The most important movies of 2014

Annual top 10 lists are stupid and easy and boring and no one likes them. On this blog, we try to track the path of movies over time, so instead of blindly stating what we liked and disliked about 2014 movies, we’re going to dig a little deeper and examine 10 movies that are important to the future of the art form and what their impact might be.

1) Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones

“The producers of Paranormal Activity” have ruled horror for seven years now, for better or worse. Insidious, Sinister, Dark Skies and Oculus have all born the moniker as their primary selling point, none matching the quality of their namesake — until Oculus, which also came out this year.

Most of these movies don’t make huge splashes. Oculus grossed $44 million. Sinister took in $77.7 million and Dark Skies took in only $26.4 million. But the endless stream of Paranormal Activity and Insidious movies, sixth and third installments of which are due this year, continue to constantly break $150 million without any trouble.

Until The Marked Ones, that is. The fifth movie in the series, dumped unceremoniously on the first weekend in January, became the first Paranormal Activity movie not to break $100 million, clocking out with a lifetime gross of $90.9 million. It’s difficult to say this is any kind of a blow — the real innovation in these movies are how cheap they are to make. Even this throw-away represents a 1,718 percent return-on-investment. But these same people have been making the same scary movie for almost a decade now, and any potential for the genre opening to new ideas again is significant.

Photo courtesy Columbia Pictures.

2) Robocop

A remake of a still-beloved 1987 classic. Effects and action heavy. Male-oriented counter-programming on a busy holiday weekend. Samuel L. Jackson, Gary Oldman, Micheal Keaton.

Opened no. 3 at the box office and continued to a 13 week run grossing just $58.6 million domestic. Via boxofficemojo.com, that’s the no. 54 domestic gross on the year, behind such future classics as The Other Woman, Let’s Be Cops and Night at the Museum 3. Christmas Day release Unbroken is already $20 million past that mark.

Robocop is shocking because of how much of a non-event it was. In an industry that only bets on sure things, this was the surest thing around. It wasn’t even bad — quite the opposite, in fact. Critics panned it because how dare they — how dare they! — remake Robocop, but this movie is everything a remake can and should be. It was rewritten from scratch, taking concepts, not plot lines, from the original. While the original plays on timely fears about police coorporatization, this film plays on the modern descendant of that fear — fear of military drones and artificial intelligence making their way into law enforcement.

But the advertising left a lot to be desired, and in the end it lost out to a holdover children’s movie — the admittedly excellent Lego Movie. The stunning lack of performance by a copycat in a copycat industry should put the whole system at least a little bit on notice.

3) Son of God

Wikipedia says this film turned a $22 million budget into a $67.8 million worldwide gross, but that’s not true. That $22 million was used to produce History Channel’s The Bible, that awful limited series from a year beforehand with all the racial controversies and Satan-bama. Son of God was stitched together from scenes about Jesus from the series and some unused footage. In actuality, this movie cost nothing. The money had already been spent.

$0 realistic budget. Footage that had either already been aired and seen by anyone who would shell out for this or been deemed not good enough. $67.8 million. This movie printed $67.8 million.

And it was far from the only Christian movie to earn a ton of money. God’s Not Dead scored $62.6 million. Heaven is for Real clocked in at $101.3 million. Films like Persecuted and The Identical flopped, but the fact that they tried means something.

Movies used to be a safe haven from overt indoctrination, but that might change with these spots of profitability. I am kept up at night by the thought that, one day, I might have to actually see one of these things.

4) Noah

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Noah. Darren Aronofsky’s thoughtful epic is the first movie to treat The Bible as a work of fiction to be adapted and taken ownership of by the filmmaker. It’s a bizarre four-act fare that examines the genocidal implications of Noah’s story and takes a tastefully neutral tone on sin, Biblical literalism and the racial purity the Bible espouses. It’s a terrible story of mass murder and complacency, but also a story of faith and renewal.

Exodus: Gods and Kings continued the trend in December, albeit with much less grace and tact.

Photo courtesy paramount pictures

5) Transformers: Age of Extinction

Transformers 4 made $1.087 billion worldwide. It doesn’t just take this year’s box office trophy — this is the 10th highest grossing film of all time and just the 19th to break the $1 billion barrier.

Only $245.4 million of that money had Andrew Jackson’s face on it. Most of the rest bore the image of Chairman Mao.

The movie is aimed at the exponentially growing Chinese market, which has always had an odd infatuation with the franchise. It’s a terrible film and doesn’t get to the Hong Kong payoff, just like it doesn’t get to the dinobot payoff, until the last 20 minutes, but it made more than $300 million in the country.

Hollywood has been heading across the Pacific toward the world’s second largest film market for years, and this movie is a major step in that direction.

6) Boyhood

Simply as an exercise in daring filmmaking, Boyhood is an astonishing work of art. It’s cursed with a meandering story that doesn’t have enough narrative structure to really pop as a regular movie. But it’s not a regular movie. It’s a 12-year experiment that may never be conducted again. It would be amazing to see the next Harry Potter series, for instance, produced on a similar schedule.

