As I would be the first to admit—if several of my helpful friends and followers hadn't already pointed it out repeatedly—I have fallen woefully behind on my movie reviews in 2013. My tentative plan is always to watch and review at least one movie a week, but here—in the 39th week of the year—I find I have reviewed a grand total of nine motion pictures since January 1 (not counting classic films reviewed alone or with my partner, The Unenthusiastic Critic.)
Looking back over the year, however, I was surprised to discover that my movie watching was more or less on-pace: I've seen around 35 new movies in those 39 weeks—I just haven't reviewed them.
There are valid excuses for my slothful output—including the nagging demands of my real job and real life—but for the most part it has to do with the fact that 2013 has, so far, been one of the worst years for cinema in recent memory. Even recognizing that there are a lot of reportedly good movies I haven't caught up with at all yet, and the fact that most prestige films are released in the final quarter of the year, 2013 has seen a largely uninspiring slate of films. I tend to write long reviews or no review at all, and though I saw a few very good movies, and a few appallingly bad movies, I saw precious few movies that made me want to write a couple of thousand words about them.
Still, before we dive into the busier season of Oscar-bait films—in which I will, I promise, be more productive—I thought I would serve some penance for my slacktastic ways and do a quick roundup of all the other films I've seen so far in 2013. Many of these movies are, by now, available on DVD, streaming, or on-demand, so hopefully this will provide some (admittedly subjective) guidance on films you must-see, films worth seeing, and films you should avoid seeing at all costs.
We're going in reverse order, starting here with the bad. (In Part Two we'll cover the middle-ground, and in Part Three I'll list the best movies I didn't get around to reviewing in 2013.)
MOVIES TO AVOID (WHICH I APOLOGIZE FOR NOT WARNING YOU AWAY FROM SOONER):
Movie 43 (currently available on DVD, streaming, and on-demand)
Do you know the old joke about the guy who walks into a bar holding a handful of dog shit, and says, "Look what I almost stepped in?" That's how I would have felt trying to write a review for Movie 43. Already legendary for being full of A-list stars who all refused to promote the film—many of whom reportedly tried to get out of making it—Movie 43 really needs its own category on this list: it is a movie that should not only be avoided, it should be avenged. An anthology of purported "comedy" pieces, the truly miraculous thing about Movie 43 is the integrity of its badness: with all these stars and 13 different directors, you'd think somebody would have stumbled over something funny, if only by accident. But alas, each sketch delivers exactly the same consistency of malodorous excrement. (If stars like Kate Winslet and Hugh Jackman were reduced to chowing down on cockroaches and horse recta on a low-rent reality show like Fear Factor, they could not possibly demean themselves and their talents any more than they do here, starring in a sketch where the central "joke" is that Jackman has testicles dangling from his neck.) You might think that a film wildly hailed as one of the worst movies ever made—Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times called it "the Citizen Kane of awful"—would at least be a fascinating train-wreck, but if you seek it out just to satisfy your curiosity you'll just be making the same mistake I did. Movie 43 is not even enjoyable as fuel for schadenfreude or fodder for critical bile: it's just shit.
Spring Breakers (currently available on DVD, streaming, and on-demand)
Spring Breakers—directed by Harmony Korine, the writer of Larry Clark's 1995 horror-movie-for-parents Kids—seems to be a divisive film, and I suspect the debate must be between those who think it's a movie about the vapidity and shallowness of young people, and those who think it's simply a movie about young people that's vapid and shallow: you can count me squarely in the latter camp. The story of four teen-age friends (Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, and Rachel Korine) who go on Spring Break and fall into sexual and criminal shenanigans with a gangsta wannabe named Alien (James Franco), Spring Breakers—like Clark's pseudo-edgy shockporn—pretends to be asking society important questions about what its kids are up to. In reality, however, Korine has nothing new or particularly insightful to say about the values of the younger generation, and—though he masks it with aggressively stylized direction and psychotically hyper editing—he is much more interested in creepily ogling his nubile cast and creating preposterously unlikely scenarios of amorality and nihilism. Don't fall for the faux-art patina: this is the 21st century equivalent of exploitation schlock like Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!
