Writing about crummy movies is way more fun than writing about good ones so in a way I’m quite thankful for these movies. In another, more accurate, way these movies are awful and the people who made them should do some reflecting.
The Worst Ten Movies of 2013
10. Oz the Great and Powerful
I’m still offended this movie exists. It seems to be the epitome of the needless sequel trend that’s taken Hollywood by storm this past…forever. James Franco and Zach Braff are also really low on my celebrity like ability scale which hurt a bunch.
9. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Peter Jackson is in the George Lucas period of his career, he’s obsessed with his effects and no one will tell him when his ideas are shitty as long as the money keeps coming in. I hope he can pull out of this spiral.
"I think if there’s one thing America really needs right now it’s more glum torture porn with no negative consequences for bad behavior." -Everyone involved with making Prisoners.
7. A Good Day to Die Hard
Did you know that the girl who plays Lucy McClane is played by the same actress who played Ramona Flowers in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World? I just learned that and I find that fact more interesting than this entire stupid movie. I don’t use stupid as an unnecessary pejorative, I honestly think this is the dumbest plot on this whole list.
6. Despicable Me 2
Despicable Me 2 made almost a billion dollars. That’s so depressing considering it looks like crap and has a paper-thin plot buoyed with really simple jokes. Our children deserve better.
5. Insidious Chapter 2
This year’s crop of possession horror movies was a little better than last year but Insidious Chapter 2 was a movie that came with a homework assignment. It was a complete indecipherable mess to newcomers to the series to a degree that just feels spiteful. This also had the worst opening titles design that I can remember seeing and that should count for something.
4. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2
I just plain didn’t like this film. It has a bunch of half-way clever food puns and then just nothing going for it. It’s the loathsome kind of movie where I believe they started with the happy meal toys and worked backwards to a script.
3. Pain & Gain
This is the most I could possibly hate a movie where The Rock delivers a superb performance. It’s boring and unfunny which is par for the course for Michael Bay but it’s supposed to be a comedy damn it. Cut this in to a 40 minute movie where The Rock is in every scene and this is probably in the top 10.
2. Jack the Giant Slayer
I suppose it isn’t impossible to make a good movie out of a story people have been telling in five minutes for hundreds of years but if it’s been done I can’t remember it. These movies just turn into weird dumping grounds for incomprehensible extra lore. In Jack's case we got armies of sky giants and a magic crown. Furthermore, how do you do this movie without a goose laying golden eggs? Inexcusable.
1. Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters
It was hard to decide that I hate Hanzel and Gretel: Witch Hunters more than I hate Jack the Giant Slayer because they have so many of the same problems that they’re essentially the same movie. What tumbled Hansel and Gretel in to the proverbial witches oven was the spectacularly bad performance from Jeremy Renner, the worst of any big star I saw this year. It was also a spectacularly joyless movie with a tenuous grasp on its own setting but those seem to have been dominant themes this year.
Arvin’s Bottom Ten:
10. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug - I wouldn’t recommend anyone seeing this once, much less three times. If you’ve already seen the first two installments you can still save yourself from the third one.
9. Despicable Me 2 - Benjamin Bratt is the sole non-bland part of this bland blandy bland.
8. 42 - Does everything wrong that The Butler does right.
7. A Good Day to Die Hard - Offensively forgettable.
6. Hansel & Gretel Witch Hunters - Utterly unnecessary. The actors LOOK like they were maybe having fun.
5. Elysium - I’d say this was a huge letdown but I had a bad feeling about this from the get-go. Lifeless and humorless.
4. Identity Thief - Broad comedies get enough crap that I feel guilty for piling on, but it’s not hard when it’s as lazy and incoherent as this.
3-WAY TIE: Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Purge, Jack the Giant Slayer. I promise, I’ve made my peace with all of these movies. I didn’t even really rail against Texas Chainsaw Massacre. But actively or passively, I will not remember these movies two years from now, and if reminded, I will think about how I had to pay to see them.
