For day three we look at the films that either exceeded or fell short of expectations in 2014. Any dedicated movie-goer worth his salt should enter the theater without expectations, but often, through the unavoidable movie marketing machine, the omnipresence of trailers or personal tastes, we cannot always do so. That can be both a good thing and a bad thing, but it does lead to interesting critical responses.
Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig teaming up for the first time since Saturday Night Live as the leads in a drama/comedy had quite a bit of potential, riding high off buzz from its successful debut at Sundance. In hindsight, it makes sense it would do well there, as this is among the most Sundance-y films of the year, a baldly structured and manipulative bore that sets up its plot conceit and repeats the same actions over the course of about four cycles until the credits put us out of our collective misery. Hader and Wiig are fine, technically, but they spend far too much time looking wistfully at the camera from beneath the water of a bathtub to bother with anything worthwhile or actually resonant. This feels like a movie that someone told people was good somewhere along the line, and no one questioned it even though they certainly should have.
I’ve enjoyed Bennett Miller’s previous biopics (Capote is among the better of the form, and Moneyball is an enjoyable romp), but the brooding, interminable and melancholy Foxcatcher is a massive drop in quality. Based on the true story of the death of Dave Schultz at the hands of millionaire wrestling enthusiast John du Pont, Foxcatcher bogs itself down in the details, never shy to make its pauses so pregnant that they are long past term. Tatum and Ruffalo do their jobs well, but Steve Carell’s crossover into drama does not go nearly as well as his counterparts. Saddled with a prodigious nose and the tendency to always find himself photographed in profile, Carrell’s du Pont is more monster than man, a sort of broken down old hermit who somehow convinces everyone in the wrestling world to move their operations to his compound. The big weakness of Foxcatcher is how unconvincing du Pont is as a character, making fundamental moments feel like screenplay contrivances. He lacks the humanity to make his character work, and the rest of the enterprise crumbles around him. Miller had the talent and the material, but something went wrong along the way.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1
The fact that The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 is even watchable is no small feat. Weep for Francis Lawrence, Peter Craig and Danny Strong for their impossible mission of splitting the final installment of The Hunger Games into two films. It didn’t work for Harry Potter, it was an unmitigated disaster for The Hobbit, and despite the best efforts of its cast and world-building prowess, it doesn’t work here either. Mockingjay Part 1 is inert, spinning its wheels until all of the interesting bits can happen in its second part. This first part is about the rising tide of the revolution against the leaders of Panem, but it is too often reduced to hushed boardroom conversations or dull, repetitive treks through the ruins of other districts to ever drum up any true excitement. And as the excitement sets in, all that means is the inevitable cut to black is soon to arrive, putting off any resolution for a year.
Yet another film riding buzz from Sundance, all I really knew about Frank was it involved Michael Fassbender portraying a musician who wears a giant plaster head at all times. As an avowed Fassbender fan, the idea of seeing him in a wacky comedy could provide new looks at his talent. Upon actually watching Lenny Abrahamson’s film, Fassbender gives a good performance, but the focus is on Domhnall Gleeson, who plays a keyboardist and social media addict who joins Frank’s band and turns them into minor internet celebrities. Gleeson is an actor who has always run hot and cold for me. What has become clear to me is he just struggles with lead performances, which is certainly the case with Frank. It is a conceit with a lot of potential, and too often it is squandered. It opens somewhat strong and closes very well, but the middle hour is quite the mess. It’s very difficult to recommend Frank on the weakness of its second act (and the first half of its third), which is a shame, indeed.
Birdman (Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
I probably shouldn’t have been anticipating Birdman. It’s my own fault, really. I liked 21 Grams back when I was young and naive, but that film has not aged well, and both Babel and Biutiful were the definition of interminable. Still, the festival buzz was strong and the novelty of an established misanthrope like Inarritu making a comedy piqued my interest. In practice, Birdman is classic Inarritu, a petty and vindictive stab at everything he doesn’t like from respected actors making superhero movies instead of doing theater to spiteful critics who parade like kingmakers. This mood infects the entire film, swallowing up its novel and admittedly impressive visual style (all glory to the Emmanuel Lubezski) and reducing it to a gimmick. The acting is fine (Norton particularly is very good), but none of it ever feels like anything other than a charade, a dumb show forwarding Inarritu’s agenda.
