Film criticism is subjective. When a film raises the bar, that’s a fuzzy metaphorical bar, not a literal one (like measuring the high jump). There is no standard checklist for rating a film, like there is for judging prize bulls at a county fair (that’s relatively objective territory). Nor is there a test to get licensed as a film critic, you just jump in and start opinionating. The next closest thing is political punditry, where it doesn’t matter if you know what you’re talking about, so long as you sound convincing.
Top 10 lists are how film critics try to outclass the royal sham of year-end awards pageantry, which is unduly influenced by PR campaigns that turn those prizes into the furthest thing imaginable from spontaneous acclaim. The process begins way before you might think, like breeding for the Kentucky Derby, entire projects hatched from day one with Oscars and Globes in mind.
At the very least, people audacious enough to publish a top 10 list ought to tell you their criteria, but few ever do.
For a film to make my top 10 list it has to go somewhere that no film has gone before. It needs to be innovative, visit the truly unexpected, resonate for more than 72 hours. Not hard and fast rules, but generally speaking, give me something original. Not so original that it’s nonsensical and I have no clue what’s going on, but definitely not made from 100% re-circulated material. As a society we need to do better at recycling, but lets not enlist Hollywood to lead the way.
If you’re going to produce genre, fine. People love that stuff, and they buy tickets to it. But that shouldn’t win you any medals, not unless you transcend formula and hit one out of the park.
Meanwhile, those handing out golden statues define excellence as confined within a narrow band of showcase pieces made with the taste of awards’ voters in mind, which promotes a circular flunkeyism instead of creativity. Scores that sound like other scores. Sets that resemble other sets. Characters that come off like other characters. All because year after year it’s the same tiny incestuous pool of people creating every sight & sound & word up on that screen, and that very same pool voting for commendations. There are signs that better and cheaper technology may change the paradigm one day soon, but for the moment, Hollywood maintains its dull stranglehold.
If you’re going to continue the Hunger Games franchise you have to beat Catching Fire (last year’s best film). Maybe Mockingjay Part I is all set-up and the payoff of Part II will make the wait worthwhile, so I’ll reserve judgment for now. Second year in a row as top earner at the U.S. box office, but please, don’t go resting on your laurels. You’ve got your audience, now knock our socks off.
If you’re going to do the disabled physicist with synthesized voice romance genre, you’d better avoid making it schmaltzy. And if you decide to give it such a lofty title, you’d better trick me into learning something (anything) about everything, as Hawking’s popular book did. Passing platitudes through a vocoder isn’t enough.
If you’re going to do post-9-11 war in a khaki-colored country, you have to beat The Hurt Locker (six years ago’s 2nd best film) and Zero Dark Thirty (two years ago’s best film). That bar has been set pretty high. You don’t get away with converting a so-so memoir into a racist & sexist John Wayne yarn set in Sadr City with cowboys and “savages” instead of Indians. It might sell tickets, but it doesn’t deserve nominations. It might get the blood running hot in Texas, but it hardly helps defeat ISIL. Perhaps I bring political bias to the theater with me, but the slick falsification of history in American Sniper is scary. Lots of pixels have been spilled on this, here and here and here and here. Shame on Clint Eastwood. He is the empty chair.
It’s sort of a no-brainer that Boyhood will walk away with the most coveted Oscar, and it’s an okay movie. But I fear that focus on the project’s process has overshadowed the actual result as a film. Critics have wanted to heap accolades on Linklater for years, and this film is a good enough excuse. Worthy of an honorable mention, but not best of the year in my book. It did however evoke the best walking-out-of-the-theater-casual-review of the year: “I’d have liked it better if it’d been called Girlhood.” What happened to his sister? That was a big final flaw in this praised-for-its-process project, especially in an industry where women are systematically not hired as the storytellers (a fact that is evidenced over and over by which stories get told and HOW they get told).
Other films turned me off or failed to turn me on for a cascade of specific reasons. Birdman: entertainment industry narcissism that jerks the audience around for no apparent reason other than artistic license; it could just as easily have been entitled DelusionalOldManActorhood. A Most Violent Year: derivative, and not as violent as most comedies, and spans only 33 days (bait & switch title), and more mood than substance. The Grand Budapest Hotel was enjoyable and gets an honorable mention, but it was no Moonrise Kingdom, farce upstaging whatever satire was intended. Gone Girl: it truly matters what story you decide to tell; when so many women are actually victims of domestic violence, what purpose is served by making up a story of the one who lies about it?
Selma is a well-crafted meditation on the civil rights movement. It underwhelmed me while watching it, but resonated long afterwards. I include it in part because of the various snubs it’s been handed. Dear White People on the other hand is the kind of film that keeps me showing up at movie theaters in hopes of getting surprised. I’ve seen it twice now, and it’s still fermenting in my brain like a stinky cheese. Relentlessly challenging and relevant (what was right & wrong in the past is about a thousand times easier to pull off than what’s right & wrong now). I’ll have to watch it a few more times to fully digest it. More movies like this please.
