2014 was a rough year for many on many different levels, from Ferguson to Gamergate, which has made my commitment to positivity in 2014 tough in some ways, though in terms of my moviewatching (which was the real purview of my Year of Positivity), it has held true and I’ve been grateful to the perspective it’s given me. With a one-year-old in the house, I’ve still been limited on movie-watching, but I managed to see over 50 new-to-me films in 2014. Since fewer than ten were actually 2014 releases, I’m doing my year-end recap as a celebration of everything I saw, arranged into award-like categories. In keeping with my 2014 stance against evaluation, there is no winner in each category, nor ranking within them, nor strict limits on how many films could be in each category.
I will try not to include major spoilers, but for some categories I may have to in order to talk about why I chose the films i did. So just…keep an eye out, I guess.
I only played a handful of games and read a few books, so I’ll just throw in a list of my favorites of each at the bottom of this post.
Whether in premise or character or storytelling, these are the films that made me think the most this year, sometimes for days or weeks after seeing them.
No film I saw in 2014 has a better premise than Snowpiercer, which envisions society as post-apocalyptic train segregated between haves and have-nots, complete with class warfare, rebellion, military subjugation, brainwashing, idealism, and cynicism. It’s very high concept, and gives you a lot to chew on, both about this society as its envisioned, and about our own in relation to it.
Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Most people (rightly) point to the first half of this film as the more iconic and memorable, but a lot of the depth and thoughtfulness is really in the second half, as we see what happens when these troops, trained by the drill sergeant from hell in the first half’s boot camp, actually hit Vietnam and discover how lacking any type of training is for the real hell of a war like Vietnam. The second half is messier, but it’s intentionally and thought-provokingly messy.
Employee’s Entrance (1933)
This is one of the few films of the year that I planned to write an in-depth post about, but I unfortunately never actually got around to it. Why did I find this piece of apparently Pre-Code fluff so striking? Warren Williams plays a confident, smarmy businessman as he so often does, the general manager of a Manhattan department store trying to keep his business afloat during the Depression – which often calls for reducing staff, making existing staff work longer hours, etc. And this doesn’t even include his horrific treatment of Loretta Young’s character and her fiance, his assistant who he wants unattached to better serve the business. Yet what could’ve been a straight-up underdog film about overthrowing evil Business for the sake of the underlings is actually more nuanced, thoughtful and relevant than I expected; today as in the Great Depression, balancing business and humanitarian regard isn’t always easy.
Kiss Me, Stupid (1964)
What? A slightly regarded late Wilder comedy about a pair of bumbling songwriters carrying out an elaborate ruse to get Dean Martin to listen to their songs is “thought-provoking”? Yeah, I know. I’m probably stretching a bit, but of the late Wilder films I’ve watched recently, this one’s sticking with me to a surprising degree, largely because it employs a level of sexual freedom that I wouldn’t have expected even in 1964, when such things were beginning to loosen up, and it does so with a frankness that’s refreshing even though I may not have ultimately agreed with the characters’ actions.
Now, these films are not meant to be family films. Rather, they’re films about families that are messed up in one way or another. All of these capsules have some plot spoilers.
This is not technically a family, I suppose, but circus troupes operate somewhat as amorphous family units, and this is as unwholesome an amorphous family unit as you could imagine. A bareback rider leads on a smitten (and engaged) dwarf for money, up to a potential inheritance if he marries her, always meaning to run off with the circus strongman instead. This is the stuff of regular melodrama, but heightened by the circus atmosphere and the enforced proximity that traveling with a circus brings.
Jeopardy starts with a wholesome family situation – a mother, father, and son are heading down to vacation on a remote beach in Mexico. Then the father gets caught under a falling pier and the mother (Barbara Stanwyck) has to go for help. The “help” she finds is a criminal on the run, and she has to do…quite unwholesome things to get him to come with her.
When it’s a film noir and Humphrey Bogart is in a bad marriage, you can pretty much bet things aren’t going to stay pretty for long. It’s even more sordid than that, since Bogart is in love with his wife’s sister, who doesn’t return the favor. Bogart can’t catch a break, but he tries his best to murder his way out of the situation.
Days of Heaven (1978)
In kind of a twist on the story of Abraham and Sarah, an itinerant laborer convinces the woman he loves to marry the boss of the plantation they’re working on in order to inherit his fortune (the boss is terminally ill). That’s just a little messed up.
The Fortune Cookie (1966)
When sports cameraman Jack Lemmon gets injured on the field, his smarmy lawyer brother-in-law Walter Matthau convinces him to fake a more serious injury and sue the team for damages. When his ex-wife hears about it, she returns all lovey-dovey as well. The concept of family is pretty much only here as a support system for everyone getting their own.
One of the side effects of intentionally avoiding the hype cycle is that I don’t know as much about movies going into them, which I tend to enjoy, especially when an actor I like turns up in a film and I didn’t even know they were in there.
Miriam Hopkins in The Stranger’s Return (1933)
I mangled reading the description of this film in the TCM Film Festival guide, and thought it was about Lionel Barrymore as an aging father returning home after years away. Actually he’s been home the whole time, and it’s his granddaughter Miriam Hopkins who is the stranger returning from the big city to the family farm. I wouldn’t call myself a Hopkins aficionado necessarily, but I’m growing to appreciate her (and her comedic timing) more and more, and she was definitely a delight here, even if Barrymore remains the center of attention thanks to his unbeatable scene-stealing chops.
