My 2013 at the Movies, Part 2 of 2: the Year’s Least Worst

Matt Damon, Elysium

The Bourne Upgrade. District 18. Green Zone 3000. Good Will Exploding. And so on, and so on.

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:

Once again January is National List Month, that magical time of year when everyone’s last twelve months of existence must be dehydrated, crammed into enumerated little packets, and lined up on the shelf in subjective order for re-inspection. The final tabulations reveal I saw twenty-five films in theaters in 2013 and one via On Demand while it was still in limited art-house release…

And now, the countdown concludes:

13. Elysium. Some say the 99%-vs.-1% feud will end in negotiations; some say in explosions. Neill Blomkamp’s sophomore extrapolation of the effect of humanity’s self-hatred on its own future stops asking questions halfway through and solves nearly everything with chases and showdowns between Matt Damon’s everyman underdog imperfect sinner Average Joe antihero and Sharlto Copley’s cyborg Snidely Whiplash. In some respects this deserved to be ranked a lot lower, but something about Blomkamp’s vivid underclass aesthetic and leftover District 9 effects cachet boosted it a tad unfairly over the other popcorn-film competition.

12. The Wolverine. I was excited by the notion of a film adaptation of the classic 1982 Chris Claremont/Frank Miller Wolverine miniseries. In that miniseries, Wolverine goes to Japan, confronts his past, looks cool, and shines when other superhumans aren’t around cluttering up the place. Because that’s not allowed in modern super-hero stories (comics or film), eventually Viper and Silver Samurai show up minus anything I ever liked about the duo as a kid, joined at the end by the most ludicrous Final Boss of the year. Up until that point, The Wolverine went a long way toward repenting for most of the sins of X-Men Origins: Wolverine and X-Men: the Last Stand. I’d love to see a Director’s Cut that deletes all the Viper/Samurai scenes.

11. Iron Man 3. For a few hours I was convinced this existential cautionary tale about midlife crisis and/or PTSD was the greatest Marvel film of all time. Then the buzz wore off and I realized it may merely have been the greatest Shane Black film of all time. Then I noticed how the first Lethal Weapon has become retroactively underrated and I decided this glossy, airheaded, nonetheless rollicking contraption deserved to be called the greatest something of all time. Then the plot holes kept growing and looming in my mind and threatened to consume my entire perception of the film, and yet I can’t bring myself to hate it, so I’m drawing a line in the sand and my sliding-scale devaluation stops here, even though the ending basically ruins Iron Man’s movie career. But what a party-hearty ruination it was.

10. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. The conclusion to the first half of the movie quadrilogy based on the book trilogy that only ripped off Japan’s Battle Royale for its first installment before it diverged at the point where its victims started changing the world instead of merely enduring it. Watching rebellion foment on a gradual scale becomes an ambitious through-line for a two-hour post-apocalyptic flick, and the cliffhanger punched me a little harder here than in the book for some reason, but the Quarter Quell dropped any pretense of metaphor and failed to impress with any number of vague natural threats. If there had to be a perfunctory action climax, why not let the evil Tributes give Our Heroes more of a hand-to-hand workout? As movie villains go, insect swarms and poison gas clouds have terribly bland personalities.

Gypsy Danger, Pacific Rim

What the world needs now is a 36-inch Gypsy Danger action figure that can rise up and crush all other toys.

9. Pacific Rim. Giant robots. Giant monsters. Deeply satisfying world-smashing sound effects cranked up to 15. Saving the best weapons in the arsenal for last, just like Voltron. Boss fights that escalate for no other reason than that’s what boss fights do. If I’d seen this at age twelve, I never would’ve needed another movie for the rest of my life. If only the character bits had been a little less creaky (except for Idris Elba’s Independence Day HECK YEAH pep-rally address), this would’ve reached my Top 5. Regardless, I expect this will someday become one of those movies where I must freeze in my tracks whenever I run across it while channel-flipping, because seriously jaw-dropping giant robots versus giant monsters.

8. Monsters University. Two animated monsters teach kids that you can succeed at life even without a college degree. In today’s culture that’s possibly the most subversive Pixar moral ever. Honestly, I had to suppress an urge to stand up and cheer at the end. Also, for some reason Billy Crystal annoyed me less this time around, so that’s worth points.

