The Most Surprising and Disappointing Films of 2013

All this week I’ll be winners the winners in my personal award season. We kick off today with the surprises and disappointments.

Biggest Disappointment

Don't be too upset, Clarke!  I actually quite liked  your film

Don’t be too upset, Clarke!
I actually quite liked your film

I haven’t actually seen any bad films this year. If a film is awful then reviews and word of mouth will generally give me a heads up to avoid it. This protective system occasionally lets me down – hence going to see the Descendants and the Amazing Spider Man – but I’ve been lucky this year. So rather than picking my worst film, I thought I’d choose my biggest disappointment.

The weakest film I watched all year was Pacific Rim. At the time I rated it as a 4/10. It was poorly scripted, poorly acted and overwhelmed by CGI. However, I wouldn’t call it bad. It had Idris Elba, some nice moments and a certain B-movie charm. Plus, it wasn’t that much of a let-down that a film about giant robots and giant robots punching each other was not exactly Vertigo.

I didn’t find the Alan Partridge film as funny as the friends and critics who recommended it me. For me at least the humour didn’t scale up to the big screen. However, it worked well as a parody of digital radio. And given the chequered history of this kind of small to big screen adaptation this being anything other than a disaster was an achievement.

Surprisingly my biggest disappointment of the year was a film I liked and have defended. Man of Steel was never forgiven by a lot of people for not being the Christopher Reeve films. That was a shame because it did something interesting – taking a superhero narrative and retelling it as a more conventional sci-fi story. It had a good cast (and Russell Crowe). And it dealt with a lot of the dumber elements of previous adaptations – Louis Lane is no longer fooled by Superman’s ingenious disguise of a pair of glasses. In short, I liked it.

But I imagined that it was going to be a lot better than it actually was. The Dark Knight trilogy are some of my favourite films and given the involvement of their director Christopher Nolan I’d had very high hopes of Man of Steel. And it is disappointing when a film you expect to be amazing it is just good.

Biggest Surprise

Ben Kingsley's Mandarin was one of the better parts of the much improved Iron Man

Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin was one of the better parts of the much improved Iron Man

To balance out discussing disappointments, I should say that I’ve also had some pleasant surprises.

Rush and All is Lost took activities I have zero interest in and made them into films that I found utterly compelling. But while these films came out of nowhere for me, the winner in this category was a film I expected would be crap.

I was not a fan of the Iron Man films. I found the first one was flat and unremarkable. Its sequel was dire. I’d therefore planned to give Iron Man 3 a miss. However, I heard good things about it and so despite my doubts I went and watched it. I’m glad I did because it was actually really good. It was more restrained and subtle than you’d expect from a Marvel film, and did a lot to confound my expectations of where the story was going. The overall effect was a blockbuster that wound up being of all things quirky and was insightful about its characters.

So in an unintended piece of symmetry, my biggest surprise and disappointment are both superhero films.

Coming up on Matter of Facts – the Mark Awards

<> on October 19, 2009 in Santa Clarita, California.

I had planned to see out 2013 with a countdown of my favourite films of the year. However, I soon realised that wasn’t really going to work. I’ve only seen a pretty small selection of films. This means both that my top ten wouldn’t be a very selective list and a lot of films that might well make an entry wouldn’t just because I was busy when they came out.

So instead I am doing my own bizarre version of the Oscars. The eligible films will be those I’ve seen with a 2013 UK release date. And the categories will be eccentric ones reflecting the peculiar group of films eligible. I’ll be announcing the winners over the next week. Let me know if you have any nominations or suggestions for categories.

Radio 4 pays homage to Buffy

Over the holiday season, the BBC has been being good to geeks. Alongside the lavish feasts of a Dr Who Christmas special and Sherlock at last returning, they also gave us last night’s Front Row as a little treat.

For me there were two highlights:

  • Head recounting how Giles, Spike and the other British characters were able to swear realistically because the network executives and the FCC had no idea what “bollocks” and “pillock” meant!
  • Whedon laying into Twilight and its imitators. He implied that they represented a backlash against Buffy that sought to inoculate people against its message by offering them “romance, the supernatural and the lure of the vampire” without the feminism. They replace “self-actualised female heroines” with “very passive girls choosing between the cute boys” who instead of “getting it done…stares at stuff.”

N.B Alderman talks about the program here.

The most watched Christmas telly of all time….

…was the 1986 Eastenders Christmas Special which gained over 30 million viewers*:

The episode centred around the aftermath of Den Watts’ discovery that his wife had lied about having a terminal illness. Whilst Albert Square was celebrating, Den made plans to leave his wife. The Fowlers’ Christmas was ruined when Arthur refused to take part in the fesivities. He had become depressed after being arrested and charged for the theft of Walford‘s Christmas Club money. Later in the day Arthur suffered a nervous breakdown, smashing up his living room in a fit of rage.