Ike & Tina Turner in Gimme Shelter (1970)
I didn’t know anything about the Altamont Concert going into this, I just knew Gimme Shelter was a concert doc about the Rolling Stones from roughly the same time as Woodstock. Having any other bands turn up was a surprise, but it was a particularly cool one to have Ike and Tina Turner on stage – I’m not, like, a big fan of theirs or anything, but their inclusion brought an electricity and sensuality to the film even over and above what the Stones were already doing.
Anne Hathaway in Interstellar (2014)
Yeah, I didn’t know Anne Hathaway was in Interestellar. I knew about McConaughey and Chastain, and guessed Caine because he’s in all of Nolan’s films. But anyway, what made it especially weird was I spent the whole first section of the movie thinking that McConaughey’s daughter looked like she’d grow up to be Anne Hathaway. And then, boom, there’s Anne Hathaway, but NOT playing McConaughey’s grown-up daughter. That seriously messed with my head a little in the middle of the movie.
Adam Baldwin in Full Metal Jacket (1987)
I only knew Adam Baldwin from Firefly and Chuck (and Gamergate, but we won’t go there, because…ugh), so seeing him as one of the soldiers in the second half of Full Metal Jacket was pretty unexpected. Even though it’s a small part, he makes quite an impression.
J.K. Simmons in The Ladykillers (2004)
J.K. Simmons should just be in every movie; I didn’t know he was in this one until he popped up, and I instantly liked the movie at least 47% more than I did before. I didn’t ultimately dislike it anyway, but Simmons’ finger-losing demolitions expert was definitely a highlight.
We can argue about the level of centrality that these ladies are given, but I found all of these female characters well-rounded, interesting and in their own right, and given important things to do within their stories, even if they were ultimately supporting a male hero, as is unfortunately so often the case. These characters still deserve mention.
Natasha Romanov in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Black Widow is presented as Captain America’s equal in pretty much every way in The Winter Soldier, and in fact one of my favorite scenes in the film was just them talking to each other in the car as they went rogue. Scarlett Johansson has had a few movies now to become Black Widow, and it really paid off this time around.
Rita in Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
Rita is so awesome in Edge of Tomorrow that I really want to see the prequel where she has the time gift and is trying to defeat the aliens. There was some deserved criticism that she basically just plays the mentor to Tom Cruise’s hero’s journey, but someone’s gotta do that, and she was pretty incredible.
Anna/Elsa in Frozen (2013)
Frozen does more than pass the Bechdel Test; it has two female lead characters who are both interesting, dynamic, and have their own individual and intersecting arcs. It was pretty great to see.
Adele Blanc-Sec in The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec (2010)
Adele Blanc-Sec is basically like Indiana Jones crossed with Sherlock Holmes, except she’s a French woman. She’s smart, she’s funny, she’s adventurous, and she doesn’t take no for an answer. Oh, also, she can ride pterodactyls.
Madeline in Employees’ Entrance (1933)
Pre-Code ladies are usually forces to be reckoned with, but what I liked so much about Madeline (Loretta Young) is that she’s simultaneously a realist about how the world works (she’s not above a liaison with her boss when it’s convenient for her), and an idealist when it comes to what she really wants. She’s neither virgin nor whore, in the Victorian terminology, which is a dichotomy that even Pre-Codes fell prey to all to often, but instead both realistic and likable.
Helen in Jeopardy (1953)
Helen (Barbara Stanwyck) may be defined to some extent by her single-minded focus on her family, which is in some ways a very traditional wife/mother role, but note that she is here cast as the protector, the role usually given to the husband/father. Helen also goes quite far in her quest to get help – putting her family’s safety above her honor as a woman, which is quite unusual for the time period.
Anna/Ida and Wanda in Ida (2013)
Anna is a Catholic novitiate sent to find out about her past before taking her vows; Wanda is her worldly Jewish aunt who never claimed her from the convent, partially because she knows the dark secrets of her family. Together they embark on an odyssey that affects both of them deeply, in very different ways. Both women are very well-written and acted characters; Wanda is the showier of the two, but Anna’s quiet reserve is wonderful as well.
The actual sideshow performers in Freaks are mesmerizing – first of all because they are admittedly strange and deformed in ways that draw our morbid curiosity, but eventually because their skills in spite of their handicaps are pretty amazing (the Human Torso’s ability to roll and light a cigarette with his mouth, for example), and finally because their humanity proves to be much greater than the “normal” people provided to us for easy identification.
Snowpiercer is to great degree an ensemble film, but Chris Evans’ Curtis is clearly the main character. And he’s fairly interesting himself, but the truly memorable characters are Tilda Swinton’s alternately stentorian and obsequious Mason, Alison Pill’s cheerily pregnant brainwashing teacher, and John Hurt’s wizened spirit guide Gilliam. And others in the ensemble hold their own as well; those were just the three that stuck in my head the most.
A Hole in the Head (1959)
There’s little question that A Hole in the Head is lesser Capra, but I did love one particular thing about it – the main character’s parents are played by Thelma Ritter and Edward G. Robinson, and you can hardly go wrong with that. Indeed, they do a lot with a little, far outshining the slight story and characterization they’re given.
There are a lot of antics to go around in Avanti!, from decades-long secret affairs to coffin thefts to murders, but through it all is Carlo Carlucci, hotel manager par excellence. Carlucci is actually played by New Zealander Clive Revill, apparently known for his Shakespearean roles, but he puts that aside to be an accommodating Italian, always ready to take care of whatever problem might come up in his hotel, no matter how ridiculous.
