The good news: 2014 was no 2000. Fourteen years ago, the nominees for Best Picture were Chocolat, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Erin Brockovich, Gladiator and Traffic, while What Women Want, Dinosaur and How the Grinch Stole Christmas were among the top box-office performers. Maybe we were just too high on the idea of a new millennium to care about the quality of our cinematic entertainment.
Comparatively, 2014 at least tried, though its massive output resulted in movies that might not have been demonstrably bad but were, at the very least, wildly overrated -- sometimes puzzlingly so.
In the next few days, I'll get to my list of my 10 favorite movies of 2014 (I'm still hopeful I can manage to find 10 that deserve the moniker), but here are the five films I found most curiously lauded by both critics and audiences. They weren't the very worst movies of 2014 -- as a moviegoer who isn't a professional critic, I don't need to worry about seeing every movie, so I avoided stuff like Annie, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Are they truly the worst movies of the year? Who knows -- I certainly never will.
But these five are movies that received glorious accolades, enough critic's quotes to fill a newspaper ad, and achieved a certain success (some much more than that) with audience, in defiance of my own assessment of them. They are the depressing disappointments and big head-scratchers I experienced during 2014 (and are presented here in alphabetical order):
Start with a compelling backstage drama about a washed-up movie star who wants to turn around his public persona. Pair it with a director as intriguing as Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu and the stylistic choice to use digital trickery to make the entire film seem like one very long tracking shot -- that's a great combination, no? Well, no. OK, yes, to a certain point. But Birdman perches itself uncomfortably, and unsustainably, between reality and fantasy, between magic and the mundane. It stands on the high wire confidently -- and falls. Birdman has many fans, and to the extent that they focus on Michael Keaton's fearless performance, I'm with them. But those last few minutes don't work for me, not at all. They don't inform what's gone before, they undermine it. Birdman scores points for degree of difficulty, but it can't clinch the landing -- and when it doesn't, everything falls atop its wobbly legs. It's interesting, to be sure; it's also phenomenally disappointing.
Drama can sometimes be found within words unspoken, within actions untaken. And maybe it's all there, but Foxcatcher doesn't find it. Calm and methodical, cold and clinical, dispassionate to the point of inertia, Foxcatcher mistakes chilly scenes of winter for a visual commentary on its characters' hearts and minds. It's a near-miss, but a miss nonetheless, a movie about a heat-of-passion murder that contains neither passion nor heat. There's no two ways about it, it's dull. And dull does not make good cinema.
Guardians of the Galaxy
True, it's one of the only movies since the original Star Wars that comes close to catching its bouncy vibe, but Guardians of the Galaxy can't sit still even for one moment. It careens and bounces and flies off to the next scene before anyone knows exactly what's going on. Many loved its hyperactivity; I found it always exhausting and sometimes confusing, like watching every great sci-fi action-adventure since 1977 thrown into a food processor. The results have been assembled and screened with little regard to coherence. That it became the highest-grossing movie of the year says less to me about its own quality than the dearth of quality and original stories within the entertainment industry at large. Listen up! We need something new, not just another retread of the stuff that gets the highest rating with focus groups.
An overlong shaggy-dog joke, Interstellar touched on the same basic premise of Contact: The greatest force in the universe is love, is how the poster's tagline might put it. There's nothing wrong with love, but Interstellar strained storytelling credulity by presenting everything with an overconfidence that bordered on incomprehension. Its vision of another dimension might very well be what happens when space and time are folded in on each other, but that doesn't mean audiences need to be confused about what's going on, and Interstellar is so story-driven that it never transcends pure narrative the way 2001: A Space Odyssey, its clear inspiration, did. Confusing, noisy, needlessly hokey, and at times almost embarrassing (a fistfight on the edge of the universe!), Interstellar is at least an ambitious film -- it's just not, in the end, a particularly good one.
The reason villains aren't the stars of their own fairy tales is that they're one-dimensional. "I'm the witch, you're the world," Stephen Sondheim's lyrics observed -- and the world, let's face it, is far more nuanced than the witch. But Maleficent goes into the woods to uncover a hidden past behind the baddie of Sleeping Beauty and ends up with not much new to show. Maleficent was once beautiful, had her wings clipped when she was young, and she resents the world for it -- but the movie can't find inspiration in this backstory, because it needs to square everything away with the Disney version of Perrault's fairy tale, so it mostly winds up as a live-action remake with some unnecessary battle scenes along the way. (Another CG fantasy-war sequence!) Maleficent was an inexplicable hit, proof positive that Disney has a brilliant marketing team who can sell just about anything, even lackadaisical reworkings of the very movies that made Disney what it is today. At this rate, Lady and the Tramp from the point of view of the spaghetti can't be far behind.