My first piece for Oscilloscope’s Musings is about a standout scene in Clean and Sober, one of those great little dramas that can be too easily forgotten. (Good news: you can rent it for a couple bucks.)
Category: Film (page 1 of 14)
Watching The Rundown recently, I was struck by how efficient and enjoyable the action scenes were. After a minute, I realized it was because each of the action scenes also functioned as a narrative one: that is, the story moved forward with the action, and it was different when the action stopped. This is a fundamental requirement for scenes like this, but so many modern action movies ignore it.
If you can pull any scene out of a movie and not change the narrative, or if you can drop a scene in a different part of a movie, that scene needs to go. Every scene is a miniature arc, and it moves the story forward. This is easy to grasp when thinking about regular old dramatic scenes of, say, two people talking, or going out to dinner, or driving somewhere, or negotiating for something, or really anything. But the rule1 holds for special genres like action or musicals, too. When the romantic lead bursts into song, he’s going to use those verses to come to a conclusion: he should pursue his lover, or quit his job, or do whatever the story is offering him. Before the song, he’s uncertain; when it’s done, he knows what to do. That’s progress.
Action movies, done right, work the same way. No matter how spectacular or extravagant the action, it has to push the story along. Die Hard is, as always, a good example. When John McClane squares off against his first terrorist, it’s not just a fight scene, but a move forward for the script. When the scene is over, McClane knows more about who he’s up against, he starts to plan counterattacks, he makes decisions about what to do next, etc. If you removed the fight, and went right from “terrorist stalks McClane” to “McClane, now inexplicably bloodied, walks through the building,” you’d have a gap. The action scene fits.
The Rundown knows this and acts accordingly. When Beck (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) fights a group of rebels in the Amazon rainforest, he’s not just filling screen time, but saving his life and forging a new alliance in the process. When he and his cohorts find an ancient treasure and cause a cave-in, they emerge from the accident with the treasure in hand. If they didn’t, there’d be no reason for the cave-in. Everything has a reason for being, which is part of what makes the film so enjoyable.2
A lot of modern action movies forget this, and they string together action scenes that are designed to smother the viewer but that don’t have much reason for being. There’s a car chase scene in Captain America: The Winter Soldier that doesn’t change the story but merely prolongs the inevitable. The 2009 Star Trek comes to mind, too: quite a few of its action scenes could be taken out with no change on the story. When Kirk and Scotty beam aboard the Enterprise late in the film, Scotty winds up in a tube filled with water, and Kirk has to race to free him. Take that out, and they still make it to the ship, and they still get apprehended by security. It doesn’t do anything but pad the run time. Related to this, a lot of modern action movies (especially Marvel’s) often operate in bad faith by assuming that, if you’re watching, then you inherently care about all these characters and know their backstories and are just excited to see them do stuff. But The Rundown is its own, self-contained world, so it has to do the work of introducing characters to the viewer and then keeping the viewer invested through drama. This, again, is 101-level stuff, but it gets overlooked so often in today’s tentpole market that it’s almost startling to see a movie that does it right.
Action is narrative. When an action movie bears this in mind, the action feels exciting and propulsive. When it doesn’t, the action feels cursory and forgettable. Story is above all.
All rules can be broken if they’re broken the right way. Malick communicates in tone poems, but they still cohere in their own way.↩
It’s also got a nice energy and a sense of genuine adventure, as well as a solid cast topped by The Rock (eminently charming) and Seann William Scott (perennially underrated).↩
Over at Movie Mezzanine, I take a look at the films of Cameron Crowe, and I talk (in part) about how his movies are also his mission statements.
(Thanks to The Dissolve for the link.)
Cinematically, we seem to be running past the point of recognizable superheroes, i.e., those characters with a large enough pop culture profile and a long enough media history to make them broadly marketable. Superman first appeared in 1938, and Batman followed in 1939; both of them soon expanded from comic books into radio, TV, and movies. Captain America and Wonder Woman came in 1941. But Spider-Man, Ant-Man, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, the Avengers — these are products of the 1960s, and they’ve seen varying degrees of success in their attempts to enter the cultural mainstream. Their stories and supporting characters are less well known, which makes them potentially much more confusing and alienating for what we’ll call the average moviegoer: someone with a passing acquaintance with these characters, but not someone who reads (or grew up reading) the various comic books that detailed all these characters’ cosmic adventures. When the Joker shows up in The Dark Knight, we’re able to call back to Jack Nicholson, Cesar Romero, even the voice of Mark Hamill; when an interdimensional being uses telekinesis to build Egypt’s pyramids in a post-credits stinger, we have no idea what is happening. I wonder if there’s a point past which the audience won’t be able to keep up with the studios. Maybe it makes sense, in a way, to keep “rebooting” the popular superhero franchises every 10-15 years. They’ve got the momentum.
I’m always fascinated when certain concepts from movies or television break free from their sources and become part of the pop culture lexicon. This is different from popular quotes or characters. What I’m talking about are those instances where things themselves become shorthand for ideas. Examples I’ve been able to come up with:
• Mr. Mom (n.): Now-dated slang for a father lending a hand in what were stereotypically motherly tasks.
