Nothing in or around film underwhelms so completely as the Oscars. The hype is too great, the surprises too few. So, for a second year, we offer our own awards for cinematic merit with no hype and practically nothing you could guess in advance. Thus, for the Esseffies 2014, we hope to leave you completely or at least mostly whelmed.
Best Schizoid Soundtrack: Spring Breakers
Sherilyn's favorite film of 2013; the soundtrack is a mix of elements that shouldn't work together, including Skrillex's trademark "Bwaaaaaaaaamp!"-heavy dubstep, Cliff Martinez's most atmospheric ambient since Sex, Lies, & Videotape, and hip-hop with varying amounts of James Franco. It's as peculiar a beast as the movie itself, and it all gels.
Most Pandering Pander in the History of Panderology: Evil Dead
The film itself is actually a very worthy remake, following the structure of Sam Raimi's 1981 The Evil Dead while still finding its own voice, and bucking the genre's gender conventions. And then, after the closing credits, Bruce Campbell appears and says, "Groovy." No. Just, no.
Best Stickin' it to the Man, Retro-Style: Our Nixon
In this collage film composed of home movies and news footage of our 37th president, we get to relive a famous incident at a 1972 White House dinner honoring Reader's Digest: Carole Feraci, one of the ultra-square Ray Conniff Singers, holds up a banner reading "Stop the Killing," and asks the president to please stop bombing things. She ends by saying "Bless Daniel Ellsberg," the 1972 equivalent of "Bless Edward Snowden."
Worst Tone-Deaf Act of Youth-anizing: Last Vegas
It's by no means a deep or insightful film to begin with, or even a particularly good one, but whatever Last Vegas is trying to say about embracing life as a retiree is severely undercut by a poster that makes the cast look 10 years younger.
Spookiest Moment in a Music Documentary: Twenty Feet from Stardom
There were a plethora of music documentaries this year, but few chilled the spine quite as much as current-day Merry Clayton listening to her isolated vocal track from "Gimme Shelter" — "rape, murder, it's a just a shot away," her voice breaking — as she sits alone in the same studio she recorded it in back in 1969.
Best Acronym-Titled Movie: G.B.F.
With all due respect to C.O.G., V/H/S2, A.C.O.D., CBGB, and R.I.P.D. (OTOH, CBGB was FUBAR and R.I.P.D. was a P.O.S., so they can both go D.I.A.F.)
Most Demographically Ignorant Racism: John Dies at the End
The picture's white protagonist calls himself David Wong (also the pseudonym of the source novel's white author), and when called on the fact that he doesn't look Asian, he replies, "I'm not. I was born right here." Fun fact: so were many Asian-Americans, with and without the last name of Wong.
Best Nostalgic Drug Sequence: The Wolf of Wall Street
The whole film is practically a love letter to the extinct Quaalude, and during the legendary "crawling to the car" scene, people of a certain age at screenings have been known to turn to each other and say, "Been there, done that."
Best Nerd Outrage, "What a Twist!" Department: Iron Man 3
It's just fun when nerds get outraged, and comic book fans in particular, so there were lulz aplenty when the villain known as the Mandarin was revealed to be a British actor, hired as an Oz-like figurehead to spook the American public. This commentary on America's inherent fear of the Other (see also: John Dies at the End) was not appreciated by the fanboys.
Best Nerd Outrage, "He's Going to Ruin It!" Department: Ben Affleck as Batman
Similarly, the Internet went kablooey when Ben Affleck was announced as the next Batman. When confronted with the fact that a similar fury greeted the announcement of Michael Keaton as Batman in 1989, the modern nerd's response was, "Shut up! That was different!" Okay then.
Best Translation of a Cultural Touchstone into an American Indian Language: The Navajo Star Wars
And it's thus far the only major motion picture to be translated into Navajo, or any other American Indian language. The producers of this translation have promised that it will not be the last; here's to hoping future translations are of movies with better dialogue than Star Wars.
Best Day of Music: KrOB's Film Farm Presents Jonathan Demme Concert Pictures, The Castro Theatre
A day-long festival of performance films directed by Jonathan Demme: Heart of Gold (Neil Young), Storefront Hitchcock (Robyn Hitchcock), Swimming to Cambodia (Spalding Gray), and Stop Making Sense (Talking Heads). And all were projected in glorious 35mm, likely for the last time.
