Best of 2014 - The movies

Thanks to Kyle Mayfield for designing this poster

Thanks to Kyle Mayfield for designing this poster

This website’s domain has always been clear in my mind: I would review every movie that I saw but I wouldn't write about anything else. That’s not because I lack opinions about music or television shows - no, that's because it’s exhausting trying to find an interesting takeaway from everything you encounter, and I figured that having pop culture areas that were off limits would help keep me from going insane. (That theory didn’t actually work out as well as I’d hoped it would because I watch too many movies and thus write about too many movies. But I digress.)

However, since end of the year recaps are special things, I’m going to relax the format a bit. Today I’ve got a few words about my favorite movies of the year, and then tomorrow I will have some notes about my favorite music and podcasts of the year.

My favorite cat photoshop of the year

My favorite cat photoshop of the year

As I discussed recently, Noah is probably my favorite movie of the year, and it's the review that I worked the hardest on. I don’t have much to add to that post, but if you haven't read it, I recommend taking a second to check it out.

Also high up on my list: I liked Boyhood a lot, and I look forward it to winning a bunch of Oscars, but I don’t have that much to add to the critical hubbub around it; if you haven't been swayed by the hype to check it out yet I don't know what I could say now that would change your mind.

Speaking of the Oscars, I think it's a shame that Emily Blunt probably isn't going to get nominated for Edge of Tomorrow. That was a really tricky movie, since it had a high concept premise (a soldier has to relive a battle over and over again until he figures out how to win the fight), and it had a complicated tone (each iteration could be enjoyably violent / tragically violent, but the sum effect of the sheer repetition was morbidly funny.) Blunt also had a very hard role in the movie, since her soldier character was supposed to start off like a grim bad-ass only to turn into a far more nuanced character after you understood the breadth of her backstory - but she nailed all of it, turning in a tough, witty, and heartfelt performance. (And also, sexy, but that seems secondary, since I'm trying to make a case for her acting ability.) I understand that that Oscars don't generally recognize genre performances, but if they could nominate Sigourney Weaver for Aliens, then they should be able to nominate Blunt for this. Unfortunately, I don't see it happening.

Pound for pound, I would say that Neighbors and 22 Jump Street were the funniest movies I saw this year, with Neighbors having more heart and Jump Street having better jokes. It's easy to condescend to comedies, because neither movie really touches on the sort of grand themes that (say) Boyhood does, nor do they have the epic scope that Edge of Tomorrow does, but they both were very effective at achieving their intended purpose: they made me laugh a lot. As Chris Rock once said about cornbread: ain't nothin' wrong with that. 

On the opposite end of the serious spectrum we have Lone Survivor. I think people were skeptical about checking it out because it seemed like it would be jingoistic, but I found it to be refreshingly free of politics. It isn’t about the war in Afghanistan in general, or the U.S.’s foreign policy – it’s about a handful of dudes trying to accomplish one single mission. Every choice they make has immediate life threatening consequences, which gives the movie a relentless feeling of tension, and the intensity is also upped by some jaw-droppingly crazy stunts. I was just talking to my old friend Ricky about this, and we were both legitimately crying by the end – which sounds odd, given that it’s a Mark Wahlberg action movie, but once you’ve seen it, you’ll understand why we needed that catharsis by the end. People really slept on this movie but they should check it out.

Before I move onto the other categories, I want to take a second to focus on Life Itself, the documentary about Roger Ebert. This film wrecked me when I saw it - I went by myself during the afternoon on my birthday, and I'm glad I went by myself, because I would have felt very self conscious if someone else had seen me crying like an idiot. Unfortunately, I don't think I did a good job with my review.

The problem was simple: I’m still trying to find a balance between a personal tone and an objective tone in my reviews, because I want this site to be a vehicle for personal expression, but I also don't want to be an egotistical jerk who makes everything about him. The Life Itself review was difficult to write because I had a very real personal connection to that movie, but that movie wasn't about me, it was about Roger Ebert, and I couldn't quite figure out a way to balance those two poles. In the end, I just left myself out of the review entirely.

Since this year in review is (more or less) about me, now might be the time to discuss the memory I kept fixating on when I was watching Life Itself. When I was a kid, they had these Transformers toys that had little bar charts on their chest that gave you vital information about how smart or strong or fast the character was supposed to be. At the time I didn't understand why some of the Transformers were smarter than the others, or why some were stronger. In my mind, they were all robots, and robots are made in a lab, and why would someone make a dumber robot? All they had to do was put in a few more chips and voila!

Anyway, years after I’d put those toys in a closet somewhere, I was at college and I was asking my friend why one of our mutual acquaintances seemed to dislike me so much.  My friend told me: she thinks you’re too sarcastic. I said: but people like my sarcasm. My friend just shrugged. And then for whatever reason a lightbulb went off in my head, and I got why those Transformers couldn’t all be the smartest and the fastest and the best at the same time. Some people liked me because I was sarcastic; other people didn’t like me for the same reason. It was impossible to please everyone, because different people like different things, and the very traits that endeared me to some were a problem for others.

I’m sure that sounds like a banal point, but it was a lightning bolt for me, because it meant that I was going about the process of trying to fit in the wrong way. In my mind, I'd always believed that you could be the fastest and the strongest, but I suddenly understood: oh, muscle has weight to it and a heavier person is slower. I was going to have to pick and choose my targets. It's the moment when I really accepted that I was going to be imperfect, the same way those Transformers were imperfect, and accepting that fact changed how I approached the world.

I kept thinking about that pivotal moment of my life in Life Itself because it was obvious that Roger Ebert felt the same way about his own life. At one point in the movie there's a clip from the Tonight Show where Ebert is sitting next to Martin Short, and when Johnny Carson asks him what was the worst movie of the year he answers without hesitation "Three Amigos" - which starred Short. Was it rude? Yes. But his life was defined by the fact that he was an opinionated guy, and he wasn't going to sell that out because it was polite. Besides, he clearly knew that it made for good TV.

There's something about that honesty that resonated with me. Some of the people they interview called him out for being an arrogant dick; others said he was a generous man who gave them their careers; he was a raconteur, a drunk, a sober man, a genius, a pervert - he was a man, basically, imperfect, but fully involved in trying to get the most he could out of life. That connected to me, because that's I think that's how a person should live, and because I try to live my life that way. I know I'm a dick to some people, and a nice guy to others, but I try to not dwell on it. I try to just be myself, and not worry about whether or not someone else likes what I like.

Watching Ebert slowly waste away would be hard for anyone who is capable of empathizing with another human being, but for someone like me who felt a personal connection to him it's that much harder. The fact that he tried to be generous till the end, sharing as many kind words as he could even as he was suffering, hit me hard, too, because kindness has always made me sadder than cruelty; a cruel act in our cruel world makes me angry, but a kind word against the world's backdrop of cruelty makes me wish that the world didn't have to be so cruel. There was so much kindness in Life Itself, even from the people who were shit talking Ebert, that it's inevitable tragic ending just wrecked me.

But I will say this: I saw that movie in July, and I feel like it's burned in my mind, as is the experience of seeing it, as is every feeling I had about it. Which means that Life Itself is one hell of a tribute to a man who devoted his life to loving film.

Anyway, I know that's a bummer note to end on... But check back tomorrow for more about the best music and podcasts of 2014!