The Best and the Worst of 2013
2013 marked another year of Hollywood mediocrity. Bloated blockbusters, overdosed on grimdarkness, infinite sequels, and a plethora of attempts to launch the next Harry Potter or Twilight franchise clogged the theaters all year long. That is not say there weren’t any good movies out of the studios this year, but they were the exception to the rule of the suck.
I’m going to add a disclaimer here: I am only rating and listing movies and albums that I’ve listened to. I missed Gravity, I missed your favorite Slovakian art film. I can only critique what I’ve experienced. Based on the films I’ve seen, here’s the highs and the lows of 2013:
1. The Lone Ranger– A film so bad that it retroactively ruined Johnny Depp’s body of work. I tried watching Sleepy Hollow again and an apparition of Tonto making funny faces appeared. A colossal, thoroughly dull crapfest of bad CGI and cynicism. I hope it somehow haunts Disney like a curse, a Song of the South for our times, grimly flitting around.
2. Planes – Speaking of accursed Disney projects….the thoroughly dull Planes made us believe that you could achieve your dreams, provided that you’re an asshole willing to undergo illicit surgical modifications in Mexico. A timeless message for all ages. I hope this movie does not get distributed abroad, as it would no doubt inspire young children to attempt to shoot down airplanes as a general principle.
3. Student- Haven’t heard of this one? Well with film-making like this, I don’t expect people to be discussing the merits of Kazakhstan cinema. A plodding, lifeless reprise of Doesteyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Student is a throwback to the worst dogmas of Soviet film-making. Excruciatingly dull. Stick to potassium exports and being confused with Krygyzstan, Kazakhstan.
4. Grown Ups 2– I saw this film on a plane for free and I wanted my money back. I wanted my day back. I wanted a whole alternate history of November 2013, sans Grown-Ups 2. People call my generation immature, but who are the ones still re-living the glories of bad 80s frat comedies?
5. This is the End– Well it’s good to know that white people can mess up the Abrahams-Zucker comedy formula just as well as the Wayans brothers can. I have two theories to explain this film: (a) Columbia Pictures forced Seth Rogan to write a mirror film to To the End of the World at gunpoint and on 48 hours notice; (b) Satan exacted his price for Rogan and Franco’s cinematic success by forcing them to make a film that undid everything they previously achieved. Self-indulgent, aimlessly profane, and an extended advertisement.
6. The Fifth Estate– I wonder who they will get to play Ed Snowden, no doubt as a psychotic egomaniac, in some biopic on the Prism scandal. Less a chronicle of the times and more a passive aggressive hate note from an impotent establishment, The Fifth Estate posits Julian Assange as an insecure weirdo undone by narcissism and paranoia. It’s another film in the sub-genre of ‘Hollywood films that are utterly clueless about computers’, and it will no doubt nestle in a squalid cubby of shame alongside prior anti-luminaries such as Hackers and The Net.
7. Red 2– The second decade of the 21st century will be a shameful period. Where once old stars were allowed to go out in isolation, we will see the same old action stars, hobbling forth to do kung fu with their walkers, poisoning opponents with their blood thinner medications, and turning self-defecation into an advantage against younger, fitter opponents. The Baby Boomers will be roaring their importance and potence until the end, trembling with their dual Desert Eagles. At long last, Norma Desmond is proven a prophet; the films have gotten small.
8. The Hobbit 2– Continuing the fail parade, we have another movie that embodies another awful trend debasing Hollywood: the video game movie. I like video games, I like movies, and I even like some movies based around video games. But just as I like to keep my scotch separate from my beer, so too do I like things to exist as their own. The Hobbit 2 is a soul-less white water rapids ride that shows contempt for the deeper themes and ideas of the source material.
9. The Purge– There was a good opportunity with this film. It could have been an acidic social commentary about gated communities and class warfare. Instead, it was all over the place, never settling on the tone or a pace. Ethan Hawke was wooden, and the film managed to make a fresh idea hackneyed with predictable turns. We only seem to get bad remakes of good remakes, but I think a smart director could actually make something really funny and brilliant from the premises of The Purge.
10. Riddick– Few films this year managed to achieve a combination of building a good amount of suspense and then utterly annihilating any positive capital with the audience. On it’s own, the first third of Riddick is a terrific film- a nearly wordless Robinson Crusoe on an extremely hostile planet. But once the bounty hunters arrive planet-side, it’s as if director David Twohy had a stroke and became possessed by the ghost of Steven Segal. No interesting characters, a protagonist who is skilled and savvy to the point of being godlike, and therefore hateable, and no real challenges.
1. The Congress – a luscious and original film that exists at the pinnacle of animation and science fiction, this adaptation of a Stanislaw Lem novel was the most breathtaking and challenging film that I have seen this year. Visually engrossing, a completely modern reflection of the anxieties of our times, positing a future dystopia arising out of the likes of Apple and Facebook.
