2014: A Year in Viewing

A few weeks into January might be a little bit late to be ruminating on 2014 in film and television.  But as I found myself crafting this post starting at the end of the year, I realized that so much of what I thought was “best” from the year I had only recently seen, and I wanted to make sure that the recency of certain viewings wasn’t clouding my judgment.

And so, after having all these movies and television shows stewing in my head for a few weeks, I feel ready to share my thoughts.  2014 was a big year for me, one that saw me transitioning from grad school to a full-time job.  But in spite of all the life changes, I thought that it was a year marked by a lot of quality viewing.

I will begin this piece by reviewing a few older works I discovered, including some threads of topics and genres I found myself following. I will then segue into a discussion of the film and television output of the year, noting some themes and trends and ending with a few short favorites lists.

2014 for Me: Discovery

I started off 2014 as a devotee of Golden Age Hollywood film who had begun to explore international cinema and other genres. 2014 pushed this further. While many of my new favorite discoveries were Golden Age Hollywood films – including the precode Heroes for Sale (1933), the wartime melodrama The Clock (1945), and the romantic comedy The Mating Season (1951) – I made a conscious effort to watch films from other eras, countries, and genres.

I came to love two films from the seventies, a decade with which I’ve struggled: Steven Spielberg’s Duel (1971) and Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975). I finally saw (and enjoyed) the four original Alien movies and Krzysztof Kiesloski’s Three Colors trilogy. I caught two silent classics that had eluded me: F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) and Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929). A few other notable first watches: In the Mood for Love (2000), Wings of Desire (1985), My Dinner with Andre (1981), and Paisan (1946), which I had the pleasure of seeing on the big screen.

On the television front, I had an interesting year exploring classic and foreign television. I made a conscious effort to sample various classics, and I finally sat down and started watching The Twilight Zone. I also finished watching the Danish drama Borgen and watched the first season of the Swedish crime drama Wallander. Perhaps this year I’ll venture outside Scandinavia.

2014 in Review: Themes and Trends

New York Stories: Begin Again, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, A Most Violent Year, Birdman, and Dream School

It might seem odd to place SundanceTV’s Dream School, a reality series about high school dropouts given another shot at academic success, alongside four of the year’s best films. But it’s all in its title: Dream School. These five works (or seven if you count all three versions of Eleanor Rigby separately) show New York City as a place where dreams can be broken or dreams can come to life.

Of all the works, A Most Violent Year depends on the setting the least, but it focuses on the American dream most overtly through telling the story of an idealistic first generation American who thinks he has found the American dream through his hard work. But something about the city makes him begin to push the limits of his ethics. Begin Again provides a more optimistic look of New York as the city of dreams through its story of a singer-songwriter and a music producer who use it as inspiration for an album recorded outdoors. Begin Again, thus, absolutely relies on the city as it setting.

2014 was the year that I decided to remain in the city for the foreseeable future, and I actually made the decision not too long before I saw Begin Again.  Seeing famous locations of the city – including Washington Square Park, Union Square, Times Square, and Bethesda Fountain in Central Park – come to life with that gorgeous soundtrack made me excited about spending more years here.

While Begin Again is almost a fantasy, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby and Dream School are more realist and show the real stories and real people of the city: the struggles of life and relationships in Eleanor Rigby and the struggles facing many American teenagers in Dream School. And both works showed places very familiar to me: Cooper Union and the Astor Place 6 Station, which I passed every day in graduate school, in Eleanor Rigby and the Union Square Green Market, at which I’ve shopped, in Dream School.  Their New York City is a living, breathing, imperfect city.

And then there’s Birdman.  With seamless photography and a handful of fantasy sequences in its gritty New York theater setting, Birdman shows New York City as a place were dreams can be recaptured or beaten down.  Movie star Riggan Thomson wants to reclaim his cultural relevance by adapting, directing, and starring in a Broadway play based off a Raymond Carver story.  And he chooses the theater – in New York in particular – to try to make this happen.

Perhaps that’s the point of New York City: it’s a city that presents a lot of opportunities but also a lot of daily struggle.  These five works go about painting that point in various ways.

