With beauty comes ugliness, with pleasure comes pain. While the year’s best films are likely to linger on your palate much longer than the worst, there was no shortage of terrible cinematic experiences in 2014, and often from places one might not so readily expect. Sure, Transformers: Age of Extinction is loud and dumb, RoboCop is another unnecessary (and botched) remake, and 22 Jump Street continues Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s unfortunate reign of still-unchecked comedic terror. But beyond the usual sites of acrid popular cinema lingers a more pungent stench, coming from those films sprayed with either a sheen of pretense or sun-burnt from undue praise or exposure. A fart gag is one thing, but class-reliant sentiment that dutifully extracts any deeper conception of its bourgeois leanings in order to satiate a desired audience? Hopefully we can all agree as to which is the worse form of flatulence.
Hear that risible piano music on the soundtrack, ushering Alice (Julianne Moore) into her guest lecture at UCLA? That’s the sound of Still Alice cueing its first of numerous false notes throughout its nearly unendurable runtime, as its narrative of a linguistics professor who starts to forget words (!) itself rapidly deteriorates into a series of schmaltzy, reductive conversations on the nature of memory, love, and family. Here’s a film that has no sense of intellectual toil or interest in exploring how truly horrifying its central irony is. Instead, directors Richard Glatzner and Wash Westmoreland seek to use Alice’s professional and class status not as a starting point for exploring her torment, but an endgame to stage facile confrontations between her past and present.
Paul Haggis is a scary filmmaker for the wrong reasons: He seems to envision all human beings as afflicted by social astigmatism, where every provisional interaction hinges on self-involved preoccupations which preclude empathy or cross-cultural identification. Thus, Scott (Adrien Brody) walks into an Italian bar and can only comment on how no one speaks English, all while eye-fucking Monika (Moran Atias), who sits a few stools down. Such insight persists across the film’s dozen-character ensemble. If Crash can be used as a cinematic litmus test to separate the wheat from the chaff, then Third Person intensifies that challenge by making already absurd and offensive precepts regarding race comprehensibly cretinous, as the “coincidences” of a single city are now dispersed across time, geographical space, and the film’s catastrophically elongated 137-minute runtime.
Forget Edge of Tomorrow or Lucy. The (inadvertent) romp of the summer was Dinesh D’Souza’s America. Playing out like a nightmarish freshman composition paper where the research topic is “the history of America,” D’Souza follows up 2016: Obama’s America with an even more incoherent and cinematically incompetent pander poem to red-state America, as the proposed topic (speculative fiction of America’s absence in global diplomacy) is simply a disguise to engage Tea Party vitriol. The film also features numerous shots of D’Souza walking…and staring…and eating a hot dog…and appearing distressed, presumably as a means to amplify the dread. Instead, it hilariously undercuts it. The capper is an Unsolved Mysteries-esque segment implying that Hillary Clinton is, more or less, a psychopathic serial killer. Fair and balanced…not so much.
Although the nutritional information within Fed Up is fair, if mostly hewing too rigidly to the Michael Pollan school of dietary advice, Stephanie Soechtig’s documentary exposé on America’s obesity epidemic is utterly deplorable for its exploitation of three lower-class families, each of which is struggling to provide healthy alternatives for several obese children. Failing to at any point examine economics, income, or the sociological factors that contribute to childhood weight gain, Soechtig uses these segments as mere complements to the film’s larger talking-heads takedown of food additives and exercise. Forget manipulating information; this documentary manipulates lives, then has the gall to appropriate these families’ pain for a predictable end point of “yes we can” hope. Problem is, Fed Up hasn’t even managed to mention the real issues, much less resolve them.
As abject literary adaptations go, Richard Ayoade’s The Double is particularly odious, since it remains so enamored with its own allegedly clever cynicism regarding bureaucratic organization and workplace decorum that it fails to establish any meaningful stakes for its own critique. Ayoade operates on theoretical and fallacious reasoning, such that his pessimism is a mere affront, foregrounded as an endpoint, with the film dutifully piling downtrodden evidence to support his dogmatic presumptions. No one in the film, especially not Jesse Eisenberg’s Simon, is an actual character, but merely a pawn in Ayoade’s perfidious rigmarole. Allusions to other movies abound and the film’s tone suffocates with dread, much like being in the presence of a young person who’s just discovered that Terry Gilliam’s Brazil is, like, fucking cool, dude.