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2014: The Year in Film

By Preston Wilder

OK, first of all there’s this:

  1. TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION
  2. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY
  3. MALEFICENT
  4. X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST
  5. CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER
  6. THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2
  7. DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES
  8. THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY – PART 1
  9. INTERSTELLAR
  10. HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2

Those are the year’s top 10 films at the global box-office – a predictable list, made up largely of sequels. Hollywood studios fretted that 2014 wasn’t a banner year, with only the top film making over $1 billion. (They should also have fretted that their box-office champ, the fourth Transformers, was a film no-one seemed to like very much.)

Also predictable – but intriguing – were the usual end-of-year, end-of-cinema laments by respected pundits. The best of them, a snappy but heartfelt jeremiad, came from journalist Mark Harris at Grantland.com (http://grantland.com/features/2014-hollywood-blockbusters-franchises-box-office) who cited Marvel’s announcement of a ‘Phase 3’ – comic-book superhero films to be released between 2016 and 2020 – as the year’s most significant movie event. It’s not just the preponderance of comic-book franchises (and franchises in general), wrote Mr. Harris, listing the 70 (!) sequels and franchise instalments due to hit our screens in the next five years (these are the ones already announced; “the actual number will, of course, be much higher, probably more than 150”). It’s not just the fact that the same ideas get recycled over and over – it’s also that the studios now make five-year plans, confident that audiences can be milked more or less indefinitely. “Think of how old you’ll be in 2020,” urges the article. “Do you imagine that your taste will be exactly what it is today? Hollywood profoundly hopes the answer is yes.”

Harris’ article is worth reading by anyone even vaguely interested in the future of films. (Another great quote: “Optimists usually say lighten up, because, after all, good movies always find a way to get through. But here’s the thing: They don’t. The evidence that good movies survive is the fact that every year brings good movies, which is a bit like saying that climate change is a hoax because it’s nice out today.”) Yet it’s also true that he dwells much too heavily on Hollywood – which, as everyone knows, isn’t where you find good movies these days. Probably the best riposte to Harris came from Richard Brody in the New Yorker (http://www.newyorker.com/culture/richard-brody/no-genius-system), who pointed to the riches on offer once you venture beyond the multiplex, even staying in America where the independent sector is currently in mid-boom.

“Harris seems to be writing in an echo chamber – as if a movie that doesn’t open on three thousand screens, doesn’t cost a hundred million dollars, and doesn’t make a hundred million, doesn’t really count. He’s wrong,” chided Brody. “Movies,” he concluded, “are wilder, more daring, more original than ever.”

So is cinema on its deathbed, or in rude health? No-one really knows – but the best-of-year lists keep on coming. Here are the top 10 films as selected by Empire, a mainstream publication that likes its blockbusters but isn’t above quality dramas or thrillers (as long as they’re lively, and visually flamboyant) now and then:

  1. BOYHOOD
  2. NIGHTCRAWLER
  3. THE WOLF OF WALL STREET
  4. INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS
  5. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY
  6. EDGE OF TOMORROW
  7. THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL
  8. WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS
  9. DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES
  10. HER

Just two titles from the big box-office list – as well as a reminder that 2014 is slightly different in Europe due to later release dates, three of these films (Nos. 3, 4 and 10) having come out in 2013 for American critics. (Then again, No. 8 – a New Zealand horror comedy by Jemaine Clement, from the very funny Flight of the Conchords – isn’t out in America yet.) Most of the films on Empire’s list screened at the Cyprus multiplex, our own 2014 being divided between blockbusters and last year’s Oscar titles, most of which came out in the short February-March window when adults are admitted to the multiplex.

That’s not all, of course. Cyprus Film Days (in April) and the continuing good work of the Friends of the Cinema Society both contributed to the past 12 months. When I think of 2014, though, I think of moments like Chiwetel Ejiofor hanging from a tree branch, his feet barely scraping the ground, while plantation life carries on around him in 12 Years a Slave; or Joaquin Phoenix talking to his voice-operated phone – while people around him do the same with their own phones – in the pastel-coloured womb that’s the world of Her; or Leonardo DiCaprio’s drug-fuelled slapstick lurch from car to house in The Wolf of Wall Street, or (even better) Matthew McConaughey’s classic turn as a cynical mentor – “A fugazi, a fugahzee” – in the same movie. All ‘officially’ from 2013 but hey, who’s counting?