2. 12 Years a Slave– Though it may seem like straight-forward Oscar-bait misery porn, 12 Years a Slave stands out because of two things that are handled well. The first is that it shows how slavery degrades Solomon Northup not only through obvious oppression but also through subtle, even positive means. Northup faces not only white pressure to act like a slave, but also from the conventions of the black society on the plantations. The other thing that makes this film original and terrific is how it shows that slavery dehumanizes everybody involved in the system, by forcing people to assume certain roles. Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, and Lupita Nyong’o all turn in searing, unforgettable performances. A searing emetic to the consoling comfort food that was last year’s Lincoln and Django Unchained.
3. Captain Phillips– Paul Greengrass has made a lean, harsh crime thriller that never slows down and ratchets up the tension, a more suspenseful film than any other to come out this year. Tom Hanks, as usual, turns in an engaging and complete performance; his acting is matched by Barkhad Abdi as Muse, the pirate leader.
4. Pacific Rim– Giant robots punching alien dinosaurs. Giant robots punching alien dinosaurs! If you can’t get enthused by that statement, then go move to Antarctica, because you will never have a place in America, and you’ve probably done unspeakable things with your inner child prior to burying it in a parking lot. Guillermo Del Toro’s tragically under-performing summer popcorn movie was a clever, funny, exciting monster marathon, supported on a bedrock of inspiring actors (Idris Elba especially), with wonderful visuals. While it is a sad indicia of my life that few things this year brought me as much happiness as watching this film on an IMAX screen, my point stands. The best raw entertainment to come out of Hollywood in 2013.
5. American Hustle– It can be tempting to say that David Russell is merely running with the Martin Scorcese playbook in this film about late 70s con artists entrapping the American dream for the benefit of the FBI. Certainly, the film piles on a few too many musical numbers, and Amy Adams is showing off way to much cleavage for 1979 fashion. But that ignores the genius of the script in playing every character against every other character. Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, and Christian Bale all turn in great performances. I think it would be more accurate to compare this film (favorably) with The Sting, rather than Goodfellas. It may have the look of Goodfellas, but the plot is smarter, more nimble, and more surprising.
6. Lords of Salem– Rob Zombie has turned in an artsy, beautiful horror film that compares ably to The Ninth Gate and The Omen. It is a bloody flower of a film, more expressionistic than terrifying, reminding me strongly of Matthew Barney’s The Cremaster Cycle. A film more atmospheric than suspenseful, The Lords of Salem still comes in as the most interesting horror film of 2013.
7. Mud– I underestimated Jeff Nichols’ sleepy Southern gothic on my first viewing. I suffered from great expectations in May, anticipating that this film would be one of the merely good films, overshadowed by later releases. But on reviewing this film, it is a classic of the Southern gothic, mostly because of the cinematography and the quality of child actors Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland. It’s a beautiful, dark, coming of age story about learning to recognize and accept the ambiguities of the human condition.
8. El Fantastico Mundo De Juan Orol– This Mexican comedy about the king of Mexican B-Movies really is a window onto a fantastical world. What set it apart from Ed Wood is the way that the film is premised through Orol’s narcissistic and delusional interpretation of his pathetic career. In so doing, we get to know and accept the power and beauty of even the most risible of dreams, and see how determination and inventiveness in the service of madness can lead to an amazing life. Roberto Sosa really carries the charm of this quixotic character.
9. Antarctica: A Year On Ice- Anthony Powell’s documentary is a throw-back in some ways to the exploration documentaries of the 1960s. There’s a lot of shots of seals and penguins. But what really makes the film work is the breath-taking shots of the aurora australis and the constellations. Also, the film is fascinating in the study of the community of the scientist who work at McMurdo station, and the culture that arises among the people living in this high-stress, isolated, and intellectual environment. A wondrous travelogue, best experienced in IMAX if possible.
10. Rush– It’s a pity that Ron Howard’s best film since Apollo 13 was so heavily overlooked by the public. It’s one of the best car racing films ever made, a blood pressure raising study of celebrity and rivalry. Pacific Rim may have been more fun, Captain Phillips was more tense, but Rush was the most adrenalizing film of the year. If you ever hear about Rush being shown on a big screen, go to see it. It will grab you and will not let go.
Mis-Estimations and Mea Culpas
Most personally over-rated: Star Trek Into Darkness– Since I’ve become more serious about film criticism, I’ve started watching a lot more films alone. That’s because good companions can raise your estimation of a film through the lens of camaraderie, just as bad company can make you under-appreciate a film. Spending an hour after the film geeking out with a semi-trekkie, I focused heavily on the strengths and the innovations of this film. It’s not truly a Trek film but rather a modern action film with the external trappings and verbage of Trek film. In review, this film bears a lot of the worst characteristics of 2013- cynicism, excessive computer graphics, and an indifference to destruction and collateral damage. It is interesting in that it’s the second Star Trek movie where the Enterprise crew has failed disastrously though. Maybe there should be another re-boot: what sane planet would ever allow Chris Pine command again, after San Francisco has been razed to the ground? When I say that the Pine/Quinto Enterprise is the worst ever, I’m not criticizing the actors; but compared to any other crew in the Star Trek cannon, they have failed more completely than any other crew. But as General Chang once said, “who today remembers the Vulcans?”.
