Most movies live lives of quiet desperation. A few win awards, a few make boatloads of money, and a few go down in history as really and truly mattering. But for most, they ply their meager craft for a brief period, hoping to earn a laugh or a cry or a few dollars, and then they fade away as newer and prettier models take their place.
Within that desperation to matter lies the publicity-seeking gene. Anything that can set a title apart – be it artistic innovation, behind-the-scene scandal, happy confluence of current events – is fair game for the marketers. Controversy, from Birth of a Nation (1915) to The Passion of the Christ (2004), has usually focused more eyeballs on the screen. Being the first – whether it’s the first movie to use motion capture or the first to use Smell-O-Vision – can also create buzz.
Such auxiliary conversation can make it difficult to judge a movie on its cinematic qualities alone. At times, such conversation can elevate a film’s reputation. The Jazz Singer (1927) is an average movie that has always been elevated by its place in history as the first feature length movie to use synchronised singing and talking. Walter Hill’s The Warriors (1979), which was temporarily pulled from distribution over concerns that it might spark gang violence, has probably never been recognised as being a first-rate action-fantasy because of its surrounding controversy.
2014 has seen its share of titles that have interesting back stories. So here’s a quick attempt to separate the movie from the mayhem in three notable 2014 American films.
Richard Linklater’s chronicle of a boy growing into a young man has dominated critic awards this year. In Sight & Sound’s annual international critics pole, it was selected as one the five best films by an astonishing 42 out of 112 critics. (The second place finisher, Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language, received 22 votes.) Boyhood is a remarkable achievement. Linklater followed the same core of actors – Ellar Coltran, Lorelei Linklater, Ethan Hawke, and Patricia Arquette – over a period of 12 years, watching the youngsters Coltrane and Linklater grow from children into young adulthood. The results are truly impressive. We are not seeing different actors portray Mason and Samantha as they grow up. We are not seeing a makeup artist’s rendering of Olivia and Mason, Sr. as they age. We are, to a larger extent than usual, seeing the real thing. Of course, for those truly interested in seeing the real thing, Michael Apted’s extraordinary television project, an ongoing portrait of a group of children begun in 1964 and revisited every seven years since, may be more interesting. 56 Up, released in late 2013, offers an unscripted and longer-term version of Linklater’s film. I don’t begrudge anyone who was moved by Boyhood. It was certainly in my personal top 20. But I found it uneven at times. The fact that Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater, however photogenic and talented they may be, were non-professional actors performing with pros became increasingly obvious as they aged. I did not find the ending with Mason off to college nearly as interesting as the earlier scenes. Without question, the movie belonged more to Patricia Arquette’s Olivia, and her performance was the one thing from the movie that I think should get serious award consideration. Beyond that, it remains for me a magnificent achievement, and a very good, if not great, movie.
Laura Poitras is a brave documentarian fully deserving of her numerous awards (she is the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, and was a member of the team of journalists who were awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2014). Her films about America in the aftermath of 9/11 have been an idealisation of the work journalists are supposed to do. She has asked difficult questions, and has put herself at risk to get the answers. Her documentary Citizenfour, about her interactions with Edward Snowden as he prepared to go public with his information about NSA surveillance practices, like Boyhood, is an extraordinary achievement. And like Boyhood, it is a front-runner for its own Oscar as Best Documentary. (Citizenfour came in 18th on the Sight & Sound list, with six votes). How do we judge such an achievement against other excellent documentaries in 2014? The first hour, which largely consists of Snowden being interviewed on screen, was riveting material. Love him or hate him, Poitras gave a human face to the headline. His blend of serenity and skittishness was palpable. Even more remarkable was how normal he was. This clearly appeared to be a regular man in a highly irregular situation. Then, around the midpoint, Snowden released his story and went into hiding. And, for me at least, the movie became far less interesting. I have no idea how Poitras could have avoided this. I don’t know if she could have used a non-linear structure to alleviate the let-down. All I know is that, as a movie, I felt the second half of the story paled in comparison to the first half, and because of that, I have several other documentaries rated higher. It doesn’t diminish the bravery or the impact, and as far as I am concerned, it only slightly diminishes the skill. But I can’t consider it quite as effective as others apparently do.
This has been written about ad infinitum, but it already seems like yesterday’s news. I would have seen the movie regardless of the tumult because I think Seth Rogen and James Franco are very funny guys. But seeing it Christmas Day in a small art house in Key West, Florida did make the experience more memorable. The theatre manager addressed us before the screening and we applauded him for talking about freedom. Then we watched a very funny, very silly comedy. I wish that The Interview had not become the poster child for free speech, because I have to admit that I had the feeling I was watching a big bully picking on a somewhat smaller bully. Still, I suppose we don’t always get to pick our poster children, and everyone can agree on free speech when it’s articulate and noble and just. Silly free speech is a much better test of what we are willing to fight for. The Interview provided that. I don’t believe it got any Sight & Sound critic votes. And though its IMDB fan’s rating was a hugely inflated 9.4 when it first opened, it has continued to sink to a more reasonable level (7.6 as of this writing) in the days following that release. It has some wild humour, very good comic performances from Franco and Randall Park, but it falls pretty far short of the previous Franco-Rogen comedy Pineapple Express (2008), which offers just as much comedy and more actual heart than The Interview.
Whether these movies will be remembered for their cinematic quality or for other issues surrounding their production and release, remains to be seen. It is fair to ask whether those surrounding circumstances should colour our evaluation. It is almost impossible to view any movie in a total vacuum. But at the very least, I can say that if I am ranking 2014 movies, I’m putting Whiplash ahead of Boyhood as a coming-of-age story, I’m putting Virunga ahead of Citizenfour as public-service documentary, and I’m putting 22 Jump Street ahead of The Interview as a silly comedy.
You, of course, are entitled to your own rankings.