2013: The year in disappointment

In many ways, 2013 was a great year for movies. As my top 10 list shows, it was a killer year for documentaries, blockbusters and independent productions. I also got to attend the Sundance Film Festival for the first time.

And yet, in many, many other ways, 2013 was a string of disappointments. This is not necessarily a look at the worst things that happened in the industry in 2013, but rather a lament over the things that could have been done better. It’s also a regretful meditation on some of the things we lost for good. So, without further ado…


Video stores were a massive part of my childhood. I relished our family’s trips to the “tape store” (ours was Mr. Video). It’s safe to say my love of movies was cultivated in those halls of VHS tapes and, later, DVDs. I’m not the only one. Legendary director Quentin Tarantino worked at a video store for years, a place where he cultivated his passion for movies by watching everything in the store, and then discussing what he’s seen with customers. Probably the most knowledgeable director and film historian living, Tarantino would not be where he is today without the video store.

Thus, it is with great sadness that I learned 2013 was Blockbuster Video’s last year. Sure, the movie rental chain had been on the outs for years, but it was the last one to hang on with actual, physical stores. With those stores gone, the death of old-fashioned rentals is complete. Digital and kiosk rental has completely taken over, and that’s both a good and bad thing. Certainly, it’s great to know we can get what we want, when we want it. Our computers don’t “run out” of copies of the latest releases. But, while some don’t remember the glory days quite so gloriously, I’ll miss the video store precisely because of its hardship; it was an adventure. If I didn’t find what I was looking for, I was often steered to something even better. The internet gives us exactly what we want, and thus decreases our odds of branching out and experiencing something new out of necessity.

And what of communities that form around the movies? Certainly, online communities and forums have increased our access to a wider variety of opinions and conversations surrounding the movies we love. But, as we all know, the web is impersonal and often vitriolic. The video store was the place for sane, civil discourse regarding the movies we loved. And, as much as I love writing about movies, talking about them in-person is so much more fun. We’ll miss you, Blockbuster, warts and all.


When looking over critics’ top 10 lists this year, one voice was conspicuously absent. Not hearing Roger Ebert’s opinion on many of the great films released this year made his death feel all that much more impactful, but his life even more so. As I summed up in my reflection, his was a singular voice in criticism; honest, never indulgent and alive with the joy of the movies. There’s not much more to say, other than the movies will never be the same without you, Roger. Thanks for adding so much to the conversation of film.


Now, these weren’t the worst movies of the year (okay, one was) but rather the ones that squandered great promise or were too just crazy, dull or indulgent to evoke anything other than a “meh.” I try to actively avoid bad movies, so here are some one I wanted to love, but couldn’t.

Man of Steel—The worst thing to happen to Superman since Richard Pryor, Zack Snyder’s reboot was admittedly a victim of its own hype (mine included), but that doesn’t make the finished product any better. Numbingly violent and brimming with unnecessary product placement, the greatest sin the movie commits is simply being a great big bore. Great actors are given nothing to do, and Superman remains, at the end of the day, not interesting. Snyder and co. have taken a shard of Kryptonite to any heart this franchise had left.

The Great Gatsby—Only slightly less hyped than Man of Steel, the best and worst thing about Gatsby is that it was directed by Australian visual stylist Baz Luhrmann. He’s an incredibly talented and knowledgeable filmmaker, but he didn’t quite know what to do with such legendary material. The result is an odd, sometimes interesting cocktail, one that simultaneously never quite stays true enough to its source material while also refusing to take the creative risks necessary to make such a lavish adaptation work. Gatsby is hardly a bad film, but neither is it an adaptation of the legendary novel that is much worth remembering.

Only God Forgives—The most aggressively terrible movie of the year, this movie is harder to sit through than an opera starring Justin Bieber. Nicholas Winding Refn had a solid art-house hit with Drive, but the day this tone-deaf, pretentious claptrap passes as a movie or even some kind of abstract art is the day the cinema dies. Drivel is what it is, and drivel it should remain.

Disappointment=solid concept paired with lame execution.

Escape From Tomorrow—The concept is genius: a nightmarish version of Disneyland where innocent cartoon characters become demonic abominations and the line between reality and sanity begin to blur. The only nightmare here, however, is the movie itself. The making of this film in all its guerilla-style, Disney’s-gonna-kill-you bravado, is one that will go down in movie history. The film behind the story fluctuates between brilliant and terrible. It’s a rare “meh” movie that contains no mediocre scenes. 50 percent is genius; the other 50 is complete garbage. If that sounds fascinating, it is; Escape from Tomorrow is definitely worth seeing, but it is nowhere near good.

Elysium—I’m particularly heartbroken to admit this one. I liked this solid sci-fi adventure. But it is more than a bit of a come-down after Neil Blomkamp’s masterful District 9. It’s tough to fault the visceral action, but the ham-fisted political message and eye-rollingly trite storytelling don’t do Elysium any favors. Nonetheless, I have a certain affection for it.

Into the Furnace—While admittedly a good film, it’s baffling to see this on a few high-profile top 10 lists. Masterful acting from Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson and Casey Affleck can’t save this war vet drama from falling into typical revenge film tropes. And that ending sucked. Sorry.


Do people of faith expect outright mockery from Hollywood? Of course. And the industry had a ball making fun of the explicitly Christian version of the apocalypse (see This is the End, Rapturepalooza, etc.). But we also had the pleasure of pandering blockbusters, which attempted to coerce religious audiences into buying tickets by playing up the minimal spiritual aspects in their films. The most egregious example is Man of Steel, what with Superman’s overblown Christological imagery and his jarring come-to-Jesus moment. I’m willing to consider that the filmmakers might have been sincere with this kind of stuff, but it seems more pandering that proselytizing.

Nonetheless, it’s important to call out a few films that I thought got religious faith right. Terrence Malick’s troubled but ultimately successful To the Wonder took both faith and doubt very seriously, particularly in the context of a struggling marriage. Not a surprise, given the director’s pedigree. The Conjuring was a fright flick that had a lot more on its mind than your typical exorcism flick, even if some of its spiritual conclusions were a bit troubling. And thank God for Prisoners, one of the best of the year, a film that wrestles deeply with its main character’s sense of Catholic guilt adding weight to his decisions, good and bad. It’s a world where God is never absent, even in the midst of some very dark human suffering. And that’s pretty darn refreshing.

Will Noah be the rare religious-themed secular film that takes its subject seriously? Multiple movies will fall under this scrutiny in 2014.

I’m both afraid of and excited about 2014, where Hollywood is focusing on the Bible with renewed and intense interest. There’s the reverent-looking Son of God, as well as the adaptation of the bestseller Heaven is For Real. On the secular side of the fence, there’s Darren Aronofsky’s Noah and Ridley Scott’s Exodus. It’s going to be an interesting year for the Bible in popular culture, and I’m excited to be along for the ride. Expect much discussion on this blog over these and other spiritually-minded films.

To 2014, and all the disappointments (and pleasant surprises) the movies will surely bring.