Year In Review

Most Surprising (and Disappointing) Movies of 2013: ‘Man of Steel,’ ‘Pain & Gain,’ More

From the terrible Superman flick ‘Man of Steel’ to the deliriously entertaining ‘Pain & Gain,’ the most surprising (and disappointing) movies of the year.

Most Surprising (and Disappointing) Movies of 2013

It was William Shakespeare who once said, “Expectation is the root of all heartache.” And, with so much advance media coverage of movies—including written features, fanboy-enraging “spoilers,” and eye-catching trailers—expectations for certain films can get pretty high. Plus, with movie tickets running cinemagoers up to $25 a ticket these days ($100 for a family of four!) you’ve got a right to be pissed off if the product you shelled out your hard-earned money for is utter shit. So, from the terrible Superman flick Man of Steel to the deliriously entertaining Pain & Gain, here are the most surprising (and disappointing) movies of the year.

Jonathan Wenk

SURPRISE: 'Warm Bodies'

Written and directed by Jonathan Levine (The Wackness), this romantic comedy—adapted from the YA novel of the same name—about a zombie (Nicholas Hoult) who falls for a human freedom fighter (Teresa Palmer) looks pretty awful on paper. But thanks to the two extremely likable leads, some hilarious supporting turns (Rob Corddry as a wacky zombie, John Malkovich as the head of the zombie resistance), and some inventive new zombie lore—Hoult’s zombie experiences his victim’s memories after consuming their brains—it’s a surprisingly sweet, clever, and well-acted film.

Mary Cybulski

DISAPPOINTMENT: 'To the Wonder'

Terrence Malick’s follow-up to his spellbinding 2010 film The Tree of Life is an incoherent bore. It tells the tale of Neil (Ben Affleck, in a mostly dialogue-less turn), an American who falls for a Ukrainian divorcee (Olga Kurylenko) in Paris, relocates her to Oklahoma, then he starts a tryst with a childhood friend (Rachel McAdams). Javier Bardem also pops up as Father Quintana, a Catholic priest who tends to the poor. There’s an abundance of beautiful imagery on display here—Kurylenko, in particular, is stunningly captured—but it comes at the cost of narrative, which is stunted and, at time, non-existent. 

SURPRISE: 'Beautiful Creatures'

I had absolutely no interest in seeing Richard LaGravenese’s film adaptation of a children’s fantasy novel. The story of a human teen (Alden Ehrenreich) that falls for a witch (Alice Englert), looked like a lame Twilight knock-off. But, after randomly catching it on an airplane, I was pleasantly surprised. The film contains some nice visual effects, an outstanding supporting cast (Emma Thompson, Viola Davis, Jeremy Irons, Margo Martindale, Emmy Rossum), and a very impressive turn by Ehrenreich as the bookish, conflicted protagonist. Definitely worth a gander.

DISAPPOINTMENT: 'The Great Gatsby'

Expectations were high when it was revealed that Leonardo DiCaprio would be taking on the role of bootlegging millionaire Jay Gatsby, and reuniting with his Romeo + Juliet director Baz Luhrmann. The rest of the cast seemed great on paper, as well: Carey Mulligan as Daisy, Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway, Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan, the list goes on. But it’s a hot, bloated, over-stylized mess from start to finish. “In addition to the dizzying parties and the narration literally splashed across the screen, Luhrmann’s film employs a variety of other visual tricks, presented in 3-D, that are wildly unnecessary, including split-screens, newsreel footage, and a constantly twisting camera that pulls away fast for several overhead shots of CGI cities and towns,” I wrote in my review of the film. “The two most groan-worthy moments of the film are the car accident scene with Myrtle, shot in slo-mo—and repeated twice—that’s reminiscent of an overindulgent Zack Snyder action sequence, and when an apparition of Daisy actually appears in the clouds.”

SURPRISE: 'Spring Breakers'

The last film by movie-making provocateur Harmony Korine, Trash Humpers, was a confusing Dadaist mess about a few anarchic geezers (young people in costume) wreaking havoc on the streets of Nashville, Tennessee, so it stood to reason that this gonzo flick about four hot college girls who head down to Florida for spring break, only to fall in with a fugazi white crime lord/rapper by the name of Alien (James Franco, in corn rows), would be a big ol’ mess. And yet, thanks to the stunning performances—Franco is a revelation and Pretty Little Liars’ Ashley Benson impresses as well, beautiful cinematography courtesy of Gaspar Noe collaborator Benoit Debie, and a hypnotizing soundtrack by composer Cliff Martinez (Drive) and Skrillex, Spring Breakers is a wholly engrossing satire of cultural wish fulfillment.

