And so dawns Christmas week and arrives an end-of-year feature we dread, oddly (you can check out all our Best of 2014 coverage here). It’s where The Playlist team members loses a bunch of respect for certain other teammates when we discover the films that we individually regard as the most over- and underrated of the year.
The whole notion of “overrated” and “underrated” (particularly the former) is problematic: it implies two value judgements about a film —its quality and the perception of its quality/reputation. It’s difficult enough to agree on the first aspect, but trying to gauge the second adds another layer of subjectivity. But let’s say in the broadest terms that how we determine how a film is “rated” has little to do with box office (“Maleficent” and “Transformers: Age of Extinction” may have made way, way more money than we preferred, but that doesn’t mean anyone’s gonna call them “overrated”) and more to do with a generalized idea of how it has been received by people who should know better: other critics, peers and fellow Playlisters. So it’s not even necessarily that the overrated picks are “bad” films, but that their signal-to-noise ratio is all out of whack.
So this is the feature (like the mid year Worst/Most Disappointing and Underrated/Underseen features) where we unlink our arms, drop the united-front façade, and back away from each other slowly and warily as we realize that among our very own ranks, some very dodgy opinions are harbored about movies, by people we once considered friends. Emphatically not presented in the first person plural “we” form in which we usually write, here are the films our nutty staff feel got too little or too much shine in 2014.
Overrated: “Goodbye to Language”
Strange how many top 10 lists this film landed on. Our own Oli Lyttelton even succumbed to its (anti-)charms. “Is it difficult, abrasive and pretentious?” he asked in his review. “Absolutely. But there are worse things to be than any of those.” There are indeed far worse things than making a challenging, experimental 3D film. But where’s the ambition that made Jean-Luc Godard’s name and which so many critics are bending over backwards to find in this work? There’s a tossed-off quality to “Goodbye To Language” that feels hollow. Notwithstanding a few nice visual tricks aside, I felt bludgeoned by an unpleasant experience, like watching a schizophrenic’s Vine page cut together at random. If that sounds like fun (a term bafflingly used to describe the movie in The Dissolve’s review), you can probably find plenty of that online. So why does “Goodbye to Language” play in competition at the Cannes Film Festival and even get distribution to screen in theaters? Because Godard. That’s why. That kind of auteurist glad-handing would be less aggravating if it weren’t so transparent and lazy. When so many cliched critical descriptors abound (“rapturous experience,” “revelatory,” “exhilarating”), one can feel as if they’re missing some grander point. In the end, this was the longest 70-minute film I’ve ever seen. What was I watching? I’ll let Matt Zoller Seitz’s effusive review explain: it’s “as close as we’ll get to being able to be Godard, sitting there thinking, or dreaming. It’s a documentary of a restless mind.” While Godard has certainly earned his place on the mantle of cinematic legends, I’d rather not get lost inside his brain, thank you very much.
Underrated: “The Boxtrolls”
It’s not that Laika’s latest hasn’t done well (earning more than $100 million worldwide and mostly positive reviews). It’s just that as the most cinematic, heartwarming, funny, inventive and peculiar animated film to grace screens this year, “The Boxtrolls” deserves so much more. It’s one thing to be outgrossed by “The Lego Movie,” “Big Hero 6” and “How To Train Your Dragon 2.” But when tired afterthoughts like “Rio 2,” “Penguins of Madagascar,” ”Planes: Fire and Rescue” and “Mr. Peabody & Sherman” also earn more than “The Boxtrolls,” something’s amiss. I guess it’s just more evidence of the huge disadvantage for the little guys in getting seen as much as the behemoths with never-ending marketing budgets. For now, Laika has at least earned a place at the table with Disney, Pixar and Dreamworks. But it will take a long time and even more blood and sweat to be as ubiquitous as those three studios and then earn that kind of box office clout and crossover appeal. Either way, if you love animated films, this was the best of a very good year, full of innovative filmmaking that combined old and new technologies, a progressive message of acceptance and family and characters that feel as real and lived-in as the actual, tactile puppets used to bring them to life.
