Last year was a mixed bag for movies. Aren’t they all?

by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

gravityHollywood pulled in roughly $11 billion in 2013, and that was without a single movie on the Titanic or Avatar level. So clearly, it was a good year for Tinseltown. But it certainly wasn’t perfect. A bunch of expensive films bombed badly. (Hello R.I.P.D., 47 Ronin, White House Down, The Lone Ranger and many more.) None of them were any good so that’s fair, but what they were, more or less, were original properties.

That means you should get used to more sequels, remakes and reboots in 2014. Sigh.

On the plus side, 2013 saw the return of the adult drama. A pleasing number of quality dramas hit the multiplex this past year — so many that quite a few which could’ve topped Best Of lists in years past will be on the outside looking in for 2013. (For me, one of those is 12 Years a Slave: wonderful, but simply too standard compared to groundbreakers like Gravity or Inside Llewyn Davis.)

To swipe a line from Sergio Leone, here’s the good, the bad and the ugly of movies in 2013.


UNDERDOG DAY Remember the opening line of Pump of the Volume? “Did you ever get the feeling everything in America is completely fucked up?” Apparently, many current filmmakers agree. An “against-all-odds” sentiment characterized several excellent movies this year, with a single individual fighting with all their might against far more powerful forces. Sandra Bullock vs. space in Gravity, Robert Redford vs. the sea in All Is Lost, Tom Hanks vs. desperate pirates in Captain Phillips. In each case, the films suggest the underdog just might snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. (Let’s give them another year and see what happens.)

BEAUTIFUL BEFORE I know, I just squawked about sequels, but my favourite film of 2013 is one — so sue me. Before Midnight, the third chapter in the love story of Jesse and Celine, is even better than Before Sunrise and Before Sunset — and both of those were amazing. The brilliance of the saga lies in the time between episodes (nine years), a period in which even the most idyllic love affair becomes something else: a crutch, a trauma, something ordinary. Both Jesse and Celine are well-read, idealistic and utterly self-involved. They are simultaneously compelling and repellent. (Jesse’s narcissistic tendencies are in full swing, while Celine is revealed to be prickly to the point of madness.) You root for them to succeed, all the while being aware of the obstacles ahead. Sublime.

INDIE UPRISING It’s increasingly hard for smaller, yet worthy, films to find a spot at the multiplex, but on-demand TV has been a godsend for a lot of indies. Only God Forgives, Man of Tai Chi and Drinking Buddies debuted on a mere handful of screens but also simultaneously on iTunes and VOD, increasing their chance to be noticed. And there’s also Netflix, which is constantly in need of new material and has very few studio deals in place.


HOLDING OUT FOR A HERO The golden era of superhero adaptations has hit a super-sized bump. For DC Comics, giving Superman the Christopher Nolan treatment in Man of Steel fell flat, as director Zack Snyder made a mess of the mythology (Prairie Dog’s Paul Dechene calls Man Of Steel “corrupt”). Now they’re trying to patch things up by bringing Batman and Wonder Woman into the fold for Batman vs. Superman (or whatever they call it), with Ben Affleck as the caped crusader and a skinny supermodel as the Amazon princess. Ugh, ugh, ugh and ugh.

As for Marvel, the lack of decent villains is becoming a problem. Loki can only do so much and he’s already overused, having been in three movies (and counting). At least the strangest Marvel property, Guardians of the Galaxy, will hit the big time next summer.

NOTHING SCARY HERE Pardon the pun, but there were almost no signs of life in horror this year. Along with the usual rehash of landmark flicks (the Carrie remake, Evil Dead, yet another Texas Chainsaw Massacre), moody ghost stories were all the rage — and they uniformly sucked. The “family in peril” angle was overexploited (The Conjuring, Insidious: Chapter 2, and Mama, although they all made money), while the slasher-loving crowd was underserviced. Really, the best we can talk about were two interesting failures: the seditious You’re Next, which subverted the household-under-siege concept in singularly vicious fashion; and The Purge, a good concept (an anything-goes night of public rampage) frayed by terrible execution. For 2014, here’s hoping for no more zombies. Or vampires. Oh, and that I, Frankenstein flick looks horrible. Seriously, stop reinventing the classics.

ALL QUIET ON THE NORTHERN FRONT With big names in the Canadian industry like Cronenberg and Egoyen noticeably quiet, few Canuck titles got much notice (outside the misguided $16 million sci-fi flick, The Colony). But that’s not to say there wasn’t anything worth watching. The Jennifer Baichwal-Edward Burtynsky documentary Watermark is a stunning report of the looming water crisis we’ll have to deal with sooner or later, while the superb thriller Vic + Flo Saw a Bear is reminiscent of Michael Haneke at his cruelest. And three young filmmakers had dynamic, impressive debuts: Matt Johnson (The Dirties), Chloe Robichaud (Sarah Prefers to Run) and Jeff Barnaby (Rhymes for Young Ghouls). One blemish: the selection of the amiable Gabrielle to represent Canada in the Academy Awards. Following the poignant Monsieur Lazhar, Incendies and War Witch, the uplifting love story between two young adults with learning disabilities just doesn’t have the same edge.


PLEASE JUST GO AWAY I’ve never been an Adam Sandler fan — his fratboy hijinks are moronic, as opposed to funny — but his last few films have reached new lows. The unwatchable Grown Ups 2 HAS NO PLOT. The entire film is an excuse for a paid vacation for Sandler and his pals, courtesy of Columbia Pictures. Dear gawd, even Rob Schneider was too embarrassed to show up.

THE FOLLOWING IS A PAID ADVERTISEMENT FOR… When you feel like a movie is doing nothing but pushing a brand, you’re probably right. This year’s worst offender was The Internship, which used an über-flimsy premise — two mature salesmen pursuing jobs at Google — to glorify the company’s corporate culture. It was supposed to be a comedy that celebrates thinking outside the box (as long as “outside the box” is the Google way), but the subtext is grossly obvious. Oh, and how about Last Vegas? The level of product placement was off the charts: the film is regularly interrupted to praise the virtues of the hotel the stars are staying at.

Finally, Man of Steel: while built-in advertising might be unavoidable these days, there has to be a more artful way to present it than a massive Sears sign in the middle of the screen as Superman and General Zod beat the shit out of each other as thousands of bystanders are, presumably, killed by flying debris and falling buildings.