2014: A Most Mediocre Year

The odds of discovering gems like Boyhood felt thinner in 2014 than they have for quite some time.

The Interview was almost certainly not going to be in contention for anything in 2014, whether awards or places in people’s funny bones. As my colleague Rebecca Pahle over at Film Journal International put it, the movie is probably best skipped by people who “have a visceral hatred of jokes about things going into and coming out of butts.” Nevertheless, there was something about the entire hacking contretemps (on a non-geopolitical level, at least) that feels representative of where the film industry is today. Sony acted initially with brazen attitude, signing on to a comedy that never would have been contemplated, let alone released, by a major studio 15 years ago. They then folded so swiftly you could almost feel the breeze. Desperation mixed with an overabundance of caution is not a good combination for any industry. You can see both of those attributes everywhere in this year’s mostly pallid offerings.

There’s a reason that the critical consensus, such as it is anymore, formed around Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. It wasn’t the irresistible 12-years-in-the-making hook or the skillfully executed marketing campaign, though those elements certainly didn’t hurt. After years of adding to his Before trilogy and more straightforward work like School of Rock, Linklater returned to the more structurally adventurous films of his early career. This is the year’s one film besides Birdman that actually seemed to be showing us something truly new and unexpected.

When asked recently about what she had seen this year that she liked, a friend said immediately, “Boyhood. (Long pause) Guardians of the Galaxy?” That response isn’t troubling for the films themselves. If more of the films grinding off Marvel’s assembly line had even a third of Guardians’ charm, the takeover of our theaters by superheroes would be less onerous. What makes that statement so symptomatic of where we stand at the end of 2014, film-wise, is the sense that there are a couple easy choices and then a long drop-off to the rest of the year’s pallid offerings.

What makes this situation so galling is that there were plenty of opportunities for it to go the other way. The year saw new work from a breadth of reliable filmmakers, from George Clooney to Christopher Nolan, Clint Eastwood, and J.C. Chandor. One after the other, their films failed to measure up. Initially a late 2013 awards contender bumped to the February graveyard, Monuments Men started the year off in poor fashion. This was seemingly tailor-made for the sort of broadly entertaining and generally thoughtful middle-brow adult drama that the studios rarely bother with anymore but Clooney has made a commendable career out of. But the film’s hacky story about scholars saving art works from the Nazis not only made a mockery of World War II’s true Monuments Men, but was so unforgivably self-satisfied and dull that it couldn’t even find anything for Bill Murray to do. This is the kind of film that Ben Affleck will be making in 20 years if he isn’t careful. If only John Sturges could have gotten to the story back in 1962 and convinced Steve McQueen and Paul Newman to star.

The once-reliable Clint Eastwood managed to ruin a couple of worthwhile projects in the same year year. His entirely off-key rendition of Jersey Boys took an already mediocre but hook-heavy musical about some guys from Jersey who make it big and turn it into an odd Goodfellas wannabe that didn’t realize its music was about the only the show had going for it. The long and meandering American Sniper was theoretically based on the autobiography of Chris Kyle, who’s credited with more kills than any other American military sniper. But Bradley Cooper has yet to prove that he can do more than charm as a lead, and the fantastical script invents so much out of whole cloth that it feels more like an “inspired by” than “based on a true story” situation.

For a long time, the key to Christopher Nolan was knowing that his most interesting work came in between Batman films. That changed with Interstellar, in which the normally agile filmmaker was finally overtaken by the pomposity that crept into his work after The Dark Knight. Mashing together a climate-collapse setting with a physics-shredding Kubrickian jaunt into the outer reaches of the cosmos, it squanders its potential on a gloomy family drama whose characters never resonate and end up dragging the film down. There are scattered moments where Nolan recaptures the resonant thrills of a genre-defier like Inception, but more often than not it’s a drag of a film that leaves you wishing you could just watch Contact again.

With the end-of-year release of the long-hyped A Most Violent Year, it would seem that the film was a shoo-in for some kind of well-deserved adulation. But Chandor’s deliberate story about an ambitious small businessman discovering the true price of capitalism in a point-of-collapse New York circa 1981 is not precisely required viewing, nor is it the kind of stealthy character drama that delivers rich dividends without the benefit of an easily dramatic story. Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain turn in sharp and wiry (if sometimes mannered) performances, as does generally everybody in a Chandor film. But it’s an airless construction that promises more than it even comes close to delivering. After two films that one could easily say the same thing about, it might be time to reconsider Chandor’s place in ranks of promising American filmmakers.

None of the films mentioned above were awful, precisely (with maybe the exception of Monuments Men). But they were each of them uninspiring efforts from professionals who one would think should know better; and that’s without even getting into the stiff and one-note bores that were Foxcatcher and Whiplash. In some ways, the prevalence of inspiring films is a more distressing trend that all the truly disastrous ones that slunk in and out of theaters over the year, from the decadent event-flick lassitude of Lucy and Godzilla to more excruciatingly ill-prepared junkheaps like The Gambler and The Judge. Each year gives us pileups of drek like this one did, sometimes more so.

There were certainly films to delight and entertain. Rob Marshall’s Into the Woods did Sondheim proud and then some. Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel showed that it’s still possible for an old pro like Ralph Fiennes to make everyone in attendance think that whatever they paid for their ticket it was too little. But films like this are to be expected. We assume Marshall and Anderson can put on a good show; people who completely tuned out on Chicago or The Royal Tennenbaums should be checked for a heartbeat.

Once again, we were faced with a year in which feature films failed utterly to grapple with the world around. As usual, the realities of the world around us were left to the documentaries: The Kill Team, about a thrill-kill massacre of Afghan civilians by American soldiers, and Happy Valley, on the Penn State scandal, being just a couple of the better and more lacerating entries in that field. The only narrative film to deal with America’s undeclared and seemingly eternal drone war was Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which used it primarily as an excuse to show more massive hover-carriers like in The Avengers. Ava DuVernay’s excellent and unconventional Selma is one of the few exceptions to this ducking of reality, but even its immediacy is buffered by being a historical drama.

A year that produces surprises like Selma, Boyhood, and Guardians of the Galaxy shows that going to the theater is still not a complete waste of time. But whether because of a misalignment of the cinematic stars or an industry that hasn’t managed to right itself in the face of increasing competition, the odds of discovering gems like those felt thinner in 2014 than they have for quite some time.

Splash image taken from the poster of A Most Violent Year