At the Vic the arrival of Pat Wicks caused rows with her ex-husband Pete Beale. Meanwhile Angie was enjoying Christmas for the first time in years, that was until her husband, Den, served her with divorce papers as a Christmas present.

It’s the most watched non-sport or news program in British history. Its audience was bested only by the 1966 World Cup Final and Princess Diana’s wedding. It comfortably outstripped the opening ceremony of last year’s Olympics.

Even more impressively the 2nd most watched non-sport or news program in British history was the new years day special that followed on from it.

Source: Wikipedia

Hat tip: Big Issue

*this number includes repeats so not all of those thirty million will have been watching on Christmas day and that may – I’m not sure – include some repeat viewings.

What’s Boxing Day got to do with boxing?

Well contrary to what I imagined aged eight, absolutely nothing apparently. However, nobody really knows how today gained its name. Theories include:

  • A ‘Christmas Box’ in Britain is a name for a Christmas present.
  • Boxing Day was a day off for servants and when they received a ‘Christmas Box’ from the master. The servants would also go home to give ‘Christmas Boxes’ to their families.
  • A box to collect money for the poor was placed in Churches on Christmas day then opened the next day.
  • Great sailing ships when setting sail would have a sealed box containing money on board for good luck.If the voyage were a success the box was given to a priest, opened at Christmas and the contents given to the poor.

When parliament tried to end Christmas

Oliver Cromwell finds your Christmas cheer decadent and suspiciously papist

Oliver Cromwell finds your Christmas cheer decadent and suspiciously papist

One of the stranger fronts in America’s culture wars is the supposed ‘War on Christmas.’ In Britain, we did in fact once have a war on christmas but it was waged not by secularists but hardline Christians – namely the Puritans in the Roundhead camp during the Civil War:

One of the clauses of the ‘Solemn League and Covenant’ which parliament signed with the Scots in September 1643 stated that, in exchange for Scottish military assistance against the king, MPs would ensure that further “reformation” of the Church of England took place. As Ronald Hutton has observed, this clause encouraged religious radicals on the ground to seize the initiative and to attack those aspects of the traditional ecclesiastical calendar which they disliked.

Three months later, a number of Puritan tradesmen in London opened up their shops for business on 25 December in order to show that they regarded this day as no different from any other, while several London ministers kept their church doors firmly shut. Meanwhile, many MPs turned up to sit in the parliament house, thus making their own disdain for the customary Christmas holiday very clear.

During the following year, moreover – when Christmas Day happened to coincide with one of the monthly fast days upon which parliament’s supporters were enjoined to pray for the success of their cause – MPs ordered, not only that the fast day should be “observed” instead of the traditional feast, but also that the fast should be kept “with the more solemn humiliation, because it may call to remembrance our sins, and the sins of our forefathers, who have turned this feast, pretending [to] the memory of Christ, into an extreme forgetfulness of him, by giving liberty to carnal and sensual delights”.

In January 1645 the final nail was hammered into Christmas’s coffin, when parliament issued its new Directory for the Public Worship of God, a radical alternative to the established Book of Common Prayer, which made no reference to Christmas at all. Thus the way was paved for the ‘anti-Christmas’ of 1645 – a day upon which, in Taylor’s words, a man might pass right through the parliamentary quarters, and “perceive no sign or token of any holy day”.

The parliamentarians had abolished the high point of the English ritual year, and the cancellation of Christmas aroused huge popular resentment – not just in the royalist camp, but in the districts controlled by parliament, too. As early as December 1643, the apprentice boys of London rose up in violent protest against the shop-keepers who had opened on Christmas Day, and, in the words of a delighted royalist, “forced these money-changers to shut up their shops again”.

There were further dark mutterings the next year. On 24 December 1644, the editor of a pro-parliamentarian news-pamphlet expressed his support for the MPs’ decision to favour the monthly fast over the traditional feast, but admitted that “the parliament is cried out on” by the common people as a result, with incredulous shouts of “What, not keep Christmas? Here’s a Reformation indeed!”

This religiously inflected humbug can be explained thus:

The attack on the feast of Christmas had deep roots. Long before the Civil War began, many zealous Protestants, or ‘Puritans’, had been troubled both by the boisterous nature of the festivities which took place at Christmas and by the perceived association of those festivities with the old Catholic faith. During the early 1600s, most English Puritans had been prepared to tolerate Christmas. Following the rebellion of the Presbyterian Scots against Charles I in 1637, however, all this was to change.

