As this column wraps up its first full year, I present the 1st Annual 2014 Comedy Film School Awards. These awards are determined by a voting body of one and hold all the prestige and none of the starpower of the Hollywood Film Awards. The idea is not to rank or give out superlatives, but rather use these names to discuss some of the most interesting work of 2014, why, and what this could mean for a larger comedy landscape this year and going forward.
Best Director, Blockbuster: Phil Lord and Chris Miller, The Lego Movie and 22 Jump Street
Undoubtedly, Lord and Miller rule the studio comedy landscape right now and we are all better off for it. Once known for being the go to guys for bad-idea-on-paper adaptations, they have turned 21 Jump Street and The Lego Movie into an unusual combination of success – box office boom, critical success, and snark-free hipster appreciation.
To me, The Lego Movie is a great barometer of one’s level of engagement in film and storytelling in 2014. If you looked at the title and decided sight unseen to be too cool for it, you missed out on one of the most complicated, complete, well-executed, and hilarious films of the year. It is worth noting that the notoriously stodgy National Board of Review awarded The Lego Movie Best Original Screenplay. And while I did not find 22 Jump Street to have as many laughs per minute as its predecessor, it does strong and smart work engaging in the metanarrative of unnecessary sequels. This is very smart stuff hiding in plain sight. That is the pleasure of having Lord and Miller as the kings of mainstream comedy right now.
Best Director, Indie: Gillian Robespierre, Obvious Child
This indie-comedy starring Jenny Slate debuted in the smaller NEXT section at Sundance in 2014 but came out of the festival as one of the 4 or 5 most talked about titles. Jenny Slate is absolutely delightful and this film may exist in history as the debut that launched her career as a powerhouse comedy lead that I am sure she will have, but that is to undersell the extremely strong work in both writing and directing done by Robespierre.
The film succeeds in making stand up appealing and interesting to watch on screen by grounding it squarely in the voice of a fully realized protagonist. By nailing the specificity of Slate’s character and voice early in the film, her stand up can be used as a true dramatic character device rather than just a filler character detail. The film succeeds where most indie-comedies do not in that it is truly hilarious and succeeds at saying what it is trying to say. It achieves a certain poignancy through comedy, an underserviced value of the genre particularly in the feature film space and an impressive feat in a debut. There was a time early this year when I told people Obvious Child was my favorite film of the year so far and revisiting it for this column makes me stand behind that sentiment.
Best Director, Television: Jill Soloway, Transparent
I love a lot of things about Transparent, but perhaps my favorite is that it is so Jewish. It nails the upper-middle class urban Jewish familial sensibility with a Woody Allen-esque accuracy that feels specific and universal, personal and broad all at the same time. Talking about this show with other Jews of that ilk, everyone picks out a specific moment that they can spin into a similar story from their own experience, whether it is the weekly bagel order or the torah portion delivery in the living room.
The writing of the Pfefferman family is so fully realized and dynamic but the visual palate of the world they live in, both in the nostalgic glow of the flashbacks and the modern Los Angeles they inhabit feels perfectly familiar that the viewer does not doubt for one second the authenticity of the characters or their experience. Where a lesser writer/director would fall into stereotype and caricature, Soloway finds ways to tell her story within the well-traveled road of modern Jewish experience on screen.
Best Director, Sketch: Peter Atencio, Key & Peele
The most visually-inspired sketch show on television made a dramatic change to its format this year, by doing away with its Chappellean studio bits and instead building the entire season around intercut scenes of Key and Peele driving in an old car down a desert road to nowhere. The change is simple and likely a way to save some money, but the aesthetic and thematic consequences give the show a more surreal, disarming quality to it. And season four of Key & Peele was just that, surreal, disarming, and dark. They could have easily gotten away with continuing to play on their increasingly large public profiles, natural affability, and likable recurring characters like Luther and Wendell, instead, they used this season to take their sketches to increasingly darker places in their commentary of race and media culture.
Once again pulling the strings behind the scenes for the whole thing, Atencio drives the tone by continuing to impress with his ability to nail genre parodies and keep the style and production value impressively cinematic, which is necessary for the writing of the sketches to operate. The K&P team already have a fifth season in the can that will air starting in September 2015 (I guess they are not doing any topical sketches), which will be Atencio’s last as director, since he is making the jump to features, beginning with a project he will make with Key and Peele in the interim.
Still to See in 2014:
I am eagerly anticipating Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, which is said to be his first “true comedy”. PTA is one of my favorite directors working today and the source material is fantastic, so I look forward to seeing what he can do in the comedy space in a film stacked with actors of prestige.
I am also looking forward to seeing Chris Rock’s Top Five, which was the talk of the Toronto Film Festival this year and is out in New York currently. I am a big fan of Rock’s standup and find him to be incredibly thoughtful and intelligent when he discusses his work and comedy. His marketing team made a calculatedly successful move when they released a slew of intensely personal longform interviews with Rock in conjunction with the opening of the film, but the way he discusses directing, independent film, and his work in general makes me want to see what he is pushing as his most serious attempt as a director to date.