The Movies of 2013 (That I saw): The List (with Comments)

UPDATED on February 1, to reflect some more garbage that I shot at my eyeballs.

114. Paradise
113. Sharknado
112. Phil Spector
111. Salinger
110. After Earth
109. The Hangover Part III – Not so much a movie as the dramatic cashing of many paychecks. First there’s Todd Phillips, who scratches out (and directs) a script that wrings 100 minutes of plot out of the element that worked as a strange ethnic joke in the first movie. Then we have that element, Ken Jeong, who in not one but two franchises has become a parody of a “fan-favorite” character. (He’s gotten similarly insufferable in “Community.”) On to the cast, from Justin Bartha’s willingness to be set aside — again! — for the entire drama, to Bradley Cooper’s theory that he can say “what the fuck?” and “are you fucking kidding me?” and call it a performance. Even Mike Tyson figured it was worth skipping this one, and he’s Mike Tyson. One hundred minutes of watching Galifinakis et al actually cash their pay stubs would have been more entertaining.
108. Oz The Great and Powerful – Not long after this steaming pile was plopped into theaters, the wise men at Red Letter Media crafted a compare-and-contrast between Sam Raimi’s latest and one of his best cult films, “Bruce Campbell vs. The Army of Darkness.” Long story short — they’re the same damn movie, only one brings some scrappy charm to the proceedings and one is a mawkish slog. The goofball plotting that worked in Raimi’s earlier movie, like the magical corruption of Campbell’s girlfriend, is played for metaphorically ruinous horror here.
107. The Incredible Burt Wonderstone
106. Mama
105. The Brass Teapot
104. CBGB – On some dull afternoon, when I was younger and had poorer taste, I turned on VH1 to watch most of a Meat Loaf biopic. Yes: The music channel turned around a 2-hour film about the life of everyone’s favorite obese balladeer, starring the guy who later played Swearingen’s sidekick on “Deadwood.” It was terrible, like it sounds, but it prepared me mentally for deadening adventures like this one, which casts a bored Alan Rickman as club founder Hillel “Hilly” Kristal.
103. Admission
102. Jug Face
101. Girl Most Likely – Kristen Wiig is typecast in a film that apes “Bridesmaids” without ever cracking the code of why that movie worked. Both films start with songs by Blondie, both make Wiig a pathetic has-been whose talent was wasted by her 30s, both introduce a female nemesis — they’re the same movie, though only “Bridesmaids” gives you characters to care about.
100. jOBS
99. The Butler
98. Only God Forgives
97. The Family
96. Dealin’ With Idiots
95. The Canyons
94. Olympus Has Fallen
93. Oblivion
92. How I Live Now
91. The Sapphires – Your standard “it was the 60s, and racism was bad” story, with two twists. One: The put-upon black people are aborigines. Two: They’re in a girl group put together hastily to play for American soldiers in Vietnam.
90. Man of Steel
89. Our Nixon
88. Stoker
87. To the Wonder – Terrence Malick directs a perfume commercial.
86. Beautiful Creatures
85. Jack the Giant Slayer
84. Somebody Up There Likes Me – Magical realist indie schlock about a young, bored man who gets divorced, gets married, has a kid, and exchanges many sarcastic lines with Nick Offerman. Offerman (who’s brought along his wife, Megan Mullaly, as he did in the similarly okay “Smashed”) makes it worth watching; the rest is lost somewhere between Wes Anderson and an average episode of Arrested Development.
83. White House Down
82. Lovelace
81. Welcome to the Punch
80. Dead Man Down
79. The Iceman
78. 42 – Surprisingly dull drama about how racism, despite what you might think, is terrible. A solid first act gives way to a plod about Jackie Robinson’s first year with the Dodgers, during which he changed the hearts of many a redneck.
77. Machete Kills
76. Evil Dead
75. About Time
74. Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie
73. Elysium
72. Star Trek: Into Darkness
