MIG’S SHORT TAKES – Movies of 2013

As I watched the films of 2013, I noticed an interesting trend. More so than any other year in film that I can personally recall, there were a good number of films that involved either a global catastrophe or some kind of post-apocalyptic scenario. Among them were:

• Oblivion • This Is the End • World War Z • Pacific Rim • Elysium • The World’s End • The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (…well, not this one, exactly, but you have to admit, it was pretty bad…)

I went to Google and couldn’t find any specific reason for this. But I’m not complaining, because movies about post-apocalyptic landscapes are among my favorites. There’s something about that particular thought experiment that drives my curiosity: if and/or when the rule of law breaks down on a global scale, how would humanity react/respond? Would the better angels of our nature win out? Or would we descend into chaos? Who knows.

(Among my favorite entries in this specialized genre: “A Quiet Place”, “The Day After”, “Akira”, and of course, “Mad Max: Fury Road.”)

Without further ado, here are nine more recommendations for you to watch, all released within the calendar year 2013, and listed in chronological order.

1. OBLIVION, 4/19/2013 – Is my Tom Cruise fandom showing? Don’t know, don’t care. Cruise does what he does best in this futuristic, post-apocalyptic fable about a world where the human race used nuclear weapons as a last resort against an alien invasion; the aliens were destroyed, but Earth was rendered uninhabitable. Much of the movie’s success, in my opinion, is based on the visuals, featuring New York City in a state of ruin…not like in “I Am Legend”, but to a much greater degree, with the Brooklyn Bridge and the Empire State Building nearly buried in dirt. The story is mysterious and compelling. The direction is competent and direct. Cruise is more than adequate. What more could you ask for?

2. STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS, 5/16/2013 – I would like to acknowledge the legions of purist fans which are vehemently against the Abrams reboot of the beloved franchise. I understand where they’re coming from. But I have to say that this second entry is freaking BONKERS. It builds on the foundation of the first film and gives us a slightly off-kilter version of a very familiar story from the Trek universe. The variations in the story were handled EXTREMELY well, and it does what the best stories in the Trek universe do: deliver a scathing social commentary while astounding us with fantastic sights and thrilling chases and battles. I can only speak for myself when I say this is, by far, my favorite film of the newest Star Trek trilogy.

3. WORLD WAR Z, 6/21/2013 – I wouldn’t go so far as to say “World War Z” is the zombie movie for people who hate zombie movies. But it is probable this is the most “realistic” zombie movie we will see for years to come. (Of course, this depends on where you fall on the fast zombies vs. slow zombies debate, but I digress…) “World War Z” is at its best when it focuses on the chaos, the descent into madness as the zombie virus threatens civilization as we know it, and on the search for its origin. Brad Pitt is surprisingly good as a UN expert who crisscrosses the Eastern hemisphere trying to track down Patient Zero, and in the process discovers the one chink in the virus’s armor. Alas, the movie bogs down a bit when he finds a WHO laboratory, but no matter. This is still a superior entry in a well-worn genre.

4. PACIFIC RIM, 7/12/2013 – Speaking of well-worn genres, director Guillermo del Toro takes one of the most beloved horror genres – the Giant Monster Movie, or “kaiju” movie – and gives it a sleek, glossy coat of high-tech paint to give us the Godzilla movie’s wet dream of itself. In that way, it’s not unlike “Kill Bill” or even “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, movies where talented directors reworked the beloved films of their youth into slick modern entertainment machines while remaining true to their roots. “Pacific Rim” promises one thing: giant robots fighting giant monsters…and by “giant”, I mean use-a-cargo-ship-as-a-club giant. Is this preposterous? Absolutely. Is the screenplay hackneyed and riddled with clichés? Undeniably. (“Today we CANCEL the Apocalypse!”) Is it fun? Oh, HELL yes.

