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The 10 Most Over/Underrated Films of 2014

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And behind every piece of Oscar bait is a better film trying to get out. (Source)

And behind every piece of Oscar bait is a better film trying to get out. (Source)

Some years have a lot of overrated films, some have a lot of underrated ones (2012 springs to mind for both categories). This year was comparatively thin for both–there were a few notably overrated films, and a few underappreciated (if not truly underrated) ones, but I think the critics got it a little more right than usual this year–when Snowpiercer has 95% on Rotten Tomatoes, you can’t complain too much.

Still, there were some definite cases where the consensus was, to my eyes, off the mark. And that is what we’ll dig into today, starting with the overrated. Because I am that guy.

Overrated:

  • American Sniper

If you’re still reading this after seeing the title, let me start on a constructive note. There was a documentary this past year, Korengal, a portrait of soldiers in a treacherous valley in Afghanistan. Korengal gave me a real feel for the bonds that develop between soldiers and for the strange, stressful (to put it mildly) nature of life in war. It’s a compelling film that doesn’t judge, doesn’t glorify or criticize, but just shows. And it works extremely well.

This film does not. And I might simply say that it’s too soon. Chris Kyle died less than two years ago, and between the scars left by the war and the unsettled nature of his legacy, an objective treatment of his life is probably impossible right now. But the film was made–by Eastwood, as Kyle apparently wished–and has been a financial smash (in one weekend it became the highest grossing Best Picture nominee), a relative critical success, and earned 6 Oscar nominations.

But I see the enthusiastic response and contrast it to the film itself, and wonder what I’m missing. Because what I see here is a film that can’t help touching on the thornier elements of Kyle’s life, but in response rushes past them, glosses them over, cuts to something else. And it doesn’t develop anything else that well to compensate. The grueling slow-burn of the trailer is reflected in only one other scene in the film; a film I expected to be emotionally wrenching is disappointingly hollow and remote.

Bradley Cooper’s Oscar nomination genuinely surprises me. There’s just not a whole lot here for him to build a character on, and I got very little idea of what made Kyle tick (God, I hate that phrase); his wife, Taya (Sienna Miller), is easily the most rounded and compelling character in the film, begging him to stay home for her and their children, and his insistence on returning to combat again and again (four tours in all) isn’t explored in any way–he just goes back. And none of the other characters are anything more than ciphers, which only further kept the film from engaging me.

And if Cooper’s nomination is hard to imagine, the script being nominated as well is truly bewildering. At least Eastwood wasn’t nominated for his direction–aside from the aforementioned sniping sequences and a battle in a sandstorm, which does convey the chaotic terror of the situation, it’s a disappointingly flat and characterless effort on his part.

This has become an intensely divisive film. Many have praised it; many have condemned it. But looking at it, I see a film which deals with subjects which arouse strong passions, and because of that, its actual qualities become almost irrelevant. But setting aside politics, setting aside patriotism, setting aside the issues I would liked the film to have dealt with, I see a decidedly underwhelming film, and am genuinely curious how it will be regarded in 10 or 20 years, if it is regarded at all.

  • Boyhood 

Don’t get me wrong. What Linklater achieved deserves a lot of credit. If he wins Best Director, I’d accept it not only because of his career, but because he was able to pull this off.

But break it down beyond that,  and it becomes clear just how problematic it is as drama. And to me, a lot of that is due to its protagonist. I’m not really blaming Ellar Coltrane (he does a solid job, even if I question how much of a career he’ll have hence forth), but the character is such a total Mary Sue for Linklater it’s kind of ridiculous. He’s popular with girls (despite having little charisma and the film having little insight into how relationships work), he’s an artist, an award-winning photographer (you have to take the film’s word for it), and a freethinker, getting off a hamfisted speech about the ways in which cell phones and social media have compromised our humanity–I like to think Linklater’s friend Alex Jones was behind that scene.

By his peers, he’s subjected to only the mildest of bullying, and his teachers are incredibly patient with him, given how lazy he really is. And of course, the second he gets to college, he gets offered and unquestioningly eats a pot brownie, and wanders off into the wilderness with his new friends (including a girl who he’ll probably end up dating), where he engages in some fantastically ridiculous philosophizing, culminating in a final line which would be hilarious if it were ironic–but I fear it is not. No matter; it’s pretty funny anyway.

The vaguely misogynistic undercurrents of the film don’t help either; the film doesn’t really question the paradigm of men as overgrown boys and women as either uptight and shrewish or inexorably drawn to assholes (like Patricia Arquette’s mother–Arquette does her best with an underwritten character). And need I mention that this is a film, set in Texas, which has maybe two non-white characters of note, one of whom is responsible for an egregious throwback moment which borders on embracing the white-savior trope?

