I saw at least 60 new movies this year, more than 50 in theaters. Obviously, I didn't see close to the 400-plus films released. But of those I did see, clear winners and losers came to the fore. Here are the five I enjoyed most and the five I enjoyed least.
Favorites 5. “Thor: The Dark World”
The post-“Avengers” return of the thunder god beats out “Iron Man 3” only because: A. I like Thor better than Iron Man; B. Someone needs to write an Iron Man script that doesn't involve all kinds of other Iron Men; and C. Tom Hiddleston as Loki in “Thor” is the only Marvel character who is equally as entertaining as Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark.
4. “Pacific Rim”
This is a simple call. Director Guillermo Del Toro has a tremendous ability to create profound spectacle infused with plenty of heart. Here he brings us giant man-made robots operated by two-person teams who share a mental link, battling gigantic monsters from a dimensional gateway beneath the ocean. At stake is humanity's survival. Visually wonderful and somehow emotionally believable, the film gets better with each subsequent viewing.
3. “Star Trek: Into Darkness”
Director J.J. Abrams' follow-up to his 2009 reboot of “Star Trek” did not disappoint. His spot-on young cast of actors fully embrace their roles as the original Enterprise crew in an alternate timeline. Chris Pine as Capt. Kirk, Zachary Quinto as Mr. Spock, and Karl Urban as Dr. “Bones” McCoy are especially wonderful. Benedict Cumberbatch's fresh take on Khan, the genetically enhanced uber-villain portrayed in earlier episodes by a scenery-gulping Ricardo Montalban, is properly chilling. Abrams' eye for visually amazing action and intergalactic grandeur fuels my hopes for an amazing “Star Wars” relaunch in 2015.
2. “Man of Steel”
While Marvel Studios continued their impressive string of successful films this year by sticking with their tried-and-true (and enormously popular) formula of stunning superheroic action blended with both humor and humanity, DC (Warner Bros.) gave Superman the “Dark Knight” treatment, courtesy of producer Christopher Nolan, and the results were a film that was both mind-blowing to watch and actually about “bigger” things. Things like honor, loyalty, courage and faith. Visionary director Zack Snyder managed, with the help of cast standouts Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as Ma and Pa Kent, to portray the Superman saga as both a galaxy-spanning mega-fable and our first look at a “real-world” Man of Steel. Some saw flaws in terms of the scenes of heedless collateral damage in Smallville and Metropolis, Superman's willingness to kill a vicious, deadly opponent (played with intimidating gusto by an impressive Michael Shannon) and his lack of red underwear. I saw a convincing portrayal of what might happen if beings with such awesome power came to blows on our planet. And, let's face it, wearing your undies on the outside of your clothes has always seemed a bit odd.
Director Neil Blomkamp's follow-up to 2009's outstanding “District 9” confirmed what I suspected after seeing that movie, that a major new force in science fiction was on the rise. Blomkamp demonstrates again, as he did with his first effort, that it's possible to make an exciting and suspenseful action movie that also revolves around larger themes. In this case, the struggles of “have-nots” in the face of the “haves,” who are so protective of their bounty that they feel compelled to deny even a “trickle-down” portion of it to reach the less fortunate. Everyman hero Matt Damon ups his game in “Elysium,” both in terms of his physical presence, and in his intensity. Blomkamp's extraordinary visual acumen is on display in each and every shot. Sharlto Copley proves equally deft at portraying a maniacally homicidal villain as he did the harried and brutally victimized bureaucrat of “District 9.” As the net is cast for a director to replace J.J. Abrams for “Star Trek 3,” I would hope that Blomkamp would be a prime candidate. After all, the original series often tackled broader societal themes, and I think he might be just the director to infuse the franchise with a bit of that sensibility.
5. TIE: “Kick-Ass 2” and “Machete Kills” The worst type of sequels are ones where everyone involved seems to believe that the best plan is to basically recycle all of the previous film's high notes while displaying very little enthusiasm for the undertaking. Another characteristic of these sorts of films is to throw in some sort of wrinkle intended to disguise the fact that there is really nothing new going on. In “Kick-Ass 2,” the wrinkle is that Hit Girl may be too busy becoming a young woman to spend much time kicking ***, which results in a tedious “Mean Girls”-style subplot. In “Machete Kills,” the wrinkle consists of a prolonged search for the presumed villain of the film, who, as it turns out, isn't really the main villain. In both cases, where the original films in these series were inventive, nastily funny and filled with numerous scenes of shocking, way-over-the top violence, these chapters feel cheap, repetitive and pointless. And heartless.
4. “After Earth”
Will and Jaden Smith's father-son sci-fi project. How someone like Smith, who has appeared in blockbusters like “Independence Day,” and “Men in Black,” could have mistaken this dreck for the basis of a decent film is beyond me. (Although, he also made “The Wild, Wild West” and “Hancock,” so maybe he just really has no clue what he's doing.) If anyone lets M. Night Shyamalan direct another feature, I might become convinced that no one in Hollywood knows what they're doing. Think of the lamest sci-fi TV show you have ever seen. Watch “After Earth.” See if your opinion of the TV show doesn't improve dramatically.
3. “Spring Breakers”
Many more sophisticated critics than I seemed to genuinely like this movie. After about 20 minutes, I found it utterly unwatchable, in spite of it's highly attractive cast. (Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson and Rachel Korine.) James Franco was no help, either. Luckily, it was a rental.
2. “The Lone Ranger”
I wonder who thought there was an audience for a huge-budget production of “The Lone Ranger.” I wonder who thought that “Pirates of the Caribbean”-helmer Gore Verbinski would be the perfect director for such a film. I wonder who thought that a charisma-less, almost unknown actor like Armie Hammer would make a great masked hero of the west. I wonder who felt that Johnny Depp would make a wonderful Tonto. (Actually, Depp is probably the only decent thing about this film. Sadly, that's not saying much.) I wonder why anyone who watched a pre-screening of this movie felt so little compassion for moviegoers that they didn't trim a butt-numbing 149-minute running time.
1. “The Counselor”
Director Ridley Scott has made some classic films, including “Alien,” “Blade Runner,” “Thelma and Louise,” “Gladiator” and “Black Hawk Down.” With “The Counselor, “ he can mark another cinematic milestone, having now made one of the very worst films of all time.
This soulless, pointless, offensive, boring, disgusting waste of resources is a tribute to the foolishness of its all-star cast, including Brad Pitt, Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz, Penelope Cruz and Michael Fassbender. It is among the most terrible things I've ever seen in a theater, including the time a friend threw up on the back of someone's head. The film does contain an important message, though. Apparently, it's a bad idea to involve oneself with Mexican drug cartels. Who knew? We can only pray that in the future Mr. Scott will confine himself to pointless, incomprehensible but great-looking science fiction movies like “Prometheus,” and maybe the boring deconstruction of beloved legends, as in 2010's “Robin Hood.”
Unlike “The Counselor,” which stands as a stain on the very fabric of human civilization, at least those films are relatively harmless. Oh yeah, one more thing. Please just put that whole “Blade Runner” sequel idea out of your mind, Mr. Scott. I'm begging you.