In 2012 I spent 53 weeks watching 35 movies. In 2013 I saw 38 movies over 52 weeks. Congratulations America on enjoying slightly more variety this year.
With Arvin and I both providing lists this got a little long. This post is our top tens and in a little bit I’ll be back with bottom tens.
The Top 10 #1 Movies of 2013
I feel like I saw a dozen movies exactly like this one but it turns out it was only six. Creepy kids, unexplained sounds in a dark house, nothing that exciting really happens until the last 20 minutes, it’s a whole thing and I generally don’t care for it. After two years Mama is the film that stands out. It had better design, it had set pieces I still remember and it was, by far, the one I found the most frightening. Tenth best movie this year is really not saying much but it’s better than 28 other movies and Mama deserves that much.
Elysium was a profoundly disappointing movie that I remember fondly solely because of my own projections. I love that it was a movie with a cyberpunk ethos that didn’t need to be quite as slick as the things that have occupied that space for the last decade. If they made an Elysium 2 I would absolutely go and there were bonus points awarded for that.
8. Lee Daniels’ The Butler
I sort of let myself get too bogged down in having to see this rather long movie three times in a row but it shouldn’t detract from the overall quality of the film and especially the performances. The supporting cast deserves so much praise in this film for doing an awful lot and having to do it in the shadow of Oprah and Forest Whitaker. I also got more conversational mileage out of the presidential cameos than all but one bit of stunt casting all year. This film has been chased out of all the Oscar discussions I’ve heard and that’s a shame.
7. Star Trek Into Darkness
I don’t feel good about putting this movie seventh. I could make a case for it being a lot higher or a lot lower and this is a compromise that just doesn’t feel right. On one hand Star Trek as a franchise feels like it deserves more than to just be a superb dumb action movie but on the other I didn’t like it very much when it was. Zachary Quinto and Benedict Cumberbatch also probably picked this film up on their shoulders and moved it up two places on this list, they’re great.
6. Monsters University
It’s really a shame that Pixar seems to be so comfortable turning in to a house for safe sequels after a decade or so of really pushing the limits as animation outsiders. That said, Monsters Inc. was criminally underrated so anything that can put that film back in focus gets a pass from me. This is standard Pixar high production values and a winning story if a bit paint-by-numbers. I hope we someday see two consecutive years of original stories from Pixar but as long as their sequels are of this quality I can’t complain too loudly.
Oblivion was a superb character piece hiding behind the ad campaign for a sci-fi action movie. I can’t really justify my affection for this movie and I would never own it on DVD or anything but I dug it and it’s stuck with me reasonably well. It’s well below the top four movies but it’s the best of the rest.
I regret putting Wreck-It Ralph higher than Brave last year but I don’t believe I’ll regret putting Frozen this high. Frozen is the second step in a wonderful awakening Disney seems to be in the midst of right now where they can make movies starring princesses who have agency and don’t have to wait around to be saved by a man. They can’t name the film after these dashing women but I’d rather have good movies with head-scratcher titles than the other way around. If I had a daughter I would let her watch this movie with far fewer reservations than anything else in the princess genre and that should be worth something considering the nauseating force that gets pushed on little girls these days.
3. Zero Dark Thirty
Last year I put Argo third and this year I put Zero Dark Thirty in the same spot. I didn’t consult that list as I worked but it sure looks like there’s some flaw in my ranking system that makes me put critical darlings third behind popcorn-ier films. Zero Dark Thirty was good and tense and deeply disturbing. I’m not anxious for it to inspire a trend in filmmaking (apparently it’s too late to stop that) but it was a movie I wouldn’t have otherwise seen that I thoroughly enjoyed and that was the best case scenario for this whole silly venture.
2. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
I’ve gone from quite dubious to very in to this franchise. The second entry was masterfully directed and, along with some boosted production design, did a lot to bring the feeling of a bubbling revolution to the screen. It was more effective at that than the books which is remarkable when you consider the limitation of the medium. I’m excited to see the next Hunger Games film and I never would have dreamed I’d be saying that two years ago.