• MacGyver (v.): To rig up a needlessly complicated device or mechanism.
• Daisy Dukes (n.): Short shorts existed long before The Dukes of Hazzard, but this became a catch-all phrase.
• Gaslight (v.): To cruelly destroy someone’s memory or perception.
What’s important is that these phrases hint at their origin but aren’t dependent upon it, becoming broader in application over time. For instance, gaslighting doesn’t mean to drive one’s wife insane as part of a complicated heist, but rather, to generally manipulate someone’s perception of reality. These phrases become larger than the works that inspired them. Seinfeld wound up popularizing some, too (like “close talker”), but just as often those were catch phrases that lived and died with the show.
There have to be more than these few I’ve listed. I just need to start remembering them.
• It’s excessive and inappropriate to spend time in a review or essay gushing over the physical attributes of a movie star. That is, it’s one thing to acknowledge their appearance — or even their beauty — and another to make panting comments that edge against lasciviousness.
• Yet we go to the movies precisely because the people on the screen are so good-looking. Put characters actors aside for a minute and think about mainstream, meat-and-potatoes actors and actresses from Hollywood’s inception to today. These are attractive people, chosen because they’re attractive. We want them to be capable performers, yes, but we also want them to be beautiful because we want to look at them. We want to be able to spend two hours staring at something we find attractive, and movies let us do that free of judgment.
• Honest film criticism would, by necessity, need to reckon with this on a regular basis. And not just in the (rightly) expected ways that examine the methods by which fluctuating, hypocritical standards of beauty enforce rigid rules for young women, either. Rather, criticism would need to talk about bodies as forms, shapes, vessels, machines — as part of the artistic and aesthetic experience of the film. When someone moves across the frame with lithe grace; when two faces touch; when a hand strays to an ankle; when a man or woman is photographed to appear stunning. This is part of why we’re watching the movie, and to ignore it, or to pretend otherwise, would be dishonest.
• Perhaps we avoid such discussions in criticism not out of a sense of propriety (i.e., embarrassment at the topic itself) but out of uncertainty (i.e., we don’t know whether such observations would cheapen the film, or the act of writing about it). Additionally, the rise of television recaps and weekly attempts at reviews1 has popularized a critical emphasis on pure narrative and sociological reflections, sometimes at the expense of examining the filmmaking itself — the technique, the mechanics, and the bodies in motion.
• There must be, as in so many things, a middle path: a way to talk about physical beauty as artistic expression, not the target of juvenile lust. Further, it has to be possible to talk about attraction and desire — things that have powered the world since its creation, things that have started wars and brought life and art into being — with a frankness and candor that respects them for what they are. These forms on the screen are part of the picture.
No weekly TV reviews can ever be fully realized or effective, since the work itself is being broadcast and discussed episodically.↩
I recently rewatched The Hunt for Red October, which turns 25 this year. This is one of those action movies I can revisit again and again without diminishing returns, but only partly because it’s a relic from my childhood. 1 Rather, it remains such a compelling film because it maintains steady, calm focus on the human stakes at hand. International espionage and acts of war are discussed, but those are head-fakes. The real story here is about two men on separate but overlapping missions, and how they go about doing them. No cities are destroyed, no worlds are blown apart. There aren’t even that many deaths. The worry of a nuclear strike isn’t real, either: the U.S. officials consider it a possibility, but Ramius is a defector, not a madman. It is, compared with the blockbusters of today, a small film. And that’s the key to its appeal.
Modern blockbusters are usually about the world being in peril, at which point various superheroes or powers are allied to bring civilization back from annihilation. The Marvel movies are opening this up to the entire universe. But The Hunt for Red October is small-stakes action storytelling, which is to say it’s about the people, not the pyrotechnics. “Small” might be misleading here, since this is still an action movie fueled by memories of the Cold War that had just ended; I just mean “smaller than would come to be the norm.” When the world is constantly in danger on the big screen, then we as audiences grow numb to outsized narratives. But when the action is rooted in personal relationships and allowed to play out on a regional level, then we’re able to get our hands around it. It’s no accident that director John McTiernan helmed Die Hard in 1988 and Red October two years later, and that both action films not only stand the test of time 2, but that they’re also all about relationships. Die Hard means nothing if we don’t see John McClane struggling to reconnect with, and ultimately save, his wife. Similarly, Red October means nothing if we don’t have Ramius mourning his wife and reckoning with his life’s meaning, or Jack Ryan doing his best to keep the peace. By staying small, by sticking with these people and making the story matter to them, the filmmaker creates something that works for everyone.
When I was in India researching “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” we went to this huge, ice cream picture palace to see a Bollywood movie. Here we were, with 2,000 Indians watching a film in Hindi, and there was the lowest possible comedy and then incredible drama and tragedy, and then (they) break out in songs. And it was three-and-a-half hours! We thought we had suddenly learnt Hindi, because we understood everything! We thought it was incredible. How involved the audience were. How uncool they were — how their coolness had been ripped aside, and how they were united in this singular sharing of the story. The thrill of thinking, “Could we ever do that in the West? Could we ever get past that cerebral cool and perceived cool?” — Baz Luhrmann
Musicals have been on my mind lately. I revisited Singin’ in the Rain several weeks ago, and in the past few days I’ve rewatched the 2007 edition of Hairspray and selected moments from Moulin Rouge!. What continues to stand out is the paradoxical tension in the way musicals do increasingly fantastical things as a means of removing emotional artifice from the narrative. Those moments that are the least realistic, that is, least representative of the world we live in — the moments when men and women actually slip into song, or dance, or rearrange reality entirely — are precisely those moments where the characters in question are being most honest with themselves, with each other, and with the viewer. The songs are what allow the characters to say how they really feel, and they almost always do this in exposed, even flowery language.
