And into the breach I step.
It was not just a strong year for genre movies, but a year in which all types of filmed entertainment borrowed heavily from the geek worlds, with an Anna Karenina set in a TARDIS-like theater of infinite inside space, and an Oscar-favorite procedural about a CIA analyst whose obsession with minute details and lack of a love life contributed to her finding Osama bin Laden. It was a year where some our favorite properties swung for the fences and hit, like The Avengers with Joss Whedon, while others, such as John Carter, went all in and lost the house. It was a year when – regardless what you think of the final outcome – Rupert Murdoch’s company gave Ridley Scott a couple hundred million to make a movie that says God doesn’t exist, but rather we were created by pissed-off albinos to incubate their weapons of mass destruction. Plotholes aside, I like living in a media world that permits such things. It was also a year when geek franchises from the ’60s – Bond and Avengers – got an upgrade, and gamers came of filmmaking age.
We may at times – okay, often – argue about what “geek” is, and there might be one or two entries on the list that allow for a more expansive notion. But this is a focused top ten – you won’t see, for example, Michael Haneke’s Amour on this list, though it would easily make it on a comprehensive one. And when you get to my number one, I’m fairly sure most of you will scratch your head (I would have, too, had not it been called to my attention at the last minute). Just bear in mind: this is not about box office or outside acclaim, but about my assessments. If you disagree with them, do the opposite of what I say every time and you’ll be good to go.
10. Wreck-It Ralph.
On the one hand, yes, this does follow a classic Disney formula of the outsider finding acceptance and a new family. On the other, it’s so loaded with gamer in-jokes that my former editor suggested it should be called “Easter Egg: The Movie.” Any cartoon that can incorporate the classic NES cheat code and a kill screen at the end of the credits deserves our kudos.
A canny reversal of zombie cliches (the undead are more scared of us than vice versa), a genuinely scary and temperamental witch, and the metaphor of psychic powers as a stand-in for nerddom. Yes, Norman’s obsessed with toys and collectibles – because it’s his way of dealing with his day-to-day ghostly conversations. Now, if only the merchandising department would actually make some of that cool swag Norman has in his room…
8. The Cabin in the Woods.
One of two movies this year that changed my opinion of Joss Whedon, and you can probably guess what the other one is. I’ve always appreciated that the man has talent at telling a tale, yet could rarely get past his cooler-than-thou dialogue – Buffy’s teens always sounded to me like middle-aged Nerdist podcasters, while Firefly’s predictions of more-complicated-than-necessary sentences never rang true. But with this spot-on satire of basically every modern horror movie ever made (at once!) he won my heart. Talk away.
7. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
Take the Lord of the Rings formula, apply it to a book I prefer, add humor, a better theme tune and some radically new and ultra-clear visuals…I’m in. Make it into five movies if you like, Peter Jackson. As long as they’re all as fun as this.
6. Robot and Frank.
Some good old science fiction of ideas here, in more of a literary tradition than a comic-book one. Frank (Frank Langella) is a retired thief with dementia. When he’s given a robot assistant (voice of Peter Sarsgaard), the machine logically determines that his mental health will recover if he does something he’s especially good at – so it proceeds to help him be a burglar again. Funny and devastating in equal measure; one moment in particular makes the reality of dementia sink in like a sudden anvil to the forehead. But ultimately, the fact that it’s Frank Langella and a robot ought to be enough to get you to check it out.
5. Life of Pi.
Here’s where we may hit controversy. Does this count as fantasy? For my money, the sequence that involves a living island squarely qualifies it as one, and the stunning 3-D visuals add to that case. Or, instead, is this another example of non-genre movies using the tools of geekdom? That’s a question perhaps infinitely more debatable than whether or not the tiger named Richard Parker was ever real. I thought the movie was too certain that he was…then found that nobody agreed with me. So points back for the ambiguity I wasn’t sure it had enough of. Point being: tigers rule.
4. The Avengers.
Why? Because when it hits you that you’re watching Iron Man fight Thor with Captain America interfering, in a movie, and it’s not sucking…yeah, that’s a good feeling.
3. John Carter.
Here’s how you know Disney never planned for John Carter to be a hit – no action figures. No merchandise of any kind, in fact, was on display when I visited Disneyland in the spring, save one collector pin with Taylor Kitsch’s face on it. It’s a shame. I loved how the movie deviated from traditional three-act structure to a story that felt more like chapters in a book, or how it followed the climax with massive heartbreak that was only remedied by the promise of more to come…which, now, won’t be happening. Willem Dafoe’s Tars Tarkas is exactly what was missing from the Star Wars prequels – a jaded, bitter old soldier who’ll nonetheless do the right thing when it’s clear that he must. And the fact that you can have mass-murder in a kids movie so long as you make people bleed blue? Disturbing. But a great way to get around the MPAA. I rarely long for sequels, preferring to take movies as they come, but this is one franchise I’m sad to see not happen.
2. Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie.
In big-studio movies, the standard “revenge of the nerd(s)” template involves a fight for justice against unfairly sadistic jocks, and ends with the world seeing that the nerds are actually sensitive, everymen who are heroic in their own way. In real life, that isn’t always the way it goes – some nerds get so obsessive in their hate-fueled crusade that they go way past normal and become severely off-putting, and Tim and Eric deliberately ride that horse as far as it will go, and beyond, arguably beating it to death and raping the corpse afterward. Skewering Hollywood underdog comedy cliches in a way that dares you to remain sympathetic if you can but hate yourself for it later – let’s all save the shopping mall that sells recycled toilet paper! – this anti-comedy was nonetheless responsible for my biggest laughs from a movie this year. It’s like that KDOC New Year’s special – if it had been cleverly scripted to achieve exactly the same result.
1. It’s Such A Beautiful Day.
Ehwha? What to the who now? This never came to your local multiplex, and I was only made aware of its existence when a colleague informed me of its existence. Having been a solid Don Hertzfeldt fan since before “Rejected” (if you haven’t seen that particular Oscar-winning short, watch it right fucking now. You’ll thank me), I had to check it out before the year was over. And for me, it works on every level as a representation of the modern anxiety-ridden mind, through Hertzfeldt’s surprisingly expressive trademark stick-figure animation combined with other in-camera and faded-film effects. It’s funny in its casually random asides, disturbing in its ability to mirror the viewer’s paranoia, and nicely ironic in the way it gives you a “happy” ending you don’t expect.
It’s a re-edit of three shorter pieces together into just over an hour, but it was released as a feature, and it counts here because I say it does. If you’d like to see the first part, I can arrange that: just watch the video below. The rest is available to buy on DVD at Hertzfeldt’s site. I recommend it.