71. Kiss of the Damned – Xan Cassavetes, scion of the great indie director John, slaps together a vampire love story that’s all atmospherics and little momentum. I enjoyed the jokes about how intolerable and snooty the eternal living dead are — they’re Eurotrash, basically — but apart from the raw sex scenes it’s nothing you haven’t seen in another vampire film. (On reflection, maybe the raw sex scenes are enough.)
70. The Look of Love
69. Black Rock
68. An Oversimplification of Her Beauty – “The second happening has not happened.”
67. The To-Do List
66. The Lords of Salem
65. Crystal Fairy & The Magical Cactus
64. The Wolverine
63. Koch
62. Warm Bodies – A nonsensical but cute romantic comedy about a boy-turned-zombie who falls in love with a girl after eating her boyfriend and consuming his memories. It’s best when it’s dark, worse when everything works out for humanity — though Rob Corddry, as the hero’s zombie drinking buddy, is on a three-laughs-per-scene roll.
61. Drinking Buddies
60. Much Ado About Nothing
59. Kon-Tiki
58. The Bling Ring – Sophia Coppola adopts a magazine profile of a wealthy, shallow gang of robbers into an amusingly meta and unadorned culture study.
57. World War Z
56. A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III
55. Don Jon
54. V/H/S/2
53. Prince Avalanche
52. What Maisie Knew
51. We Are What We Are
50. Sound City – Two-thirds of a great documentary about a lyrically dilapidated studio in Los Angeles where some of the great rock era records (Rumors, Nevermind, Working Class Dog) were recorded. One-third of a yawner VH1 special about Dave Grohl buying the boards from the closed-down Sound City and recording a by-numbers album with a bunch of rock star pals. Around 10 minutes are spent watching Paul McCartney and Grohl “jam” on a song eventually titled “Gimme Some Slack,” and you’d trade these 10 minutes for any 10 at the dentist’s office.
49. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
48. Call Me Kuchu – A simple, affecting, and surprising documentary about gay activists in Uganda. Pushed down the list as I’ve read unsettling things about its selective portrayal of facts, like how the killing of David Kato is portrayed as a hate crime when it might have been a murder over a scam gone bad.
47. The East – A contractor (Brit Marling) who works undercover for the feds infiltrates an eco-terror group run by a startlingly charismatic freegan (Alexander Skarsgard).
46. The Spectacular Now
45. War Witch
44. The Kings of Summer
43. The Great Gatsby
42. It’s a Disaster – A group of thirtysomething couples, greying adolescents, gather for brunch at the longest-lasting couple’s home. At this inopportune time, a dirty bomb explodes in downtown LA. The lovely, un-duct-taped Victorian house will be the couples’ sepulcher.
41. Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me
40. Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa – A brisk sequel to the era-defining (really! No Ricky Gervais without Steve Coogan) TV series. Alan is ensconced at Radio Norwich, co-hosting Mid-Morning Matters, and resisting — for purely selfish reasons — the arrival of a conglomerate which intends to downsize the station.
39. We Steal Secrets – Wikileaks declared total war on this Alex Gibney film, a fairly straightforward introduction to the Assange/Manning saga, paced by interviews with the people who sold them out. Gibney clearly comes away critical of Assange’s messianism — he’s harder on him than he was on Eliot Spitzer in his documentary about the fallen politician.
38. Side Effects
37. Wrong
36. Blue Caprice
35. The Way Way Back
34. The Square
33. The Conjuring
32. Behind the Candelabra
31. John Dies at the End
30. Dirty Wars
29. Thor: The Dark World
28. Byzantium
27. Iron Man 3
26. Trance
25. The Place Beyond the Pines
24. Blue Jasmine
23. The Wolf of Wall Street
22. Mud
21. Stories We Tell
20. Dallas Buyers Club
19. A Hijacking
18. Room 237
17. A Band Called Death.
16. This Is The End
15. Gimme the Loot
14. Pacific Rim
13. Fruitvale Station
12. The World’s End
11. American Hustle
10. Frances Ha
9. Spring Breakers
8. No
7. Captain Phillips
6. Upstream Color
5. Gravity
4. Her
3. 12 Years a Slave
2. The Act of Killing
1. Before Midnight

