It has been a disastrous summer for movies. Compared to last year, box office was down over 17 percent. (Much of this has been attributed to woefully under-performing clunkers The Lone Ranger, White House Down and After Earth.) But even of those films that did make money, few were actually any good. Instead, you had to go to a small theater to see most of the quality movies, like: The Way, Way Back, Fruitvale Station, Frances Ha, Before Midnight and Much Ado About Nothing. So here are my picks for the best and worst of 2013 … so far.
Best Movie: Mud
Two boys meet a fugitive named Mud (Matthew McConaughey) hiding out on island in the Mississippi river. It is a simple story, yet epic in its presentation. And may finally net McConaughey an Oscar nomination.
Runner-Up: Fruitvale Station
Most Disappointing: Animated features
Monsters University and Turbo were fun but slight. Epic was visually stunning but little else. Despicable Me 2 was a complete disappointment. From Up on Poppy Hill was enjoyable but lacked heart. All eyes will be on this fall’s Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 and Disney’s Frozen. Otherwise, by year-end, it’ll be hard to even come up with an Oscar shortlist.
Runner-Up: Man of Steel
Best Actress: Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
At this point it’s almost redundant to say Cate Blanchett is great in something. Even if the movie is pure crap… ahem, Robin Hood… she’s like Meryl Streep: always marvelous. But in Blue Jasmine — Woody Allen’s acerbic ode to greed — Blanchett is remarkable. As Jasmine, the beleaguered wife of an imprisoned investor (a la Bernie Madoff), Blanchett makes you root for this utterly selfish and unlikable woman. And as Jasmine breaks down and diminishes, Blanchett seamlessly pivots from pathetic wallowing to self-righteous indignation. It is a sad character, completely realized.
Runners-Up: Octavia Spencer, Fruitvale Station; Vera Farmiga, The Conjuring
Best Actor: Michael B. Jordan, Fruitvale Station
Michael B. Jordan makes it look easy. His portrayal of the real Oliver Grant (a young man senselessly killed at an Oakland train station) is effortlessness, never once do we see the wheels or gears in his performance. Each of his scenes — intimate moments with his girlfriend, racing his daughter to the car, trying to get his old job back — feel authentic and natural. Even when he gets into a fight, it feels like it’s being captured live on video camera. It’s a breakout performance for the 26-year-old actor.
Runners-Up: Matthew McConaughey, Mud; Michael Douglas, Beyond the Candelabra
Most Unnecessary Sequel: A Good Day to Die Hard
It’s been a great ride, but enough already. It’s time for John McClane to ride off into the proverbial sunset before we’re forced to watch Die Hard: Electric Boogaloo.
Runners-Up: Smurfs 2; Grownups 2
Great Premise, Lousy Movie: The Purge
One night a year, all crime (including murder) is legal. An interesting idea. Too bad we’re stuck inside a retread of The Strangers.
Runner-Up: Oz the Great and Powerful
Worst Movie: Movie 43
What is unbelievable is not that this offensive, insipid, disjointed, painfully unfunny movie was actually made. No, what’s most unbelievable is that it attracted 7 Oscar nominated or winning actors/actresses to join its cast. I guess the scene where a woman goes out on a blind date with a man with testicles attached to his chin was just too good for Kate Winslet and Hugh Jackman to pass up.
Runners-Up: After Earth; Lone Ranger
Most Surprising: The Conjuring
From the previews, I was expecting another ho-hum haunted house movie. Instead, The Conjuring boasts great acting homages to classic horror movies, old-fashioned, door-slamming scares, and some pretty spectacular ’70s clothes.
Runners-Up: The Way, Way Back; This is the End; Much Ado about Nothing
The Movie Trend that Needs to Stop: Mass loss of life and property
Watson Technical Consulting, for Buzzfeed, provided the following estimates for Man of Steel’s final battle: 129,000 dead, 1 million injured, and $750 billion in damage. But MOS wasn’t alone. The summer was rife with destruction: Pacific Rim, Star Trek into Darkness, etc. It’s time for movie makers to move on from this trope. I’m sure they believe battles are visually better when there’s flying debris, shattering glass and scattering hordes. But often these overproduced, disaster-porn scenes are exhausting to watch.
Runners-Up: Cinematic adaptations of TV shows; superhero movies
Best Guilty Pleasure: Pacific Rim
Say what you will about the acting or the (intentionally) slim plot. But Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim is gorgeous, ridiculously fun and features big, frickin’ robots fighting big, frickin’ monsters. What else could you want in a summer movie?
Runners-Up: The Heat; Fast and Furious 6
What the Hell Was That?: Spring Breakers
Things I don’t understand about this movie: (1) why the girls don’t just call their parents instead of robbing a restaurant to get money for spring break (2) why there is so much voiceover whispering (3) why this was shot like Natural Born Killers (4) why James Franco is in it. But the biggest question of all: why is this movie appearing on so many mid-2013 best lists?
Runner-Up: The stellar casts of Movie 43 and Big Wedding