The buzz out of Cannes was deafening, even from our own team (who were quoted at length in early posters), but when I finally saw “Foxcatcher,” at a New York Film Festival press screening, I couldn’t believe how cold it left me. The fictionalized account of the events leading up to the bizarre murder of a former Olympic wrestler at the hands of a weirdo millionaire is so emotionally distant that it feels like the first major motion picture directed entirely by an NSA surveillance drone. Director Bennett Miller, a filmmaker known mostly for immaculate bores like “Capote” and “Moneyball,” seems hell bent on sapping the absurdity from a story that is drenched in the potential for gallows humor. Instead, he outfits Steve Carell in a distracting amount of prosthetics (can’t he just, you know, act?) and focuses on tiny interactions that never add up to a cohesive whole; the narrative’s forward momentum is so weak that it barely trickles. When Anthony Michael Hall, as a seedy enabler, out-charms cast members like Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo, you know that there’s a problem. The rapturous response becomes even more baffling when you consider anyone having any kind of response to this movie besides indifference, or maybe (again) a kind of long-range appreciation for Miller and his craft. “Foxcatcher” is as beautiful and delicate as a snow globe… and engaging for about as long.
Underrated: “A Walk Among the Tombstones”
The trailers for “A Walk Among the Tombstones” made the movie seem like the latest in the long line of Liam Neeson thrillers where he exacts bloodthirsty revenge on the anonymous (mostly Eastern European) goons who have done him wrong. But the film was anything but that; instead, it was an expertly paced, marvelously written-and-directed modern noir that easily stands as one of Neeson’s best and most vital performances in recent memory. The movie (based on a mystery novel by Lawrence Block) takes place in New York City in 1999; the city is gripped with fear over the Y2K bug, and that pre-millennial tension hums throughout writer/director Scott Frank‘s film, although it’s not what the film is about (there are a couple of very nasty fellows doing very nasty things). It’s odd that a movie this well crafted and exciting was so universally ignored (critics were indifferent and it failed to recoup its $28 million budget, at least domestically) and it’s easy to imagine the film getting rediscovered a few years down the line, with people stumbling across it on Netflix and wondering, How did I miss this? Good question….
Overrated: “Obvious Child”
Gillian Robespierre’s debut romcom featured on our mid-year Underrated list, but here it is on the flipside. And it’s definitely not here for its politics —its depiction of an uncomplicated, unproblematic, liberating decision by the central character Donna (Jenny Slate) to get an abortion is one of the few things the film gets right. But as for the rest? Yeesh: “Obvious Child” is indeed obviously and boringly childish. In its “daring” opening with Donna’s standup material about vaginal discharge —the kind of material that might have been edgy in a mid-90s alternative comedy routine, maybe; in its “daring” decision to have David Cross play an asshole; in its “daring” use of a gay character who talks about gay sex. The problems start right with that vaginal discharge bit: it isn’t funny and nor is the rest of the movie’s standup, including the final triumphal moment where Donna supposedly finds her voice with a new monologue which is no different from her early ramblings, only now bulked out with a laugh track. Add to that the obviousness of the plot, the flatness of the direction, the oh-so-2007 jokes about Facebook stalking, and the whole thing (excellent performances from Richard Kind and Gaby Hoffmann aside) is a huge disappointment.
At this dark time when freedom is threatened, all those who love justice must stand with Seth Rogen (and the Franco brothers) and affirm that the Rogen-starring and -produced comedy that did manage to reach theaters in 2014 was pretty great. But seriously, “Neighbors” was completely balls-out hilarious, definitely 2014’s “21 Jump Street” or even its “Bridesmaids.” As is often the case with pleasingly puerile movies, it was enjoyed by audiences and critics and then quickly left off most “best of” lists, which is a shame. “Neighbors” was Rogen’s funniest work since “50/50,” but more importantly, it highlights two under-appreciated actors: Rose Byrne and Zac Efron. They’ve taken very different paths —Byrne doing thankless roles in more serious big-deal movies until she was finally allowed to show her funny side, Efron playing it straight as a teen idol for long enough that he can now gleefully riff on it— but “Neighbors” will hopefully be the start of something big for them. It’s also one of those rare films which you can already tell that in 20 years’ time it will completely epitomize the distant weirdnesses of the 2010s, with its semi-ironically awful soundtrack and gruesomely childish frat culture theme: if you’re young now, you’ll be able to enjoy it all over again then, on the other side of the generation gap the movie shows so well.