The Scottish Kirk, which was itself fiercely Protestant, had abolished Christmas as long ago as the 1560s and, although James I had managed tentatively to restore the feast in his northern kingdom in 1617, it was banned there once again after his son’s defeat by the Scots in 1640.

From this time onwards, attitudes towards Christmas among English Puritans began to harden. And as political tensions between Charles I and his opponents in parliament rose during 1641 so a handful of Puritan extremists took it upon themselves to abandon the celebration of Christmas.

It took until the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 for English citizens to be able to celebrate Christmas unmolested.

So celebrate Christmas safe in the knowledge that if they could see you now 17th century religious extremists would be most annoyed!

Source: No Christmas under Cromwell? The Puritan assault on Christmas during the 1640s and 1650s by Emma McFarnon

There’s academic research on children learning the truth about Father Christmas



For a 1994 paper in the journal Child Psychiatry and Human Development, Carl Anderson and Norman Prentice, psychologists at the University of Texas at Austin, recruited 52 families with elementary school-aged children and interviewed both parents and kids about the family’s experience of Santa Claus. What they found was surprising: “Children reported predominantly positive reactions on learning the truth.

Parents, however, described themselves as predominantly sad in reaction to their child’s discovery…While children experience distressful reactions such as sadness, disappointment and anger, the degree of such reactions are generally minimal and short-lived.” In fact, they were so unperturbed that 58 percent said they pretended to believe in Santa after realizing the truth—so as not to disappoint their parents.

The German roots of Christmas


How Britain’s celebrate Christmas today is largely a product of the Victorian era. It was in the nineteenth century that we began to indulge in mince pies, trees, cards, crackers and turkeys. And during this time the ultimate trend setters were the royal family, many of who had grown up in Germany (or to be more exact the states that would eventually become Germany).

Let’s take as an example the Christmas tree and the person who introduced it to Britain. Alison Barnes recounts in an article for History Today how Queen Charlotte III was the Northern German born wife of King George III launched this trend in 1800:

That year Queen Charlotte planned to hold a large Christmas party for the children of all the principal families in Windsor. And casting about in her mind for a special treat to give the youngsters, she suddenly decided that instead of the customary yew bough, she would pot up an entire yew tree, cover it with baubles and fruit, load it with presents and stand it in the middle of the drawing-room floor at Queen’s Lodge. Such a tree, she considered, would make an enchanting spectacle for the little ones to gaze upon. It certainly did. When the children arrived at the house on the evening of Christmas Day and beheld that magical tree, all aglitter with tinsel and glass, they believed themselves transported straight to fairyland and their happiness knew no bounds.


Christmas trees now became all the rage in English upper-class circles, where they formed the focal point at countless children’s gatherings. As in Germany, any handy evergreen tree might be uprooted for the purpose; yews, box trees, pines or firs. But they were invariably candle-lit, adorned with trinkets and surrounded by piles of presents. Trees placed on table tops usually also had either a Noah’s Ark or a model farm and numerous gaily-painted wooden animals set out among the presents beneath the branches to add extra allurement to the scene. From family archives we learn, for example, that in December 1802, George, 2nd Lord Kenyon, was buying ‘candles for the tree’ that he placed in his drawing room at No. 35 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London. That in 1804 Frederick, fifth Earl of Bristol, had ‘a Christmas tree’ for his children at Ickworth Lodge, Suffolk. And that in 1807 William Cavendish-Bentinck, Duke of Portland, the then prime minister, set up a Christmas tree at Welbeck Abbey, Nottinghamshire, ‘for a juvenile party’.

By the time Queen Charlotte died in 1818, the Christmas-tree tradition was firmly established in society, and it continued to flourish throughout the 1820s and 30s. The fullest description of these early English Yuletide trees is to be found in the diary of Charles Greville, the witty, cultured Clerk of the Privy Council, who in 1829 spent his Christmas holidays at Panshanger, Hertfordshire, home to Peter, 5th Earl Cowper, and his wife Lady Emily.

When in December, 1840, Prince Albert imported several spruce firs from his native Coburg, they were no novelty to the aristocracy, therefore. But it was not until periodicals such as the Illustrated London News, Cassell’s Magazine and The Graphic began to depict and minutely to describe the royal Christmas trees every year from 1845 until the late 1850s, that the custom of setting up such trees in their own homes caught on with the masses in England.

By 1860, however, there was scarcely a well-off family in the land that did not sport a Christmas tree in parlour or hall. And all the December parties held for pauper children at this date featured gift-laden Christmas trees as their main attraction. The spruce fir was now generally accepted as the festive tree par excellence, but the branches of these firs were no longer cut into artificial tiers or layers as in Germany, but were allowed to remain intact, with candles and ornaments arranged randomly over them, as at the present day.