The Lego Movie (2014)
The Lego Movie is the hero’s journey, from ordinary to saving the world, and lead character Emmett is almost painfully ordinary. Thankfully, the characters surrounding him are not, and my two favorites throughout the film were Good Cop/Bad Cop (Liam Neeson) and Batman (Will Arnett), who riff on well-worn tropes and character traits in hilarious ways.
The classroom in Snowpiercer (2013)
I’ve heard some people complain about the classroom scene being too over the top or out of place with the rest of the film’s tone, but to me it was the most chilling scene in the movie. You can fight against blatant and open oppression and evil, but dealing with brainwashing on this level is a whole different beast.
The parent-teacher meeting in Interstellar (2014)
I’ve also heard some people complain about the whole first act of Interstellar, but in many ways I liked it the best, and this scene is a perfect encapsulation of that. Up until this point, it just seems like we’re dealing with a Dust Bowl (maybe even THE Dust Bowl, until we see the drone), but the parent-teacher meeting is one of the Nolan’s more subtle info-dumps, letting us know we’re actually looking at an apocalyptic world with massive re-education going on, without the kind of blatant exposition that can be a problem for Nolan.
Helen bargaining in Jeopardy (1953)
Helen will do anything to save her husband from being drowned under a collapsed pier – and here we find out just how much “anything” includes. Of course, this being 1953 it’s not totally explicit, but it’s pretty clear. It’s a pretty astounding moment, and it’s highlighted by the most noirish lighting and staging in the film (which is otherwise shot like a more straight-forward thriller).
Football in The Fortune Cookie (1966)
SPOILERS. For the most part, The Fortune Cookie is an enjoyable romp through an attempted insurance scam, but a great ending can elevate a slight movie into something more, and that’s what this ending does. After lying about the severity of an injury at the hands of a star football player, essentially ending his football career before it began, Jack Lemmon finds the despondent young man on the field and they begin tossing a football back and forth. It’s slight, it’s feel-good, and it’s satisfying – not really things I associate with Billy Wilder, but there you go – the man had a heart after all.
There are obviously going to be major plot and ending spoilers in this section, so if you haven’t seen these films and want to, skip at your own discretion.
Grandpa’s crazy! in The Stranger’s Return (1933)
We’ve spent most of this movie loving Grandpa’s eccentricities (Lionel Barrymore has never been more delightful), and then suddenly he apparently contracts advanced dementia, unable to remember where or when he is or who is family is. It’s pretty unexpected, but it all comes clear in the end…delightfully.
resolution in Ministry of Fear (1944)
I liked Fritz Lang’s Ministry of Fear overall, about a man recently released from an asylum who accidentally gets involved in a spy ring, which tests his fragile sanity. The ending, though, feels a bit pat and convenient. I’m fine with it and it didn’t really strike me negatively (I know it has some people), but it’s definitely something of an unbelievable twist if you really think about it.
attempted murder in What About Bob (1991)
Well, that escalated quickly. Richard Dreyfuss really loses it in this movie, huh? Bob (Bill Murray) obviously got under his skin, but I was absolutely not expecting it to go as far and as dark as it did.
supernatural whaaaaaaa in Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
I went into this knowing very little about it other than it was supposed to be big, ridiculous fun. It’s certainly that, but the supernatural element took me by surprise. It worked out quite well, but when Lo Pan turned up, I did quite a triple-take.
gaslighting in Conflict (1946)
After Humphrey Bogart kills his wife to escape his unhappy marriage (and try to woo his wife’s sister), he suddenly sees his dead wife everywhere. Did she somehow survive? Is he crazy? WHO KNOWS? The resolution could be seen as a bit easy (like Ministry of Fear), but I liked it and it fits well with the movie. But it’s not what I was expecting from a Bogart-led noir.
murder in Hat Check Girl (1932)
This movie is 64 minutes long. Barely a feature. After about 55 of those minutes (filled with witty Pre-Code innuendo, rich man/poor girl relationships, bootlegging, etc.), there’s a murder and a false accusation of one of our main characters. It’s completely out of the blue and with only like ten minutes of the film left, there’s not much time for development. By this point in the film, though, you just kind of have to take it in stride, because the film does. Doesn’t mean it’s less of a WTF moment.
everything that happened in The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec (2010)
There’s not a single thing that’s believable in Adele Blanc-Sec, and that’s perfectly okay. There wasn’t a scene that went by where I wasn’t going “okay, so now THIS is happening.” But the big one is when Adele decides to tame and ride the escaped pterodactyl. Yep.
murder in Avanti! (1972)
Avanti! could double as a travelogue for the coast of Italy, with “ugly” American Jack Lemmon blustering in to claim the body of his father and forced to slow down and learn to appreciate Italy as his father had. Then there’s an Italian valet who wants to get back to America to get away from his pregnant girlfriend – who overhears and shoots him point blank in the face. It plays into the main plot, but it’s one of those “she’s not really going to…oh, she did” moments.
Hitch-hiker’s dead eye in The Hitch-Hiker (1955)
If you’re going to pick up hitch-hikers, first make sure he’s not a hardened criminal. Second, make sure he doesn’t have a dead eye that never closes and stares at you all the time so you never know whether he can see you or not. Third, might as well just make sure you’re not in a movie. Picking up hitch-hikers rarely works well in a movie (It Happened One Night notwithstanding). It’s been a couple of months since we watched The Hitch-Hiker, and that eye is still haunting me.
