Monday, March 9, 2015

2014: A Down Year for 'Great' Films; A High Water Mark for Auteur Genre Pulp

I agree with what seems to be the general consensus that, overall, 2014 was a down year for film. What this tends to mean is that, in terms of 'great' movies, or movies that can compete with outstanding achievements from other years, the list is short. (Take your pick: Selma, Boyhood, Inherent Vice, a couple others.) What occurred to me recently, as I continued to catch up on the year's films, is how many of them qualify as auteur genre pulp, and how superlative they are, across the board.

Consider: Bong Joon Ho's Snowpiercer, Gareth Edwards's Godzilla, Matt Reeves's Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Gareth Evans's The Raid 2, James Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy, Anthony and Joe Russo's Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Luc Besson's Lucy, Doug Liman's The Edge of Tomorrow, Jaume Collet-Serra's Non-Stop, even Jose Padilha's Robocop (which, while not very good, is competently made with ideas in mind).

That's 10 films, by talented directors from half a dozen countries who span the formal spectrum, each of whom has style, ideas, and a perceptible sense of control: of their shots, of the stories they're telling, of the character, dialogue, and pace of the action. Sometimes it's in service of sheer lunacy (Lucy), sometimes of meta-commentary (Edge of Tomorrow), sometimes of ideological critique (Snowpiercer), sometimes of nothing more than fun (Guardians) or visceral thrills (The Raid 2). But these directors know what they're doing, and accomplish their purpose with efficiency and verve; in no circumstances (again, excepting Robocop) did audiences walk out of these films thinking the movie they paid for wasn't what they saw. And even when they might have—as, possibly, with Godzilla—that's just a matter of having too low of expectations: bracing themselves for the onslaught of Michael Bay's Transformers, they weren't prepared for Spielberg's Jaws.

What's interesting to observe here is that the rhetoric surrounding 2014 would suggest to the uninformed observer that the problem with film is the dominance of empty spectacle over thoughtful, quiet drama; that, to cinema's lasting shame, there's nothing but visually incoherent comic book movies anymore. Whether or not that turns out to be true as prediction—that is, audiences are nearing superhero supersaturation—it certainly is not true as description. What we have now is a veritable murderer's row of pulp auteurs making very fun movies for audiences who like them (see also: Guillermo del Toro; Brad Bird; Rian Johnson; Michelle MacLaren; etc.). Maybe it's not high art, but it's not the apocalypse either.

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