“Beautiful, don’t you think?”

The best movies of 2013


2013 was another great year for movies. We had the long-awaited sequel to the 2009 reboot of Star Trek, the beginning of Phase 2 of the Marvel universe, two movies featuring a terrorist attack on the White House, and seemingly at least 30 movies featuring a futuristic dystopian US government in which nothing is what it seems. I didn’t get to the theater to see every movie I wanted to see, but nevertheless, the best five movies I saw this year are after the break.

A problem of scope

A review of Man of Steel

The Man of Steel vs. the US Army. There's a taxes joke in here somewhere.

The Man of Steel vs. the US Army. There’s a taxes joke in here somewhere.

The genius behind the Back to the Future trilogy wasn’t the nuanced way it dealt with time travel. It wasn’t the casting, it wasn’t the writing, it wasn’t even the music (although the music didn’t hurt, but that’s a topic for another blog post). The genius behind Back to the Future started with a simple idea: what would it be like to see your parents as they were in high school? This idea was the basis of the first movie, and while it had the intended consequence of making a humorous, character-driven story, it also had the unintended consequence of keeping the story scoped. The genius of Back to the Future is that it found a way to address time travel without ever leaving Hill Valley, California. Throughout the trilogy we stay within the same 15-mile radius, and although the trilogy takes place at various points in time over the course of 130 years, to Marty McFly the time-traveler (and the viewer) the events all take place over the course of at most a few weeks.

It would have been really tempting, especially in Back to the Future Part II, to try to make the story bigger. For example, when Biff used the sports almanac to win all that money, marry Lorraine and become the most powerful man in Hill Valley, it would have been natural to ask where Biff stacks up in terms of powerful figures in California, the US and the world. But the movie refused to do that; instead, it kept us focused and confined to Hill Valley.

And this is where Zach Snyder’s Man of Steel falls. For an explanation of that abrupt segue as well as Man of Steel spoilers, read on.

The Great Emancipator

Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln

Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln

I finally saw Lincoln tonight. It’s been in theaters for more than two full months and I’ve wanted to see it since it came out, but work, the holidays and other movies kept coming up and I kept putting it off. But finally, tonight, I saw it, and it was worth the wait. And even though the movie is two months old and most people are done talking about it, I haven’t written in a while and it seems pretty relevant in this climate of political divide and identity crisis. Fair warning: I’ll be writing about a movie you may not have seen. While the plot isn’t much of a mystery, you might prefer to be surprised by the director’s and actors’ interpretations. If that describes you, read with caution.

The end of an era

With Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 opening to a record-setting weekend last Friday, the Harry Potter franchise, which is now the highest-grossing movie franchise ever, has finished its run. From the time of the first book’s release in 1997, no children’s book or movie series has had more staying power than Harry Potter. Although there will be no more books and movies for the timebeing, Harry Potter has changed the world and defined a generation. I had the pleasure of seeing the movie on opening day, and walked away, if not floored, at least satisfied. Spoilers are ahead, so if you don’t know the plot to the movie yet, kudos to you, stop reading, and come back when you’ve seen the movie.

You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling

Despite the fact that the first movie I saw in 2010 was Avatar, 2010 was a great year for movies. (Sorry, had to.) Last year, more or less on a whim, I decided to do a top five list of movies I had seen in the last year, so this year I’m taking that whim and making it a tradition. Below are my top five movies of 2010.

Honorable Mention: How to Train Your Dragon, The American, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

5 – Despicable Me

I always approach movies like Despicable Me with some caution. First of all, it’s a 3D movie. That doesn’t necessarily make it bad, but generally movies that are 3D are 3D to be a gimmick, to sell tickets, and squeeze as much money as they can out of patrons before they realize how bad it was. It pleases me to say that both of Dreamworks’ offerings, Despicable Me and How to Train Your Dragon, were both quality movies despite the fact that they were in 3D. (It should be noted that while I say all these movies were in 3D, I didn’t actually attend them in 3D.)

