The decade in review: 2014

By Drew Renner

2014 definitely earned the title of oddest movie year in recent history. It was a true changing of the guard, as studios learned the hard way that audiences weren’t just gonna turn up for the same movies they did last decade. Superheroes and CGI animated movies remained strong, but the big time, non-IP sci-fi/fantasy blockbuster was dead. Even films from previously loved franchises like The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, Transformers: Age of Extinction and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 put up underwhelming numbers that were far off from their franchise peaks. Since nobody was prepared for this yet, freakin’ American Sniper of all movies was able to win the yearly crown with about $350M. It would be another year until Disney figured it out and completely seized the market, but we will always have American Sniper alongside Star Wars: Episode 7 – The Force Awakens and Avengers: Endgame as a 2010s yearly winner as a result of 2014’s box office reboot.

It should be noted that American Sniper did most of its damage in the year 2015, it opened at the end of 2014 only for Oscar eligibility. It exploded to a still mind-boggling $89M over the Martin Luther King Day weekend and proceeded to have the type of lengthy run we’d expect from your usual Oscar contenders that do not turn into mega blockbusters. There was a little bit of foreshadowing earlier in 2014, with Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor having a breakout run on a smaller scale. The Mark Wahlberg starring picture opened in limited release and expanded to around $35M on MLK weekend. At the time, this seemed like a monster breakout. One must consider that movies about the War on Terror had generally been box office poison. It had been gaining a little bit of steam, with smaller success from movies like Act of Valor (basically a recruitment movie) and Zero Dark Thirty, but we were still only a few years removed from huge flops like Green Zone and The Kingdom. It was, and still is, an uncomfortable subject for audiences to grasp hold of. We love America, we love the troops, the people they fight are a legit danger to the safety of the world, but it still feels like a shameful and unnecessary conflict for those of us back home. And putting us in the boots of modern soldiers is guilt-inducing for both liberals and conservatives because of this. American Sniper came out in the eye of the storm for this period, between the “end” of the Iraq War and the rise of the ISIS. Where we could fully support the troops without thinking about the collateral damage. Cooper’s portrayal of this character resonated with people like no soldier had since the days of World War 2. He is a quiet killer, a reluctant one who takes no pleasure in what he does. A far cry from the BRING THE RAIN type of boo-rah soldier that had become the face of this war. And while the movie never criticizes the necessity of the war, it at least dips its toes into issues like PTSD and what can be done to help domesticate people who have known nothing but violence. Eastwood did just enough to keep it as a real movie, instead of propaganda, and I think that’s what got the other side to cross over and give his film a chance. I still can’t explain how the movie reached these type of numbers when nothing similar before (or since) has come remotely close.

In the actual calendar year of 2014, the battle for the top spot was The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 and Guardians of the Galaxy. Both made about the same amount, but had wildly different runs. MockingJay was coming off back-to-back $150M openers, and since Catching Fire had great reviews and audience reception, one would assume that Jay would keep the train rolling. Now $337M is nothing to scoff at, it was just very surprising to see it drop like that when similar franchises like Harry Potter and Twilight held steady all the way to the end. The obvious, in hindsight, explanations are that a) Audiences were fed up with part 1s and part 2s and b) People were far less enthusiastic about a Hunger Games movie without the titular battle royale. So while Hunger Games was a slight disappointment, Guardians of the Galaxy was a massive success. Marvel movies have ridiculous grosses all the time, Cap Marvel hit $425M like it was nothing, but back in 2014 there was not so much certainty. The MCU was already a win with the mega-breakout of 2012’s The Avengers, but 2013 painted a narrative that maybe people only connected with Tony Stark after Thor 2 posted a respectable but underwhelming $210M. Captain America: The Winter Soldier set things back on track though, showing audiences that these solo movies were gonna be more than placeholders that only existed to build plot for the next big team up. Captain America gave people faith in the franchise and Guardians cashed in big. Nobody knew the characters, they were D-listers, the trailers were fun but too weird for mainstream audiences, it had a talking tree and raccoon, it starred the chubby guy from Parks and Recreation, blah blah blah, there were a million reasons for it to underperform. Instead it broke past everyone’s expectations on opening weekend and legged it out through Labor Day, recapturing #1 in the early September weeks. If Guardians had stumbled, its highly likely Marvel would have been much more cautious in their rollouts of other non-Avenging heroes like Doctor Strange, Black Panther and Captain Marvel, and we certainly wouldn’t have gotten the new look/new attitude Thor in 2017s Ragnarok. It set the tone for the rest of the decade.

