Year in Review: 2014

Hopefully you’re not too sick of year-end lists; I decided to give myself until the end of the week so I could get in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. (No jury in the world would convict me.) Here’s a list of all the movies I saw this year that had their USA release date in 2014, ordered from most-liked to least. However, I’m keeping my comments to if/how fat people are present in the films; of the 52 films I saw, 15 had characters worthy of discussion. Body size in the documentaries I saw were incidental, so I don’t talk about them. Commentary includes spoilers.

Links are to anything I’ve already written about them. Film details may be inaccurate. I’m going off what my impressions of these films were after the fact; for some of these, I’m remembering a movie that I saw roughly a year ago.

My top ten:

Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer)/Boyhood (Richard Linklater)

Tied for favorite film of the year. No fat characters in either, but I had Thoughts.

We Are the Best! (Lukas Moodysson)
Whiplash (Damien Chazelle)

My anticipation for Whiplash was piqued early in the year, when I saw the original 2013 short that the feature-length film expanded on (and admirably so). The short is left intact within the longer version: Andrew’s (Miles Teller) introduction to Fletcher’s (JK Simmons) band and, erm, teaching methods. The initial illustration of Fletcher’s aggression comes when a chubby trumpeter doesn’t know whether or not he is out of tune. The hapless student is terrified; Fletcher’s tirade is laced with fat insults, and ends with him expelling the trumpeter. After, Fletcher calmly informs a thinner student that his was the out of tune horn. “But [he] didn’t know, and that’s just as bad,” Fletcher justifies, and the punitive moment passes.

Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson)
Snowpiercer (Bong Joon Ho)

In the above piece, I focused on Claude (Emma Levie), but the discussion of the film is not complete without Tanya (Octavia Spencer). Snowpiercer is high-concept, politicized science fiction with a largeish cast, so it is unsurprising that the characters are closer to allegorical sketches than complex, realistic people. Tanya is brave, strong– stronger than the skinny men Curtis [Chris Evans] is taking with him on his fight through the train, she tells him– and devoted to her son. These traits are admirable, but also characteristic of the strong black woman trope. After I wrote the original piece, which I banged out pretty quickly because I wanted to capture my gut reaction as accurately as possible, I kept thinking about why I didn’t talk more about Tanya, who has more screen time than Claude. The shitty truth is that, an audience member, when I see a fat black woman playing a character whose story is one of resistance in the face of hardship and oppression, I don’t wonder why that casting choice was made. That reaction speaks to a need for me to continue dismantling and unlearning racism, but also the dire need for films with more varied roles for women of color.

octavia spencer, tanya, snowpiercer, bong joon ho

Coherence (James Ward Byrkit)
12 O’Clock Boys (Lotfy Nathan)
Cheap Thrills (E.L. Katz)
The Babadook (Jennifer Kent)

The following films didn’t make my top ten, but I enjoyed and would recommend them:

The Wind Rises (Hayao Miyazaki)
Listen Up Phillip (Alex Ross Perry)
Obvious Child (Gillian Robespierre)
The One I Love (Charlie McDowell)
The Double (Richard Ayoade)
Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch)
The Immigrant (James Gray)

The main thing that I admire about this film is how it presents its characters and situations with empathy and complexity, to a degree that would take a much longer piece to explore. Rosie (Elena Solovay), the stout owner of the bar that Bruno’s (Joaquin Phoenix) cabaret calls home, is a smart, savvy businesswoman. Do I want to say that I like her for those reasons? Yes. Do I find myself unable to do so without reservation, because she is party to forced prostitution? Yes. Similarly, there is a part of me that liked this film for having women who have sagging breasts and fleshy arms but are still read as sexy. However, another part of me can’t give that reaction a pass, partially because seeing more voluptuous women in historical films can be as much a sign of the times as the costumes, but mostly because these women may have been forced into sex work, and are an ultimately disposable part of the story that is ultimately concerned with slender Ewa (Marion Cotillard).

Ernest and Celestine (Stephane Aubier, Benjamin Renner, Vincent Patar)

Some bears are bigger than others. (Some bears’ mothers are bigger– no, stop, this is serious blog business.) It’s not as easy to talk about body size when looking at a species that is pretty uniformly big, especially when they’re anthropomorphic cartoons, but the characters are drawn in a range of shapes and sizes. I think Ernest is supposed to be read as fat. At the very least, his appetite gets him into trouble, a trait that is easily associated with a fat character, even if the one in question is living paw-to-mouth.

