Bombast: 2014: The Year We Made Content
I’m not late; everyone else was early. And what’s a “year,” anyhow? As we deal with it in end-of-year list-making, it’s the domestic release calendar, a construct imposed by distributors and exhibitors, a business/PR cycle (awards-season boom, January bust, endless summer) that runs through the same annual revolutions. What if, instead of trying to rank the best movies released from January 1 to December 31, we stood in unified dissent against the tyranny of the cycle, and made up our own year instead, looking at the movies released between June 1 of the current year and June 1 of the previous year, for example? Or if we just took advantage of the start of a New Year to talk about what happened in 1928 instead?
The Fall of the House of Usher
At the very least, I’m going to take my sweet time, and while the cream of criticism have been in Park City, Utah, marveling at the veritable Ali Baba’s Cave of indie gems which we’ll see through 2015, I’ve been scraping up the lees of the year that was. Looking at a list of every feature film which had a weeklong theatrical run in New York City in 2014, I find that I have seen approximately 100 of the titles listed, the total number of which must run in excess of 2,000. Adding to this films seen at festivals, both those which have since had or will have a theatrical run and those which are doomed never to find a distributor, the number of 2014 titles that I saw climbs to something like 175. I will also admit to having taken thin-slice samples of several well-loved movies, which will remain nameless, before giving them up as lost causes. As Ernest Hemingway once wrote: “I do not have to eat an entire bowl of scabs to know they are scabs.”
Based on these numbers, the men and women who manage “the biz” would find me a model citizen, if I were a civilian, but I write about film vocationally, and among my professional brethren, my numbers are probably pretty lousy. (This goes doubly for what I earned in 2014.) In my defense I will say that the 175 movies, give or take, constitute around one quarter of my overall viewing. And given that the movies theatrically distributed in 2014 make up a tiny fraction of those that have been distributed in the century previous, new movies are still disproportionately well-represented in my viewing habits.
What follows is a list of movies that played commercially in 2014 which I saw and, at this late date, feel have contributed something to my life, either moments of pleasure (expected, unexpected) or things that are interesting or troubling to think about. I prefer this criterion to filling an arbitrary number of slots—a Top 5 or Top 10 or Top 20, say—which can either force the elevation of undeserving material or, conversely, be limiting. Look at 1946, for God’s sake! There were, that I know of, not 10 wholly good films released in 1946. Look at 1971! Every single movie released in 1971 is a masterpiece, or near-masterpiece.* I’ve arranged my list alphabetically rather than trying to qualitatively rank the movies on it. This is because ranking (or being given a numerical limit) tends to activate certain prejudices with regards to what constitutes importance, resulting in low movies (comedy, genre fare) being bumped in deference to movies whose seriousness—in subject matter and in approach—is more self-evident. Given that these middle-range movies, as much as the visionary or sui generis films, are essential to the continuing enjoyment that I take in the medium, I’d prefer not to make it a matter of either/or. There are many different categories of value in movies, and where possible, I prefer not to rate one over another. I suppose I could develop a bracket system, like Richard Brody, or something like Dan Sallitt’s elaborate color-coding system, whose mysteries scholars have struggled to unravel for years, but simplicity seems to me best, and so Dumb and Dumber To will stand on equal footing with Stray Dogs, which is as it ought to be. So after all of that ado, let there be no further ado:
(Text continues below)
Abuse of Weakness (Catherine Breillat)
Actress (Robert Greene)
Alan Partridge (Declan Lowney)
American Sniper (Clint Eastwood)
Art and Craft (Sam Cullman, Jennifer Grausman, and Mark Becker)
Boyhood (Richard Linklater)
Dumb and Dumber To (Bobby and Peter Farrelly)
The Expendables 3 (Patrick Hughes)
Fury (David Ayer)
The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson)
The Guest (Adam Wingard)
Hellaware (Michael Bilandic)
The Homesman (Tommy Lee Jones)
The Immigrant (James Gray)
It Felt Like Love (Eliza Hittman)
Level Five (Chris Marker, 1997)
Listen Up Philip (Alex Ross Perry)