Overseas we saw a changing of the guard as well when China cemented itself not-only as the #2 movie market in the world, but one that could rival the United States. Early in 2014 was the precursor, when US-flop Need For Speed ended up performing pretty damn decently in China, salvaging its run and showing how much overseas audiences love driving heroes. Never did we expect what came next though, when the highest grossing movie of the summer in the US (thus far) actually made more money in China. And it’s not like Transformers: Age of Extinction had an embarrassing domestic performance like its sequel, 2017’s The Last Knight, a $100M/$245M performance was pretty impressive all things considered (this was a half-assed reboot of the series, replacing Shia but sticking with Michael Bay). With a mammoth $320M US dollars, it became China’s highest grossing movie of all time though, beating the previous record holder (Journey To The West) by over $100M. The next year would see Furious 7 and their own Monster Hunt break that record, and the grosses just kept going up, eventually with 2017’s Wolf Warrior 2 and it’s $850M. And while China takes a much higher percentage of the profits, this was the best news the studios could ever have gotten. American audiences were getting sick of seeing the same franchises over and over, but here was a fresh market that had never gotten a huge wide release for a Terminator or Resident Evil or xXx film. No longer did they have to solely rely on pleasing Americans, there was always going to be a second chance for success.

The 2014 Oscar ceremony, which celebrated films from 2013, was highlighted by 12 Years A Slave taking the big prize and Alfonso Cuaron winning his first best director for Gravity. Quite uncontroversial really. However, the next year dedicated to films from 2014 was one of the nuttier ones of the decade. Richard Lanklater’s Boyhood was the long-term favorite, as it should have been since it was a high-quality cinematic experience nobody had ever put to film before by a beloved filmmaker who had never won anything big before. All the signs were there, and since 2014’s actual best movies were all high-octane action pictures (that the academy typically looks down on) everyone was cool with this. Until, as has become common in the years since, a last-minute narrative erupted and thus disrupted. Boyhood, rather than being a masterpiece, was giving the label of “gimmick-film” and therefore was not worthy of winning best picture or director. Nonsense really, but the academy likes voting for movies that will make themselves feel important, so likening Boyhood to one of those high-octane genre films I mentioned earlier was a death sentence. So what was there to pick up the slack? Perhaps Damien Chazelle’s super intense debut film Whiplash? Nope. Maybe the Martin Luther King movie Selma would make everyone feel good? Nope. Instead it was a scene that involved Michael Keaton asking “why don’t any good actors want to do my stupid play?” and Zach Galifinakis responding “They’re all in the prequel to the X-Men prequel” LOL STUPID COMIC BOOK MOVIES ARE RUINING THE INDUSTRY. The academy decided to take a stand against them this year, despite Winter Soldier and Guardians being amongst the highest rated ever. Because .. I guess comic book movies are all flash and sounds and whizbangs and kids skateboarding on the sidewalk … which is exactly what Birdman is since (spoiler alert) the movie goes nowhere and never bothers to resolve any of the dozen subplots it sets up. BUT LOL KEATON IS MAKING FUN OF THE FACT HE USED TO PLAY BATMAN. He’s such a serious and great actor now that he can do that and he surely wouldn’t use this very role to land a role in a different comic book movie, one where he wore wings no less. He definitely wouldn’t do that because comic book movies are so dumb and real actors would rather spit on them then deface their careers. This entire decade the academy has gone with these extremely short-sighted picks that nobody will care about five years later, but hey they sure showed Disney who was boss with this pick. Innaritu would go on to win best director again next year for a much superior film called The Revenant, which was also the favorite to win best picture, but the last-minute narrative there was that he couldn’t win picture two years in a row, so instead we got Spotlight. Just ridiculousness all around.

