfect use of Scarlett’s natural sexual appeal, without cheapening it. This is a film and a performance that will haunt me for a long time.
For the career of Mathew McConaughey, which is full of highs and lows, Dallas Buyers Club may not be the best film he has been a part of (although it nearly is), but it is certainly the kind of performance extraordinaire that I had been waiting for after very successful roles in The Lincoln Lawyer, Mud and Killer Joe. What he has done in the last few years has to be one of the most remarkable comeback stories in Hollywood. However, credit must also be given to his costar Jared Leto, whose passionate Oscar acceptance speech did justice to a career-best performance by an artist who is much better for the big screen than he is on the stage as a singer in a “rock band”.
Last but not least was the awesome performance of Robin Williams in The Fisher King. One of a few blind spots covered in 2014, the film was extremely bittersweet, reminding me at every step just how huge of a shadow was cast by the array of talents of Mr. Williams. I have seen many of his films, but The Fisher King is, far and away, the best role in the career of the actor. It showcased, like no other film before or after, the ability of Williams to combine the antics of an over-the-top goof that seemed to spitfire jokes and impersonations, with the restrain and nuance of a dramatic actor that could steal a scene from Jeff Bridges. It is, in many ways, a perfect summary of the troubled life and spirit of the great late actor, who suffered a great deal but who was mostly able to obscure his emotional and mental anguish with a smile and a well-timed comedic interlude.
OTHER GREAT PERFORMERS:
Tom Hardy in Locke, Julianne Moore and Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Boogie Nights, Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips, Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl, Edward Norton in Primal Fear, Michael Douglas in Behind the Candelabra, Al Pacino in Serpico, Joaquin Phoenix in Her, Christian Bale in American Hustle, Patricia Arquette in Boyhood.
I leave a little space to some of the worst films I saw in 2014. Considering the paltry 94 films I managed to cover, lets just say none of these should have been given the chance.
You’re Next (2011)
A sadistic “horror” film that was content in supplying audiences with gore, blood and torture in nearly every frame. An exploitative embarrassment that should have never been made.
House at the End of the Street (2012)
Another terrible horror film in which Jennifer Lawrence was somehow a part of. No thrill and no terror, only stereotypical horror tricks and a lot of cliche.
Crystal Fairy and the Magical Cactus (2013)
Talk about the ultimate stoner film. This is the kind of career move that has seen Michael Cera disappear from our radar. I forgive the obvious attempt to satisfy the fans of cannabis and its various vegetative relatives, but this film lacked substance and humor at every step of the way. Such a bore.
The Legend of Hercules (2014)
Not the one with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, but the other one with the blond demigod that looked like an adult porn star, rather than the powerful greek mythical figure. This film suffers from all sorts of problems, including poor acting, questionable sequencing and ridiculous special effects. Nothing of worth to be found.
A disgusting horror drama. How could anyone be interested in kissing a woman whose flesh is either decomposing or turning into something horrible?. That is all I have to say. If you want more information on this horrid movie, then feel free to watch it at your own risk. Believe me, it’s not worth it!
Looking forward to a great 2015. Cheers to all of my fellow bloggers!