Manakamana (Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez)
Muppets Most Wanted (James Bobin)
National Gallery (Frederick Wiseman)
Non-Stop (Jaume Collet-Serra)
Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch)
The Overnighters (Jesse Moss)
Pompeii (Paul W.S. Anderson)
Soft in the Head (Nathan Silver)
Stations of the Elevated (Manfred Kirchheimer, 1981)
Step Up: All In (Trish Sie)
Stray Dogs (Tsai Ming-Liang)
Venus in Fur (Roman Polanski)
Winter Sleep (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
There are a handful of outliers here, which is to say movies that I have not seen appear with much frequency on other lists. Alan Partridge is here because, ever since a friend in Oakland played me a bootleg VHS of Knowing Me Knowing You with Alan Partridge in 2001, Steve Coogan’s chat show host turned Norwich DJ has given me more consistent horse-laughs than any other single character in whatever medium. I held no such fondness for Expendables franchise, the first two films of which ranged from mediocre to god-awful, though the third (and presumably final) movie has a humdinger of a grand finale, and comeback parts for both the immortal Wesley Snipes and Racist Ass Mellie Gibson. It, along with Fury, Non-Stop, Pompeii, Step Up: All In, and The Guest, make up my “underrated genre exercise” column. I would not describe any of them as “batshit,” believe all of them are good and true movies, and am aggressively humorless on this point. The last-named might make a helluva double-bill with American Sniper, while Abuse of Weakness and Venus in Fur also pair nicely, two brash and unapologetic studies in power dynamics for a duet, the latter of which, with its audition premise, outstrips Alain Resnais’s final meditation on life and theater, and is altogether a more authoritative artistic statement than the other movie made this year by a surviving New Waver. And since we’re talking about power dynamics: I beg the observer to note that I have, according to my custom, overrated movies by New York City–based independent filmmakers who I know personally, and who have at one point or another flattered my boundless ego.
I’ll supplement the above list with features of merit that I saw on the festival circuit in 2014 which, as of the year’s end, hadn’t been theatrically released, because they were an essential part—maybe the essential part—of how I experienced the year in movies. These include: The Airstrip—Decampment of Modernism, Part III (Heinz Emigholz), Amour Fou (Jessica Hausner), Buzzard (Joel Potrykus), The Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas), Eden (Mia Hansen-Løve), Hard to Be a God (Aleksei German), Heaven Knows What (Josh and Benny Safdie), Horse Money (Pedro Costa), Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (David and Nathan Zellner), Letters to Max (Eric Baudelaire), Living Stars (Gastón Duprat and Mariano Cohn), The Mend (John Magary), Ne me quitte pas (Sabine Lubbe Bakker and Niels van Koevorden), Our Terrible Country (Mohammad Ali Atassi), Pasolini (Abel Ferrara), La Sapienza (Eugène Green), Timbuktu (Abderrahmane Sissako), Welcome to New York (Abel Ferrara), and Wild Canaries (“Lawrence” Michael Levine).
In particular, certain moments of Timbuktu, released in New York this week, have been ricocheting around my mind since I saw it last fall—and not only “in light of recent events,” to use perhaps my least-favorite arts journo cliché this side of “as relevant now as ever,” as though eternals such as, in this instance, human brutality and stupidity, had some sell-by date. (A line from Horse Money which has also been echoing in my headspace—“We’ll keep falling from the third floor”—explicitly addresses the matter of fucked-ness as a perennial.) Similarly “timely” is Our Terrible Country, which follows dissident writer Yassin al-Haj Saleh fleeing his native Syria’s frying-pan-to-fire situation, as the despotic reign of President Bashar al-Assad gradually gives way to new bosses in the Islamic State—rarely have I seen a movie better capture the poignant stench of curdled political hope. This is not to say that proximity to outrage is any kind of criterion for inclusion on this annex list. The nearest claim that Wild Canaries has to relevance is as a blackly comic commentary on the New York City real-estate market, though really it’s all a pretext for zippy, irascible line readings and some good bits involving a neck brace. Along with Buzzard, which does nice work with Cheetos and a treadmill, it gave me hope that the art of the sight gag is not entirely extinct. (Wild Canaries opens in New York at the end of February, Buzzard in early March.)