But more fundamental than any of these complaints is this one: for all the breadth of time the film encompasses, it never goes very deep into its characters. It tries to find profundity by showing mundanity, but ultimately makes a better case for good old dramatization. And whether or not it comes out on top Oscar night, whether it is renowned or re-evaluated or simply forgotten henceforth, I still consider it a tremendously overrated film. And I’ll sum it up with that horrid final line:

“You know how everyone’s always saying seize the moment? I don’t know, I’m kind of thinking it’s the other way around, you know, like the moment seizes us.”

  • The Imitation Game 

It’s The King’s Speech v. 2.0, and the Academy (and critics) lapped it up. But it’s not that great of a film. There are things I like about it: Alexandre Desplat’s score is beautiful, the handling of Turing’s school years (namely involving his first love) is quite poignant, and there are good performances, especially Mark Strong as the shadowy head of MI6.

But by and large, it’s a pretty average historical biopic, and the fact that Morten Tyldum was nominated for directing this–despite showing few of the thriller chops he displayed in the great Headhunters–is distressing. Keira Knightley’s performance is fine, but not Oscar-worthy; Benedict Cumberbatch is good, but I don’t really see why, aside from his current popularity, he was ever in the awards conversation. That’s how it is with bait, I guess. And when you factor in just how much the film distorts history–to the point that it’s practically a fictional story–and it’s hard for me to embrace it. Again, it’s not a bad film by any means, but the fact that so many have considered it one of the best of the year is more than a little ridiculous to me.

  • The Immigrant

When awards season began and Marion Cotillard started getting nominated a bunch for this (in tandem with Two Days, One Night), I admit, I was baffled. Because I found her character to be one of the fundamental reasons the film left me cold. I simply found her character to be something of a lump. I get that she was trapped in a horrible situation and denied her agency, but the film doesn’t dramatize this in any compelling fashion. As it was, it seemed to me that Cotillard mostly looked glum. (I have to assumed I’d prefer her work in TDON.)

The only performance that stuck with me was Joaquin Phoenix’s (as her exploiter), but he’s always excellent. The production design and costumes were marvelous. The cinematography was often lovely. But the story was utterly forgettable, the burlesque element of the story was underused, and on the whole, this was one of the biggest letdowns of the year for me. But the critics lapped it up, so what do I know?

  • Love is Strange

This one I just didn’t get. It’s a nice little film, albeit a badly constructed one, with too many subplots, one of which is so confusing and extraneous that I really wonder how it was ever conceived, let alone included in the final cut. John Lithgow and Alfred Molina are quite charming, to be sure, and it’s a touching enough piece of work. But again, the critics went nuts for it, maybe because it deals with a relevant topic. Which I can understand, but I consider decidedly overrated nonetheless.

  • The Skeleton Twins 

Comedic actors doing more serious work? The critics responded well. I was less impressed, largely because the reasons for Milo and Maggie’s troubles were so minimally explored. I went over this in more detail in my review, but again, I find that it leaves a significant hole in the film. As does the unresolved fate of Maggie’s husband. And the whole subplot with Ty Burrell is really creepy (and a rather gross cliché). It’s well acted, and on the whole it goes down easy enough (too easy, really), but compared to its reception, it’s pretty blah.

  • The Theory of Everything 

The first half is actually decent. It mixes physics and romance pretty well, Eddie Redmayne is great (his physical performance is pretty remarkable), Felicity Jones is quite good, and it’s a solid “respectable” drama. But then the love triangle begins and it all grinds to a halt, and climaxes with a scene so ridiculous I’m amazed it still got a Best Picture nomination after anyone saw it–it’s so over-the-top it’s hysterical. So it all evens out to a film that’s decent but really not worth the praise. (Though, paradoxically, I liked it more than The Imitation Game, which I’d argue is the objectively stronger film.)

  • Under the Skin 

I wanted to love this. And on my first viewing, I was pretty dazzled by it, but I wanted a second viewing to make sure. And the second time around, it struck me how empty a film it really is. Johansson’s performance mostly amounts to a lot of blank staring; she’s fine when called upon to do more than that, but there’s so little asked of her that the praise for her work confounds me. And there’s so little to the story or the themes as explored; it’s repetitive and, for my money, not terribly complex.

That said, it has a lot of things going for it. Mica Levi’s score is one of the very best of the year. The cinematography is often incredible. There are some hauntingly memorable moments (the scene on the beach, the final scene). But it doesn’t add up to much beyond that. And a lot of people felt it did.

  • Venus in Fur 

This got good reviews, even if it didn’t make much of a dent. But some years have more overrated films than others. It’s got good acting, and it’s got some good moments (I feel like this should’ve just stayed a play), but overall it’s pretty forgettable–and the ending is just ridiculous. I remember it more than anything else in the film just because of how insanely overwrought it was. I’m not sure how much more we’ll be getting from Polanski, but it might be time to call it a day.

  • X-Men: Days of Future Past 

Yeah, no.

My review of this was actually just a list of the reasons why I didn’t like it. I’ll just reiterate those:

  • Bryan Singer’s direction is mediocre (I’ll give you the Quicksilver scene, but otherwise…);
  • Most of the characters get virtually nothing to do, especially the “future” cast;
  • Jennifer Lawrence is phoning it in;
  • The science in this film tends to border on magic;
  • Not enough Nixon.

