This perhaps helps explain why the previous twelve months have seen the release of few grandstanding affairs. The critically acclaimed are more prone to discourse than ever before while the commercially successful don’t get the same dues. There’s now the inevitable backlash against an industry perceived to be in a state of creative malaise, a circular problem as home-bankers are stringently prioritised. The biggest success of the year was a space opera featuring a magic stone and Howard the Duck cameo. The most reverentially celebrated was a film-making experiment far from universally beloved. Whether this is a form of snobbery, a refusal to accept comic book movies, is up for debate. But it says a lot that Paramount Pictures, a company responsible for the likes of The Godfather, Indiana Jones and Chinatown, submitted Transformers: Age of Extinction for consideration at the Academy Awards, including in the category of Best Picture.
The bigger picture may tell one story, but the real reflection comes from the individual fables, the little bits and pieces that came to form a whole. We had Richard Linklater finally putting the seal on an twelve year production, Ridley Scott taking on God (and losing), the final wrap in Middle Earth, Christopher Nolan mounting his most ambitious project yet, David Fincher yet again drawing ire as his misanthrope assault on audiences continued, a movie with machine gun-wielding apes being one of the most emotionally resonant of the year, the people finally growing tired of Tom Cruise just as he reached a resurgent benchmark, and finally the surge of tween fiction adaptation reaching its head with an array of lookalikes threatening the Corn Children’s status as the uncanniest valley. And that doesn’t even cover the rises (hey, Dan Stevens) and falls (bye, Aaron Paul), the smut column stories, studio Richard-swinging contests or the leaked email dramas and tribulations. It certainly wasn’t a boring narrative.
Looking back on this smorgasbord of veritable entertainment, here I take a look at five movies and the four lessons they taught us in 2014, for better or for worse, and through them we can wonder just what will occur after the bells chime and the ball drops. Starting with…
1. Guardians of the Galaxy – The Public Craves Star Wars
It was the unlikeliest of stories, the ugly duckling that grew to be…well, a very rich and popular duck, one occupying its own pond, sort of like Scrooge McDuck with better publicity. Off the back of their retrospectively risky strategy of origin story character pieces and eventual accumulative monster-hit buffet The Avengers, Marvel quickly looked for another property ripe for cinematic mounting within their back catalogue and came up with a cult classic space-set ensemble reminiscent of original series Star Trek featuring a wisecracking raccoon, stoic bounty hunting tree and a cast of peoples blue, green and purple. They promptly gave the $170,000,000 project to the writer of Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed and cast the shlub from Parks and Recreations, with a WWE wrestler for comic relief. It’s no wonder even the studio later developed cold feet.
Flash forward a year and we have another Marvel success story and 2014’s highest grossing movie, one that charmed even the most intellectual of audiences and earned its place on many a top ten list, often as number one. An amiable self-awareness and laconic humour that seemed to mirror the slapdash mentality of lead Peter ‘Starlord’ Quill was key to James Gunn’s enterprise, as he both expanded the studio’s cinematic frontier and enhanced its reputation, leading to a raft of side-effects such as Chris Pratt’s ascendency, the enabling of oddball projects like Ant-Man and a return to the table of ‘fun’ as an expense justifier. Where The Avengers had been wry, Guardians of the Galaxy was irreverent, an imaginative child playing with some colourfully camp toys, in sharp contrast to the grim viscera of rivals DC.
It also, naturally, evoked memories of another sci-fi adventure of yesteryear, a connection that was hardly obscure. While last month’s teaser trailer might have whetted the famished appetite of the Jedi congregation, it was Guardians that confirmed that Star Wars is a property even the less die-hard fans can lust after. More importantly, it proved that it is exactly that audiences will flock to it en masse, ensuring that only a misjudgement of prequels-esque magnitude could quell the fire. Though it would be dismissive to suggest that 2014’s biggest winner was Marvel’s own take on ‘A long time ago in a galaxy far far away’ – and a little conspiratorial to note that they effectively set up a rival company for a shoe-in – there is surely no doubting that when Star Wars does return next December it will have precedent on its side.
2. Interstellar – Christopher Nolan is Hollywood’s Most Divisive Figure
It is a strange experience being a neutral film viewer in this day and age, trapped between warring fan-factions who take their passion beyond mere appreciation and dislike and into the realms of obsessive worship or hatred. Though one could (and has) made the argument that ‘this is the internet’, it’s perhaps worth countering that for all it has seemingly transformed culture, the net is simply a window and not a mutator. People always felt this way, but it is now easier for them to make it known without fear of reprisal. Like PC users who march under the banner of Microsoft, or the iBrigade canonising the late Steve Jobs, the average Joe’s strange fixation and choices of undying, fervent loyalty mesh with consumerism. Try finding an amicable web-based discussion over who’s best between DC and Marvel for instance, one that doesn’t turn into a verbal Charlie Foxtrot. I’ll wait here.