5. GRAVITY, 10/4/2013 – And I can already hear people saying, “But what about the various mockeries of physics that take place in this movie???” Yes, if you like, I could go down the list of things I noticed in “Gravity” that were not just wrong scientifically, but EGREGIOUSLY wrong. But I have to say, to the degree I noticed them in the corner of my mind, I just didn’t care. The story is just too good for me not to recommend this movie. To be sure, Sandra Bullock’s performance is extraordinary, to say nothing of the breathtaking visual effects that place her convincingly in orbit around Earth. But this story really, really got to me in a way I did not expect. It’s corny, but I really responded to the idea of someone at the end of their tether, faced with certain death on one hand and ALMOST certain death on the other, who makes the braver choice. I’m not joking. On my more insecure days, I even get a little choked up at the end.

6. 12 YEARS A SLAVE, 11/8/2013 – So, yeah…this has been sitting in my collection for the better part of five years now, and I only just got around to watching it this week. I suppose I was unwilling to put myself through the experience for all that time. I was aware of its reputation as a “tough watch”, and whenever I thought I was ready for it, I thought, “Do I really want to put myself through this?” Well, I finally sat down to watch it, and…wow. Director Steve McQueen accomplishes with slavery what Spielberg accomplished with the Holocaust: he created a film that is both thoroughly entertaining and also brutally unrelenting in its depiction of man’s inhumanity to man. And not only that, but McQueen knows what he’s doing, man. His style is immediately evident, and quite different from any other approach I’ve seen to this kind of material. No question: this is a modern masterpiece that should be required viewing.

7. INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, 12/6/2013 – The Coen Brothers have frequently stepped beyond the boundaries of what might be considered “entertainment” into the realm of the “art film.” (Anyone ever see “The Man Who Wasn’t There” or “Barton Fink”? I rest my case.) With “Inside Llewyn Davis”, I was prepared for an art film, and I got one, but it was far more entertaining than I anticipated. The subject is not one that normally interests me – the New York City folk music scene in 1961, just before Bob Dylan emerged – but somehow I found myself wrapped up in the story. I would compare it favorably to “Five Easy Pieces”, that 1970 touchstone of American independent film, but even that is not what sucked me into this movie. In a bold move, in any scene where music is being played and a song is being sung, the actors are performing the music live. And brother, let me tell you, that makes a HUGE difference. Yes, the characters are sharply drawn and excellently directed, but I found myself looking forward to any scene with music in it, just to marvel at the fact they were all performing it themselves, live, on camera. (Including Adam Driver’s hilarious repetitions of “UH OH” during one rambunctious number.) Maybe it’s the actor in me. I dunno. But this is quite a unique film, and it’s worth a look.

8. THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY, 12/25/2013 – Christmas of 2013 was good to me. First, I got this delightful reworking of the classic James Thurber short story about a man with vivid daydreams who finally one day realizes what it means to truly live. Call me sentimental, but I love this movie. I don’t normally exactly adore Ben Stiller, but he carries this movie well. I loved the way the boundaries between reality and his daydreams were not ALWAYS clear. (Watch the scene where he jumps into the ocean and ask yourself…are we SURE the shark was real?) The majestic scenery in the Iceland scenes has bumped Iceland up my bucket list of places to travel to. And I really, REALLY liked the musical score and songs used here and there, especially David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” All in all, this is a sentimental favorite that may not appeal to everyone, but to each their own.

9. THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, 12/25/2013 – On the complete other end of the spectrum of Christmas releases, we have “The Wolf of Wall Street”, Martin Scorsese’s best film since 2006’s “The Departed” and a spiritual brother to “Goodfellas” and “Casino”. “Wolf” takes elements from those two latter films and combines them into a movie that is greater than the sum of its parts. It is just bat-shit crazy. The main character is a scumbag, but he’s being played by Leonardo DiCaprio, so I have to admit, there was a tiny part of me rooting for him to succeed during the movie, which I guess was kind of the point: to make a thorough lout a LITTLE likable so we don’t start throwing popcorn at the screen. With the typical Scorsese mastery on display, this movie careens from heady highs to drug-addled lows, with one incredible detour into low comedy featuring some expired Quaaludes, a Lamborghini, and some unorthodox CPR. It may not be for everybody, but “The Wolf of Wall Street” will never be accused of being boring.

Other notable recommendations from 2013: “Monsters University”, “The Wolverine”, “Captain Phillips”, “Thor: The Dark World”, and “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.”

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