2013 was a grim year to be watching movies. Maybe not in terms of box office grosses or in the output of quality films, but with subject matter, we’ve all been in a morbid mood for the past 12 months.
Thanks to 2013, the “apocalypse comedy” is an officially sanctioned genre. This is the End, The World’s End and Rapture-Palooza all milked the end times (and the idea of everyone you’ve ever known and loved suffering a horrific death) for a few yuks. Likewise, the usual crop of award-winners this year is overrun with heroes struggling to overcome their own imminent demise. Where before we might have had an Argo or a Life of Pi in the mix, 2013 brought 12 Years a Slave, Gravity, Dallas Buyer’s Club, Fruitvale Station and Captain Phillips to the table.
Yet in looking at a film specifically through the lens of death can shed new light on something we’ve all analyzed a thousand times over by now. 12 Years a Slave, despite being a step-by-step guide to mutilating an audience’s emotions, has relatively little on-screen killing. The ABCs of Death 2 has, unsurprisingly, a huge amount. The 13 deaths that follow are the year’s best, representing all the many emotions a cinematic demise can produce- grief, disgust, laughter, and even a little cathartic whooping here and there. And keep in mind that “best death” doesn’t necessarily mean “best film,” so the quality of movies may vary.
It goes without saying, but spoilers ahead.
13. General Zod, Man of Steel
This was the snap heard round the world. Zack Snyder, David Goyer and everyone else took a character known for moral authority and cheery optimism- a character commonly referred to as “The Big Blue Boy Scout”- and had him sever a man’s spinal column with his bare hands, then scream in agony over what he had just done. Good or bad, faithful or unfaithful, few deaths in 2013 had the sheer audacity of General Zod’s undoing.
12. Rayon, Dallas Buyer’s Club
Yet sometimes a death isn’t all shrieking spacemen and extreme bone fractures. Sometimes a person is just there until they aren’t. Dallas Buyer’s Club may go heavy on the melodrama at times, but its handling of Rayon’s passing was solemn and low-key- a fitting send-off for an outstanding performance from Jared Leto. Ignore Matthew McConaughey’s tirade when he learns Rayon is gone; loads of films have the “character freaks out at a group of doctors” post-death scene, but so few have someone disappear from life the way Rayon does.
11. Giant Eagle, After Earth
To call After Earth a bad movie is being far too generous. Yet even within M. Night Shyamalan’s latest film lies a death that’s maneuvered that precarious bridge between “so bad” and “it’s good.” When the hilariously named Kitai Raige (Jaden Smith) is is stuck in a below-freezing death zone, who is there to save him but a giant, futuristic eagle? Never mind that all life on Earth has evolved to kill humans (also, ignore that life can’t evolve to kill humans if there are no humans on Earth); the eagle dies dragging Kitai to shelter, thus fulfilling a pattern of poor ideas that coalesce into the greatest eagle death this year.
10. Riddick’s Dog, Riddick
Call me a sucker for dog deaths. Riddick’s CGI canine only made it through the first third of Vin Diesel’s latest action flick, but what he represented was so much more: the parts of Riddick that were actually really, really good. Seeing Riddick and dog (often referred to as a “dingo-dongo,” for some reason) traverse an empty alien wasteland for a largely dialogue-free half-hour was bliss. It was Wall-E meets Edgar Rice Burroughs; the cover of an old sci-fi novel fully realized on a movie screen. When the dog died, so did Riddick’s opportunity to be an intelligent piece of science fiction.
9. Lena, V/H/S 2 (“Safe Haven”)
Listen, we’ve all seen Rosemary’s Baby here. Pregnant women and Satanic cults do not mix, and when Lena (Hannah Al Rashid) revealed her pregnancy in the midst of so many Satan-inspired ritual killings, a bouncing baby demon was sure to follow. That was to be expected. Seeing a giant winged man-goat emerge from Lena’s stomach was not. Sure, the ensuing goat carnage was exciting, but nothing can beat the dawning moment of comprehension when you realize, “that is not a baby.”