I wrote about some of this a few years ago, in a piece on Moulin Rouge!:
Against the wall and unable to think, [Christian] begins to recite Elton John’s “Your Song,” and the easy devotion of the lyrics fit his character perfectly. But it’s when he lets loose and begins to sing that the scene takes on new life and dimension. There are better songs out there than this one, but what matters in the moment is the honesty of the relationship that’s blooming. Luhrmann makes giant, candy-colored, often surreal-looking films, but he never fakes emotion. Ever. That genuineness comes shining through as Christian sings to Satine, sailing her out onto a cloud and capturing her heart. He returns to her later that night and unleashes a medley of pop songs covering everyone from The Beatles to Kiss to U2 to David Bowie. It’s an amalgam that would be almost laughable if there weren’t so much heart behind it; it’s like Luhrmann is having Christian assemble the ultimate mix tape. […]
Luhrmann manages to inhabit a space that allows for large-scale filmmaking that still relies on honest emotion, and that’s not an easy thing to do. The film lives for two hours in the tension between losing control and having the courage just to try, just as the narrative itself discovers that every love story is underpinned with loss. By turns comic and tragic, funny and sad, the movie is ultimately concerned with trying to capture as many disparate aspects of love and life as it can, leading to a finale that’s as uplifting and heartbreaking as any Luhrmann could have hoped to create, and he hasn’t topped the film since. “Moulin Rouge!” is a moving tribute to that notion of love constant beyond death, of forgiveness for wrongdoing, and of the belief that the cost of losing love is always worth the risk of searching for it.
In film, as in so many things, it’s not just what you say, but how you say it. And Moulin Rouge! says its piece well. Luhrmann stuffs the frame with ideas, and as ostentatious as he is, he’s also willing to not call attention to certain images or details, content instead to let the viewer find them or to just let their existence color the experience on a subliminal level. (A nice touch: when Christian’s rendition of “Your Song” transitions to a fantasy, his jacket changes to one lined with sequins to catch the moonlight. He’s never still long enough for it to be really noticeable — it’s more of an atmospheric touch than anything.) Yet the statement works in a different way for the medium: musicals are often saying big, broad, poetic things, and they’re doing it through theatrical devices specifically designed to make the performer and viewer more vulnerable. There is no hiding here. It’s the opposite of almost every other film form, in which characters often struggle to remain independent or stoic as they experience life and love. This is a genre that practically bleeds through the projector. To watch someone sing and dance with all their heart is to witness something pure, and gentle, and honest in that we don’t often see on screen. Giving yourself over to a work of art that does this means allowing yourself to be as vulnerable as the characters, and that’s increasingly a difficult thing to do.
What mostly keeps us from engaging with works on this level is the fear of being seen as vulnerable, or being marked as soft. It’s not a requirement to like a musical just because it’s a musical, of course, just like there’s no guarantee a musical is automatically going to be good just by the merit of its genre. But honestly reckoning with something that requires such a high degree of vulnerability from the viewer is hard to do when most of us are used to dealing with things through at least several different layers of ironic posturing. As Christy Wampole wrote in the New York Times in 2012:
As a function of fear and pre-emptive shame, ironic living bespeaks cultural numbness, resignation and defeat. If life has become merely a clutter of kitsch objects, an endless series of sarcastic jokes and pop references, a competition to see who can care the least (or, at minimum, a performance of such a competition), it seems we’ve made a collective misstep. Could this be the cause of our emptiness and existential malaise? Or a symptom? […]
What would it take to overcome the cultural pull of irony? Moving away from the ironic involves saying what you mean, meaning what you say and considering seriousness and forthrightness as expressive possibilities, despite the inherent risks. It means undertaking the cultivation of sincerity, humility and self-effacement, and demoting the frivolous and the kitschy on our collective scale of values. It might also consist of an honest self-inventory.
If we find ourselves less willing in general to be honest, to risk being sad or happy in a genuine way — to risk being moved by a work of art, or risk being let down by one — how much harder will it be to give ourselves over to those works that are designed to be especially vulnerable and revealing? If there’s nothing more honest than someone singing their heart out, how do we keep ourselves from losing the strength to watch? Romance, musical, family drama: any genre that revolves around (or even touches on) the need for emotional frailty will come to seem foreign, difficult, frightening. Keeping ourselves at a distance from the work is a great way of protecting ourselves, but a lousy way of enjoying something, and of living. Closing that distance is necessary.