Trance (currently available on DVD, streaming, and on-demand)
Sharing a lot in common with—and ultimately as disappointing as—Steven Soderbergh's Side Effects from earlier this year, Danny Boyle's Trance is a psychological thriller with a cast and director far too good for its crushingly absurd screenplay. When an art heist he's involved with goes wrong, art auctioneer Simon (James McAvoy) takes a crack to the head that leaves him with the sort of conveniently situational amnesia that only happens in movies and soap operas: he can't remember where he hid the painting. The rest of his partners in the heist, led by the sinister Franck (Vincent Cassel), take Simon to hypnotherapist Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson) to uncover the secret. Trance begins as a silly but stylishly fun puzzle film, but as all the various players double- and triple-cross each other, as increasingly implausible fake-outs are revealed, and as Elizabeth wields a ridiculously powerful form of hypnosis that might as well be witchcraft, Trance rapidly degenerates from intriguing to improbable to insultingly dumb. For about the first half I was willing to enjoy Trance as a pretty diversion, but by the time the movie ended I was eye-rollingly angry at being forced to endure my least favorite kind of cinematic experience: a truly stupid movie that thinks it's smart.
Evil Dead (currently available on DVD, streaming, and on-demand)
Adding evidence to the theory that the considerable charms of Sam Raimi's original Evil Dead (1981) came about largely by accident and the necessities of invention, Fede Alverez's slicker, gorier, multi-million dollar remake is almost completely devoid of charm. Raimi and original franchise star Bruce Campbell are both credited as producers here—and publically gave Alvarez's film their approval—but no one involved seems to understand that the original story of five friends plagued by demons is beloved as much for what went wrong as for what went right. The pleasures of the first Evil Dead lay in its sometimes clever, sometimes clumsy special effects; its often terrible acting; its self-parodying dialogue; and its sheer, shameless, low-budget bravado. It is perhaps wise that the filmmakers didn't try to recreate the campy, makeshift magic of Raimi's original—like losing your virginity, making your first movie is something you can only do once—but without those charms, and without any intentional or unintentional humor, the new Evil Dead becomes just another gratuitous gorefest, indistinguishable from a dozen others.
Frances Ha (on DVD November 12)
Look, I know I'm in the minority on this one, and I tried to like Noah Baumbach's Frances Ha: I really did. Baumbach is a talented writer/director, and star/co-writer Greta Gerwig commits fiercely to her role as reality-challenged young adult Frances, a wanna-be dancer and perky social misfit. But Baumbach and Gerwig's pastiche of French New Wave cinema ultimately failed—badly—to make me as enamored of Frances as Baumbach (Gerwig's real-life partner) obviously is, or to care in the slightest whether she ever managed to stumble cutely into delayed adulthood. Maybe it's me: I may simply be too old, and too grumpy, to care about privileged, socially dysfunctional 20-somethings who have the emotional maturity and life-skills of a brain-damaged eight-year-old. It's rare that you'll hear me speak well of Lena Dunham's intolerable HBO series Girls, but at least Dunham is willing to recognize and explore some of the darker sides of her shallow, self-obsessed characters: Frances Ha, on the other hand, light as a feather, just asks us to find aggressive immaturity and immeasurable insufferability endearing. I didn't.
Man of Steel (on DVD November 12)
The line between "talented technician" and "artist" is never more clear to me than when I'm watching a Zack Snyder film, for Snyder—as he has demonstrated before in films like Watchmen—is someone capable of hitting all the right notes while getting the song completely wrong. With a $200 million budget, state-of-the-art special effects, and a more than adequate cast that included Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Russell Crowe, and Michael Shannon, Man of Steel should have been the 21st century Superman movie that the iconic hero deserves. However, watching this solemn slugfest, one wonders if Snyder even likes Superman. Deftly avoiding anything resembling humor or fun—let alone wonder—Snyder tries to ape the darker palette of the Dark Knight trilogy's Christopher Nolan (who executive produces here). However, even if Snyder had Nolan's talent and vision—which he doesn't—that approach is grossly unsuited to the truth-justice-and-American-way tone of this very different superhero. Long on empty ponderings and hamfisted religious imagery, but short on joy and actual values, Man of Steel barely seems like a Superman movie at all: it's just a dull, murky, soulless buildup to a destruction-heavy third act in which grim people in silly outfits carelessly kill a lot of people.
