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Monday, December 23rd, 2013

The Year in Comedy Movies: A Few High Points in an Otherwise Disappointing 2013

Let's just get this out of the way: 2013 was a crummy year for comedy films. A passing glance over the Golden Globe nominees for Best Comedy or the list of the year's ten highest grossing movies paints a familiar picture – audiences prefer action and violence over laughs, expensive special effects over punchlines, and when they are willing to pay for a funny movie, it's probably a computer animated one they can see with their kids. But looking at the success of Iron Man 3 – the year's biggest blockbuster that grossed over $400 million – it's arguable that while its big-budget superhero premise and impressive visual effects played a part, the heart of the Iron Man franchise is Robert Downey Jr.'s wry, witty, and above all, irresistibly funny charm as Tony Stark.

Taking a cue from that, some of the year's best comedies resorted to chameleonic tactics by invading films centered on romance, crime, teenage angst, and the apocalypse either as a survival strategy or evolutionary necessity. A girl fell in love with a zombie, a crew of newsmen reunited, a gaggle of bros rode out the almost-end of the world together (twice), and Louis C.K. showed up in a Woody Allen dramedy. So while on the surface it seemed like a slow year for the funny stuff, there are still a few worthwhile takeaways from 2013, the year comedy played hide-and-seek on the big screen:

The apocalypse inspired the year's best summer comedies.
Both the Brits and Americans made smart, catchy, and critically successful apocalyptic alien/demon invasion brofest comedies this year: first Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg's This the End in June, then Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg's The World's End, which was released in the US at the end of August. Both films scored high ratings over on Rotten Tomatoes (83% and 89%, respectively), but This Is the End grossed over $100M at the box office, and deservedly so: what the trailers depicted as a scattered, cliquey, and demon rapey premise turned out to be one of the most sharply written and hilarious movies of this year. Both movies also had a solid cast of emotionally stunted comic pros and awesome celebrity cameos, notably Pierce Brosnan in The World's End and, and in my opinion, the Backstreet Boys in This Is the End.

Anchorman 2 won the sequel race.
A new year brought a new helping of film franchise continuations, including The Hangover Part III (Remember how despite raking in over $100 million, critics didn't like it?), Kick-Ass 2 (Remember when Jim Carrey kind of denounced his role in the film?), Grown Ups 2 (Remember when Rob Schneider was replaced by Nick Swardson?), and Scary Movie 5 (which has an impressively low 4% Rotten Tomatoes rating), but it was Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues that not only garnered the most buzz but redefined PR overkill forever. It'll also probably end up being one of the highest grossing comedies of the year; to put things into perspective, it grossed a little over $20 million in its first four days, which is what The Incredible Burt Wonderstone has grossed since its release way back in March.

Melissa McCarthy had a great year.
Since her success in 2011's Bridesmaids, McCarthy's been steadily increasing as a hot comedy commodity, and in 2013 she had starring roles in The Heat opposite Sandra Bullock and Identity Thief opposite Jason Bateman (both huge blockbusters with mixed reviews). Pile on that Emmy for her TV work on Saturday Night Live and the several starring roles she has on deck for next year (including her directorial debut Tammy and a rumored sequel to The Heat) and it's safe to say that McCarthy is now a reigning queen of comedy.

Kristen Wiig grew up.
Since she left SNL in May 2012, Wiig's teetered from comedic film roles to quirkier indie drama, starting with 2012's Girl Most Likely then developing into more dramatic (but still funny) roles in Hateship, Loveship and The Skeleton Twins. Right now she appears in two bigger comedies that illustrate her transitional phase perfectly – as the awkward, mousy Chani in Anchorman 2 and love interest opposite Steve Carell's idiotic Brick, and the smoother, sweeter love interest to Ben Stiller we've been seeing in those Secret Life of Walter Mitty trailers. Wiig's balancing a fine line between comedy star and drama breakout, also reflected in the two starring film roles she already has lined up for 2013 – a comedy with Will Ferrell and Linda Cardellini (Welcome to Me) and a drama by Chilean director Sebastian Silva (Nasty Baby).

Vince Vaughn is having a rough time.
The Internship and Delivery Man weren't very well received this year at the box offices or by critics, adding to the pile of flops Vince Vaughn has had since the successful Wedding Crashers back in 2005. The Chicago Tribune wrote a scathing piece on Vaughn's steady blockbuster demise in an article called "The trouble with Vince Vaughn and his new movie Delivery Man," calling all of his recent roles essentially the same character and claiming that he "commenced a campaign, to be loved, to claim the path most trodden. The problem was not that he played the same guy over and over … The problem is that whatever shades of cockiness and darkness still exist in him get quickly extinguished now." He seemed a little unprepared for SNL too.

Steve Carell is lost in transition.
While his film career is not in the danger zone as much as Vaughn, Steve Carell had a confusing 2013 on the big screen. The Incredible Burt Wonderstone was poised to be his big post-Office Hollywood splash, but the film bombed at theaters and in reviews, bringing in only a little over $10 million its opening weekend – one of the worst debuts ever for a movie with Carell or his costar Jim Carrey. He still has 2013 sequel hits like Despicable Me 2 and Anchorman 2 under his belt, but Carell's future success might lie in the darker comedy mold as seen through his roles on Little Miss Sunshine or this year's The Way, Way Back.

There were some good teenage angst comedies.
If you wanted the story of the sexual escapades of an awkward teen set in the early 90s, Maggie Carey's The To Do List proved to be an entertaining coming-of-age tale starring Aubrey Plaza and full of dependably funny people like Bill Hader, Alia Shawkat, Andy Samberg, and Donald Glover, but it disappointed at the box office and received mixed reviews from critics (though it's made some top ten lists this year). But if your teenage movie taste leans more toward a witty and refreshing spin on zombie and romantic vampire movies, Warm Bodies hit a homerun. Written and directed by Jonathan Levine (who also wrote The Wackness and directed 50/50) Warm Bodies paired two mid-level actors (Nicholas Hoult and Teresa Palmer), gave them an awesomely bizarre supporting cast (Rob Corddry, Dave Franco, John Malkovich, and former Top Model contestant-turned-actor Analeigh Tipton), set them in a zombie apocalypse, and tracked their angsty forbidden teenage romance just as well as Twilight or any other stereotypical teen movie, and it did it better. Based on the trailers, it seemed to be too weird and too much of a parody rip-off to work, but it made just over $66 million at the box office and earned generally positive reviews with critics — not bad.

Most people didn't see the year's best independent comedy.
Back in August, lifelong Woody Allen fan Nell Scovell reviewed a film she chose to see over his 2013 comedy-drama Blue Jasmine called "Guess Who Directed the Best New Woody Allen Movie? (Hint: It Wasn't Woody)". "The unique comic vision, the underdog as hero, the awkward love interest, and the hilarious one-liners are back on the big screen…just not in Blue Jasmine," she wrote. "The unique comic voice belongs to Lake Bell, the writer, director and star of In A World." This is in line with the stream of critical praise Bell's feature directorial debut has garnered since its very limited release (including a 91% rating on Rotten Tomatoes), but most of us have to wait until its DVD release on January 21st to follow the journey of a struggling female voiceover artist navigating workplace sexism and relationships costarring big comedy names like Tig Notaro, Rob Corddry, Demetri Martin, and Michaela Watkins.

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