With another year having come and gone, and awards season in full swing, it’s that time again to ruffle some feathers with my list of the best and worst movies of the year. I had the pleasure (and in some cases the displeasure) of seeing 135 movies this year, 42% of which I graded either an “A” or “A-“, which is slightly lower than last year, when 44% of the films I saw garnered that grade, but still on par with my average.
But, there can only be ten that get the honor of being great, and five that gain the dishonor of pure gutter trash. Whether you think my picks are exactly like yours, or you believe I’m completely insane, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this list as well as your own if you have one. So without further gilding the Lilly, and with no more adieu…
BEST FILMS OF 2013
After rising to stardom in the eighties and early nineties, Michael Keaton’s career took a tumble with some box office duds. It wasn’t that he disappeared completely like some actors do when they lose their box office mojo, but his presence wasn’t felt as strongly as when he was at the top of his game. This year, though, Keaton has finally made his case for a major comeback, taking on supporting roles in two high-caliber action flicks (Need For Speed and the Robocop reboot) and choosing to send up his own career in Birdman, a creatively maddening film about an aging actor looking for relevance in a fickle world that only sees him as one thing – a washed-up actor who can’t do anything but play a one-note superhero. Everyone in the film, including lively, sometimes disdainful turns by Edward Norton, Emma Stone and Naomi Watts, has some issue boiling under the surface of their cracking facade, but Keaton is the only one that explores those demons during what is seamlessly edited as a fluid stage play in one long streaming shot that adds depth to Keaton’s growing delusions and need for acceptance.
9. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
2011’s prequel/reboot(?) of the Planet of the Apes franchise opened the door for the exploration of how the apes in the original film (and we’re not talking about Tim Burton’s failed attempt to reboot the franchise) became what they are, and it hasn’t disappointed. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a rousing follow-up that heightens the action and the emotion of the original. With James Franco exiting the project and Caeser now living with and leading his family of evolving brethren, humans are no longer the main focus of the film; they are simply a hindrance for the progression of the apes’s evolution. Jason Clarke and Keri Russell lead a team to restore power to their city sanctuary (governed by an anti-ape activist played by Gary Oldman) by getting a nearby dam working again. But to do so, Caeser must oppose a faction of human-fearing apes to grant his permission. With motion capture technology at its zenith, Andy Serkis delivers a powerful performance as Caeser, and leads a team of other motion capture performers in creating an ape community that has more characterization than their human counterparts, and at times display a much richer array of emotions as well. And you can’t ever go wrong with seeing an ape riding horseback with a couple of machine guns!
8. Guardians of the Galaxy
A rag-tag group of alien misfits team up to save a planet from destruction in the first of two Marvel properties (and a double dose of Chris Pratt) good enough to crack the top ten. Though the characters from the Guardians of the Galaxy series weren’t the most well-known characters in Marvel’s universe, they certainly are now, thanks to the highest domestic box office of the year and a film that enjoys itself to the point of poking as much fun at itself and other science-fiction tropes as it possibly can in the span of two hours. Chris Pratt does unlikely hero well — sprinkling his smug persona with wit and charm — and leads a wonderfully poignant, funny and delightful cast into one well-oiled machine. Director James Gunn also does a terrific job juggling all of the elements needed to make this film work, which not only include building a brand new world and managing five distinct personalities, but keeping the heart and soul of the film intact throughout.
7. Draft Day
The NFL draft doesn’t seem like the most exciting idea for a movie, but Kevin Costner and Ivan Reitman found a way to make the behind-the-scenes chess game in Draft Day intriguing, exciting and rousing fun. The entirety of the movie takes place over the course of 12 intense hours as Costner’s Sonny Weaver Jr. tries to save his job by picking just the right player as his first round draft pick. In his way are the team’s owner (Frank Langella) and arrogant coach, played beautifully by the king of snark, Denis Leary. But when all is said and done, it ultimately comes down to the last act, where all of the decisions are made with the artistry of a magician putting the final pieces in place. And for a film about sports that has hardly any sports, Reitman creates a compelling story about staying true to ones self and in the end, always going with your gut when it comes to making the ultimate decisions, regardless of what the consequences might be if you’re wrong.
6. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Guardians of the Galaxy might have been the funner of Marvel’s releases this year, but Captain America: The Winter Soldier was the clear game-changer in terms of the Marvel universe. Not only does it have plenty of political intrigue to balance out the action and lighter tones of the film (you know, like the flirtatious banter between Steve Rogers and Natasha Romanoff), but it also forced a major overhaul of a television show and included just enough references (some of them a little too on the nose) to tie several pieces of the earlier films together, setting up the future of The Avengers series. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo heighten Rogers’s fish-out-of-water mentality by not only dropping him in a world that doesn’t carry the same ideals as he is used to, but make that world more modern in the way that it’s filmed, acted and choreographed, leading to dilemma’s that just may effect him and the future of the entire Marvel brand.
Many of you may be wondering how this adaptation of yet another young adult novel cracked the top five on my list. Well, in my humble opinion, Divergent delivers on every level, from the discussion of class warfare to the inner turmoil of having to place the family you choose over the family you love. I’ve never been a big fan of Shailene Woodley, but as Tris, she carries the weight of the film like a pro. In balancing and accepting the five characteristics the society has embraced (bravery, compassion, intelligence, honesty and selflessness), Tris is more authentic than Katniss and more developed than Bella. The film develops its world quite nicely, spends quality time on building relationships, and doesn’t skimp on its action set pieces, all helping to set up the continuing adventures of the series.
I feel a lot of critics and movie lovers left Interstellar off their lists mainly because of the third act. I may be in the minority when I say that I actually enjoyed the final revelations and thought they worked perfectly well with the overall scope, tone, and meaning Christopher Nolan was shooting for when developing his script. I can’t say the film is Nolan’s best work, but it met my expectations beautifully. At the heart of the story revolves around the love of family and how far we’ll go to protect them, but it doesn’t shy away from larger existential questions about humanity and the resiliency of the human race. Isolation, loneliness, loss and love are explored with tenderness at the hands of a filmmaker who holds nothing back when developing his unique and original story that is also one of the more scientifically accurate films I’ve seen.
3. Edge of Tomorrow
The alien race at the center of Edge of Tomorrow are only one of the reasons that make what could have been a repetitive mess into the summer’s best film. Tom Cruise once again proves why he’s a movie star by going against type as a yellow-bellied marketing executive forced to become a hero when he’s thrown into the battlefield and accidentally acquires the technology to jump back several hours after death. Emily Blunt and Bill Paxton add gravitas to the proceedings, giving new life to an otherwise tired conceit, and with some excellent direction, edge-of-your-seat action sequences, light chemistry and some very funny moments, Edge of Tomorrow (or as it’s now being called, Live. Die. Repeat.) will more than likely become the classic it was meant to be as more people find it on other platforms.
2. The LEGO movie
Everything is awesome… when you watch The LEGO Movie. Based on the decades-old toy, The LEGO Movie is one of those films that you can’t watch just once. It has so much going on in every scene that repeat viewing is necessary to catch it all. Chris Pratt voices Emmett, the average Joe who’s set upon the path as the chosen Master Builder after accidentally finding the “piece of resistance”. Of course, he’s a long way from ever being a Master Builder (his only big idea being a double-decker couch), but with a little fortitude, there’s no reason he couldn’t one day bring life to the bricks. All of the characters, from the deluded Batman (Will Arnett) to the fun, free-spirited Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), are uniquely fun and important to stopping Lord Business (Will Ferrell) from solidifying all of the blocks, thus stopping the Master Builders from doing what they do best – create a world that isn’t bound by instructions. Tack on one of the best end credit tags of the year (sorry Howard), a dizzying amount of pop culture references, extremely detailed animation, and a soon-to-be Academy Award-winning song, it’s clear that when it comes to The LEGO Movie, everything is awesome.