The entirety of Freaks (1932)
This is kind of a gimme. But it’s an interesting one, since the circus freaks are actually more sympathetic for the most part than the non-freak characters. But then, that ending, when the freaks administer their form of justice…yeah, it’s freaky.
Charles Laughton’s leer in Island of Lost Souls (1932)
There’s one shot in Island of Lost Souls that’s just Charles Laughton sitting there grinning, thinking about his horrible experiments. It’s the one shot of the film I can’t forget.
Tilda Swinton’s teeth in Snowpiercer (2013)
And the glasses. And her mannerisms. But mostly the teeth, for some reason.
Bogart in the woods in Conflict (1946)
It’s the “this is how you know it’s noir” shot in the film, with Bogart’s silhouette materializing out of the woods where his wife’s car has stopped. She thinks he’s a stranger who might help her, but we know different. It’s Bogart’s classic silhouette – trench coat and fedora, but he’s not ultimately honorable Rick Blaine or dogged detective Philip Marlowe here. His intentions are as dark as the woods that surround him.
Sarah Jessica Chihuahua in Mars Attacks! (1996)
I enjoyed most of Mars Attacks!, to be quite honest (particularly the unreserved glee with which the aliens broke every assumed peace treaty), but the Sarah Jessica Parker/Chihuahua head/body switch kind of rubbed me the wrong way. It was creepy, and not in the good way that all these other creepy things were.
Not gonna write each of these up individually, since there aren’t really specific kills I’m thinking of in each case (if I had written this right after watching them, I might’ve come up with a few, but months later, not a chance). But these movies all had well-planned, well-executed (ha!) and imaginative kills in them.
Battle Royale (2000)
[Rec] 3: Genesis (2012)
The Raid 2 (2014)
“Lawgiver” pistols in Dredd (2013)
Dredd had some pretty cool stuff going on, but these voice-activated, DNA-coded pistols stood out the most to me. Well, along with the idea of a drug that makes slo-mo seem purposeful instead of just cool-looking (which it also is).
Yondu’s arrow in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
From the first time you see Yondu lovingly but menacingly point out his single arrow, you know that eventually that thing’s gonna be fired. Chekhov’s gun and all that. And when it finally is, it’s totally worth the wait, giving us one of the coolest scenes in a very cool movie.
The crazy teeth bungie cord in The Goonies (1985)
Data was pretty much my favorite kid in Goonies from the start, but when he whipped out his teeth bungie cord contraption to get them out of a scrape, it was solidified. That makes two characters named Data that I think are awesome.
Predator-vision in Predator (1987)
This was cool because it was sort of simultaneously high and low tech. It looked pretty rough, though whether that was intentional or because ’80s graphics are kind of rough I’m not sure, but it worked with the film, giving you the impression of a creature that couldn’t see very well, but whose other senses more than made up for it. I also really liked the fact that the Predator has a lot of tech – I expected him to be animalistic, but he’s packing a lot of gear that enables him to be effective.
This category will likely be bigger next year as I try to complete a few more director’s filmographies; this year it’s heavy on Billy Wilder with a couple of bonus ones.
Kiss Me Stupid (1964) / Avanti! (1972) / The Front Page (1974)
I’d been putting off late Billy Wilder films for quite a while, since most of them don’t have nearly the lofty reputation of his 1944-1960 work. I’m really glad I got to these, though – I’ve really enjoyed most of them, but especially these three. They’re all comedies, of varying degrees of zaniness, that allow Wilder’s trademark witty dialogue to come through, but they also have a bit more heart than I expected from the old cynic. Very worth delving into.
The Ladykillers (2004)
For a long time, The Ladykillers was all that stood between me and a complete Coen Brothers filmography, and I finally decided enough was enough, and I should bite the bullet no matter how bad this film was supposed to be. And you know what? It’s…not that bad. I mean, it’s pretty slight compared to most of the Coen filmography, but it’s a fun little crime caper on its own, with the Coens’ trademark dark humor and quirky supporting cast.
You Only Live Once (1937)
As I slowly (slowly!) work my way through Fritz Lang’s filmography, I’m finding more and more interesting noirish crime films that probably ought to be better known than they are, and this is no exception. This one is 1937, so not TECHNICALLY noir, but it’s about as proto-noir as you could hope for, with Henry Fonda as a criminal trying to go straight (but failing) and Sylvia Sidney as the woman who loves him for better or worse (mostly worse). Solid evocation of Depression-era struggles mixed with the hopelessness of the eventual noir outlook.
Sometimes you see a movie and you’re just like, “why did I wait so long to see that!” These are those films.
Full Metal Jacket (1987)
I put this one off because I’m not that big a war film fan, and I’d already seen some of the drill sergeant scenes and I figured I kind of had the idea. Thankfully Jonathan set me down and was like, no, you really should watch this. Blew me away, and I actually liked both halves of it pretty equally.
The Goonies (1985)
I put this one off because I never saw it as a kid, and I was afraid that, like most ’80s movies that most people saw as kids, it wouldn’t work for me. In fact, based on conversations I’ve had since watching it, I may be the only person in the world who saw it for the first time as an adult and loved it. Maybe my ’80s curse is fading away, or maybe I’m just a sucker for adventure stories with kids, treasure maps and pirate ships.
The Karate Kid (1984)
Ditto above, in terms of why I avoided it, and this again is one Jonathan wanted me to check out. I thought I’d like it okay but think it was kind of lame, but I actually enjoyed it quite a bit. Crazily enough, I’d heard people say “wax on wax off” many times before, but I had never connected it with this movie or known what the context was. I’m very glad to add that little bit of pop culture knowledge to my memory banks.
