We’ve just wrapped up the highest grossing year in history with the movie industry capturing $11 billion in domestic receipts. Lost within the field of hits and flops were common re-occurrences, ideas and motifs that resurfaced consistently throughout the year to make 2013 its own beast, labeling our shared cinematic experience as a moment in time.
Consider this the sabermetrics of the movie world. Taking a closer look helps us understand not only what people wanted at the multiplex this year, but what executives thought the people wanted. Some trends (like the fact that only two wide-release live-action films this year were directed by women) obscure the idea of a film culture united by hearts and minds. Others (eight out of the ten highest-grossing movies this year were franchise films) will seem even more regrettable in hindsight.
But largely, the trends of 2013 weave a more ambitious narrative: that of artists struggling to find new ways to tell old stories, trying and sometimes failing to see what works, a culture still, comparatively, in its own infancy. At worse, this confirms that films don’t happen in a bubble, often borrowing from the same inspirations. At best, it’s another goal post in the journeys of our cinema culture.
What does it say that, in an increasingly technology-obsessed world, we’re drawn to films that strip characters to the barest essentials and trap them in dangerous situations that all analog-era viewers can appreciate? “12 Years a Slave” earned plaudits for refusing to both sentimentalize and politicize its content, instead framing the story as one of survival, a single man against one ghastly institution. Audiences were excited to get lost at sea with “Captain Phillips,” which eliminated any action heroics in showcasing the struggles of one man in the middle of a hostile kidnapping situation (and one could also point to the similar “A Hijacking”). And Robert Redford was simply Our Man, the only character featured onscreen in “All Is Lost,” fighting—and winning—a war against the waves with only his guile. The bells and whistles of “Gravity,” meanwhile, told a very simple story of the struggle of one woman alone in space, bereft of any technology on hand, forced to improvise when stranded in space. It may have been a failure of science that trapped her there, but as she floated in the cold vacuum of space, it was a borderline existential terror, like one sole person floating in oblivion, mirroring how many younger generations symbolize their feelings stripped of the absurd technological advances some now ignore.
The Color Of Black And White
2013 was a year of gorgeous color photography in a number of films both big and small. But what was interesting is that the year in independent film saw a surprisingly strong push into monochrome color schemes, resulting in a number of memorable black and white experiences. It’s doubtful that color would have added to the grace and humor of Greta Gerwig sprinting down a New York City street in “Frances Ha,” or the poetry of a withered Bruce Dern quixotically marching down a busy parkway in “Nebraska.” The classical storytelling of “Much Ado About Nothing” gained a certain classicism from the format, while Randy Moore’s “Escape From Tomorrow” wore its outré status on its sleeve thanks to the lack of color. And Andrew Bujalski’s use of black and white went a long way towards creating one of the year’s most memorable visual motifs in “Computer Chess.” Perhaps Kat Coiro should have went with the flow; her “And While We Were Here” circulated on the festival circuit in gorgeous black and white, but during its release, a colorized version flopped with critics and audiences.
Character Names In 2013 Became A Little Ridiculous
Look, we’re not going to lie: Stacker Pentecost, of “Pacific Rim,” sounds about half-awesome, and half-ludicrous. It would stand out more if 2013 wasn’t a goldmine for
bad names. There was a bit more suspension of disbelief required by the time Will and Jaden Smith starred in “After Earth” as Cypher and Kitai Raige. It wasn’t just the fantasy movies either, as it was impossible to keep a straight face during “Prisoners” as grizzled Keller Dover argues with Detective Loki in the case of a missing kid. By the time Philip Seymour Hoffman eye-rollingly introduced himself as Plutarch Heavensbee in “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” (a real motherlode for dumbass names, that one), we were about ready to check out from movies using dopey names. And some of us still have no idea what the hell a Benedict Cumberbatch is.