That’s the danger of the “cerebral cool” or “perceived cool” that Luhrmann fought when creating Moulin Rouge!, and which continues today. It wasn’t just a musical, but one about love, and one that used existing pop songs in awkward and endearing fashion to get its point across. Contrast it with something like the 2012 film version of the musical Les Miserables, which is somehow cooler and less resonant. The best I can figure is that that version of Les Miserables feels like it’s trying to impress me, whereas other musicals feel like they’re unafraid to tell a sweeping story and be a little corny. They put a little more on the line, and it comes through on some deep level I can’t explain. But I know that I don’t want to give it up, or become immune to it.
Joss Whedon’s Avengers movies are destined to be the least like his other works because corporate interests prevent him from killing any of the main characters. Every Whedon creation is high on the body count among the central cast: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly (along with its big-screen follow-up, Serenity) never shied away from making the kinds of changes that most other series would consider too drastic. Whedon’s work is, largely, about how people learn to cope with tragedy, and how they come to understand that the only thing they can control in a traumatic situation is their own reaction. However, he’s not able to make such sweeping changes within the Marvel universe, since the direction of the property is ultimately out of his hands. The first Avengers film wound up killing a supporting player only for that actor and character to be revived on the television spinoff Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. a year later. Whedon’s Avengers films, then, are bound to be the least connected to his other works simply because they’re forbidden from exploring the emotional territory that Whedon’s come to value most. Financially, they’re his biggest marks on the entertainment world, but narratively, they’re his least personal.
I never feel that movies need people who are sympathetic, but they need characters who are fascinating and charismatic, or you’ll have people feeling shut out of a movie.David Cronenberg
A few years back, faux trailers were a fad; specifically, faux trailers that were edited to make the movies in question appear radically different than they actually were. One of the more popular ones was “Scary Mary,” which was a recut ad designed to make Mary Poppins look like a horror movie:
There was also one that made The Shining look like a coming-of-age dramedy:
Around the same time, people were making joke versions of the trailer for Brokeback Mountain, including this one that retooled Back to the Future as a story of forbidden love:
The gag here is, of course, just how easy it is to make a trailer diverge wildly from the movie it’s advertising, with nothing more than the right song selections and some choice edits. These recut trailers pull the curtain down and show us the men and women pulling the switches: look how it easy is to make Doc and Marty fall in love, or Jack Torrance care for his family. Trailers can lie so easily. Why, then do we still believe them?
Trailers are as popular as ever among viewers and marketers. (Blockbuster films are built around campaigns involving nested series of trailers, sneak peeks, and even teases for trailers.) Even when they all start to run together, and even when they’re clearly selling a different product than the actual film, they remain big business. Yet the existence of the jokey recut trailers would seem to suggest that people know trailers are misleading, or at least, that they know trailers have the potential to be misleading. How can we laugh at their disingenuousness in one moment and breathlessly watch them, eyes wide, in the next?
• Maybe we like being targeted by marketing. Marketers know what we like, too. Trailers are designed to be alluring, tasty, and filling in an empty way, like fatty snacks that hit our tastebuds just so. There’s a reason we can’t stop eating junk food, and there’s a reason we can’t stop watching trailers.
• I also think we like suspending disbelief. A movie is long, and complicated, and potentially disappointing. It ebbs and flows, and it takes more effort on our part to get and stay engaged. A trailer, though, is a two-and-a-half-minute ride that’s almost guaranteed to trigger reactions within us, and it allows us to believe that the movie experience will be as exciting and fulfilling as the ad we’re consuming.
• And I think it’s that we’re used to them, and that we’re also used to holding contradictory beliefs that sometimes influence each other in ways we’re not fully aware of at the time. We know trailers are deceptive and misleading, but we also know they’re crafted to be entertaining, and we want to be entertained. We want so much to transform the feeling of “that was a good trailer” into “that movie looks good” that we do it without thinking. We can know, deep down, that trailers are lies, and we’ll still eagerly watch them in hopes of copping a buzz of excitement for something new. We know we’re being sold a bill of goods, but we’re still happy to buy. We’re weird.
• A movie is never its marketing, but it’s often worth looking at how movies are sold and what makes some of them successful while others struggle to find an audience.
• Edge of Tomorrow is a crisp, fun, entertaining action-spectacle that’s essentially Aliens crossed with Groundhog Day: a soldier named Cage (Tom Cruise) is tossed in with the front lines to fend off an alien invasion, and he dies in combat only to wake up at the beginning of the day to do it all over again. Every death “resets” the day, so Cage’s mission is to figure out how to beat the aliens, save the world, and stop the cycle. In addition to all that sci-fi action, there’s a decent amount of humor, or at least comic relief: little jokes and asides allow for breathing room, and they let the audience laugh and release a little of the tension that’s been building during the more action-driven scenes. In other words, it’s got good pacing, and a brain.
• Almost none of that is evident from the film’s first full trailer:
The follow-up trailer isn’t much better:
They deal in their way with the story’s central gimmick, but they’re almost incomprehensible. They don’t do anything to distinguish the movie from other blockbusters, nor do they give the first clue to the film’s verve or voice. Place it next to something like the ad for Guardians of the Galaxy, which used its own pop soundtrack for atmosphere, and you see how forgettable it is.
• Standard caveat here that all trailers are lies designed by marketers.