Overrated: “The Theory Of Everything”
“The Theory of Everything” isn’t terrible. It’s fine. But that almost makes it worse, because if it were terrible, it would just go away. Instead it’s absolutely mediocre and the embodiment of the type of film seemingly engineered to waste everyone’s time during awards season when they could be talking about so many more interesting films released during this spectacular year for movies. For the next few months, countless experts, blogs (including this one) and other publications will speculate about whether ‘TTOE’ has what it takes to go the distance at the Oscars. And the ingredients all seem to be in place: Biopic. Disabled. British. Genius. Period Piece. Etc. Yes, Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones are good, but what exactly is the film about? I have no idea. What it tells us is that Stephen and Jane Hawking had a difficult marriage and, oh yeah, he was also a genius. But a film based on someone’s life shouldn’t just be “here are some things that happened,” it needs to be about something to resonate beyond the value of a Wikipedia entry, which is essentially what ‘TTOE’ boils down to. Take away the fact that this is a “true story” and you’re not left with much of a film. Fast forward 12 months, let alone 12 years, and tell me if you think anyone will remember “The Theory Of Everything.” I think they will not. If we recognize that films like this one are essentially prestige junk food, why do we waste our breath year after year?
Underrated: “The Raid 2: Berandal”
“The Raid 2: Berandal” currently sits at 79% on Rotten Tomatoes, which is actually really good for an action film and probably even better for a sequel. But sometimes “underrated” is a matter of perspective, because “The Raid 2: Berandal” is not being discussed as one of the best films of the year, and what I’m saying is “The Raid 2: Berandal” is one of the best films of the year. Where the original was arguably the leanest and meanest action film since “Die Hard,” ‘Berandal’ is a sprawling, 2 ½ hour epic. While the original’s video-game structure (our hero climbs levels of bad guys before getting to the big bad on the top floor) allowed for a nearly exposition-free 101 minutes of non-stop bone-crunching fights, the sequel admittedly has some issues with pacing and the exposition gets a little thick trying to keep all the alliances straight. But these issues are like a few scratches of paint on a brand new Jaguar. While the reach of ‘Bernadal’ admittedly exceeds its grasp, its highs are higher than nearly anything else you’re likely to see in 2014. Instead of simply rehashing ‘Redemption,’ writer/director Gareth Evans expands the scope and then some, introducing warring gangs, crooked cops, and at least a dozen characters with comic-book silhouettes (like Baseball Bat Man and Hammer Girl) and staging the jaw-dropping fight sequences in prison yards, nightclubs and spilling out into the streets in a highway chase that will undoubtedly go down as a hall-of-famer. On a technical level, the film is a marvel, and digital squibs aside, you just don’t see films like this anymore. The film’s fluid long takes with wide compositions showcasing the performers balletic feats of physicality make it an endangered species in 2014. At the film’s Sundance premiere, the audience burst into applause after every fight scene like they had just witnessed a big musical number at a Broadway show. I haven’t experienced anything quite as electric in theatres in almost 11 months. Bring on Part 3.
Various year-end best of lists have me thinking that I saw a completely different “Boyhood” than anyone else did. How is everyone losing their minds over this overly long, boring, pointless and hideously clichéd claptrap in which nothing happens? The kid grows up, I get it, but that’s not enough of a plot to hang three hours on. Not to mention Richard Linklater’s screenplay is trite, and Patricia Arquette delivers her lines in the most stilted, awkward fashion (don’t even get me started on the borderline offensive bizarre white savior subplot, wherein she teaches a young Latino man about night school). You know a movie has really lost you when you start hoping and praying something will happen. I perked up at the drunken, abusive stepdad, thinking “maybe he’ll kill them all in a fiery crash and then there might be something interesting in this masturbatory ode to middle class American white boys.” I can appreciate stories as such if done well, but “Boyhood,” despite the effort put into the extended filmmaking process, just feels lazy in its storytelling: the film plods along an unoriginal path, attempting to answer life’s great questions but succeeding only in reminding me how gross and terrible teenage boys are. About an hour into the experience, my movie-going pal started suggesting we leave, but I said no, I have to finish this, maybe some moment of truth or redemption will occur. Nope. All I was rewarded with at the end was listening to stoned teenagers wax existential, something I thought I had escaped when I graduated from college.
