Saturday, January 17, 2015

2014 cast party

Every play or musical I appeared in ended with a cast party. It was a time to celebrate, hopefully to reflect on a job well done, and to appreciate the unique combination of personalities that this show brought together, one last time. That's kind of how I feel in wrapping up 2014, especially with my #1 movie being a great backstage dramedy.

So it's time for my third annual "day after posting my rankings" wrap-up piece, in which I go beyond my rankings (but still use them as reference points) in taking a deeper dive back into the year just completed.

Three who had a good year

Scarlett Johansson - Is there any actress in Hollywood making better choices right now? This year found Johansson appearing in a Hollywood blockbuster (Captain America: The Winter Soldier - #27), an inscrutable arthouse film (Under the Skin - #10), and a third movie that seemed to straddle those worlds perfectly (Lucy - #62). (For the purposes of staying positive, I'm going to overlook the fact that Johansson did Jon Favreau a favor by appearing in the execrable Chef - #129). Where Johansson is in her career right now, she seems more interested in the latter two -- but she is more than honoring her contractual commitment to Marvel, bringing never-before-seen dimension to Black Widow in her third time playing that role. Under the Skin is the real indication of the risk taker we have on our hands here, someone who eschewed the thinking behind any of her prior nudity clauses when her director asked for it -- and was rewarded with strong notices and intense praise for the movie. And even though I ranked Lucy at only #62, don't forget that I consider this an incredibly strong year for movies. Lucy would have been a lot higher if the promise of its first half carried through to its second, and it also contains Johansson's single best acting of the year, in a scene in which she movingly talks to her mother about the way the drug coursing through her veins is flooding her emotional circuits. These days, Johansson is keeping us flooded with good work.

Tilda Swinton - Always a phenomenal character actress, Swinton really dedicated herself to her talent for comedy in 2014 -- though as with any stand-out performer, her skills are not so easily reducible to any one thing. Three Swinton movies landed in the teens for me this year -- Snowpiercer (#15), The Grand Budapest Hotel (#17) and Only Lovers Left Alive (#20) -- and I don't even remember her role in The Zero Theorem (#109), so let's not worry too much about that one. In Snowpiercer, she harnessed the precise character concept of a curt British middle manager, dabbling in both tremendous cowardice ("It wasn't me!") and arrogant speechifying ("Be a shoe."). The false teeth also added some of the comedy of this weirdly toned film. In just a minute or two of screen time in Budapest, she was aged forward a good four decades in a performance that owes much to the makeup department -- but probably could not have been pulled off by any other actress. Her least funny (and only lead) turn of the year still has a devilish streak to it, as she plays the vampire Eve with a sardonic twinkle that's absent from her partner Adam. As frumpy as she was in the other two roles, she is genuinely sexy here, proving herself not only to be one cinema's great chameleons, but someone who seems -- much like a vampire -- to be ageless. For a 54-year-old woman in Hollywood, that's a trick worth celebrating.

Joe Swanberg - I don't want to honor only actors, though the format does lend itself to that, seeing as how they're more likely to have multiple projects in a given year than directors/writers/etc. In Joe Swanberg, I get a guy who is all of those things -- though it wasn't until 2014 that I even realized he was also an actor. My awareness of Swanberg the performer actually began in August when I saw last year's You're Next, where Swanberg plays one of the preening prigs who gets knocked off during a home invasion. I didn't realize until the credits rolled that this was Swanberg, which recontextualized the performance I had just seen, giving me a better sense of it as an inside joke. A month later I saw him in The Sacrament (#25) alongside his You're Next costar A.J. Bowen, where he brought credibility to a more realistic horror, and an important one for me -- The Sacrament helped ease my resistance to found footage. But the movie that brought the biggest smile to my face, even if I like it a little less than The Sacrament, was Happy Christmas (#30), the warm, incidentally holiday movie that redeemed him as a writer-director after 2013's Drinking Buddies left me cold. I know Swanberg is one of the founders of, and most prolific directors in, the mumblecore movement, which I always enjoy. It gives me great pleasure to know I have many of his films still to discover.

