As I mentioned last time, the end of the year offers a time to look back at the offerings—be they movies, music, or books—of the last twelve months and evaluate them. I’m always interested to see what critics hold up as the best of the year, although in most cases I’ll put titles on my mental “to see or read” list rather than compare my opinions directly to theirs. When it comes to movies, I’ve fallen behind; my wife and I used to be frequent moviegoers, but the arrival of children has an impact in more ways than one. (I see more animated films, for one thing, and fewer documentaries.) Not only does a night out at the movies entail getting a sitter, it means giving up precious time (of which I’m now more conscious of the scarcity). Movies as a whole aren’t trivial, but specific movies—G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, I’m looking at you—are another story. Perhaps that’s why I tend to be more forgiving of movies I watch at home. Transformers exceeded my expectations as a cable TV offering, but I doubt I would have been as pleased if I’d trekked out to see it at the theater. All of this is a roundabout way of saying that I probably won’t have a very complete picture of 2013 in film until 2016 or so, or possibly never. The films I saw in the theater this year don’t even add up to ten, so my top ten list would of necessity include some movies I didn’t even like that much, and I had to search my memory to come up with some of them.
A few years ago, I was discussing movies with a relative I didn’t see very often. He revealed that he keeps an ongoing log of every movie he sees, with a numerical rating system of his own device. Any movie that came up, he was able to tell me what he had rated it, and which movies were adjacent in rankings. I doubt I could do that: I’m not that compulsive or organized, for one thing. Asking around online, though, it seems that quite a few film buffs do track their reactions in that kind of detail.
I wonder how much their rankings change over time, though. Some things I enjoyed the first time around wear thin after just one or two viewings (comedies are especially vulnerable to this). Others stick with me, even as I’d rather they didn’t: I’ve only seen A.I. Artificial Intelligence once, and I hated it. Really hated it; it was refreshing, in a way, because how often do we have such pure reactions to things? Yet, large chunks of it stuck with me: that must be worth something, right? And even the fact that I had such a strong reaction puts it on a somewhat higher level than the many movies that I’ve occasionally remembered and thought, “Oh yeah, I saw that, I think.” I’ve read passionate and intelligent defenses of A.I. that have given me different perspectives on it; I don’t think I’d enjoy it any more if I saw it again, but I might appreciate it more. How do I put a raw number on such an experience?
Professional critics, of course, do it all the time, and they, more than anyone, know the limitations of a star, number, or letter-grade system, boiling their nuanced and (hopefully) insightful consideration of a film down to “thumbs up” or “thumbs down.” And critics’ opinions change, as well, so even a listing of their favorite movies of the year won’t necessarily line up with the ratings they originally gave those films. That’s okay, and as long as we don’t pretend any given opinion is the final word, it’s part of the process of evaluation we all take part in.
In any case, it’s easier than ever for anyone to be a critic, or at least to publicize their opinions. Amazon and iTunes have featured customer reviews for years, some of them lengthy essays by prolific writers; now services like Letterboxd (“Your life in film”) allow users to keep track of their viewing and ratings, just like my relative (I wouldn’t be surprised if he were a Letterboxd early adopter), with the added benefit of making their reviews public and allowing them to compare them with others’ and cross-reference their film choices with influential lists such as the AFI 100 or the various critics associations’ year-end lists. Like many other elements of contemporary online life, Letterboxd takes activities that many people were already doing in isolation, and turns it into a social activity.
Another change in recent years is the increasingly narrow gap between the big and small screens. Many of the films that came out earlier this year are already available on DVD or Blu-ray, and the lead time between theatrical release and home video gets shorter every year. Streaming and video-on-demand services make it even easier to catch up on the year’s releases at home, something that is increasingly important for those smaller movies that don’t have wide theatrical distribution. I watched Escape From Tomorrow on Vudu at home; it didn’t make it to a theater near me, as far as I am aware. This year, Stephen Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra, starring Michael Douglas as Liberace, was released in theaters in Europe but made its American debut on HBO. Although I would have liked to have seen both films on a bigger screen, TV time shifting made them much more accessible to me.
