This was a good year to argue about movies. A lot of films inspired powerful reactions, either positive or negative, among audiences. Some of 2013's movies are destined to be among our all-time favorites, while others will be reviled forever. Here are the 10 best and 10 worst science fiction and fantasy movies of 2013.
Top image: John Pedigo for io9.
In particular, 2013 will remembered as the year Steven Spielberg predicted the death of the blockbuster movie, and people took it seriously. Because this past summer was a discouraging year for fans of huge-budget spectacles: It felt as though we were living in the aftermath of another writer's strike. We could have populated our list of the year's worst genre movies just with summer franchise films. (Unlike the summers of 2011 and 2012, when there were way more big pictures that were either good or great.)
So here are our picks for best and worst movies, which we arrived at after lots and lots of heated debate of our own:
Best movies of 2013
10. The Conjuring
There were a few superb horror films this year — we almost included Mama as well — but The Conjuring was the rare horror movie that was actually kind of heart-warming. Director James Wan puts a lot of energy into making you care deeply about the husband-and-wife demon-hunting team of Ed and Lorraine Warren. Plus this movie is just jam-packed with inventive, clever scares and some plot twists that wind up making total sense. It's the antidote to all those sadistic horror films where you root for the characters to die.
9. Iron Man 3
This is one film that's going to be polarizing — in particular, the handling of Tony Stark's comics nemesis, the Mandarin, is never going to sit right with fans. The ending, also, might seem a bit pat. But neither of those things touches the heart of this movie: a brilliantly emotional journey through post-traumatic stress and hubris, in which Tony Stark finds redemption by going back to basics. In a year crammed with dark, brooding superheroes, this movie really felt as though it had a personal story to tell, and told it with incredible deftness. We also loved Thor: The Dark World's brilliant comic timing and insane final set piece, a lot.
A mother-daughter vampire duo come to a seaside town, but an all-male vampire society is hunting them, in Neil Jordan's first vampire film since Interview With a Vampire. Many of Jordan's striking images will lodge in your brain after watching this movie — but so will the characters and the choices they struggle with. Saoirse Ronan and Gemma Arterton brilliantly capture the power and loneliness of being two people against the world, and this is the closest we've seen in a decade to a movie about vampires who are real people, instead of clichés.
7. This is the End
This was also a great year for apocalyptic comedies — Warm Bodies and The World's End were strong candidates for the "best" list — but even so, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg's raucous comedy was a fantastic surprise. A weird mash-up of "celebrities playing fucked-up versions of themselves" humor and apocalyptic hijinks, this movie absolutely should not have worked. But This is the End keeps you alternately laughing and freaking out — only to reveal a somewhat more clever take on the end of days than most serious apocalyptic movies.
6. The Europa Report
This low-budget movie about the first humans to visit Jupiter's moon Europa makes an impressive effort to be scientifically accurate and realistic — but it's also emotionally and psychologically realistic. This is a "found footage" film in which the disjointed footage really does feel like a artifact from a lost expedition. This film captures perfectly the juxtaposition between the claustrophobic "stuck in a can" feeling of being in a space capsule and the vast wonder of space all around, and how the latter helps people endure the former. One of the best hard science fiction films we've seen in a long, long time.
Spike Jonze, director of Adaptation and Being John Malkovich, turns his gift for inventive weirdness towards examining our relationship with technology — and the result is both hilarious and disarming. Her takes place in a near future when strong artificial intelligence exists, and Joaquin Phoenix plays a recently divorced man who falls in love with the AI on his phone (voiced by Scarlett Johansson.) It could be cheesy or obvious, but Phoenix creates a complex portrait of a man moving out of emotional isolation. And Jonze uses his wacky premise to question some of our fixed assumptions about identity, sexuality and love.
4. Hunger Games: Catching Fire
The first Hunger Games movie was one of our favorite films of last year, and we did not think the sequel could match it — much less top it. But amazingly enough, the movie in which Katniss copes with the consequences of her victory is even more intense and thrilling than that victory was. Much like Iron Man 3, this is a story of a hero coping with PTSD and the weight of a victor's crown — except that this film also packs in a lot of complicated political messages about co-optation and rebellion.