Underrated: “Get On Up”
I’ve already extolled the virtues of Chadwick Boseman’s embodiment of the Godfather of Soul during our year-end round-ups, but it seems unfair that this highly entertaining biopic got a bit swept under the rug. Tate Taylor’s film attempts a circular structure that loops back in on itself, taking twists and turns, refusing to rest and thus often robbing the story of its important moments. But in many ways, the manic, cyclical structure is representative of the man himself, who also refused to rest and who worked doggedly to entertain and to innovate musically, while driven by the struggles of his past. The structure is a reach, but it’s quite an effort, driven by Boseman’s extraordinary performance. If you’re a James Brown fan, it will delight to no end. If you’re not yet a fan: 1. are you a human? and 2. you’ll instantly become one. The thing about the film is that even though it’s a thorough telling of Brown’s life story, it will leave you wanting to seek out more of the real thing, in which case you should see Alex Gibney’s HBO doc, “Mr. Dynamite.” “Get On Up” is a valiant if flawed effort, but you can’t deny the sheer entertainment contained within. More James Brown is always a good thing.
Overrated: “The Imitation Game”
Morten Tyldum‘s biopic of codebreaker/computer pioneer Alan Turing, secretly a war hero but persecuted for his sexuality by his own government, isn’t a bad movie (it’s certainly better than “The Theory Of Everything,” which Cory covered above). It’s reasonably engaging in places, thanks in part to being funnier than you’d expect, and is solidly acted for the most part. It’s also flat, familiar and formulaic to the point of doing itself a disservice, sanding down what could have been the elements that set it apart in order to fit neatly into that awards-season box, and I’m genuinely puzzled that it seems to be such a festival and audience crowdpleaser (particularly given that unlike “The King’s Speech,” which for all its flaws is a much better-made movie, it’s a downer). Maybe the Black List-topping screenplay was more unruly before the development teams got involved, but the film’s reluctance to actually engage with the realities of being gay in 1940s Britain (and its irksome need to make Turing’s primary relationship in the movie with a woman, mainly so it can fake-sell the film in the trailers as a romance) robs it what could have made it to unique. While no one’s bad in the film, it also features a lot of actors going over territory they’ve walked before: Benedict Cumberbatch riffing on the on-the-spectrum arrogance of Sherlock, Charles Dance basically doing Tyrion Lannister again, Mark Strong (the best in show, admittedly) evoking “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” a film that actually managed to effectively be both a spy thriller and a study of repressed sexuality. Like that film, it’s made by a Scandinavian helmer making their English-language debut, but Morten Tyldum is no Tomas Alfredson. I wasn’t on board with Tyldum’s “Headhunters,” but it at least had some flair: “The Imitation Game” is just flat, slipping into its tweedy biopic seat without contributing a single memorable shot or sequence, and occasionally coming up with some truly duff ones — the bad CGI cutaways to tell you DON’T YOU KNOW THERE’S A WAR ON? or the sickly flashbacks to Turing’s schooldays that provide a simple, pat explanation for a complex man.
I’ve also found it curious to find this year that “The Imitation Game” and “The Theory Of Everything” have been filling that Brit crowd-pleaser slot, when the excellent, joyous “Pride,” about the unlikely 1980s alliance between LGBT campaigners and striking coal miners, has just been sitting there, unseen by most. I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that in terms of the pure art of filmmaking, “Pride” isn’t Fellini —it’s a big, broad comedy firmly in that “Full Monty” mold, it’s serviceably shot and brushes against tropes and formula and will never be embraced by the auteurist crowd. In other words, this film traffics in some of the same things I was just complaining about with “The Imitation Game.” But the difference is that “Pride” has been expertly honed and crafted, from a Stephen Beresford script which doesn’t shy from sadness and pain even as it uplifts, to ruthless pacing which somehow gives a fair shake to almost everyone in its expansive cast, to the actors who bring it to life. And every one of those actors, from familiar faces like Bill Nighy, Paddy Considine and Imelda Staunton to the head-turning collection of newcomers like Ben Schnetzer, Faye Marsay and Jess Gunning knocks it out of the park with passionate, funny and surprising performances. It’s also one of the most flag-wavingly political movies of 2014: it’s steeped in that crowd-pleasing tradition, but also in the unapologetically socialist cinema of Ken Loach, becoming a love-letter not just to equality but also to solidarity and the labour movement in general, with a mid-movie performance of union anthem “Bread & Roses” that had us crying buckets. And yet despite that, it’s mainstream comedy in the best sense of the word, broadly hilarious without pandering and deeply moving without resorting to unearned sentiment. I don’t know anyone that’s seen the film that didn’t love it, which makes it doubly baffling that it wasn’t a “Billy Elliot“-sized phenomenon. If the Golden Globes (which surprise-nominated the film as Best Comedy or Musical) is good for anything, it might at least encourage more people to give the film a try.
