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The Top 10 Movies, in Their Own Ways, of 2014

Ellar Coltrane and Ethan Hawke in Boyhood

I’m not much for year-end listmaking — the release calendar variables for potential inclusion are pretty limited, so it feels like a pointless exercise in rearranging the same 20 pieces as everybody else, and I’ve probably written about the movies in question enough for the time being by year’s end. It is, nonetheless, the tail end of the season where people put out their lists and justifications, so I’ve laid out ten arbitrary categories that allow me to tout some titles, released in the US in 2014 unless otherwise noted.

Best DTV Casualty

Few people have reshaped the multiplex landscape as much in the last ten years as Jason Blum, the canny entrepreneur behind Blumhouse Productions, whose Paranormal ActivityInsidious et al. have exploded the amount of conspicuous shelf space for low-investment (no more than $5 million), probable high-yield horror films. A side effect of his semi-unusual methods — a small, fixed budget given to a director with final cut — is that not all the resulting product will be picked up for theatrical release. Such is the fate of Not Safe for Work, which is too bad: minute for minute (a whopping 74 of them), it’s the best-organized, most disciplinedly suspenseful B-movie I’ve seen in a while.

Joe Johnston’s movie doesn’t/couldn’t quite live up to its ferocious pre-credit tease, in which a fired pharmaceutical employee takes a workplace elevator up to shoot the entire board of trustees in the time between the doors close and open again. “Someone had to do something,” he says before killing himself, but the anti-Big Pharma sentiment is a red herring. Not Safe For Work isn’t angry about the real, documented world of massive class-action lawsuits over deadly medications and the even bigger payouts that do nothing to stop the next such incident: it subscribes to the Michael Clayton school of corporate concern, in which it’s not what we see right in front of us that’s the problem but a shadowy, improbable conspiracy involving a hitman.

Despite this kind of juvenile evasion of the reasons for the anger motivating its opening scene, Not Safe For Work‘s very basic cat-and-mouse framework is ingenious in exploiting the cubicle landscape. Every plant is followed through on, and the movie even generates suspense through the generally not-much-thought of annoyance of auto-flush toilets, a sequence whose parsimonious inventiveness is applaudable. Johnston (The RocketeerJurassic Park 3) makes this hum so well he almost doesn’t need performers — good thing, since protagonist Max Minghella is very callow and functional; compensatorily, antagonist JJ Feild is a hoot. The British actor’s strangled delivery suggests a hilarious parody of trying to sound like a “normal American”: sort of like someone from this country, but bearing no tenable relation to any US accent you’d ever hear. Not Safe For Work is bracingly brief, on Netflix Instant, and well worth your time if you relish for this kind of basic suspense engineering; I’ve watched it twice.

Best Actor Reteaming Without Usual Director

Sophie Fillières’ If You Don’t, I Will is a lightly likable comedy of long-term relationship disaffection coming to the fore. Emmanuelle Devos and Mathieu Amalric have appeared together in four Arnaud Desplechin films, plus three features directed by others; memory is failing me as to whether they act together in Wild GrassLa Moustache and the (unseen by me) Park Benches, but they presumably know each other well enough regardless. If You Don’t reteams two veteran combatants often set up by Desplechin in what, dramatically speaking, are stress positions, offering a comparatively more relaxed scenario to rework pleasantly familiar dynamics. Fillières first makes apt use of her stars’ expertly honed rapport, then separates them for solo showcases (the moment when Devos stares down a deer in the forest alone justifies the movie). 

Best Film/Worst Cultural Conversation

On second viewing, the scales didn’t drop from my eyes re Boyhood: though I could’ve done with slightly less in the way of Ethan Hawke’s songcraft, there are certainly more serious problems to have. I’m happy to be basically all in for the film, but that’s turned out to, predictably, be a little prickly. The crux of the ideological case against the movie (as experienced via Twitter, and not so much in wider writing on the film, which is nearly entirely free of skepticism) is pretty unassailable: impeccably crafted though it may or may not be, how many more films about the White Male Experience do we need, especially at this conspicuously awful historical moment? I’m not unsympathetic to those who refuse to watch the movie on principle.

