A nerd’s 12 best and worst films from 2014
Hits and misses from a year packed with big-screen science fiction and fantasy
The various film critics associations and circles, from Boston to Los Angeles, have made their best film selections. The Golden Globes, A.K.A. the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, has also released its nominations of best movies and TV shows. Some predictions, like Best Picture going to Richard Linklatter’s Boyhood, or Michael Keaton nabbing best actor for Birdman, have come true. There’s been some surprising choices, too, such as the National Board of Review handing out its Best Original Screenplay award to (ahem) The Lego Movie. Now begins the long wait for the 87th Academy Awards; nominations will be announced January 15, and the final envelopes will ripped open February 22.
Until then, a question: Do these critics and awards organizations speak geek? Do average nerds care about categories such as “Best Supporting Actress” and “Best Cinematographer”? I think not. To rectify the situation, I’ve concocted my own list of a dozen nerd-errific highlights, and a couple low-lights, released by the machine that is Hollywood in 2014.
Film Most Like a D&D Dungeon Crawl: Snowpiercer
Shooting a movie that takes place entirely on a train has been done: The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, Unstoppable, and a few others. What has not been done is make that progression through the train, from car to car, unfold like the ultimate D&D dungeon crawl. Snowpiercer is Bong Joon Ho’s oddly successful dystopian story about a frozen planet and a Noah’s ark-like train packed with survivors that endlessly circles it. The lower-class passengers, at the caboose end, try to overthrow their elite oppressors at the front of the train. As the rebels move from car to car, they encounter the next foe, or puzzle, or surreal scene, each weirder than the next, as it dreamed up by some railroad-loving game master. It’s both a pleasure, and a tense ride, learning what’s behind that next door.
Best Mainstreaming of Geek Culture: Love is Strange
The home life of an older gay couple, played by John Lithgow and Alfred Molina, changes when they’re forced to live temporarily with family and friends. In one scene, Molina is shown being introduced to Game of Thrones for the first time; in an another, Molina stumbles into the D&D session of his new roommates, who also happen to be gay policemen. Hollywood takes it for granted that D&D players might not be straight, and might be cops, and might watch genre TV. Huzzah! Not only has the culture come out of the closet, it has exited the nerdy dungeon and basement, too.
Film Most Likely to Inspire Future Nerds: [tie] The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything
Two movies, both British biopics, celebrated scientists in 2014. There was The Imitation Game, about Alan Turing’s role cracking German’s infamous “enigma” code during WW II, and The Theory of Everything, about the theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking, who suffers from motor neurone disease. Both films are inspiring, and made me wish I hadn’t nearly failed chemistry and trigonometry in high school.
Most Disappointing Fantasy Film: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Is this a movie, or a video game? This final film in The Hobbit trilogy is the final salvo in Peter Jackson’s effort to connect his Hobbit trio to the Lord of the Rings---making one big, bad-ass Middle-earth hexology. Complaints about fealty to Tolkien’s book aside, there’s actually very little in The Battle of the Five Armies that works as a film. Extraneous characters (the pointless she-elf Tauriel, the Jar Jar Binks-like comic relief of Lake-town henchman Alfrid) distract us from Bilbo and the dwarves’ central story. Implausible action sequences make us doubt the most basic physics of Jackson’s world. Battle and kill overkill numbs us to the usual pleasures of a well-staged duel between nemeses. This final chapter is the capper to a distended, mishandled hot mess of a fantasy trilogy. What a shame.
Most Haunting Soundtrack: Under the Skin
This existential, science fictional movie about an alien, played by Scarlett Johansson, slipping on a woman’s skin is made even more exquisitely creepy by its spare soundtrack, composed by Mica Levi, aka Micachu, of the band Micachu & The Shapes. Levi’s experimental, minimalist score combines viola music, synthesized MIDI strings, flute and spare, woody percussion beats, punctuating the film like a rhythm track of Johansson's heartbeats. You won’t leave the theater without being haunted for days.
Gutsiest Guerrilla DIY Casting Decision: Under the Skin
During the shoot, director Jonathan Glazer’s had leading lady/alien Scarlett Johansson drive a real van, and interact with non-acting strangers. How the men replied to Johansson’s extraterrestrial act was captured by cameras hidden in the van's interior, while Glazer and his team watched video feeds, surreptitiously, in the back of the van. What we see are genuine reactions, both curious and unguarded, a trick that resulted in real moviemaking magic.
