The Top Five Cinematic Disappointments of 2013

2013 was one of the best years for movies I can remember. From indies such as 12 Years a Slave, Upstream Color, and Inside Llewyn Davis; foreign gems such as The Great Beauty, Blue is the Warmest Color, and The Grandmaster; blockbuster entertainments such as Gravity, Pacific Rim and Captain Phillips—it was a veritable feast for movie-lovers. And yet, as always, there were countless films best assigned to the cinematic dustbin, most of which populated the nation’s multiplexes for most of the year before the fall/winter prestige films rolled around.

The following list is not a Worst-of list, since most obviously bad movies (Grown Ups 2, After Earth, etc.) I didn’t bother to see. But each of the following movies briefly held the promise of something possibly special, and that’s what made them all the more painful to watch. So, in the interests of tempering my unabashed enthusiasm for 2013’s riches, here are the five most disappointing films of the year, in descending order of soul-crushing awfulness:

5. MAN OF STEEL

I’ll admit it, I was totally suckered by the trailer for this, which promised a lyrical, soulful and emotionally rousing Superman epic for the 21st century. I thought Christopher Nolan’s guiding hand as producer could tame Zach Snyder’s video-game approach to narrative, and deliver a worthy companion to the Dark Knight series.

The power of the Superman myth resides in the notion of a super-being living among us, trying to hide his God-like strength as he saves us from our own disasters. Imagine seeing Superman deal with accidents, oil spills, earthquakes, hurricanes, wars – inspiring us to embrace the braver, selfless better angels of our nature. There are a few moments here, in the film’s first half, that capture the hint of a better, more grounded movie, most of them flashbacks to Superman’s youth as he tries to find his place and purpose in the world. And then it becomes an over-wrought, under-written, bombastic mess of CGI destruction and the worst excesses of what the modern action blockbuster has become.

Why? Because apparently every super-hero movie now needs a super-villain who can shout  ‘I WILL DESTROY YOU!!!’ in the third act. And because after the relative financial disappointment of Superman Returns, which had fans crying `Not enough action!,’ Snyder made sure no one in their right mind would level the same accusation this time. So we got an exhausting hour of Sept. 11 disaster-porn, with alien super-beings punching each other through buildings and barely a mention of the millions of lives lost in the process. And then Superman breaks his own moral code by snapping the bad guy’s neck.

Fuck you Supes. You let us down, big-time.

4. OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL

A prequel to the beloved 1939 classic  The Wizard of Oz, there were three reasons this could have been worthwhile: 1) The series of novels Frank L. Baum wrote, supplying an authentic story to adapt. 2) Sam Raimi, a director whose stylistically inventive flourishes helped elevate popcorn blockbusters such as Spider-Man 2 into great mainstream entertainment. 3) The cast, with the often talented James Franco alongside Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz, and Mila Kunis  as the three witches of Oz.

Ouch. Where do I start? This is a mind-bogglingly dull affair, which sits comfortably alongside Tim Burton’s execrable Alice in Wonderland as a mis-conceived, worthless desecration of a beloved children’s text. Franco, who excels when given interesting misfits to play, is about as charismatic as a wet sock. The story is about as exciting as being stuck in traffic for two hours. And despite valiant efforts from Williams and Weisz as two of the three witches, Mila Kunis is so confoundingly, screechingly god-awful as a younger version of the original film’s villain, that she makes the whole thing resemble a badly produced school play – except that if it were a school play, she would be rightly booed off-stage.

In fact, I’ve pretty much forgotten anything else about this monumental waste of time and money, so here’s hoping everyone involved cashed their cheques in and can now recover some semblance of their previously displayed talent elsewhere.

3. TO THE WONDER

Until this year, I was the most vocal Terrence Malick fan I know. Days of Heaven and Thin Red Line are two of my all-time favorite films, and I can’t tell you how many conversations I had defending Tree of Life in 2011. Many people I know accused it of being pretentious, boring, and over-reliant on idealized female characters spinning in fields while a whispered voice-over asks God the basic questions of existence, such as `Who am I? What is Love? What is Death?’ etc. Ultimately, I would just agree to disagree, because the simple fact was that Tree of Life – like all Terrence Malick movies – spoke to my soul in a very deep, very personal way.