Last and certainly not least: short subjects, too little acknowledged in this sort of reckoning. I find that a good short can provide me every bit as much intellectual and aesthetic stimuli as a feature, with the added advantage of not wasting nearly so much of my time, which there are so many other ways to squander.** Given that there isn’t really such a thing as a proper “release date” for shorts, I’ve included works dated to 2013 and ’14, using the criterion of “it’s new if it was new to me.”
brouillard – passage #14 (Alexandre Larose)
Buffalo Juggalos (Scott Cummings)
Cool as Ice 2 (MayerLeyva)
Crème 21 (Eve Heller)
Cutaway (Kazik Radwanski)
Ennui, Ennui and Taprobana [above] (Gabriel Abrantes)
Hector.LA (Nick Corirossi)
Modlitwa (A Prayer) [above], Wieczór (An Evening) and Dalsza Modlitwa (Another Prayer) (Sofia Bohdanowicz)
The New-Ark (Amiri Baraka, 1968)
Off-White Tulips (Aykan Safoğlu)
Panchromes I, II, III (T. Marie)
Person to Person (Dustin Guy Defa)
Relief (Calum Walter)
Silk Tatters (Gina Telaroli)
Swimming in Your Skin Again (Terence Nance)
Two Museums (Heinz Emigholz)
The titles I’ve listed aren’t necessarily those of films that I embrace unconditionally, but whatever issues I do have with them are ones that I care to tangle with, because my basic response to these movies was strong enough to make the effort seem worthwhile. (There are also among them maybe a half dozen titles that flat-out touch the superlative which I throw my hands up before. I am of course referring to Muppets Most Wanted.) Broadly speaking, the films that I’ve named here are those which set out to do a thing, succeed for the most part in doing either that thing or something else, and—here the illusion of objectivity falls away, as it necessarily must—elect to do something that I happen to believe is worth doing in the first place. In the case of, say, Stray Dogs, American Sniper, Horse Money, or Hard to Be a God, to cite four movies being grouped for the first and probably last time, the achievement feels epochal, vast, at times even oppressive, like a summation of the work that came before. In the case of the shorts, the achievement might be that of the feuilletonist, the ambition anecdotal, but the satisfaction of seeing the right material matched to the right vessel is in both cases the same. (I have not seen Ignatiy Vishnevetsky’s Ellie Lumme, but have nothing but #respect for its spectacularly awkward 42-minute runtime.) The 25-minute Cool as Ice 2 has Vanilla Ice narrating his experience as the last survivor of an exploded earth (“there was no warmth but the stale light of the stars”); Person to Person is 18 minutes of a dude telling some other dudes about trying to shoo away a hungover girl who passed out at a party at his apartment. These are works that precisely establish their parameters, and work beautifully within them.
Missing are the films that I failed entirely to see (the vast majority of them)*** because of apathy, indifference, or some degree of inborn antipathy, or those films which I did see and, while watching them, experienced apathy, indifference, or some degree of active antipathy. There are also a handful of movies which, however much I may have admired some individual component parts, looked just plain wrong when I tried to wedge them into a Best of the Year list. I am as strident a Clint Eastwood apologist as anyone living today, but even I have to cop to the detractor’s claim that it’s glaringly obvious when Clintus is disinterested in some part of the property he’s handling—and when, as in Four Seasons musical Jersey Boys, that “part” is the group’s front man, Frankie Valli, mounting a full-throated defense becomes a tricky proposition. (I gave it a shot anyways.) Selma certainly would’ve been a contender without dreadful, derailing work by Tom Wilkinson and Tim Roth, though I don’t think even editing Joanna Newsom out of Inherent Vice (or giving her narration to, say, Barbara Luddy or Bea Benaderet, both late of Los Angeles) would be enough to help me surmount my basic antipathy to Paul Thomas Anderson’s ongoing history of Southern California through juxtaposed comic-book iconography. (Albert Serra, winner of the Festival Circuit Manqué of the Year Award, takes a similar face-off approach to Romanticism and Rationalism in his Story of My Death, overlong yet decidedly puny next to Jessica Hausner’s Amour Fou or Eugène Green’s La Sapienza, which explore some of the same philosophical-historical territory through radically different means.) In other comic-book news, I unreservedly adored the first hour-and-a-half of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, though I cannot at this late date distinguish its last act from that of Guardians of the Galaxy in my mind—something to do with planetoid-sized airships exploding, I think?