• Audiences are bought more often than they’re earned, and there’s a clear disconnect here between the movie and the way it’s being presented to potential audiences. Even the title was a point of contention. Star Emily Blunt said that she was a fan of All You Need Is Kill, the title of the comic that inspired the film, but even more curiously, Warner Bros. seemed to attempt to retitle the film for home video. The film’s tagline of “Live. Die. Repeat.” — which is used prominently in the trailers — takes center stage on the Blu-ray/DVD cover, while iTunes and Amazon both list its title as Live Die Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow:
• The movie’s name didn’t change, though. When the title finally displays (at the end of the movie), it’s still just Edge of Tomorrow.
• This is an amazingly insecure and weird move on the part of the studio. It assumes that audiences stayed away because the found the title generic (which it is), and not, more accurately, because they didn’t know what kind of movie they’d be getting. There’s nothing in the ads to stylistically or tonally distinguish Edge of Tomorrow from the overwrought, almost hilariously serious promotions for the films that were released just before it, like Godzilla or X-Men: Days of Future Past, or shortly afterward, like Transformers: Age of Extinction or Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. It’s pitched and sold as one more in a line of summer shoot-em-ups, when it’s actually much more more fun and interesting than that. The trailer makes it feel like a somber march up Omaha Beach, when the film itself is robust, interesting, funny, exciting, and genuinely engaging. Getting scared and changing the movie’s title isn’t going to suddenly cause people to rediscover it. Rather, it causes confusion and makes the movie feel that much more like an uncertain proposition. How good can it really be, we’ll wonder, if even the studio is trying to hide it from us?
• Musicals are the most fantastic movie genre, in the classical sense of the word “fantastic”: they are imaginative, bright worlds that exist in their own kind of reality. Other genres ask us to accept a certain amount of fiction that’s still reconcilable within a given narrative construct: e.g., Star Wars stages dogfights in space and gives its hero telepathic abilities, but there are still rules governing those things (ships explode, you can’t read just anyone’s mind, etc.). Musicals, though, don’t worry about rules like that. People just start singing and dancing, and no character ever says to another, “Hey, you’re singing and dancing.” Rather, the songs and story are blended together in a pure, performative space.
• Because musicals don’t have to follow rules the way other genres do, they’re able to symbolize and explore emotion with more potency than other films can. Every frame is girded by Huxley’s belief that “after silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.” Songs in musicals often forward the plot — a young man on the verge of falling in love might burst into song, thus declaring his intentions and moving the story along — but they’re just as often pure performance pieces. Something like Singin’ in the Rain is a perfect example: the title song and performance allow Gene Kelly’s character to express his newfound feelings, but other bits like “Make ‘Em Laugh” and “Moses Supposes” are nothing more — or less — than stellar presentations of song, dance, and energy.
• It’s interesting to think of the way movie musicals have fallen out of favor with audiences and filmmakers. Part of it could be nothing more than the inevitability of changing tastes: movie musicals have been around since sound was synced to image in The Jazz Singer, so crowds just might want something different. But I have to believe part of what makes them harder to make and sell now might be their lack of irony, cynicism, and emotional distance from the audience. You cannot burst into song about how much you love someone and still expect to be cool and aloof. There’s an emotional risk for the character and the storyteller. (Who hasn’t felt several stories high just being on the street where their love lives?) One of the most successful recent musicals, 2002’s Chicago, actually staged many of the songs within a cabaret imagined by one of the main characters, making the songs a hybrid of narrative style and character construct. “These things aren’t really happening,” the movie says, “they’re just in someone’s head.” And while doing that does allow for some characterization in the movie — the heroine is delusional, and the fictional nightclub we keep seeing underscores her separation from the real world — it also robs us, the viewer, of the specific and magical blend of reality and fantasy that movie musicals can provide.
• Musicals also give us a chance to examine and revel in the beauty and grace of physical movement. Of course all movies are about bodies in their way. Action movies are rooted in physicality, though they’re increasingly digitized and plastic; romances employ the physical form for sexual allure or dramatic tension. But musicals let us watch people move the way they almost never do in real life, and certainly not in everyday situations. The litheness of their legs and trunks, the strength in their arms as they carry each other, the use of their bodies as expressive vessels: there’s a magnificence to it that’s almost primal. Singing and dancing lets the characters go to a place beyond regular words, and it lets us go with them to experience their joy and pain, and to remember the moments in our own lives when we felt like that. The characters’ bodies intercede for them when words fail.
I’ve been keeping a monthly tally of my movie watching for four years now (see 2011, 2012, 2013). These lists have always been loose, with no real goals or rules: last year, arbitrarily, I decided to watch 100 new (to me) movies, but this year I didn’t care about reaching or exceeding that number. I still tend to focus this list on films that are new to me, but a few months into the year, I started to note when I rewatched a movie or TV series, something I haven’t done in the past. (As to why I’m also including TV series I rewatched, it just felt right.) I wound up watching fewer movies in 2014 than I did in 2013, and I attribute the dip to a number of things: general burnout, professional existential issues, and the fact that I stopped writing for the website where I’d spent nine years providing reviews and essays. I also started to feel more tired than ever about being an unwitting part of the marketing and award cycle that blows through town every year and makes a ruin of the construction we spent the past 12 months fixing up. Movies mean so much more than that.