How To Destroy Major Cities, The Hollywood Way
More and more, today’s blockbusters feel like love letters to terrorists, deeply embedding the real-life visuals of actual tragedy for cheap thrills. “Pacific Rim” pushed its disaster pretty far, but at least it had some sort of fun attached to it, carefully labeling its carnage as victimless. That wasn’t the case for the somber violence at the heart of “Star Trek Into Darkness” and “Man of Steel,” both of which trafficked in 9/11-style shock and awe where characters fought, and then embraced, over the corpses of thousands after the massive destruction of heavily-populated cities. Even though “Ender’s Game” went on to critique that very mindset, it was still hard to watch that film’s disquieting action climax.
And Co-Starring The White House
Every year or so, Hollywood gets the same weirdly specific idea twice, and this year that involved two shoot-em-ups taking place inside the White House. Both Gerard Butler and Channing Tatum were heroes strapped with bullets in “Olympus Has Fallen” and “White House Down.” But it’s likely neither spent as much screentime near the Oval Office as Cecil Gaines, the protagonist of “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.” By the time the Joes were blasting through the White House to save America from an impostor President in “G.I. Joe: Retaliation,” it seemed like the hub of the American government needed a break for once.
Wannabes With Cash
In this year’s movies, no one was having less fun than those with money. The highs of “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “The Great Gatsby” showcased a sense of extravagance and opulence that felt innately American, and altogether vulgar. The truth was, we were more like the children trying on Gucci in “The Bling Ring,” or the flopsweat-drenched phonies of “American Hustle,” desperate to reach some height we didn’t quite understand. Often the lows involved the pathetic sight of Cate Blanchett clinging to her status symbol like a life vest in “Blue Jasmine,” or a coked-up Dwayne Johnson handling a suitcase full of spare change in “Pain And Gain.” More often, it was our license to engage in class warfare, as it was in “The Purge” and, in a more abstract sense, “Spring Breakers.” And sometimes, we saw it from the perspective of “This Is The End,” where Seth Rogen and company had to face down the Rapture with nothing but their sense of entitlement, openly, gleefully acknowledging their disposability.
Where were the people who consistently drove the dubious “Twilight” films to massive box office heights? Apparently at “The Hunger Games,” which seems to have surpassed Stephenie Meyer’s YA juggernaut in mainstream popularity. They certainly weren’t at “The Host,” which was based off another Meyer book, but didn’t generate anywhere near the same amount of enthusiasm. “Beautiful Creatures” and “The Mortal Instruments: City Of Bones” also failed to crack that demographic in attempts to turn Alice Englert and Lily Collins into the next Kristen Stewart and putting the kibosh on intended franchises. Targeting the boys didn’t work much either for Orson Scott Card’s “Ender’s Game”: the expensive blockbuster opened big, but eventually faded from the public consciousness quick, failing to connect beyond a small niche audience.
There were 31 movies last year that crossed the $100 million domestic mark. Unfortunately, a lot of those films were so expensive that many didn’t turn a theatrical profit. 2013 didn’t seem like the doomsday scenario many had predicted until the summer hit. A tank like “After Earth” didn’t make a ripple when it landed, but soon the bombs were dropping left and right. The period between the end of June and all throughout July was a wasteland, with “White House Down” and “The Lone Ranger” as particularly high-profile failures. Underperformers like “Pacific Rim” and “Turbo” followed, while out-and-out disasters “R.I.P.D.” and “Red 2” opened on the same weekend. Matters began to improve at the end of June, but not before “The Wolverine” became the lowest-grossing domestic performer in the thirteen years of “X-Men” films (despite being the first 3D installment) and “The Smurfs 2” grossed about half as much stateside as its predecessor.
In The Future, Earth Is Fucked
The future is soon, and it sucks. The Oscars might go to Spike Jonze’s utopian world-building of “Her,” where a hyper-clean future sees us falling for our computer operating systems. But in blockbusters, Earth was either bombed out (“How I Live Now”), constantly under siege (“Pacific Rim”), under draconian rule (‘Catching Fire‘), borderline abandoned (“Elysium,” “Oblivion”) or totally abandoned (“After Earth”). And if you were rich and stuck around, guess what? Your security systems weren’t strong enough to protect you from “The Purge.”
