Counting down the 2013 movies I saw, from worst to best.
20. Machete Kills
What separates Machete Kills from the action flicks on Monday's list is love. It's not demonstrably better crafted than say 2 Guns or Homeland, but what it lacks in finesse it makes up in passion. I don't love everything about Machete Kills, but I love a lot about it, and I especially love that Robert Rodriguez is able to make exactly the kinds of movies he wants and that his enthusiasm is all over the screen.
19. The Heat
I'm a fan of both of these women. I also dig a funny buddy-cop movie with heart. The Heat isn't doing anything super original with the genre (other than the gender twist), but it's a worthy entry in it and I laughed a lot.
18. Ender's Game
This is a difficult movie to talk about, because the conversation around it is about so much more than the film. Orson Scott Card's bigotry makes it difficult to appreciate the story on its own, and even if that weren't a factor there would still be the inevitable discussion about whether the movie lives up to the novel it's based on. I've never read the novel, so that makes it easier for me to separate the film from that, but I have to work harder to separate it from its author's homophobia. I think I'm up to it though.
Ender's Game should have been much higher on my list. It had the potential to be a brilliant, important movie with some harsh, but true things to say about war. Unfortunately, it flinches at the end and lets its audience off the hook. Instead of leaving viewers to think about and wrestle with what the characters have done, the film closes with its focus on what they may do in a potential sequel. That's a wasted opportunity in an otherwise very good film.
17a. Saving Mr. Banks
Saving Mr. Banks gets to be 17a because it's a late addition to my list and was going to throw off my numbering. I included it in the movies I missed this year, but got a chance to see it after I made that list. And I liked it a lot.
The trailer hooked me by showing a scene where Walt Disney is trying to figure out how the prim, humorless Mrs. Travers created such a fanciful, beloved character as Mary Poppins. He complains, "'No whimsy or sentiment!' says the woman who sends a flying nanny with a talking umbrella to save the children." She gives him a long, sad look and responds, "You think Mary Poppins is saving the children, Mr. Disney? Oh dear." And she walks away.
The real object of salvation is rather unsubtly right there in the title, but the promise of exploring that theme is what got me into the theater. One of my favorite parts of Disney's Mary Poppins is the scene where Dick Van Dyke explains his feelings about George Banks. "Begging your pardon," he tells the children, "but the one my heart goes out to is your father. There he is in that cold, heartless bank day after day, hemmed in by mounds of cold, heartless money. I don't like to see any living thing caged up." The kids (and, to be fair, the movie that far) have made a heartless villain of Mr. Banks, but in that moment he's repainted as a victim; a prisoner in need of deliverance. It's a powerful moment and has made me much more a fan of Mary Poppins as an adult than I ever was as a kid.
Saving Mr. Banks goes over that same territory, but ties it into events from Travers' past in a really touching way. It also sets up a fascinating mystery: the same one that Disney noticed in the trailer. How and why did the miserable Mrs. Travers create Mary Poppins? What was it about her relationship with her own father that led her to write those books?
I'm not sure that Saving Mr. Banks answers those questions. If it does, it does so with a lot of subtlety. It's clear that there is a connection, but it's a connection that's more easily felt than figured out. I was very emotionally invested in the salvation of everyone who needed it in this movie, including Disney and Mrs. Travers themselves. But though the film acts like they all got it, my rational self isn't satisfied that they all in fact did, and that nags at me.
17. Pain & Gain
Mostly I'm just shocked that Michael Bay was able to make a movie I liked. It's a funny script performed by great, charismatic actors and shot in an entertaining, compelling way. What's more, it has valuable things to say about entitlement and the American Dream. It hasn't single-handedly turned me into a fan of Michael Bay, but it has made it impossible for me to simply dismiss him anymore.
16. The Wolverine
The first two-thirds are perfect and exactly what I wanted in a Wolverine movie: Logan as a tragic loner who struggles between his stated desire for solitude and his hidden longing for connection. It's a very human story, wonderfully acted and beautifully shot with great action sequences. Then comes the finale that devolves into standard superhero tropes, but in this case, "mostly perfect" is good enough for me.
Great, unique exploration of the creation of a monster. The subject matter will probably keep me from revisiting it often, but I highly recommend seeing it at least once.
14. Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters
Pure pulp. Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton are great fun as Hansel and Gretel, but Famke Janssen steals the show as the leader of the witches they're fighting. I had a blast with it.
13. Pacific Rim
I already wrote a longer review, but the gist of it is that I loved the world-building and some of the supporting characters, but wish I'd been able to get more invested in the leads.
12. Fast & Furious 6
It's unbelievable that the Fast and Furious series is the best movie franchise around right now, but here we are. It knows exactly what its fans want and it gives it to them. I was skeptical about its future even before Paul Walker died (a new director and a rushed production schedule make me really nervous), but 6 was a perfect entry and made me excited for the possibilities of 7.
11. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
I'm struggling a bit with the Hobbit trilogy so far. As a fan of the Lord of the Rings extended editions, I have no problem with Peter Jackson's throwing as much extra stuff and detail into these movies as he wants. They could be four hours a piece and I'd eat it up like second breakfast.
What I wrestle with is the tone. Jackson's obviously trying to make a new trilogy that will fit seamlessly with Lord of the Rings, not just in plot, but also in feel. That means that he's purposely jettisoned a lot of the whimsy of The Hobbit - not all of it, but a great deal - and I miss it. I love it for what it is, but I'm not as into it as I expected to be.
My big problem with Desolation of Smaug though - and why it didn't make my Top 10 - is a huge SPOILER, SO BEWARE OF THE NEXT PARAGRAPH if you haven't seen it.
The trouble is with the ending. It would have been very easy to close after the death of Smaug. It's a natural stopping place and would have helped Desolation feel like a whole story in the same way that Unexpected Journey did. Instead, we have a cliffhanger. It reminds me of how I felt at the end of The Empire Strikes Back. It was a lot of fun, but incomplete.