I put this one off because Kurosawa is hit or miss with me, no matter how much I know I’m supposed to like his stuff. I liked Yojimbo well enough, but didn’t love it, so going into this one was a matter of tempered expectations, and maybe that’s why this one worked so well for me. I ended up loving it – it’s a great mix of action and subtle comedy, and just about every second is gold.
I have no excuse for why I put this one off – I’ve wanted to see it for ages, and had it on my Blind Spot list a couple of times, and STILL never got to it. This year I had it on my DVR and decided enough was enough. And yeah, it’s every bit as strange and offputting and compelling and magnetic as I’d heard. It’s a tough one to try to critique, so I’m glad I don’t write reviews anymore. :) But I am very glad to have finally gotten it under my belt.
I think in some ways this is what film lovers are always looking for when we watch a film, isn’t it? A film that makes us go “yes! This is it – this is why I love movies.” These films gave me that feeling this year, for various reasons.
These Amazing Shadows (2010)
This is a documentary about the National Film Registry, the list of American films marked by the Library of Congress as culturally, historically, or artistically important for preservation. Every year 25 films are added to the list, some of them bona fide classics, others there for more historical reasons, several of them well-known, others highly obscure. It’s a fascinating list of films, and the documentary talks about how the idea for such a preservation list came into being, how films are nominated and selected, and includes plenty of interviews and footage from films that really highlight the wonderful film heritage we have. There’s nothing like watching clips from hundreds of amazing films to remind you why you love cinema.
Full Metal Jacket (1987)
I’m a big fan of pretty much every Kubrick film I’ve seen, and Full Metal Jacket was no exception; the filmmaking here is just on a level above most other filmmakers ever. From the clockwork precision of the camp to the sloppy messiness of the Vietnam War, Kubrick matches style and substance perfectly. This one isn’t an emotional pick by any means, but a marvel of filmmaking precision that can’t be beat.
Here’s the emotional pick. :) Folks are comparing Interstellar to 2001: A Space Odyssey, which in one way is ludicrous (2001 is cerebral where Interstellar is emotional, 2001 is about evolution where Interstellar is about preservation, 2001 is precise where Interstellar is a sometimes a bit sloppy, 2001 is vague where Interstellar is direct), but in another way exactly right – Interstellar IS the 2001 that Christopher Nolan would make, and I’m on board with that. I haven’t cried a lot at movies this year, but I’m not ashamed to admit that Interstellar broke me in a good way.
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
For pure fun at the movies, nothing beat Guardians of the Galaxy this year, and it was a welcome shift from the seriousness of most blockbusters these days (even Captain America: The Winter Soldier was pretty series, though Marvel is generally not as much of an offender on this front as most studios – and The Winter Soldier was serious in all the right ways, don’t get me wrong). But sitting down and seeing Chris Pratt dance his way across the screen put me in a great mood, and it didn’t let up the entire movie. This is not the only reason I go to the movies, but it’s a big one.
The Stranger’s Return (1933) / Employees’ Entrance (1933)
I’ve told the story many times of my being the last person in to see The Stranger’s Return at the TCM Festival, despite it not being one of the top ones on my wishlist, and it ending up being my favorite thing I saw there this year. It’s remained near the top of my list all year, and Employees’ Entrance (which played TCM Fest, but I didn’t see it until it popped up on Warner Archive Instant later this year) merely solidified how much I’m coming to love the Pre-Code era. I always have to one degree or another, but the freshness of the filmmaking in that era is simply beguiling, and these two films renewed my interest in seeking out not just other Pre-Codes, but lesser-known classic-era Hollywood films in general.
Charles Laughton in Island of Lost Souls (1932)
If only for that one leer (mentioned above under “Creepiest Things”), Laughton deserves a mention here. Like Lionel Barrymore, Laughton is a well-known scenery-chewer, and this is no different, but that’s absolutely okay. He plays Dr. Moreau with an amoral glee that simultaneously horrifying and mesmerizing.
Walter Matthau in The Fortune Cookie (1966)
Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau made a great team in several movies, but in The Fortune Cookie at least, I have to give Matthau the edge – his ethically-challenged lawyer is a delight to watch no matter how underhanded he gets.
Jack Lemmon in Avanti! (1972)
I’ve seen a LOT of Jack Lemmon movies lately, thanks to my late Wilder marathon, and he’s a more than solid actor, both comedic and dramatic. I could’ve tagged just about any of his Wilder performances as impressive, but his turn in Avanti! won me over with its combination of bluster, exasperation, and eventual warmth.
Toshiro Mifune in Sanjuro (1962)
I’ve seen Mifune in several other Kurosawa films, but now I have to go back and watch them all again, because I loved him in Sanjuro way more than I ever have before. He’s an effective ronin, smart and capable and independent, but he’s also quite funny in a very dry, sardonic way. He’s really got no reason to get involved in the plot’s machinations (a group of bumbling nobles trying to root out government corruption), but he does anyway, casting an exasperated eye on everything the nobles try (and fail) to do, then bailing them out. The plot is fine, but the film is really carried by Mifune’s charismatic performance.
Lionel Barrymore in The Strangers Return (1933)
Barrymore is always a scene-stealer, but he’s the center of attention here, even when an illicit love story between his granddaughter and the married man on the neighboring farm threatens to take over the movie. His crotchety grandpa is holding down the farm against his conniving daughters-in-law, who are basically waiting for him to die so they can inherit the profits. He’s not having it, and combats them with sarcasm, wit, and shear strength of personality. Every second he’s on screen is hilarious, and not just because of one of the greatest beards of the year.