1. Fast & Furious 6
I just love this franchise so much. This was by a comfortable margin the most fun I’ve had in a theater in recent memory. I talk this movie up to the point that some people assumed it was some kind of weird bit I was doing. This is the best franchise in Hollywood right now and I hope with everything I have that the death of Paul Walker doesn’t fuck it up.
Arvin’s Top Ten:
1. Fast and Furious 6 - I still get emotional about this one. I don’t know what the 7th movie is gonna bring, but Furious 6 ends on such a strong and definitive note that I can compartmentalize it as a perfect moment in my life.
2. Hunger Games: Catching Fire - A MASSIVE improvement over the unpolished first. It may be the benchmark by which tentpole novel adaptations will be judged by in the future. Ender’s Game bombed and if it was a fraction of what Catching Fire was it would’ve been far more successful.
3. Monsters University - Solid storytelling, solid characters. Yes, it’s pretty disposable, but I’ll take that over pretension any day.
4. Lee Daniels’ The Butler - Yes, it hits the boilerplate historical race drama moments, but it’s funny and light and human when it could’ve wallowed in self-importance. Unlike 42.
5. Oz the Great Powerful - It’s fun and sweet. Good enough for someone who’s not much of a Wizard of Oz fan.
6. The Conjuring - That a horror movie makes this list at all is credit to this movie. There’s warmth and competence in the human characters that are usually absent in the genre. What a difference it makes.
***About Time - My wife took me to this and as a time travel movie lover it’s a little TOO vague, but it’s one of the most assured “meaning of life” stories I’ve seen in a long time. Poignant for someone settling into adulthood.
7. 2 Guns - Denzel and Mark’s chemistry just keeps this one both dark and breezy.
8. Thor: The Dark World - A refinement over the first. Marvel is settling into its house style so it doesn’t feel as special, but it ain’t broke and they respect their audience. Keep it up.
9. The Wolverine - What the first one should’ve been. Self-contained and plays with the character’s silly premise.
10. Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa - Not nearly as raucous as I really wanted it to be, but it’s a fun and disarmingly sweet outing.
First and foremost this project is done. I will not be seeing the number one movies again this year. It was a fun two years but I honestly think it starts to drive me crazy in the fall and winter and I’d really like to move on. Thanks to everyone who helped out (some of whom will be named explicitly in the posts to come) for making this so much easier than it could have been. Thank you to all my readers for making this slightly less of the bullshit vanity project it could have been. I appreciated all of your comments, likes, reflags et cetera.
I will have top and bottom ten lists up sometime in the next 24 hours and then a wrap-up post somewhere before the end of the week and hopefully some sporadic announcements after that.
I spent this week reading The Hobbit and I think I owe Peter Jackson an apology. I’ve spent over a year now accusing him of slavishly recreating a 300 page book and now that I’ve read it that definitely isn’t what he did. He took a number of really stunning liberties and I’m not just talking about the stuff I assume is covered in The Silmarillion. For example, the book has no orcs in it whereas these movies have literally been crawling with orcs. It’s not even like a simplification the book just has goblins and the movies added orcs to make things more complicated. Or maybe because they already had a good orc look from the first three movies and didn’t want it to go to waste.
This orc pack does add something to the pacing. The section of the book covered in the movie takes months and months whereas I can make a compelling argument that it’s two days in the movie. That let’s them really push the impending deadline to get to the mountain and the danger rushing behind them. It also provides a lot of real necessary action beats. Really necessary action beats for a trilogy of three hour movies not necessary for a reasonable movie based on the actual source material.
I do want to recognize a section of the movie that I didn’t appreciate on first viewing but was the highlight of my third viewing. The scenes of the company getting lost in Mirkwood is some of Jackson’s best work. The way he conveys the confusion they’re experiencing and the terror that comes with being lost in a magical woods is very effective. This is Jackson’s horror roots showing and it should come as no surprise as the horror-esque sequences were also exceptional in The Two Towers and King Kong. It would be nice to see him return to that kind of filmmaking but I can’t imagine that’s in the cards.