Most personally under-rated: The World’s End. This is still the weak end of the Cornetto trilogy of Wright/Frost/Pegg comedies. It isn’t as scathing and insightful a deconstruction of the genre tropes as Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz. But it is still a darker, more somber examination of the perils and charms of nostalgia and clinging to one’s youth. I’d argue that The World’s End really works better when viewed as a book-end to Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. Consider Pegg’s Gary King as the negative example to Michael Cera’s Scott Pilgrim, an example of Scott’s future had he not matured and developed as a human being. It’s hard to make a comedy about sobriety and rehabilitation, because drunks are funnier to watch. But Edgar Wright and co. are still trying to make new cinematic dialogues, and that’s praiseworthy. Criticizing The World’s End for not matching the heights of Shaun of the Dead is like panning Robin Hood: Men in Tights for not being as good as Young Frankenstein. It’s still a good comedy, it’s just not revolutionary.
Music: Best 10 Albums of the Year
1. Savages, Silence Yourself- Coming out of London is this thrilling post-punk tour of London’s backside, a squall of aggressive desire and feminine anxiety. Silence Yourself is a masterpiece of post-punk- it’s the album that you wished Siouxsie Sioux had made. Comparable to early Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Au Pairs, early Siouxsie and the Banshees, and PJ Harvey’s opus To Bring You My Love. Frontwoman Jehnny Beth is phenomenal. Please, ladies, I beg you, do not follow in Karen O’s path, eschewing your guitars for keyboards. If it wasn’t for Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange last year, I’d be comfortable calling this the greatest debut album of this decade.
2. Kavinsky, Outrun– Speaking of great debuts….the first full album by Parisian electroclash DJ Kavinksy is The Pacific Rim of 2013 music, a rapid 8-bit Grand Prix race through glossy electronics, evocative of Miami Vice and Knight Rider. Tracks like ‘Nightcall‘ and ‘Protovision’ evoke an awesome world of Were-Ferraris and Ghost Riders. Consider this the soundtrack to the most awesome Sega Genesis game to never exist. A fantastic opening statement of electroclash, on par with Daft Punk’s Discovery and J.U.S.T.I.C.E.’s Cross
3. Kanye West, Yeezus- Yeah, yeah, obligatory Kardashian jokes and miscellaneous hate, whatever. Kanye’s Yeezus is one of the fiercest hip-hop albums to ever come out. I’d call it The Pretty Hate Machine of hiphop, and I think it’s going to reset the sound of emerging hip-hop in the same way as The Chronic or The Blueprint. It’s like Radiohead’s Kid A– a cold, pitiless divergence from the pre-established template of music. It hasn’t displaced Deltron 3030 or Illmatic in my short list of hip-hop favorites, but it’s an instant classic and likely a seminal album in the development of hip-hop music.
4. Holograms, Forever– The sophomore album of Swedish alternative rockers Holograms does not slow down, ramping up the energy and anthemics. It’s like a non-stop slalom through some gothic icy wonderland. More synthesizers work on this album, creating a ghostly sequel to the solemn pagan splendor of their eponymous debut album.
5. Mary Onettes, Hit the Waves– More high quality 1980s nostalgia. Hit the Waves is all icy synthesizers and harmonies, a cool beach album that could almost be taken to represent the alternate path that The Cure might have followed if they had decided to follow the sound of Erasure.
6. The Raveonettes- Observator– Scandinavia’s making some really good music right now. The Raveonettte’s do jangly, ethereal surf rock, evocative of The Magnetic Fields and Stone Roses. Very haunting melodies and lo-fi sound effects sum up to a faded yet compelling dreampop album.
7. Young Galaxy, Ultramarine. Though not as strong as Shapeshifting, Ultramarine is a confident, bouncy album of new wave tunes, comparable to Annie Lennox and the Eurythmics on their best days. Great synthpop album.
8. Haim, Days Are Gone. Looking over my selections, I realize that the dominant of the sound of 2013 might be described as ‘1987 redux’. Lots of bass and synths.
9. Superchunk, I Hate Music– there’s a plaintive lyrical backside to the high velocity pop-punk of Superchunk’s latest album. It straightforward indie rock that stays fast, clever, and slightly unpolished.
10. Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires of the City- This is a heavily over-rated album in the critical consensus. It’s good the whole way through, a maturation of sounds reminiscent of Paul Simon at his best. But it isn’t particularly new, innovative or bracing. But it’s great mid-intensity rock music, with no weak tracks. A perfect choice of a music gift for your parents or people you don’t know very well.
Over-Rated Albums of the Year
1. The Arcade Fire, Reflector- It’s just Quebecois disco.
2. Daft Punk, Random Access Memories
3. The Knife, Shaking the Habitual
4. Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires of the City