The words of the Louvin Brothers—“Others find pleasure in things I despise”—proved as true as ever in 2014. The burgeoning cult of John Wick is clearly an attempt to gaslight me by critical culture at large, and I will not succumb to madness. The likes of Wick, Snowpiercer, and neo-erotic thriller Gone Girl constitute a mini-revival of attitudes and aesthetics that belong in a time capsule marked “1997” and I must stoically endure them as I now endure hearing Blues Traveler’s “Run-Around” and tracks from Offspring’s Americana album in public spaces. One generation’s FM radio traumas are another’s no-strings-attached pleasure, a fact of which I was rudely reminded upon seeing a band I admire covering Sugar Ray’s “When It’s Over.”
The band in question are the Tweens, and their self-titled album is one of a handful that I listened to multiple times in 2014. Also on this list: Freddie Gibbs + Madlib, Piñata; Pure X, Angel; Migos, No Label II and Rich Nigga Timeline; Afghan Whigs, Do to the Beast; Run the Jewels, Run the Jewels 2; Iceage, Plowing Into the Field of Love; Chief Keef Back from the Dead 2; Jerome LOL, Deleted/Fool EP. Honors for the most meaningless thing that I saw in 2014 go to Meredith Graves of the zero-zilch-nada band Perfect Pussy performing a “timely” cover of The Strokes’ “New York City Cops” at the VICE Media 20th anniversary party shortly after a grand jury decided not to indict officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner, the identifiable low-point of a year in “brave status update” culture. It was totally as relevant now as ever.
To round things out, the best television of 2014 was seasons 1 to 5 of Cheers, which I watched on Netflix. The more flapdoodle that I hear about TV’s Golden Age, the more convinced I am that the sitcom is the medium’s highest attainment, playing to its strengths (long-term character development, conveyance of shtick unreliant on visual grace), and conveying a humane, relatably Sisyphean view of the world, rather than cliffhanger teases and dreamlife fantasies of power. (The even plane of the sitcom makes its moments of drama stand out in high relief: the Sam and Diane breakup at the end of Season 2 is practically Strindberg.) Otherwise, television continued in its role as kindling to fuel “the conversation,” an idiotic babel inimical in every possible way to art. “Everything’s a stupid social issue,” as Mathieu Amalric’s director character raves in Venus in Fur not long before receiving his well-deserved comeuppance—a fate which I dearly hope is due to me as 2015 rolls along.
* Only very slight exaggeration.
** I have, by way of Netflix, recently discovered the worst program of all time—the 2012 History Channel miniseries The Men Who Built America, a work of shameless oligarch worship in which present-day titans of industry appear as talking heads to vindicate and valorize the robber barons who emerged in the United States in the years after the Civil War. The series’ identifiable high/low point comes when Carnegie strongman Henry Clay Frick, having survived an assassination attempt by Alexander Berkman, turns the tables and pulls a UFC-style ground-and-pound on his assailant. Fuck yeah dogg whoop his ass!
*** At the date of this writing, the list includes Belle, The Blue Room, CITIZENFOUR, Dear White People, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, Dormant Beauty, Exhibition, A Field in England, Foxcatcher, Get On Up, Jealousy, Jimmy P., The Last of the Unjust, Leviathan, Li’l Quinquin, Love Is Strange, Miss Julie, Night Moves, Norte, the End of History, Le Paradis, Starred Up, Stranger by the Lake, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, Tip Top, Two Days, One Night, Under the Skin, Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, A Walk Among the Tombstones, Whiplash, and Why Don’t You Play in Hell?