Top Movies of 2013′ Part 1: #15-11

15. The History of Future Folk

I didn’t even know this movie existed until I found it four days ago while sifting through Netflix’s streaming library. At first it looked like some cheap DTV comedy, but then I read the info blurb, which actually had an interesting ring to it. To be sure, I checked out it’s rotten tomatoes page. 96%, based on 24 reviews, which may not be much but 24:1 is still an admirable ratio, so I gave it a shot. This movie is charming as hell. The movie follows General Trius, an alien from the planet Hondo sent to save his race by annihilating Earth’s population to make room for Hondo’s, but upon his landing one thing stops him from pulling the trigger on his doomsday device: music. Apparently, Earth is the only planet known to Hondo to have conceived music, and the discovery elicits a spiritual awakening in General Trius, who abandons his war campaign, becomes a folk musician in NYC and starts a family under the name Bill. The plot is silly and certainly not without it’s lapses in logic, while the sparse science fiction motifs definitely show the low budget of the film. However, the acting and dialogue is so natural that you just want to follow these characters through whatever shenanigans the comedy has in store for them. The jokes are funny and the drama comes off as natural as it can in a movie where music literally saves the world. Even the directing is noticeably competent, on several occasions creating some interesting sequences through parallel editing resulting in one such scene where a tango is juxtaposed with a pretty well choreographed fight scene. However, what really makes this movie is the great folksy soundtrack. The two male leads are fantastic vocalists/ musicians who ignite the stage throughout the movie. All in all, once you get past the hokey premise and the cheap effects, you’ll find that this movie has more than enough charm to carry itself while providing some great background music for the ride. And did I mention that Dee Snider has a bit part? Need I say more?

14 A. Star Trek into Darkness/ 14 B. Pacific Rim

I know, I cheated and listed two movies under the number fourteen slot, but I enjoyed both blockbusters for different reasons and couldn’t decide between them, plus it’s my list and I do what I want. Now I’ll be honest, this summer disappointed me somewhat. Last summer had such great blockbusters with The Avengers, Dredd, the new Spider-Man movie and even The Dark knight Rises, setting aside my issues with that movie. By comparison this summer didn’t come close to touching the level of “pop cultural event” status of 2012, though it tried its hardest. Iron Man 3, while cleverly written with some interesting subtext about the media sensationalization of the war on terror, failed to bring the dramatic weight it promised by constantly subverting it’s plot points into one off jokes. Man of Steel, while certainly delivering the action scenes Superman fans have been waiting decades to see, could have used about 2 or 3 more drafts in the writing room. Even The Wolverine, which was my personal Favorite out of this year’s superhero movies, suffered from devastatingly weak villains that felt like they belonged in Kick Ass 2. This year, the two summer blockbusters that really caught my attention didn’t come from Marvel or DC. Star Trek into Darkness offered thrilling action set pieces with fun characters, a great adventurous tone that wasn’t afraid to get serious when it needed too and a great villain in the form of Benedict Cumberbatch as the classic Star Trek bad guy Kahn. It even offered some surprisingly compelling subtext about a post 9/11 U.S. I don’t think it’s an accident that events of the movie detail a terrorist attack on a Federation Facility, prompting a bloodlust fueled incursion into enemy territory (the Klingon Planet), while a war-mongering politician seeks to use the attack as a catalyst for an unrelated war. These themes of revenge versus justice and moral grey-ness make for compelling drama as a backdrop to the dizzying spectacle.

Pacific Rim is simple in story: Giant Monsters attack the world so the World unites and builds giant robots to fight them. The characters all toe the line between archetype and cliche, but they are memorable and energetic enough to carry the film when the action isn’t happening. The director Guillermo Del Toro brings a great visual flare to every frame of the film and does a great job of immersing the audience in the world of the characters. I loved the global feel to the movie. Yes, the lead is a muscular white guy, but his female co-lead is a Japanese woman actually played by a Japanese Actress making her Hollywood debut. Idris Elba plays their superior officer. There are Chinese Jaeger Pilots as well as Australian and Russian, making for a refreshingly multi-cultural blockbuster. In the end it’s not another nauseatingly jingoistic “America saves the world” movie like Independence Day, but a movie about unity and team work on a global scale, something Hollywood should defiantly consider making more of. Also, while watching it I couldn’t help but be reminded of the first Star Wars movie (the actual first one, A new Hope). Like A New Hope, this movie built it’s world around homages to previous works and aesthetics. While Star Wars was a call back to Samurai movies and pulp science fiction serials like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, Pacific Rim is one giant homage to Japanese Monster Flicks like the numerous Godzilla movies and mech-centric animes like Evangellion and Gundum Wing. Both establish a colorful ensemble of characters who represent the varying walks of their respective universes and both simultaneously tell a stand alone story while setting up an rich history of further stories to tell. One thing was certain when I left the theater: I really want a Pacific Rim 2.

