I keep trying to come up with my 2013 Top Ten list, but few of the films I've chosen so far give me the same thrill as the ones listed below. Each of the following entries did exactly what they were supposed to do, yet offered much more than expected in the process, whether it be rich humor, unique personality, or copious amounts of over-the-top violence. These are flawed films to be sure, some more than others. None are what you'd call the best of the year. But, you know, the mutt with three legs is always more attractive than the poodle shaved to look like Zsa Zsa Gabor.
In no particular order...
Killing Season immediately handicaps itself in the minds of many thanks to John Travolta's laughably broad depiction of an angry Serbian out to get revenge on the American soldier who shot and left him for dead during the Bosnian War.
I laughed a little too, but once this film gets going it reveals itself as a DTV entry not for its lack of quality but for its lack of modern storytelling bombast. And seriously, accent or no, it's always nice to see Travolta actually act instead of doing his usual "Hey man, I'm the cool step-grandpa!" schtick. This is very much a film where two guys go to war with each other in the woods. That's it. And while it relies a bit too heavily on ping-ponging torture scenes and cartoonish gloating from De Niro followed by speechifying from Travolta, the First Blood feel this film generates is totally earned and sincere. Plus, it has some surprisingly good gore.
Everyone hates Tyler Perry. Fine. I get it. But when hatred for a guy extends so far that you swear off anything bearing his name, that hatred becomes ugly. Tyler Perry did not have much to do with Peeples, other than making its existence possible. And yet people pissed on the ashes of its failure as if they'd won some kind of victory over mediocrity.
While Peeples is far too small to achieve any kind of lasting greatness, it is very good, eons more genuine and fun than we normally get from this sort of pedestrian, cookie-cutter premise. Every character has their own thing going on, the cast is great, and laughs really are in abundance. We are so used to films like this being awful that we forget how good they are when well done. Peeples is extremely well done.
Its box office failure is actually a real shame. Tyler Perry's name gave Tina Gordon Chism a kind of autonomy to make a film about black people that neither succumbs to Hollywood cliche nor dips into the kind of confused and stilted depictions Perry himself usually supplies. Had the "Tyler Perry Presents" umbrella turned into the oasis for black filmmakers hinted at here, Perry would have actually done some cinematic good for the world.
Olympus has Fallen
Morally repugnant and visually ugly beyond belief, Olympus Has Fallen often feels like someone tried to make a film specifically to entertain buttheads like Buzz from Home Alone. But I love it! The attack on Washington DC alone has enough gleefully unnecessary bloodshed to keep this film in my heart for a long, long time. And that's before we get into the crazy Melissa Leo performance or this film's wonderful penchant for head stabs.
Our R-rated action films have been pretty tame recently. Olympus Has Fallen may be stupid, overly mean, and racist, but at least it's hyper-confident of the size of its own balls (or maybe it's compensating for something). And to be totally honest, action movies tend to be better the more politically insensitive their views. This is far more Red Dawn in the White House than Die Hard in the White House.
The Last Stand
Schwarzenegger's return to film might be one of his better films, period. The Last Stand has its fair share of nonsensical plotting, but it succeeds by keeping things simple and tonally consistent. This isn't a film about saving the world or anything so huge. A big bad guy is coming to Arnold Schwarzenegger's sleepy town, and he's the only person ballsy enough to stop him. The film saves most of its energy for a huge and rousing third act action set piece that delivers all kind of great character beats and creative violence. Arnold's a little wooden here, not nearly as incredible as his performance in the otherwise not great Escape Plan. But the film around him works well enough to negate any rust. Plus, that bridge fight at the end is totally brutal in a way that reminds us just how much we missed this big-ass beefcake.
I was so surprised by Jug Face. Sold as a horror film, this is really more of a sincere backwoods drama with lots of death-dealing supernatural elements thrown in for good measure. It shouldn't work as well as it does, but there's a kind of magic present that constantly elevates the film. Sean Bridgers' performance is worth the price of admission alone.
The Lords of Salem
Rob Zombie finally matures with The Lords of Salem and reveals an even better filmmaker than anticipated in the process. Salem is a remarkably assured slow burn exercise, but if it gets you under its strangely hypnotic spell, Zombie's sudden leaps into heavy metal lunacy are that much more exhilarating. There are cheesy elements galore (that totally unbelievable radio show, for one) but I don't care. The only thing that matters to me is Meat Baby and the unique journey that brought Meat Baby to my eyeballs. I felt lucky after seeing this.
The Burning Buddha Man
I saw a lot of crazy films this year, but The Burning Buddha Man is the craziest, the least likely to get an American release, and therefore the one you should begin tracking down right now.
Made with extraordinarily ugly paper-cut dolls (except when fluids are necessary, as they often are in this film), Buddha has a look all its own. But the real draw here is the film's all-out insanity. Not a knowing, Zombie Ass: Toilet of the Dead kind of Japanese craziness but rather a legitimate "What the fuck was this guy thinking?" alien logic. But then, just as you're getting used to that, the film breaks out some seriously badass anime-plotting which makes the whole thing that much more lovable. If that sounds at all appealing, I highly recommend you seek this one out.
I still can't get over how good this Jason Statham entry is. While certainly not short on action, Redemption is way more focused on telling a real story and developing one of the year's more compelling surprise romances than ass-kicking, and it's easily Statham's best performance yet. Redemption also offers another example of a really good film doomed with a DTV release not for being bad, but for being interesting and unique.
Maruyama, The Middle Schooler
I don't know if Maruyama will ever come out here, so I might as well write about it now. This film, which gets your attention with a dirty, eye-rolling premise (a middle school kid embarks on an epic quest to lick his own weenie), quickly reveals itself as a highly inventive, super sweet story about a whole community of people just trying to get on with their crazy lives. I loved this movie so much, and have a feeling that Maruyama's imaginative flights of fancy are probably ten times better than Walter Mitty's. And I also doubt Mitty learns to defend himself like a superhero by utilizing highly developed flexibility skills. So suck it, Walter Mitty. Oh that's right. You can't.
Ninja II: Shadow of a Tear
The absolute best action film of 2013, Ninja II: Shadow of a Tear fulfills every promise offered by the currently booming (but still very much a diamond in the rough scenario) DTV action golden age. The film is narratively as muscular and fat-free as Scott Adkins himself and revels in its many opportunities to display fight choreography that is both thrilling to watch and baffling to think about later from a production standpoint. I mean, some films look effortless, but this film looks immensely difficult. I still can't believe I'm saying this, but Undisputed III has been eclipsed.