As the media’s pundits perch, Janus-like, on the threshold of the New Year, and consider the fruits of 2014 while anticipating the pleasures to come – which read ever more like some galactic football results – you would think it remiss of me not to do something akin. And as I look ruefully at the year’s box office grosses – Transformers 4 over $1 billion, Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain America 2, Amazing Spiderman 2, X-Men 7, Planet of the Apes 2 (or is it 8?), The Hunger Games 3 (let us dispense with the portentous subtitles and stick to the numbers they deserve) all around the $700 million mark – it comes home to me with renewed force what a big business the movies have become. Who can marvel (forgive me the pun) that the studios should seek to load the dice as shamelessly as they do? Of these top-grossing films I saw only one – Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – and one other I have not mentioned, though I may as well have: The Hobbit, I suppose because it at least had a pre-ordained kind of dignity to it. Of the top ten grossing films, only Interstellar, which I haven’t seen, lays claim to providing anything in the way of food for the mind and soul, though some say it was over-extended and over-ambitious. Oh, well, give me ambition any day.
Of the other, let’s face it, more interesting films this year gone, there have been the disappointments (The Monuments Men), the unexpected joys (The Lego Movie), and the curios (Noah). For me the absolute highlight must be Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, a self-contained universe presided over by the godlike Ralph Fiennes and whose delights one might describe as a mix of Ernst Lubitsch and Thunderbirds, where the former suggests mittel-European elegance and wit and the latter epitomizes loving attention to detail. The face of the year, again a personal choice, I must stress, was Scarlett Johansson, who cropped up in two of the year’s freshest films (the arresting Under the Skin and the joyous Lucy), could be heard beguilingly in a third (Her), and can therefore be forgiven for phoning in another franchise performance with The Winter Soldier.
As we raced towards year’s end, we had Benedict Cumberbatch’s memorable performance in The Imitation Game, and some other awards contenders – The Theory of Everything, Gone Girl, Unbroken. Another film that, to my mind, merits recognition at the rostrum was Fury, for Brad Pitt’s ferociously troubled portrayal of a WW2 tank commander, and for director David Ayer’s vice-like grip on our moral consciousness. We also had a cause célèbre, in The Interview, a film which offended the North Koreans and that Sony/Columbia pulled, then reinstated on download.
Will 2014 be remembered as a good year? I think, emphatically ‘yes’, even if the mainstream is apparently obsessed with superhero movies; a comment, no doubt, on our times, when the clay feet of our leaders are so constantly exposed as such by our media. And even if we find some of these films offensive, it is probably right that, unlike Kim Jong-un, we cannot proscribe them from our screens! Nevertheless, I am struck how, more than ever, the technical standards of Hollywood product have outstripped the capacity of their characters to engage on anything more than the level of glib entertainment, barring some egregious exceptions. It is instructive to compare with 1964, far from an exceptional year by any means, when Hollywood managed to produce Fail Safe, The Best Man, Seven Days in May, The Night of the Iguana, My Fair Lady, Charade and The Train. And superheroes? We had Mary Poppins and Goldfinger!