Its difficult to describe just how bad a year 2014 has been for film. If there’s perhaps one thing which sums up this abysmal year, its that Transformers: Age of Extinction currently squeaks into my Top 10 of the year. No, I don’t think Transformers is a particularly good or even competent movie, but its, sadly, more interesting than the rest of what I’ve seen. Even – if I dare suggest it – more thought provoking.
For the past four years, I’ve averaged about 70 movies in theaters a year. This year, I’m on track to top out around 45, a reflection of how lackluster the films and my subsequent interest have been. Out of the 38 movies I’ve seen so far, I enjoyed seven and thought another six were passable. When I complained to a friend about how terrible a year this has been, he suggested that maybe I’m becoming a curmudgeon. But no, I’m not enjoying movies any less – I’m enjoying movies from 2014 less. I’m still enjoying the movies I rent, catch on TV and pull from my DVD backlog. Just not the 2014 ones.
Yet its not as if 2014 is an anomaly; rather, a continuation of a trend. Each of the last four years I’ve found a little worse than its predecessor, and its all come crashing down in 2014. Art goes through trends, and I think what we’re seeing is the culmination of the latest: the “Nothing Movie.” The “Nothing Movie” has nothing to say, no reason to exist, nothing memorable or thought-provoking or innovative about it. At best, it will result in a couple good GIFs.
I blame it on Marvel (the film studio division). Bloated, superficial blockbusters aren’t anything new, but there was always an attempt to bring something distinctive to the table, to imbue the films with at least some token nod to “meaning” or “purpose”. Iron Man was a Trojan horse, which showed that soulless, made-by-committee movies could not only make money but win accolades from fans and critics alike. Old blockbusters, like Spiderman or even Transformers, were always distinct regardless of merit, imbued with their director’s unique visions. Say what you want about Transformers, its Michael Bay through and through. Can something similar be said of Thor 2, or Dawn of the Planet of the Apes or even something like Boyhood, which employs incredibly innovative filmmaking to present the bland and inoffensive.
When Bryan Singer released the first two X-Men movies back in the late ’90s, they were more than superhero movies. There was action and mutants and big showdowns atop the Statue of Liberty, but there was also an examination of discrimination and social isolation, with the plight of mutants as analogous to that of minorities. X-Men was as much about society as it was about spectacle, and there were as many character moments as there were action sequences. Bryan Singer’s return to the X-Men franchise, with this year’s X-Men: Days of Future Past, is almost a feature-length action sequence, packed with special effects, time travel, slow-mo scenes and whatever other cool set-piece could be squeezed in. About the only thing it doesn’t have is a memorable moment, a moment that provokes thought or emotion beyond “That looks cool!” Yet, X-Men: Days of Future Past has been praised as the best in the series. It has a 92% approval on Rotten Tomatoes among all critics; among top critics, 94%.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is another widely praised 2014 blockbuster. With a 91% approval among critics, its one of the best-reviewed films of the year. Its the sequel to Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a summer blockbuster which had all of one action sequence, instead choosing to focus on a monkey’s psychological progression from innocent, naïve youth to Machiavellian mastermind. This year, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes featured a monkey riding a horse wielding dual machine guns akimbo.
If it was just the blockbusters, that would be one thing, but its the independents, the auteur films, the foreign movies too. The supposed instant-classic Boyhood is an immaculately constructed movie, but what does it have to say? It was filmed over the course of 12 years and is immersive like very few films can ever hope to be, but for what purpose? It presents blandness and banality as profundity.
Most saddening for me isn’t that these movies are being made, but that they are being celebrated, praised, touted as important. Where are the films taking real chances, making claims, trying something new? Opinions are subjective, and I’d never dare claim any individual is wrong for theirs, but collectively there has been a sad shift towards rewarding the mediocre and manufactured. Me? I’ve more respect for a crap film that stakes a claim, that takes a chance or two. Transformers: Age of Extinction is stupid, but its bold in its stupidity, at the very least. Its bold in the vision it presents, bold in the brazenness of its product placement and cultural stereotypes, and there’s something admirable in that.
Art goes through cycles, and this is only the latest. If meaning isn’t being found at the cinema, its only taking a break. Lets just hope we don’t have to wait too long for its return.