It’s not the logical leeway required to link the train-cars of allegory in “Snowpiercer” that leaves me slightly cold on its “sci-fi masterpiece” status —in fact, I still think about several of Bong Joon-Ho’s flourishes of the surreal and satirical. Alison Pill’s manic and musical tour of her upper-class elementary classroom —given to the uprising passengers led by Chris Evans— ranks as one of my favorite film moments of the year, and an axe fight that begins with a fish ritual and breaks halfway for a patriotic shindig is an alternately hilarious and terrifying spectacle. But aside from those sequences, Tilda Swinton’s towering performance, and some astute political ideas at play in Mr. Bong and Kelly Masterton’s script (based off the French graphic novel “Le Transperceneige”), I couldn’t help but feel those flashes of brilliance to be only flashes. As the seriously jarring CG vistas outside distance the viewer further from an immersive sense of place, the exposition and character building between lower-class passengers inside the train clash in awkward ways, rushing by without cementing a personal connection to most (except for Song Kang-ho and Ko Ah-sung as a drug-addicted but vital pair). Meanwhile, other scenes completely halt the film in its tracks to make a point: Ed Harris’ appearance touts a monologue so explanatory it’s almost seems a challenge to the worst of Christopher Nolan’s screenwriting tendencies. Similarly, another diversion in the latter half —a Terminator-aping villain (who I thought was J.T. Walsh, then Tom Wilson, for far too long)—adds to a noticeable deflation in the narrative and a major lull in the storytelling confidence displayed elsewhere. That confidence from Mr. Bong, whom I’m thrilled tackled such a large canvas, is what sustains much of “Snowpiercer,” and hopefully another similarly-scaled project for the “Mother” director arrives soon. But as with Guillermo del Toro’s big-budget gamble of “Pacific Rim,” I feel like the gushing positivity may be there to ensure Mr. Bong’s return to a big budget with similar creative freedom, and not indicative of the subversive yet flawed effort that he made.
Much like the escalating mother/son dynamic of Jennifer Kent’s “The Babadook,” Leigh Janiak’s “Honeymoon” earns its scares by wisely framing them in relatable situations. In Janiak’s case, it’s with the unknowable qualities of an intimate relationship, seen through the eyes of a newlywed couple played by Harry Treadaway and Rose Leslie (both on point with their American accents). Together they journey into the Canadian wilderness for a cabin vacation, but an outside force starts threatening their world and general bodily safety. I won’t spoil in what form that force arrives, but once that shift occurs you’ll be surprised at how many exchanges toe the line between a pre-breakup downfall and something much more sinister. Janiak uses POV in impressive ways, establishing one character’s reality in one scene and then facing the lies of another just afterwards; she and DP Kyle Klutz keep the camera close, focusing in on each of the characters’ faces for signs of a losing battle. Genre-heads looking for the latest Blumhouse jumpfest will be disappointed —“Honeymoon” stakes its claim on atmosphere and creeping dread rather than startling effects. That’s not to say the film doesn’t have its shocking moments, though —alongside composer Heather McIntosh’s score, Janiak crafts several Cronenberg-nodding sequences of body horror that aren’t shy on the grue. A perfect double feature when paired with Kent’s recent film, but more importantly it’s a promising debut for Janiak.
