Now that 2014 is well under way it’s a good time to look back at the movies of 2013. I went to the movies 40 times in 2013, a pretty low number for me, seeing 32 new films (the other 8 were either movies I saw more than once or classics I got the chance to see on the big screen). Through a variety of reasons, I’ve managed to miss most of the big awards contenders including 12 Years a Slave, American Hustle, Her, Philomena and The Wolf of Wall Street, unlike last year when I had seen most of them. Instead of simply ranking my favorite films from the past year, however, I prefer to highlight my top 10 (and bottom 3) movie-related things from 2013. Some of these will be particular movies or performances, some will be scenes or aspects of production, and some are bits of news or interpretations. I hope you enjoy it, and remember to let me know your favorite (or least favorite) film-related things from 2013!
My Top 10 of 2013
10. Oz the Great and Powerful is really a metaphor for the power of cinema
I was moderately enjoying Oz the Great and Powerful, Sam Raimi’s Wizard of Oz prequel through the first two thirds of the film. The opening sequence was a lot of fun, James Franco made a likeable cad of a future Wizard, and the film featured a trio of talented actresses playing the well-known witches. However, I wasn’t really emotionally engaged with the film until its finale, which caused me to rethink the entire movie. As the film ends, Franco’s Oz fakes his own death and reappears as a giant holographic head for a showdown with the two wicked witches. He makes them believe that he has greater powers than they do, as well as inspires the citizens of Oz to believe in him as the Wizard. This belief gives them the strength to stand up to the witches to drive them out. The whole sequence, and the film in general, is a metaphor for the power of cinema to inspire and to help shape the world through the tricks of the trade. I love it when a film surprises me, and the ending of Oz the Great and Powerful gave me a lot to think about and reshaped my understanding of the entire movie.
9. What is Tomorrowland?
One of the biggest questions in the movie industry this year (beyond “What’s happening with Star Wars?”) was “What exactly is Tomorrowland?” The film, directed by Brad Bird, written by Bird, Damon Lindelof and Jeffe Jensen and starring George Clooney, is still something of a mystery. It began the year under the working title 1952, and was connected to a mysterious box supposedly discovered in the Disney archives which contained a variety of curious artifacts. As the title changed to Tomorrowland, it was revealed that an “alternate reality game” called The Optimist existed which helped explore the background of the film. It focused on Walt Disney’s supposed vision of the future, inspired by some of the great scientists and visionaries of history, and connected the film to the 1964 World’s Fair. The ARG sent fans scrambling to historic sites in LA connected to Walt Disney, and rewarded them with clues as the story expanded. Some of the items uncovered included the story of a secret meeting at an earlier World’s Fair and alternate audio tracks to historic Disneyland attractions that showed a different view of the future. And while I wasn’t able to directly participate in the game, I enjoyed following along with it and it certainly helped to pique my interest in the film. ARGs are often hit or miss, but to me this one was definitely a success.
8. Sandra Bullock in Gravity
Gravity was an excellent film, with stunning visuals and an incredibly intense story of survival. But for me, what really sold the film was Sandra Bullock. Surrounded by the imminent reality of death, she gave a performance that was both immensely vulnerable and fiercely defiant. Her struggle first to deal with the reality of her situation and then to fight back against it was the driving force of the film. I give credit, of course, to writer/director Alfonso Cuaron for crafting the film and helping to shape Bullock’s performance, but most of the credit here should go to the actress. It’s never an easy thing acting in front of a bluescreen, having to imagine everything you’re supposed to be seeing, but much harder is having to spend most of the film alone. Bullock made the fear inherent in such a disastrous situation feel real and immediate, and her performance is what has stuck with me much more strongly than any explosion in space ever could.