Never has this been as strongly felt as in the case of Christopher Nolan, a film-maker who since The Dark Knight has been the subject of flame-wars that seem to take on a terrifying religious quality (negative reviews of The Dark Knight Rises in 2012 were met with death threats). It is not a matter of dominance or superiority, simply the question of whether he’s good. To his crusaders, he is a modern visionary genius best compared to Stanley Kubrick, his films flawless and masterpieces all. To his detractors, he is a pretentious hack with exposition as dialogue and stories full of plot holes. It seems that to many there is no middle ground, and expectations are so heightened around his movies that they are apparently scrutinised to a higher standard, nit-picking sessions determining inferior quality like never before. If anything, the backlash against Nolan seems entirely motivated by the love shown for him by fans, a Ying and Yang effect. And never was the sheer gulf in opinion more evident than with the release of this year’s Interstellar.
Surely his most ambitious effort yet, one that finally saw him bed in with science fiction after years of flirting (with The Prestige) and courting (with Inception), Interstellar seemed certain to be the crown on a golden run of critical and commercial successes stretching back to Batman Begins, and the magnum opus of his halcyon career. To millions, it was, with the word masterpiece bandied around haphazard and comparisons to 2001 boldly made. But to an almost equal share, it was the opposite, a bloated and disorganised farce high on intent but low on finesse. Rarely can a film be considered genius while also being mocked, all by evenly numbered groups. It is perhaps because the film is in parts Nolan’s best work and in others his most disappointing; phenomenal spectacle and outstanding vision, but a first draft screenplay botched at key moments; an emotional juggernaut immortalised by Matthew McConaughey and Mackenize Foy, but scuppered by an arbitrarily monologuing Matt Damon and forgotten sons; a film worthy of celebration, but also of mourning – wonderful on the eye but so much more potential than power.
When Nolan’s strengths are so keenly highlighted and his flaws so painfully exposed at once – the fatigue of a big budget blockbuster success every second year finally beginning to show – it is no wonder it is reflected by the reception. Struggling with itself in a way Rises just about managed to cover, Interstellar’s lack of whole is perhaps the perfect window onto a debate that confirms him as Hollywood’s most divisive figure. Apparently, one must either love or hate.
Another bestseller with a dark heart appears and David Fincher, it seems, just cannot resist. Bringing his standing just a little higher after his soulless and ultimately disappointing stab at The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl was seen as one of the event movies of the year and proved to be and then some. While Gillian Flynn’s cinematic page turner seemed destined for the big screen at some stage, few would have predicted that she would get a stab at penning the latest draft, and fewer still likely would expect it to be one of the year’s best. Perfect for the Black Prince of Hollywood, a twisting and turning immorality tale of domestic disharmony, sociopathic dreams and public soapboxing was brought to life by Fincher’s artistic eye, Rosamund Pike’s electrifying nuance and Ben Affleck’s ‘born to play’ authenticity. Much was nailed, a cynical and even nihilistic look at ourselves and others that rang a little too true, and on said nail was hung easily the best ending of 2014.
Of course, there is always something else to talk about, and while few disputed the film’s quality or tried to quash the fun to be had from the vindictively ridiculous plot roller-coaster, such discussion wasn’t always positive. Just as it had been with the release of the book, only this time taken to the nth degree, commentary on Gone Girl turned to a debate about gender politics, the nature of post-modern feminism and whether a Best Picture contender was misogynist at heart. The conversation taking place is understandable, but reached ridiculous degrees with extremes at both end of the spectrum horribly quashing Flynn’s story and Fincher’s framing. Some said it was a dangerous film in its portrayal of women. Others said it was empowering, a rallying call to marginalised wives and girlfriends to take control. Neither could see, or wanted to see, that it was neither. It is possible, after all, for a character to be politically charged without the film imbuing those same views, just as Silence of the Lambs wasn’t accused of promoting cannibalism in the interest of intellectualism. Notions that the decidedly feminist Flynn was a closeted woman-hater perhaps summed up the absurdity. Her stance, a boldly enlightened one, was that it should be possible in the 21st century for a female villain to have distinctly feminine traits, much as a male villain can be unmistakably male in his monstrosity. If we are to be equal, it must be in all things, good and bad; this is one of the story’s strengths, and undercuts an ultimately ponderous debate.