You can see the ebb and flow in my annual tallies:
2011: 79 movies (new to me)
2012: 69 movies
2013: 104 movies
2014: 79 movies
If I reviewed a film on the list or wrote about it on this site, I’ll link to that. Additionally, if I had something else to note, I’ll include that below.
As for the current availability of the movies listed below, I’ll quote myself from last year: “Titles come and go online, so Can I Stream It? and Instantwatcher are great resources to let you know how to get your hands on a film. And don’t fall into the trap of thinking that streaming is the only way to see movies. Netflix still has a robust disc rental service (for now), and it’s worth the extra couple bucks a month.”
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)
Clean and Sober (1988): I was inspired to check this out after hearing Michael Keaton interviewed on WTF With Marc Maron. It’s a fantastic, unflinching, often daringly honest portrayal of the cycle of addiction and self-destruction, with some wonderful work by Keaton in his first dramatic role. Up until this he’d been a comic performer, and he’d even done stand-up for a while, but he’s a great fit for the role. His character is one who’s tried for years to get by on charm to hide his disease, and Keaton’s skill with mania and moods are perfect here. Standout moment: when he calls his mother late at night to ask for money so he can score. He’s anxious, eager, hopeful, embarrassed, repulsed at his deeds, determined to continue. And it all happens in a lengthy take that focuses on Keaton.
Casting By (2013): Casting is a fascinating part of the production process in film and television. This is a decent little documentary mostly about Marion Dougherty, whose career spanned decades and covered classic movies and major stars. It dips a little into hagiography, but it’s still a nice look at a part of the business that doesn’t get talked about that often in detail.
Europa Report (2013): A solid found-footage thriller that relies on claustrophobia and nice tension in its tale of inevitably doomed space exploration.
The Monuments Men (2014)
A Hard Day’s Night (1964): My wife’s a huge Beatles fan, and though I love their music, too, I’d never seen any of their movies until this. It’s ridiculously fun — goofy, effervescent, iconic — and it boasts some of the best pop music of the century.
30 for 30: The Price of Gold (2014): I haven’t spent much time with ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, but this documentary about the Tonya Harding incident was riveting.
That Guy Dick Miller (2014): Mediocre talking-head doc about character actor Dick Miller, whose colorful career deserves something a bit more introspective. In a Q&A after the SXSW screening I attended, the director explained that the film started out as a DVD featurette that expanded over time. Sad to say, the featurette version would’ve likely been better.
For Those in Peril (2014): Eerie, slow-moving fable come to life. I nodded off.
Boyhood (2014): There’s a lot to like, and even plenty to love, in Richard Linklater’s gimmick-reliant film, which follows one young boy over 12 actual years as he grows from age 6 to 18. It’s got a loose, warm, welcoming air, and Linklater’s skilled enough at this point to know when to hold back and let the vibe take over. Some of the supporting cast (including Linklater’s real-life daughter) is weak, though, adding to the experimental and unpolished feel. Interestingly, the most compelling arc isn’t the main character’s, but his father’s, played by Ethan Hawke. The boy grows from aimless child into a slightly less aimless young man, his whole life in front of him, which is natural for a young person. (Who, at 18, is anything but a blank slate?) But his father goes from deadbeat dad with delusions of local music stardom to remarried conservative with his feet on the ground, and there are moments when he watches his son age that you can watch his own awareness of his forgotten dreams resurface on his face. The father’s the one to watch.
The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
The Seven-Year Itch (1955): Worth seeing for its place in film history, though it fell short of enjoyable.
Nine to Five (1980): I always enjoy catching up on pop classics that I just barely missed. This came out two years before I was born, and though I grew up knowing about its place in movie history, I never got around to seeing it until this year. As funny and entertaining as I’d hoped.
Jodorowsky’s Dune (2014): An engaging documentary about surrealist filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky’s failed attempt to adapt the novel Dune into a trippy lovefest. There’s likely some invention going on in Jodorowsky’s recollections, but it’s a fun ride, and his vision for the movie is something else.
Pacific Rim (2013)
The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
The Rocketeer: This is one of my favorite childhood movies, and one I turn to when I’m sick or run down or just need a break. It brims with the spirit of adventure, and it’s got style to spare. Kid/family movies like this do not happen much these days.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan: Still the best of the series thanks to what, in retrospect, seems like a no-brainer: graft the legacy of seafaring exploration onto interstellar voyages, and anchor the whole thing in a fear of mortality.
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock: A prime example of mid-1980s sci-fi: a lot of ideas, not a lot of money, and a final product that gets the job done in a fine but often forgettable way. Hampered by being part of a trilogy.
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home: Fascinating to rewatch as an adult for its marked departure from everything that came before. This is the moment the series made a blatant play for families, and the film is softer and goofier than everything that came before. (Two movies earlier, Kirk was reckoning with his long-lost son and the death of his best friend; now he’s bopping around the Bay Area spouting one-liners.) Still fun, though.
Beverly Hills Cop (1984): It was a staggeringly huge hit for a reason.