7. Marvel’s Phase 2 starts strong
After the almost unfathomable success of The Avengers in 2012, the question hovering over everything was “Where do they go from here?” In 2013 we got the answer. The so-called “Phase 2” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe kicked off in May with Iron Man 3, which gave us our most complex and interesting look at Tony Stark yet, along with exploring the emotional consequences of the events of The Avengers and their effect on Tony in particular. It was heavy and serious but without ever losing sight of the humor and sense of fun that defines the series, all while showing that the films are willing to stray from the comics in big ways. In the fall, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. premiered, giving us a look at the more day-to-day operations of SHIELD and showing us how ordinary people deal with the extraordinary events from these superhero movies. The series has been a modest success, but has grown into an interesting, creative, funny and emotional show that has done a lot to provide a unique perspective on the MCU. And then there was Thor: The Dark World which, while not quite up to the level of Iron Man 3, was a fun and enjoyable way to expand on Thor and his mythology, while cementing Loki’s status as the internet’s favorite villain. Add to that the new trailer for Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a tease for Guardians of the Galaxy at the end of Thor: The Dark World, a bevy of news about Avengers: Age of Ultron (including James Spader as Ultron and everyone reprising their roles from the first film) and the news that Warner Bros. is going to be adding Batman to the Man of Steel sequel in order to compete with Marvel and I think it’s safe to say that Marvel is in good shape. Preproduction on Phase 3 is already underway, and at this point it looks like the best days of the Marvel Cinematic Universe are still to come.
6. J. K. Rowling announced as writer of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
When the Harry Potter film series ended in 2011 there was a sense of finality to the Harry Potter story that nevertheless had one small crack in it. The books had long since finished, the main film series was over, but Warner Bros. still owned the rights to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Quidditch Through the Ages, two in-universe textbooks written a while back by J. K. Rowling for charity. The fact that Warner Bros. owned the rights to these books was a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand, the Harry Potter films were great and the thought of more Harry Potter in our lives was definitely a positive. On the other hand, the thought of a series of films that would diverge more and more from Rowling’s established story was a frightening concept. However, this year it was announced that Rowling herself would be writing the screenplay to a film version of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which would follow the adventures of the author of the textbook, Newt Scamander, as he encounters magical creatures in the 1920s. Having Rowling not only onboard but actually penning the script made everything instantly better for me and relieved all of my doubts. Now I can just anticipate with excitement the news to come (release date, director, cast, story, etc.) instead of dreading them. The Harry Potter universe is so strongly tied to Rowling that to see it expand without her involved would have been painful.
5. The songs of Frozen
I loved pretty much everything about Frozen, from the gorgeous animation to the two strong lead characters and the interesting exploration of sisterly relationship. It was sweet and funny and emotional and everything I could want from an animated Disney movie. The songs, however, are what really set it apart for me. Tangled was a good proof of concept for the computer animated musical, but Frozen raised the musical bar to the right level. Where Tangled had 4 distinct songs, Frozen had 7. The songs, written by husband-and-wife team Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, found the perfect mix of Broadway styling and the Disney musical formula, while simultaneously twisting the standard tropes of this sort of film. The songs are expressive and central to the definition of the characters, and are brought to life by an outstanding voice cast, led by the legendary Idina Menzel. While “Let it Go” has gotten all of the attention thus far, the rest of the songs are equally as memorable and are integral to the film’s story. While I don’t think every film (animated or otherwise) needs to be a musical, I’m thrilled to see Frozen embracing the musical side of cinema and being rewarded for it.
4. The finale of The Lone Ranger
The Lone Ranger certainly had a rough time this summer. I loved it, but it was mercilessly bashed by critics and largely ignored by audiences. I appreciated the film’s unique tone and unusual take on the well-known characters, not to mention the risks Disney took both in its production and in approving a film this violent and critical of certain aspects of American history and ideology. But the standout sequence for me was the film’s finale (the only part of the film which seemed to elicit a grudging praise from critics). As the film’s villain oversees the completion of a rail line that will allow him to take a load of silver ore (for which he massacred Tonto’s tribe) and purchase the railroad company and gain immense power, Tonto and the Lone Ranger hijack the train. The villains pursue in another train and what results is a 15 minute spectacle of an action scene, with shootouts, fistfights and incredible stuntwork, all set to Hans Zimmer’s adaptation of the classic William Tell Overture. Characters leap from one train to another and ride on horseback along the train’s roof and through its carriages while scores are settled, civilians are saved and the villains defeated. It’s the sort of action scene that could have gone horribly wrong, becoming either boring or so frenetic as to confuse the viewers, but Gore Verbinski instead crafted something amazing. Like all great action climaxes, it uses the action and adventure to further the story and the characters, rather than using the characters as an excuse for action. It is filled with big visual moments that take your breath away and smaller character moments that give the action meaning. The Lone Ranger will go down in history as a flop, but I hope it will still be remembered for its superb finale.