Overrated: “Edge Of Tomorrow”
This ambitious summer sci-fi blockbuster had one thing going for it, and I’m not talking about the “Groundhog Day”-esque time looping structure. Rather, it was the inversion of the movie hero persona of Tom Cruise, by casting him as a cowardly cog in the military bureaucratic machine. And at least initially, it was this decision that made the increasingly repetitive, chaotic and video game like concept of the film really work —our lead character was barely cut out for the task and didn’t even want to participate. But as soon as Coward Cruise turns Hero Cruise midway through, not all the pyrotechnics in the world can save Doug Liman’s movie from become another tedious, unimaginative VFX onslaught, right up to the now standard big, confusingly laborious action sequence in the dark. And then the movie tries, arms flailing, to cap things off with twisty-ish smash cut that seems like they ran out of time or ideas or both. And Emily Blunt is appropriately badass and sexy, but don’t tell me the romance that came out of nowhere was remotely in character. It’s another indication that for all the edgy cleverness “Edge Of Tomorrow” purports to bring to the table, it’s just another schlockbuster in distracting new clothing.
While The Weinstein Company‘s battle with Bong Joon-Ho over “Snowpiercer” was well documented, I’d argue the studio’s treatment of “Tracks” was probably worse. Acquiring the John Curran film shortly after its Venice Film Festival premiere in 2013, the studio seemed to have no idea what to do after it earned respectful but not complete adulation out of Toronto International Film Festival last fall, and they pretty much gave up on it. And it’s a shame, because it’s exactly the kind of movie that with the full support of Harvey Weinstein could’ve reached a much wider audience and possibly even awards consideration. Rather, it became a victim of his overstuffed slate, leading to a total lack of attention from the studio. With a terrific central performance from Mia Wasikowska, beautiful cinematography from Mandy Walker, a true story told modestly and movingly, this was a movie that deserved much better. After a scheduled release date or two, TWC finally dumped “Tracks” in limited release in the middle of September more than a year after it premiered with barely any publicity or marketing. But don’t let this one slip you by. It’s the kind of solid, adult drama everyone keep asking for and alleges to be disappearing from the studio system.
Overrated: “Gone Girl”
David Fincher’s “Gone Girl” is of course not a bad film —the director’s glossy style alone could render a flipbook-level narrative pleasurable (he’s done just that multiple times in his music video career). But the consensus, including our own Top 20 Best Films of the year which saw “Gone Girl” poll at number 4, implies that the film is something more than stylish popcorn trash, which stumps me. The problems lie source-material deep —for the most part the film is slavishly faithful to the book and Gillian Flynn did an expert job of condensing her novel into a screenplay. But that’s the rub— she gets all the twists and turns into the script, regardless of how utterly preposterous they were in the first place. Take the last third of the film, where it’s never even remotely explained why this long-game arch sociopath would ditch her well-laid plans, abandon suicide (which never really jibed anyway) and then decide to go back to the husband she despises? Via a handy, rich, obsessive fellow psychopath/convenient patsy from her past? Rosamund Pike is getting praise for her portrayal of Amy Dunne, and to my mind she deserves it for taking a collection of completely disparate, unconnected behaviors and actions and nearly making them into a person. But where all this “feminist manifesto” and “dissection of modern marriage” stuff fails is that there is nothing real about Amy as written: a few tropes, some witty speeches about modern femininity, and a salacious shot of her naked and bloodily slicing a man to death do not a coherent character nor a feminist icon make. Amy is pure, guilty-pleasure fiction; you might as well read generalized statements about marriage into the pitfalls some guy experiences when he gets hitched to a murderous unicorn. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed rolling my eyes at the excesses of “Gone Girl,” I just could have done without the op-eds telling me how intelligent and epochal it was or that there were such hidden depths beneath its shiny, reflective surface.
Underrated: “A Most Wanted Man”
Perhaps “underseen” or “under-talked-about” is a better way to describe any film that has a 91% Rotten Tomatoes score and a very respectable 73 on Metacritic, but perhaps because our own review of Anton Corbijn’s John Le Carré novel adaptation was so muted, it feels like “A Most Wanted Man” made much less of an impression than it ought to have. Yet when I finally saw it, it turned out to be exactly the kind of film we purport to want more of —a grown-up movie that doesn’t handhold us through its moral gray areas (and it’s all gray area) and that sets out its stall with somber intelligence and a lovely sense of broken but partially functioning humanism. A lot of that is in Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance (included in our 21 Best of the Year), and while it’s hard not to have sentimental feelings about the actor’s death in February cloud the issue, the depth he brings to this role exists whether you wish to read in some meta-textual foreshadowing of real-life tragedy or not. Corbijn’s direction is remarkably quiet and unshowy, even more so perhaps than with “The American” which felt like a more overtly stylized film, if just as considered. So “A Most Wanted Man” is slow for a film that can roughly be described as a spy thriller, but both its plotting and its mood are grounded and believable, even as it shapes up for a very Le Carré-esque downbeat ending. Convincingly portraying modern-day espionage as a profession of compromise and cynicism and shabby men in small rooms trying hard to remember the ideals that got them there through the double crosses and the politics, “A Most Wanted Man” is thoughtful, meaty entertainment, featuring a perfectly modulated grace-note performance from Hoffman.