Vincent D’Onofrio in Full Metal Jacket (1987)
This is pretty much a gimme; D’Onofrio is clumsy and funny and pitiful and sympathetic for most of the beginning of the film – the recruit who just can’t do anything right, but keeps trying anyway, even when his failings get the whole squad in trouble with the sergeant over and over. Then, when he snaps…terrifying. It’s absolutely the most incredible thing I saw in a film this year. R. Lee Ermey obviously deserves a mention, too.
Tilda Swinton / Alison Pill in Snowpiercer (2013)
Tilda Swinton is easily one of the standout performances of the year, there’s no doubt about that. It’s bold and weird and off-putting and strangely sympathetic and insanely memorable. I don’t even need to sell it. I will just put in a secondary plug for Alison Pill as the schoolteacher in the scene I found perhaps the most chilling. She impresses me more in every film (could this role be any different than sardonic Kim in Scott Pilgrim?).
Ginger Rogers in Hat Check Girl (1932)
Ginger is supporting in this film, the best friend of the main character played by Sally Eilers, but Ginger has a way of stealing focus whenever she’s on screen, especially in Pre-Codes like this. She’s also a hat check girl, but has no qualms about getting a little extra dough bootlegging, or whatever other opportunities come her way. Her character’s nickname in 42nd Street is Anytime Annie, and that would apply just as well here. She also gets all the best Pre-Code lines in the film.
Barbara Stanwyck in Jeopardy (1953)
Barbara Stanwyck is one of my all-time favorite actresses, so it shouldn’t be surprising to find her on this list in whatever I happened to see her in. Jeopardy is for the most part a relatively straight-forward thriller, but Stanwyck carries it all on her shoulders, using a variety of tactics and tricks from direct to psychological to seductive to try to get help for her family, and she is more than up to the task.
Juliet Mills in Avanti! (1972)
I’ve complained in many venues (Letterboxd, Twitter, podcasts) about the way Juliet Mills’ Pamela kept on about her weight, but leaving that aside (which is a writing problem), I found her extremely charming and warm, maybe one of the most genuinely appealing women Wilder has ever written, aside from the irritating weight thing, and I think a lot of that is due to Mills’ winning performance.
Kim Novak in Kiss Me, Stupid (1964)
Novak is an underrated actress, I think, and Kiss Me Stupid supports that hypothesis. She plays a barmaid/floozy type character hired to…*deep breath*…impersonate a songwriter’s wife while Dean Martin (playing himself) stays at his house, expressly so Martin can seduce her (still thinking she’s the songwriter’s wife) and thus stay long enough for the songwriter to have the opportunity to sell Martin on his songs. Yeah, I know. Novak is playing multiple levels here, because she wants what the real wife has in terms of home, husband, and family, but she expressly can’t really reveal that because she knows she’s only playing a part. Lots of this film is very silly, but it has a lot of heart, too, and quite frankly, most of that comes from Novak.
Agata Kulesza in Ida (2013)
I could put up either of the two ladies in Ida for this, because they are both excellent at the roles they’re given (see above under “awesome female characters” for details), but Agata Kulesza as Wanda, the older woman, gets the slight edge, perhaps unfairly, because she has the more complicated/showy role. Wanda is a woman of the world, and at first she seems superficial, merely a woman who doesn’t want to have to care for her orphan niece. But soon her bitterness about the past and the loss that Anna/Ida represents comes into sharp focus. And because the film is framed unconventionally, she’s often acting with her body – her head falling out of frame in sorrow, or her leg movements carrying through the characterization than most actresses show on their faces.
Kiss Me, Stupid (1964)
As I’ve pointed out several times above, the premise and plot for this are pretty dang silly, but somehow the film made me go along with them, plus Kim Novak’s performance plus some surprising and bittersweet relationship twists near the end pushed me over the edge into really liking the film much more than I thought I would.
The Karate Kid (1984)
I figured this would be impossibly ’80s and impossibly “inspirational” in the way that grates on me, but I ended up quite enjoying it and getting invested in Daniel’s story.
The Goonies (1985)
So far everyone I’ve talked to who saw The Goonies for the first time as an adult disliked it, and with that plus my anti-’80s bias, I certainly expected to feel the same, but I was drawn right into the adventure just as sure as if I had been seven. And wow, would I have loved this movie when I was seven.
The Frighteners (1996)
This was one of Jon’s picks for movie night, and I knew very little about it. I don’t think I’d seen any of Peter Jackson’s pre-LotR films (no, I’d seen Forgotten Silver), but I’d heard they could be on the weird side, so I was prepared to find this both too off the wall and too scary for me. It was neither – it hit right in my sweet spot of goofy and suspenseful, and the special effects were far better than I expected as well.
Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
Thanks to a lackluster marketing campaign and title, I figured this would be just another generic Tom Cruise-saves-the-world sci-fi action flick, but thankfully enough people talked positively about it that we decided to take a flyer on it, and I’m so glad we did. The action and comedy are both played right in my wheelhouse, and the story took the premise (which is great already) in some pretty unexpected and interesting directions.
This is pretty self-explanatory – largely thinking in terms of cinematography, but also every other visual element of a film, including set design, art decoration, costuming, etc.
Full Metal Jacket (1987)
I’m not sure Kubrick CAN make a film that doesn’t look good, and while this one isn’t as iconically stunning as 2001 or A Clockwork Orange, it definitely has its fair share of lovely shots, from the precision symmetry of boot camp to the flames of Vietnam.