Despicable Me also suffered a long lead time, as it was first advertised in summer 2009. This isn’t a bad sign per se, but it means that by the time the movie comes out I’m probably sick of it. With Despicable Me however, this wasn’t the case – there were still laughs left over for the film’s release.

Steve Carrell’s performance was the best of the film, and I sort of thought the film underused Jason Segel’s talents. Nonetheless the story was good, the movie had me laughing in many spots and I walked out of the theater not regretting that I didn’t see Inception for a second week in a row.

4 – Iron Man 2

I saw Iron Man 2 at midnight and walked out of the theater thinking it would easily be a shoo-in for the greatest film of the summer. But after thinking about it for a bit I remembered that the story was a little less believable (yes, I get it, it’s about a man in a super-suit powered by an artificially sentient robot, but besides that), the characters a little more caricatured, and the movie itself a little less real.

But then I bought it on Blu-ray, and you know what? It’s still a darn fine movie. Jon Favreau had a lot to manage in the second incarnation of this franchise, while trying to tell his story as well as merge Iron Man with The Avengers and really, he did a pretty good job to make a film that is, at the very least, incredibly entertaining. I’m worried about the future of this franchise without Jon Favreau at the helm; that’s how important he was on the first two.

Equally important was Robert Downey Jr., who is experiencing a career revitalization paralleled only by Michael Vick. He was once again able to make Iron Man appear human, an impressive feat considering Iron Man’s extensive arsenal. I also liked Don Cheadle as James Rhodes, and felt that he made a more convincing Warmachine than Terrence Howard would have.

3 – Toy Story 3

When I was drawing up my top five this year, I had to go back and rethink my choices when I landed with Toy Story 3 at #3. I was shocked. I wondered if I had forgotten a plot hole somewhere, maybe forgotten one of the finer intricacies of Toy Story 3 (and to be fair, I only saw it once and have yet to acquire the Blu-ray release).

But the fact that Toy Story 3 was #3 doesn’t say as much about it or Pixar as it does about the movies that bested it. For Toy Story 3 to take a 10-year old franchise, resurrect and invigorate it with new life and end up with what is, in my estimation, the best film of the franchise, there’s really no word to describe it other than “unprecedented.”

I don’t know what the 3D looked like because I only saw it in 2D. But that 2D movie was the best looking movie of the series (not surprisingly) and perhaps the best Pixar’s ever done. The voice acting, one of the most star-studded Pixar releases ever, was superb. The soundtrack was superb. It’s a rare occasion that final movies of trilogies deliver in the way that Toy Story 3 does, but it definitely does here.

It’s so hard for me to pick favorite Pixar movies anyway because they’re all so so good, but I’d be hard-pressed not to put this one near the top.

2 – The Social Network

When I heard they were making a movie about Facebook, I was interested. When I heard Aaron Sorkin was attached to the project, I was very interested. But seriously, I didn’t expect this movie to be good. It’s a movie about a programmer and friends, people who generally communicated via IM during the day instead of getting up and talking to each other twenty feet across the room. The catchphrase “You don’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies” was pretty corny, and the trailer with the operatic emo music was really just awkward. All of these factors caused The Social Network to be made fun of incessantly before its launch.

But then I went to the movie, and despite all the hype, despite all of the “what the heck are you doing?” press, it was fantastic. I fully credit Aaron Sorkin for the fast-paced, intelligent dialogue (this had to be the first movie I ever saw in which the text editor emacs was referenced). Jesse Eisenberg, who was probably cast based on how similar his appearance is to Mark Zuckerberg’s, does really well at playing a college student who suddenly becomes a billionaire.

And while some of the story is true, some of it is embellished, and some of it is downright false, the movie as a whole is entertaining, thought-provoking, and yes, inspiring. Unfortunately for The Social Network, it happened to come out in the same year as the #1 movie, or it wouldn’t have settled for #2 on this list.