Force Majeure (Ruben Östlund)
Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (Declan Lowney)

As I mentioned regarding Ernest & Celestine, there’s a lot of grey area when figuring out if a character is fat or not. I was on the fence about Pat (Colm Meany), but during a rewatch, Patrick helpfully pointed out a demonstrator holding a sign reading “Pat Farrell the Fat Barrel.” You can’t argue with objective evidence like that. Pat is a victim of corporate downsizing who snaps and takes hostages in the radio station where he and Alan deejay. Meany’s portrayal is sensitive and low-key enough to gain audience sympathy, but not that of his coworkers, especially egomaniacal Alan (Steve Coogan) who uses the seige to advance his career. He ultimately comes across as a pathetic figure. The other fat character in the film parallels Pat’s social awkwardness and inappropriate relationship with violence: a cop who comes across as gun-obsessed and somewhat incompetent, in a scene where he and Alan geek out about historical hostage situations.

fat barrel

Night Moves (Kelly Reichardt)
Willow Creek (Bobcat Goldthwait) Includes a major spoiler

This was an unexpected one. Fat people are the sole visual source of threat in the film. A Hollywood-handsome couple making an amateur documentary about the Patterson-Gimlin footage of Bigfoot is threatened by a fat man at the edge of the forest that is purportedly home to the elusive creature. After one of the skin-crawlingly tensest builds I’ve ever seen, that doubles as one of the best reasons to make a horror film found-footage, the two main characters are hopelessly lost in the woods, being stalked by either a Bigfoot, said fat man, or their own imaginations. Or a mountain lion. The climactic scare before they’re taken out of commission? They stumble across a naked fat woman standing alone in the darkness.

Blue Ruin (Jeremy Saulnier)

Ben (Devin Ratray) is a great example of the fat best friend. His disappeared best friend Dwight (Macon Blair) turns back up in his life, seeking revenge for his murdered parents.  Ben doesn’t hesitate to help him, in the form of an extensive gun collection and expertise. Ben doesn’t ask questions, which both warms the viewer as a sign of his trust in Dwight and disturbs the viewer with regards to his willingness to kill someone to protect his friend. As with many other fat friends, he is lead by his emotions, sometimes towards inappropriate choices: Dwight realizes that Ben’s loyalty to him could have deadly results, and disables his truck so that Ben won’t join him in his act of vengeance.

Like Father, Like Son (Hirozaku Koreeda)
Nymphomaniac (Lars von Trier)
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Ana Lily Amirpour)

The film’s sparse story depicts different examples of vampirism, beyond the literal example embodied by the titular character. Hossein (Marshall Manesh), the human protagonist Arash’s (Arash Marandi) father and largest character in the film, is paradoxically both victim and vampire: in thrall to heroin, and unrepentantly leeching off his son.

Joe (David Gordon Green)
Birdman (Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu)
Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead (Tommy Wirkola)
Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn)
Housebound (Gerard Johnstone)

One of the most delightfully unexpected aspects of this film was Amos (Glen-Paul Waru), parole officer to main character Kylie (Morgana O’Reilly), who is under house arrest. When she tells him that her house is haunted, I assumed that he would be the tightening noose of social services and put her under psychiatric care or something like that– not that he would reveal himself to be an amateur paranormal investigator.

Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski)
Neighbors (Nicholas Stoller)

Besides a fat pledge who I don’t remember as having any lines, we have Seth Rogen, who is not shy about referencing his chub. One notable scene is when new dad Mac (Rogen) meets frat president Teddy (Zac Efron), working as a shirtless welcomer at an Abercrombie & Fitch. Mac decides to show a little solidarity and takes his own shirt off, posing and greeting shoppers. The two guys get a kick out of the difference in their bodies, and the scene highlights the weird nature of Teddy’s job.

The Trip to Italy (Michael Winterbottom)
Big Hero 6 (Don Hall, Chris Williams)
The Lego Movie (Phil Lord, Christopher Miller)
Gideon’s Army (Dawn Porter)
The Alley Cat (Marie Ullrich)

No fat characters to my recollection, but the screening of this film that I attended at the Chicago International Film Festival was followed by a q&a with director Marie Ullrich, who I would categorize as a person of size. The Alley Cat makes Chicago look dreamy and beautiful, and was a promising feature length debut.  I hope to see more from Ullrich in the future.

They Came Together (David Wain)
Afflicted (Derek Lee, Clif Prowse)

The next group of films were ones I thought were average:

Le Week-End (Roger Michell)
Paranormal Activity: the Marked Ones (Christopher Landon)
Enemy (Denis Villenueve)
Happy Christmas (Joe Swanberg)

Lena Dunham’s in it.

Captain America: the Winter Soldier (Anthony Russo, Joe Russo)
God’s Pocket (John Slattery)

One of Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s final roles, he plays Mickey, a petty criminal dealing with the sudden death of his stepson. The characters are broad and somewhat cliche; Mickey is a pretty typical blue-collar schlub who would have a scene or two in a more epic crime film like Goodfellas, but happens to be the protagonist of this particular story. I’m considering doing a series on PSH this year, in which case I’d look at this film more closely, but I feel that it will ultimately be a minor work in his oeuvre.

And finally, if you’re still reading after discovering that I was cool on both Enemy and CAtWS, the films I would actively discourage people from watching:

Life After Beth (Jeff Baena)
The Skeleton Twins (Craig Johnson)
Altman (Ron Mann)
Cabin Fever: Patient Zero (Kaare Andrews)
That Guy Dick Miller (Elijah Drenner)
Devil’s Due (Tyler Gillett, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin)

So there you have it, my first of hopefully many year-end reviews on this blog.  I’ve gotten a lot out of the past 6 months of writing, and I hope it’s been worth your time to read.  Have a great 2015.