As I bid farewell to 2013, I thought it would be fun to do something that I do best. As many of my faithful readers know, my background isn't in Catholic theology at all, but in film & video studies. In the three years I've been writing Examiner columns, I have never done a “The Best and Worse of 2013” movie critique, so I might as well start one.
Of course, this being a Chicago Catholic Examiner column, I'm going to approach things from a slightly different angle. This isn't going to be a laundry list of the popcorn movies I enjoyed watching the most (Thor 2 and so on), nor the most “artsy” films that the Academy Awards and other high-brow film associations believe are the most meaningful (Gravity and so on) but rather a look at what movies I think had the most and least to offer from the perspective of a Chicago Catholic. Which films enriched our lives and said much about our culture and values, and which films were crass insults that aren't even worth a viewing to see how offensive they are? I'd like to give you my thoughts on the matter. So, without further ado, here are my Flick Picks of 2013.
BEST OF THE YEAR
1. “The Past”
“The Past” is a double edged sword: this film is an amazingly crafted story, but it is also a foreign language “art film” that isn't for everyone. Those who are willing to sit through the movie will find themselves rewarded with a film that really makes us think about cultural differences, the relationships of married couples, and the direction that our society is headed. The basic premise is that an Iranian man deserts his French wife and their two children to return to his native homeland. Alone, his wife starts up a new relationship with another man. Her husband confronts this fact and reacts to his wife's request for a divorce. Of course, this is only the beginning of the story. The film sets the audience up for a roller coaster ride with plenty of twists and turns, and none of it is predictable. At the same time, none of it feels like a movie script. We feel very much like we're watching a real life marriage implode, and the consequences of that. The final scene is especially poignant and compelling.
2. "12 Years a Slave"
Here's a film that sounds like another tired cliché Hollywood story at first glance. Do we really need another film about how rotten American slavery was and about how the bad Europeans oppressed people? Fortunately, this film completely shatters the formulaic stereotypes you associate with that kind of movie. It tells the true story of Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who was born a free black man but kidnapped and forced into slavery from 1841 to 1853. The film is done in the style of a tense thriller, so the viewer is not so much watching a Hollywood sermon on the evils of slavery, but pumped with adrenaline and spellbound by wondering what the protagonist will do next to get out of his various situations. The film thus ensures that everyone in the audience, regardless of their racial origin or background, will be able to identify with the plight of the main character.
3. “Saving Mr. Banks”
Considering that Disney movies are always associated with “children's” entertainment, they seem to have become heavily in-your-face cynical corporate cash cows and politically correct “progressive” sermons telling us how to “think” about modern society. Thankfully, here's a Disney movie (about none other than Walt Disney himself) and it takes a completely different route. “Saving Mr. Banks” is being praised for its sweet, sentimental story about the making of the classic 1964 film “Mary Poppins”, showing the relationship that developed between Disney (portrayed by Tom Hanks) and author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson). Instead of an obnoxious kids movie, this movie is a bittersweet drama with an uplifting, positive ending. Refreshingly, it also shows the 1940s to the 1960s the way they really were – not how we'd like them to be.
This is an intelligent film based on a best selling 1980s science fiction novel. It somehow miraculously made it to the big screen in an era where Hollywood is afraid to take risks and loves to make endless sequels, reboots, remakes, and prequels filled with mindless CGI action scenes. The film is pretty faithful to the book, and its “controversial” only because the author supports traditional marriage (even though that topic has nothing to do with the story in the book or the film). Ender's Game is basically a sobering coming-of-age story about an innocent kid who has to train in a futuristic military academy to become a flight squadron leader and lead a battle against an alien invasion. The scenes in the military school deal with many harsh situations that real life kids may face, and asks us whether we're robbing children of their childhood when we force them to grow up quickly to meet our selfish demands. The twist end of the movie really makes the audience think: Were Ender's actions morally justifiable? Watch for yourself and try to answer the question.
Of course, this is the second installment of “The Hobbit trilogy”, even though the three movies are based on a single book. The first film got some surprisingly negative reviews, all of which seemed to think the movie “sucked” because it was “too long” (with a running time of around 3 hours) and the unconventional frame rate showing in some theaters made some audiences “ill” (though this was a non-issue when the movie was released on DVD, and its a bit like giving Schindler’s List a thumbs down because you think black and white film is drab and boring). The second Hobbit is getting stronger reviews, despite having the same “issues”. In short, it wonderfully captures the tone and feel of the novel, and is a compelling and emotional adventure story that really makes the fantasy world of Middle Earth come to life. If you're expecting a strict interpretation of what was written “by Tolkien's own hand”, you'll be disappointed. Everyone else should find the movie very enjoyable and compelling.