1 – Inception

If you’ve talked to me about movies since this summer or read my blog, you’ll know that Inception was going to top this list. I first saw the trailer before Avatar back in January, but my interest grew after seeing the now famous trailer before Iron Man 2. Why was my interest high? Three people: Christopher Nolan, Hans Zimmer, and Leonardo DiCaprio, in that order. Those three people rarely make bad movies (especially Nolan). And the catchphrase “Your mind is the scene of the crime” grabbed me.

I saw this one in theaters, at midnight on opening night. And again a couple weeks later. And again a week after that. It’s the first movie I’ve seen three times in theaters, and I’d have happily seen it a couple more times. Everything about the movie was outstanding. The writing was deep and extremely provacative, the acting was superb (Ellen Paige, DiCaprio and Tom Hardy get special mention), and the musical score, by Hans Zimmer, is one of the best I’ve ever heard. Zimmer’s score seems like it’s a part of the movie in a sense that if you listen closely you can hear three different levels at three different tempos, symbolizing how time moves differently in the different dream levels. Zimmer could have gone with something ordinary here, and it would have been fantastic. But the fact that he went out on a limb and did a multi-tempoed waltz made it extraordinary.

It seems like most top-N lists just end, so instead of doing that, I’ll list a few of the movies I’m looking forward to in 2011: The Adjustment Bureau and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II top the list, but Thor, Sherlock Holmes 2, Star Trek 2, Cowboys and Aliens and Captain America are high up there too. I’m also looking forward to PotC: On Stranger Tides and The Hangover 2, and yes, even Cars II. In short, it’s a great time to be a movie fan, and although I’m not sure any year could top 2010, I’ve been wrong before.

Reality check: why Avatar wasn’t really all that great

"I'm flying Jack, I'm flying!" ...oh wait, wrong James Cameron movie.

Back in December of 2009 (Christmas Day, actually. See how dedicated I am to this blog and my readers?) I wrote about my five favorite movies in 2009. My list, you may remember, wasn’t exactly conventional: I included movies like 2012 and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen instead of some of the more conventional favorites. (And I’ll still defend those choices as good movies, or at least better than everyone gives them credit for.)

One of those conventional favorites, released for the first time a week before I wrote the post, was James Cameron’s Avatar. It made (and topped) many people’s best movies of 2009 list, and it eventually became the highest grossing movie of all time. This weekend, it was rereleased in theaters with an extra eight (no really, eight!) minutes of special, never-before-seen-but-just-as-green-and-blue footage.

Let’s stop kidding ourselves. Despite its sales, despite its hype, and despite the fact that sequels are already in the works, Avatar wasn’t really that great. Read on to find out why.

To infinity, and beyond…again…and again!

At some point, Pixar is going to make a bad movie. I mean, it has to happen at some point, right?


Note: I don’t think I give anything away, but consider this a general warning that I will be talking about Toy Story 3 in the paragraphs that follow.

Drink up me hearties, yo ho: the case for piracy

The fact that I’m still referencing Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat three years after it was required reading in my ENGL 398 class means, unfortunately, that I was wrong: ENGL 398 wasn’t completely useless.

5 movies I want to see this summer

Summer’s my favorite season for a variety of reasons: baseball season, swimming, watermelon, fireworks, trips to the beach, etc. But an underrated part of any summer is the summer movie season, which consistently outranks every other movie season. For example, 2008 gave us Iron Man (foreshadowing alert!), Wall-E and Dark Knight; 2009 gave us Up, The Hangover and District 9, just to name a few. Here are five movies I can’t wait to see this summer.

5. Robin Hood

Robin Hood (May 14)

I’ve always been partial to the Disney version of this classic, and actually, that’s the only one I’ve seen. But I’m looking forward to this darker take on the story with the never-makes-a-bad-movie Russell Crowe.

(Seriously, I just spent a couple minutes looking through Russell Crowe’s filmography to figure out if he had actually ever made a bad movie, if he has, it certainly hasn’t been in the last 10 years or so. Except maybe Master and Commander.)

4. The A-Team

The A-Team (June 11)

Once again, a remake for a franchise I don’t have a lot of familiarity with. But I see this as either a big hit or a big miss, but Liam Neeson and Bradley Cooper can be trusted to not make something that’s completely unwatchable.

