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, here are the best five movies I saw this year.
5. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is a prime example of what happens when screenplay writers adapt novels into screenplays instead of novelists adapting novels into screenplays. Suzanne Collins wrote the screenplay for the first movie in the trilogy (quadrilogy? quartet?) and the result was an unevenly paced movie that was further hurt by noticeably low-budget CGI and chaotic combat scenes. Catching Fire brought in accomplished screenwriters Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) and Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3) and upgraded the budget for CGI fashion fire.
The result is a movie that’s better in every way, although I should note that the second book was my favorite of the trilogy. In Catching Fire, Katniss is simultaneously trying to quell a revolution she unwittingly sparked in the first movie while still believing the revolution has merit. President Snow, who leads the futuristic and dystopian Panem, has to come up with a way to silence the revolution and Katniss and his ingenious solution is the second half of the movie. The much improved writing leads to more cohesive moments between the characters, more believable and intentionally witty dialogue, and overall a more evenly paced movie which culminates in an epic cliffhanger.
After saying all that, I’m not optimistic about the third and fourth movies. The third book was the weakest of the trilogy and the thinnest for material, yet it’s the third book that’s being broken up into two movies. (Which is, other than 3D, the most annoying trend in Hollywood.) Catching Fire at least proves that it’s possible to make a good Hunger Games movie; in 2014, we’ll see if they can repeat their success.
Oblivion falls into the category of movies I never saw coming. I had seen the trailer and was mildly interested, but what got me to go to the theater was an early listen to the instrumental score, which was composed by the French electronic band M83. Much like director Joseph Kosinski’s last movie, Tron: Legacy, the score is otherworldly at times, but beautiful and powerful (and probably my second favorite score of the year). And so I went to see the movie in RPX (which is Regal Cinema’s premium movie brand; the audio and video in RPX theaters are higher quality than normal theaters).
Apart from the score, the movie stood on its own as a visual and audible stunner. The storyline was fairly stock, but it also wasn’t without a couple of neat twists. I found myself forgiving the minor storyline issues simply for the breathtaking cinematography and sound design. Tom Cruise was pretty solid in this role (which it seems like he plays twice a year), and it was cool to see Morgan Freeman in more of an action-based role as well.
In summary, Oblivion was a movie I was happy to spend my money to see. And if you’re into instrumental scores at all, you owe it to yourself to check out M83’s effort.
3. Star Trek Into Darkness
Star Trek Into Darkness was just your average, wildly entertaining sequel that was even better than the original (reboot). Into Darkness is worth seeing just for Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as John Harrison. His character is the best villain since Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight, and his intensity is matched by the protagonists played by Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto. The final act’s action sequences are among the best of the summer, with the actors and the effects crew sharing equal credit.
I’m not a Trekkie (I’ve only seen the 2009 movie and this one), so I had no problems with the story, which plays out much like a typical J.J. Abrams sci-fi mystery. It’s one of those movies that’s simply fun to watch, as it’s funny, fast-paced and simply well-executed. It sort of bums me out that Abrams has left the Star Trek franchise (presumably, at least) for Star Wars because that’s how good both of these movies have been. But on the other hand, it does make me pretty excited for Star Wars Episode VII in a couple years.
2. Monsters University
In the last four years, Pixar released two sequels that are more than ten years removed from the first movie. The first one, released in 2010, was Toy Story 3, which was so good it was ridiculous. And this year Pixar released Monsters University, a prequel to the criminally underrated Monsters Inc.
Belated Media put it best when he said that Monsters Inc. was the story of Sullivan and Monsters University is the story of Mike Wazowski. That’s evident from the cold open when we’re introduced to a small and super cute Mike Wazowski who decides that despite his underdog status, he wants to be a scarer. All it takes is that little cold open and we root for him for the rest of the movie.
Monsters University doesn’t really reuse characters, except for Mike, Sulley and Randall, with some Monsters Inc. cameos here and there that are inconsequential to the plot. And that’s what makes this prequel so great: it’s many of the same themes, but an entirely different story and focus. It’s also incredible that Pixar managed to capture the college experience without explicitly referencing alcohol or sex.
I don’t need to say that Monsters University is a joy to watch and listen to, because it’s what we’ve come to expect from Pixar and they didn’t disappoint. I know other studios have come a long way, but for my money there’s no animation studio on the planet that makes more beautiful and immersive worlds than Pixar. And the score, which is based around a college fight song theme, works really well and is quite different than anything else I heard this year.
In short: Pixar delivers another masterpiece. Now seriously: when can we expect an Incredibles 2?
The best movie I saw this year is another movie I totally didn’t see coming. Until Gravity, my only experience with director Alfonso Cuarón’s work was his admittedly excellent adaptation of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. But after hearing the initial reviews, I went and saw a showing of Gravity and because I wanted to see it in IMAX, I saw it in IMAX 3D.
I’ll just put this out there up front: I still think 3D is a waste of time. That said, Gravity makes the best use of 3D I have ever seen, even besting Avatar which is (or was) the gold standard of 3D. Most 3D movies have fast-paced action scenes, which appear blurry and are hard to follow with 3D glasses on. Gravity doesn’t have that problem, as both the cinematography and the setting of the story itself remove the need for most of the quick action shots.
As if to set aside that worry right away, the first shot of Gravity is 13 minutes long, with no cuts (which I believe sets a record by some margin). I sort of didn’t notice it because I was immediately immersed, and it’s to Cuarón’s credit that I wasn’t jarred by cinematography like I had never seen before, but instead was just gaping in wonderment at the screen. In other words, he didn’t make the first cut 13 minutes long just for the fun of it; it’s an amazing technical accomplishment, to be sure, but more than that it makes the movie better.
And at just over 90 minutes, Gravity is shorter than most movies that are released these days. A longer movie might have invited more scrutiny on the story, which certainly requires a little suspension of disbelief, but like Oblivion the movie is so pretty that you’re willing to forgive some story glitches.
Sandra Bullock’s performance in this movie isn’t only outstanding, it’s one of the only performances in the movie at all. The only other significant character who appears on screen is played by George Clooney, who basically plays George Clooney as an astronaut (and unsurprisingly seems to have a handle on how that character should be played). Bullock’s character is by herself for the majority of the movie and a lot of the acting required is in facial gestures, body language, or talking to herself, and I thought her performance was Oscar-worthy.
A special mention should also go to the score. It’s a mixture of harsh, grating and electronic sounds (the disasters unfolding on screen) with a tender theme for the emotional moments, and capped with a triumphant fanfare. Despite being composed by a newcomer, Steven Price, the score was my favorite of the year and was incredibly crucial in this movie with limited dialogue and ambient sounds. I look forward to hearing what Steven Price writes next.
I can’t say enough good things about Gravity, but perhaps the simplest thing I can say is that I left the theater inspired by humanity: inspired that we explore space, inspired that we have a drive to survive and further the human condition, and inspired that we can create films like this.
2014 looks like another big year for movies, but leading my watch list are Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (I’ll basically watch anything Christopher Nolan touches) and Wally Pfister’s Transcendence (which is about AI becoming smarter than humanity and is directed by Christopher Nolan’s former cinematographer). There’s also Captain America: The Winter Soldier and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay: Part 1, as well as a host of other movies that aren’t even on my radar yet. 2013 is leaving some big shoes to fill, but I’m looking forward to seeing to see if 2014 can fill them.