There are two reasons why Whiplash lands in my top spot this year, and their names are J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller. As master and apprentice, respectively, Simmons and Teller command your attention, giving marvelous performances that question the lengths one should go to test their limits and find out how great they can become. The pair carry a film that also has a near pitch-perfect structure. Every event, every piece of dialogue, every subtle moment culminates in a glorious climax, which sings with emotional power that resonates long after you’ve left the theater. Add in a tremendous jazz score and original pieces of music and you’ve got one magnificent piece of art that has officially put Teller on the cinematic map.
WORST FILMS OF 2013
What can I say about Pompeii, a film about a nearby volcano wiping out an entire civilization? The film is based on a real-life event, but the film plays more like a cheesy seventies disaster flick. When a comedy like Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb can do better justice to this event, that’s saying something. Not only is the dialogue stilted — forcing the actors to come across as mediocre at best — but the love story that is supposed to give the movie a heart fails to strike any chord of romance. The battle sequences are lazy, the special effects are second-rate and what in the world was Kiefer Sutherland thinking when he signed on to this project? Every scene Sutherland languishes in is so awkward, it kept me from taking this film seriously.
4. Vampire Academy
Unlike other potential franchises based on young adult novels, Vampire Academy fails to do anything right. Beginning with a plodding set-up that doesn’t know where it wants to go, the film tries too hard to be hip, creating teenagers that are Xerox copies of the cast from Mean Girls posing as tortured vampires. Originality is removed from every aspect of its plot, characters, direction, editing or writing. The convoluted ways in which the characters learn new information lead to a terribly executed final act that guarantees the follow-up novels will not be adapted. If you’re in the mood for some good angsty vampire fun, skip this movie altogether and binge-watch the first couple seasons of The Vampire Diaries.
3. I, Frankenstein
The story of Frankenstein’s monster has been told many times, from Mary Shelley’s original tale to this most recent piece of dreck, in which we find the monster attempting to live a normal life in a modern day city. Aaron Eckhart plays the title character with the flair of an amoeba. It doesn’t help that the script is loaded with exposition, which bogs down any semblance of chemistry between Eckhart and Yvonne Strahovski, who looks bored to death with the entire process. The plot between interchangeable factions of demons and gargoyle angels is convoluted at best, and Bill Nighy is completely wasted as the lead demon, who spends more time hamming up his dialogue than he does developing his character. If there’s one saving grace with I, Frankenstein… at least the special effects are given a modicum of affection.
I have to admit, I actually had to go back and watch the trailer again to remember what Innocence was even about, which doesn’t bode well for its holding power. After doing so, I recall it being an adaptation of a young adult novel that follows a girl to a new school where the faculty just may be a coven of witches who may be involved in killing off some of its female students. I also now remember why it was so low on the totem pole of last year’s films — it was nothing more than a study in bad acting, bad writing and bad execution. That must be the reason why I wiped all memory of this movie from my mind… which is probably a good thing.
After choosing Sabatoge (and the equally as bad The Last Stand) as his official comeback movies, Arnold Schwarzenegger needs to find himself a new agent… or at the very least, someone who has his best interests at heart, because relying on Stallone to bail him out and returning to name-brand franchises will catch up to him sooner rather than later. There are hardly any redeeming qualities to this experiment in mainstream snuff, which tries so hard to create an eighties vibe that it forgets what the eighties were all about — fun, inventive characters overcoming the impossible, none of which exists in this film. All we’re left with is a band of rougue mercenaries with similar personalities that you couldn’t care less about, which only makes the implausible stunts and action sequences that much more unbelievable.
Next week, new movies include Taken 3 and the expansions of Inherent Vice and Selma. If you would like to see a review of one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.