(Okay, I understand Liam Neeson was in Clash of the Titans. So seriously, what are the odds of him making TWO bad movies in one year? Wait, don’t answer that.)

3. Toy Story 3

Toy Story 3 (June 18)

I’m not one of those traditional Pixar junkies who think Toy Story is the Holy Grail of all things CGI, but more importantly, I am a Pixar junkie. And while some of the other ideas being floated around Pixar intrigue me more than another Toy Story, Pixar will either have to make about 10 bad movies in a row or have a movie sing the praises of Hitler in sepia tone to a Michael Jackson soundtrack (okay, I’ll admit, despite being completely offended, I’d have to see this. How could you not?). I’m not banking on either one. Ever since being pleasantly surprised by Cars, I’m willing to give the Pixar folks the benefit of the doubt.

2. Get Him to the Greek

Get Him to the Greek (June 4)

This one might seem out of place. And it is, sort of. I heard of this film a couple days ago because Jonah Hill is in it. When I found out that Elton Brand is also in it, reprising his role as Aldous Snow from Forgetting Sarah Marshall I was sold. Judd Apatow as the producer seals the deal. I fully expect this movie to be every bit as funny as Forgetting Sarah Marshall.

(I can’t really explain why I like Jonah Hill so much, but no one plays the “I’m incredibly awkward so I’m just gonna’ stand here and smile stupidly” role funnier than him. Oh, also, him singing along with Aldous Snow in Forgetting Sarah Marshall while Jason Segel looks on, astonished. Yeah, this movie is gonna’ be funny.)

1. Iron Man 2

Iron Man 2 (May 7)

Iron Man was the classic “surprisingly good movie sneaking up on everyone” of 2008 (District 9 was 2009’s), and I, like everyone else, didn’t expect as much as Iron Man delivered. It leapfrogged into second place on my favorite superhero movie franchise, just behind the Christopher Nolan Batman films.

Needless to say, Iron Man 2 won’t have that luxury. It’s got higher expectations, a higher marketing budget and has been on people’s radar since the first movie came out. Another red flag for me is the AC/DC Wal-mart exclusive soundtrack; part of what made Iron Man great was the rock-laden score by Ramin Djawadi, and hopefully whatever ends up being the actual soundtrack to the movie is similar.

They have added Scarlett Johansson, though, and seriously, how can you go wrong with that? The trailers with Warmachine footage also looks incredible, and ultimately, Robert Downey Jr. is still Tony Stark (he was as important to that role as Johnny Depp was to Capt. Jack Sparrow). I will be seeing Iron Man 2 at midnight in…good golly, less than two weeks. Where does the time go?

I’m sure this list won’t be the exact list of my favorite movies in 2010, but hopefully at least some of them make it. Got any others that I missed? Let me know!

Up, up and away

I’ve struggled to try and write some sort of year in review post for a couple nights now and since the political side of 2009 just kind of ticked me off, I decided I’d stay away from politics and stick to what I know (or at least know better): movies. (This may be part 1, I just realized I could write a lot about the sports year too.) So without further ado, here’s a list of the top 5 movies I saw this year.

5 – 2012

I know, I know, 2012 probably doesn’t make many people’s top ten lists, much less the top five. But here’s the deal: I saw a bunch of movies (particularly in the fall) that promised they’d be funny, or promised they’d be awesome, and they weren’t. Here’s a fall movie which promised “stuff’s gonna’ go down” and what do you know, stuff went down.

The story behind the reason for the 2012 apocalypse was mediocre at best. The family drama was unnecessary. The political drama behind letting citizens aboard at the end felt kind of staged. The hippie conspiracy theorist the family met while camping was unnecessary. But the special effects left nothing to be desired and were worth every cent of my $9.50 I paid to see this movie on the big screen. I particularly liked the aircraft carrier smashing down on Washington and the shots of Vegas in shambles, but I was a little disappointed that big cities such as New York, Chicago, and yes, Cleveland weren’t included. But then again, it’s only a two hour movie – not everyone’s apocalypse dreams could be realized.