Most Hypocritical Backlash: The Smurfs 2
Children's movies filled with product placement marketed toward the small fry have existed for decades, but the rage against The Smurfs 2 acted like such a thing had never been done before, or so venally. Many of those same critics went on to make a feature-length Lego commercial into 2014's most overpraised movie.
Best Porn-Version-Ready Title: Inside Llewyn Davis
Clearly the Coens meant their movie's title as a riff on the 1964 album Inside Dave Van Ronk, whose cover pictures the titular brooding folkster having a smoke in a dark doorway with a cat looking on. But you just know they had a giggle about it at least once — as I did just now while typing "titular."
Best Thing James Franco May Ever Do: Spring Breakers
His role as "Alien" in Harmony Korine's febrile Day-Glo odyssey seems to combine so many of Franco's enthusiasms: himself, heady debauchery, ecstatic obnoxiousness that's supposed to be some kind of social commentary or something, our being fond of him and sick of him at once. It's great.
Most Embarrassing Accent-Mastery Disparity: Christian Bale and Amy Adams, American Hustle
Even with it being built in to the con-game story that her English accent was fake and his American one was cartoonishly overdone, Adams and Bale perhaps unwittingly continued the longstanding Hollywood tradition of stateside thespians being outclassed by their cross-pond counterparts: He delivered all the authenticity she lacked.
Most Serious, Oh So Serious: Prisoners
A melodrama with delusions of grandeur, Denis Villeneuve's missing-kids thriller wears its preposterousness under a heavy cloak of solemnity. Having loaded up with try-too-hard acting from Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Paul Dano (or maybe the latter, in his creep comfort zone, isn't trying hard enough), and squandered the great cinematographer Roger Deakins on superfluous dolly shots, Villeneuve brings across his big ideas about cycles of violence like a glum harangue.
Best Chop-Shop Pastiche of Will Hunting and Jason Bourne: Matt Damon, Elysium
Just another reluctant hero from a rough background, destined to transcend his working-class roots and unleash enough brawny superhuman whoop-ass to save our ruined futureworld from evil orbiting richies. He's the kind of guy you'd like to have a beer or fight a robotically enhanced class war with.
Brightest Performance of the Year: Jonah Hill's teeth in The Wolf of Wall Street
There's a lot to look at in Martin Scorsese's nomination-studded indulgence parade. Start Googling "Jonah Hill Wolf" and you'll discover that "teeth" is a more common additional search term than "character" and even "penis." Which is just to say that Hill does fine work physicalizing the self-appointed sidekick to Leonardo DiCaprio's stockbroker-hedonist, and those freshly capped choppers are the coup de grace.
Most Pitiable Actress: Naomi Watts, Adore, Diana, Movie 43
Poor Naomi Watts. She's lovely. She's talented. Her acting has never been better, but the movies she's in seem to keep getting worse. This year Watts wound up not quite redeeming movies like the humorless Adore, in which her character and Robin Wright's take each other's sons as lovers; the drippy and equally humorless Diana, in which she plays the doomed princess of Wales; and the differently humorless Movie 43, a junky sketch-comedy compendium by Peter Farrelly.
Grandest, Most Downbeat Noodling Phish Song of a Movie: To the Wonder
Used sparingly, Terrence Malick's meander-whisper style can become sublime. Overused, it makes him seem... well, yes, kind of like a fading jam band, albeit one with many loyal fans. Now, it does take courage, or something, to put Ben Affleck in an abstract movie with a loose narrative structure. But in the end, this one seemed more like Just Getting Further Away from the Wonder.
Most Awkward Interviewer of Joaquin Phoenix So Far: Terry Gross
We all recall an in-character Phoenix being skeptically examined by David Letterman in preparation for I'm Still Here, or interrogated by Philip Seymour Hoffman (RIP) in The Master. Yet when Terry Gross had the actor on Fresh Air recently, ostensibly to talk about his new movie Her, she weirdly harped on those other moments instead. Maybe he made her nervous.
Best Suggestion for a Crossover (Documentary): The Act of Killing One Direction: This Is Us
Nothing is sacred. Nothing.
Best Feature-Length Free Advertisement for a Major Integrated Global Logistics Company Starring Tom Hanks Since Cast Away: Captain Phillips
Except for, you know, the whole hijacking thing, that's some pretty good Maersk product placement.