If you’re going to do a “how we won the war” movie, it better be about the guy who actually DID win the war and then had history ignore him and who then committed suicide because of medieval persecution of his sexuality, and who, oh! by the way… invented the modern computer. Good job. That’ll get you #2 on my list.
If you’re going to do quirky post-civilization dystopian nightmare, you’re up against A Clockwork Orange and Brazil and Blade Runner, so you’d better set the story on a train and dance with the implausible but make it compelling enough to be almost real and with killer production design (versus heroic snipers)… and you’d better put Tilda Swinton in it and you’d better give her coke bottle glasses and buck teeth. Bravo! Best movie of 2014! No other one even came close.
I admit to being opinionated about movies, but Hollywood does a lot of tone setting for our culture (which in case you haven’t noticed, is a little off track). And then they hold their self-congratulations ceremonies, on which producers and studios blow huge wads of cash lobbying for incestuous recognition. I like to throw a wrench into it, because they are a myopic club, and they almost always get it wrong, praising the forgettable and overlooking the truly inspired.
- Snowpiercer. Bong Joon-Ho might be the next Kubrick (check out his Korean language films The Host and Mother and Memories of Murder and Barking Dogs Never Bite); whereas Harvey Weinstein is more likely to be the next overblown bully producer to get a bunch of embarrassing emails leaked. It’s a crime how he tried to murder this movie, and then, when he couldn’t get away with that, buried it alive instead. A crime. Snowpiercer is the best film Harvey ever had in his clutches, and all he did was try to take a leak on it.
- The Imitation Game. This is the most worthy of the mainstream awards nominees. Great filmmaking about a person whose significance has been neglected due to the bigotry of his (and our) time. When will Popes and Queens stop “forgiving” such people, and instead, avoid oppressing them in advance? Alan Turing, though it might take another century to fully grasp it, was the most important inventor, and possibly the most important philosopher, of the 20th Century.
- We Are The Best!. Sheer delight from first frame to last. Best coming-of-age, girl-group, lets-poke-out-eyes-of-the-patriarchy film… EVER!!!! Don’t pollute yourself with reading about it, just see it. They truly truly truly ARE the best!
- Dear White People. Some of this movie felt gratuitous while I was watching it, but then it started fermenting. Sort of a politically anti-correct Do The Right Thing set on a fictional college campus. Shakespearian in its complexity, thoroughly right-nowish in its characters, dialogue, and issues. I’m still thinking about it months later. I’ll watch it again and again.
- Whiplash. It’s a harsh movie. A drama that grinds almost into a horror film. One that until the very last frame I might have ended up hating, but then it completely blew my mind. It’s about so much more than what it’s about.
- Ida. So here you have what amounts to a genre: how horrible were the Nazis? It’s almost as if there’s nothing left to say about it. But this film has much more to say about it. Spoiler: it will wrench your heart out.
- Nightcrawler. Seemingly a dark study of a quirky and ambitious guy (on which level it works as entertainment), but below that surface lurks a damning indictment of how the television news industry is destroying journalism, the role of ratings in constructing reality, and by extension, television itself.
- The Lunchbox. If you’ve never been to India, here’s your chance. No need to take off your shoes, board an aeroplane, and then go through customs. Compared to that movie set in India that won Best Picture a few years ago and whose name you already can’t remember, this is a tale that will hold up for the ages.
- Selma. David Oyelowo deserved a best actor nod (up against actors playing fictional characters or real-life figures that few people would recognize), and Ava DuVernay deserved a best director nod over at least three of those who did get nominated. But if you want to comprehend why David and Ava didn’t get nominated, you’ll have to watch Dear White People.
- Leviathan. A metaphor for Russia under Vladimir Putin? No doubt. But it is also excellent filmmaking, a gripping drama from beginning to end, and a hyper-realistic glimpse inside rural coastal Russia. Beautiful cinematography and the best use of Philip Glass’s Akhnaten ever.
Documentaries: Citizen Four; Last Days In Vietnam; She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry. All three are must-see films. Not such a great year for feature-length documentaries (last year a stellar crop worthy of its own top 10 list), so I’m giving a shout out to these three and including another few in the honorable mentions list.
Honorable Mentions: Belle, Big Eyes, Boyhood, Blue Ruin, Calvary, Divergent, Edge of Tomorrow, Finding Vivian Maier, Force Majeure, Foxcatcher, Frank, Gabrielle, Interstellar, Jodorowsky’s Dune, Journey To the West, Locke, Lucy, Mockingjay Part I, Obvious Child, St. Vincent, Still Alice, The Babadook, The Drop, The Fault In Our Stars, The Immigrant, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Great Invisible, The Hundred Foot Journey, The One I Love, This Is Where I Leave You, Two Days, One Night.
Not yet seen: A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night