2013 IN REVIEW: Top 10 Original Films at the Box Office

Gravity - Pacific Rim - The HeatIn box office respects, I think we can agree 2013 felt like a pretty scarce blip on the radar, even though it was actually an improvement upon 2012. After four films entered the billion dollar club last year, Iron Man 3 seems baited to be this year’s only new member, barring exceptionally long legs from The Hunger Games: Catching Fire or The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Are the heavy sub-titles holding them down?). In none of those three cases do we get a feeling of awe-inspiring financial success akin to The Avengers or The Dark Knight. Yes, our awe does get quite inspired when films climb to great heights, particularly ones we adore. These days Marvel movies seem banally assured of success, which robs us of most degrees of excitement.

In the way of surprising success stories, Despicable Me 2 may be the biggest at $918.8 million worldwide, though not automatically the most surprising. The low-budget sequel to a low-budget kid-animation hit seems assured of success, but many were just surprised by the massive degree of that success. The same goes for The Croods, the highest grossing animated non-sequel this year at $587.2 million worldwide, and a film I once championed before revisiting and being beset by many groans I ignored for want of a good animated film. The year would not supply me with one until The Wind Rises and Frozen came in to relieve my worries, though neither seems destined for the same level of financial success.

If we’re to track the most refreshing box office success stories of 2013, we really have to turn away from all adaptations of previous material to “original” films. Obviously the boundaries originality are pretty suspect, as many reviews of Pacific Rim will attest, but the bottom line is these are films that didn’t enter theaters with an audience already bought by the brand. How well they succeeded often depended on how prolific their stars were, how light their entertainment was, or how unmissable the experience looked. This list is not meant as a scale of inspiring quality, but a look at what audiences are most clamoring for outside self-replenishing franchises.

NOTE: Of 2013’s remaining original fare, I suspect American Hustle could make the cut down the line, and possibly Her if it takes off. For now, this is how it knocks down.

Top 10 Original Live-Action
Films at the 2013 Box Office

4210. 42 (Opening: $27.5 million; TOTAL: $98 million)

April and August are both prime seasons for small films to display long legs, which seems an especially fruitful frame to release films about race. Were 42 released closer to the year’s end, I’ve no doubt we’d see a best picture push. As it is they tried ever so hard to get Harrison Ford in the race for his performance as a pious white man who cartoonishly helps the black people. That’s really the story of films about race difference, or at least the ones which succeed most in the box office. There’s always some white catalyst for black salvation. And it’s about baseball! White guilt and sports! It’s the miracle formula.

Olympus Has Fallen9. Olympus Has Fallen (Opening: $30.4 million; TOTAL: $98.9 million)

We can only wonder how White House Down would have done if it were the first white house destruction movie to land. As it stands it grossed $73.1 million domestically, roughly $25 million under Olympus Has Fallen. In international territories (and worldwide overall) White House Down actually grossed more than Antoine Fuqua’s film. That may say a considerable deal about the two films’ differences, Olympus going off a foreign villain while White House pits our country against itself. It’s more admirable to admit the brutish flaws in one’s own country than to feed the stereotypes of villains in other countries. In the U.S., though, we like our heroes grizzled and gritty and our villains one-dimensional and reassuringly alien.

Pacific Rim8. Pacific Rim (Opening: $37.3 million; TOTAL: $101.8 million)

Switching gears from internationally oppositional to internationally unified, Pacific Rim‘s success story is scarcely rooted in its U.S. performance, where its $101.8 million total feels sadly dainty compared against its $190 million price tag. This would be a dead horse if it weren’t for its performance in international territories where it added $305.8 million to its total. A sequel is in development, which is the obvious takeaway from the success of an original property. Let’s make it a franchise! Obviously it’s worth noting that while neither Pacific Rim nor Olympus Has Fallen derive from existing material, their plots reek of familiarity. The only original property blockbusters studios will put money behind are the ones that feed audiences exactly what they want.

