From a purely fiscal standpoint, 2014 sucked. Box office totals are likely to finish at the lowest amount since 2008, which I’m sure makes everyone feel real bad for the billionaires in Hollywood. For those of us who could care less about opening day multipliers and staged platform theatrical releases, 2014 was doggone great! Sorry to use such language, but I’m darn tickled at how things wound up. Now let me tell you why.
Miss (and Mister) Independent
Honestly, the last few years have been so-so at best for indie and art house fare. Aside from one or two standouts, ho-hum and humdrum had been the name of the game. This year sports several flat-out breakthrough hits, one of which is blatantly charging at Best Picture. Birdman is the odds-on favorite for Oscar glory but will likely be joined by Boyhood and possibly Whiplash or Foxcatcher. Even films with no sealed envelope aspirations have much to brag about. Frank was a gleefully weird exploration of the artistic process. The Signal was unapologetic sci-fi goodness. Hell, I unabashedly loved a Wes Anderson film (The Grand Budapest Hotel) for the first time in ages. Does this mean I’m finally in the cool kids club?
Ladies Brought the Noise
The inexcusable and irritating lack of opportunities for women in film remained a constant this past year. However, when given an opportunity, the talented few knocked it out of the park. Writer/director Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child featured a killer performance from Jenny Slate and marked a high point in honest storytelling involving the subject of abortion. The Babadook, from first-time writer/director Jennifer Kent, wasn’t just the best horror movie of the year; it was the best horror movie in a decade. Lucy proved that owners of ladyparts not named Angelina Jolie can also open an action movie to huge numbers. Speaking of Ms. Jolie, Maleficent was a big ole box office hit without any dudely help of note. And, ironically, in a movie called Boyhood, Patricia Arquette gives one of the most genuine and nuanced performances of the year. More of this in 2015 please.
You Can’t Keep a Superman Down
The popular thought is that comic book movies can’t stay hot forever. Wanna bet? Captain America: The Winter Soldier, X-Men: Days of Future Past and The Amazing Spider-man 2 all crossed $200 million. The year’s top performer, Guardians of the Galaxy, didn’t even have character familiarity aiding it. Lots of people who don’t read comic books know who Spider-man is, but how many normals out there were amped and excited to finally see live-action versions of Groot, the talking tree, and Rocket, the homicidal raccoon? The Marvel brand is still as hot as they come, as just slapping their logo onto a property is a license to print money. Surely, there has to be a point of oversaturation, when comic book movies hit a number so high they exceed demand. That number is eleventy billion.
When is a box office bomb a blessing? When it sends a message. The Expendables 3 didn’t tank just because a copy was leaked on the Internet. It tanked because we’re done with Sly Stalone’s silly shenanigans. Sex Tape’s fizzle may finally help people see what I’ve been pointing out for decades: Cameron Diaz is not good at comedy…or talking…or anything. Seth McFarlane’s A Million Ways to Die in the West failed miserably, which couldn’t have happened to a nicer horribly offensive trainwreck. The Giver was a reminder that we don’t need to adapt literally every young adult property ever created. Perhaps most importantly, Transcendence’s lackluster haul may finally serve notice to Johnny Depp that he can stay in France as long as he’d like.
Let’s Hear It for New Voices
Few things are as exciting as when a previously unknown creative human steps up and says “Look at me! I make good things!” The aforementioned Gillian Robespierre did that with Obvious Child, a movie that was as sophisticated as it was hilarious. Writer/director Justin Simien turned Dear White People from a Kickstarter project into the most important movie about racial dialogue in ages. Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler was downright David Fincher-esque and featured the gnarliest performance from Jake Gyllenhaal ever. But it’s the arrival of Jennifer Kent that is most potentially game changing. Horror is a genre that often lends itself to violent misogyny. Even when it doesn’t, most entries in the genre are uninspired and schlocky. The Babadook was scary, smart, subtle and stunning. It’s unclear if Kent plans on staying with this genre or expanding into others, but wherever she goes, I’m following.
And Keep It Going for New Stars
Several folks cemented themselves as what Joe Biden would call “big effin’ deals” this year. Chris Pratt went from loveable schlub on “Parks and Rec” to big-time movie guy with Guardians of the Galaxy. The trailer for Jurassic World didn’t hurt him neither, as it reminded everyone there is more Pratt where that came from. Benedict Cumberbatch has always enjoyed a devoted cult following. And by “devoted cult following” I mean fangirls on the internets would physically devour him if given the opportunity. This year, he broke into the mainstream with a sure-to-be-nominated performance in The Imitation Game and the announcement that he is going to be Doctor Strange for Marvel Studios. As mentioned above, Marvel stuff is so popular that they haven’t begun shooting the film yet and I’m pretty sure it already passed $300 million domestic. Finally, Rosamund Pike has been in good things for years but when Gone Girl came around, her career went with it. All but assured of an Oscar nod, look for Pike to only continue her upward trajectory.
Perpetually forgotten and rarely seen at most megaplexes, almost every year features great documentaries. That said, 2014 stepped its documentary game up. The Overnighters was a stunning look at a modern day “Grapes of Wrath” unfolding in North Dakota that featured one hell of a twist ending. Life Itself, which explored the life of Roger Ebert, reduced me to a blubbery manbaby. The way the film used Ebert’s love and passion as a backbone elevated beyond a simple biographical endeavor and into tear-jerker levels. Citizenfour, the Edward Snowden documentary, is getting so much love that rumor has it they are considering a push for a Best Picture nomination and not simply a Best Documentary nod. That would be the celebratory cherry on top of the delicious sundae of documentaries we got to devour this year.
I’m Living in the Future so the Present is My Past
Here’s the thing, I didn’t want to start with this, because 2014 was really good…but 2015 is gonna be so sick, y’all. You like big-budget blockbuster awesomeness? How does a new Bond movie (SPECTRE), a new Jurassic Park movie (Jurassic World), a new Terminator movie (Terminator: Genisys), a new Avengers movie (Avengers: Age of Ultron) and a new freakin’ Star Wars movie (The Force Awakens) sound? Like your cinema a little more artistic? I present to you Beasts of No Nation, from “True Detective” director Cary Fukunaga, While We’re Young from director Noah Baumbach, Queen of the Desert by Werner Herzog, Freezing People is Easy by Errol Morris and, most exciting to me, an unknown movie from Benh Zeitlin, the director of my favorite movie, Beasts of the Southern Wild. So, yeah, thanks for all you did, 2014, but don’t let the door hit ya on the way out.