For Wesley Morris, a film is never just a film. Whether high, low or middle-brow, each is a message in the great cultural conversation humankind has been having with itself since the first oral storytellers began swapping tales thousands of years ago. Once completed and released into cinemas a film does not suddenly become a static artefact, settled in its interpretation; for Morris it remains something to be actively probed, understood, recontextualised and used as a prompt for further discussion and artistic exploration.
Fame is a very different beast now than it was when Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant first introduced the world to David Brent, the painfully awkward general manager of mid-size paper merchant Wernham-Hogg, and star of the BBC’s game-changing mockumentary series The Office.
Isao Takahata’s tragic and poetic Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru no haka) is a war film detached from the heat of battle, focused on innocent people living in war-torn cities. The film is a warning that bullets and bombs are not the only deadly forces in wartime; even among apparently innocent victims, blind patriotism and selfishness wield an equal capacity for killing.
What does it say about the current crop of emerging independent filmmakers that it took a 45-year-old Dane to distill millennial ennui to its purest form and violently thrust it onto the screen? Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon is an affront to accepted ideas of good taste, storytelling and restraint, and it will be hated by almost everyone who sees it. It’s also perfect.
By choosing to make the film Love & Mercy, a mostly factual retelling of the life of Beach Boys frontman Brian Wilson, director Bill Pohlad and screenwriters Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner chose to bear an unenviable responsibility: translating for the screen the dazzling creative brilliance of one of music's most revered figures.
By the time the movie rounds the end of its second hour, the audience has witnessed such a variety of sexual encounters that sex becomes just another dull, punishingly boring complexity in the characters' lives. And for a director who's spent his whole career pushing boundaries, a film so tame might be his most radical experiment yet.
Jim Henson’s Muppets have always conjured entertainment through imagination, ever since they began on television in 1976. Few sights demand the suspension of disbelief like a bright green felt frog stage-managing puppets in a variety show, but once you get over the hurdle of believing that such an absurd situation is plausible in the first place no amount of impossibility can break you out of it. With masterful puppetry and characterisation bringing these creatures to life so believably, technicalities like visible rods and the fact that Muppets are always shot from the waist up easily sink behind the fog of imagination, as does the ever-present inkling that just out of frame stands a human puppeteer.
In horror, a genre so defined by referentiality, any speck of genuine original thought can be incredibly refreshing and dangerously risky. Horror fans have voted with their wallets and proven themselves more willing than most to accept the derivative, and the genre has progressed over decades through small, incremental evolutions in between comparatively few revolutionary outliers.
Peruse the list of highest-grossing films of 2014 and a few common threads are evident: four are comic book adaptations, seven are sequels, zero are The Monuments Men... the make-up of the top grossing list is almost as predictable as the films themselves. But the one thing that unites every one of them, without exception, is scale. Either in cast, budget or scope, each is more massive than the last, and with advances in modern filmmaking that places them amongst the most ambitious productions in cinema history.
In music, 2014 was a year mostly defined by the past. 90s superstars Aphex Twin and D'Angelo reemerged after spending the better part of the 21st century in hiding, and surprised everyone with their renewed vitality. Madlib, Killer Mike and El-P recaptured the furious energy of their youth and reminded a resurgent underground hip hop scene that there's life in the old dogs yet. The War on Drugs wrote the best Springsteen album since the 80s. The Men, Parquet Courts and Ariel Pink mined 50 years of music history to inform their modern brand of grubby-kneed rock.