Honorable mentions: Chris Evans (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Snowpiercer), Mark Ruffalo (Begin Again, Foxcatcher)

Three who had a bad year

Bill Murray - If The Monuments Men (#130) had kept its original 2013 release date, Murray's slump would have been spread out over two years and would probably not have caught my attention for a dishonor like this. But because it was a turkey, it weighed down Murray's 2014. You can't blame Murray for trying to help out a presumed friend (George Clooney) by appearing in Monuments, or by trying to help out a young filmmaker (Theodore Melfi) by agreeing to star in St. Vincent (#112). But did he read those scripts? I love the guy, so it pains me to include him here, just as it pained me to include favorite Jim Carrey here last year. But I gotta call a spade a spade, and in 2014, Murray was a spade. He's hardly to blame for the failure of Monuments, but his scenes with Bob Balaban have an odd tonal quality that best resembles an unfunny sitcom. Some bad instincts really took over there. Then in St. Vincent, he gets the Brooklyn accent right, but he gets everything else about this shabby character wrong. I just don't believe him as a version of the person the movie tells us he was once supposed to be. Okay, that's enough Bill Murray bashing -- I'm going to go cry in the corner now. (At least he had a cameo in The Grand Budapest Hotel, though I missed his supposed cameo in Dumb and Dumber To - #60).

Kelly Reilly - Reilly bothered me in a way I couldn't pinpoint in Robert Zemeckis' Flight, and 2014 certainly didn't help warm me up to her. This mascara-laden British actress appeared in two films that really bothered me this year, and both had to do with Christianity. The better of the two, the one that was supposed to be a lot better but disappointed me big time, was Calvary (#113), where she plays the daughter of the priest played by Brendan Gleeson (he was widowed before he entered the priesthood). I found this to be a plodding bore that's remarkably unsubtle in its dialogue and themes, and Reilly's supposed emotional core of the movie was anything but for me. Then Reilly fell victim to me watching Heaven is for Real (#127) on the second-to-last night of my viewing calendar. Here she's a Nebraska housewife and church choir leader whose son has a near-death experience and thinks he's visited Heaven. Reilly and Greg Kinnear both give decent performances, but what are they doing in a bland Christian movie which was intended for consumption in the Bible Belt?

Shia LaBeouf - LaBeouf appeared in either two, one or zero movies that I saw in 2014, depending on whether you consider the Nymphomaniacs (#102 and #119) to be one or two movies, and whether you consider the actual year of their release to be 2013 or 2014 (but I'm just making a semantic argument here, because they are eligible by having been released in the U.S. in 2014). And in truth, he's barely in Nymphomaniac Vol. II. But he's deserving of a spot on this list because of a) how his terrible British accent was not even the worst part of his one-note performance in Nymphomaniac, and b) what a douchebag this guy seems to be. LaBeouf spent most of 2014 mired in not one but two separate plagiarism controversies, both related to comic book artist Daniel Clowes, as well as getting thrown out of places for disorderly conduct and tweeting that a woman had raped him at an art installation. Look, maybe he was "raped," but it's all part of a descent into a toxic persona that also seems to have appeared on the set of Fury (which I did not see), where he reportedly alienated people with such behavior as removing his own tooth to show his dedication. No thanks, Shia.

Dishonorable mentions: Nat Faxon (Sex Tape, Tammy), Jon Favreau (Chef)

The year I stopped watching trailers

Or tried, anyway.

I had a moment recently when I realized that the movies I had in my top ten had one important thing in common: I had not seen their trailers prior to watching them.

This was true of a lot more of them than I could have ever guessed. Of the movies in my top ten, only one -- one -- was a movie whose trailer I was sure I had seen beforehand. That movie is Whiplash, and it won me over anyway. The other nine were all movies whose footage was entirely new to me, with the possible exception of Under the Skin (I may have seen a trailer, but the footage was so abstract that it spoiled nothing for me) and Birdman (I saw a little footage in a TV review). That would have been true even before Love is Strange knocked The Interview out of my top ten.