3. Pacific Rim
We saw plenty of 9/11 at the movies this year — but Guillermo del Toro's robots-vs-monsters saga wisely steered a different course, looking towards World War II instead. The result is a beautiful story of sacrifice, and a desperate fight against overwhelming odds. The battles in this movie are literally colossal — but they're also examples of action sequences that move the story and characters forward. There are only one or two really tear-jerking scenes in this movie (the red shoe scene, in particular), but there's a wonderful abundance of fist-pumping scenes. Plus this is a movie where heroic scientists help to save the day.
Alfonso Cuarón's first movie since Children of Mencame with stratospheric expectations — but the story of two astronauts adrift in orbit was even better than we'd dared hope. Even as tons of other movies tried to give us massive spectacle and came up empty, this was a movie that turned one person's fight for survival into the most intense roller-coaster of the year. If you weren't too busy hyperventilating and freaking out in your seat, you might be able to hear everyone else in the theater doing the exact same thing. And yet, at its core, this movie is also a beautiful marriage of character development and problem-solving. Science fiction at its best, this is a movie where the problems and solutions are based purely on science.
1. Upstream Color
Shane Carruth made an indelible mark on science fiction movies with the intricate, clever Primer. His second film is also intricate and maybe a bit challenging — but it's also a lot more intense and personal. The weird orchid-pig-parasite in the movie is partly a device to explain why the film's main characters have such a messed-up, unhealthy relationship. What happens if you really are unable to control your behavior? What happens if you're in the grip of something that you can't mitigate or even understand? Carruth uses gorgeous imagery and stark performances to convey with perfect clarity what's going on, instead of spoon-feeding the viewer.
Worst movies of 2013
10. The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones
There's something to be said for going gleefully over the top and just owning your campy weirdness. (Another film this year, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, seizes the "so bad it's good" crown with both hands and shakes it back and forth.) And Mortal Instruments is definitely an insane guilty pleasure. But even though the adaptation of Cassandra Clare's bestselling novel keeps winking at the audience while it throws every story idea ever at the screen, the young-adult fantasy confection winds up feeling a bit too self-indulgent. Mortal Instruments is every fantasy wish-fulfillment trope smushed into one movie, but isn't quite self-aware enough to pull it off.
9. Oz the Great and Powerful
This year's movies were full of empty eye-candy, but none as pointlessly pretty as Sam Raimi's big-budget Wizard of Oz prequel. The director of Army of Darkness forgets to pack the darkness, or the character development, or the storytelling chops this time out. Instead of a real exploration of L. Frank Baum's unnerving world, we get a fluffy story about an obnoxious manchild (James Franco) becoming a man and saving everybody. The witches in this film are mostly useless, and the difference between being a Good Witch or a Bad Witch seems to mostly a matter of fashion choices. Raimi used to understand that fantasy was serious business, no matter how quirky the trappings — but here, he's celebrating style over substance, leaving us all poorer.
8. Insidious Part 2
How does James Wan create such spine-tingling scares in The Conjuring, and then turn around and give us such a lackluster horror movie a short time later? This pointless sequel to the amazing Insidious totally fails to be scary, running us through a terrible collection of horror-movie clichés — but it also gets obsessed with having characters over-explain what's going on, over and over, while it keeps changing the rules of how its supernatural menace works. This movie is like a checklist of what not to do in a horror movie.
7. After Earth
After M. Night Shyamalan's previous directorial effort, The Last Airbender, this clunky space opera feels like a step up. But as we say here, it's still quite bad — just not epically bad. In particular, the more we revisit the overcomplicated/contrived backstory, the nonsensical plotting, and Jaden Smith's wooden/petulant performance as the son of a rigid hero (Will Smith), the less well this movie sits with us. The by-the-numbers story about Kitai Raige facing a succession of mutated animals, while preparing to battle a blind monster that smells fear, winds up feeling pointless, despite Will Smith's best efforts to anchor the whole mess.