13. The Conjuring

I wouldn’t consider myself a horror movie buff, I’ve liked a number of horror movies like Halloween, Carrie, The Exorcist and the Evil Dead movies, but on the flip side I really don’t see the appeal to movie series like nightmare on Elm Street or Friday the Thirteenth. For me it has to work as an actual film, meaning that it must have a story with 3-dimensional character who aren’t just slasher fodder. For me the minute I stop caring whether any of the characters live or die is the minute the movie has failed. This is why I loved Cabin in the Woods back in 2012, because it pointed out all the things I disliked about the bulk of the horror genre. James Wan’s The Conjuring takes a different approach then Cabin in the Woods, playing it straight rather than satiring the genre through meta-fiction jokes and archetypes. The story itself isn’t particularly innovative, opting for your standard haunting-possession-exorcism story, but where it excels is in the strength of its plotting and characters as well as in the competence of it’s director James Wan. He doesn’t rely on jump scares and gore. The real terror of The Conjuring is derived from the slow-burn suspense achieved by slow, continuous shots and the use of darkness and shadow, thus praying on the audience’s imagination to scare them. It’s also enhanced by the fact that there really aren’t any outright unlikable characters in the movie, aside from the ghost of course. They’re all fleshed out with likable personalities and well acted by the cast, resulting in a rare case where you actually don’t WANT to see these people get hurt. That’s where the true horror comes from, seeing these good, likable people under increasingly dire and terrifying circumstances, thus making The Conjuring one of the most well made and effective straight horror movies I’ve seen in years. Plus it’s set in the seventies, which means it has an awesome soundtrack.

12. Stoker

The director of Old Boy (the original) has made his American film debut, and it’s a masturbatory love letter to Alfred Hitchock. I’m not gonna lie, I loved this movie upon first hearing about it. Mia Waskikowska stars as a young sociopathic girl nearing sexual maturity with Nicole Kidman playing her distant mother with whom she has a tense, quasi-elektra comple. After the death of her father she meets her charismatic uncle played maliciously by Mathew Goode who is very much channeling Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates in his performance. This movie has it all in regards to Hitchcock homages: stuffed birds, warm-faced serial killers, pent up sexual frustration and conversations on staircases. The performances coupled with the dark, moody atmosphere and the Hitchcockian cinematography make for a fun and compelling psychological thriller that basically boils down to the coming of age tale of a young girl realizing she’s destined to become a serial killer. So if that’s your thing you’ll have a blast.

11. The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug

I don’t mind long movies. People complained about the length of the previous Hobbit Movie and I’ll agree, there were parts that could have been trimmed. But I love the world of middle Earth, and while Peter Jackson does tend to be self indulgent with these over long CG laden Mythopean epics, at least they use their excessive length to flesh out their characters while expanding and exploring their world and the wealth of stories therein. Desolation of Smaug is pure, unapologetic fantasy with dwarves and dragons and elves decapitating orcs. Martin Freeman is relatable and funny as Bilbo Baggins, who suitably develops a bit of an edge as he is left fending for himself for long stretches of the movie while slowly feeling the addictive draw of the ring he stole from Gollum. Ian McKellan is warm and captivating as Gandalf as usual and the cast of dwarves become a bit more fleshed out as they finally reach their stolen home beneath the lonely mountain. Benedict Cumberbatch doubles as the Necomancer, the disembodied spirit of Sauron slowly regaining power, and as the primary antagonist in the form of Smaug, a vainglorious and greedy dragon who has stolen the dwarven kingdom of Erabor for its riches. The movie is unquestionably a Peter Jackson movie, and not only in it’s length. Despite having not made an original movie in nearly two decade, Peter Jackson still manages to maintain his own artistic trademarks: Grisly violence being interplayed with goofy slapstick and horrifying imagery (the spiders of mirkwood and the Necromancer in Dol Guldor) are definite reminders of Peter Jackson’s roots in slapstick horror movies like Dead Alive and The Frighteners. The camera weaves in and around the action, placing the audience right there in the thick of it rather simply being spectators, and there are several moments of sheer picturesque beauty throughout. All in all, Desolation of Smaug more than makes up for it’s excessive length with the monolithic levels of movie magic on display.

stay tuned for Part 2:

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