Monsters University (on DVD October 29)
It has become popular to say that Pixar is in a "slump." I'm not willing to go that far—for one thing, I liked Brave a lot more than many critics did—but Monsters University is the first of the studio's films that I found almost completely disappointing. A prequel to the often-underrated 2001 feature Monsters, Inc., this entry shows us how the friendship began between spherical Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) and monstrous James P. Sullivan (John Goodman), two freshman "scare-majors" at the titular institute of higher learning. Despite a few highlights—like Helen Mirren's turn as frightening headmistress Dean Hardscrabble—Monsters University has few of the original's laughs, little of its heart, and none of its originality. One word I never expected to use about a Pixar film is derivative, but MU plays like an unimaginative and uninspired reinterpretation of Revenge of the Nerds with dull character design, a tepid by-the-numbers screenplay, and nothing in particular to say. Shortly after University opened to lackluster reviews, Pixar announced their intention to cut back on sequels: based on this should-have-gone-straight-to-DVD dud, that's welcome news.
Hell Baby (currently available on-demand and streaming; on DVD December 31)
Are horror movies just too easy to satirize for horror movie spoofs to be funny? Nearly everyone involved in Hell Baby has been funny elsewhere, including Rob Corddry, Keegan Michael Key, Riki Lindhome, Rob Huebel, and writers/directors Tom Lennon and Robert Ben Garant of Reno 911 fame. But watching this send-up of The Exorcist, Rosemary's Baby, and other films feels like sitting awkwardly through a painful, overlong improv sketch in which the actors just keep trying—and failing—to find something resembling actual comedy. Lennon and Garant generate occasional laughs as bargain-basement, Guido Sarducci-type priests called on to intervene in the demonic possession of Corddry's pregnant wife (Leslie Bibb), but the sprinkling of tepid amusement is not worth the endless repetition of gags that dully-thudded the first time, or the genuine unpleasantness of the movie's attempts at "adult" (read: sophomoric) humor. It's not quite Movie-43-bad, but it's a talent-wasting stinker nonetheless.
The Conjuring (currently in theaters)
Speaking of horror movies…It was from British film critic Mark Kermode that I first heard the phrase "cattle-prod cinema"—Kermode credits fellow critic Nigel Floyd with coining it—but it perfectly sums up both a certain kind of popular "scary" movie and why I hate those movies so. If I were to suddenly jab you with a cattle prod, you'd probably jump, but that would not really constitute an artistic act on my part. (And if I were to keep doing it every couple of minutes for two hours, I doubt you'd pay me for the privilege.) But those are the only sorts of scares that a film like The Conjuring—from Insidious director James Wan—has to offer: the sudden appearance of faces, the banging of loud noises, the CGI-and-harness effect of throwing bodies around the room. Based on one of the allegedly-true tales of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), The Conjuring is just another family-plagued-by-ghosts movie, remarkable only for the sheer number of tired horror tropes it manages to cram into its running time. There is literally nothing here we haven't seen before, as The Conjuring throws every horror cliché in the book at us, one after the other—and then flings the book in our faces for good measure. Watching The Conjuring was like taking a clipboard in hand and doing the final walk-through inspection of a haunted house at a county-fair, making sure all the things that go "Boo" are well-represented. Creepy clown doll: check. Spooky cellar: check. Unexpected face in the mirror: check. Eerie music box: check. Demon vomit: check. Yes, The Conjuring's tried-and-true tricks can make you flinch, but there's no soul behind the scares, and the reactions they generate are just instinctual responses, not emotional or psychological ones. These films continue to make a fortune—Insidious 2 is in theaters as I write this—but I'll wait for a scary movie that can actually scare me, not just startle me.
FINALLY, MOVIES THAT I DID REVIEW (WHICH YOU SHOULD—IN CASE YOU WERE WONDERING—CONTINUE TO AVOID):
Good movies with flaws, bad movies with bits worth seeing,
and films that made me go "Meh," in:
2013 Movie Roundup Part Two: "The Middle Ground"