Clay Enos

DISAPPOINTMENT: 'Man of Steel'

The trailer for director Zack Snyder and producer Christopher Nolan’s Superman origin story looked like a wondrous cross between Terrence Malick and Nolan’s Batman films, and yet, this overstuffed CGI-drunk blockbuster was a huge letdown. The chemistry between Clark Kent/Superman (Henry Cavill) and intrepid journalist Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is non-existent, due to the lack of character development, you have no idea why Superman even wants to save this ungrateful humans, and the whole affair soon devolves into an orgy of bodies smashing through buildings, pitting Supes against angry warlord General Zod (Michael Shannon, sporting a ridiculous bowl cut). Pass.

Jaimie Trueblood

SURPRISE: 'Pain & Gain'

Filmmaker Michael Bay has always excelled with buddy black comedies (see: Bad Boys, The Rock), but the explosion-happy director was coming off the atrocious Transformers films, so there was genuine cause for concern here. But this flick about a trio of dim-witted, roided-up Miami body-builders (Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie) who team up to kidnap a shady businessman (Tony Shalhoub) and fleece him for everything he’s got, is a really fun ride. Wahlberg and Johnson are hilarious—especially Johnson as a coked-up buffoon—,the supporting cast (Ed Harris, Rebel Wilson, etc.) are entertaining, and Bay never lets you stop to breathe, pumping this demented flick up with more juice than Jose Canseco.

Susie Allnutt

DISAPPOINTMENT: 'Trance'

I’m a big fan of Danny Boyle’s, but it seems that for every thrillingly alive film (Trainspotting) there’s a clumsy B-movie (A Life Less Ordinary), and here, on the heels of Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours, as well as his fantastic direction of the London Olympics’ opening ceremony, I expected better than this. This flick, dealing with art thieves and post-hypnotic suggestion, has a fine cast (James McAvoy, Rosario Dawson, Vincent Cassel) and is beautifully shot, but the clunky narrative makes so many left-turns that it brings you around in a maddening circle. It’s far too clever and “cool” for its own good.

Jaap Buitendijk

SURPRISE: 'World War Z'

This blockbuster adaptation of Max Brooks’s post-apocalyptic zombie novel of the same name was supposed to be the next Ishtar. We were treated to story-after-story about the production nightmares, from star Brad Pitt and filmmaker Marc Forster not getting along to last-minute script doctoring and reshoots (including an altered ending), to a budget that ballooned to north of $200 million. But this zombie flick/geopolitical thriller turned out to be pretty damn fun, featuring a fine performance by Pitt as a former U.N. investigator who travels the world to stop a zombie pandemic, some outstanding set-pieces like the wild sequence of zombies storming a walled-in Jerusalem, and a magnetic supporting turn by Daniella Kertesz as Segen, a female Israeli soldier who helps Pitt. Not a disaster by any stretch.

DISAPPOINTMENT: 'Only God Forgives'

The reteaming of Drive director-star duo Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling had cineastes—and young girls aged 15-30—eagerly anticipating its arrival. And yet, this pretentious Oedipal saga about a young American (Gosling) in Bangkok who’s tasked by his overbearing crime lord mom (Kristin Scott Thomas) with killing a mysterious Thai policeman to avenge the death of his despicable brother is all style and precious little substance. It’s a painstakingly slow and very heavy-handed affair—Refn’s lame attempt at aping the red-hued noir style of Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible. Considering the talents involved, people expected more.

Barry Wetcher

SURPRISE: 'Now You See Me'

I had no interest in seeing this strange flick by Louis Letterier (The Incredible Hulk) about a group of con artist-magicians (Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, Dave Franco), who rob banks, but it turned out to be a fun B-movie packed with impressive set pieces and visual effects, cheeky turns left and right (including Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine in supporting roles), and fun romantic chemistry between a cop (Mark Ruffalo) and Interpol agent (Melanie Laurent) tasked with bringing down “The Four Horsemen” magicians. Definitely worth a rental.

Gemma La Mana

DISAPPOINTMENT: 'The Heat'

I know this buddy cop comedy raked in over $229 million worldwide but, given that it was filmmaker Paul Feig’s highly anticipated follow-up to Bridesmaids, and the conceit—Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock as a rough Boston cop and prim and proper FBI agent, respectively, who band together to take down the mob—I expected a lot more from this one. With the exception of a sloppy drunken bonding sequence at a bar, there aren’t nearly enough fun hijinks with these two likeable stars, the jokes are pretty by-the-book, the supporting characters are total non-starters, and Taran Killam’s villain isn’t very enticing.

