It looks like 2013 will go down as the Year of the Sequel for me, as most of the films that made the list (both good and bad) are second-parters in their respective franchises/reboots. We’re not talking Wrath of Khan or Back to the Future II here, but the sequels in the top five all surpass their predecessors in one way or another.
You may want to take my opinions with a grain of salt, however. I’m kind of a sucker for sequels.
5) Pacific Rim
This is one of two films on this list that isn’t a sequel, but I suspect it will boast one before long. I went into Pacific Rim wanting one thing: a fun action movie about giant robots beating up monsters. And I got that on steroids. Guillermo del Toro exceeded every one of my goofy, nerdy, 14-year-old fanboy expectations—and I’m not even particularly fond of Kaiju monsters or battle robots.
Needless to say, the human characters largely took a back seat to the action sequences, but there were still some memorable performances. Idris Elba grounded things a bit, but I might be biased by his work in The Wire. Charlie Day and Burn Gorman added some color as a duo of scientists studying the monsters, but I might be biased by their work in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Torchwood (respectively). And Ron Pearlman was fantastic as a crime boss, though I may be biased by everything else he’s ever done.
4) Thor: The Dark World
While I found the first Thor movie enjoyable, in the end it was mostly innocuous and forgettable. And I felt exactly the same way about Thor: The Dark World for most of its runtime—until the third act kicked in and whomped me right upside the head. A gonzo fight sequence involving giant spaceships and world-hopping dimensional gates sent the story into hyper-drive, and I couldn’t believe how enjoyable the film had become. Any movie that has me cracking up with it’s breathless action deserves a spot on the list, even if it is a little too Loki-heavy for my tastes.
Frankly, I never understood the massive Loki love from The Avengers. I thought Tom Hiddleston was adequate, but not spectacular. But if you’re on Team Hiddleston, you’re sure to like him in this movie. He does at least as good a job with Loki in T:TDW as he did in The Avengers.
3) The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
This is a polarizing choice to be sure. Most reviewers (Tolkien fans and otherwise) are slamming Jackson’s second outing with Bilbo Baggins, calling it an overblown, self-indulgent, CGI-laden mess. And I can’t really argue, but I still enjoyed the hell out of it. Jackson made the choice to expand the story into a true prequel to his Rings movies, bringing Legolas into the mix and striking a much more ominous tone, portending dark things to come. So on that front it’s a much more thematically even film than An Unexpected Journey. But I can understand why folks looking for a straight, quaint adaptation of The Hobbit are exasperated. Bilbo’s tale is certainly a bit backgrounded amidst everything else that’s going on. But it just doesn’t bother me. All of the major beats of The Hobbit are there, and Bilbo is still the prime driver of the narrative. And his exchange with Smaug is just fantastic. I’m really looking forward to the final installment. Bring on the Battle of the Five Armies!
2) The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
For the second year in a row, Katniss Everdeen takes the number two spot on the list. The Hunger Games surprised me with how good it was, so I had high expectations for Catching Fire. And it didn’t disappoint. What I like most is that for all of Katniss’s strengths and bravery, she is still largely an unwitting and unwilling pawn in the larger machinations of the factions surrounding her, who want to use her and what she represents to advance their own agendas.
If this is a coming-of-age tale with any salt, then Katniss will end the third film on her own terms. But the continued darkness of the series bodes well for an uncompromising finale. I’ve always liked to rip on adults who read The Hunger Games novels, just because. But it looks like they tackle some pretty thorny themes in an unflinching way. I’m still not gonna read them, but I might be less flippant with those people 14 and over who do.
1) John Dies at the End
Finally, a non-franchise movie! (Though it is based on a graphic novel of the same name, which boasts its own sequel, This Book is Full of Spiders.)
John Dies at the End is everything you want in a psychedelic, reality-skewing genre comedy. The story focuses on the bizarre escapades of best friends Dave and John, taking a non-linear trip through time and into other dimensions courtesy of a drug called Soy Sauce. It’s really too hard to summarize the film any further because it’s just so damn weird. But good weird, you know?
In fact this is the most quirky, funny and original film I’ve seen not only this year, but in many years. And I feel confident in saying that it will one day stand alongside gonzo cult favorites like Buckaroo Banzai, Repo Man and Army of Darkness.
Honorable Mention) Warm Bodies
When I first saw the trailer for Warm Bodies, the very notion of a mopey emo zombie romcom offended my sensibilities to such an extent that I was ready to write off the entire zombie genre for good. I mean, really? But apparently, yes, really.
The zombie genre has pretty much gone the way of vampires by now, and I’ve mostly given up on it (I still watch The Walking Dead, but with little joy). So the real reason I gave this film a chance is because I heard Rob Corddry talking about it on Stern, and I happen to like his stuff.
I’m glad I did. Warm Bodies will never shamble into the annals of all-time zombie greats, but this undead take on Romeo and Juliet is a cute, enjoyable, feel-good black comedy that roused my dead, black heart.
Worst Films of 2013) Star Trek Into Darkness / Man of Steel / Upstream Color
These films can more accurately be called my biggest disappointments of 2013, as they dashed most of the high hopes that I had for them.
Star Trek Into Darkness is the worst of the bunch, a huge, overblown misfire on almost every level. But chief among its many, many flaws is the terrible characterization of Kirk. Despite this, I felt that the film ultimately worked (warts and all) upon first seeing it. (Read my full review)
But enough time has passed, and the blush is off the rose. I’ve completely soured on this turkey. I’m so glad J.J. Abrams is heading over to Star Wars. Trek is better off without him.
Man of Steel is a different story. I still think it’s a solid film that provides a fresh, Science Fictional take on Superman. (Read my full review) But it ultimately lacks Superman’s chief defining characteristic: hope. Man of Steel isn’t inspiring or uplifting in any way, and in the long run that will prevent it from becoming a beloved classic like Donner’s Superman. But that’s not to say all hope is lost. The casting was fine and I could easily see a sequel with these actors reprising their roles. It’s just a matter of tone, and that’s the real worry.
DC has made the decision to forgo fun in its superhero properties, following Nolan down his dark, dour Batpath in search of commercial success. The powers that be don’t seem to understand that Supes is a fundamentally different character and his film treatment should embrace that. If their take on Clark is this grimdark, I shudder to think what kind of psychopath Bruce is going to be in Batman vs. Superman.
Upstream Color is the sophomore effort of writer/director Shane Carruth, whose feature film debut was Primer, one of the most complex and brilliant time travel films ever. So I came to Upstream Color with high hopes indeed.
The meta-concept of the film is extremely interesting and esoteric. It definitely gets high marks for originality. But that doesn’t save it from its hyper-mopey protagonists. In the end, Upstream Color is a tour de force of mumblecore monotony, occasionally relieved by some nicely composed shots.