7. The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug. Whenever you try to cram an adaptation into a box and insist it can contain only what you permit it to contain, you’re predestining disappointment. Yes, yes, we all know The Hobbit was only three hundred pages that Rankin-Bass had no problem cramming into 77 primitively animated minutes back in the disco era. Is there a law against even trying to expand the canvas? Peter Jackson’s brazen experiment to upconvert Bilbo Baggin’s modest quest into a grand-scale epic resulted in a Part One overstuffed with setup and slavish Lord of the Rings callbacks for the fans, but Part Two is pedal-to-the-metal encounter-after-encounter high adventure just like all the best Dungeons & Dragons modules ever, except Martin Freeman and the Voice of Cumberbatch outperform any Dungeon Master who ever oversaw your campaigns. Mind you, that simple two-word title seems awfully irrelevant for a trilogy of this scope, but it’s too late to stuff that flaw back into Pandora’s box.

6. Deceptive Practice: the Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay. A pleasant documentary about the lives of stage magician Ricky Jay and his biggest influences, testifying firsthand how manual dexterity, sleight-of-hand, misdirection, and good ol’-fashioned charm are all the special effects a real entertainer needs to bedazzle an audience. ‘Twas a welcome, radical departure from 90% of the rest of this list, and a reminder of how sorely I wish the nearest art-house theater weren’t twenty miles away.

Olaf, Josh Gad, Disney's Frozen

Oh, Olaf. You and your naive dreams of vacationing in the Bahamas…

5. Frozen. Although the trailers bored me, Frozen surpassed my expectations by several orders of magnitude. Although the two main characters are female, I certainly didn’t feel alienated or outraged that Disney dared to aim beyond a spoiled-male audience. Although no one told me in advance it was a musical, “Let It Go” and Olaf’s hilarious ditty were sturdy additions to the Disney song library. Although I feared this would end up on the bottom of the heap with Chicken Little and Home on the Range, Frozen just wouldn’t stop confounding me in all the right ways.

4. Much Ado About Nothing. No, I didn’t just like this because of Joss Whedon’s name, but it didn’t exactly cripple its chances, either. My wife and I both enjoyed a date night watching Shakespeare’s original words brought to resplendent life by a talented troupe with an elegant production design, dressed up in arty black-and-white for artiness’ sake, all for the simple reason that Joss and his friends just felt like it. When other actor/director cliques get together to make movies for self-amusement, all we get are direct-to-video sequels.

3. Gravity. Two big-name actors plus an all-CG backdrop, and literally nothing else, should add up to a vanity project at best. Somehow Alfonso Cuaron defied the odds, dug more deeply, and orchestrated something both majestic and harrowing, awe-inspiring and heart-tugging, dizzying and humbling. (This, I think, was better off as a ninety-minute done-in-one pop single than as a trilogy.)

2. Gravity “IMAX” 3-D. Did I forget to mention I was so bowled over that I saw it a second time in IMAX 3-D? Even though I loathe 3-D as a general rule? And yet…I found my excuse when another relative said she was dying to see it. Unfortunately it turned out to be one of those fake IMAX setups where the screen is maybe 5% larger than a normal movie screen and I’m thoroughly unclear how they were allowed to stamp this pretender with the IMAX label. (Indianapolis has at least two real IMAX theaters for which I can personally vouch. This lemon was neither of those.) That being said: at 5% larger and in 3-D, Gravity becomes the rare film that takes advantage of the format, in the manner of Avatar and Hugo, and creates an immersive canvas where the action truly inhabits the entire environment instead of spending ninety minutes pretending to gouge you in the eye.

Michael B.  Jordan, Ariana Neal, Fruitvale Station

Dear Academy: When voting this year, please try to remember further back than October, won’t you?

1. Fruitvale Station. I award quadruple bonus points to movies that elicit the strongest emotional reactions from me. $300 million corporate guaranteed blockbusters rarely accomplish this. After spending a typical day with ordinary guy Oscar Grant — neither a teacher’s pet nor a thug — knowing how his tragic true story ended didn’t soften the impact of the moment when his loved ones lost him forever. The day-in-the-life episodic structure, the attention to quotidian detail, the cast who never once gave the impression of Important Acting, an exceedingly rare moment of gathering in prayer — everything about Fruitvale Station should have failed and consigned it to made-for-TV purgatory, at least according to what Hollywood insists we should want from our movies. And yet, here we are.

So, 2013, then. See you next year!

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