Overrated: “Palo Alto”
If your characters are bored, you had better make a serious effort to make sure your audience isn’t. Suburban adolescent ennui permeates “Palo Alto,” and in the same way that a film’s energy can be infectious, its lack of it can be equally catching. Working from costar James Franco’s book of short stories, Gia Coppola’s screenplay ambles along with as little direction as its protagonists, only breaking up yawns with eye rolls. Though gorgeously shot, her debut film feels entirely like something you’ve seen before, even if you had somehow only seen films from people named Coppola. “Palo Alto” has some of the aesthetic of her aunt Sofia’s films such as “The Virgin Suicides” and “The Bling Ring,” but none of their spirit. The fault lies not in the performances —Emma Roberts and Jack Kilmer are as interesting as they can possibly be— but the film drifts from party scene to party scene, making an entire movie out of what most films spend 10 minutes on. Most critics were able to overlook its flaws in favor of its visuals, but I couldn’t get past its entirely unsympathetic cast of characters and lack of direction. If Coppola is trying to immerse her viewers in her characters’ boring world, she’s successful, but that doesn’t mean she’s made a successful film.
Underrated: “Beyond the Lights”
Gina Prince-Bythewood’s film is less underrated and more unsung and unseen. Those who have seen rightly rave about the director’s drama about a pop star (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) struggling with celebrity and identity while falling in love with a cop (Nate Parker). We missed reviewing “Beyond the Lights” in its first weeks of release, and we weren’t the only ones: the film currently has only 63 reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, compared to most wide releases which generally reach triple figures. Whether it wasn’t taken seriously for its romantic genre or its subject matter, it deserves to be seen, both for the strong direction and the performances of Mbatha-Raw and Parker. Surpassing her previous directorial efforts “Love and Basketball” and “The Secret Life of Bees,” Prince-Bythewood has produced the type of love story that’s rarely seen on screen: serious but not melodramatic, with sparking chemistry between the leads. The genre gets a bad rap, due to a neverending flood of Nicholas Sparks adaptations, but this is something different: sexy and authentic. Parker is great, but Mbatha-Raw is incredible to watch. She captures her character’s raw pain and celebrity magnetism with equal ease. I couldn’t look away.
Overrated: “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”
“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is an asphyxiating generic story, full of idiotic humans getting in the way of Caesar’s screen time, once again portrayed wonderfully by Andy Serkis. ‘Dawn’ is only ever good when he’s onscreen, which is the only reason everyone so easily forgives its godawful writing while ignoring how it makes for an infuriatingly imbalanced film. The crux of the matter is getting a dam fixed so some human survivors can have alternative source of power and I’m trying hard not to fall asleep on my keyboard because Matt Reeves and his three writers make not caring way too easy. Every single human in this film is exceptionally uninteresting and one-dimensional. Everything they say feels copy pasted from every other story about human survival to the point that I secretly started praying they all die so the apes can take over already. And the apes are just as formulaic as the human counterparts, particularly Koba, a hackneyed stereotype of a Disney villain, but we’re meant to eat it all up because of how fantastic the effects are and because we see apes wielding two machine guns on horseback jumping through fire. A couple of impressive long takes and one impressive motion capture performance can’t hide that this is a franchised cash cow in the shape of an ape, covering up its insipidly fabricated and convenient story in CGI fur. It makes me fear for the human race if this kind of effects-driven schlock passes for intelligent filmmaking nowadays.
