Few of the movies I saw this year, except for Gravity and Captain Philips are going to make the Oscar Best Film list. Most of what I saw were science fiction, horror, or comic book movies. I enjoyed them, but they were not what I'd even call 'great cinema.' They were pop artifacts from a year filled with explosions, fist fights, and space ship battles. Still, any year where I got to watch a rocket powered fist slam into an unsuspecting Cthulhu beast probably has something going for it.
In any normal year I would be able to get to just about all of the science fiction movies except for one or two. In recent years this has not been even remotely possible. We are definitely living through a kind of bubble economy for science fiction and comic books. When it crashes I'll be sad, but for the moment it seems like every hair-brain scheme gets some kind of financial backing: Ender's Game? Sure, here's some cash. Giant robots fight kaiju? Absolutely, here's your money. Unfilmable quasi-documentary on zombies, we just have a change or two and you're good to go...
5) Europa Report. This movie is sneaky. At first glance it's a found-footage horror film, not all that different from 2011's Apollo 18. But that's just the window dressing I'm sure they used to win funding. At its heart it's a hard sci-fi space opera like Gravity and 2001. The only creature appears late in the final reel and it doesn't seem malicious as much as very territorial. So for the rest of the movie we have a realistic look at a manned mission to the Jovian system, complete with discussions of gravity and extraterrestrial life, classed up with monologue from Neil DeGrasse Tyson. It was not all that hard to imagine this privately funded mission being something similar to a manned exploration of Mars. The characters and story are fairly rote but I'm giving this movie a nod just for the way it hacks existing movie tropes to talk about something more interesting.
4) Pacific Rim. Highly entertaining. I want to see more of the world this movie created and I'm sorry that it wraps up in a such a self-contained way because I definitely think this movie could've benefited from a more open-ended approach, not a neat and snug conclusion. Again, the plot of this story is conventional but the details are what makes this movie for me work. Each of the giant robots is a fully realized product of its parent culture. Each of the various Kaiju seems to have a story of its own. The idea of the 'drift' could've been a movie all on its own. If Marvel can convince someone to spin-off its movie franchise into Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., can't Del Toro get someone to back a police procedural in San Francisco tracking down black market operatives in Kaiju parts?
3) Captain Philips. Every time I thought I was going to the theater to watch this movie, something else would distract me. Eventually I had to wait until a lull period where there was literally nothing else my wife and I could agree to watch together except for this movie. And I loved it. Tom Hanks is amazing. The story, while not without controversy, is compelling. It also has one of my favorite moments in movies this year, the Somali pirates' look of bewilderment as a SEAL commando rattles off their names, families, and friends. I love that the moment is not exactly reassuring; the pirates are shocked and Captain Philips looks disturbed. In a year where Snowden showed us just what the NSA is capable of, it's instructive to see how information the US military has access to. Sure, these were unsympathetic pirates, but they were living on the other side of the world, on a veritable island in the net. How much do you think the government knows about you and I?
2) The Conjuring. James Wan reminds me of the Ramones. Not because of he wears leather jackets or has a questionable haircut, but in overall philosophy. The Ramones set out to do something very simple - strip away all the parts of rock n' roll that were boring and just make a song out of the cool stuff. The Conjuring is a horror movie that strips away all of the boring useless clutter in the average horror movie to get right down to business. How do you scare someone? I mean, really, scare someone. Wan is quickly making a career of this notion. The first Insidious movie was clever, but The Conjuring is nearly a perfect example of how to use atmospheric details, lighting, staging, and camera work to create a sense of dread. Everyone knows that the creepy dark basement is going to be haunted, but the trick is make the entity in the basement unique, to have it get under your skin. One way is to suggest far more than can be seen on the screen. Most of the horror in this movie happens just off screen or deep within impenetrable shadow. Not very ground-breaking to be sure, but damned effective. In a movie crafted with this much skill, I'm willing to overlook the questionable parts of the story - the problematic source material and attitude towards Wiccans. Other than Del Toro, Wan would be my pick to do a Lovecraft adaptation.
1) Gravity. In the final moments of the film, Sandra Bullock's Chinese re-entry module crash-lands in a lake, bursts into flames and starts filling with water. It was about then my wife cried out, 'oh, come on, not again!' This is a movie that puts you through the ringer. Very little of the movie is wasted motion, or free of tension. And I think that's its biggest success - telling a simple story simply. Now that simple story involves next-level special effects and top-notch acting from Bullock and Clooney, but none of that detracts from the point of the film, which is how does someone survive an impossible situation? I'm sure that had a lot to do with its box office success but is this film really just 'To Build a Fire" in space? A woman vs. nature conflict? I'm not sure. Parts of the movie, the constant use of fetal imagery, the metaphors of birth and evolution, seem to suggest a deeper significance. It was almost as if 2001 was rolled into a tight little ball and pulled inside-out, the same meditation on man's place in a cold and pitiless universe minus monoliths.
Honorable Mention: Upstream Color, Shane Carruth made a name for himself with "Primer," which is still my favorite time-travel movie. Here he pulls back into a haze of identity questions and impressionistic cinematography. The effect is no less disturbing or thought-provoking.
Dishonorable Mention: Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug. You had one job, Peter Jackson, one job. Tell the story of Bilbo Baggins and a Dragon called Smaug. Why couldn't we have a movie that did that?