What did I learn from the films I watched in 2014? A review:
1) This was the year of Woody Allen, Alfred Hitchcock, and to a lesser extent, Charlie Chaplin. Most of my process in watching movies has been actor-based and not director-based, but I felt I needed to make an exception for these three very distinct filmmakers. This meant going back to their earliest works which were not always great - watching silent films these days just seems like such a futile process, but I wanted to see where Hitchcock and Chaplin got their starts, even though Hitch's early work was so damn rough. Similarly for Woody, that meant enduring awful films like "What's New, Pussycat" and the pointless "What's Up, Tiger Lily?" just to get to the better stuff like "Broadway Danny Rose" and "Match Point".
I ended up feeling like I'd cracked the code on these three filmmakers - for Hitchcock, so many of his mid-career films involved mistaken identity or someone being accused of a crime, and then going on the run to find the evidence to prove themself innocent, and usually falling in love along the way. By the time he got to "Psycho" and "The Birds" he was finally able to break out of the pattern, but after that his career was really back to being somewhat erratic.
2) Writers, artists, actors and musicians had a big year - biopics were hot, like "Pollock", "Coal Miner's Daughter", "Sweet Dreams", "My Week with Marilyn", "The Notorious Bettie Page", TWO films about the stage career of Orson Welles, "Sylvia", "Shadowlands", "Julia", and "Frances". More fictionally, actors turned up in "Postcards From the Edge" and "The Hard Way", while writers popped up in "Ruby Sparks", "The Shipping News", and all those Woody Allen films. Fictional (?) musicians also made their presence felt in films like "Purple Rain", "Quadrophenia", "Velvet Goldmine", "8 Mile" and "Hustle & Flow". So I've definitely got this topic, about what it means to be a creative type, covered.
3) Superheroes showed up again this year - my highest-rated film of the year was "X-Men: Days of Future Past", which received a "9", surprising no one. Superheroes, time travel, lots of action, what's not to love, aside from a few Nitpick Points? But this was also the year of "Thor: The Dark World", "Captain America: The Winter Soldier", "Amazing Spider-Man 2" and "Kick-Ass 2" - winners all, to some degree.
4) And for other, non-superhero forms of sci-fi, fantasy and horror, always strong topics around these parts, you could say I covered this from A to Z - that's Aliens to Zombies. For straight-out sci-fi I watched "Oblivion", "Elysium", "Zathura", "Solaris", "Gravity", "Ender's Game", "After Earth", "Lost in Space", "Pacific Rim" and "The Island". In the realm of fantasy, there were the two "Conan" films, "Jack the Giant-Slayer", "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey", and "Oz the Great and Powerful". And for horror, I nearly finished up Stephen King films with "Hearts in Atlantis", "Cujo" "Cat's Eye", and "Pet Sematary", and then along came the walking undead in films like "R.I.P.D.", "Warm Bodies", "World War Z" and "Cockneys vs. Zombies". Then I got raptured with "This Is the End". Oh, and whatever the hell "Cloud Atlas" was, I watched that too.
5) The February romance chain was a bit underwhelming this year - "The Notebook" and "The Vow" sort of stood out, but the rest was pretty average. There was a weird upswing in romances involving reporters ("Up Close & Personal", "His Girl Friday", "It Happened One Night"), but the rest sort of felt like the remnants of previous chains on the topic. There was also a preponderance of films with ampersands ("Celeste & Jesse Forever", "I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry", and "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice") - I'm not sure what that means, probably just a coincidence.
6) Thank God the animation category was there to pick up the slack. In addition to "Cheatin'" (now officially an Oscar-eligible film for 2014!) I got to some recent animated hits like "Rango", "Brave", "Wreck-It Ralph", "Planes", "Monsters University", "Madagascar 3", "Ice Age: Continental Drift", "The Adventures of Tintin", "Epic" and "Frozen". I came darn close to clearing the category, I think there are just 4 or 5 animated films on the watchlist now. I also dipped back into past years to finally watch "Mulan", "Dinosaur" and the lost classic "Gay Purree".
