Friday, January 17, 2014

My Best Movies of 2013 on Cinema Knife Fight

Originally published in Cinema Knife Fight, January 16, 2014

So it’s that time again, a new year and the obligatory review of the best films of 2013, in this reviewer’s humble opinion, at least those I got to see. Most are genre films… actually, all of them are science fiction. It wasn’t a huge year for seeing horror movies in my little world. Saw a few, but they weren’t good enough to make the Best Of list. Of non-genre films, if I had seen 12 YEARS A SLAVE, like my wife and lots of others did, it would have likely made the list based on their reaction but, alas, I missed this one. So for the Big 10 of the year….
1. ENDER’S GAME. I’ve been looking forward to seeing this on the big screen since I fell in love with Orson Scott Card’s Hugo-winning novel back in the 80s. It probably needed to wait until now, to do justice to the battle room scenes. Maybe not, though, because the battle room was only a small part of it. The story, and the film, centers solely on young Andrew “Ender” Wiggins, and how he deals with becoming a reluctant leader of a band of kids recruited as the future mind of the military against a race of hostile aliens. Great performances all around by the cast and writers, and a visually stunning movie. 

2. DOCTOR WHO: THE DAY OF THE DOCTOR. This film is actually a television special simulcast on the various BBC channels and in selected theaters around the world as a homage to the 50th anniversary of everyone’s favorite Time Lord. The series started the year I was born and is only getting better. Back for one more go at it is David Tenant along with (then) current lead Matt Smith, with another incarnation of The Doctor played with quiet humor by the genre’s favorite character actor, John Hurt. The story was entertaining and, blessedly, low on the over-the-top melodrama that the show has unfortunately fallen into lately. The 3D was gorgeous, having been actually shot in it, not simply converted to 3D. Saw it with my daughter Audrey and we both enjoyed the evening surrounded by a theater of fellow geeks.

3. STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS. I checked, there’s no colon in the title. J.J.Abrams’ newest foray into the rebooted Trek franchise delivered a tense, action-packed story about a lone, superhuman terrorist attacking targets in the Federation and Kirk’s personal vendetta to catch him. The revelation that the baddie, played by Benedict Cumberbach with his usual dark monotone (which I like), is Khan, was no surprise to any of us Trekkies, but the twists and turns in the story made you wonder who to root for, and it was interesting how the story played against the previous Khan film (STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN, 1982), even if it was a little forced. Hopefully as this series’ “timeline” progresses the filmmakers won’t feel obligated to recycle old storylines and venture where no script has gone before.
4. THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE. This big screen adaption of the second in the Hunger Games book series is, dare I say, almost perfect in its adaptation. So perfect, of course, that there were no surprises in the plot if you’ve read the book. Unlike the first film, where they had to pull many elements from the screenplay to keep the movie within a reasonable timeframe, this one kept to the book scene to scene. Everyone in the cast was spot on and seemed to enjoy their roles. I will be very interested how they do the final film (or films, as I hear they’re doing the usual “make the last book into two movies” stunt). It you haven’t read the book, you’ll still enjoy this film. Just be sure to watch the first one, as this picks up right from there with no recapping.
5. GRAVITY. Yep, I’m on the “GRAVITY was such a cool movie” train. Granted, many people probably figured Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as astronauts stranded in orbit around the Earth was a bit much, but were delighted when it ended up being a brilliant film, but that shouldn’t detract from the truth: it is a brilliant science fiction film. The human drama parts were there, and to be honest this underlying plotline was just OK, not overly necessary, though I admit it was interesting following a woman who thinks she has nothing to live for forced to fight for her life in the vacuum of space. Visually—wow. Beautiful. And any explosions in space were silent as they should be. If you ever get a chance to see this in 3D, do it.

6. THE HOBBIT: DESOLATION OF SMAUG. Saw this just under the wire, a couple of days after Christmas. So far I’ve been enjoying the series by Ring-meister Peter Jackson. We watched the 3D version and it was very cool to look at, especially with the long-awaited Bilbo-Smaug scene. Again, a lot of additional storyline is added to the film, culling from other Tolkien sources and more obscure writings, but underlying all is the original Hobbit tale (minus the fight with Smaug in the cave with the dwarves, which was a bit over the top and way off script from the original).

7. THE WORLD’S END. Light, stupid and funny as all hell, this comedy about five friends who decide to reenact their last high-school bar crawl decades later in their home town only to find that it has been invaded by robots is a clever, action-packed buddy comedy. It’s also violent as hell, especially as the story progresses. In a way, it’s kind of like a melding of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s previous two “Three Flavors Cornetto” (the ice cream eaten or referenced in all three films and the only real connection between them) films: SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2004) and HOT FUZZ (2007). The buddy comedy of SHAUN mixed with the “Something’s Not Right In This Small English Town” of HOT FUZZ. I laughed a lot, as I did with the other two movies

8. THE WOLVERINE. Saw this at the drive-in on vacation with my two daughters and, granted, my expectations were only so-so after the so-so X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE (2009), but I was very pleasantly surprised by this film. Plenty of action, smart plot and good acting. I’m also a sucker for good Asian Martial Arts films, and this was a good blending of the two genres.

9. MAN OF STEEL. Yep, I liked this one. I’m still disappointed they just HAD to do another origin story for Superman, but at least they got through it fairly quickly before bringing us to Clark Kent as a loner working in obscure places around the country (much like Hugh Jackman’s character in #8 above), but I get it because they had to explain who these bad guys from Krypton were. This, of course, is a remake of SUPERMAN II (1980), probably the best of the old Reeve-starring Superman movies back in the day. The mood was dark and the soundtrack gorgeous. I enjoyed the acting in this one as well. Missed seeing Jimmy Olson (OK, no, not really). Only drawback is it’s a friggin’ violent film. They destroy half of Metropolis and implicitly half of the city’s population in the long battle scenes, but it was a cool superhero movie.
10. WORLD WAR Z. This movie grips you from the opening scene and doesn’t let go. Granted, because it never lets go there was a point near the end of the second third of the movie where you start to get inured to so much mayhem. I thought the part with Israel and their rebuilt wall was very clever. The final third slows down a lot and becomes more like, say, THE WALKING DEAD (2010 – present),in that we’re down to a few people fighting their way through a military complex against a handful of zombies with the fate of the world in their hands. The ending was OK, not perfect, but it worked and did not detract from the enjoyment of the film. (Caveat: I never read the book, so I don’t know how well it stuck to the source material.)

I had to keep it to 10, but I should give some Honorable Mentions to the following films released in ’13 (in order of Dan enjoyment): OBLIVION, PACIFIC RIM (these first two almost made the top 10), THE HEAT, SAVING MR. BANKS, LORE, THE WAY WAY BACK, THOR: THE DARK WORLD, OZ: THE GREAT AND POWERFUL and IRON MAN 3.

Special nod to the absolute worst film of the year: A HAUNTED HOUSE. It was so terrible I stopped it 30 minutes in after trying to fast-forward to any funny parts. There were none.

Finally, there were some incredibly wonderful films from 2012 that I did not get to see until 2013, and if I had watched them earlier they would have been candidates for that year’s top 10: HITCHCOCK, CLOUD ATLAS, THE SESSIONS, THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER, with a special nod to JACK REACHER, which I thought was very good, even if Tom Cruise is about a foot shorter than the title character from the novel series.

© Copyright 2014 by Daniel G. Keohane