Another installment of “Phil Lord and Chris Miller are Warlocks,” The LEGO Movie should have been the worst of ideas. Potentially a cash grab on the level of Battleship, the Lord and Miller super pairing turned the story of Chris Pratt-voiced Emmett into a deeply satisfying journey through the mind of a child (both metaphorically and, it turns out, literally). I don’t know if there has ever been a movie that better understood or implemented child logic, mixing a sort of randomness that comes with short attention spans with the true imaginative inspiration of a mind not yet tempered by the expectations of society. Batman shows up because of course he would. A pig falling to the ground splits into a bunch of LEGO sausages because of course they would. The world as designed is about as fully realized as a “new” property’s world can be, filled with hilarious and sophisticated jokes (the term “Cloud Cuckoo Land” is on a lot more minds than Greek drama scholars these days), moving at the most rapid of paces.
There is no legitimate reason why I should like The Theory of Everything. It’s a prestige biopic, one that skirts along the standard formula of films like The Iron Lady or Saving Mr. Banks. Its last ten to fifteen minutes are a treacly mess. And yet, the first 80 or so minutes of James Marsh’s look at the life of Stephen Hawking were so wildly effective that it was possible to look past its myriad flaws without issue. It is possible that the specifics of this story as told, a race against time to understand time, had a specific sort of emotional attachment to me, and it is possible that the wonderful work from both Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones made for a complex and believable relationship that lit up the screen. That was the difference between something like this and, say, The Imitation Game or Unbroken. The Theory of Everything resonated with me. It resonated all over the screen and never relented. Either way, The Theory of Everything was a film I dreaded the concept of watching, and the fact that I not only tolerated it, but actually liked it quite a bit, is one of the big shocks of the fall season.
Another Tom Cruise sci-fi actioner after the disappointment of Oblivion was a tough pill to swallow. Cruise had only had one truly impressive starring role in close to a decade (Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol), and the trailers for Edge of Tomorrow made it look deathly and suffocatingly serious, an approach that doomed Oblivion to collapse under the weight of its own importance. In practice, though, Edge of Tomorrow is a wonderfully incisive, clever and humorous take, one that expertly uses Tom Cruise’s star power against him and forces him to work his way to be the hero other films just operate on the assumption that he already is. Bolstered by Emily Blunt’s immaculate performance as a strong female lead in the mold of Aliens-era Ellen Ripley, the quality of this Doug Liman-directed film is surprising even after rewatching it. It’s Source Code meets Groundhog Day, and it works spectacularly well.
Indie Horror Films (Oculus/The Babadook/The Guest/A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night)
The horror genre is about as hit-or-miss as it can get, and the modern cinema landscape’s reliance on micro-budget cookie cutter found footage possession films or Paranormal Activity rip offs (like most of the sequels to Paranormal Activity, of which there are many) can make it possible to forget how effective these movies can be when done with gusto. Oculus (the only film partially financed by WWE Studios to be worth even a tenth of a damn) overcame Karen Gillan’s at times questionable accent work to box well above its weight class and spin a confidently creepy yarn about a haunted mirror that may not be particularly original, but is nothing if not effective. Australian critical darling The Babadook may not be as terrifying as some may believe (claims that it is among the scariest movies of recent memory don’t really jive with me), but its excellently crafted mood and the way it uses the supernatural to represent deeper themes of guilt, loss and the stresses of single motherhood is spectacular. And lastly, the Iranian vampire drama A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night positions itself as a sort of feminist Western take on the vampire genre and breathes fresh air through its lovely black and white cinematography. This is what we should expect from the horror genre: fresh, innovative filmmaking applied to our most primal fears and insecurities.
Chris Rock does not have the most stellar reputation for transferring his stand-up success to the big screen. Often coasting along in Adam Sandler vehicles like the Grown Ups franchise juggernaut, Rock has fallen out of the public consciousness compared to his high point in the mid to late 90’s. His first few directorial efforts were middling at best, and the previews for his newest, Top Five, looked uninspired. I wasn’t planning to see the film until early critic reaction was strong, and it turns out that Rock has created one of the better romantic comedies of 2014. Top Five is a humorous and heartfelt look at how the individual can be lost in celebrity culture and the dangers of today’s 24 hour social media world. Rock hasn’t been this funny or witty in years, and is at his best in some excellent walk-and-talks with costar Rosario Dawson that take on a Woody Allen meets Aaron Sorkin vibe. There are parts of the film that do not work as well as others, but for a movie I had absolutely no reason to believe would be good, Top Five found itself far above my expectations.
Join me tomorrow as we look at our first numbered list of the week. Before we look at the best, we have to look at the worst first, moving on to the 10 worst films of 2014.