Unless he’s being paid, or his family’s held for ransom, no one should watch as many new movies in a year as I watched in 2013. How many of them did I sit through? One hundred and three. According to Box Office Mojo, my intake amounted to nearly one-sixth of all the films released in 2013, and includes both the highest-selling hit (Iron Man 3) and a trifle that made less than $7,000 (The Brass Teapot).
Naturally, you’re asking yourself how he did it. Easy, really. I took a good number of flights this year, seeing at least one movie per, seeing a total of 12 on a round trip to Beijing. Like half of my fellow Americans, I watch most movies or TV with something else distracting me, so at least half of these movies were drunk in because they were on, because I hadn’t seen them, and because they provided little competition for my gray matter while I organized files or read Mojo or something.
Like a smaller number of Americans, I don’t have children, and no tiny humans competed for my attention when I felt like seeing the new movie by that one director. (Often, people who do have children mention the paucity of movies they’ve seen as a sort of good-parenting token—we never go to the movies anymore, too busy keeping the human race alive!) And like a few thousand people, I get critic’s passes to upcoming movies. That’s how I got to see a few films that I podcasted about or reviewed for Slate.
But I didn’t see enough movies—or the right movies—to really compete with the critics who do this stuff for a living and scoff at the poseurs. On my unseen list: Her, Nebraska, Fruitvale Station, Inside Llewyn Davis, Short Term 12, and a few other small releases or late-December releases that critics are starting to heap awards on. Within any calendar year, my views are slanted toward the stuff that comes out in the first nine months and rockets to Netflix or VOD. That’s not when the Oscar bait comes out. Those Spike Jonze and Coen brothers movies probably blow away my “top” stuff, but if you want to know how I ranked what I saw, the list is here.
Now, in the style of Chris Orr, some awards and groupings that sum up the year:
Best sequel: Before Midnight. Anyone who grew up on Richard Linklater’s first perfect love story, Before Sunrise, is going to come to this with a bias, but it’s not all that often that three creators (Linklater, Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy) can mind-meld and produce something so real and so effortless. The scene that pits Hawke and Delpy against each other in an escalating/de-escalating/pointless/profound verbal argument, moving from corner to corner of a Greek hotel room, was the best scene I saw all year.
Worst sequel: The Hangover Part III. A short documentary about the stars picking up their checks for this mailed-in time-waster would have been more entertaining. Maybe it’ll end up on the Blu-ray.
Most justified bloated running time: The Act of Killing. This documentary about the 1965–1966 massacres of communists in Indonesia—more than a million dead by torture, burning, and decapitaton—starts with a conceit that promises to become repetitious. Some of the killers, who’ve gone on to become Buffalo Bill-esque local heroes, re-enact their crimes in short movies. We see the casting. We see the filming. We see the movies themselves. It’s so damn surreal that it never wears thin.
Least justified bloated running time: The Wolf of Wall Street. Did we need THREE cuts to the Popeye cartoon on the TV to inform us that Leonardo DiCaprio would use cocaine to reinvigorate himself and tackle Jonah Hill?
Best nausea scene: Also The Act of Killing.
Worst nausea scene: The To Do List, a throwback teen sex comedy that I badly wanted to enjoy, before remembering that I never really liked teen sex comedies. The scene in question ups the stakes of the Caddyshack pool scene by making Aubrey Plaza bite into a log of excrement. Lulz!
Best ‘90s joke: “She’s so hot I’d let her give me AIDS,” in The Wolf of Wall Street. Don’t worry, the person who makes that joke is a better target for Internet hate than Justine Sacco.
Worst ‘90s joke: Lots of pickings in The To Do List, but I’ll go with Aubrey Plaza apologizing for not “answering your electronic mail.”
Best trailer: Whatever you thought of the movie, you’ve got to give the medal to Spring Breakers.
Best musical cue (diegetic): Hot Chocolate, “Every 1’s a Winner,” in Frances Ha. It plays as Frances (Greta Gerwig, in her best non-animated role to date) rambles through a black-and-white Paris, having tapped her credit cards for a poorly conceived weekend vacation.
Best musical cue (opening credits): Midnight Oil, “Blossom and Blood,” in We Steal Secrets. The unjustly pre-condemned documentary about WikiLeaks and Bradley Manning begins with an anecdote about a young Julian Assange (probably) hacking NASA and leaving, as his calling card, a lyric from this song. Cue: awesome, forgotten Australian agit-rock track. Bittersweet, given that the band’s lead singer left politics this year. (He was Australia’s environment minister.)
Worst musical cue (any category): The Cure, “Friday I’m in Love,” in About Time. I didn’t hate Richard Curtis’ gender-norming treacle about a ginger man who uses the power of time travel to court and repeatedly impregnate Rachel McAdams (still more romantic than Love Actually!), but I winced and winced hard when the Cure’s hyper-literal rewrite of “Just Like Heaven” was played over a sequence of … a man waiting for days and days to run into the person he’s in love with. Very subtle!
Best perfume commercial: To the Wonder. Though I never figured out which perfume. Maybe it was a car commercial?