Heathers (1989): One of the great things about watching landmark comedies years later is going in with the memory of the all the movies that came after. The influence of Heathers on teen comedies is impossible to measure — it’s dark, biting, sad, nihilistic; you know, for kids — and it holds up years later. High school is hell, and this movie is Dante.
The Improv: 50 Years Behind the Brick Wall (2013): Irritatingly weak and ill-formed. The buzz of seeing major comics talk about their early days is dulled by the film’s total lack of insight and direction.
Ender’s Game (2013)
Veronica Mars (2014)
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
In a World … (2013): One of the best movies I saw all year. If we got comedies like this every quarter, the world would be a wonderful place.
Sports Night (series): This is one of the first shows I ever really loved, and I watched it eagerly as it aired during my junior and senior years of high school (September 1998 to May 2000). I’ve turned to it again over the years (including during a wicked bout of depression), and for all its obvious and clumsy flaws, there’s still something sweet and earnest and almost noble about it.
Out of Sight: My favorite Soderbergh film, by a mile.
Ocean’s Twelve: Not nearly as frustrating as I found it initially. It’s growing on me.
Bringing Up Baby (1938): Grant and Hepburn make this look effortless. They glide.
The Great Muppet Caper (1981): I don’t know how I never saw this as a child. We were more of a Disney family, I guess.
Stagecoach (1939): The moment John Wayne swaggers onto the screen could be one of the most stirring I’ve ever seen, Western or otherwise. A great, exciting film.
The Maltese Falcon (1941): Iconic for about a hundred reasons, all of them correct.
Barton Fink (1991): Haunting, surreal, unnerving, and perfect in its way.
Snowpiercer (2014): A couple of unintentionally hilarious moments aside (it’s very hard to make a tearful speech about post-apocalyptic cannibalism sound believable), it’s a solid thriller and tight little movie. It chugs along like, well, you know. Just remember: left or right?
Glengarry Glen Ross: I’m a sucker for Mamet’s machine gun, at least when it’s this good.
The Paper Chase
Adaptation: I first saw this when it came out and I was in college, and I hadn’t returned to it in a while. The haunting sorrow of the creative process is heartbreaking.
Memento: It’s still a great movie: rock-solid story, style, and execution. And though it was only Nolan’s second movie, so much of his style was already in place. (It was also the beginning of a gorgeous partnership with d.p. Wally Pfister.) It’s relentlessly paced, but never hectic; adherent to its central gimmick, but structured in a way that doles out information right on the beats you’d expect from a conventional movie. Nolan’s non-hero movies tend to be about the puzzles we design for ourselves and the things we pretend not to know: a magician’s secrets, a husband’s obsessions, a thief’s choices. Memento is a little bit like seeing his m.o. distilled to its essence. Every performer is perfect, too. Absolutely worth revisiting.
Silverado (1985): There’s an earnestness and lack of irony here that’s sadly uncommon for movies.
Video Games: The Movie (2014)
The Lego Movie (2014): Almost shouldn’t work, but it does.
Sex Tape (2014)
Under the Skin (2014): Unforgettable, though not in a pleasant way.
Foreign Correspondent (1940): Gorgeous shots, fantastic suspense, and inventive effects. Better than almost any other movie I saw this year.
The Immigrant (2014): There’s a classical, straightforward feeling to James Gray’s latest that’s appealingly honest in its execution. Rich, grimy world-building at its best, and one of the best final shots in recent memory.
The Hunt for Red October: Perennial comfort food.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Season 1): One of my favorite comedies on the air right now.
The West Wing (selected episodes, Seasons 3-4)
Witness (1985): One of the movies for adults that are so hard to find today.
About Alex (2014)
The Big Chill (1983)
Man Hunt (1941): Some of the period loopiness doesn’t hold up — watching two people fall deeply in love after meeting once, all while the man is an abrasive weirdo, is becoming the hardest fantasy to entertain on screen — but it’s got some solid suspense sequences and a predictably entertaining performance by George Sanders.
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
The Trip to Italy (2014)
The Wolverine (2013): These movies don’t even have rules anymore.
Bonnie and Clyde (1967): Blisteringly subversive, from the action to the sexuality. That it even got made is amazing.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948): Nature, greed, and the lengths men will travel to turn a dream into a nightmare. Far darker and more adventurous than I’d expected it to be.
To Have and Have Not (1944): The moment where Lauren Bacall starts dancing almost knocked me out of my chair.
Heaven Can Wait (1943): Endlessly charming.
Vanilla Sky: I like this a little more now than I did when it came out. It’s prickly and weird, but a lot of that’s because it’s such a straight remake of Abre los ojos that Cameron Crowe doesn’t quite know what to do with it.
Scrubs (selected episodes, Seasons 1-4): There are problems here, looking back: some of the jokes are a little homophobic, and the show’s early fantasy sequences actually became reality at one point, so the execution got a little weird. But it reminds me of being in my 20s and struggling with life and hanging out with my roommate watching this show on cable. It’s a touchstone to a different part of me.
The Dark Knight Rises: This is not a perfect movie. Parts of it are even kind of dumb. But it’s still somehow watchable thanks to its bombast and scope.
