Moments in Pop Culture, 2013

Call me cliche, but I love end of the year lists. I love seeing what stood out to critics as the most important books and movies of the year. 2013 was also the year I entered graduate school as a student of media studies,  which basically gave me an excuse (as if I needed one) to watch more movies and TV and call it “work.” Since I’m not great at picking a top ten, I thought I’d just share some things that stood out to me in 2013.

The Good:

I discovered Orange is the New Black, Orphan Black, and Sherlock.

Obviously, my life is much improved. OITNB broke ground by featuring a diverse cast of female characters and hilariously and heartrendingly explored the world of a women’s prison. Orphan Black, featuring the immensely talented Tatiana Maslany, gave new life to the old cloning plot with soapy, thrilling, and humorous results. Sherlock, which was new to me, helped me get over my suspicion that Benedict Cumberbatch is wildly overrated, but the true delight was Martin Freeman as the perfect straight man to Sherlock’s eccentric and also the real heart of the show.

Frozen restored my faith in contemporary Disney animation.

The first Disney animated feature directed by a woman, Frozen proved that perhaps Disney is beginning to understand what young girls (and women) truly desire in a role model. Yes, princesses are glamorous just by virtue of being princesses, but Frozen‘s Elsa and Anna also demonstrate that real women get by on humor, courage, and heart, not just beauty. Furthermore, the “true love” that solves the films’ conflict is between two sisters, Prince Charming is not so charming, and the film’s good guy is, as one of the musical numbers puts it, a “fixer-upper.” “Let it Go,” the film’s love song to freedom and owning one’s power soars not only because of Idina Menzel’s incredible vocals but because its message is to accept even the parts of yourself that the world finds unacceptable. Sure, Belle had pluck, Jasmine was feisty, and Mulan saved China, but never has Disney made a film with two female protagonists where the love story was a secondary element. Rock on, feminist Disney!

Great performances by actresses.

Luckily, Ellen Degeneres is hosting this year’s Oscars, so the great female actresses of 2013 won’t be reduced to a joke about boobs. Jennifer Lawrence stunned in American Hustle, proving once again that she can add depth and emotional range to characters that, in the hands of a less talented star, might come off as shrewish or strident. Lawrence also put in another great turn as Katniss in Catching Fire, a film that was an immense improvement over the first Hunger Games adaptation. Cate Blanchett’s take on Blanche in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine was both heartbreaking and funny. Blanchett’s ethereal beauty and ability to play distant and neurotic at the same time as she is vulnerable and fragile makes what could have been an ordinary film into a nuanced character study. Although Meryl Streep was frightening in a Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf sort of way, it was Julia Roberts’ performance in August: Osage County that was a revelation for me. In my opinion, it is rare for her to truly disappear into a character but I believed her as Barb, the embittered eldest daughter that realizes that she is capable of being swallowed by the darkness that has plagued her mother for decades.

Masters of Sex was the standout new show of the year.

Masters of Sex is like Mad Men, back when Mad Men was excellent. Beautifully shot, well-acted, and capturing the zeitgeist of the 1950s-albiet a slightly different zeitgeist: that of the sexual revolution sparked in part by Masters and Johnson’s study of human sexuality. Lizzy Caplan and Martin Sheen are perfect opposites, her fire balancing Sheen’s restricted, almost painfully repressed embodiment of Masters. The show is also propelled by its wonderful supporting cast, particularly Allison Janney as the Dean’s wife who discovers her sexuality at the same time as her husband is struggling to come to terms with his own sexual orientation. Julianne Nicholson is also wonderfully understated as the brilliant female physician who is struggling for the respect of her male colleagues as she fights to fund her study of cervical cancer–a topic that turns out to be tragically personal.

The Mediocre, The Bad:

It was a mixed bag for returning and new TV:

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., though it featured strong special effects and occasional moments of delightful Marvel Universe humor (particularly the Thor 2 tie-in episode), ended up being a disappointment because of its failure to focus on any consistent plots or bad guys, its formulaic nature, and its attempt to please the entire family at the expense of any edge or particular sense of danger. It also frustrated due to its constraints: though Samuel L. Jackson had a small but amusing cameo, none of the other Avengers stopped by. Further, because of copyright issues with the X-Men franchise, the show isn’t even allowed to mention mutations or other special powers. Finally, the cast ranged from solid (Clark Gregg and and Ming-Na Wen as Agents Coulson and May) to tolerable (Brett Dalton’s Agent Ward) to grating (the younger members of the S.H.I.E.L.D team, particularly Chloe Bennett’s Skye). Almost Human has the potential to be decent, even good cyberpunk, but has yet to overcome the case-of-the-week blues that seems to plague crime shows.  Returning shows also caused mixed feelings. The biggest disappointment has to be the painfully slow and unfunny swan song of How I Met Your Mother. New Girl had one of its worst seasons yet, while being eclipsed by the Mindy Project which returned fresher and funnier than ever. The Good Wife remains strong. Scandal was bigger, soapier, and yes, more scandalous! Glee, which to be fair was deeply impacted by the tragic loss of Cory Montieth is still disappointing to fans who are bored of the new cast members and tired high school plots. The only truly excellent episode was the respectful tribute to Monteith’s Finn. Here’s hoping its spring return will provide a fresh start, including the show’s 100th episode which is set to feature former cast members including Dianna Agron’s Quinn who did not appear in the funeral episode.

Marvel Wins, Again

Oh Batfleck. Even you couldn’t make the next Superman film any more disappointing than Man of Steel. Though the supporting cast was solid, the arguably attractive Henry Cavil’s performance felt flat, and his relationship to Lois Lane had no spark whatsoever (am I the only person who find Amy Adams incredibly unappealing?). Combined with an overlong final battle scene that destroyed an innumerable amount of buildings, I didn’t take much pleasure in this pretty but thin incarnation of Superman. Marvel turned in the excellent Iron Man 3, a great redemption from the awful second installment, while Thor 2 kept much of the humor of the first film but excised a lot of the cheese that made the first film one of the weaker stand alone superhero movies. I have to admit that I’m not much looking forward to Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but it is the next step in the long slog toward Avengers 2 which can’t come soon enough.

What about you readers? What stood out in 2013? What are you looking forward to in the New Year?

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