The Margins: Good Film Hunting in the Bay Area in 2014

by Dennis Harvey

The lack of consensus so far amongst awards-giving groups has underlined 2014 as a cinematic year that lacked memorable popular standouts. That certainly doesn’t mean there weren’t a lot of fine movies released (though, as we’ll note below, fewer of them actually made it to the Bay Area).

But as is ever-increasingly the case, the more original, challenging, grownup films many hunger for must be hunted for in the margins, while the mainstream focuses more than ever on expensive, formulaic toys aimed at an audience of forever-15-year-olds.


Actually, for the latter, it was a pretty good year: For all the creative clock-punching by yet another  Transformers episode and other uninspired but lucrative fantasy series, there were genuinely crafty, enjoyable popcorn entertainments in the form of Captain America: The Winter Soldier , Dawn of the Planet of the Apes , Edge of Tomorrow , and the Godzilla and Robocop remakes (though that last wasn’t a hit). Somewhat abandoned by its US distributor after the filmmakers refused to make compromising cuts, Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s English-language dystopian allegory Snowpiercer was the least financially successful of all these—but also the most exhilarating, and most likely to become a genre classic. While it couldn’t entirely alleviate a sense of superhero fatigue, the year’s surprising biggest grosser Guardians of the Galaxy at least proved that the Marvel formula was flexible enough to accommodate some goofiness and self-satire amongst the “dark” revisionism of caped crusader-dom.


Elsewhere in the mainstream, there was a welcome trend toward reviving another era’s brand of heroic spectacle, in the relatively trad Biblical epics Noah and Exodus , as well as a few old-school sword ’n’ sandal exercises, like the Dwayne Johnson-starring Hercules. All were mixed bags—but at least they tried for something more than just the usual empty pileup of computer-generated FX. Another semi-extinct genre, the musical, likewise proved alive if not quite kicking via fair-to-middling transfers of Broadway successes Into the Woods , Annie and Jersey Boys ; the rare indie effort, like twee Britpop group Belle and Sebastian’s God Help the Girl , was more laudable in theory than practice.

Jonah Hill;Channing Tatum

But in general there wasn’t a lot to be excited about at the multiplex, not amongst a below-average animation crop (the frantic Lego Movie being a default highlight), or the usual routine lot of rom-coms and bro-coms. The gem among the latter was 22 Jump St. , which deftly satirized its own sequel status; although overshadowing it and nearly everything else news-wise was The Interview—a cause of political turmoil (if too little audience mirth) that has already been amply written about on this site, so we’ll skip any recapping.


It’s a tribute to the sameness of so many major releases that two much-hyped mediocrities could pass as major cultural events. Christopher Nolan’s ponderous space opera Interstellar  was twice the length (and who knows how many times the cost) of two fleetingly-seen dystopian-future dramas—but David Michod’s Australian The Rover  and Jake Paltrow’s Young Ones  had it easily beaten in the human-interest department. Movies now often being too expensive to frequently risk an R rating (which cuts out younger viewers), David Fincher’s Gone Girl   was treated as serious battle-of-the-sexes stuff. But its lurid, shallow, improbable femme-fatale plot would have been a lot more fun if it came humbly packaged in a 1950s B noir at the bottom of a double bill. (It’s a testament to how little sex gets into Hollywood movies these days that the imminent 50 Shades of Grey  movie has gotten so much advance ink, despite nearly everyone being braced to dismiss it as tame smut—something that a couple decades ago, during the “erotic thriller” vogue, was a popular guilty pleasure.


More laudable if not particularly exciting or adventurous were a lineup of solidly crafted biopics now racking up early acting awards: The very good if slightly lethargic Civil Rights flashback Selma , semi-sanitized James Brown portrait Get On Up , and the very British Imitation Game (about WW2 codebreaker Alan Turing) and The Theory of Everything (Stephen Hawking). They all did well, though one (more heavily fictionalized) historical drama that would have done better was Amma Asante’s Belle , a rare exercise in enjoyable Masterpiece Theatre-type sumptuousness that actually had something (race in the high British Colonialist era) on its mind.


Belle was one of several relatively high-profile films directed by women this year—amidst an increasingly public debate around just why so few women get to direct major studio films, there were nonetheless notable exceptions in Selma (Ava DuVernay), Beyond the Lights (Gina Prince-Bythewood) and Unbroken , a thoroughly male-centric WW2 true story helmed by none other than Angelina Jolie. In addition, some of 2014’s most acclaimed indie and foreign features also bore female signatures, from the Israeli Zero Motivation to offbeat genre exercises (horror The Babadook , Persian-language vampire whimsy A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night ), navel-gazing first features (teen ensemble piece Palo Alto , slacker comedy Obvious Child ) and Kelly Reichardt’s excellent low-key thriller about environmental terrorism, Night Moves .


If any movies can be termed frontrunners in terms of year-end kudos, it would be two US features that are indeed, in their wildly different ways, models of risk-taking at odds with all current mainstream logic. Richard Linklater’s experiment Boyhood—its loose narrative shaped partly by the maturing of actors over its twelve-year shooting course—transcended gimmickry to offer something whose messy unevenness felt refreshingly close to life’s own rhythms. As hyperactively stylized as Boyhood was naturalistic, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman was a Rube Goldberg-ian whatsit of backstage drama, industry in-joking and pop culture-savvy magical realism. It’s a high-conceptual leap that flies. Yet even these widely acclaimed films were hits only in a very limited sense, scoring in the higher echelon of specialized releases without really breaking through to a mainstream audience.