It goes the other way, too, although rarely: this year my wife traveled to Olathe to watch the Doctor Who fiftieth-anniversary special The Day of the Doctor in a movie theater, a rebroadcast of the international simulcast. While undoubtedly an unusual move designed to mark a significant occasion, special engagements like this will probably become more common as theaters look for ways to create communal “events” and spectacles (like IMAX and 3D) that will bring people to the theater. Simulcasting of live performances is even farther ahead: concerts and stage shows are available in local theaters. I can even see performances of the Metropolitan Opera here in Wichita.
So what did I think of the movies I did see? I’m glad you asked me that, Senator:
The Lone Ranger: No, it wasn’t quite as bad as its toxic reception indicated, but it wasn’t very good, either. I enjoy Westerns, I’m open to the reinterpretation of popular characters, especially of the pulp era, and I even liked Pirates of the Caribbean, at least the first one, so this should have been a slam dunk for me, but The Lone Ranger was mostly a giant mess. This might be another one that I enjoy more at home, where I can skip or tune out the boring or silly parts (of which there are many) and just focus on the bigger-than-life action sequences.
Oz the Great and Powerful: Another critical bomb that I thought was just okay, not flat-out terrible. In crafting a prequel to The Wizard of Oz, director Sam Raimi’s appropriation of the 1939 classic film’s art deco and Technicolor visuals was both a strength—I thought it looked fantastic—and a drawback, as it couldn’t help remind viewers of the superior original. Films like this are stuck in a bind: the audiences who would in theory be most interested in it are also going to scrutinize it more than average and hold it to a higher standard before accepting it. Properties with already-passionate fans are a double-edged sword, as NBC recently found out with The Sound of Music Live!
Escape From Tomorrow: I’ve already written about this one, so I’ll just add that this is one case where I’m glad I read some reviews before I saw it. If Escape had been as incredible as its trailer promised, it would probably be my pick of the year, if not the decade. Although I still enjoyed it and think it’s worth seeing, getting a sense of the buzz around it brought my expectations down to earth.
Speaking of trailers, another one that had me pumped this year was for Pacific Rim. Personally, I loved it, but I can understand audiences being underwhelmed, as it’s kind of a “fans only” prospect—if you already love giant monsters and robots, the one-dimensional characters are genre conventions, not flaws. I saw it twice, and took friends with me, both of whom are genre fans: one a fan of action and superheroes, the other a fan of Tolkien-style high fantasy. They enjoyed it well enough, but weren’t as enthralled as I was. Oh well, to each their own. The only plot point that struck me as insultingly dumb was the “Gipsy Danger is somehow ‘analog’ while the other jaegers are ‘digital,’ and that somehow protects it from the electromagnetic pulse” thing. And while it’s kind of a nitpicky complaint, I was very excited to hear GLaDOS (the AI in the Portal video game series, voiced by Ellen McLain) prominently featured in the trailer. McLain’s voice is heard in the finished film, but the resemblance to GLaDOS is toned down, as confirmed by director and Portal fan Guillermo del Toro for Ain’t It Cool News:
“I called Valve [the makers of Portal] and asked ‘Can you give us the filter?’ so we went full GLaDOS for the first commercial, but I thought it was too much. If you’re a gamer, it’s too distracting so we created our own GLaDOS 2.0 filter that’s a little less full on.”
I get his reasoning, and it’s probably the right call, but as someone who’s been interested in Portal almost completely because of GLaDOS’ lilting, half-mechanical voice, it was a letdown. Finally, although there’s been some criticism of the formulaic rivalry between hero Raleigh Brackett and cocky Chuck Hansen, after ten-plus years of Harry Potter and knock-offs thereof, it’s actually refreshing to have a story that knows the difference between a rival and a villain. Hansen is abrasive to the end, but ultimately he and Brackett are on the same side, and the two characters are able to set aside their personal differences and work together. It’s sad that something so simple has become novel.