Worst blockbuster: Man of Steel, which managed to turn one of pop culture’s great tales of heroism and wish fulfillment into a plodding Christ metaphor. (Did you catch how Clark Kent only comes out of hiding when he’s 33 years old? I bet you did!) Sure, I liked the sequence in which two supermen battered each other through the tallest skyscrapers of Metropolis. But it’s been 10 years since The Matrix Revolutions did that, and you can probably pick up a video game that looks just as good.
Worst blockbuster (runner-up): Oz the Great and Powerful, if only because it’s depressing to see Sam Raimi handed this much money and CGI and turn around something so lifeless and misogynistic.
Best blockbuster: Pacific Rim. And I’m not one of those nerds who pines for the days of predictable giant robot cartoons, or who even liked the Godzilla movies. (Make mine Gamera.) I just like filmmakers who pile on bizarre imagery (the bone slums!) and know how to film fights so I care about who’s getting injured.
Best use of source material (theater): Byzantium, the best horror film of the year, injecting life into the played-out vampire mythos by adapting a romantic play and adding stunning English scenery and blood waterfalls. I repeat: blood waterfalls.
Best use of source material (music): The lyrics of Primal Scream’s “Loaded” being used by Simon Pegg to accidentally free mankind from the aliens in The World’s End.
Worst use of source material (literature): World War Z. Max Brooks’ gripping oral history of “the zombie war” is lobotomized and turned into a bunch of chase sequences followed by a budget-saving video game-style sequence in a dark hospital. Skip the movie, read the audiobook. Alan Alda plays Howard Dean!
Worst use of source material (reality): CBGB, which adds to the steaming pile of Lousy Rock Films despite covering a topic—punk rock—that’s worked for other filmmakers. Suburbia’s pretty good. Sid & Nancy’s fantastic. This is a film so lazy that it turns the legendarily sullied chili at Hilly Kristal’s club into an “old lady talks dirty” joke.
Most glaring failure to secure music rights: Also CBGB, which plays up (and perfectly casts) the Ramones for their role in creating the New York punk scene, then fails to include any Ramones songs on the soundtrack. In 1974 the band is auditioning by lip-syncing to posthumous Joey Ramone album tracks.
Best movie that stars nobody you’ve heard of: Gimme the Loot, a brief character study about small-time teenage drug dealers in Brooklyn. The unknown cast is a wonder, able to unpretentiously convey commentary about class systems right before a weird joke about lost sneakers.
Worst “power gap” (tie): As Alyssa Rosenberg and others have pointed out, the rise of the superhero movie (a development I’m fine with) has given screenwriters a real challenge: How do you create drama when heroes are basically invincible? Thor: The Dark World and Iron Man 3 solved this problem with a series of shrugs. The respective MacGuffins, the Aether and Extremis, make the users totally invincible until the screenplay is done with them.
Worst science: The bone marrow-mutant power transfer in The Wolverine. This marred an otherwise entertaining movie by introducing something that challenged the reality of every other film in the X-Men series. Hang on—you can give someone a mutant power just by sucking it out of the bone marrow of a mutant? Hey, how come nobody’s tried that?
Best scene that ruins the rest of a genre: The opening of Gravity. Seriously, try to watch any space-based film after that. They look as dated as a calculator looks next to an iPad.
Best mythological theory: The bonkers “Minotaur” reading of The Shining in Room 237, the gripping documentary about Kubrick obsessives and the stuff they read into the director’s horror movie. Actually, every theory in the movie is fun, but the idea that the poster of a skier on one wall in one scene is actually a poster of the fabled monster stands out for its resilience in the face of logic.
Best magician: Clancy Brown as Dr. Albert Marconi in John Dies at the End.
Worst magician: Steve Carrell as Burt Wonderstone in The Incredible Burt Wonderstone.
Most realistic fight scene: Ryan Gosling versus Vithaya Pansringarm in Only God Forgives. It’s just nice to watch the handsome marquee actor take on the terrifying villain and, instead of rising to the occasion with a tiger kick or something, get mercilessly outclassed.
Worst genetic engineering: The monster in After Earth. It would make sense if, say, the monsters that terrify humankind in the idiot future of this movie were blind—meaning they hunted based on the whiff of fear pheremones—because they’d evolved that way. But no. We’re told that the aliens who want to exterminate future humans specifically engineered these monsters with the most basic weakness.
Worst genetic engineering (runner-up): Jaden Smith, After Earth.
Best/saddest comeback: Steve Coogan in Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa. Best because the movie’s a lot of fun, saddest because Coogan keeps failing to find an audience anywhere else. Both The Look of Love and What Maisie Knew, epic dramas that he pours himself into, were flops.
Best degradation of a Harry Potter actor: OK, technically Emma Watson’s portrayal of a spoiled LA criminal in The Bling Ring was the best, but Rupert Grint’s portrayal of Cheetah Chrome in CBGB was the only good thing about that movie. No one says “Kiss my ass, Bridgeport!” like Ron Weasley.
Best scene (long): I’m going to cheat and reward the entire “cult” sequence of V/H/S/2, a surprisingly good horror anthology elevated by 20 minutes of pure menace and splattercore.
Best scene (only feels long): The failed lynching in 12 Years a Slave.
Best traitor (tie): The alcoholic who’s paying off his debts in 12 Years a Slave/the Secret Service head played for maximum camp by James Woods in White House Down.
Best ending (loud): This Is the End.
Best ending (quiet): The Spectacular Now.