Monday, January 5, 2015

Ranking 2014's Movies: #s 92-79

According to the calendar, 2014 is over, but the Manifesto tends to operate on its own time. Ideally, this would be the point where we'd unveil our top 10 list, highlighting the very best that the prior year in cinema had to offer. The problem, however, is that 2014 hasn't really ended yet, at least not in moviegoing terms. There are still a number of high-profile releases that technically came out last month (making them eligible for the upcoming Oscars) but that have yet to screen near me, including Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice, Ava DuVernay's Selma, Clint Eastwood's American Sniper, Mike Leigh's Mr. Turner, and J.C. Chandor's A Most Violent Year. Given that these movies are all receiving considerable acclaim, it would be premature for me to present a finalized top 10 list without giving them a chance. So instead, I'm going to present a list of... everything else.

What follows is a ranked list, in ascending order of quality, of every 2014 theatrical release I've seen. I need not remind you that this exercise is profoundly ludicrous. Certainly, some movies are better than others, but just as certainly, attempting to slot different works of art into an inflexible hierarchy is absurd. But it does provide me an opportunity to go on record with my thoughts on all of the movies I saw last year, and unlike the Manifesto's foolhardy Review of 2013, it allows me to do so in a matter of days rather than months. Just remember that these rankings are highly amorphous, and that if I re-made this list a week from now, the specific order would be highly jumbled, even if the general shape remained the same.

A housekeeping note: As some of these titles will be somewhat obscure to mainstream audiences, I'll be providing some helpful data for each selection. Specifically, I'll hyperlink to each film's trailer (or embed it if it's particularly cool)—obviously, the usual spoiler warnings apply. I'll also include the name of the director, as well as the Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic ratings, just so you can see whether my opinion conforms to or diverges from the critical consensus. Finally, please note that this list, however lengthy, is woefully incomplete, as there remain dozens of 2014 releases I've yet to see (the unfortunate byproduct of not being an actual paid movie critic).

So there you have it. To improve readability, we're grouping the list into tiers, and we'll release those tiers in batches of two or three every couple of days or so. Once that's done, we'll unveil a proper top 10 list. In the meantime, here's how the Manifesto stacks up all of 2014's movies:

Tier 12: I Want My Money Back

92. Venus in Fur (directed by Roman Polanski, 91% Rotten Tomatoes, 69 Metacritic). Whoa, 91% fresh? We're not off to a harmonious start, critics. But I must have missed something here, because I found Polanski's two-person production (starring Mathieu Amalric and Emmanuelle Seigner) of modern sexual politics to be ersatz, pedantic, and incredibly dull. You'd think a movie about a playwright becoming obsessed with a dominatrix would generate some heat, but sex isn't supposed to be this limp.

91. Grand Piano (Eugenio Mira, 77% RT, 61 MC). Never mind, this one was worse. See what I mean about lists? To be fair, this absurd pseudo-thriller about a sniper (John Cusack) threatening a pianist (Elijah Wood) during a concert is rarely boring. But it generates more laughter than suspense, and after a mildly intriguing opening, it gradually disintegrates, falling apart completely in its pathetic final act. Most dispiriting is Cusack hiring himself out for this kind of dreck. Do you realize that Say Anything... came out a quarter-century ago? Lloyd Dobbler would be disappointed.

90. The Monuments Men (George Clooney, 31% RT, 52 MC). George Clooney believes that art is important, and I agree. And if the world ever faces war-torn catastrophe again, I very much hope that a band of noble heroes take it upon themselves to salvage history's greatest works from destruction. But make no mistake: This feeble, insipid yarn—an ungainly concoction of poorly sketched war sequences, spotty character development, and shrill sermonizing—will not be on the list.

89. Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, 85% RT, 79 MC). I get the premise. Vampires don't need to be ravenous bloodsuckers to be interesting. Their immortality also allows them to be patient, casual consumers of books and music. But it might be nice if they did something, other than bemoan the pitiful state of contemporary art or grouse about the damn kids these days. Mia Wasikowska shows up halfway through to provide a jolt of energy, and Tilda Swinton is always mesmerizing, but Jarmusch's surliness, combined with his utter disinterest in narrative propulsion, is too much for this modern movie-lover to bear.

88. Exodus: Gods and Kings (Ridley Scott, 29% RT, 52 MC). Forget the cacophony surrounding the racism of the casting. Far more egregious here is the clumsiness of the storytelling and the inept handling of the set pieces, the latter of which should have been a home run for a filmmaker of Scott's pedigree. The literalist handling of the plagues is kind of cool, but everything else—from the bizarre depiction of God as a petulant 10-year-old to the deflating "Wait, that's it?" parting of the Red Sea—is either overwrought or undercooked. Worst of all is seeing an actor of Christian Bale's ability languish in such a misguided production. Hey Ridley, next time, waste someone else's talent. Let my Christian go.