Wilson Webb

SURPRISE: 'Prisoners'

On paper, Denis Villaneuve’s noir-thriller looks more than a little absurd. A Pennsylvania carpenter named Keller Dover (?), played by Hugh Jackman, has his daughter snatched up in broad daylight, so imprisons the man he suspects of the crime (Paul Dano) and tortures him until he confesses. Meanwhile, Detective Loki (?), played by Jake Gyllenhaal, is on the case as well. But, thanks to an engaging, labyrinthine plot, fantastic turns by Jackman and Gyllenhaal, a fine supporting cast (Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo), and some ace lensing by celebrated cinematographer Roger Deakins, Prisoners emerged as one of the best neo-noirs since Se7en, and has a fantastic ending.

Frank Connor

DISAPPOINTMENT: 'The Fifth Estate'

Bill Condon’s biopic of Julian Assange features a fine turn by Benedict Cumberbatch as the WikiLeaks founder and a solid supporting turn by Daniel Bruhl as his former right hand man, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, but fails in just about every other respect. It doesn’t provide a full-bodied portrait of Assange, only vaguely alluding to his past; doesn’t explain how WikiLeaks is funded; doesn’t touch on Assange’s Sweden incident and subsequent asylum(s) around the world; doesn’t mention Domscheit-Berg’s destruction of the Bank of America files; and is packed with cloying visual devices, e.g. a virtual office/dreamscape to visualize what’s going on in Domscheit-Berg’s head. It really only shares the perspective of the narrator, Domscheit-Berg, and thus, comes off like a lamer version of The Social Network.

Jaap Buitendijk

SURPRISE: 'Rush'

I gotta say, after the cinematic abomination that is The Dilemma, I lost almost all faith in Ron Howard as a director. What an awful piece of shit. Also, Formula One doesn’t interest me in the slightest. So I was very surprised by how much I enjoyed Rush. The film chronicles the 1976 Formula One season, pitting the meticulous Austrian Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) against the swaggering, womanizing Brit, James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth), and it’s a hell of a fun ride. The acting is top-notch, especially Bruhl, whose performance is like a high-wire act, dancing back and forth between despicable and sympathetic, the lensing by Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire) is gorgeous, and the script by Peter Morgan (The Queen) is airtight. Howard assembled quite the team for this one, and it really paid off. 

Kimberley French

DISAPPOINTMENT: 'Elysium'

Neill Blomkamp’s debut feature, the Johannesburg-set sci-fi flick District 9, signaled the arrival of an immensely talented filmmaker with a wholly unique palette. So, anticipation was high for his follow-up, which featured a way bigger budget ($115 million compared to $30 million), bigger stars (Matt Damon and Jodie Foster), and an interesting class warfare conceit. And yet, despite a game turn by Damon and a few nifty action sequences, the film’s script—and the film’s narrative—is a total mess. The sociological issues it tackles are way too on-the-nose (classism, immigration, etc.), the plot meanders, and the final third devolves into a generic action flick. Too bad.

Picturehouse

SURPRISE: 'Metallica: Through the Never'

I didn’t have any interest in seeing this 3D concert/narrative hybrid film. For one, Nimrod Antal, who helmed that lame Predators flick with Adrien Brody, directed it. Also, I don’t really give a damn about Metallica anymore—or at least I thought I didn’t. However, after seeing this bizarre 3D IMAX thriller, which melds the story of a dedicated Metallica roadie (Dane DeHaan) who embarks on a surreal journey after being tasked with getting fuel to a stalled truck belonging to the band’s entourage, and concert footage of the band performing, I left very impressed. The concert footage is kickass and coalesces well with the stunning visuals in the DeHaan storyline, resulting in a hypnotic ode to rock ‘n’ roll. 

Giles Keyte

DISAPPOINTMENT: 'Fast & Furious 6'

Fast Five, the Brazil-set fifth installment in the Fast and the Furious franchise, was the most entertaining action film hit theaters in years. It featured beautiful sequences (a chase through the favelas, a heist involving a safe strapped to a car that may have destroyed half of Rio, etc.), amusing tongue-in-cheek performances—by a pumped-up Diesel and sweat-drenched Dwayne Johnson, especially—and a fun soundtrack. It was like The Italian Job on steroids. The entire team returned for the London-set sixth film, and unfortunately, the magic just wasn’t there this time. The action sequences paled in comparison to the first film, there was less fun horseplay among the heist crew, Diesel and Johnson didn’t butt heads, and the bad guy, played by Luke Evans, was lame. Oh well.