by Benn Ray
A week or two ago - in the media no-man's land that is the holiday season, desperate for some kind of news, any kind of news, I turned the TV on to a 24-hour cable news network and the daytime show had some self-described media/movie expert on, trying to explain what happened in 2014. See, the year's total box office take was down from previous years.
This expert had not interepreted the decline as an indicator that Hollywood had a rather lackluster release schedule and a lot of not very good movies for 2014. He didn't seem to be thinking that the underperformance of certain blockbusters might have had something to do with the actual quality of the movies.
This knucklehead, instead, used this data to promote his own pro-gadget agenda. He glibly said, "I think this proves that young people don't care about going to the movies to watch films anymore. They are perfectly happy watching movies on their tablets, their phones and their laptops." Sigh... this again.
Really? Okay. So then, following this techidiot's logic, if 2015's box office surpasses 2014's, then that means no one actually wants to watch movies on their tables, laptops and phones ever again right? And he'll never be invited back on television to analyze that which he clearly doesn't understand? Fat chance.
And just how likely is it that 2015 will surpass 2014 in box office revenue? Well, pending North Korea's approval, here are just a handful of films scheduled for this year: Avengers: Age of Ultron, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Terminator: Genisys, Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight, Ridley Scott's The Martian, Richard Linklater's sorta sequel to Dazed & Confused called That's What I'm Talking About, Fifty Shades of Grey, Mad Max: Fury Road, Guy Ritchie's The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Neill Blomkamp's Chappie, The Little Prince, A Hologram For The King, The Fantastic Four, Jupiter Ascending, Kingsman: The Secret Service, Ron Howard's Heart Of The Sea, Jurassic World, Ant-Man, The Hunger Games - Mockingjay Part 2, and so many more.
Not only does 2015 have more franchise reboots in a single year than I can recall, but it also has more movies based on comics and maybe even more major releases based on books than I can recall. And any way you shake it, Avengers + Star Wars has to make for a huge year.
This year I've seen about 100 movies. That's just under 2 movies a week, which I feel like is a pretty respectable average for a non-professional. And I know this because the online film journal Letterboxd has helped me track my movie consumption. In fact, you can follow my viewing and reviews here (should you like my reviews below, which were all taken from my Letterboxd diary). Plus it has a social media component where not only can you share your reviews via Facebook, Twitter, etc., but you can also follow friends, other critics and folks whose take on flicks you just like.
I was so enamored with Letterboxd, I tried to talk to a code/database-worker friend of mine who had taken a few months off the job to relax, to help me build one for books/comics/zines. His response, having a much more realistic understanding of the work involved, was, "Are you fucking nuts?" So, I guess that Atomic Books App still remains to be discovered. But I really wish there there was a site like this so I could diary/journal/track all my media consumption.
And speaking of consumption of movies, with the closing of Video Americain, Baltimore's last video rental store, we have made things much harder for ourselves, and we've made a pact with a beast in the process. We have, in fact, committed Hawthorne's Unpardonable Sin.
Let me explain. Because we are so lazy, because we are so enamored with the appeal of new gadgetry, we have ruined our ability actually see movies when we want to see them.
Because so many of us were so quick to rush to Netflix, iTunes and Amazon streaming (and I am no less guilty of this than anyone else), video stores evaporated. So now, let's say I want to see a specific movie that isn't available on a streaming service, I have no way to do that.
The worst video stores ever are Red Box and Netflix. Seriously, if Netflix streaming was a brick and mortar video store, it would have gone out of business already. So how does it stay open? Because so many of us pay our monthly crap fee just to spend so much of our time looking for something even remotely watchable that we haven't seen yet, that it feels like watching a movie. And of course, there's the feeling of almost watching the movie when you put something in your queue that is satisfying enough that we never actually bother watching what's in there. The Netflix Queue: where movies we didn't really want to see go to pretend like we've kinda seen 'em so we don't have to waste the time to watch them.
Or, we have to choose the lesser of two evils and stream from Amazon or iTunes (oh and by the way, there really isn't a lesser just like there also isn't a mom & pop live video streaming shop you can get movies from).
And this is where it becomes apparent just how fucked we are. Amazon gives you a choice, to rent or to buy - except for when they don't give you the choice to rent - which is on most of the newer stuff that you want to see. And the prices they charge for you to own your digital copy are, in most cases, higher than the price you'd have paid for a previously-viewed DVD at a rental store. Only here, you don't have the DVD. So that means no loaning it to friends and co-workers. And, after you've watched the movie a handful of times, you have nothing to resell on the secondary market to try and recoup some of your cash to buy another used DVD because you don't actually own anything.
And let's imagine for just one minute that Disney had released Song Of The South with the current digital release model. Do you think everyone who bought that movie and had it on their "cloud" would still have it there if Disney really wanted to retract the movie? You're kidding yourself if you say "yes."
For most folks, I guess they don't care. Which would explain the proliferation of Red Boxes. Red Box - terrible movies for people who hate movies but still need something to do to distract them from the misery of existence.
So now we're in an environment where we're watching shitty movies and paying more money for it and we have no other options. Congratulations. We've fucked ourselves just like I said we would several years ago.
I thought technology was supposed to make our lives better. Just kidding - that's not the purpose of technology. It's just supposed to help corporations generate higher profits.