7) Crime films, always another hot topic. From the classics "The Big Heat", "White Heat", "The Public Enemy" and "The Postman Always Rings Twice" to "Payback" and both versions of "Get Carter", right up to more modern comedies like "The Heat" and "Identity Thief", it seems I was a bit scattered on this topic this year. But, in my defense, it's a wide-ranging topic. Where do more modern films like "Lawless", "The Newton Boys" and "Gangster Squad fit in if they're made recently but set in the crime-ridden 1920's and 30's? Who can say? And how do I compare those to films set in the present, like "Compliance", "The Call" and "Perfect Stranger"?
If I had to pick an over-arching theme for the year (and really, I don't have to) it would be something about identity. This manifested itself most blatantly in films where there were switches between identical-looking non-twins, like in "The Prince and the Pauper" and "The Man in the Iron Mask". Late in the year, this repeated with "The Great Dictator" and "The Dictator". Who is someone, really, when they look just like someone else? Then we had films where people were going under false identities, like "We're the Millers", "The Stunt Man", "Apt Pupil" and "Identity Thief" (duh). Who is someone, really, when they're pretending to be someone else?
You can carry this theme even further, into the typical and not-so-typical "fish out of water" stories, where a character is thrust into another environment and forced to change. Great examples are "Rango", "Oz the Great and Powerful", and "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey". Who is someone, really, when they're taken away from home and put somewhere else? Do they become a new entity, or remain true to their original nature, or perhaps a little bit of both? Other riffs on this theme: "Madagascar 3", "Hugo", "Wreck-It Ralph", "Anchorman 2", "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel", "Doc Hollywood", "A Good Day to Die Hard", even "Lilies of the Field".
Now, a shout-out to the actors who showed up a lot...at least three times each this year:
Jim Carrey ("Lemony Snicket", "Mr. Popper's Penguins", "Anchorman 2", "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone" and "Kick-Ass 2")
Michelle Pfeiffer ("A Midsummer Night's Dream", "The Age of Innocence" and "Up Close & Personal")
Halle Berry ("The Call", "Perfect Stranger", "Cloud Atlas" and "X-Men: Days of Future Past")
Kevin Spacey ("The Big Kahuna", "Swimming with Sharks" and "The Shipping News")
Natalie Portman ("Anywhere But Here", "Where the Heart Is", "No Strings Attached" and "Thor: The Dark World")
Scarlett Johansson ("Match Point", "Scoop", "Vicky Cristina Barcelona", "The Island" and "Hitchcock")
Wallace Shawn ("Clueless", "Admission", and "My Dinner With Andre")
Tom Hanks ("Captain Phillips", "Saving Mr. Banks", "Volunteers" and "Cloud Atlas")
Paul Rudd ("Clueless", "Admission" and "This is 40")
Adam Sandler ("Big Daddy", "Grown-Ups 2", "Mr. Deeds" and "I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry")
Mel Gibson ("Bird on a Wire", "The River" and "Payback")
Colin Farrell ("Epic", "Alexander" and "Saving. Mr. Banks")
Ingrid Bergman ("Spellbound", "Notorious", "For Whom the Bell Tolls", "Anastasia" and "Gaslight")
Joan Crawford ("Grand Hotel", "Mildred Pierce" and "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?")
Cary Grant ("His Girl Friday", "Suspicion", "To Catch a Thief", "Notorious" and "North by Northwest")
Jimmy Stewart ("Rope", "Rear Window", "The Man Who Knew Too Much" and "Vertigo")
Grace Kelly ("Dial M for Murder", "Rear Window" and "To Catch a Thief")
and joining the "Four-in-a-Row" club:
Bette Davis ("Dark Victory", "Now, Voyager", "The Catered Affair" and "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?")