“American Hustle” and “The To-Do List”

“American Hustle” (David O. Russell, 2013)
Let’s count the ways in which this movie could have failed. One: It fictionalizes an insane real-life story, the “AbScam” sting in which FBI agents bribed members of Congress and the mayor of Camden, and removes the fascinating question of whether the intelligence community was striking back after a decade of investigations from Washington. Two: It casts waspish Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, and Christian Bale as, respectively, loudmouthed Italians and a loudmouthed Jewish con man. Three: Under its old title, “American Bullshit,” it was considered messily un-filmable for years. And as good as this movie ends up being, you can see the seams, and feel yourself drifting during some moments before the plot gets truly gonzo.

But everything else works — even the casting works. Russell has juggled the casts of his last two films (“Silver Linings Playbook” and “The Fighter”) and set them against each other. It opens on the first phase of AbScam, as Bale’s con man Irving, his accomplice Sydney (Amy Adams, who I hope doesn’t give a boring Oscar speech), and the FBI agent (Cooper) are attempting to bribe the mayor of Camden (Renner) on video. The agent, Richie DiMaso, screws it up by being over-eager; Irving runs out of the room to fix things.

Roll: A voiceover and flashback that completely evokes the start of “Goodfellas.” (It was a good idea to begin the movie with a flash-forward, to avoid just cloning Scorcese’s masterpiece.) Irving and Sydney meet at a pool party, bond over their love of Duke Ellington, and quickly expand his nascent loan-scam business. When DiMaso shows up in the office, we know he’s about to collar them, and he does after handing a check to Sydney. In a perfect scene, a mannered, puffed-up DiMaso confronts Sydney in her prison cell (“Why’s there no bed in here? I asked for one. Or maybe I didn’t. Maybe I wanted you to be uncomfortable. I’m a wild card like that.”) and tries to convince her that Irving let her take the fall. Separately, he talks Irving into working with the FBI — get them four arrests, and his own case vanishes.

The two con artists go with the plan, seemingly revealing everything they feel about each other in a late-night argument, then agreeing to do the FBI’s con while trying to con the FBI. Irving guides Richie through the AbScam plan. Richie wants to play it on New Jersey politicians who are desperate to bring capital to Atlantic City. (The New Jersey angle is accurate, though all the names are changed.) Everything escalates from there — Richie becoming more arrogant and violent without learning any competence, Sydney manipulating one (or both) of the paramours, Irving becoming a nervous wreck who keeps dramatically collapsing and sucking down heart medicine. The mayor of Camden, whom we’re meant to like from the second he’s introduced, gets exploited by the Venn Diagram desperation of the criminals and the ambitious agent.

It’s thrilling, most of the time. The “hustle” is the sting itself, but also the strangely all-American way that Irving and Sydney have thrived on scamming people. That’s the definition of “hustle” that the historian John McDougall uses, non-pejoratively, to praise the industry of America’s earlier settlers, killers, and businessmen. Russell has taken a story remembered as the downfall of a few greedy congressmen and made it about how the surveillance state and the shadow economy exploit otherwise decent people. I can’t recall a movie in which the mafia comes off better or wiser. I think that’s on purpose. When Richie tells Irving that an America run by people like him, con men, would be a banana republic, Irving barks that it’s really the FBI goons ruining the country. “We get over Watergate and you want to bring down a bunch of politicians!” Bullshit, but like every character in the movie seems to say: You believe what you want to believe.

“The To-Do List” (Maggie Carey, 2013)
Sometimes a book or movie or lover’s poem falls way, way short of the mark, but you can’t bring yourself to criticize it. The intentions were good. We’d rather live in a system where someone tried then one where they couldn’t. This is my pretentious way of saying I’m glad Maggie Carey got funding and a great cast to put together a sex-positive feminist teen comedy, but disappointed at how lame it is.

Aubrey Plaza, a 29-year old actress who has merged sullenness and cuteness in ways no behavioral scientist could have imagined, plays Brandy, who we know is a virgin because someone yells “virgin” at her valedictorian speech. Brandy’s en route to Georgetown (I’m disappointed that they didn’t go with the “Risky Business” reference and send her to Princeton), but she’s hopelessly awkward. The first time she gets drunk (on Apple Pucker), she accidentally starts hooking up with mansculpted hunk Rusty Watters (Scott Porter), but he realizes he’s found the wrong girl in the wrong dark room and leaves her. The lesson Brandy takes from this is that she needs more sexual experience. Why? Because the movie is called “The To-Do List.”