Regardless - I managed to see a lot of movies in 2014, and I saw a number of them I liked (although I would say if gave an overall average to everything I saw that came out this this year, it'd be about 2.75 stars out of 5), and here the top ten:
1. The Grand Budapest Hotel
I'm not sure why so many of my friends were so lukewarm on this Wes Anderson film, but I'm ranking it up with his best. I love it when he constructs such a fully realized world. The filming was beautiful. The acting was great. And the people/place out of time theme resonated well. And the war and wealth background elevate the film thematically to much more than a simple exercise in twee.
I loved this movie so much, I had to watch it again. Right away.
2. Gone Girl
It's an age old story - girl meets boy. Girl and boy fall in love. They get married. Money and family crises arise. They grow apart until they finally decide to save the marriage by having a kid.
Only, in Gone Girl, there's a whole lotta scheming and setting up and criminal masterminding along the way.
While I anticipated the big "twist" before even seeing the movie, I did not anticipate the dramatic shift halfway though it. And it's as enjoyable as it is unpredictable.
About the related controversy regarding this movie - while it was entirely predictable, I think it mostly misses the larger point. Regardless, at this point in his career - coming to the conclusion that Fincher hates women is unavoidable.
One time at work, a woman asked me for recommendations. She wanted murder mysteries written by women because she found male writers to be misogynistic. I suggested Gone Girl (as a joke), and she said, "I've already read that, but yeah - exactly like that! I loved it!"
Not sure what that means, but I like the story.
Gone Girl's Amy is the ultimate chauvinist boogie-man. As a character, she's amazing on a Hannibal Lecter-level.
3. Jodorowsky's Dune
It may be blasphemy at this point, but I'm not so sure that had Jodorowsky been allowed to complete his adaptation of Dune, it would have been so much the Prophet he was attempting to create instead of something between Lynch's Dune and Cimino's Heaven's Gate and Costner's Waterworld and Hodges' Flash Gordon.
The fantasy of Jodorowsky's Dune is more fun to imagine than the reality of it would be. Still the stories of assembling the talent (one really must consider the likelihood of Dali or Welles being able to wreck the movie before filming completed) are amazing, and Jodorowsky himself is largely amiable, adorable, and seems like he has a Herzogian cult of personality that is compelling. It makes me want to read all the comics he's done over the years instead of making movies.
Also, some publisher should really release Jodorowsky's Dune storyboard book.
4. Guardians Of The Galaxy
2 favorite parts of the movie:
1. While waiting for the "shawarma scene," a twentysomething dude behind me explains why he is unable to answer his date's questions about Marvel Universe with, "I don't really know. I'm really more of a DC Comics man." #NOEXCUSE
2. The remaining audience, upon seeing the "shawarma scene" is wholly unimpressed and confused as they have no idea who the character is.
Funny, fun, stylish. Easily the best soundtrack of all the superhero movies. Low expectations. High results.
This is futuristic, dystopian sci-fi in a Terry Gilliam/Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet vein - quirky, cool, immediately cultish in nature. This is action-sci-fi not as blockbuster but action-sci-fi as art film.
It's a criticism of our economic and social systems, and a paranoid study on betrayal and manipulation. Would you destroy the ship of the world to save one child? What if that ship was corrupt? Would you destroy that ship of potential life for freedom, hardship and likely death?
Snowpiercer belongs on any shelf alongside Brazil or City of Lost Children.
Gareth Edwards is the perfect choice for this movie - as I really thought his Monsters was a promising rehearsal for something like this.
I've always thought the key to a great Godzilla movie is what you don't see - and Edwards totally gets the dramatic effect of obscured vision. Also, his version of the story makes me realize how much Godzilla owes to Lovecraft - ancient gods who come to destroy us.
Now, who would win in a fight, this or Pacific Rim? Hmmm... Pacific Rim is a live-action cartoon. Godzilla manages to be a serious take on the giant monster movie and pulls it off while still being suspenseful, original and haunting.
Also, thanks to a special revival screening at the Charles, I got to see the original Japanese version of Godzilla, then rush cross town and see this version both in the same night. It was pretty awesome.
7. Ping Pong Summer
A heartwarming, family-friendly coming of age tale set in a 1980s Ocean City in which the town itself becomes a character. Sarandon steals scenes as a beer-drinking former ping pong champ turned OC fisherwoman. The cast of kids are lovable. It's sort of like One Crazy Summer + Karate Kid as done by a young Wes Anderson. All the details are perfect - the music, the fashion, the backgrounds, the awkwardness of the kids, etc.
8. The Interview
The enjoyment of The Interview is at least partially tied to the controversy surrounding it (which I still don't believe wasn't at least partially manufactured by Sony).
Regardless, it's still a funny, Spies Like Us-esque comedy (in a good way) which also serves as a pretty decent media commentary.
9. Blue Ruin
An unexpectedly enjoyable, artful and modern take on the Hatfields & McCoys.
10. The Lego Movie
I'd heard that The Lego Movie "wasn't too bad," much in the same way the Lego videogames weren't too bad. So I was curious about seeing it but not super-anxious. I guess I'd assumed the animation was going to be 3D computer stuff that really doesn't feel that special anymore, but instead it looked pretty stop-motion.
The Lego world physics are crazy intense, sort of like a condensed Roadrunner cartoon with the construction of Lego pieces. The moral to the story is positively political, glossed over with a lesson about fathers and children. It's pretty anti-corporate for a corporate toy.
All in all, The Lego Movie is definitely pretty not too bad.
11. Call Girl Of Cthulhu
Steeped in b-movie fare, Call Girl of Cthulhu has all the fun of a B-movie horror movie with the writing, directing and skill of an A-level movie.