Most Boring Sci-Fi Movie: Transcendence
Brilliant computer scientist Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is shot by an anti-technology terrorist group and is about to die. His wife uploads his consciousness into a computer. So what makes us human---a heart and soul, our ideas, our ability to feel, or can it all be faked by a clever simulation? With our smart devices and Siri, we already walk the line of that human intelligence/artificial intelligence divide every day. But the way Transcendence handles the issue is both tame and predicable, as it devolves into an action movie, and clunky, as it scolds us about the dangers of technology: “You can love someone yet hate the things that they have done. A machine can’t reconcile that.” Boring.
Best Revival of Old Genre: Godzilla
This year, our beloved Godzilla, turned 60, hence the reboot and new chapter in the series, plainly named Godzilla. From the clever title sequence, to the stories of the human characters trying to kill the creature, to the rebirth of Godzilla itself, this is a fun, tightly-designed thrill ride. The visuals of a world headed to ruin are top notch, the special-effects are convincing, the cinematography is gorgeous, and the consequences of every decision by the ensemble cast of scientists and military peeps lend the proceedings real gravitas.
Best Movie About a Sci-Fi Movie That Never Was: Jodorowsky's Dune
A fascinating documentary about an epic never made. Jodorowsky’s Dune tells the story of the ambitious adaptation of Herbert’s Dune that was nearly green-lighted in the 1970s before going bankrupt. Between talking heads with surviving members of the production team, including Jodorowsky, now 85, and H.R. Giger, we get gorgeous glimpses of the film’s storyboard, drawn by Jean Giraud, better known as the comic book artist Moebius. A fascinating tribute to artistic hubris, and a behind-the-scenes look at a more innocent Hollywood not yet touched by the blockbuster era that began with Star Wars.
Best/Worst Comic Book Movie: Guardians of the Galaxy
Funny, sentimental, boring, witty, wincingly self-conscious, utterly predictable. Can one film encompasses all this? Yes, Guardians of the Galaxy can. Marvel’s adaptation of the quirky space-travelling superhero comic is a clusterbudget of a movie, with a freak show of a cast, ranging from Chris Pratt (of Parks and Recreation) and pro wrestler Dave Bautista to Vin Diesel, John C. Reilly, and Benicio del Toro. It all bursts forth from the twisted mind of James Gunn, writer of Tromeo and Juliet and director of Slither and Super . As the pointless inanity of endless explosions and fight scenes washes over you, you might sigh, but the soundtrack of ‘70s and ‘80s pop music hits --- "Hooked on a Feeling" (Blue Swede), "Fooled Around and Fell in Love" (Elvin Bishop), “I Want You Back" (The Jackson 5), "Come and Get Your Love" (Redbone) and “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)" (Rupert Holmes) --- should keep you boogieing across the galaxy.
Most Mind-Blowingly Gorgeous but Huh? Wannabe 2001: A Space Odyssey Sci-Fi Movie: Interstellar
Sure, everything here in Christopher Nolan’s head scratcher doesn’t all make sense. And when it does, all that love is “quantifiable” and “is the one thing that transcends time and space” wraps up its Mobius Strip a little too perfectly. But what a beautiful ride. Not since Gravity, and I daresay 2001: A Space Odyssey has a film so eloquently plumbed the depths of our existential place in the fabric of the cosmos. As an ex-NASA pilot chosen to find a new home for doomed earthlings, Matthew McConaughey takes us across the mental landscape of astrophysicist Kip Thorne, whose ideas about tesseracts, wormholes, warped space-time, 4 and 5-dimensional beings, and singularity at the center of a black holes influenced this film written by Nolan and his bro Jonathan. It may all be poppycock, but it’s mind-numbing, stupefying poppycock, all set to the thundering organ soundtrack of Hans Zimmer.
Best Teaser for 2015: The Star Wars: Episode VII—The Force Awakens
Speaking of Star Wars, the end of 2014 gave us a look at the perhaps the most madly anticipated movie of 2015: Star Wars: Episode VII—The Force Awakens. The Return of the Franchise comes one year from now, December, 2015. Unless J.J. Abrams, the reboot’s director, loses his nerve? There are lots of disgruntled Star Wars fans out there who want the head of George Lucas. Lets hope they don’t go after Abrams instead.
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