Brandy’s experimentation is a complete success, and the movie ends after she and a group of nerdy boys (Donald Glover, Christopher Mintz-Plasse) have learned plenty about hooking up. No one is exploited, least of all Brandy. Teens screw around. That’s okay. Some of them are lousy at sex. That’s okay, too. There’s almost none of the shaming that defined “Easy A,” which was actually a much funnier movie — oh, and that’s where the problems start. Carey’s written a lesson into a pastiche of teen comedy tropes and 90s references.

Other critics (by which I mean actual critics, who don’t just write on their blogs while procrastinating on longer assignments) have puzzled at the amount of 90s references that stud this movie. I get why the movie is set in 1993, because cell phones have completely changed the relationships teens have with each other, the ease of hook-ups, the ease of making or breaking plans. In 2013 (or 2003) a girl confused about sex could spend a night clicking through porn sites: Education complete.

But too often, “hey, it’s the 90s!” is the only joke on screen. One character gets paged, on a pager! Brandy has lots of pictures of Hillary Clinton! Her dad reads Rush Limbaugh’s book! Someone apologizes for not answering an “electronic mail!” And so on, like a Buzzfeed listicle come to celluloid life. The beats of the plot that aren’t about sex are often borrowed from successful 80s comedies, down to a “poop in the pool” joke. Giving Brandy and most of the supporting cast summer jobs at a pool made the trope-ing too easy. It’s a cute story, but simply not funny enough to support its length.

Another Couple of Movies

Olympus Has Fallen (Antoine Fuqua, 2013)
There are movies that I watch when settled into a dark theater, ignoring all distractions, feeling my temper rise when someone checks the fucking football scores on his fucking phone. And there are movies I put on distractedly, because they came out in the year 2013 and I’m trying to take advantage of my single life by consuming as much pop culture as possible, even if doing so means just looking up occasionally at the action onscreen.

All of that is to say: I knew this movie would suck wind, and I put it on because Netflix started streaming it. No one ever really needs to see “Olympus Has Fallen,” unless it’s for the lulz that come when a director telling a hack story about a North Korean (why is it always the North Koreans?) assault on the White House shoots everything like an episode of “The West Wing,” all booming string sections and walk-and-talks and pans of the realistic sets. Also funny: The plot device that gives the president a high-level meeting with “the South Korean prime minister,” i.e. the man who does not actually South Korea’s head of state. (Like us, they elect a president. The PM is sort of like a chief of staff.) Funnier: The cargo plane assault on D.C., in which two Korean pilots with blank expressions manage to kill hundreds of civilians, blow up several F-22s, and crash into the Washington Monument.

It’s too bad for Fuqua that “White House Down” was released months later and had some actual fun with this conceit. Oh, I haven’t seen “White House Down” — it’s not streaming yet! — but it teams up Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx, whereas “Olympus” gives us a team much less known for its comedic chops, Gerard Butler and Aaron Eckhart.

Catching Fire (Francis Lawrence, 2013)
I don’t have young children and am not, personally, a 14-year old girl, so my introduction to and full knowledge of “The Hunger Games” series came from the 2012 movie. I dug it. Haters complained that the conceit was ripped off from the classic bonkers Japanese manga/movie “Battle Royale,” but it really wasn’t — it took ingredients from that story and blended them with “The Lottery” and “Murderball” and [insert dystopian fantasy] to fine effect. It ended with Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence, of course) manipulating the vile Capital and its celebrity/game show machine into letting her and her childhood friend Peeta both survive the game, then returning home as the oppressed districts start to churn with revolution.

The sequel starts strong, because the whole Hunger Games “industry,” an on-the-nose parody of reality TV country, remains well-realized. Katniss’s win got her and her family out of the District 12 holler and into the district’s underpopulated “Victors Village,” a row of McMansions that looks as dank as your average abandoned Florida development circa 2009. We see the squalor inhabited by Hamish, the only living District 12 victor. I liked this bit, and I liked the surreal Victory Tour embarked upon by Katinas and Peeta. How fucked up must that be, to be brought to the city square every year to celebrate the people who killed two of your district’s innocent (or, you know, semi-innocent, as they had maybe killed people) children?