Arvin’s Take: That could have been worse, given how the first two went. At one point I said to myself, “hey, I’m not the least bit sleepy.” Then I realized that was 20 minutes into the movie and five minutes later I was dozing for about half an hour. Stayed awake the rest of the time though, so there’s that!
I just found out that Tauriel the elven captain of the guard and love interest for Legolas and Kili is a character made up by Peter Jackson. I’m completely furious. I thought I was watching one man’s overindulgent adaptation of an admittedly expansive mythos but that’s not the case. I’m watching Peter Jackson’s motherfucking fan fiction.
It’s not even good fan fiction, it falls in to the trap of doping something that already exists in canon but making your original character better at it somehow. Sure Legolas and Gimli conquer their shared prejudices to become comrades-in-arms and close friends but Tauriel and Kili got over their cultural prejudices and wanted to bang and they did it decades earlier. Moreover, Legolas witnessed the whole thing so his cool thing was probably influenced by what Tauriel did, truly Tauriel is the coolest elf of all time. I hear she was also the youngest elf to ever be accepted to Starfleet Academy.
I’m really beyond done with this overindulgent franchise. By that I mean it’s probably going to win next weekend and I’ll end the year on a decided down note. Merry Christmas everyone.
Arvin’s Take: Somehow I left the 2D screening of Desolation of Smaug with a headache almost as bad as when I saw it in HFR 3D. And that’s when I had the luxury of sleeping through an hour of the film. Fuck you Peter Jackson and your opening shot cameo.
In Peter Jackson’s attic there must be a painting of him making more and more concise films.
I covered at great length last year how bloated I thought the first Hobbit film was and this one is no better. It’s very long and, for a movie with a dragon in the title, it takes an awfully long time to get that dragon on screen. Jackson is still obsessed with covering every detail of this story in agonizing detail and that’s made worse this time around because the characters are exclusively occupying spaces where no one is having a good time. The towns are bleak, the characters are morose and even the woods are drab. There’s just nothing to feel good about in this movie.
I saw this movie in High Frame Rate 3D and (unlike Arvin) saw it stone cold sober and it still made my eyes hurt. It also continues to make the effects look cheap in places. In this movie about two-thirds of the way in there’s a scene in the snow and the snow overlay looked awfully flat and just laid on top of the action. It looked like when an animated show puts a snow effect on their opening credits. Peter Jackson is an accomplished visual filmmaker and to see him sacrifice himself on the altar of this questionable new process takes a lot of the scarce crumbs of enjoyment away from this film.
They say that when you love something you love it for what’s good about it so strongly that it covers up the bad things but once you turn on something the bad things stand out so strongly they make you unable to see the good that used to be there. As someone who loved the original Lord of the Rings films I feel like I’ve hit that turning point with Jackson’s adaptations of Tolkien. The sequences with Smaug are fantastic and if I hadn’t sat through close to five hours of these two movies to get to them I probably would have enjoyed them a great deal. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case and I couldn’t recommend this movie to anyone no matter how well those sequences work. I honestly couldn’t imagine what would get me out to see the third movie in this series and that’s a tragic development in my relationship with this series and this filmmaker.
Arvin’s Take: A combination of a hangover, venturing out wearing contacts with no sunglasses, and high framerate 3D basically meant I left The Desolation of Smaug with the biggest headache ever, and that’s not accounting for the movie itself. You can tell the people involved CARE about making this movie, but whatever joy and passion might be there was absolutely lost in translation. For the first half I would frequently close my eyes just to take a break from the framerate and then for the last half I was struggling to keep stay awake, and throughout my eyes were kind of just glazed over. As a viewer it felt like watching someone ELSE play a video game for three hours.
I wasn’t sure what to expect coming in to Frozen given that I had no familiarity with the the source material, given the title I wasn’t even sure what the source material was. After a cursory bit of research it turns out Disney had no familiarity with the source material either because the story they put on screen has almost no relation to Hans Christian Andersen’s. This is probably a better story but after all the hubbub about changing the title to be more gender neutral Disney probably would have been well-served by just saying “we changed it because we changed every other damn thing about this story” they then could have made some obscene gestures while pantomiming having sex with Andersen’s corpse. I mean, his heirs already have the money right? This was more of a diversion than I intended it to be; probably time to talk about the movie.