Sometimes, you go to the theater hoping to see a deep movie that causes you to reflect, put yourself in the characters’ shoes, and discuss the movie later. But if you went to the theater expecting a simple movie where stuff went down, you didn’t want to be the characters at all and all you could say on the way home with your friends was “That <insert awesome explosion here> was awesome!”, 2012 was the best of the year.

4 – Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

I’ll be honest: I didn’t see Transformers until this summer, after Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen was already out. I watched the original Transformers with a lukewarm reaction, but hey, stuff blowing up is cool, so I decided to go see Revenge of the Fallen.

Oddly enough, I liked Revenge of the Fallen far more than the first movie, and though I’ve grown to like the first movie more, I still think the second movie is more entertaining. Part of my original problems with Transformers is that I felt like it wasn’t sure whether it was a sci-fi thriller or just a stupid action movie, and while the original struggled, Revenge of the Fallen clearly knows its a stupid action movie.

I liked Rainn Wilson’s cameo, but I loved John Torturro in this movie (“ONE MAN! ALONE! ABANDONED BY THE COUNTRY HE LOVES! NOW ITS ONLY HOPE FOR SURVIVAL!”) probably more than the leads. His over-the-top humorous portrayal of former Sector 7 agent Simmons was a microcosm of the movie: realizing its purpose as a dumb action movie that’s just fun to watch.

3 – District 9

District 9 kind of snuck up on me. Here’s a movie that was directed by Peter Jackson, and I don’t think I really heard of it until seeing it on a trailer about a month before the movie came out. District 9 came out the same week as Inglorious Basterds, and I chose Basterds over District 9 in the opening week. I wasn’t impressed with Basterds, but loved District 9 when I went back to see it the next week.

I think one of the things that sets this movie apart is its locale. Johannesburg, South Africa was chosen, I think, for budgetary reasons, but it really works well here because it juxtaposes South Africa, which most is foreign to most of my readers with an even more foreign society, creating this completely alien world which is almost so surreal that it feels realistic.

But not only is the premise and the location great, the story itself is excellent as well and deals with the age-old themes of speciesism and racism in a movie that’s really action-packed. District 9 was a movie from which I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it ended up being one of the better movies I saw this year.

2 – The Hangover

The Hangover (2009)This movie seemed like a cookie-cutter premise. Seriously, tell me if you’ve heard this one before: four guys get kind of wasted in Vegas, stuff happens, eventually everything works out. But despite that, this movie was the funniest movie I saw this year (and possibly in quite a few years).

Maybe it’s the performances of the four leads, maybe it’s the cameo by Mike Tyson, maybe it’s Ken Jeong’s arrival onto the comedy scene. In my opinion, it was how the viewer was dropped into events without having any clue what happened, just like the characters. That’s what took The Hangover, a movie with a decent premise and decent potential into an instant classic.

1 – Up

Up is my choice for the best movie of 2009.

I’ll be honest: I went into this movie expecting to be wowed. Pixar hasn’t produced a loser yet, and for me, anyway, Pixar seems to alternate between movies I absolutely love and movies I really really like: Monsters, Inc. was a movie I absolutely loved, Finding Nemo was a movie I really really liked, The Incredibles was a movie I absolutely loved, Cars liked, Ratatouille loved, Wall-E liked. So Pixar was due to make a movie I absolutely loved, and they absolutely came through.

The mark of any great movie, in my opinion, is one that has the ability to take over your emotions and run them like a roller coaster. After the first 20 minutes of Up I wasn’t sure how the story could possibly end happily, but just over an hour later my heart was warmed and the movie ended as happily and realistically as a movie about a house that floats away could.

The movie was also a complete joy to simply look at. Other production companies have made great looking movies too, but for some reason Pixar not only wins in this department every time, but they make stories that are just as good as or better than the great images. They’re stories that work with great CGI animation but could work just as well with live-action acting or standard animation.

So there you have it: my favorite movies in a year filled with good ones. Did I miss any of your favorites? Let me know in the comments.