WORST OF THE YEAR
1. “Man of Steel”
Those who know me in person are aware that I have been bashing this movie nonstop since it was released in June. The film is “Certified Rotten” on RottenTomatoes.com, a website that composites critics reviews. Forbes Magazine recently concurred and named it “Most Disappointing Movie of 2013”, and its not hard to see why. The basic premise of the movie is do a Superman “origin story” that remakes the events of Superman II (1980), removes the Lex Luthor subplot, and adds about 20X as much destruction and killing. Unfortunately, this shows everything that is wrong with the modern Hollywood mentality. In Man of Steel's case, it wants to have it both ways. They attempted to market this movie as a good film for “Christians” to see by filling the movie with over-the-top allegory of Superman being a “Christ-like” figure (he even talks to a priest at one point), while at the same time, they wanted as much gratuitous violence and action as possible, so they could market the movie to teenage boys with ADHD. The result is “Christ like” Superman gets in brawls constantly and directly causes the deaths of thousands of civilians in the movie, yet never bats an eyelash. Superman is supposed to be a role model that inspires hope, this one just inspires Transformers-style battles and overwrought CGI effects.
The title of the film says it all. The very name of this “sequel” is an oxymoron, since its predecessor “The Last Exorcism” went with the premise that there wouldn't be any more. In the case of this unnecessary sequel, it tries to followup a “found footage” horror film with a lifeless, traditionally shot horror film. The “exorcism” premise has been done to death by Hollywood, and the “exorcism” in this movie has as much in common with a real life Catholic exorcisms as Burger King and White Castle have in common with real life royalty and castles. Basically we get a Firestarter-style rip-off at the end as they characters fight fake CGI-rendered blazes that the “demon” created. Worse, the main character's “love interest” in the movie has all the charisma of a robot, and the main character's “dead father” from the first movie comes back to haunt her with a beard, even though he died clean shaven in original film. It's clear throughout the movie that nobody involved in this film put any effort into it, or knows anything about real-life exorcisms.
This is a “bio pic” of the infamous 1970s pornographic actress Linda Lovelace, who died tragically at age 53 in 2002. One critic referred to this movie as “the feel-bad movie of the year”, noting that the movie tries to be both campy and celebrate sexual “liberation” while at the same time mimic a “Lifetime original movie” warning women about domestic violence. Either way, it only succeeds in alienating the viewer. To make it look like its taking place in the “1970s”, the whole movie is shot in some sort of misty, color-muting cloud that just makes it difficult to watch and follow. The film is also shown in a non-linear format, and deals mainly with the actress completing the cult porno film “Deep Throat”. The fact she later became an outspoken anti-pornography actress and died in a car crash in dealt with by quick captions at the end of the movie. The funny thing is that Lovelace isn't a “dirty” film at all, but it makes you feel dirty just by watching this ugly movie.
Yet another “Hollywood” take on demonic possession. The idea of an mother being unexpectedly pregnant with the spawn of Satan has been done in numerous other movies (most notably in 1968's Rosemary's Baby). Here, the additional twist is the story being done as a “horror comedy”. That seems like an odd choice of topic to use for a “comedy” story. In any case, it doesn't work – not because the subject matter can't be taken in a new direction, but because most of the “humor” in Hell Baby simply isn't funny. The movie relies on cheap scares and crass, toilet-style humor. Considering it is dealing with pregnancy, the movie seems to be aimed at 12 year olds. This is also another movie that tries to use real-life “Catholic” elements – including the “Vatican” once again sending in some “exorcists” on the scene – and it is about as accurate as John Wayne's portrayal of Genghis Khan. I guess the main difference would be that Wayne's unintentionally funny movie actually got some laughs.
I'm not anti-Tyler Perry. He seems to pump out at least two or three movies a year (three in 2013), and while they're not my cup of tea, they do have a niche audience that Perry has been able to tab into. His “Madea” franchise was a successful series of stage plays before he adapted them into the more familiar movie adaptations. That being said, Perry seemed to suffer from writer's block in 2013, and his latest offerings aren't likely to be enjoyed by even his most ardent fans. Tyler Perry really does a disservice because one of his more noteworthy qualities is that Perry is a practicing Christian who is quite open about the fact that he won't cave Hollywood's attempts to water down commentary about God, Jesus, and the Bible. But where was that here? A Madea “Christmas” has nothing to do with Christmas (even silly slapstick comedies like “Ernest Saves Christmas” managed to capture the warmth and tenderness of Christmas, and the spirit of giving – but you won't see it in Perry's movie). His “Temptation” might be even worse. I'd love to see a “smart and provocative” comedy film that tries to tackle adultery. This isn't it. The movie plays out more like bad Saturday Night Live sketches strung together, and has a terrible ending and message for its audience.
And there you have it. My two cents on the best of the year, and the busts of the year. You usually have to wade through a lot of mud to find some gems that come out of Hollywood. Here's hoping 2014 is a better year for movies. Take care, my faithful readers, and enjoy your next movie night on me!