3. Jena Malone as Johanna in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
I’ve now seen The Hunger Games: Catching Fire three times, and it honestly keeps getting better with each viewing. The sequel made some excellent choices with its casting of new roles, especially Sam Claflin as Finnick, Jeffrey Wright as Beetee and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Heavensbee. But it’s Jena Malone who still packs the biggest punch in the film. I’ve been a fan of Malone for a long time, all the way back to Contact and Bastard Out of Carolina, and have followed her career throughout the years, so when it was announced that she would be playing Johanna I was thrilled, even if the internet didn’t seem to agree. However, I think all of the doubters have been silenced now that they’ve seen the film. Malone’s Johanna gives the film a unique punch, but is also surprisingly deep. She gives us the sense that she is a conflicting ball of emotions: broken by her experiences in the games yet happy with the life she built for herself, confident and defiant yet without losing a sense of her humanity. From the first moments when she unashamedly strips in front of Katniss, Peeta and Haymitch, to her quiet confusion when she comments that “Love is weird” in the arena, Malone steals every scene she’s in. Especially good is the moment in the arena when she yells at President Snow that he can’t put everyone in the games as a way to control them, before unconcernedly telling Katniss that he can’t hurt her because there’s nothing left that she loves. But the best moment is the one that probably springs to everyone’s mind when they think of Johanna. When Caesar Flickerman is interviewing her and asks how she’s feeling about the game, she complains that she was told that if she won she’d be set up for life, but now she’s having to go back in. “Well, fuck that! And fuck everyone that had anything to do with it!” she shouts, in a line that doesn’t exist in the books yet completely sums up the character. I can’t wait to see what Jena Malone brings to the table in the next two films.
2. The trip to Disneyland in Saving Mr. Banks
For detractors of Saving Mr. Banks, the Disneyland sequence probably felt like the heights (or depths) of self-indulgence and self-promotion. I’m sure, to those who were so inclined, the whole scene felt like one big commercial for Disneyland. And while it may, in fact, have been that, it probably wasn’t in the way they thought. I’ve just recently written at (nauseating) length about the messages of Saving Mr. Banks, and I feel like the Disneyland sequence was a direct answer to the criticisms of shallowness and sugarcoating that often are thrown at Disney in general and its themeparks in particular. Of particular importance is the moment when P. L. Travers notices the window in Main Street U.S.A. that bears the name of Walt Disney’s father, but it’s not until later that we learn its significance as a reminder of the darker parts of Walt’s past. On a personal level, however, I loved seeing Disneyland shown off on the big screen as the place of joy and happiness it truly is. From Walt welcoming not only Travers but the audience into the park with open arms, to the stroll down Main Street U.S.A., to the joyful ride on the King Arthur Carrousel (originally built in 1875) which embodies the spirit of Disney, the sequence is a great way to show off the parks while reminding us of their history. As someone who spends pretty much every minute of every day wishing he was at the parks, it was a treat to see them so well represented on the big screen. But despite my personal feelings, the sequence is crucial to the film, and it’s the biggest reason why Disney had to be the company to make this film. No one else could have done the scene justice.
It’s impossible for me to pick just one favorite things from this film. Joss Whedon’s follow up to The Avengers turned out to be a soft spoken, wickedly funny, sexy, personal, beautiful, black and white, modern version of Shakespeare’s comedy. The casting, made up almost entirely of actors from Whedon’s troupe, was perfect, Whedon’s house could not have made a better setting, and the direction and cinematography was rich and interesting. Whedon shot the film in just 12 days at his home in California, directed the film as well as adapting the screenplay, producing, writing the music and editing. He breathes new life into centuries-old characters, giving Amy Acker’s Beatrice a feminist slant in line with the likes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, while making the most of both the comedic and dramatic talents of Alexis Denisof as Benedick. Of course, the fact that Acker and Denisof had worked together for years on Angel gave their performances a naturalness that helped ground the Bard’s dialogue. There are many moments that stand out from the film, whether it’s Nathan Fillion’s bumbling constable, Dogberry, or the sequence in which Benedick hides while overhearing Leonato, Claudio and Pedro (Clark Gregg, Fran Kranz and Reed Diamond) set him up by lying about how Beatrice loves him, a scene of hilarious slapstick as Benedick tries to stay within earshot while out of sight. That the film was mostly ignored is both a crime and perfectly in keeping with some of Whedon’s other works. As a long time Whedonite, I had built this film up so much in my mind that there was no way it could satisfy, and yet it blew even my highest expectations out of the water, cementing its place as my favorite film of the year.