A bit after release, I read a representative essay effectively decrying Boyhood because its unremarkable boy protagonist didn’t grow up to be a murderous, MRA-spouting mass shooter — i.e., because its presentation of white masculinity isn’t a diagnostic, pathological case study of regressive cultural inbreeding. I dig this ideological instinct to some extent, and it’s not like mainstream critical discourse is permeated by enough fretful worrying along these lines. But claiming that Boyhood (and its admirers) longs for the celebration and normalization of an unbroken reign of white patriarchy seems to be missing the point. If the movie had a less categorical title, one not misleadingly suggesting the purely archetypal and relatable, I suspect we wouldn’t even be having this discussion. (The movie’s sense of specificity is far too strong for me to feel any tug of the “universal” or “relatability.”) But I would say all that, wouldn’t I?

Best SEL Film

No disrespect to Manakamana, released to theaters in 2014 and a fine film, but J.P. Sniadecki’s undistributed The Iron Ministry is this year’s standout Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab project. Technically it’s not an SEL product, but close enough, as Sniadecki is one of its alums and the thunderous sound design is courtesy of lab regular Ernst Karel. Ministry‘s conceit is to stitch together years of Chinese train trips into one endless journey, in the most aesthetically buffeting/arresting fashion possible. It begins with close ups of juddering white lines, and it takes a bit to suss out whether these are rapidly passing tracks outside or the train’s interior magnified to unrecognizable extremes. That it’s the latter isn’t conceptually or logistically surprising, but this momentary uncertainty gives some indication of The Iron Ministry’s moment to moment impact and ability to defamiliarize what should be instantly parsable.

The train’s roar is a constant, interrupted by some amazing monologues and conversations: a young woman, work weary, musing about how nice it would be to do nothing eat and sleep all day; a conversation about the particulars of Muslim life in the outer provinces, and a young boy’s dazzlingly nihilistic parody of a train conductor’s setting-off speech. “If you are in possession of any explosive devices, please bring them onboard, in accordance with our country’s population control policies! Our train is a civilized space! Therefore, we will move through the aisles, pissing and shitting and farting on you!”

Best Stand-Alone Sequence (x2)

The highest-grossing film in China of 2013 (outdoing Iron Man 3 by a handy $70 million+), Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons is part of a growing trend of Hong Kong-mainland co-productions and a personal commercial best for veteran HK comic martial artist/director Stephen Chow. It’s heartening that this is the biggest blockbuster event of China’s 2013, as it’s quite good and — out of cultural context — winningly idiosyncratic, spending its money on a Buddhist parable rather than the usual hero’s quest to prevent the end of the universe. If you don’t have time to watch the whole thing — and it’s worth seeing both for itself and to know what the Chinese blockbuster alternative to Marvel is — start at the 27-minute mark on Netflix. The two scenes comprising the “roast pork” sequence — you’ll know it when you see two people approaching a cave — makes for an outstanding feat of inventively CGI-laden derring-do, including the attempted exorcism of a rampaging angry pig demon. I’ve watched this sequence five times.

Best Mainstream Comedy Dumped to Arthouses

Why did I see David Wain’s new comedy They Came Together at the entirely unsuitable, admirable but small NYC arthouse Cinema Village? It got the biggest auditorium of the three (the other two are hilariously small) and a good crowd, but why it’d been dumped there in the first place wasn’t clear. The movie’s release hadn’t been tainted by the threat of mass corporate hackings, and while its appeal is niche, Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler surely have a little name cachet.