Probably nothing will come of this involved process, which would leave Boyhood as the only movie of its kind ever made.

Photo courtesy Walt Disney Motion Pictures Studios

7) Guardians of the Galaxy 

Four of the top six earners worldwide this year, alongside Transformers and Maleficent, were Marvel Comics movies.

Most of this is to be expected. Days of Future Past was an excellent film based on one of the most popular stories ever drawn. Captain America is still Captain America, and despite Sony’s increasingly obvious desperation, Spider-man is still Spider-man.

Guardians of the Galaxy can’t say anything like that. Before the first trailer dropped, Guardians of the Galaxy had absolutely nothing going for it. Nobody knew who these guys were. There wasn’t even a central lead character to rally around. But somehow, this sing-along, dance-along road musical whose most sympathetic character is a developmentally challenged tree became the no. 2 movie of the year, and no. 1 movie of the year domestic, out-grossing all of Marvel’s other offerings.

That’s it. Hand over the key to the world, Marvel clearly rules it. Those six white-on-red letters are worth $600 million at a bare minimum right now, and the studio is going to capitalize and we’re all going to love it. The velvet tones of James Spader — JAMES SPADER — will grace the franchise in The Avengers: Age of Ultron May 4.

8) The Giver

Remember The Giver? Thick black book with a homeless guy on the cover? All the rage at your elementary school library in the mid-’90s? No?

Well, remember Harry Potter? The Giver was there first. It established that audience and paved the way for J.K. Rowling’s much better books, which in turn paved the way for several authors’ much lesser books that have long-since devolved into a parade of Mary Sue fan fiction.

But not The Giver. The Giver was still good, that still had a swell of nostalgia. That, Jeff Bridges in the title role and Taylor Swift on all the promotional material, for some reason, should have lead to a significant few weeks at the box office, but they didn’t. The movie opened at fifth place behind the reviled Expendables 3 and a week-old Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and went on to a lifetime gross of just under $67 million.

Like Robocop, this movie is important because it wasn’t. There was never any real hubbub about it. It used to be these young adult movies were hundreds of millions of dollars in the bank before they even had a writer attached. Maybe not so anymore.

9) Foxcatcher

Awards season this year has been filled to the brim with lazy, boring biopics. Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game and likely Selma, which hasn’t made its way to DFW yet, Hollywoodize every aspect of the central characters’ lives, down to their driving motivations and the nature of their work, which is put in extremely condescending terms.

It’s important to note there totally was a sexual undertone to their relationship. In promotional material, Schultz talked about du Pont’s enthusiasm for adding ball grabbing to his wrestlers’ repertoire after Schultz told him a story involving it in his first match. The scene in question is more important than that — it betrays the control du Pont had over Schultz, well beyond appropriate boundaries. It also betrays Schultz as manipulable and dim-witted, which he should probably take bigger issue with. Photo courtesy Sony Pictures Classics.

Everything is black and white in these movies. In Theory of Everything, Stephen Hawking’s wife is an awful human being, and the film pays no credit to their long, complex relationship. The Imitation Game shows Alan Turing as an Autistic man-child who theorized and physically built his machine in spite of everyone discouraging and disparaging him, when in reality most of the British government was behind him.

It feels like Western culture can’t understand a story unless it’s put through the ethical perspective of a third grader, and it leads these scripts to dilute themselves and create movies that are the worst thing movies can be — boring. They betray fundamentally poor storytelling skills and an inability to find and film the conflict and triumph in a person’s life. If you can’t find the central conflict of a story, you shouldn’t be telling it.

Foxcatcher doesn’t have any of these problems, though. It portrays complicated characters in complicated relationships struggling with complicated internal conflicts. There isn’t a movie this year that expresses more better non-verbally, and the transformative performances of the three headliners are things to behold. It is one of the year’s best films, even if I personally don’t like it very much.

Foxcatcher also betrays the horrible significance of biopics. Mark Schultz, the film’s only surviving main character, spoke out against the movie two days ago because it portrayed a sexual undertone to his relationship with John Eleuthère du Pont, the man who killed his brother.

More significant is the fact that the Schultz brothers were never on Foxcatcher Farm at the same time. A lot of this purported biopic is fictitious. This is a consistent problem with director Bennett Miller, who portrayed Art Howe as not with the program in Moneyball and implied that Truman Capote helped his murder suspects get their lawyers in Capote. 

More than anything, Foxcatcher portrays the power and struggle of biopics and the dichotomy between taking artistic license and lying. The film will be a major player at the Oscars in February.

Clint Eastwood directed J. Edgar, one of the better biopics in recent years. His American Sniper will release nationwide Jan. 16.

10) The Interview

The big one.

Don’t think about the content. Don’t think about the subject matter. Don’t think about the ultimate victory of the filmmakers, which is a cloudy claim to make at best.

Think about how many people fought over this movie. Think about how important it suddenly became that this run-of-the-mill stoner comedy, this precise film Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg have made several times over, be released.

If you’re reading this, The Interview is far and away the most important movie of the year because it is proof positive that movies are important at all.

Photo courtesy Columbia Pictures

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