Frozen is comfortably the best animated film I’ve seen this year. It takes this title from Monsters University by having more nuanced relationships and a plot with a little more finesse. I especially enjoyed that the act of true love required to save Anna was performed by Anna herself which is a very proactive change from the traditional Disney princesses. She also uses her act of true love to save her sister and not to kiss a boy and i liked that change of pace as well. It didn’t hurt the love story but it helped make the women in this story in to far more complete characters. Does it suck that there are only two women in this story? Sure but at least they did the most with what they had. Also, some of those trolls sure sounded like women but I’m not ready to start assigning gender to rock monsters.
I wish the music was better. ”Let it Go” is a fantastic song easily the equal of other big time Disney musical songs but it’s kind of on an island. Every other song were lacking. ”Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” could and should have been a great song establishing the relationships between the sisters but the choruses are asymmetric in a way that really bugs me and I doubt anyone who saw the movie in the last two weeks is humming it to themselves today. The rest of the songs are utterly forgettable, I just read the list on Wikipedia and couldn’t remember a single melody.
Because this is a Disney film I find it important to think about legacy. It’s obvious they want to move Anna in to the Disney princess pantheon and while I’m not a young girl I found Elsa to be the far more compelling character. She doesn’t get a love story but she gets better clothes and a castle made of ice and “Let it Go” (which I’ve already gushed about) is probably the greatest boss bitch song in Disney history. It’s common for the villain to upstage the hero in Disney movies but Elsa isn’t really a villain and I hope she gets her long term marketing due. If I were to ever have a daughter I would want her to have that choice to emulate. I hope that hypothetical daughter isn’t too let down by the fact that I’m pretty sure I’m incapable of making her blonde.
Arvin’s Take: Frozen aims for nuance more than any other Disney animated feature before it, and Idina Menzel’s Elsa may be the most complex Disney character ever. Frozen deserves credit for that, it really does. But it inevitably trips over its own over-qualifying and falls short of its reach; the two sisters spend so much time apart (and Anna spends too much time worrying about boys) that their relationship fails as the story’s focal point.
Really, in almost every way (other than thematic ambition) Frozen falls short of the criminally underrated Tangled which, especially next to Frozen, holds up even better.
Adapting books in to movies is really hard. I’m not covering new ground by saying that. Part of what makes it hard is showing the passage of time. It can be tricky when all you have is a couple hours of quickly flickering images to get all your stuff across. What struck me in my second viewing of Catching Fire is just how badly they deal with that problem in this film and how that might be the only flaw in an otherwise excellent movie (next week I will almost certainly have found more flaws).
This story must take place over months right? It starts with Katniss and Peeta touring the districts as the winners of The Hunger Games. That can’t be that long after the games right? I would have figured almost immediately but the internet tells me it’s six months later to kind of keep the spirit alive all year. We will eventually be in this place with Christmas. It’ll last all year and 23 people will die on Black Friday.
So, the film ends with another games and we know those are annual events so this is a six month story but it seems to take no time at all. When Katniss leaves on her tour she says she’ll be back before the snow starts to melt but every time the movie goes to District 12 it looks like there’s snow on the ground. I get that it’s a two and a half hour movie already and that montages of seasons changing or whatever they would have done to show that time would only have made the film longer but it seems clear that the movie jumps several months at one point and doesn’t say anything and that’s really weird.
One more thing that really got me the second time was the dress Effie wears at the reaping scene that appears to be dozens of monarch butterflies is just fantastic. I just love the Capitol fashions and that was the best example. It’s a hard line for science-fiction to feel out there and plausible and that hit it for me. Really well done,
Arvin’s Take: Not having read the books proves a serious disadvantage during a second viewing because that’s when you’re supposed to see all the little references you missed the first time around, which is useless when you don’t know what you’re looking for. But, while I was struggling to stay awake about right before they got inside the arena, the movie still deserves credit for its impeccable editing, which does a magnificent job of keeping the tension up and letting the characters breathe during the slower moments. It’s a very tough line to tread, as we saw in Ender’s Game, which just whizzed by to little emotional effect.