Wain and Michael Showalter wrote the script shortly after Wet Hot American Summer, which explains Together‘s otherwise inexplicable insistence on burlesquing not just the romcom as a whole but specifically You’ve Got Mail, the mostly unbearable Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan reteaming everyone seems to have been exposed to at some point or other. Unsurprisingly given the sensibilities in control, the jokes can be specific to a hermetic extreme: I don’t think the gag cutting from an exterior shot of the Strand bookstore to an interior that’s a smaller, different establishment might travel outside NYC, but (in the prickly spirit of Los Angeles Plays Itself) it’s still a great niche joke about too many movies’ careless geographical scrambling of/contempt for locations. (In the form of a pickle salesman parked outside an apartment, They Came Together also pays homage to Joan Micklin Silver’s terrific Crossing Delancey, a ZAZ-quick referential shoutout I didn’t expect.) There’s also a subplot about Poehler’s token black best friend, an endlessly available open ear — a line of satirical attack apparently fleshed out in the deleted scenes in which this poor woman neglects her hospital-bound mother and so on, the better to stand by to register Poehler’s whiny non-problems. This is implied but not fleshed out in the movie, which is a loss but probably for the best: it’s so relentless and exhausting at just over 80 minutes I’m not sure how much more I could’ve taken.

Best CGI

In its second half, for reasons best left unspecified (the biggest surprise I had watching a movie in 2014), Pascale Ferran’s Bird People has cause to frequently adopt a flying bird’s perspective or observe an avian perfectly hitting its marks. The seamlessness throughout is clearly unrealizable naturally, but I couldn’t tell at any point what was computer-assisted or generated. This is CGI even more invisible than David Fincher’s color correction — I couldn’t spot it at all, which means the job’s been done perfectly.

Best Comparatively Wide Release of a Semi-Avant Garde Film

Ben Russell and Ben Rivers’ A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness is a film so up my alley I’m automatically suspicious of it. Long tracking shots of people walking, hushed forest interludes, and conversations more notable for their inconsequential hilarious toss-offs than any real conclusions reached are all things I’m far too predisposed to enjoy. I accordingly a good deal of skepticism in my review, just in case, but it’s a delightful film. Defining this as “avant-garde” has more to do with its makers’ other work (e.g. Russell’s Let Each One Go Where He May and Rivers’ Two Years At Sea, the latter more of an experiential documentary than a purely a-g work demanding outside context to situate itself, but pushing the durational limits of individual shots) than the experience of this specific movie, which even boasts a clear three-act structure. Credit to distributor KimStim for getting it to even seven North American cities, as well as making it available on Fandor for those out of theatrical reach.

Best Five-Year-Old Film Finally Seeing Nominal Release

I saw Alain Guiraudie’s The King of Escape five years ago at Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, but apparently hardly anyone else did, so I was delighted that NYC’s Anthology Film Archives — as they’ve done for In The City of SylviaOur Beloved Month of AugustImport/Export, The Story of My Death and other notable recent films without distribution — gave it a week-long run, thereby belatedly granting it token consideration for year-end lists. If you’ve only seen Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake, this qualifies as an “earlier, funnier” type of film, linked with the director’s general body of work by a lot of sauntering/running through forests. This time the rural gay man on the go (Ludovic Berthillot) is willing to give sexual fluidity a try with a runaway teenager (Hafsia Herzi), but finally finds himself unable or unwilling to expand his identity that much. Full of farcical gags, odd character actors and broad high spirits, it’s also a compact, affectingly pessimistic story about our capacity for change. 

Best Anthology of Predictably Phrased Philistinism

Not a movie, but too good to pass up: Charles Barabé’s track Insultes (hommage à John Cage)” layers 18 minutes of YouTube commenters deriding John Cage’s “4’33,” their predictable and inexplicably angry insults croaked out by a computer program. “Is this supposed to be funny?” says one. Another: “If John Cage were in front of me, I would punch his hipster pioneering face in.” And so on. Change the exact terms of abuse a bit and you’ve got the usable basis of an all-purpose angry and ignorant review claiming that not everything is art and it’s time to say enough is enough. Nearly all such reviews read identically.

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