Conclusion: When going into a movie, as much as possible should still be a surprise to you.

Simple, yet revolutionary.

I think I started to come around to this realization at the end of 2013, when I felt particularly inundated by the trailer for Short Term 12. At least two people I know considered this their favorite movie of the year, but by the time I saw it, I had seen its trailer possibly as many as five times. They just kept playing it before movies I went to see at Cinema Nova, and after I'd seen it once, I felt there was little purpose to look away. So I just kept on watching it.

Familiarity bred contempt, and when I eventually watched Short Term 12, I ranked it 91st out of 126.

Would I have liked Short Term 12 better having seen zero trailers? I'd like to think it was a bogus movie anyway and I would not have liked it ... but I'm sure I would have liked it at least a little bit better.

But the realization really crystallized this year when I eventually did see the trailers for two of my top five movies of the year: Birdman and The Skeleton Twins. Both trailers seemed very clumsy, and both revealed things to me that I would not have otherwise wanted revealed. In Birdman, it was Riggan Thompson's "special abilities"; in The Skeleton Twins, it was the great lip synch duet performed by Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig. I would qualify each of these as key surprises that operated on me exactly as a good surprise should. If I'd seen them already in the trailers, I don't know how it would have ultimately affected these films' rankings.

So it looks like I am going to be even more mercenary about reducing my trailer consumption in 2015. Now the question is ... how to do it without being that guy who covers his eyes and ears and drowns out the sound with nonsense noises, all while reassuring my fellow theater patrons I'm sane?

The problem is, of course, that watching a trailer is sometimes the only thing that makes you excited about a movie in the first place, or possibly even aware of its existence. So I'll have to take it on a case-by-case basis. But you can bet one thing: I'll definitely stop seeking them out online. And the days of just passively watching them in the theater may be gone as well.

2014 by the numbers

Here are some stats. Enjoy.

Breakdown of 2014 movies by star ratings on Letterboxd: 5 stars (6), 4.5 stars (10), 4 stars (30), 3.5 stars (36), 3 stars (16), 2.5 stars (16), 2 stars (13), 1.5 stars (4), 1 star (4), .5 stars (1)
Total new movies watched in the calendar year: 211
Total movies rewatched: 33
2014 movies seen in the theater: 41
2014 movies seen on video: 95
2014 movies I saw twice: 2 (Snowpiercer, Under the Skin)

Ten movies I loved from other years

Want to know my favorite movies I saw in 2014 that didn't come out that year? Here, in alphabetical order:

All That Jazz (1979, Bob Fosse) - Now I know what Adam Kempenaar of Filmspotting is always going on about. Scintillating musical biopic with first-rate editing.

Blue is the Warmest Color (2013, Abdellatif Kechiche) - I may have seen it for the curiosity about the controversial depictions of sex, but I loved it for the lead performance by Adele Exarchopoulos.

Breaker Morant (1980, Bruce Beresford) - I've already highlighted my favorite movies I watched in my Australian Audient series, but I thought I should make a second mention of the best one.

The Hunt (2012, Thomas Vinterberg) - Saw it only days after I finished last year's list, and it would have made the top ten if I'd seen it in time.

In a World ... (2013, Lake Bell). One of the only times I can remember giving a newly viewed comedy five stars on Letterboxd. Simply delightful. More please, Lake.

Mr. Nobody (2009, Jaco Van Dormeal) - Your typical time-twister, mindbender masterpiece, one that for some reason didn't see the light of day until 2013.

Ravenous (1999, Antonia Bird) - I had heard that this might have become something of a cult movie, but I had no idea what a hoot it was. And that's not "so bad it's good" -- it's just good.

The Silence (1963, Ingmar Bergman) - I was also a big fan of Persona, but I'll list only my favorite of the five Bergman films I watched this year.

Sita Sings the Blues (2009, Nina Paley) - Too bad Paley couldn't profit from this because of copyright issues, as this animated/musical look into Indian cultural history is a real joy.