But the plot unravels quickly. I don’t think this site’s limited pool of readers will care if I spoil anything, so: A mysteriously normal-looking man takes over the Hunger Games, and proposes that the 75th round be culled from the winners of previous rounds. They come and train in scenes that take advantage of the sequel’s higher budget, and they play a less-threatening version of the game, one where threats are spilled out against the gamers every hour. The “board” is shaped like a clock — oh, hey, you can see when the threats are going to come down. But it doesn’t matter, because the whole game was a ruse to liberate a few of Panem’s best fighters and thinkers, after some of them were, you know, murdered during a Hunger Game.

I was wrapped up in this plot as it unfolded, but by the end I was deeply perplexed. There was no other way to liberate Katniss Everdeen from her celebrity role, and lead the revolution? Did Panem need to see another bitchin’ Hunger Game in order to be whipped up for the rebellion?

If You Want Reporters to Check Stories Before They Publish, You’re a Hater

Instead of doing something productive, like finishing chapter two of my book (it’s going well anyway!), I spent about an hour today noticing how the Internet had fallen for yet another hoax. Elan Gale, a producer for “The Bachelor” and thereby one of the worst people on the planet, spent part of Thanksgiving live-tweeting what he said was a feud with an irritating woman “in mom jeans” who complained too loudly about her flight delay. Gale sent her drinks and notes telling her to shut her mouth and “eat a dick.” The Internet loved it, especially Buzzfeed, whose Rachel Zarrell aggregated Gale’s tweets and photos. Her post, on one of the year’s slowest news cycles, got nearly 1.4 million reads.

One problem: Gale’s story was bullshit. Maybe people should have sussed that out, as he took many photos but none of his “target.” But they didn’t. Zarrell got to write a follow-up aggregating more Gale tweets about how he punked everyone. I got irritated, not really at Buzzfeed but at Gale — again, “Bachelor” producer. This guy, for a living, comes up with ideas that stimulate the pleasure or anger centers of the lumpen proletariat’s brains. He did it on Twitter and captivated the Internet with complete bullshit. I ribbed Buzzfeed about this (after all, the phony story was worth 1 percent of their record November traffic) and, after a friendly back-and-forth, Politics editor McKay Coppins snarked me off.

McKay and I are friends IRL, and I wish our every Twitter interaction did not devolve into dick-swingery, but come on — fuck this. Elan Gale successfully hoaxed the Internet with a dumb, mean story. Buzzfeed fell for the hoax, with Zarrell tweeting at Gale to ask for an interview but never confirming anything about the flight. Any news organization should consider this a screw-up.

It’s not quite Lara Logan nodding like a parrot as her Benghazi source lies to her, but it’s the sort of shoddy reporting that would get a reporter at a small newspaper fired. Imagine you worked at the Pleasantville News-Leader and you ran an A-1 story about a fight that never happened. It goes viral; it gets debunked.You think you’re able to just walk away from that by mocking the haters?

Oh, I’m not saying Buzzfeed should fire anyone. They ran an update at the bottom of the post. I did ask the reporter, Zarrell, how this came about, but I’m not going to make some federal case out of this. Gale wasn’t grubbing for money or anything. As hoaxes go, this was mostly harmless.

But I remain fairly disturbed by the glib response. What is aggregation FOR, anyway? And are people willing to create a lower standard for “reporting” — Zarrell is a reporter, who has worked for other news organizations — if it’s only about a viral story? Earlier this year, the Washington Post fired an overworked aggregator-reporter after she botched some facts. The Washington Post’s aggregation style is fairly unpopular — the paper wants to have SOME version of stories on its own site, so readers stay there instead of Yahoo! or Politico. But none of its aggregated tales go as mega-viral as “This Epic Note-Passing War on a Delayed Flight Wins Thanksgiving.” And Zarrell’s story WOULDN’T have gone viral if she’d decided that Gale’s story was too flimsy. She wouldn’t have gotten 1.3 million hits. She would be, today, a less valuable employee to Buzzfeed.

This is fairly fucked. Yes, people on the Internet want to believe salacious stories. Reporters want to publish stories that people read. If there’s a great reward, and little downside, to be had in publishing bullshit, the Internet’s going to get more bullshit. As one of my colleagues put it, “‘Too good to check’ used to be a warning to newspaper editors not to jump on bullshit stories. Now it’s a business model.”