8. Kruger, Elysium
Elysium didn’t have the same out-of-nowhere buzz that Neil Blomkamp’s District 9 did, but it managed to keep one thing consistent: ooey gooey graphic violence. Depending on where you draw the line at “death,” Sharlto Copley’s thickly armored, thickly accented villain bites the dust twice in this one (even if he only counts once on the list). A grenade renders him little more than a functioning brain stem; then in a terrific bit of effects work, all that missing face gets rebuilt from scratch. And then another grenade does the job for good. Always count on Blomkamp to wring good, old-fashioned excitement out of a man repeatedly exploding.
7. Fanny, The Hunt
Another dog, I know (I swear it’s the last one). But the loss of Fanny in Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt does what the classic dog death should: make us all feel absolutely sick with grief. The film itself is an exercise in building frustration, as Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) is unfairly accused of committing an unspeakable act, then unfairly assumed guilty, then unfairly persecuted by an entire town. And at the absolute peak of unfairness, Lucas’ dog is killed in an anonymous act of violence. The Hunt is all about the persecution of an innocent figure, and witnessing the death of a beloved pet just adds to the misery.
6. Anwar Congo, The Act of Killing
Death is a far trickier subject for a documentary film. A narrative film can kill people off willy-nilly, for those onscreen aren’t really dying. But death in a documentary is real, and often too intense and too horrifying for general audiences (case in point: Grizzly Man). The Act of Killing, with its movie-within-a-movie structure, gets to dance around real and fake death, by simulating the killing of Anwar Congo while the real Congo watches. The act isn’t very genuine- a clearly fake head hacked off a fake neck while gushing fake blood. But the real Congo’s reaction, and the parallels to the real killings Congo committed, creates something twisted and all too real.
5. Carver, Mud
This one zips by as Mud draws to a close, but that doesn’t make it any less powerful. All throughout Ellis and Mud’s journey, we see what a nasty fellow Carver (Paul Sparks) is. We’re told that his father, King (Joe Don Baker), is even worse. Yet when Carver dies from a gunshot wound in the film’s finale, the last we ever see of the villainous family is King, receiving that phone call no parent should ever have to receive. In an instant, King goes from being the Devil himself to being a man who lost a son, and we’re forced to question which character (and which act of violence) really set off this story.
4. Tiger Mask, You’re Next
Kudos to You’re Next for taking a traditional slasher movie situation- the killer suddenly materializing behind a hapless victim- and turning it on its head. Erin (Sharni Vinson) rolls away from the killing blow, then dispatches her would-be slasher with a kick to the gonads and repeated blows from a meat tenderizer. Not only was it a particularly visceral moment, but the death of Tiger Mask is also where You’re Next moves from typical horror fare to a much more involved spin on the usual “final girl” role.
3. Samantha, Her
Does a computer count as a real person? Can a computer really die? According to Her, the answer to both is “mostly.” Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) and all her OS buddies end up leaving Earth for the “space between the words,” ascending to another plane we humans cannot possibly comprehend. She may not live or die on our terms, but, then again, she never really existed on our terms to begin with. So when Samantha shuffles off this particular coil, she’s gone for good- and the grief Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) feels is a testament to how much a man can love a disembodied voice.
2. Otachi, Pacific Rim
If Pacific Rim was nothing but big dumb fun, then seeing Otachi meet its end was the biggest, dumbest, funnest moment of it all. Human heroes Mako (Rinko Kikuchi) and Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam) are being carried off into outer space by a nasty winged beast, only to realize, “Of course! We should have just pressed the ‘Sword’ button!” The button is pressed, a conveniently forgotten sword materializes out of nowhere and the beast is bisected after a brief bit of Japanese shouting. It’s ridiculous and laughable in the best possible way.
1. Oscar Grant, Fruitvale Station
What separates Fruitvale Station from all the other films on this list (and all the other films this year, really), is that the entirety of Fruitvale is wrapped around a single killing. And like The Act of Killing and it’s real/fake death dilemma, Fruitvale Station skirts both worlds. It opens with a recording of Oscar Grant’s (Michael B. Jordan) real killing, influencing every image and every scene that comes afterward. And the acted-out killing at the end is something that goes far beyond your average biopic death. Lincoln ended right when Honest Abe passed on. Fruitvale Station continues through the grieving, the identifying of the body, and stops just short of Grant’s daughter learning her father has died. Fruitvale Station examines death from every single angle, and the end result is something few films (certainly none from 2013) can match.