Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Year in Review: Best & Worst

I am the kind of person who tends to see the negative first. I have no problem admitting that, and I live a fine, happy life, but the negative is what jumps out at me. So, in pouring over the events that defined 2014, the list of the bad was markedly easier to compile. The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized the joy is in the details.

How bad a year could it have been with so many great films and so many vital stories being told? How gloomy could I be about a year in which important new voices made themselves heard and some of the great voices from our past screamed out once again? There is good to be found, and yet, if you want the morose and the bitter, skip on down to the second half of this article, and you will find that, too. For better and worse, here are the trends and moments that defined 2014 for me.


Four best things


1. Music at the movies

Music and movies go hand in hand, really. From the earliest days of the form, when “silent” cinema meant no dialogue, all music, the two arts have been inseparable. However, when movies try to depict the art and artists behind the music, at best, the results have been mixed. For every truly brilliant The Commitments or Coal Miner’s Daughter, there is a Beyond the Sea or Get on Up to push the form back to its blandest biographical inclinations.

Not so this year as three great films about music and musicians (four if you count the well-regarded God Help the Girl, which I have not seen) graced cinema screens. From the insanity of Whiplash to the sublime We Are the Best! to the sublimely insane Frank, musicians had their day at the movies all year in 2014. In one way or another, each of these films strikes at the heart of why making music, or any art, matters. It is something one feels. One must do it. There is no other choice, and these films understand that.

2. Cinematography

My favorite film craft is cinematography. As a purely visual art, it is the one thing filmmakers hold over other storytellers. In lighting, composition, and movement, cinematographers can create great work without a word or a sound. The best find ways to push the medium forward and expand what we think of when we think of movie visuals. Others work to perfect the old ways, while still saying something fresh and interesting.

Emmanuel Lubezki turned Birdman into a cinematic magic trick, making the film appear as though it were shot in one unbroken take. Fabrice Aragno made 3D a valid form of artistic expression with the innovative, baffling, and always intriguing Goodbye to Language. Dick Pope took audiences inside the mind of a painter by filming the world the way an artist might see his work in Mr. Turner. Each of these artists deserves praise for refusing to settle for good enough and pushing the boundaries of what we should expect at the movies.

3. Triumph of the cult masters

Fresh blood is integral to the world of cinema. New ideas and new ways of looking at the medium help prevent stagnation and promote growth. However, there is something to be said for the artists who have stood up against the stale since the beginnings of their careers, the filmmakers for whom the ordinary was never an option. They may not be heavy hitters at the box office, and audiences may not be able to make heads or tails of their films, but the cult masters of cinema are as vitally important as the household names and their ilk.

Since his first feature came out in 1960, Jean-Luc Godard has made the reinvention of cinema his primary goal, and he is at it again with Goodbye to Language. Similarly, the far less prolific Alejandro Jodorowsky returned to screens this year after a 23-year absence with the daffy and brilliant Dance of Reality, making one wish he does not stay away for that long again. Finally, Lars von Trier, that prickly Danish provocateur, unleashed his epic sex drama Nymphomaniac to audiences who probably were not ready for it but who needed it none the less.

4. Actors taking chances

About those household names, though, those shining stars of the cinematic universe – sometimes, they take chances, too, and when they do, the results can be electrifying. There is satisfaction in celebrities unconcerned with vanity in their work, willing to look ugly or weird or repulsive. Jake Gyllenhaal transformed into a slithering, creeping creature of the darkness for Nightcrawler, revealing sides of his persona previously untapped. Michael Fassbender, usually so still and so expressive, donned a giant paper mache head and became the embodiment of artistic exuberance in Frank.

Marion Cotillard shed the glamor of some of her previous roles and tackled the part of a clinically depressed mother of two fighting for her family’s livelihood in Two Days, One Night. The always adventurous Charlotte Gainsbourg joined forces once again with von Trier, and in their third collaboration, Nymphomaniac, she goes farther than she ever has before to depict a woman who has degraded and destroyed herself her whole life but still deserves and demands respect. If only more actors took risks such as these, we might have a much more interesting film landscape overall.

Four worst things

1. Sony cancels The Interview

As if anything else could top this list, Sony’s handling of the debacle around The Interview was the worst mismanagement of a crisis in the film industry in recent memory. The company made wrong decision after wrong decision every step of the way, and by the end, it was so shrouded in failure that even the eventual release of the film could not erase the stink of the situation.

So, yes, the movie has been seen now, possibly by even more people than would have seen it had no controversy been stirred, but the facts remain: Fearing for its own reputation and stock, Sony failed to support the artists who make the products that keep its film division humming. I have yet to see the film but plan to do so. It is apparently only OK, which it has every right to be. It is just a shame we had to go through all of this just to exercise our right to find out for ourselves.

2. Deaths of icons

Apologies to the great talents who will not be mentioned in this section, but a couple hundred words is too few to express the loss and regret of a year’s worth of departed icons. Every year, we lose countless talented people – stars, innovators, and journeymen – but 2014 seemed to hit particularly hard on that front, beginning in February with the death of one my all-time favorite actors and one of the all-time greats, Philip Seymour Hoffman.

If it had just been Hoffman, it would have constituted a rough year, but death was unrelenting over the last 12 months, claiming Robin Williams, Lauren Bacall, Gordon Willis, Ruby Dee, Richard Attenborough, and a host of others. It is always sad when an icon dies, but it felt like we bombarded with such notices over the last year. Here is to hoping 2015 is kinder to our poor hearts.

3. Science at the movies

When I wrote about Godzilla back in July, I said it is unfair to criticize an entertainment spectacle for its failings in the science and nature department. These are not documentaries, and they should be given license to create inspiring new worlds. However, if a film – and Godzilla is a prime offender – wishes to engage debate about its science, then by all means, let us have that debate. Godzilla and Interstellar, two of the worst movies I saw this year, leaned on their science as the basis for story, then forgot to consider what it was they were selling. Pseudoscience in fiction is fine unless you are selling facts.

On the flipside of that coin, two movies about real-life scientists, brilliant men whose accomplishments in their respective fields continue to inform the ways we live today, seem to have forgotten their main characters were learned scientists. The Imitation Game reduces Alan Turing to an autistic savant whose genius we could not begin to understand, so the film does not even try. Meanwhile, The Theory of Everything finds the love story between Stephen Hawking and his long-suffering first wife of greater intrigue than the history of time or the origins of our universe.

4. Good intentions

It is nice to be nice, and it is good to be good, but no one ever made history that way. World-changing events are always messy, revolutionary leaders are often prickly, and endings are rarely sunshine and happy days. It is fine to depict an ideal world, since many of us go to the movies hoping to escape the harshness of everyday life, but artists who take harshness as their subject have a responsibility to emotional honesty that was sorely lacking in several major films this year.

Pride, about the movement for gay rights and union solidarity in 1980s England and Wales, Dear White People, about antiquated racial attitudes being alive and well in modern America, and Unbroken, a hagiography of U.S. Olympian and war hero Louis Zamperini, all had the best of intentions with mixed or offensive outcomes. Unbroken is the worst of these, but each failed in its own specific ways to champion the cause it meant to and instead fell back on clich├ęs and stereotypes, not exactly the best way to move the world forward.

Check back tomorrow as Last Cinema Standing’s Year in Review continues with the Top 10 Quotes of the Year.

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