This Is Based On A True Story, Except For What Actually Happened
“Some of this actually happened,” goes an opening title card at the start of “American Hustle,” an almost-totally fabricated account of the infamous ABSCAM scandal that forced law enforcement officers to collaborate with con men and women. It’s a nice way for that film to cover its own ass, which is more than can be said about a host of other “true life” movies this year. Disney played fast and loose with “Saving Mr. Banks,” which took great pains to whitewash the creative conflict between Walt Disney and P.L. Travers into a typical American opportunist vs. British snob story, changing massively colorful details about Travers’ life and her opinions of the film Disney commissioned based on her work. At least P.L. Travers was still a real person: “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” may have roots in some sort of true story, but lead character Cecil Gaines is entirely fictional. And the second time text appears onscreen during “Pain And Gain” to remind you, in jest, that this was “still” a true story, it was focusing on the actions of Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson), a character invented solely for the movie. Spoiler alert: movies lie.
Sequels No One Wanted, Or Asked For
It sort of makes sense that Bruce Willis would kick the tires on a “Red 2,” it stands to reason that the Hasbro brand could milk some cash out of “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” and massive grosses suggest “Grown Ups 2” could maybe be Adam Sandler’s first sequel. But the original films in each of those “franchises” were time-wasting Redbox films at best, dreadful wastes of time at worst, and each one performed weaker domestically than their predecessors: ‘Retaliation’ at least pulled in solid international numbers, even if, aside from NINJA MOUNTAIN, you’d be hard-pressed to remember a single scene. Similar franchise stretching occurred with “Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters,” a transparently cheap sequel that followed up on plot points only the diehard fans of the books could recall. Comic-Con sensations “Kick-Ass” and “Machete” were underwhelming box officer performers the first time, and whatever audience for those films absolutely cratered by the time “Kick-Ass 2” and “Machete Kills” reached the marketplace. The most perplexing sequel of the year, however, has to be “Riddick,” a completely inessential addition to the “Pitch Black” mythos years after the expensive “The Chronicles of Riddick” lost Universal tens of millions.
Filmmakers Hitting Kickstarter
It seemed like a joke: Warner Bros. pretty much said that, if you paid them, they would make a “Veronica Mars” movie. And just like that, through Kickstarter, they had a few million dollars and the fans had a greenlight. Such an absurd idea, and somehow it worked: years after the show’s cancellation, a “Veronica Mars” movie is slated for release in spring. Zach Braff followed, one of a few more established filmmakers who used the crowd-funding site with the promise of perks for contributors that less-seasoned names unfortunately couldn’t replicate. Spike Lee’s venture into that world was less successful, as he took weeks with a user-unfriendly request for his new film, but his number was met. The message was made loud and clear: people were willing to pony their cash to get smaller-budgeted films made. The other message was even clearer: studios are barely trying to make smaller movies, forcing filmmakers to risk ridicule and scorn just to get a micro-budgeted indie off the floor.
Docs That Played With The Format And Re-Wrote The Rules
Never before had the documentary form been so in-flux as 2013, where a number of unforgettable examples of the form tested the boundaries of what was acceptable. The filmmakers behind “Sweetgrass” furthered their ontological interest in exploring the intricacies of the mundanities of nature with the furious “Leviathan,” a film that felt philosophically inquisitive with barely a word spoken, on-screen or off. The beguiling film nerd treat “Room 237” also kept its subjects obscured, focusing instead on the spoken digressions of a number of cineastes as their object of obsession, “The Shining,” played over them. Sarah Polley segued from narrative filmmaking into the autobiographical “Stories We Tell,” a doc that toys with the idea of perception by cloaking a straightforward tale of mothers and daughters in a puzzle box of reveals and secrets. And few committed an act of brazen political bravery as Joshua Oppenheimer, who soldiered beyond enemy lines to make “The Act of Killing,” filmmaking without a net in dealing one-on-one with Indonesian gangsters, turning them into filmmakers and letting them become the mouthpieces for their own identities through art.