Days of Heaven (1978)
You know any Terrence Malick film is going to be on a list of most beautiful films – the cinematography in this is simply marvelous, capturing the “magic hour” dusklight and transforming a rural plantation like a thousand other rural plantations into a mythic place of larger-than-life struggles.
Vanishing on 7th Street (2010)
I actually enjoyed quite a bit about this film, despite it not making a lot of appearances in this post, but I thought the way Brad Anderson used light and dark to tell the story and build suspense was quite effective.
From the dust-swept plains to the grandeur of space to the whirling of the black hole and the starkness of water and ice planets, Interstellar looks pretty stunning throughout.
You’d think an entire movie set on a speeding train would get kind of boring to look at, but Bong Joon-ho isn’t about to let that happen, and every shot is perfectly set up and executed. Throw in some snow shots outside the train, some virtuoso scenes like the fire fight and a few varieties of luxury cars that starkly contrast with the squalor of the rear, and Snowpiercer remains visually entrancing throughout.
Billy Wilder made a majority of his films in black and white and often focusing on mundane interiors, even into the 1960s, so I wasn’t quite prepared for the explosion of color and beauty in Avanti!. I mean, you shoot stuff on the Amalfi Coast, it’s probably going to look gorgeous, right? I pretty much want to book my ticket now.
The Great Gatsby (2013)
I’m a total sucker for Baz Luhrmann’s visual style, and Gatsby was no exception; the excess that is Luhrmann’s trademark manages to fit perfectly with Fitzgerald’s nouveau riche West Eggers.
Filming in stark Academy ratio and brisk black and white, Pawel Pawlikowski uses both to the best of his abilities, employing unusual framing to off-center his protagonists and the audience, and black and white to pare everything down to essentials. It’s a perfect marriage of form and theme.
Sometimes you just want to sit and smile through a whole movie, and walk out with a fist-punch in the air. These are those kind of films.
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Possibly the most fun I’ve had in a theatre for a few years now, basically a throwback to (yep, I’m gonna say it) Star Wars and Indiana Jones-style whiz-bang adventure fun. I’m definitely on board with that.
Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
I’d heard this was big dumb fun, ’80s style, and was it ever. Lots of action, most of it solid, all of it hilarious – a lot of it is played for comedy right down the line, which is fine for me. Add in a crazysauce supernatural element and yeah.
The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec (2010)
I was excited for this French Luc Besson film since I first heard about it in like 2009, and then it took forEVER to get to the US. Thankfully I kept it in the back of my mind and remembered it when it popped onto Netflix, because despite the mixed reviews I’d read, this was exactly my kind of movie. Kick-ass female protagonist? Check. Nonsensical plot developments that somehow follow a crazy kind of logic? Check. Sarcasm mixed with idealism? Check.
The Stranger’s Return (1933)
This was my favorite film from this year’s TCM Film Festival pretty handily, and that’s thanks in large part to simply how fun it is to watch Lionel Barrymore be a crotchety old man.
The Frighteners (1996)
Combination goofy and suspenseful but not to scary, with silly ghosts mucking it up for people? Yeah, that’s my kind of thing.
The Goonies (1985)
Adventure, treasure maps, booby traps, pirate ships – what more could you want? (I know, I know, many of you are going to have a quick answer to that particular question, but for me, those things were the foundation that kept The Goonies working for me right down to the end.)
The Lego Movie (2014)
On a scene-by-scene, line-by-line basis, this may just be the laugh-out-loud funniest film I saw all year; almost all of the jokes, references, and impersonations were spot-on and hilarious.
Most of the categories are arranged in random order, or the order in which I thought of them; this one is very specifically arranged in the order I personally saw the films to avoid any semblance of ranking. I’ve written about all of them in other categories enough that you can probably figure out why each one made my list of favorites, so I’m not going to bother to reiterate what I’ve already said. These are the films that made the biggest impression on me throughout the year, and that have stayed with me in the weeks and months since I watched them.
Full Metal Jacket (1987)
The Stranger’s Return (1933)
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Employees’ Entrance (1933)
I only played a few games this year, so I just picked my favorites of those few.
Valiant Hearts: The Great War
This is an Ubisoft Montreal game out for various platforms for about $15 (I’m never sure what to call this level of game; they’re obviously not $60 AAA games, but they’re not indies either); it’s basically a puzzle/story game set during WWI. I cried multiple times during this game. It’s that moving. You cycle between five characters – a Frenchman, his German son-in-law (who gets deported and forced into the German army), an American who joins the effort before America does, and a Belgian veterinary student who becomes a nurse and taxi driver. The puzzles are challenging but fun (and the hint system is helpful when you need it but not intrusive), there are some timed action scenes that add variety, but mostly the story is just great. Simple, but great, and with a lot of accurate historical detail. You could seriously use this game to teach WWI history, and I hope people do. A lot of it is told through narration, but some of the most gut-punching moments are simply in the gameplay – like the moment when you’re in the Battle of the Somme and your commander just keeps ordering you forward again and again and at one point, you move forward behind the cover of the dead bodies of the infantrymen who moved forward just in front of you. The graphic style is very comic-booky, which takes away from what otherwise would’ve been an incredibly gory game, but somehow that just makes moments like this more effective.