6. The Host
After Twilight ended, Stephenie Meyer's other bestseller came to the screen, with director Andrew Niccol (Gattaca) doing his best to make the story of mind-controlling parasites work on the screen. Saoirse Ronan struggles bravely to keep her performance as a young woman and the alien inside her grounded and real, and she's the best thing in a terrible, no good movie. But the cheesy love polygon, the cookie-cutter faux utopia, and the endless melodrama drag this movie down into the pit. It's like a two-hour version of the worst show on The CW, only with more Saoirse Ronan screaming at herself.
5. World War Z
Forget whether this movie was true to Max Brooks' novel — the real litmus test is whether you'd like this movie if it was called Zombie-palooza or Gosh That's a Lot of Zombies. And the answer is... no. Even if you stop pretending this film has something to do with Brooks' masterful oral history, you're still stuck with a godawful mess, full of characters who get introduced and disappear in five minutes, dull action set pieces, and a pancake-flat ending. There's no urgency here, no real terror, and no reason to care about Brad Pitt's dull cipher of a character. In a year of bland special effects orgies, this was the blandest.
This movie had one job. One job. Be a zany supernatural comedy about two dead guys fighting evil dead guys, in the vein of Men in Black and Ghostbusters. And yet, this movie epically flubs that relatively simple task — the humor continually falls flat, while the story is about as un-engaging as it's possible for a relatively coherent narrative to be. Jeff Bridges goes way over the top as veteran RIPD officer Roy Pulsifer, but the movie does nothing to support him and his weird accent and repetitive one-liners start to seem grating rather than charming. A lot of the blame for the failed bromance (and flat comic tone generally) has to go to Ryan Reynolds, the movie's main character. Ideally, we ought to be rooting for Reynolds' character, but his twitchy attempts at charm achieve the opposite effect. Most of all, it's hard to care about why the dead people are escaping the afterlife, why they're vulnerable to Indian food, or why they want the McGuffin thingy. It's like a terrible cartoon that way overstays its welcome.
3. Jack the Giant Slayer
Even by the standards of canned fairy-tale movies, this is a wretched disappointment. Nicolas Hoult plays Jack, a poor lad who gets some magic beans that wind up growing a massive beanstalk to the land of Peter Jackson's rejected giants, where he has to go rescue a princess. This movie has a lot going for it, including Stanley Tucci as a scheming villain and Ewan McGregor as a snarky guard — but from the crappy CG to the lazy gags, this film just feels unfinished and needlessly crappy. This movie uses the "He's standing right behind me, isn't he?" gag not once, but twice. Every time you think Giant Slayer might go in an interesting direction, it rushes headlong towards the most boring possibility instead. There are mindless, pointless, plodding fantasy movies — and then, one step lower, there's this.
2. Star Trek Into Darkness
We've already ranted a lot about our problems with this movie. But here's the thing: in a world that's drowning in sequels and reboots, that try to substitute nostalgia for storytelling, this movie felt like a hideous poster child. The first half of Into Darkness is a competent but not terrific reflection on the Iraq War, in which Starfleet is in danger of being drawn into a war with the Klingons after an unrelated terrorist attack. But the second half devolves into a mixture of nonsense and off-key cover versions of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. J.J. Abrams' first Star Trek made our list of 2009's best movies, because Abrams "managed to make Trek feel fresh again." This time around, he pulls off the opposite achievement, making Trek feel stale.
1. Lone Ranger
Choosing 2013's worst genre movie isn't even difficult. This list could just be Lone Ranger ten times, and we wouldn't be doing it justice. I walked out of Mortal Instruments and The Host giggling at how silly and crazy they were — but I walked out of Lone Ranger feeling a deep existential rage and horror that such a movie could even exist. In a nutshell, the director and star of Pirates of the Caribbean attempt to bring their slapstick-action style to an old-timey Western radio and TV serial. But they also want to address our genocide of the Native Americans — so you get a mixture of unfunny set pieces and real-life historical atrocities, back to back. You want Helena Bonham Carter to deliver a swift kick with her ivory gun leg to everybody involved with this ill-conceived travesty.
Additional reporting by Lynn Rapoport, Meredith Woerner, Rob Bricken, Annalee Newitz and Lauren Davis