(Not even Birdman ’s conspicuous tie to Batman and fanboy culture in general could win it more than a fraction of the audience that goes to even a flop “real” superhero movie.)


It’s been the same story with the year’s other principal magnets for critical praise, none of which quite found viewers commensurate with the media attention they won: Not frequent Oscar-baiter Bennett Miller’s (Capote , Moneyball ) admittedly bleak but powerful true story Foxcatcher ; John Michael McDonagh’s striking Calvary , with Brendan Gleeson superb as a Catholic priest singlehandedly upholding his vocation’s tattered honor; Dan Gilroy’s cunning Network update Nightcrawler ;  or Ira Sachs’ very fine Love is Strange , about an older gay couple who after decades together find financial troubles rendering them virtually homeless—a state they’re not even allowed to suffer together. (The jury is still out on whether Paul Thomas Anderson’s Thomas Pynchon-derived stoner-noir Inherent Vice , a love-it-or-hate-it acquired taste, will find an audience for its rarefied, daft charms.)


At least these films are serious awards contenders. Released to little notice earlier in the year, Roger Michell’s Hanif Kureishi-written Le Week-End—a terrific English seriocomedy about another longterm couple “of a certain age,” this one heterosexual—seems to have been forgotten by everyone, a sad fate for one of the year’s best, most truly adult films.


Some of 2014’s other standouts were the latest from storied favorites of international cinema. To name a few, in descending order of personal preference: Like Father, Like Son (Hirokazu Koreeda), Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski), Diplomacy (Volker Schlondorff), The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson), Me & You (Bernardo Bertolucci), Venus in Furs (Roman Polanski), Two Days, One Night (the Dardenne Brothers), Mr. Turner (Mike Leigh), Norte, the End of History (Lav Diaz), Goodbye to Language 3D (Jean-Luc Godard), American Sniper (Clint Eastwood), Nymphomaniac (Lars von Trier), Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch) and Magic in the Moonlight (Woody Allen—not his worst, but far from his best). The most welcome, unexpected comeback was from 85-year-old Chilean weirdo Alejandro Jodorowsky, who not only delivered his finest surreal epic in 40 years with The Dance of Reality , but was also the subject of the delightful documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune—perhaps the best movie ever made about a movie that was never made.


But there were also plenty of fine movies from young directors, including Justin Simien’s dizzyingly clever dissection of campus racial politics, Dear White People; Charlie McDowell and scenarist Justin Lader’s ingenious The One I Love , a lightly fantastical spin on the mumblecore domestic seriocomedy; and Alex Ross Perry’s corrosive literary-world portrait Listen Up Philip . Farther afield, there were such impressive efforts as Sebastian Lelio’s Chilean Gloria , Mariana Rondon’s Venezuelan Bad Hair , Calin Peter Netzer’s Romanian Child’s Pose—three movies with more arresting leading female performances than the ones by Reese Witherspoon (Wild ) and Julianne Moore (Still Alice) currently dominating Best Actress Oscar talk—as well as fascinating, ambitious dramas from Russia (Leviathan ), Sweden (Force Majeure ), Mexico (We Are Mari Pepa ), and even Palestine (the exceptional Omar ).

Embarcadero Center. Photo by Stikphotos

Embarcadero Center. Photo by Stikphotos

Of course, you had to find these and other movies, which wasn’t always easy. In fact it was harder than ever in the Bay Area, which struggled to hang onto its rep as a cineaste’s paradise.

Still smarting from the loss of the three-screen Lumiere, San Francisco went months without Landmark’s Embarcadero Cinemas while they underwent an extensive remodel. (Meanwhile redevelopment has hung a question mark over the future of that chain’s Shattuck Cinema, whose screens mix arthouse and Hollywood programming.) These and other venue losses meant many indie, foreign and documentary

features played here all too briefly, if they played at all. And changing demographics in our ever-more-expensive part of the world have surely played a role in diminishing turnouts for what once would have been no-brainer programming at such important film-culture institutions as the Roxie, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Pacific Film Archive and SF Cinematheque. Even farther-off-the-beaten-path exhibitors like The Vortex have been evicted outright.


That gradual shrinkage won’t provide any hurdle to seeing Guardians of the Galaxy 2 , which will certainly be coming sooner or later to many multiplex screens near you. But it may very well mean there’s even less room in the Bay Area for movies you probably blinked and missed this year like the docs Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia and Rich Hill ; the twisted genre delights Blue Ruin , Rob the Mob and The Guest ; old-fashioned (in the best sense) crime capers Life of Crime and The Two Faces of January ; or Russian master Aleksandr Sokurov’s phantasmagorical wonder Faust , which took three years getting here even with a Venice Golden Lion on its arm.

If you read The New York Times  film reviews each Friday, you know there were plenty of other interesting titles that never made it here at all in 2014. Of course, streaming, cable, DVDs, Blu-Rays and whatnot make it theoretically possible to catch up with just about everything after its tiny window of theatrical opportunity has closed. But the communal experience of moviegoing has its own church-like allure (who hasn’t had at least a few profound experiences with a movie on the “big screen” that they might not have had the patience for at home?), and it’s not overstating matters to say that the Bay Area is currently in the throes of ever-so-slowly losing that religion.


A note: Some of the year’s best documentaries, including Jesse Moss’ fascinating The Overnighters (with the director in person on January 4), will be reprised at SF’s Roxie in a series showcasing films on Oscar’s pre nomination short list today through Thursday, January 8. If you’re a card-carrying Academy voter or Roxie member, you can catch any of them for free.


Dennis Harvey has been publishing film reviews since the era of the typewriter.  He’s a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and currently writes for  Variety and Fandor’s  Keyframe.

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