The Geniuses of World War II: The Imitation Game, Manhattan, and The Bletchley Circle

I always find it interesting when similar works come out in the same year. Though it may be more obvious to pair The Imitation Game with The Theory of Everything – as both are biopics of notable British scientists – I found that it had more in common topic-wise with these two (relatively) little known television dramas.

For the uninitiated: The Imitation Game tells the story of how Alan Turing cracked the Nazi code in Bletchely Park, Manhattan tells a tale of the scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project using fictional characters, and The Bletchley Circle tells the story of a quartet of women who worked at Bletchley Park a decade later.

The Imitation Game presents a medium between the two television dramas, as it shows Turing working during the war in Bletchley Park and also dealing with the ramifications of secrecy afterward. The Bletchley Circle contains only a few flashbacks to Bletchley, focusing instead on the women’s lives in the postwar era and how having to hide their wartime work affects them.  In its first season, the scientists of Manhattan are still working on the bomb, but secrecy abounds (and even played heavily into its marketing).

All three, but especially Manhattan and The Bletchley Circle, share the profound weight of the secrecy of this wartime work, as the characters have to hide what they are doing or did from their partners. The secrecy also weighs down a sense of guilt, not only for keeping the secrets but because of the nature of what they are doing. The scientists of Manhattan sometimes choose to ignore the fact that they’re building a bomb that could wipe out millions, and the mathematicians of The Imitation Game are forced to make statistical choices that decide the fate of others.

The three works show the sacrifices of those who helped win the war not with weapons but with their minds.

Striving to Be the Best: Whiplash, Foxcatcher, and Nightcrawler

Three films, three takes on what success means. Andrew Neiman of Whiplash is a good jazz drummer who pushes himself – with the “help” of his imposing teacher – to become the very best. Mark Schultz of Foxcatcher has already won Olympic Gold but begins training with eccentric millionaire John DuPont because he wants to be the very best. Lou Bloom of Nightcrawler is a drifter who finally finds something he is good at – essentially, a disaster paparazzo – and vows to become the very best.

In one way, the three films act in conjunction with the New York stories: these are films about dreams.

But they are also films about the cost of dreams.  The three share a pervasive sense of darkness.  Andrew Neiman sacrifices his personal relationships in his quest to be the best.  Mark Schultz (the film character, of course, not the real person) strains his own personal relationships and gains another unhealthy one in his quest.  And Lou Bloom doesn’t let anyone get in the way of his quest, using and abusing various others to achieve his version of success.

The characters in Whiplash and Foxcatcher don’t appear to be in it for the money, but they are looking to be the very best at their chosen skills: jazz drumming and wrestling.  Those two are at it for the love of the work.  It’s worth noting that Lou Bloom in Nightcrawler is looking more for financial success through a particular skill, but he works just as hard as the others, listening to the police communications, studying, and inventing a web of lies.

Striving for perfection is not to be taken lightly, and three of the year’s best films seek to show that through three different quests.

2014 in Review: Film and Television Favorites

The general critical consensus is that 2014 was a good but not great year for film and an exceptional year for television.  From my own perspective, I found this a bit backwards: there were plenty of films I thought were exceptional this year, and though I enjoyed a lot of television this year, there were only a few new programs that stood out.  Nevertheless, there was a lot to admire about film and television in 2014.