87. Enemy (Denis Villeneuve, 74% RT, 61 MC). Villeneuve's Prisoners was transfixing, which makes the inanity of his follow-up a major bummer. Jake Gyllenhaal does his best playing two different characters who are... twins? Doppelgangers? Figments of one another's imagination? It doesn't much matter. Enemy successfully develops a weird, eerie mood, and its off-kilter strangeness is initially intriguing. But Villeneuve has nowhere to go with his material, which degenerates from mysteriously bizarre to just plain nonsensical, like an early-era Cronenberg flick minus the discipline and the idiosyncratic flavor. Enemy tries to send you down a rabbit-hole, but it just ends up chasing its own tail.

86. Rosewater (Jon Stewart, 74% RT, 66 MC). Stewart's directorial debut is clearly well-intentioned, but intentions alone are rarely enough. The execution here is downright odd, whether it's the appearance of Twitter hashtags flying across the screen, the needlessly jumpy chronology, or the clichéd presence of a ghost father. I understand that living in Iran is probably tough these days, especially for foreigners, but is that all we're supposed to learn here? This material clearly meant something to Stewart. I just wish it showed.

85. Nymphomaniac: Volume II (Lars von Trier, 59% RT, 60 MC). The first volume of von Trier's self-indulgent wank-fest wasn't exactly a good movie, but it was at least compelling, with a bold debut performance from Stacy Martin. But for the conclusion, the legendary enfant terrible indulges his basest instincts, delivering a relentlessly glum morality tale that seeks to scandalize but instead simply numbs. At one point, Charlotte Gainsbourg's titular heroine bluntly informs Stellan Skarsgård's ridiculous academic (standing in for the director himself),"I think this is one of your weaker digressions." What she said, Lars.

Tier 11: Too Much or Not Enough

84. Palo Alto (directed by Gia Coppola, 73% Rotten Tomatoes, 69 Metacritic). I'm a sucker for coming-of-age stories, but I need them to have a hook, or at least some semblance of narrative cohesion. Perhaps Coppola (granddaughter of Francis Ford) intended her debut's meandering style to serve as a metaphor for the aimlessness of high-school life, but the slackness here feels like confusion, not insight. The promising Emma Roberts is very good as a sexually confused adolescent, and Coppola effectively conveys a generalized tone of genuine empathy, but that empathy just hangs in the air when it needs to be applied to her characters. We all know growing up is hard, but we never learn why it's hard for them.

83. Big Bad Wolves (Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado, 77% RT, 64 MC). The silent opening of Big Bad Wolves is a knockout, a beautifully executed scene that promises lurid melodrama and slick craftsmanship. The craftsmanship remains, but the melodrama quickly gives way to vulgarity, as the movie reveals itself to be a brutish exercise in violence with no apparent payoff beyond shock value. Trapping three angry men in a basement would seem to have the potential for explosive excitement, but then out comes the blowtorch, and the aroma of intrigue sours into the stench of burnt flesh. Torture porn shouldn't be so torturous.

82. Labor Day (Jason Reitman, 34% RT, 52 MC). I don't begrudge Jason Reitman for trying new things. He's playing with house money at this point—Thank You for Smoking and Juno were extraordinarily assured first features, and Up in the Air was one of my favorite films of the prior decade—so why not try his hand at a throwback weepie? But however nobly intentioned Labor Day may be, it never evades the shadow of its own seriousness. In the past, Reitman has shown a keen eye for satire, but here, he strays into self-parody. Kate Winslet is great, because she's great in everything, but even she can't rescue this strained, overwrought tearjerker, which is so drenched in solemnity that it curdles into rot.

81. Filth (Jon S. Baird, 62% RT, 56 MC). If nothing else, Filth provides a fun showcase for James McAvoy, who gleefully eviscerates his nice-guy image with tangible relish. But the film's supreme nastiness is a veneer for the ultimate emptiness underneath, a warmed-over combination of Trainspotting and Bad Lieutenant. McAvoy's commitment is impressive, but while the movie is designed to be provocative, its senseless plot and chaotic style don't render it compelling. Just dirty.

80. The Skeleton Twins (Craig Johnson, 87% RT, 74 MC). Yes, Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader are actors, not just comedians. And they're both quite good in The Skeleton Twins, especially when they share the screen. But they find themselves driving a singularly uninteresting vehicle, one that sputters and stalls whenever it attempts to approach any sense of purpose. The movie isn't unpleasant, but its themes are purely didactic. Siblings should support one another. Infidelity hurts. Suicide is a bad idea. Thanks for the tips, Skeleton Twins. Can we have more lip-syncing now?

79. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (Kenneth Branagh, 56% RT, 57 MC). Chris Pine is an effectively atypical action hero; in an era overrun with indestructible mega-men, he nicely blends smarts and physicality with fear and uncertainty. But after a promising start, Branagh's Jack Ryan reboot becomes both ludicrous and stale. The plot—something involving manipulation of the financial markets—is as ponderous as it is inane, while the action scenes feel rote, utterly lacking in genuine tension. A brief glimpse of Keira Knightley is always welcome, and Pine shows real promise, but he can't hope to save an interminable climax that feels like something Michael Bay made on a cable budget. Turns out Jack Ryan is indestructible after all, just like all the rest of those forgettable action heroes.

More coming soon.

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