Remember The Lego Movie? Released in February, it was one of the year's biggest surprises, a movie that shouldn't have been good yet somehow was, filled with terrific laughs, great storytelling, and a third act twist that, even if you didn't like it, deserved points for its sheer daring. It's still one of the biggest box office hits of the year, and critics were kind too.
But did you know Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the men who directed Lego, also directed June's 22 Jump Street, the unlikely sequel to 2012's surprisingly entertaining 21 Jump Street (which they also directed)? I didn't like 22 as much as I did Lego, but one thing seems clear to me after this year — Lord and Miller can do no wrong.
And, honestly, they just might be the future of making movies.
Nobody's making mid-sized movies anymore
As Jason Bailey outlines in this excellent report at Flavorwire, it has become virtually impossible to make a movie in Hollywood that costs somewhere between $5 million and $80 million. The industry is now built for two kinds of movies: giant tentpoles that rake in huge amounts of cash worldwide and ultra-low-budget cheapies that are unlikely to turn huge profits but are worth the gamble because they cost so little.
Have there been hits this year in that in-between space? Absolutely. Gone Girl, for instance, cost a little over $60 million and ended up grossing over $160 million in the United States alone. (That number could go up if it garners some choice Oscar nominations next month.) But for the most part, the great middle where Hollywood used to make most of its money has been sucked out of the industry.
The problem is that if you're going to commit as much money to one of these giant tentpole projects as studios do, you really do need some sort of name to slap on there that audiences will recognize, a name like "Lego" or "21 Jump Street." Though it doesn't always work, studios see this as a kind of insurance policy, a way to ensure that people will remember that film amid the barrage of marketing for other films. Even if what you're asking is, "Isn't making a movie about Legos an awful idea?" you're still talking about The Lego Movie.
What makes Lord and Miller so special is that they're terrific at taking these sorts of seemingly terrible ideas and spinning them into gold. So many movies have taken things that seemed unadaptable — the board game Battleship, say — and then just proved that, yep, they were unadaptable. These sorts of movies are usually pushed away from original ideas, the better to capitalize on the broadest, blandest possible audience. Lord and Miller don't seem to have this problem.
21 Jump Street, for instance, was an elaborate satire of the very idea of turning old TV shows into movies (of which there have been so many terrible examples), sandwiched alongside an enjoyable riff on the buddy cop genre. The Lego Movie genuinely celebrates the notion of creativity that might be unlocked by playing with the toy blocks — particularly if a parent and child are playing together. And 22 Jump Street does its predecessor one better by mocking the endless bloat of film franchises these days. (And lest we forget, the directors' first film was Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, another seemingly unadaptable property.)
Smuggling big ideas into blockbusters
Lord and Miller understand, then, that their job in this new Hollywood economy isn't to create wildly personal expressions that are the most original ideas you've ever seen. It's to funnel those wildly personal expressions and original ideas into projects seemingly designed as marketing pitches. Their job is to invoke suspension of disbelief not just for what's happening on screen, but for the fact that the movies exist at all.
Lord and Miller are also notable in that they follow another prominent Hollywood trend: directors moving between film and TV. The pair got their start in TV (and created the truly awesome animated series Clone High), so this isn't as notable as it is when, say, Martin Scorsese turns up on a TV project. But it's still fun to watch them work their magic on shows like, say, Fox's Brooklyn Nine-Nine, for which they directed the pilot.
All of the above could make it sound like I'm slagging on these two, but I'm really not. I find what they do thrillingly, wonderfully subversive, just part of a year when directors found way to smuggle beautiful, personal work into a bevy of blockbusters. As giant franchise films become the vast majority of directing jobs available to young filmmakers with something to prove, then, the future of the profession is probably in coming up with ways to get cool stuff into movies that exist primarily to build into giant brands.
For all of that, let's name Lord and Miller the directors of 2014. They may not have been the year's best directors, hands down, but they were the best examples of where filmmakers may have to live, going forward. It's not ideal to have to turn to a movie literally about a children's toy to find a bracing defense of creativity and independent spirit, but it was still really funny to slowly realize that was the case. Lord and Miller understand that the future of filmmaking is in hiding these subversions in plain sight and hoping the suits don't catch on. For that, they deserve a salute.
Come back every day of December for Vox's picks of some of our favorite pop culture of 2014.