Of course, most journalists, academics and film scholars worth their weight in divorce papers should know this, and in the former’s case likely did. The decision within the media to stoke up the gender angle almost seems to be a deliberate ploy, drawing attention away from a far more relevant and dangerous issue. To those not familiar with agenda-setting, it a practice within the media regarding their representation of reality, and is especially predominant in news programming. If an event is deemed most significant, it is top billed, given more air time and generally favoured over other potentially more important stories. The idea is that if the news is headlining it, it is far more important; they are telling you what matters most. This is hugely effective since most people fall for the informed perception, hence why water cooler discussions focus on the celebrity meltdown that ran for half of ABC News’ runtime rather than the threat of war in the middle east which was briefly mentioned in closing. This seems to have been in place regarding Gone Girl.
Why, you ask? If the only hot topic you brought away from the film is its ruminations on gender-relations and the strain of marriage, you probably aren’t remembering your initial reaction fully. What you will have noticed during the film is its portrayal of the media as a soulless lynch-mob who exploit a woman’s disappearance to form tabloid hypotheses regarding a man who strangers will judge as guilty without trial, and all for huge ratings. Nick Dunne becomes the most reluctant of celebrity, forced to edit his behaviour to avoid public persecution, regardless of innocence or guilt. And this isn’t a fever dream of hyperbole or exaggeration, hence its very genuine dread; this could happen, has happened, and will continue to happen. The real target of the film’s venom is the media…a media who immediately turned attention away from their depiction, focussing on the feminist stuff, deciding this was more worthy of the public’s interest. Sound familiar?
4. Nightcrawler & Birdman – Original Features Can Still Succeed
Reassuringly, given the overall review of 2014, gross figures and sales aren’t everything. No argument debating the worthier of two films has ever been won by use of box office statistics, though many have tried and failed. While a summer blockbuster may make more than an entire country’s economy, it will likely fade away after time, only ever recalled as a fun ride. Others are remembered for posterity’s sake, celebrated ten years after the fact, critical acclaim gradually sifting down to the public until one day it is vaunted. Forrest Gump may have made more money than The Shawshank Redemption in 1994, but which one is more beloved now? Home Alone was 1990’s big hitter, but is it better than Goodfellas? Can anybody, hand on heart, suggest that Sergeant York is superior to Citizen Kane?
Long after the paint dries on 2014, people won’t be talking about Mockingjay: Part 1 and The Winter Soldier. It’s far more likely that they’ll be discussing the likes of Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Birdman, two original stories conceived of, ironed out and put to screen in a manner pure. They weren’t banking on the commercial guarantee of franchise, the vouchsafe of name recognition or even the Hollywood power of their respective directors. Inarritu may be an outstanding film-maker, a visionary director and immaculate writer whose peculiar synchronicity of harsh realism and ethereal whimsy marks him out as a unique voice, but he is far from a household name. Gilroy is a well respected screenwriter, but those souls are seldom ever known to the public outside of big leverage (Aaron Sorkin), big checks (Joe Eszsterhas) or big ego (Damon Lindelof), and his own flick this year was a directorial debut. On top of that, both films were risks, Nightcrawler a richly black outing with a villain protagonist and Birdman a surrealist art house character study. Surrounded by shoe-in successes, they looked archetypal underdogs.
Yet not only did hey succeed, both in terms of making money and earning acclaim, they were two of the most memorable experiences of 2014, challenging but all the better for their feeling of freshness and expression, storytelling by imagination and not by numbers. They proved that an original feature will always be more nutritious, more memorable and ultimately just better. Throw in the much spoken of Boyhood and The Grand Budapest Hotel and we have evidence that in this day and age, a new idea still has a place. These were new-found favourites, and they didn’t originate from the pages of comics or the screenplays of a different era.
2014 may ultimately be seen as the year of consolidation, rehash and business-over-art where even the biggest surprise hit was another brick in Marvel’s wall, but in the post script we can find some room for reassurance that there is some imagination left in the business, and that it is has not quite because a fully automated factory akin to Skynet. The little guy with the fresh voice can still be heard amidst the industrial clatter. While 2015 will be all about Star Wars 7 and Bond 24, those little gems will still appear, hopefully shining as brightly amidst the murk just as Nightcrawler and Birdman did. We’ll just have to look a little harder for them.
This has been a Strange Interpretation…