Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:
Once again January is National List Month, that left-brained time of year when everyone’s last twelve months of existence must be removed from their mental filing cabinets, reexamined, and refiled in specific pecking order from Greatest to Most Grating. The final tabulations reveal I saw 19 films in theaters in 2014 and four via On Demand while they were still in limited release…
And now, on with the countdown:
11. Interstellar. Christopher Nolan’s ambitious spaceflight fundraising commercial was trounced in too many corners for its unusual sound design that incorporated dialogue specifically meant not to be discernible, its shaky grasp of known facts about wormhole navigation, its inaccurate depiction of fifth-dimensional meta-perception, its failure to let its characters ask for advice from the armchair astronauts in the audience, its blatant product-placement ads for the complete works of Dylan Thomas, and its audacity at focusing too much on the father/daughter love story at the heart of the film at the expense of super-awesome painstakingly realistic alien spaceship fights. I had one minor and one major quibble with the narrative itself, but whenever Nolan wants to expand the boundaries of known cinema and work emotional through-lines into it, I’m on board. Maybe next time, though, could the crew tour somewhere else beyond the galaxy of the Star Trek single-climate planets?
10. Edge of Tomorrow. Proof positive that a crappy title can kill a good movie. Its home-video rechristening as Live Die Repeat was slightly better but now sounds like a horror flick about a demented hairdresser. Oh, the titles they could’ve chosen: Starship Troopers Go to Groundhog Day; Aliens vs. Timecop; Oblivion 2; Repeater (with music by Ian MacKaye); Restart from Checkpoint; Day of the Do-Overs; Press X to Reset; Killing Tom Cruise; and so on. But no, let’s go with the fakey soap opera title and hope that America’s love for Tom Cruise is unconditional! Sigh…
9. Guardians of the Galaxy. Proof positive that a crappy title can’t kill a good movie. Sure, they could’ve called it The Bad News Bears in Space; The Goonies 2040; Space Ocean’s 5; The Legend of Star-Lord; Tree and Raccoon vs. Evil; Star Wars Episode 6½…wait, sorry, where were we? Oh, right: Marvel strikes gold again. I’d rank this higher if the villains had as much going for them on the inside as they did in their striking costume design.
8. Big Hero 6. Marvel + Disney = win. Five teen science heroes and an inflatable Iron Giant are the year’s best new super-team, forged in a fast-paced origin story rife with tragedy, slapstick, heroic sacrifice, near-future STEM-based high adventure, surprisingly intimate grief counseling, and a mystery villain whose clean, simple design and messy motives put Ronan the One-Note Accuser to shame.
7. X-Men: Days of Future Past. A rare instance in which a second viewing improved my opinion of a movie. Come for the long parade of known comics heroes, return visits from forgotten old friends, time-travel shenanigans, and Quicksilver’s surprise scene-stealing. Make faces at Kitty Pryde’s new wizard-level talents and the dubious physics straight out of Silver Age DC Comics. Stay for the thespians’ master seminar in which James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Patrick Stewart, and Ian McKellen come at each other in a generation-spanning saga about heartbreaking regrets, crippling dependencies, corrupted intentions, friendships both shattered and mended, and the tremendous patience and risks that redemption often requires.
6. Rise of the Planet of the Apes. A remake sequel to a reboot, about talking apes with guns on horses. Conventional wisdom says by all rights this should be about as good as Police Academy 6. Credit the fully nuanced lead performances by Andy Serkis and Toby Kebbell as the Xavier and Magneto of apekind, dueling charismatic leaders whose mutually exclusive philosophies drag them screaming to the brink of war with helpless mortal men and with each other. It shouldn’t take startling CG advancements and chemically evolved super-monkeys to teach us lessons about the tricky balance between morally beneficial coexistence and heartless clique dominance, but here we are.
5. The Internet’s Own Boy: the Story of Aaron Swartz. One of two documentaries I caught On Demand in 2014 because our local theaters virtually never bring those to Indianapolis. The life and times of a child prodigy and seminal internet developer whose mad skills, inquisitive earnestness, activist impudence, righteous indignation, and technically illegal responses to perceived power abuses by The MAN led to information warfare, government stakeouts, eventual arrest, courtroom drama, and high-stakes financial and legal pressures that ultimately, allegedly drove him to suicide. By the time he was 26 he had already made more integral contributions to everyday online life than any thousand of us combined, but an aging government bent on enforcing outdated pro-corporation restrictions without peaceful compromise apparently all but decreed his removal from the face of the earth. The only reason this doesn’t rank even higher on the list is this tiny part of my brain that reserves the privilege to raise a hand and question anytime the U.S. Government is portrayed as unilaterally Evil without even the slightest shred of insight from anyone on their side, whether their testimony is stupid or smart.
4. Life Itself. The other documentary on the list began with filmmaker Steve James following film critic Roger Ebert through his daily routines as he grappled with life during and after cancer. Shortly into the process, it unwittingly became the chronicle of his final days on Earth. Husband, father, Chicago journalist, hardcore film aficionado, TV personality, populist and scholar — Ebert’s career and contributions went far beyond the reductive thumbs-up judgment call that became a nation’s trusted seal of approval. He made his line of work look so easy that millions of everyday internet users are still convinced they can be him or even top him. They’re mistaken and didn’t watch him nearly closely enough.
3. Snowpiercer. The best kind of science fiction is the politically charged parable that uses outlandish settings to reflect on where we’re going wrong today. Bong Joon-Ho’s adaptation of an obscure European graphic novel is an incendiary indictment of today’s class warfare between the have-nots and the have-it-alls, staged on an impossibly nonstop supertrain that perfectly symbolizes our Möbius-strip rat race, its rigorously defended strata, and the radical trainwreck that may be needed to take us off the track and force us to come up with a better vehicle for humanity’s survival. If Chris Evans’ haunting performance doesn’t convince you to forget his awful ’90s comedies once and for all, then your mired prejudices are beyond help.
2. Captain America: the Winter Soldier. Speaking of politically charged Chris Evans visual-effects films: Best Marvel Film Ever. Does this even need a capsule summary? Here’s your capsule summary: THE FALCON WINS. Come to think of it, here’s a movie packed with great scenes for him, Black Widow, Nick Fury, the Winter Soldier, Evil Robert Redford, Crossbones, and even Batroc the Leaper, not to mention that one Captain America guy. It’s like the Russo brothers directed this just to show that large-cast super-hero films don’t have to suck. Hopefully the guys in charge of making Batman and Spider-Man films paid attention and took notes, because anyone who can make Batroc impressive literally has to be a high-level wizard.
1. Birdman. Because when a film hot-wires parts of your brain you haven’t used in years, reopens some unused levels of perception, inspires you to spend two full nights writing and rewriting 1900 words about it, continues cutting into you down to the bone, and makes you wish you had time to rethink and reboot your own life before the specter of middle age arrives in shadowy robes on a flaming horse, consumes you, judges you, and turns every mistake you ever made into unbreakable prison bars…that is the kind of film you’ll remember for a good, long, disturbing while.
So, 2014, then. See you next year!