Comic-book heroes tops with film fans
We look back on the blockbusters, art-house treats and all points between
By now, it's no surprise to report that the 2014 box office is, yet again, dominated by toys and comics. Looking at the four top earners in the foreign blockbuster list, film fans can at least comfort themselves with the knowledge that Captain America: The Winter Soldier and X-Men: Days of Future Past are excellent efforts. It also says something about local cinema-going trends that the top five is rounded out by Christopher Nolan ( Interstellar), the genius geek who's still riding on his Dark Knight trilogy fame.
To illustrate the depth of quality in the field, even the conservative film viewer in me has to acknowledge the Guardians of the Galaxy team has come up with the year's most shamelessly entertaining romp - super-powered or otherwise. An escapist fantasy through and through, this irreverent origin story of the little-known ensemble of Marvel Comics characters rides on its zaniness and a truly killer soundtrack to go to the exhilarating extremes that a more-storied superhero franchise would probably avoid.
The gulf between the realms of superhero adventures and high-minded experimental films has been surprisingly bridged by one prominent Hollywood actress this year. Apart from appearing in the Captain America sequel and the pseudo-philosophical action flick Lucy, Scarlett Johansson has charmed the socks off art-house movie buffs as a seductive alien on the road in the sensual Under the Skin, and as the voice of artificial intelligence in Spike Jonze's Her, a poignant meditation on human relationships. And Jonze is not the only auteur who has justified his signature style with quality substance.
While Wes Anderson has made one of his best films to date with the period tragicomedy The Grand Budapest Hotel, Jim Jarmusch has channelled his deadpan cool to great effect in the vampire romance Only Lovers Left Alive, with Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston playing a hipster couple for the ages. Even Nuri Bilge Ceylan, that champion of inexpressive characters among Turkey's vast landscapes, has turned in the incredibly talky Winter Sleep, a 196-minute-long Palme d'Or winner that charts the complex human psyches in the most meticulous manner possible.
Finally, a few words on Hong Kong cinema, whose underwhelming output would see only two titles ( Rise of the Legend and The Golden Era) coming close to my year-end top 10 film list. While the bleak social atmosphere in Hong Kong has been evoked in at least a couple of films released in late 2013 ( Doomsday Party and As the Light Goes Out), controversial subject matters - the chaos in Central in Firestorm, the very bad cops in That Demon Within, the umbrellas in Rise of the Legend - have also been singled out by critics looking to put the Occupy movement in context.
Yet if there's one prophetic film that has pertinently captured the zeitgeist of Hong Kong circa 2014, it's the supernatural thriller The Midnight After. Adapted from a sci-fi novel originally serialised on the web forum HKGolden.com (subsequently a major channel for information during the umbrella movement), Fruit Chan Gor's symbolic effort features every uncanny detail from the deserted major highways and anonymous figures behind teargas masks to proclamations that Hongkongers' accepted way of life has been irreversibly changed in the alienated city.
Divided by self-interest in a drastically deteriorating environment, the protagonists reveal a hideous side to their nature that would resonate with many a Hong Kong audience following the news in recent months. Coming in at a respectable fifth on the local movie box office list, The Midnight After is likely the only local entry that will enjoy an afterlife in the lore of Hong Kong pop culture.
Capture the summer audience and you'll be the box office champion for the year. This is something film industry insiders have long known - and 2014 saw Transformers: Age of Extinction ride roughshod over its competition in Hong Kong, where some of the Hollywood blockbuster's most explosive action scenes were set and the film had its world premiere.
But whereas in previous decades the local film industry would mount serious challenges for the summer season and overall box office crown, Hong Kong cinema looks instead to the Lunar New Year period for its prime release slots these days.
Although 2014's top local earner Golden Chickensss' HK$41,277,620 box office takings look on the slim side compared to Michael Bay's sci-fi actioner's HK$98,196,851, consider that the second and third Hong Kong films on the box office lists also were Lunar New Year releases and that together, the trio of Golden Chickensss, From Vegas to Macau and The Monkey King collected an impressive HK$100,479,748 at the box office.
In recent years, the period around October 1 has been considered an attractive slot for Chinese-language film releases too. In 2014, however, many people might have been otherwise occupied - and thus were less inclined as had been hoped to check out a cutesy cartoon movie ( McDull: Me & My Mum) or flyweight comedy (Flirting in the Air), never mind a three-hour period drama such as The Golden Era.
Ann Hui On-wah may find some solace in her epic Xiao Hong biopic which has been selected as Hong Kong's nominee for the 2015 foreign language film Academy Award. Still, The Golden Era wasn't the October release by a local filmmaker that captured my heart. Instead, a much smaller budget - and also much more representatively Hong Kong - drama from debutant director Amos Why emerged as my favourite Hong Kong film of the year.
A love letter to his native city (and one of a number of local productions with first-time directors at the helm this year), Dot 2 Dot premiered in April at the Hong Kong International Film Festival.
Two others of my favourite films of 2014 also screened first locally at film festivals before being given theatrical releases. Damien Chazelle's intense Sundance festival favourite, Whiplash, centred on the troubled interactions between a drumming student and a music conservatory teacher whose motivational techniques are the stuff of nightmares.
A mesmerising as well as heartbreaking account of the living hell experienced by the vast majority of the populace after the Khmer Rouge took control of the country, Rithy Panh's The Missing Picture screened at the 2013 Hong Kong Asian Film Festival and was Cambodia's nominee for this year's foreign language film Oscar.
Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave was another film that was hard to sit through but was a must-watch. A masterful adaptation of Solomon Northup's non-fictional account of how he was kidnapped, sold into slavery and kept in bondage for a dozen terrible years, it deservedly was named best picture at this year's Oscars.
Released into cinemas at a time when Oscar contenders and Lunar New Year offerings were also vying for attention, The Lego Movie ended up not getting as much acclaim as - or higher box office takings than - would otherwise be expected here. But I love this smart computer-animated offering enough to consider it "awesome" news that follow-up films already are in the works, even though the earliest one isn't due out until 2017.
Top 5 box office hits (local and international)
Hong Kong films
1. Golden Chickensss - HK$41,277,620
2. From Vegas to Macau - HK$33,563,074
3. The Monkey King - HK$25,639,054
4. Overheard 3 - HK$23,905,854
5. The Midnight After - HK$21,298,819
1. Transformers: Age of Extinction - HK$98,196,851
2. Captain America: The Winter Soldier - HK$56,552,117
3. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 - HK$54,692,104
4. X-Men: Days of Future Past - HK$50,768,991
5. Interstellar - HK$49,505,321
*Still showing as of December 25
Figures from the HK Motion Picture Industry Association and HK Theatres Association, up until December 16; excludes numbers for films released on December 17 and later