Not enough Nixon. That sums it up.

Like most of these films, not bad, but really nothing that memorable.

The robot with the martini is just the tip of the weirdness iceberg. ()

Hell yeah.

Underrated:

  • The Dance of Reality

It’s such a beautiful film–like The Tree of Life in many respects, but in others its own lovely thing. It has two of the best performances of the year, it’s perfectly written and directed, it’s rich and full and keeps ahold of you from start to finish…I absolutely loved it, and the critics raved, but it barely got released and no one seems to remember it. And that breaks my heart.

  • Dear White People

Do I really need to say anything else? It’s such an incredible film in every way, and it wasn’t seen by nearly enough people, and far too many awards groups marginalized it, giving “first feature” or “breakthrough” awards. And that’s bullshit. The best film is the best film. And this is quite possibly the best of the year.

  • Get On Up

It’s not a great film, especially since it doesn’t dig quite deep enough, or maintain the cool chronological hopscotching it has at the beginning, but I really enjoyed it, and Chadwick Boseman’s performance was just magnificent. That he wasn’t up for a Globe is fucking criminal–and I should tell you, I tend to be wary of awarding historical-impersonation performances. But this was world-class work.

  • Hercules

This got a pretty weak reception; the reviews were okay for what it was, but it did mediocre business and was largely outclassed by Lucy. But this, I thought, was a hell of a lot of fun–lots of ass-kicking action, Ian McShane and John Hurt being awesome, and surprisingly solid writing and directing. Sure, it could’ve been better, but I enjoyed the hell out of it, and it’s a shame more people didn’t like it.

  • Inherent Vice

It’s been extremely well received by some, and heavily criticized by others; as of now, the reviews are on the mixed side, and it hasn’t really made a dent at the box-office, though the botched release didn’t help. I thought it was wonderfully well done, incredibly well acted (especially Josh Brolin), beautifully written and directed (but that’s P.T. Anderson for you), and overall just a magnificently entertaining film, with a tragic undertone that made it more than just a lark. It’s one of the best of the year, for sure, and should be recognized as such.

  • Interstellar

I’ve been meaning to see this again, and hopefully will this week. I don’t know if it’ll hold up on a second viewing, but when I first saw it, I was well and truly dazzled. It’s an epic in every sense of the word, at a time when I feel like those are in short supply. It’s a film which has been criticized for its sentimentality, yet to my mind it’s a film that well and truly deals with the issues it raises, and rather than backing down, goes down the rabbit hole at the end, going so far into theoretical physics it borders on fantasy. If you’re not willing to go with it, you might find it ridiculous. I went with it. I was enthralled.

It was a marvelous film for me on just about every level, and that it got fucked out of being a serious Oscar contender (outside of the tech categories) is an utter shame. This was easily one of my top films of the year, and to me proves just how good Nolan can be when his heart is in his work.

  • The Interview

It got overshadowed by the hacking and all the attendant fracas, but brush all that aside and it’s a really funny little film. Sure, there are parts which don’t work so well, like the “honey-potting”/”-dicking” subplot, or Rogen’s performance for the first third of it. But once they get to North Korea, it really starts clicking, in no small part due to Randall Park’s amazing performance as Kim Jong-Un. And Franco is hysterical here, where I feared he’d be simply grating. I laughed a hell of a lot at this, and hopefully it will get re-evaluated in a few years once everyone has calmed down. Because I really enjoyed it.

  • Maleficent

Maybe this wouldn’t hold up on a second viewing, but I was very pleasantly surprised by this. The brisk, efficient storytelling was especially refreshing after something like Snow White and the Huntsman (which wasn’t terrible, but), Jolie was good, and it actually had a good Lana Del Rey song (her cover of “Once Upon a Dream”). It’s got definite problems, and I would probably criticize it a little more strongly if I saw it (or Sleeping Beauty) again, but I think it was undervalued for what it did right.

  • Space Station 76

What a delightfully weird little movie. It makes choices I don’t totally agree with (like trying to make Patrick Wilson’s character a Ron Burgundy knock-off), but it’s funny, it’s incredibly designed, and it actually has some depth to it–and the acting is pretty solid, too. It’s a total cult film, but I think more people ought to give it a chance, just for how unique it is. I’m so glad I caught it during its (extremely brief) time in theaters, but watching it at home is pretty perfect for the kind of film it is.

  • Tusk

Fuck it, I liked it. And I assumed I would hate it. Instead, it was mostly fun as hell, with a great walrus suit, two really good performances from Justin Long and Michael Parks, and a star cameo that I won’t spoil if you haven’t seen it, but which I thought was hilarious (and a nice change of pace–the buffoonish professional who’s still competent at his job). It’s a wacky little bit of nonsense, but I’m glad I gave it a chance. The critics mostly trashed it, but you know what? They don’t always get it right.

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