Jane Fonda ("Coming Home", "The China Syndrome", "Klute" and "California Suite", plus "Julia")
Ewan McGregor ("Velvet Goldmine", "A Life Less Ordinary", "The Impossible" and "The Island")
Bradley Cooper ("The Hangover Part III", "The Words", "Silver Linings Playbook" and "American Hustle")
Leonardo DiCaprio ("Shutter Island", "The Beach", "Revolutionary Road", "The Great Gatsby" and "Django Unchained", plus "The Man in the Iron Mask")
Goldie Hawn ("Private Benjamin", "Butterflies Are Free", "The Out-of-Towners", "The Sugarland Express" and "Bird on a Wire")
Anthony Hopkins ("Shadowlands", "Howards End", "The Remains of the Day", "Hearts in Atlantis", and "Hitchcock", plus also "Alexander" and "Thor: The Dark World")
Diane Keaton ("Play It Again, Sam", "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex", "Sleeper" and "Love and Death", plus "Interiors")
But the real champs this year were Mia Farrow, showing up in 8 Woody Allen films, and the Wood-man himself, showing up as an actor an astonishing 21 times (that's what happens when you're the director and you can hire yourself...) with a run of at least nine back-to-back appearances in my rundown. (Though I guess if I count Alfred Hitchcock's cameos, he might have Woody Allen beat...) Right now, I'm going through the Woody Allen films that I skipped in March and April because I'd seen them before, just because I want to be able to say that I watched EVERY Woody Allen film in this calendar year - plus this sets me up to watch "Hannah and Her Sisters" as a lead-in to Thanksgiving, and several Thanksgiving dinners are seen in that film.
In the meantime, it's hard for me to NOT watch a new movie for the next month and a half. Films like "Interstellar" and "The Theory of Everything" are opening in theaters and they look really appealing and interesting - plus I'm turning down invitations to see films like "The Boxtrolls" that are competing against my boss's film "Cheatin'" for the Animated Feature Oscar nominations, it's very tempting to check out the competition, but I'm holding back. Same for "The Lego Movie", it's airing this weekend but I'm just going to record it and watch it next year.
But there is a purpose to finishing my year early - I'm re-sorting my entire comic-book collection, which is a labor-intensive job that involves moving some heavy longboxes. I'm on the letter "H" right now, but I can only move about 10 boxes of comics a day before my shoulder gives out, so that's my free time for the next week. Then it will be time to put together my annual Christmas mix CD that I mail out with Christmas cards, not to mention addressing all those cards, and getting started on catalog shopping and then the buying of Christmas gifts.
When all that's done, and January will be here before I know it, I've got to start thinking about either seriously buckling down and doing some writing, or alternatively looking for some more employment somehow. As it is, I'm home four days a week and I'm getting caught up in the drama unfolding in my backyard, with birds, squirrels and stray cats all sharing the same space. I'm feeding all three right now, because if I fail to put out peanuts for the squirrels, then they eat the bird seed, and the whole process falls apart.
Looking ahead to the films to watch in 2015 - what could possibly still be on the list at this point? Turns out, 150 films right now, but I expect that number to rise a bit before January 1. Still, that number represents great progress made in 2014 - there were 205 films on the watchlist at the end of last year, so the list is down by about 25%, and I've got my best chances ever of finishing this project off in 12 months. 150 films to go, plus there are the new releases coming out on cable, plus things I may want to see in the theaters next year, plus TCM's annual Oscar salute in February that always adds things to the list - so yeah, 150 films could easily become 300 to watch next year.
The next best stopping point would be film #2,200 - and I've love greatly for that to be "Star Wars: Episode 7", due out next December. Film #1 was "Star Wars: The Clone Wars", so that would create some great symmetry, and define the project as sort of what I watched between installments in my favorite franchise. I think I've devised some ingenious linking for the end of next year that will get me there.
Thematically, coming up next year will be another look at various crime films in January, then the annual February mostly-romance chain, and then my linking will take me about up to the start of baseball season. After that there's a big gap in the proceedings which I'm hoping will get filled in somehow, because the next topics are the fall ones like horror films, political films and back-to-school. You can expect tributes to Laurence Olivier, Mae West, Harrison Ford, Hugh Grant, Julia Roberts, Sean Connery, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Vince Vaughn, Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Jeremy Renner, Matt Damon, Matthew McConnaughey, and of course, Robin Williams.
What am I looking forward to watching in 2015? "Nebraska", "12 Years a Slave", "Moonrise Kingdom", "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol", "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug", "About Time", and a bunch of others - admittedly, part of the fun is finding the undiscovered gems.
So, Happy Thanksgiving to everyone, plus a Merry Christmas or a Happy Hannukkah, and I'll see you back here right after New Year's.