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
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
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
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.