2014 being well upon us, I thought I would take some time to reflect on my movie-going experience in 2013. In summary, 2013 was one of the most fascinating cinematic years I’ve ever had the fortune (or misfortune, depending on how you slice it) of experiencing.
Sad to say, in terms of the ratio of good movies to bad (or rather mediocre) movies, the past twelve months have been abysmal. So many disappointments and let downs. So many pictures that should have been great but were merely average. Anyone who has ever been an A student knows that the only absolutely unacceptable grade is a C. Not bad, but not good either. There were a lot of C movies this year. Summer was the worst patch. From May to September there wasn’t a single above average movie playing in any of the theatres in my area. I guess we peaked early.
So, 2013 was an uncommonly slow year in motion pictures, but what makes this past year’s history so fascinating is precisely the kinds of movies that sucked. If I were to go back over the past ten years and make a list of my favorites, many, and I mean many, would be drawn from the lot of amorphous character-driven pieces known as Indie films. Independent cinema has been the saving grace of discerning moviegoers these last few years, in our age of pornobotic Michael Bay claptrap and overall shamefully mercenary studio productions. But not in 2013! The majority of independent films last year were preachy acoustic-ridden puff pieces straight out of Hipster hell. My theory is that independent cinema has become a genre of its own, and is therefore growing tiresome (honestly, how many folksy guitar soundtracks can we take?). The best of so-called Indie film this past year, particularly Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing and Lake Bell’s In a World . . . , has been able to shed the tropes of Hipsterdom and move on to something fresh and exciting. Alas, examples of fresh and exciting do not abound in the artsy wing of 2013’s crop of pictures.
No, I’m afraid fresh and exciting belongs, rather unexpectedly, to the studio system in 2013. Much to my surprise, all of the films I truly loves in 2013 were major blockbuster studio releases. This rarely happens. In fact, if I were forced to make a list, I think at least the top four spots on said list would be big budget studio vehicles. Much has been said, for instance, about Gravity. A major release adored by critics and audiences alike. It deserves all the adulation is got and is getting during this awards season. And yet, in my humble opinion, there were far better films out this year.
To begin with the end: I got around to seeing The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug a little over two weeks ago and absolutely loved it. Being an enormous fan and defender of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, I was not highly impressed with the first installment in the director’s cynical cash grab known as The Hobbit trilogy. I found An Unexpected Journey, as part one was called, decent, but unfocussed, bloated, and unnecessarily long. Needless to say I had no high hopes for this, the second part of the new trilogy. I could not have been more pleased.
It really does fascinate me that I would be so impressed with such a capitalist enterprise as The Hobbit franchise (honestly, one film would have been enough to cover it), but what can I say? Everything wrong with An Unexpected Journey is set right in The Desolation of Smaug. Which leads me to Frozen. As Pixar continues to disappoint, Disney proper improves upon the magic of Tangled with a brilliant musical epic based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale.
Disney, it seems, after a fifteen-year hiatus, is back to making intelligent musical family films. I sense that Disney is somehow ashamed of this, though they ought not to be. The advertisements for this picture portrayed it as some kind of DreamWorks-style romp featuring a snowman and his buddy the reindeer. As someone who loathes all but a few of DreamWorks’ sneering computer-animated slogs, I was pleased that the end result was nothing like this. It’s a good-ol’-fashioned princess movie, but with an interesting and insightful twist. Before Tangled, Disney hadn’t made a truly noteworthy animated musical since 1996 with The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Seeking to shed the caricature of the wide-eyed singing princess, they embarked upon tripe like Tarzan, Atlantis, and the truly gawdawful Brother Bear. Again, a movie like Frozen makes 2013 an extremely interesting year. Pixar frequently finds itself among my annual favorites, but Disney hasn’t managed that with one of its animated musicals for years. Strange gears must be turning in Hollywood for a season to shape up as this one has.
And finally, I’d like to talk about what is without a doubt the best film of the year (or at least my favorite). Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Baz Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby! Again, my expectations for this movie as its May release date approached were mixed at best. I love F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, but on the other hand it has in the past proven notoriously difficult to adapt to the screen. Baz Luhrman in the director’s chair made me both excited and nervous. I have a love-hate relationship with Luhrman’s films. Often I find them dazzlingly over-the-top, like 2008’s Australia, but frequently they just give me a headache, like Romeo + Juliet. Then when it was released and some of the reviews were not as good as one would hope, I honestly didn’t know what to think.
I remember rolling my eyes when the movie started and I realized it would be told in flashback (blech!), but as the minutes rolled by and the kinetic energy of Luhrman’s directing style began to take its toll, I began to realize just what a work of genius this movie is. Perhaps I’m being a little hyperbolic, but I assure you I lie not when I say I watched the last half of The Great Gatsby eyes wide and mouth agape. I couldn’t believe how practically perfect in every way. Many critics objected to the film’s flashy theatricality, but anyone who’s read the novel knows that Fitzgerald’s landscape is hardly what one might call subtle. Others objected the the film’s use of modern, especially rap, music in its soundtrack, but I say the director was drawing a parallel between the vapid consumerism of the 1920s and the vapid consumerism of today. Call me spellbound, but if Camille Paglia can say Revenge of the Sith is a great work of art, then I can certainly claim that about something as lovely as The Great Gatsby. There’s nary a complaint thrown at this movie I can’t think of a defense for (except maybe those stupid flashforwards sprinkled throughout).
It’s a good thing I saw The Great Gatsby when I did. Its frenzied beauty kept me going during the long and dry summer. The only thing that kept me alive (figuratively speaking, of course) during the cinematic famine of 2013 was the promise of Gatsby on DVD. Now, not everyone adored this movie as much as I did, but I have no standard by which to judge a film other than my own opinion.
As you can see, I’m quite taken aback by the kinds of movies I liked and disliked this year. Usually I love going to my local independent cinemas. They’re smaller, less crowded, and usually show better movies. But something has gone horribly wrong in independent cinema lately, and the hacks at the studios have gone horribly right. Any number of factors have contributed to this change. As I mentioned before, Indie movies have become a genre unto themselves. They all use soft focus, they have boring acoustic soundtracks, they’re invariably about troubled white people, etc. On the other end of the spectrum, in the wake of Christopher Nolan’s mega-blockbusters Inception and The Dark Knight trilogy, perhaps studio executives have realized one doesn’t need to pander to the lowest common denominator to make a buck. It is the likes of Christopher Nolan (his name be praised) and Peter Jackson who have shown us that it is possible to make a billion dollar art film. And what films they are.
As strange as this sounds, I do hope this trend continues. One tires of deriding the establishment for being too mercenary or too stupid or too grandiose. Here’s to 2014! Let’s hope it’s better than last year. With several big-budget vehicles on the way, including another Hobbit and another Hunger Games, I must say I’m looking forward to it.