The Movie Club

Best comedies of 2014: Top Five, A Million Ways to Die in the West, and more.

Entry 8: In praise of Chris Rock’s Top Five, the funniest (and most timely) comedy of the year.

Chris Rock in Top Five.

Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

The Movie Club is a weeklong conversation about the year in film. Read all the entries here.

Dear Dana, David, and Amy:

Attendant to the Beyond the Lights discussion and Dana’s apt comments about the studio’s “clueless release strategy”: How is it that studios have no idea how to sell movies that can practically sell themselves? About 10 years back, there was a Carroll Ballard movie I really loved, Duma, about a boy and his pet cheetah. Warner Bros. gave it a dismal release, and it languished; when I asked a publicist about it, he said, off the record, that the company just couldn’t figure out how to market the film. Shortly before the movie’s more-or-less nonrelease, I got hold of a disc, and when I put it on at home, one of my cats crept up to the TV set and watched for 20 minutes straight, captivated. So let me get this straight: I can sell this movie to cats, but Warner Bros. can’t figure out how to sell it to kids?

I feel that way when I see something like Beyond the Lights nearly sink into oblivion. And the tenor of so many of those hacked Sony emails suggests that studios know how to sell a thing that’s just like another thing, but have no idea how to sell a thing that’s unlike anything else—the very thing that audiences are hungry for, or would be hungry for if they knew it existed. And Amy, your wish, so beautifully stated, that studios would see the potential profit margin of smaller genre films and then “use that formula to experiment and make films in more genres for more audiences” is so smart and sensible that it’ll probably never happen. But let’s keep fighting even so.

On the subject of awards season movies we’re supposed to like but didn’t, Dana, I’m with you on A Most Violent Year, and until your review appeared in Slate, I was beginning to think I was practically alone on that one. In fact, I’m stunned by how uniformly glowing most of the reviews were, whereas all I could see were the movie’s many, many problems: the fact that it’s ostensibly about New York—with a very specific reference to the city’s history in its title—but barely looks like New York at all, or really any city with a population of more than 25. I became so weary of watching Oscar Isaac (an actor I generally love), as the beleaguered heating-oil baron trying to hang onto his principles, clutching his hard-earned businessguy’s camel-hair coat tight, trudging through this movie in a heavy-spirited search for—well, what exactly? I think J.C. Chandor thinks he’s made a Grand Movie About Moral Challenges. But could we have also had an actual story instead of just a classy receptacle for one not-really-that-interesting idea? And like you, Dana, I very much liked Margin Call and All Is Lost, particularly the latter—it’s an elegant and bracing piece of filmmaking. I like it so much I’ve even memorized all of its dialogue, though I don’t think I’m allowed to present a dramatic re-enactment of it here, given its spicy nature. I’m still haunted by Robert Redford, as the lone sailor in All Is Lost, making use of everything at hand—ropes and pieces of plastic and an old-fashioned sextant—to stay alive in the middle of his watery nowhere; Isaac, striding purposefully through his nowheresville New York, just lost me.

And Amy, as far as Boyhood goes, what can I say: I know what you mean about the teenage Ellar Coltrane, who before our eyes grows out of his kiddie charisma into a kind of quiet awkwardness, but I think it works for the story—well, it is the story. Boyhood held me, maybe because, like David, I saw it less as a story about yet another white male growing tall and sturdy toward adulthood and more as a movie about the passage of time. I loved the way it captures how childhood seems to stretch out forever while you’re in the middle of it. And though Richard Linklater wouldn’t have called the movie Parenthood, because we’ve already got two of those, Boyhood is so much about parents: Patricia Arquette, with her marvelous snaggle-tooth smile, and Ethan Hawke, who also, come to think of it, has some pretty cute front-tooth action going on. I felt so much for them, particularly the way Hawke’s character grew into exactly the kind of man Arquette needed him to be, but too late for her—another woman benefits from his growth, and that’s OK too. That’s just one example of Boyhood’s generous spirit—I warmed to its bittersweet emotional expansiveness.

David, in answer to your question about comedies: While I wouldn’t say it was necessarily a great year for comedies, I liked both Horrible Bosses 2 and A Million Ways to Die in the West much more than most people did. Amy, I know you were also a nonhater of A Million Ways to Die. And truthfully, I’m not sure I understand why so many people—mostly women, I guess?—hate Seth MacFarlane so much. I know, I know—the “We saw your boobs” thing. I laughed at that, even as I could see that it was (probably) in bad taste, and sexist, though so many people acted as if it were the first time those two things had ever gone hand-in-hand. Listen, I don’t want to steer us into a discussion of MacFarlane’s merits or lack thereof, because even I would agree we have more important things to talk about. But there’s that old, terrible truth about how the very things you’re not supposed to laugh at are often the funniest.

Anyway, my favorite comedy of the year was Chris Rock’s Top Five, a picture so quick on its feet, yet so dense with jokes—many, though hardly all of them, race-related and painfully in touch with the inequities and injustices we’re all struggling with—that I really had to hustle to keep up with it. And I laughed, a lot, not just at Rock’s depiction of a hugely successful actor who’s lost his mojo and is scrambling to switch gears, but at the magnificent, bodaciously expressive Rosario Dawson, as the reporter who spends a day by his side in New York City (the real New York City), the two of them passing its many wonders—its bodegas and hot-dog stands, its fancy florists and overpriced wine bars—and folding all of that vibrant craziness into their time together. I don’t think Top Five had any fart jokes—boy, do I love a good fart joke!—but it filled me with joy and, released not long after the Eric Garner verdict, it gave me hope for a city (not to mention a country) that appeared to be coming apart at the seams. Maybe it’s all still coming apart, but the fact that I could still laugh really meant something to me.