Dragon Age: Inquisition
I’m a big fan of pretty much everything BioWare has done – except Dragon Age: Origins, which pissed me off so much with its unforgiving combat that I never finished it and didn’t play Dragon Age 2 at all. Thankfully I read a bunch of glowing reviews of Dragon Age: Inquisition and jumped back into the series, because this one combines the best parts of Mass Effect (conversation, relationships, and full voice acting) with the setting of Skyrim and simplified the combat so I can play the way I like to, instead of the more intense strategic view way, which is still there for difficult battles or for players who like that kind of thing. For me, the story and the characters are what drives my interest in games like this, and both are done extremely well here (to be fair, I’m about halfway through the main storyline right now, so I can’t speak to all of it). The dialogue is good, the characters are great and a benchmark for diversity in gaming, and I pretty much want to jump back into this world every chance I get.
I don’t play too many iOS games, really, aside from time-killers like Tiny Tower, but after becoming a big fan of the Isometric podcast, I had to check out co-host Brianna Wu’s new game, and it’s a solid step for iOS gaming. It also uses a Mass Effect-style conversation wheel, but explodes the number of ending options based both on your decisions throughout the game and your effectiveness at the combat – there are at least 24 different possible endings, and they’re all well-written and considered, with pros and cons to all of them. I appreciate that kind of nuanced storytelling (and cast of awesome and distinctive female characters!) and I’m looking forward to more of it from Wu’s Giant Spacekat studio.
This has ended up on a number of “most disappointing” lists this year, and I’ll be the first to agree the story is pretty standard/disappointing and the hacking aspect of the gameplay isn’t as powerful as the next-gen prophets foretold. That said, I’ve still found it quite enjoyable, with lots of stuff to do in an Ubisoft-typical open world environment, and a lot of the story missions are really fun to play and well-planned in terms of action set-pieces. I’m not disappointed I got it, and I do intend to go back and complete the parts I’ve missed after I’m finished with Dragon Age: Inquisition.
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
This book was basically written for me; far and away the most “me” book I’ve read for a long while. The seemingly normal everyday life, with everyday problems, but with a bit of weirdness along the edges, until the weirdness breaks through and takes over. The little hints that something more is going on just below the surface, if I could just tie everything together. The way when the weirdness finally takes center stage, everything from before just comes crashing in to make perfect and exhilarating sense. The combination of the near past and the near future, and how seamlessly the book transitions between them, from a chronicle of a generation before mine to quiet science fiction. The sci-fi parts are what interested me and kept me going, but the everyday humanity parts are what have stuck with me.
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
The Night Circus just appears, no advance warning, and no fanfare – what’s behind this circus is a long-lasting rivalry between two magicians, an ongoing competition they set between their apprentices, and the entanglements and complications that arise over the course of many years of this game that has no clear rules or way to win. The book is nearly as beguiling as the Circus itself.
Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
I’ve had this combination true crime/history book on my list for many years, and finally realized this year that Jon owned a copy and settled in with it. It’s about the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and the infamous serial killer who murdered several women in Chicago in the years leading up to and during the Fair. It’s alternately inspiring and chilling, told with a narrative drive that wouldn’t be out of place in fiction. It’s not hard to see why this book is as perennially popular as it is (I swear, it’s on one of the featured tables at Barnes and Noble ALL THE TIME even though it’s several years old now) – it fits the description “unput-down-able” to a t.
The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler
I’ve seen a lot of film versions of Chandler’s books (including Altman’s 1973 version of this one), but hadn’t read too many of them before this. I definitely need to step that up, because not only do they have interesting plots and characters (which crosses over into good movies), but Chandler is an exceedingly good writer on a sentence and paragraph level (which doesn’t).
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankenweiler by E.L. Konigsburg / Matilda by Roald Dahl
One thing I did this year was read a bunch of middle-school level books, ostensibly to give me a leg up when Karina gets there, but in some ways also because I needed a bit of a soft curve back into reading regularly, which I haven’t done since I graduated from grad school. These two were easily the best, and quickly helped me rediscover me love of reading so I could move onto more challenging things. Somehow I missed both of these in my own middle school years, but I’ll make sure that doesn’t happen to Karina!
The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith
Like many people, I became very interested in this mystery novel after I found out that Robert Galbraith was really J.K. Rowling, but it still took me a while to get to it. I’m glad I did, because it turns out she CAN write other stuff than Harry Potter and do it very well, too. The mystery in this is solid, but the real meat is the relationship between all-but-washed-up detective Cormoran Strike and his extremely capable and eager new secretary Robin. It’s not a romantic relationship, which makes it even better. They’re basically co-protagonists, with some chapters being from Robin’s point of view and others from Cormoran’s (all told in third person), which gives the book a nice variety of perspectives and keeps it from being mired down in one person’s psychology, which can sometimes happen with detective fiction in this vein. Definitely looking forward to picking up the sequel.
The Peripheral by William Gibson
Interestingly, this Gibson book also does the joint protagonist thing like the Galbraith book; I wonder if that’s Game of Thrones perspective play infiltrating other writing, or is this a longer trend that I’m just now clueing into? Anyway, Gibson’s protagonists are a professional gamer named Flynne in our near future and the further future Wilf Netherton, who’s embroiled in a lot of complicated stuff. Suffice it to say that there’s a way for the future worlders to reach back and contact Flynne’s world, and that gets all of them into big trouble, but may also save at least some of them. Lots of heady ideas here, which he refreshingly but maddeningly doesn’t explain for the longest time – the first 50 pages or so are really obscure and kind of hard to figure out even what’s going on – but they ultimately pay off pretty well.