My Bottom 3 of 2013
3. They made John McClane boring
When it was announced that A Good Day to Die Hard would be returning the film series to its R rating, would feature McClane’s son and would be set in Russia (a great opportunity for more fish-out-of-water moments for McClane), I was pretty stoked. I had enjoyed Live Free or Die Hard, but wanted to see McClane return to his roots. And even if it wasn’t perfect, more John McClane is a good thing, right? Wrong! A Good Day to Die Hard is not a bad film, but it’s just simply not a Die Hard film. Sure, it has the trademark quip, and Bruce Willis is back, but beyond that the writers and director completely lost sight of John McClane as a character. With the exception of one funny scene, the film was dry and boring, with little to distinguish it from any other mindless action flick. It had a heavy reliance on special effects, and not nearly enough of McClane being a resourceful badass hopelessly outnumbered and outplanned. Of course, adding Jai Courtney as McClane’s son didn’t help, as he brought nothing of interest to the table. I almost wish the movie had been straight-up bad, as I could excuse a failure easier than the “safe” film we were given instead. I hope that at this point they just let John McClane rest (until the inevitable reboot in 5 years), because I’d rather the character disappear from the screen that continue as just a shell of what he used to be.
2. The last 45 minutes of Man of Steel
Man of Steel was one of the most divisive films of the year. As for me, I generally enjoyed the first 2/3 of the film, and its interesting and soulful take on the Superman myth. The ending of the film, however, changed my mind completely (and not in a good way like Oz the Great and Powerful). As Superman fought General Zod and his minions, first destroying a small town and then wrecking the city of Metropolis, I was both bored and offended. The endless scenes of Superman and Zod smashing through buildings and punching each other over and over were just downright dull to watch. I’m past the age where impressive effects are enough to keep me entertained. But worse than that was the fact that Superman did practically nothing to concern himself with the casualties that most likely resulted from his battle (a clear contrast to the battle of New York in The Avengers). To me, Superman, more than any other hero, was more about saving people than fighting villains, and for the last 45 minutes of the film that sensibility vanished. And while I actually don’t have a problem with Superman killing Zod in the end in theory, the fact that he was so emotionally devastated by it rang false when compared with the casualties from his battle. Why would he cry over killing his enemy when he seemingly doesn’t care about the civilians until Zod directly threatens a family? I know some people loved the film, and they’re certainly entitled to, but the ending was so disappointing given what led up to it that I find myself unable to muster even the slightest enthusiasm for the upcoming sequel.
1. Star Trek Into Darkness
Ugh, Star Trek Into Darkness. Where do I even begin? 2009’s Star Trek didn’t exactly win me over. I liked the cast, and a few aspects of the film, but hated the alternate timeline rubbish that they came up with in order to have their cake and eat it too. But Into Darkness, while still having a good cast, took even the slightest glimmers of hope I might have had for this reboot and utterly destroyed them. It took the original series’ most classic villain and whitewashed him until he could be played by Benedict Cumberbatch (for no apparent reason and in a way that doesn’t even obey the rules of their alternate timeline). It continued the dumbing-down of Star Trek that its predecessor began, culminating in some destruction porn that could have come right out of Man of Steel’s ending. It needlessly retread exact sequences and dialogue from Wrath of Khan in a way that emphasized the lazy scriptwriting instead of clever parallels. And, worst of all, it was so downright sexist with its needless shot of Alice Even in her underwear that it was positively infuriating and insulting. I don’t fault the cast for the film, but as a lifelong Star Trek fan it felt like the producers, writer and director had personally insulted me by not only disregarding but trashing everything that drew us fans to the 5 series and 10 movies we had before. The sad thing is, I will see the next Star Trek film, but I’m not sure I could tell you why. Perhaps it’s because I believe in the cast, or because I feel like the potential is there, if the problems were fixed, for a really kick-ass Star Trek reboot. But for now, the bitter taste of Star Trek Into Darkness continues to linger.
Now it’s your turn! What were your favorite and least favorite film-related things of 2013? Favorite movies, performances, songs or scores? Favorite news or trailers? Favorite scenes or quotes? Let me know in the comments!