Lee Daniels' The Butler7. Lee Daniels’ The Butler (Opening: $24.6 million; TOTAL: $116.6 million)

Another film about race issues that grossed three times what 12 Years a Slave has managed. Lee Daniels’ career work has been inseparably tied to race so far, but The Butler takes it as its glorified issue where The Paperboy and Precious took it in stride with other brutal worldly concerns. As such it felt like his safest film to date, which explains why it’s also his most successful film. It reaped the awards of the same release frame that eventually pushed The Help into the Oscar race, and with Weinstein backing the film, it wouldn’t surprise me if it was almost present as a Best Picture nominee. It was fading before the critics awards gave it a boost. Still, how do the DC critics hand out an award for best depiction of their city to this over White House Down? It’s like they don’t even know their own city.

Now You See Me6. Now You See Me (Opening: $29.4 million; TOTAL: $117.7 million)

Wasn’t it a story when this ensemble heist movie featuring magicians beat out the Will & Jaden Smith show After Earth? Apparently it was to most, the film going on from there to display pretty strong legs against the likes of Man of Steel and Monsters University. Still, it’s not some anomaly that this was a hit. The marketing pushed the razzle-dazzle factor for all it could muster, as well as the star-heavy cast from charismatic youths like Jesse Eisenberg and Dave Franco to endearing veterans as Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine. It has something to draw anyone in, though it ended up more stimulating than entertaining.

Identity Thief5. Identity Thief (Opening: $34.6 million; TOTAL: $134.5 million)

Three of the top five grossing original films of the year are comedies and two of them star Melissa McCarthy. Though Identity Thief obviously pales in comparison to The Heat, but it had the added benefit of opening in the sparser-than-usual month of February, when Safe Haven, A Good Day to Die Hard and Side Effects all failed to perform financially. Broad laughs led by an Oscar nominated comic actress is something you can count on, if should not necessarily rely on.

The Conjuring4. The Conjuring (Opening: $41.9 million; TOTAL: $137.4 million)

Not really a revelation but still a notable development, low-budget horror had a strong year overall, though often in short bursts. Mama, The Purge, Insidious Chapter 2 and Evil Dead all opened huge before diminishing greatly over the following weeks. The one that held on best and most was James Wan’s acclaimed studio horror film The Conjuring. That can probably be attributed to positive word-of-mouth and inability to the shake the experience. Intensity is addictive, as was the case here and with the #1 film on this list.

We're the Millers3. We’re the Millers (Opening: $26.4 million; TOTAL: $150.4 million)

It’s hard to pin down a single star presence that’s made We’re the Millers a success, as its long-term profits have bloomed mostly from the desire for a raucously humorous time. 2 Guns was too distinctly in the action vein. Smurfs 2 was kiddie fodder. Elysium was a self-serious dud. We’re the Millers was nothing but consistent, a broad comedy at the tail-end of a depressing season of violent blockbusters. If we were to pin down a particular star draw, it’d be Jennifer Aniston…’s sex appeal. The above still tells the film’s whole story as far as I can tell.

The Heat2. The Heat (Opening: $39.1 million; TOTAL: $159.6 million)

If you asked me to recall what movies were big this summer, The Heat would be easiest to recall. No other film sparked such a lively following, spinning numerous quotes just waiting to be referenced. Its more raucous attitude may appeal to a markedly different tonal demographic than Bridesmaids, a similarly hilarious but more traditionally rom-com success from Paul Feig and star Melissa McCarthy. Adding to the film’s star power was Sandra Bullock, never hungrier to put behind the judgment against her surprise Oscar win for The Blind Side. People would still think she was a joke, until…

Gravity1. Gravity (Opening: $55.8 million; TOTAL: $273.2 million)

It bodes well for Sandra Bullock’s longevity that she headlined both of 2013’s highest grossing original efforts, but let’s not pretend she’s the reason this film exploded in the public eye. No film, or rather film experience, this year was so addictive, myself paying to see it 4 times, twice in IMAX. If I stake out another show of it and feel emotionally open enough, I’d gladly make that five. While a tense, vigorous experience, there’s something also rejuvenating about it that makes it almost the perfect antidote for a depressed mood. It also helps that everybody, even the detractors, said “You have to see it! On the big screen! In 3D! IN IMAX!!!! NOW!!!!”

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