The real best picture of 2014 is The Raid 2. A two and a half hour martial arts epic starring Iko Uwais, directed by Gareth Evans. Before the first Raid, the fighting style of Pencak Silat was relatively unknown, at least here in the states. It’s a fighting style where every part of the body is used and subject to attack, along with any type of weaponry that might be around. So rather than looking like they are competing in a tournament, the actors in these movies always look like they are trying to kill each other at all times. It adds an incredible intensity. However, it’s actually a really well made film too, complementing the extreme violence with breathtaking cinematography and a heart pounding score. Not to mention a rather hard-hitting theme, the man will fight and kill anything to protect his family, but if he’s in so deep that he can’t even see them or have a relationship then what is the point? This franchise became the bar for all action movies, and you can see its influence in any hard hitting, beautifully framed movie ever since. General audiences may have skipped The Raid 2, but is has become iconic amongst those who love the genre.

Other highlights of the year include Marvel (Winter Soldier and Guardians) , who released two of the five best films in the franchise. Tom Cruise’s Edge of Tomorrow is fantastic, he low-key had the best stretch of action films in his entire career with this, Oblivion and the last three Mission Impossibles. It could be the best decade of his career if we just forget about The Mummy and Jack Reachers. As mentioned, Boyhood and Whiplash would have been worthy oscar winners. Same with David Fincher’s Gone Girl, which did win the WOKJ Best Picture award. Seth Rogen had a very exciting year, first delivering his biggest hit/proof of his mighty star power in Neighbors and then blowing all of that good will with his buddy James Franco in The Interview. That movie actually caused an international incident, with North Korea getting really upset about it, and then Sony subsequently getting hacked and having their emails released to the public. President Obama blamed Pyongyang at the time, but it has since seemed more likely that an anarchist hacking group called Lizard Squad was responsible. Whatever the case, the majority of chains refused to released the movie. For their part, Sony held their ground and put the movie out anyways, at any independent theater or digital service that wasn’t afraid of North Korean terorrism. Rounding out the year’s top films was Jake Gyllenhaal, in his best and creepiest role ever in Nightcrawler.

There was also a smallish original action film released in October, with a then nearly-washed up Keanu Reeves. It made around $45M total, which was perfectly acceptable at the time when a lot of these types were going straight to video. The story could have ended there, but the John Wick franchise has exploded in the years’ since – Chapter 3 just posted a $170M domestic gross. This franchise has completely defied box office trends of the 2010s, where non-Marvel franchises just keep dipping lower and lower by each installment. Keanu Reeves looks at things like time and trends and says HA – there is no spoon. With all of these goliaths in the midst, 2014 was definitely the best year for action pictures in this decade, maybe ever honestly. I dare you to find a top 5 to challenge it.

Other notes-

Interstellar – kind of disappointing quality wise, but huge worldwide box office, cementing Nolan as a franchisable name

X-Men: Days of Future Past – who knew it would be the last time the full team would be successful? Probably only Hugh Jackman

How to Train Your Dragon 2 – Very disappointing performance at the time, though more understandable when looking back.

Lucy – Scarlett Johannson is an A-lister

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 – broke the entire franchise

The LEGO Movie – huge breakout and feel good story

Godzilla – some of the best trailers, some of the worst legs

22 Jump Street – nice breakout, this might have been the last year a straight up comedy was able to open this high.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies – Lord of the Rings are my favorite movies ever and even I decided to skip this one in theaters.

TMNT – Mostly forgotten, but this opened to nearly $70M! Nobody thought the turtles had that kind of power.

Divergent/The Maze Runner – Basically the end of the YA genre, these two were the last to do well

Ride Along – Kevin Hart is a bankable leading man

A Million Ways To Die in the West – Seth MacFarlane is not

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