You want to talk about actual intelligent blockbuster filmmaking? You want a genuinely good example of a mainstream film made for untold millions of dollars that doesn’t cop out on its characters? Forget the above ‘Apes’ movie or “Godzilla” for that matter, and just look at Christopher Nolan’s incredible “Interstellar.” Our own review is one of the most controversial ones on the web, and I was among the ones reading and scratching my head in confusion. Here is a director who pays just as much attention to the human aspect of blockbuster storytelling as to the effects. In fact, his ode to the science fiction genre and the greats like Kubrick’s ‘2001’ has its foundation built on the time-transcending love between a father and his daughter. In a world that’s full of trending villains and anti-heroes, that Nolan takes such a simple and cheesy concept and successfully creates something so emotionally overpowering is pretty damn courageous. What propels the film even higher aren’t just the details around the visually spectacular creation of theories of relativity and black holes, the phenomenal ensemble acting, or what’s perhaps the greatest Hans Zimmer score we’ve ever heard. It’s that Nolan (with his brother Jonathan) is one of the few Hollywood blockbuster directors with any originality and creative imagination left, and he’s using it to tell intimate stories on operatic scales (Oli’s wonderful piece on Nolan’s core themes and auteur status explains the appeal perfectly). It’s a damn shame that 2014 saw franchises and comic book films praised, while “Interstellar” stands at 73% on the Tomato scale. An egregious distortion of the year’s greatest blockbuster if ever there was one.
Not My Tempo: “Whiplash”
Damien Chazelle made our Breakthrough Directors of 2014 list and with good reason. The direction and editing of his sophomore film “Whiplash” is often electric, kinetic and utterly dynamic, as if he’s bringing action sequence geography to the realm of music. He’s got the chops and the smarts, and while he’s already directed an indie musical, one froths at the possibility of him doing a big-budgeted musical. However, as much as I admire his direction in some scenes of “Whiplash” I remained unconvinced overall. I had several issues: the idea of jazz played more with brute force and endurance than finesse (do you ever equate the genre with a heavy metal jackhammer unless you’re John Zorn?), the mostly one-note energy all played at 11 with very little reprieve (and reprieve that feels like it can’t wait to get back to the amplitude), a distractingly underwritten romance subplot, and a teacher played like such a sociopathic villain he would fit right into your average Marvel movie (also the disarming car accident which is becoming a silly writing cliché in the indie movie genre). Finally (*spoilers* that haven’t seen) that preposterous ending: if your antagonist is such a psycho that he goes to absurd lengths to orchestrate your public humiliation and downfall (because you got him fired and ruined his career), it stands to reason he’s not going reverse his scheme all of a sudden and back you because you’ve put together a few tasty paradiddles during a drum solo. “Whiplash” is well directed in certain scenes, but overall? Not my tempo.
Honorable Mention: “The Skeleton Twins” — how something so shoddily written (and unconvincingly directed) wins a Sundance writing award is beyond me.
If overrated is a dubious, questionable term —and it is, see the intro of this piece— than underrated feels a little less problematic. After all, you are ostensibly shedding light on deserving films that need more attention, and there was really no shortage of those types of movies in 2014, especially when compared to “Guardians Of The Galaxy” or some major blockbuster. But it’s all relative: “Ida” has been lauded by critics and shortlisted for the Oscar Best Foreign Picture category, but it has been woefully underseen by regular audiences. “Enemy,” “The Immigrant,” “The Double,” “Frank” (which received critical love at Sundance, but not enough), David Gordon Green’s “Joe” and probably every documentary on our Best Documentaries of 2014 list deserve to be seen much more than the millions of people who were suckered into seeing “Transformers: Age of Extinction.” “The Rover” was my mid-year underrated pick and I think I’ll just stick with that one, but again all the other films mentioned deserved much more love too. Hopefully you’ll catch up with them on DVD or VOD if you haven’t already. Lastly, I don’t think it qualifies as “underrated” personally, but I don’t think “Interstellar” is nearly as bad as some thought it was. Problematic? Sure, but still pretty grand and transformative.
So there we have it, and if the debates, accusations of “You cray!” and flaming bags of dogshit that have been flying round here are anything to go by, there should have been plenty there to lubricate your outrage glands. Let loose in the comments below, or tell us your own picks for under- and overrated 2014 movies, and meantime check out all our Best of 2014 coverage here.