Film

  1. Begin Again (dir. John Carney): A light choice, perhaps, but Begin Again solidified itself as my favorite 2014 release with a second viewing. This film is about second chances and pursuing dreams. With a great soundtrack, charismatic leads, and the vibrant New York City as its setting, Begin Again is a winner.
  2. A Most Violent Year (dir. J.C. Chandor): Ever since I saw writer/director J.C. Chandor’s debut feature Margin Call (2011), I’ve been keeping an eye on his work, and A Most Violent Year exceeded my very high expectations. Not a lot happens in A Most Violent Year, but the tension – between heating oil boss Abel and his wife Anna, between Abel and his workers, between Abel and his competitors – is palpable, as are the fireworks between stars Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain (who are old college friends).
  3. Whiplash (dir. Damien Chazelle): Whiplash is easily the most thrilling film about perfectionism I have seen.  I see it not only as a rumination on striving to be the best but also as a cautionary tale.  For despite the triumphant ending, something doesn’t entirely sit well because of the brutal tactics of J.K. Simmons’s character that led up to it.
  4. Nightcrawler (dir. Dan Gilroy): Perhaps my interest in Nightcrawler sprang from my years of watching the L.A. local news every morning. I used to joke about how much they focused on sensationalizing local crime. Nightcrawler unpacks the idea that “If it bleeds, it leads,” uncovering the depravity behind the headlines.
  5. Into the Woods (dir. Rob Marshall): Disney’s adaptation of Sondheim’s musical had to fight for a place on my list, but as I found myself constantly thinking about it, I knew it would only be fair for it to crack my Top 5.  Into the Woods upends all notions of the “happy ending” with gut-punch after gut-punch, and the all-star cast pulls off the play’s lighter moments and heavier themes beautifully.

Honorary/Alternate:

  • The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him/Her (dir. Ned Benson): A simple story (and, arguably, one that could have been generic if handled differently) told brilliantly through two perspectives.
  • The Lunchbox (dir. Ritesh Batra): A decidedly romantic non-romance. A woman’s packed lunch for her husband reaches the wrong man, and so begins a delightful pen pal relationship.
  • Two Days, One Night (dir. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne): This film consists of watching several characters weighing their interests and well-being against those of others, and it’s utterly compelling to watch.

Most Pleasant Surprise: Edge of Tomorrow (dir. Doug Liman), which I dismissed upon its release and only recently saw. Pure fun from start to finish with its D-Day meets Groundhog Day killing aliens plotline.

Television

  1. The Good Wife (CBS): I didn’t think The Good Wife could possible top its 2013, but 2014 did just that.  With a major death and several major life changes for most of the main characters, The Good Wife continued to demonstrate in 2014 that it is never happy with the status quo.  It juggles more than I’ve seen most shows do, and my Sundays are better for it.
  2. Rectify (SundanceTV): Rectify is simply put the most raw and honest show I’ve seen.  The 10-episode second season allowed for an even more pondersome tone than the first, which devoted more time to getting to know Daniel and the rest of his family better.  But despite this, Daniel still remains an enigma.  Did he commit the crime for which he was in prison for 19 years?  I am still not entirely sure, and if Rectify never tells me, I’ll be fine with it.
  3. Borderland (Al Jazeera America): The first thing you notice about Borderland, Al Jazeera America’s docu-reality series about illegal immigration, is that it doesn’t kid around. Six Americans with views on illegal immigration visit an Arizona morgue that houses the remains of migrants who perished in the desert crossing into the United States.  From there, they retrace the steps of three migrants who died.  Borderland may not change your view on illegal immigration, but it will give you more perspective on the many, many sides of the issue.
  4. Call the Midwife (PBS): 2014 was a year of transition for Call the Midwife as it prepared to say goodbye to a major character.  And despite the changes, Call the Midwife remained as consistently brilliant, moving, and delightful as it always is.  It proves the cliche that you can laugh through tears.
  5. The Middle (ABC): A lot of shows could have occupied this last slow, but I decided to go with the most consistently funny show I watch.  The Middle is a throwback to the glory days of the family comedy.  This year was in particular a standout for Sue, my favorite character, who somehow found herself with too many prom dates in the spring and then declared her senior year “The Year of Sue” in the fall, leading to much hilarity.

Standout Episodes:

  • “Listen” from Doctor Who (BBC America): A creepy, brilliant episode of Doctor Who that is a worthy successor to “Blink.”
  • “Knowledge of Causes, and Secret Motion of Things” from Orphan Black (BBC America): I will always love the comical Alison’s-life-is-chaos episodes of Orphan Black, and this second one was perhaps even better than the one from the first season.
  • “The Sign of the Three” from Sherlock (PBS): The first time I enjoyed – not just revered – the show. Sherlock’s toast to John and Mary was a standout television sequence of the year.

Most Pleasant Surprise: The Quest (ABC), which blended fantasy with reality to create one of the most compelling competitions I’ve seen on television.

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