The last few days of December are usually an excellent time for movie fans to remember the cinematic treats and tribulations of the dozen months that came before. As the Gazette’s resident movie critic, it is imperative for me to bring to you my Year in Review too.
As always, 2013 was dominated by franchise films, those movies based on pre-existing storylines most notably in the sci-fi superhero genre, or were books in series aimed at teens, or had ridiculous plotlines involving mindless zombies or fast cars driven by mindless action stars. Only Gravity and The Croods were totally unique films, although many critics say that World War Z was original too, since it had so little to do with the book that it was supposedly adapted from.
The top-grossing movie was Iron Man 3, bringing in $1.2 billion worldwide. This makes it the fifth highest grossing film ever. It’s a part of a larger Marvel/Avengers spinoff universe so we can surely expect Robert Downey Jr. to play Tony Stark and his alter ego for years to come. This is actually a sad thing since he used to be a decent actor. Now, he’s just a guy in a red and gold metal battlesuit. Pity.
The list of top 10 money makers also included animated family films Despicable Me 2 and Monsters University, the last being the long awaited sequel to the great Pixar film, Monsters Inc. There were also superhero flicks in the forms of Man of Steel and Thor: The Dark World, both right next to Fast and Furious 6 and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. As of this last weekend, they have all earned a total of nearly $7.5 billion.
I must wonder how The Fast and The Furious could spawn six sequels (chapter 7 being in the works currently) when Howard the Duck was so good so many years ago, and it died in the water. It just goes to show that there’s no accounting for taste.
None of this is new. We’ve all seen the decline and foretold the demise of authenticity in Hollywood. We’ve all clamoured to see Hulk smash stuff only to have our hopes dashed, bearing witness to a green CGI character jump and utter monosyllabisms, all the while forcing us to reconsider our life choices. Major film studios are perfidious devils that promise us glee with their glossy trailers and slick marketing campaigns that pull the wool over our eyes. We eagerly await the next big thing right up until we plunk down our $15 or more to be entertained. Only then does the curtain get pulled back from the screen, the treachery of the empty promise revealed as smoke and mirrors, the lies of an industry driven to drill as much money out of consumers with as little effort as possible. Trailers are like the pristine hamburger promised in an advertisement; movies are far too often the mushy drab squished sandwiches that are actually served to us.
I’m not completely jaded but was anybody else disappointed with Oblivion or After Earth, two incredibly large science fiction movies with oodles of special effects and with two incredibly popular movie stars (Tom Cruise and Will Smith, respectively)? Their trailers both promised action and story (screenwriters Michael Arndt and Stephen Gaghan are both excellent storytellers) but how many people know or can remember what they were actually about? Did either of those movies change anyone’s lives? Even if they didn’t bomb, they’re not exactly masterpieces for the ages.
Instead, let’s consider Gravity and 12 Years a Slave, both memorable and unique stories with compelling performances and outstanding directing. The first is a technical and technological masterpiece by director Alfonso CuarÄ‚Ĺ‚n. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney play astronauts who must figure out a way back to Earth after their space shuttle is destroyed in an unfortunate series of events. Viewers, including me, were left awe-struck by how it really seemed like the movie was taking place in outer space, even if Bullock’s character was woefully ill-prepared for space flight. Tools will just drift away if you let go of them? Who knew?
12 Years a Slave is a fine study in contrast to Gravity, being almost totally opposite to that sci-fi drama in every way. 12 Years is an historical character drama based on real events. Solomon Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free black man in New York in the years before Lincoln enacted the Emancipation Proclamation. Northup is kidnapped and sold into slavery, experiencing the many depraved depths of inhumanity as he struggles to keep his dignity, his hope and himself alive. It is one of the most powerful pieces of film that I’ve ever seen, its brilliance and horrors marked indelibly in my mind. Director/screenwriter Steve McQueen (no, this is not the same man who acted in Bullitt so many years ago) is a modern master of minimalism and should get every accolade that is out there for his work.
That, and it was made for only $20 million, a pittance by today’s standards. Brad Pitt was paid $14 million for his “work” in World War Z. For that kind of money, we could probably have had three or four movies like the one of a kind John Dies at the End. Don Coscarelli made that one on a shoestring budget and it still comes across as inventive, engaging, creative, and whacked-out funny. I would describe the plot but I can’t. I really can’t. Plus, it remained faithful to the book. Eat your heart out, zombies.
This year we saw the continuations of the extended stories of The Hobbit and The Hunger Games. J.R.R. Tolkien, if he were still alive, would probably have been horrified at how much content was removed from the Lord of the Rings movies in order for them to maintain palatable viewing times for today’s impatient audiences. He probably would have experienced that same horror because of how much The Hobbit was inflated with superfluous additions that were nowhere near his writing. When was the last time you thought, “I’ve got 161 minutes, what I’d really like to do is sit in a theatre and watch people walking across New Zealand?” The Desolation of Smaug is still eight minutes shorter than An Unexpected Journey, which unnecessarily featured several characters from the Lord of the Rings but not the Hobbit. Peter Jackson used to have the same indie ethos that Coscarelli does for his gross-out comedies Bad Taste and Braindead. Both were revolting and brilliant, and cheap. Despite my repulsion, I miss them in the wake of his new big budget blockbuster business plan. If given the opportunity, he would likely turn Green Eggs and Ham into a decade-spanning saga.
That leaves Catching Fire, the second in line of the four movies in the Hunger Games trilogy. Say what? Yes, as will now always happen for the rest of time, any popular teen novel series will inevitably split the final book into two movies, a la Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows parts 1 and 2. There’s nothing stopping studios from splitting books into three parts (see The Hobbit above) or four, or more. Heck, if there was a book that was popular enough, producers could make a movie out of each chapter. That sounds like a funny idea, but it scares me. It’s no laughing matter to watch the gradual decline of originality and creativity in such a powerful medium as film.
The Hunger Games movies are much like their source materials: compelling for their snappy plots but sadly bereft of any character development. The stories tell about a dystopian future where children and teenagers are forced into a game to the death, all on a big screen. They are pawns in a larger game that distracts the rest of the world from the misery of their own lives, but everyone pays the price regardless of who’s actually in the arena. It’s an interesting comment on our society but not a profound one, sadly. The only impression that lingers is that entertainment is a murderous enterprise driven by teenagers or those who think like them.