Well, not anymore. To the Wonder plays like a Saturday Night Live skit of a Terrence Malick film, with, you guessed it, endless shots of Olga Kurylenko spinning in wheat fields, bedrooms and streets, as wall-to-wall whispered voice-over asks those same existential questions, ad-fucking-nauseam. It is absolutely, undeniably everything Malick-haters accused Tree of Life of being. It is unbearably pretentious, sleep-inducingly boring, and actually makes me afraid to revisit all the other films of his I loved, in case they remind me of this one. Yes, it’s that heart-breakingly bad.

I can only hope Malick decided to clean the worst tendencies out of his system once and for all in a defiant act of indulgent cinematic masturbation, and that his next movie will have an actual story and characters speaking audible dialogue to each other. But if I hear one more whispered voice-over or a woman starts to spin, I’m officially setting fire to my Terrence Malick DVDs.

2. IRON MAN 3

The reason I had hopes for this was because of the involvement of Shane Black, the notorious Hollywood screenwriter who always manages to subvert action movie cliches while delivering all the excitement you want from the genre. His 2006 directorial debut Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (also starring Robert Downey Jr.) was an under-seen gem of storytelling bravado, hilariously dry wit, and smart, beautifully realized characters inhabiting a noir-infused, affectionately acerbic vision of modern L.A.

I was therefore hoping that Black could do much what Joss Wheddon with The Avengers, and infuse the superhero Marvel world with knowing, character-based humor and the best thrills a $200 million budget can buy. And when Iron Man 3 opened to a $170 million weekend, and an impressive 78% positive reviews, I assumed my hopes had been fulfilled for a rousingly entertaining summer popcorn blockbuster.

Hell, I even got stoned before this one, but even that didn’t help. What a cynical, lazy, pointless, insufferably smug pile of steaming corporate shit. I felt like I was watching a bad Saturday morning cartoon, only that would be an insult to every single Saturday morning cartoon ever made. There is not a single thing that makes any sense in this movie. No weight or consequence, no subtext, no internal logic, nothing resembling recognizable human behavior in any way whatsoever. It’s the absolute nadir of hollow, context-free spectacle with maximum global profit as it’s only reason for being.

A McDonald’s cheeseburger has more thematic depth and integrity. Seriously.

1. ELYSIUM

Neil Blongkampf’s follow-up to his instant-classic sci-fi debut District 9, this was my most eagerly awaited movie of the year. What could go wrong? It was the chance for a clearly talented, possibly visionary director to play with a big budget and create original sci-fi on a massive scale. It starred Matt Damon, a smart, talented actor who only gets involved with projects he believes in. It held a great concept, dealing with themes of class disparity, ecological break-down, and the injustices of modern health care through epic visual action metaphors.

When I sat down to watch this at a Manhattan theatre, I left after half an hour, and went to see Lee Daniels’ The Butler instead. That’s how badly my most eagerly awaited movie of 2013 turned out. For the purposes of this article, I watched the rest of it on DVD, and it’s just as bad as the first 30 minutes promised it would be. Actually, it’s worse. In fact, it’s EASILY the worst movie of the year, even without the burden of high expectations.

I’m not even sure where to begin. Jodie Foster’s Razzie-courting performance as a hiss-boo villain with a baffling accent? Check. Insultingly simplistic social satire that made me ashamed to be a liberal? Check. The complete lack of an ethical viewpoint while dealing with obviously ethical issues? Check. Formulaic, rote action sequences with nauseatingly over-the-top violence? Check. Characters so vapid and uninteresting that to call them cardboard cut-outs would be an unjust denigration of cardboard? Check. The worst flashbacks in the history of motion pictures? Check. Check. Check. Check. Check. Check.

Ultimately, I blame the director for writing his own script, when from this evidence, he has absolutely zero talent as a screenwriter. It’s a miracle that anyone involved in this didn’t pull him aside and say `Neil – this is atrocious. Let’s hire someone who can actually tell a story.’ Sadly, I now have to assume `District 9′ was some kind of fluke, or perhaps just not as good as I thought it was at the time. Or maybe this is one of those confounding instances where someone apparently burns up all their talent and promise with one film, and then loses every ounce of their artistic ability the next time around.

As harsh as that sounds, there’s just no way to say it nicely. Whatever the reasons, Elysium is by far the most disappointing, bafflingly terrible sophomore feature since Richard Kelly followed up `Donnie Darko’ with Southland Tales. If it were the last DVD left on earth, I would bury it deep in the ground, and build a house on top of it. And then I would move out.

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