Rounders: Sophomore year of college, a friend and I would watch the last act of the movie — pretty much from the Turkish baths to the end — and then amble down to the cafeteria for dinner. We probably did it once a week at one point.
Auntie Mame (1958): Mid-century films based on plays didn’t always know how to handle the transition — see The Music Man’s straightforward fade-outs and freezes, as if no one wanted to bother making a specifically film-centric story — but Auntie Mame overcomes those bumps on the strength of Rosalind Russell’s performance. A great example of 1950s Hollywood dazzle.
I Am Road Comic (2014): There’s a great documentary to be made about the working life of a comic, traveling from club to club to cobble together a living. This is not that documentary.
Videodrome (1983): The ravages of age: the fictional show on the Videodrome network is tamer than the run of torture porn that played cineplexes in the 2000s.
What’s Up, Doc? (1972): A breezy ode to screwball, but also interesting for its perspective on nostalgia. Today’s filmmakers are doing odes to the movies of the 1970s and 1980s. Years from now, we’ll get flashbacks to the ’00s.
Bird People (2014)
Spellbound (1945): Seventy years old, and as twisty and tight as the day the print was struck.
They Came Together (2014): Not as strong a spoof as Wet Hot American Summer, but there were still a few moments I had to pause because I was laughing so hard.
Gaslight (1944): Trivia: the American version from 1944 (the one I saw) was the second movie made from the stage play source material, following a 1940 British version. It’s got some decent suspense — and of course is fun to watch purely for the historical perspective of seeing something that was so popular it created a new slang term — but it suffers from the same problem that plagues a lot of middling thrillers, namely, the bad guy acts incredibly suspicious and weird the entire time. There’s never any doubt he’s messing with his wife’s sanity, but rather than focus on the strain at hand or the power play that drives him to do this, director George Cukor sticks closer to the “What on earth could be going on?” style of teasing the viewer, which come on.
The Equalizer (2014)
Gone Girl: Pretty good.
The Wire (Seasons 1-3): I hadn’t watched The Wire since the first time I worked through the series sometime around 2007-2008. It (unsurprisingly) still holds up, and if anything, it feels richer and stronger for having stayed so powerful.
Bernie (2012): Texas forever.
Before I Go to Sleep (2014)
The Wire (Seasons 4-5): The corner boys are still heartbreaking. Scott Templeton, less so.
Galaxy Quest: Warm, entertaining, funny, wistful; most impressively, parodic without being mean. I return to it regularly.
Shadow of the Vampire (2000): A bonkers but effective mix of behind-the-scenes moviemaking drama and unsettling horror film. Not to be confused with Alyssa Milano’s Embrace of the Vampire, important to young boys for completely different reasons.
A Most Wanted Man (2014): A little too restrained — there’s slow, and then there’s trapped in amber — but it’s still rewarding in many places for the way it deviates from action-driven spy stories.
Foxcatcher (2014): Basing your movie on true events does not excuse you from crafting a narrative.
22 Jump Street (2014): The perfect blend of self-awareness and silliness.
The Babadook (2014)
There Will Be Blood: Still the ultimate American horror story.
Saturday Night: How did it take someone 35 years to come up with the idea of making a documentary about assembling an episode of Saturday Night Live? And how weird is it that that someone is James Franco?
Owning Mahowny (2003): I’ll never not miss Philip Seymour Hoffman.
A Most Violent Year (2014): While it’s usually risky to try and force any kind of theme upon a given year of movies, it’s true that many movies this year dealt with capitalism as the ultimate villain. The story here sounds small at first — a man who owns a heating-oil company has to fend off heated competition — but the drama turns out to be surprisingly compelling as he struggles to keep his life together.
Nightcrawler (2014): See above. Jake Gyllenhaal’s portrayal of a sociopathic creep is riveting, but the film’s real villain is the sensationalism of modern media.
Listen Up Philip (2014): A brutal, if brave, portrait of an artist as a self-destructive young man.
Inherent Vice (2014): Paul Thomas Anderson’s gift for balancing humor and melancholy could be his strongest suit.
American Sniper (2014): See Foxcatcher above.
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014): Critics operating in bad faith deserve to be pilloried. I liked a lot about this.
Chef (2014): Writer-director Jon Favreau’s narrative about a famous guy who quits the big time to rediscover his passions is, one assumes, pulled directly from his own life (he did a pair of Iron Man movies before this), and the heart shows. It’s small-stakes, easygoing, warm-spirited moviemaking, and I enjoyed every minute.
Scrubs (Seasons 6-8)
The Grand Budapest Hotel
By the Numbers
Total films seen: 79
Animated films: 1
Foreign (non-U.S.) films: 4
Movies released in 2014: 41
Movies released before 2014: 38
Movies released before 2000: 25
Movies released before 1950: 10
Of the ten highest grossers of the year (as of Dec. 31), I saw: 3
Number of 2014 releases I reviewed: 16
Favorites (in no particular order): The Grand Budapest Hotel, Inherent Vice, Foreign Correspondent, In a World, Clean and Sober, A Hard Day’s Night, Beverly Hills Cop, Stagecoach, The Immigrant, Heaven Can Wait, Bird People, Fury, The Babadook, Chef