Other moments at the cinema this year? Lucy meeting Lucy – superwoman and pithecanthropus, respectively – in Lucy, a fizzy surprise in late summer. The arching staircase, like the two halves of Tower Bridge, in The Grand Budapest Hotel (or just any shot in that delectable torte of a film). Drax the Destroyer exasperating the other Guardians of the Galaxy as they argue over what to do next (“We already established that!” “When did we establish that?” “Like three seconds ago!” “Oh … I wasn’t listening then, I was thinking of something else”). Bad Cop and Good Cop as two faces of the same figurine in The Lego Movie, a lively hodgepodge that became the year’s most acclaimed Hollywood comedy (“Cut them off! Now!” barks Bad Cop; “…or whenever you can,” adds Good Cop). Matthew McConaughey in another dimension, suddenly engulfed by the truth (“All this while, I thought they chose me…”) in Interstellar. The weals on Charlotte Gainsbourg’s behind in the shocking Nymphomaniac, Vol. II. A train spewing paper instead of steam in The Boy With the Cuckoo-Clock Heart. And the whole organic feel of Boyhood (not a moment, I realise) as an unformed dreamy little boy morphs into a sober, artistic young man.

2014 was the year of Boyhood. It remains to be seen whether it’ll win the Best Picture Oscar or whether the Academy will go for one of the worthy ‘true stories’ – The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, Selma, Unbroken – that Hollywood tends to mistake for important filmmaking, but it certainly topped every end-of-year poll and won almost every critics’ award. The annual poll run by the Village Voice, asking 85 critics from across America for their choices, is perhaps the best aggregator of this year’s consensus. Here’s the Top 10:

  1. BOYHOOD
  2. UNDER THE SKIN
  3. THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL
  4. ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE
  5. GOODBYE TO LANGUAGE 3-D
  6. TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT
  7. THE IMMIGRANT
  8. INHERENT VICE
  9. WHIPLASH
  10. GONE GIRL

A couple of ‘official’ 2013 films here as well (notably Scarlett Johansson – what a year she had! – as a slinky alien in Under the Skin) – but note also Goodbye to Language, the year’s most striking highbrow success story. In a year when our local K-Cineplex (temporarily?) stopped showing films in 3-D, the format having gradually degenerated from a draw into a nuisance, 84-year-old Jean-Luc Godard showed what a true filmmaker could do with 3-D, inspiring the audience in Cannes to a mid-film round of applause at one of his extraordinary shots. The only problem, of course, is that we in Cyprus will only ever see it in 2-D, if at all, Godard and the multiplex – the only theatrical venue which can afford to install 3-D equipment – existing in mutually-exclusive worlds. Blame the system.

Lots of American films on this list (only two non-English-language titles, in fact), a testament to the strength of the US industry – though it’s worth recalling that Mark Harris article, which notes that many of the more interesting American films depend on the largesse of independent producers like billionaire heiress Megan Ellison. Special shout-out to Marion Cotillard, who stars in Nos. 6 and 7 – though the Oscar is almost certain to go to Julianne Moore for her Alzheimer’s patient in Still Alice, the kind of role that invariably wins Oscars. Once again, blame the system.

One more list to finish off with – fairly similar to the Village Voice poll but more international, this being the poll that UK magazine Sight & Sound holds every year, asking 112 contributors (critics, programmers and festival directors) from all over the world for their choices.

Here, again, is Boyhood, plus Godard, Under the Skin and The Grand Budapest Hotel – but also Winter Sleep, the three-hour Turkish drama that carried off the Golden Palm at Cannes. Here’s Ida, the black-and-white Polish film that swept the European Film Awards. Here’s The Tribe, the unique Ukrainian gut-punch about deaf-mute delinquents that’s filmed entirely in unsubtitled sign language. Just below the Top 10 you can find Citizenfour, the documentary about Edward Snowden, or Mr. Turner, Mike Leigh’s biography of  Romantic landscape painter J.M.W. Turner. (Full results may be found at http://www.bfi.org.uk/best-films-2014, while the Village Voice poll is at http://www.villagevoice.com/filmpoll). Everyone has their own take on movies in 2014 – but these films show, at least, that the artform isn’t dead, despite the best efforts of Hollywood’s five-year plans and superhero franchises. What more can we ask for?

  1. BOYHOOD
  2. GOODBYE TO LANGUAGE 3-D
  3. (tie) LEVIATHAN
  4. (tie) HORSE MONEY
  5. UNDER THE SKIN
  6. THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL
  7. WINTER SLEEP
  8. THE TRIBE
  9. (tie) IDA
  10. (tie) JAUJA

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