TiMER (2009, Jac Schaeffer) - Romantic comedies about people with timers on their wrists, counting down to when they will meet their soulmates, don't get any better than this.

Moments/details from the year

Self-explanatory, really. I'll try to keep it short.

Most believable behavior toward children: In Like Father, Like Son, a group of serious and well-dressed Japanese men and women are seated around a boardroom table, discussing what should happen in the case of two children switched at birth. When one of these children runs into the room and pretends to shoot them with a toy machine gun, they all drop character long enough to pretend to get riddled by the child's imaginary bullets. YES. This is just what you do when a child pretends to shoot you, no matter how serious you are.

Most emotional song: The reunion of Soronprfbs at the end of Frank, and the impassioned version of "I Love You All."

Craziest and most hilarious fight scene: The control room brawl in The Interview, followed closely by the fish coming out in Snowpiercer.

Most surreal scene in a conventional movie: The "ornithologist, philatelist, philanthropist" scene in Foxcatcher.

Most surreal scene in an unconventional movie: The first time ScarJo lures a victim into the black tar in Under the Skin.

Most melancholy sound: The swooning cry made by the scanning machine each time it steals a little more of Robin Wright's soul in The Congress.

Most successful inversion of a genre convention: The frightening daytime murders in The Sacrament.

Single most disturbing image: The grand reveal of "the monster" in Tusk.

Most evil gesture: The writhing of Rosamund Pike's body when "the thing" happens near the end of Gone Girl, accompanied by the mouldering distortion of Trent Reznor's heretofore unobtrusive score.

Most disdainful moment: Koba "monkeying around" for the humans and then popping some caps in their asses, in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

Coolest set: The "Hobbit hotel" in Winter Sleep.

Coolest pre-credits sequence: Smaug destroying Laketown in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.

Funniest surprise: The non-human characters who appear on the cable car in Manakamana.

And now some dialogue ...

Most overrated line: The one about the paper with staples in it from Listen Up Philip. Look, it's not as funny as about five different people insisted to me it was.

Funniest line readings: Morgan Freeman in The Lego Movie.

Funniest line: "Wait, she's on our team now?" - Jim Carrey, Dumb and Dumber To

Cutest line reading: "It's abstract!" - Lorelai Linklater, Boyhood

Lightning round

And to end things ...

Highest ranked best picture nominee: Birdman (#1)
Lowest ranked best picture nominee: The Imitation Game (#90)
Best picture nominees I haven't seen: American Sniper, Selma, The Theory of Everything
Most boring title: The Wait
Least boring title: The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears
Unjustified bragging: We Are the Best!
Most literal title: Two Days, One Night
Least literal title: Why Don't You Play in Hell?
Worst title for a good movie: Magic in the Moonlight
Best title for a bad movie: Black Coal, Thin Ice
Most unnecessary revival: Veronica Mars
Most necessary revival: Michael Keaton's career
Least necessary movie: Wish I Was Here
Cool director turned lame: Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game)
Lame director turned cool: Joe & Anthony Russo (Captain America: The Winter Soldier)
Director who lost me: George Clooney (The Monuments Men)
Director who found me again: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Birdman)
Best movie I really didn't want to see: Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones
Worst movie I really wanted to see: Calvary
Funniest move I thought would be bad: The Interview
Least funny movie I thought would be good: Sex Tape
Funniest movie that had no business being funny: Edge of Tomorrow
Scariest horror: The Babadook
Least scary horror: Wolf Creek 2
Best ending: Whiplash
Worst ending: Nymphomaniac Vol. II
WTF ending (good): Enemy
WTF ending (bad): The Rover
Ending I didn't see: Paddington
Best final shot (bad movie): The Immigrant
Lamest final shot (bad movie): Nightcrawler
Best final shot (good movie): Under the Skin
Lamest final shot (good movie): Gone Girl
Biggest disappointment relative to hype: Guardians of the Galaxy
Biggest surprise relative to negative hype: The Interview

Lights out, curtain down, show's over.

See you for the next one.

No comments: