TR's 10 Best Nerd Movies of 2013

Wednesday, January 8, 2014 at 8:00 am


So, what the hell is a "nerd movie" anyway?

Is Revenge of the Nerds a nerd movie? In some ways, yes - in the way we do things here, not so much, ironically. Last year, I used the term "genre film" as it is commonly used, to mean horror/sci-fi/action/fantasy, but it was pointed out by many of you, correctly, that every film has a genre, and I should err in favor of using words more accurately. So this year I'm going with "nerd movie," in large part because it's a completely subjective opinion as to what does or doesn't count. Nebraska, for example, is one of my favorite films of the year, but does not count - the fact that Will Forte is in just isn't enough to justify a black and white dramedy about an old man thinking he's won a million dollars. The Act of Killing, I'm still not sure about...I erred on the side of omission, yet included it in yesterdays Blu-ray column. Split difference.

The rules for inclusion are the same as my rules for Fanboy Flick Picks. A movie is eligible if it is (1) sci-fi/fantasy/horror/animation/comic-book-based, (2) about any of the preceding (i.e. Jodorowsky's Dune or Saving Mr. Banks), (3) a comedy with surreal or fantastical elements, (4) set in an unreal world but not necessarily "fantasy" (most David Lynch movies count), or (5) an over-the-top action movie (James Bond, Fast & Furious, etc.). I reserve the right to occasionally bend my own rules - these lists are all a bit arbitrary anyway.

And frankly, the nerd movies this year were better than many others, and more interesting to write about and analyze - when the biggest debate in mainstream critic fields is whether Jordan Belfort is properly indicted in The Wolf of Wall Street or not, I'm more interested in determining whether The Hangover III is indicting its audience or not. Do I want Brad Pitt saving the day for the black man in 12 Years a Slave, or Tonto saving the white man after failing to save his own people, who now regard him as something of an idiot? Two of this year's Oscar frontrunners, Gravity and Her, are science fiction, and the former made prior haters finally understand the point of 3D and Imax. Meanwhile, audiences sick of franchises got to see some new stories told - whatever you may think of After Earth, Oblivion and Elysium, they weren't sequels or remakes, and were trying to show you something new. The inevitable sequels were pretty decent too: Iron Man 3 and Thor 2 delivered what most fans wanted and went in decidedly different directions from their predecessors, and even Star Trek Into Darkness was passable for about the first two-thirds before totally crapping out with retreaded scenes.

Obviously, there's been some selection bias when it comes to the movies I've seen - I tend to go to ones I think will be worthwhile to write about, so the odds I will like them are better than not. But I haven't seen many films this year that I truly hated - they were almost all okay-to-good. Except White House Down.

Here are the ones I liked the best. Some spoilers below - if you haven't seen some of these and still plan on it, you might want to pick and choose what you read.

10. Upstream Color.

I had to go back and re-read my own review to remember what the hell this was about - plotwise, it's a confusing jumble of kidnapping, worms under the skin, pig-farming, sound-healing and - most importantly - the little moments in a relationship that you remember most, despite the difficulties getting there sometimes. And just like a person in a challenging relationship, writer-director-everything-doer Shane Carruth seems to relish making you work to love his films; they won't just let you in right away. This trait was very off-putting in his first feature, Primer, but that was a movie about wonkery and minutiae. Here, the little plot points are secondary to the big, exposed heart at the center. Maybe you don't always know what's going on, but love means trusting anyway. I think that's what he's saying.

Anyway, not a movie for everyone, nor to be watched when you're tired. But possibly the most unique onscreen story of the year.

9. Anchorman 2.

This could just be a case of the right kind of movie coming around at the right time - in a holiday season marred by personal tragedy, this movie made Julia and I laugh our ever-lovin' asses off. You can disagree with my take on it, but you cannot convince me that I did not find it the year's funniest film. I rewatched the original right after, and I have to say the sequel is superior, largely because it's about more. While the original was like a preemptive takedown of the Don Draper archetype a few years before Mad Men even aired, part two takes that indictment further, arguing that the dapper macho asshole old boy's club that dominated a more regressive era is entirely responsible for the crap that's peddled to us today, engaging our worst impulses rather than encouraging our best.

There are false notes - the narration is not needed this time around, and is less fun, plus the grace note of Ron Burgundy realizing he's been wrong feels like something that has to happen for the sake of the script, and not because he'd actually do that. Thankfully, anyone who's seen both movies knows full well that any moral redemption for Ron will be temporary at best.

8. Rio 2096: A Story of Love and Fury.

Not unlike Chico and Rita a couple years back, this is an animated film that uses a love story to tell a larger tale of the entire evolution of a culture. In this case, it's Brazil, and because the lovers keep reincarnating, the movie takes us all the way from tribal times to the sci-fi future, across 800 years. Imagine if Cloud Atlas had been more coherent, and a literal cartoon - you'd be close.

Sadly, this hasn't been seen a whole lot because nobody really knows what to do with Brazilian animation. If you can track it down, though, it's well worth a shot.

7. After Earth.

Imagine you didn't know who M. Night Shyamalan and Will Smith were. Hard, isn't it? And that's why, I think, this movie didn't do so well - the baggage people brought to the major participants (who, admittedly, brought it on themselves) overshadowed what ended up actually being a fun sci-fi survival tale. Had it been made by unknowns, and had the planet not been Earth (it really didn't need to be), I suspect we would have seen an entirely different reaction. Instead: Scientology conspiracy theories.

And it's all to the detriment of a movie that took the time to work out its elaborate mythology and backstory, and that tries to imagine an original sci-fi future. Shyamalan's decided lack of humor is a stumbling block for many; this is a painfully earnest film, and thus easily mockable. But in a year where Robert Redford can get Oscar talk for All Is Lost, a movie that might as well be called Oh Shit My Boat Is Leaking, I'll take Jaden Smith in Crap, This Is a Hostile Planet I'm Alone on.

6. Only God Forgives.

The more I talk about this one, the less I really want to, since it's all about mood and atmosphere and intangibles hard to convey in text. I love the karaoke scenes that come out of nowhere (and I'm starting to hate most movie karaoke scenes, especially those that are shorthand for "shitty small town," so this is an achievement), the way Ryan Gosling is set up to be an action hero but is playing somebody totally ill-suited to it, and of course the Thai cop pulling his sword up from its back holder like he's Prince Adam about to channel the power of Grayskull.

What I consistently love about director Nicholas Winding Refn is that simply by subtracting backstory, he makes everything about 110% more interesting. Letting us watch people without overly explaining who they are and why they got here is the exact opposite of one of my least favorite movie cliches: you know, the one where a movie begins by showing you something outrageous, than freeze-frames as the lead actor says something like, "Wow, that sure was a pickle, wasn't it? But things weren't always like this" and then the words "10 Days Earlier" show up onscreen. I'm tired of that. Be immediate.

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