I respected the first Hunger Games film. It was a great adaptation of an ok book. That was a respect given to it after a Stockholm-syndrome-inducing four theatrical screenings. There was none of that needed this time, Catching Fire is a fantastic film. Well, that or I’m still brainwashed from last time but it’s probably actually good.
I often criticized Twilight for being bloated and joyless and on the surface you could probably say the same things about Catching Fire. It’s a 146 minute behemoth of a film that’s chiefly about pain, suffering, deceit, and despair. That doesn’t sound particularly enjoyable on the surface but they really wring all the whimsy they can out of it and it helps that the cast is exceptional. They aren’t all winners but the Jennifer Lawrence/Josh Hutcherson nucleus is rock solid and letting them be orbited by Woody Harrelson, Stanley Tucci, Elizabeth Banks, and Donald Sutherland works forwards and backwards. Philip Seymour Hoffman is new to the cast and shines in limited time and I was overjoyed to have the tragically underrated Jeffrey Wright join the cast.
There’s also a general technical proficiency to the film that dazzles me. It looks good, it sounds great. It’s a very long movie that doesn’t feel very long at all. I don’t know if that’s editing or directing but whoever it is deserves all the credit in the world. I’m also quite impressed with the costuming. I know the Academy always gives the costuming Oscar to some slavishly done period piece but could we just consider giving it to the freaky futuristic movie? I’m not even talking about the way out there prom dress style things but there’s an incredible consistency to the world and I kept noticing how the outfits helped there.
I can’t believe I just said a 146 minute movie that I’m going to have to see at least three times “didn’t feel very long.” I am going to regret that statement.
Arvin’s Take: Catching Fire succeeds as a film in almost every way that its predecessor fell short. It may well be the best-directed movie I’ve seen so far this year, while I put the previous film in the bottom half of my list last year. Catching Fire is in fact so effective that I was personally disturbed through much of the film at how much I was spirited away by the fake drama and slick violence from the comfort of my reserved Arclight seat as the movie hammered me with its treatise against using drama and violence as a means of distracting the masses from society’s true ills.
Wow, who saw the strong opening from The Best Man Holiday coming? It totally ruined my ability to see movies this weekend. I’ve been afraid of mediocre African-American comedies for almost two years (because of the Madea franchise which looks like just the worst thing in the world) and then one finally made a good charge and it didn’t look that bad. Perhaps I’ve been afraid for no reason. A coward dies a thousand deaths but a brave man dies but once. That said, I would rather die a thousand times than see a Madea movie.
The rough edges of Thor: The Dark World smooth out in a second viewing. I cringed all the way through the human scenes the first time but the second time I got a pronounced Ghostbusters vibe from them. They say a lot of science-y words and then do nothing that even resembles science while doing some schtick. Comedy gold! Natalie Portman is still the worst one in this analogy because she’s not particularly funny about it. I’m also not super psyched about having to compare Kat Dennings to Bill Murray but here we are.
Other than that I’m sorry to report that Thor: The Dark World is just not a strong enough film. The high points aren’t high enough, the action beats are a little boring and get worse and worse as the movie goes on. The fantasy crossed with sci-fi aesthetic for Asgard doesn’t really do it for me when Thor is fighting people on horses at the beginning and elves in spaceships at the end and seems to have similar levels of difficulty with both. Aside from Loki I’m never going to be in love with this franchise.
Arvin’s Take: Nothing much changed after the second viewing of Thor 2: some things were made more clear, and there were even fewer surprises. Credit really must go to the movie’s sense of humor and levity because as I mentioned before, the nonsense with the Aether amounted to little more than a Natalie Portman red hair dye commercial. But all the gags surrounding the climax were just as fun the second time around.