At Vanity Fair, writer Bruce Handy argues that 2013 “might possibly be” the greatest year for movies since 1939, when Gone With The Wind, Stagecoach, The Wizard Of Oz, and many other classics were released. He then lists a ton of 2013 movies, some of which he’s seen, many of which he hasn’t, that prove in his mind that this (might possibly) go down in history as one of the all-time great “movie years.” There’s a subjective element to this sort of thing, and he acknowledges that some may hate the movies he loves and vice versa. But, Handy writes, “I’d bet on 2013’s staying power even after the dust settles.”
First of all, yes: It’s kind of crazy to declare a movie year’s historical legacy two months before that year ends. With many of the most promising titles still unseen (by Handy and the public at large), without a single award handed out by the Academy or critics, it’s awfully early to compare 2013 to movies that have had decades to grow or shrink in the public’s memory and imagination. Just a few weeks ago, many critics were writing about the summer of 2013 as one of the worst in history. Mere days later, we’re ready to declare this one of the best years ever? It seems a little premature (and more than a little hyperbolic). Putting 2013 over 1939 (or 1977, or 1994, or any year) at this point is like picking the winner of the Kentucky Derby while the horses who will eventually run in the race are still foals.
But let’s pretend for a second that this article was published next January—or in January 2024—instead of today. Even under optimal circumstances, comparing movie years is still sort of an absurd practice. We all do it because as movie geeks, we love to make lists and rankings, and to debate the relative merits of movie X or year Y. But what are we really comparing here? Can we ever definitively say that one batch of movies released in a consecutive 12-month span are better than the ones released in another consecutive 12-month span?
Here’s just some of the evidence Handy offers in favor of 2013:
“Among the more commercial offerings to date, 42 is as good a meat-and-potatoes biopic as has ever been made; The Great Gatsby delivered excellent spectacle and, in hindsight, is probably as good as an adaption as anyone will ever wring from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece (although I still think director Baz Luhrman should have gone whole hog and made it as a musical); World War Z was one of the smartest, best-produced (on the screen if not behind it) summer blockbusters ever, not to mention refreshingly understated given its budget and genre, though it has since been topped by Gravity, which, despite the carping last week of my colleague Juli Weiner and myself, is one of the most gripping and visually spectacular movies I have ever seen. We’re The Millers is as professionally crafted and as funny as the best of the Hope-Crosby road pictures. I have yet to see Captain Phillips, which opens today, but Paul Greengrass is the best action director working today, and he has never made a movie that isn’t smart and propulsive.”
Let’s try not to factor taste into this debate and assume Handy’s position on these movies is correct. For now, all the titles he mentions are objectively good. But are they really superior to the similar ones of another year? Let’s compare these films to similar ones from 2012.
42 might be a good meat-and-potatoes biopic; is it better than 2012’s Lincoln? The Great Gatsby offered great spectacle and a fine adaptation; more spectacle and better adaptation than 2012’s Les Miserables? World War Z was a smart and well-produced blockbuster; was it better or smarter than The Avengers? (Or The Dark Knight Rises? Or Skyfall?) Gravity certainly breaks new ground for visual spectacle, but 2012 had some very compelling and very good-looking science-fiction as well (see: Looper, Prometheus). We’re The Millers might be professionally crafted and as funny as any Hope and Crosby road movie (then again, it might not be), but will it really become a cultural touchstone in the way those movies did, or in the way 2012’s 21 Jump Street already has? I genuinely doubt it. Like Handy, I haven’t seen Captain Phillips yet, but in the realm of morally complex political thrillers, 2012 had Argo and Zero Dark Thirty, and in the realm of great action movies, 2012 had The Raid: Redemption and Sleepless Night.
To make his case, Handy also mentions movies like Nebraska, Inside Llewyn Davis, Her, Mud, The Place Beyond The Pines, Side Effects, Before Midnight, Fruitvale Station, Blue Jasmine, and others. But last year he could have cited The Master, Amour, Beasts Of The Southern Wild, Holy Motors, Moonrise Kingdom, This Is Not A Film, Life Of Pi, Silver Linings Playbook, or Django Unchained. Or Compliance. Or The Cabin In The Woods. Or The Kid With The Bike. Or Oslo, August 31st. Or Bernie. Or Cloud Atlas.
For all the excellent movies Handy lists from 2013 (and more he doesn’t), there are also some absolutely abysmal 2013 movies, stuff that’s as bad as anything that’s ever been foisted on the moviegoing public. Movie 43 and A Haunted House tested the limits of the term “comedy.” Hansel And Gretel: Witch Hunters destroyed a beloved fairy tale. The Internship was more feature-length product-placement than feature. The only reason Kick-Ass 2 isn’t the worst comic-book movie of the year is because R.I.P.D. was even worse. There were not one but two of the worst sequels in history (A Good Day To Die Hard and The Hangover Part III)—and G.I. Joe: Retaliation and The Last Exorcism Part II weren’t far behind. I haven’t seen The Smurfs 2, Identity Thief, Safe Haven, Percy Jackson: Sea Of Monsters, Tyler Perry’s Temptation: Confessions Of A Marriage Counselor or Grown Ups 2, but I think it’s safe to say none of them are going into the Movie Hall Of Fame. You give me that batch of titles and tell me to write a piece arguing that 2013 is the worst movie year in history, and I could probably make a decent case.
True, there were plenty of stinkers in 2012 as well. And who knows how many terrible movies were released in 1939 that have since been scattered to the four winds of history. But that’s my point: Comparing movie years based on the 15 or 20 best titles released in that 12-month period is a basically meaningless pursuit, based on a confluence of decisions that are mostly arbitrary.
Granted, we give out Oscars for the best films released in a single calendar year. But what does a release date mean anyway? Some of 2013’s best movies—like Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell—technically premièred at film festivals in 2012. Some of the best movies I’ve seen in theaters in 2013—like Frank Pavich’s Jodorowsky’s Dune—don’t open until 2014. The timing of theatrical releases is determined by many factors, none of which has to do with the world’s directors getting together, Star Chamber-style, to plan out what is going to come out this or that year. If a year’s movies make up some kind of cinematic corpus, it’s an almost entirely unplanned and coincidental one—not to mention one that’s a lot more complicated than the handful of movies that get voted on for awards.
It’s great to be enthusiastic, and it’s exciting that there are enough good 2013 movies to even have this discussion. But in reality, great movies and terrible movies come out all the time. In reality, every year is the best and worst year for movies, with its share of classics and crud. Is 2013 the greatest year for movies since 1939? I really couldn’t say. But it’s definitely the greatest year for movies since 2012. And the worst year, too.