For every Gravity in 2013, there was a Grown Ups 2; for every Breaking Bad, there was a Dads. It was a year of highs and lows, but it was also a year of happy surprises (Bowie! Beyonce!) and crushing disappointments (an Oz movie so bad it would make Dorothy blush, and an abysmal adaptation of a beloved book). These are the pop culture happenings we expected more from—and the ones we thought we’d hate but ended up loving.
Disappointment: Super Fun Night
It should have been comedy gold. Rebel Wilson, the brilliant Australian comedienne at the heart of Bachelorette, Bridesmaids, and Pitch Perfect, writing, creating, and starring in her own sitcom? Even the show’s name sounded like a sparkling ball of quirk: Super Fun Night. But, as one fat joke after another fell flat, and mean-spirited characters laughed at Wilson’s character and her two introverted best friends while we winced, Super Fun Night proved to be not very fun at all.
Surprise: J.K. Rowling Is Robert Galbraith
How to explain the lavish critical praise heaped upon debut novelist and former British military policeman Robert Galbraith? By realizing he doesn’t exist. Galbraith, it turns out, was the invention of J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books and last year’s The Casual Vacancy. She had used the name of Galbraith to publish a detective story called The Cuckoo’s Calling without the weight of her own very famous name on her shoulders. Once The Sunday Times caught wind of the masquerade and the jig was up, Rowling fessed up and explained in a blog post, “It has been wonderful to publish without hype or expectation and pure pleasure to get feedback from publishers and readers under a different name.” The effect was immediate: Cuckoo’s Calling shot to No. 1 on Amazon’s bestseller’s list.
Disappointment: World War Z
Max Brooks’s zombie epic was a novel of truly breathtaking imagination. Through a series of survivors’ “oral histories,” Brooks envisioned, with incredible detail, what a worldwide undead epidemic would mean for nearly every level of society, on a geopolitical scale as well as through a global spectrum of individuals. World War Z the movie, however, had nothing more in common with the novel than its name. It turned Brooks’s story into Brad Pitt Saves the World and Looks Fabulous Doing It, introduced an absurd, fix-all miracle vaccine, and featured the most egregious, laugh-out-loud product placement of 2013: Pitt stopping, in the middle of an adrenaline-packed chase scene, to grab a soda from a Pepsi vending machine and luxuriously gulp it down—looking, as always, fabulous.
The abominable trailers and posters for Disney’s newest animated film, Frozen, did little to convince anyone that the movie would be more than a bunch of funny snowman jokes. Worse, a minor scandal hit when Frozen’s head of animation, Lino DiSalvo, went on the record saying that women are hard to animate because they must experience a range of emotions while remaining “pretty.” But against everyone’s expectations, Frozen proved to be Disney’s most brilliant animated film in years, with heart-swelling musical numbers and the deliberate subversion of princess story clichés. There are no damsels in distress in the world of Frozen and true love is the bond between sisters, not between a princess and some guy she just met. Sighs of relief came in the form of a box-office take of $93 million over a five-day Thanksgiving weekend.
Our excitement over this one was simple: Beyoncé as a fairy queen. So when (spoiler ahead, so skip this if you haven’t seen the movie and are particularly invested in the trials and tribulations of woodland fairies) Beyoncé’s character dies within the first 20 minutes of the film, we were flabbergasted. What was left was another ho-hum children’s adventure, complete with a forced, awkward love plot between the movie’s main male and female characters. Are platonic male-female relationships really that unbankable? Do better, kids’ movie makers.
Surprise: Man of Steel
As far as Superman movies go, the bar has been set pretty low. The worst, Superman III, hit theaters 30 years ago, followed by Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, which was also nothing to write home about. Fast forward to 2006 (Superman Returns) and still nobody could figure out how to make a Superman movie. This year, we got Man of Steel. Though not perfect (Michael Shannon’s temper tantrums as General Zod are more laughable than scary), Henry Cavill manages to keep an introspective, tortured Clark Kent from becoming obnoxious and Amy Adams excels as a tenacious Lois Lane. The resulting film is entertaining and surprisingly rewatchable—which is more than most Superman movies can say for themselves.
Disappointment: Lady Gaga’s ARTPOP
Before it was ever released, Mother Monster’s latest album, ARTPOP, was already a bit much, like that guy you pass on the street who’s wearing an asphyxiating amount of cologne. Her aspirations were noble: Inject high art into pop music and create a Koons-esque kaleidoscope of dance tracks. But somewhere between hanging with Marina Abramovic and her ill-advised duet with sleazeball R. Kelly, Lady Gaga—who is otherwise an extremely talented musician—got so wrapped up in “art” that she lost sight of the music. Pop can be meaningful but it should never be pretentious.
Surprise: Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In
On January 1, 2013, most people had never heard the name Sheryl Sandberg. If a working woman was advised to “lean in,” she’d have probably responded with, “into what?” But in March, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead hit shelves and, like it or not, marked a new chapter in the discussion of feminism. Is stepping up your ambition, believing in yourself, and “leaning in” all that it takes for women to “have it all?” Sandberg advises women to stop doubting themselves and holding themselves back over concerns about balancing work and family. This advice was promptly interpreted by many as a missive against mothers, as well as against those without the means to lean in at work or to have children of their own. The backlash (and the backlash against the backlash) continues, but one thing’s for sure: no one expected the next great feminist debate to come from a Facebook executive.
Disappointment: Oz the Great and Powerful
Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz, Mila Kunis and James Franco are all actors we generally trust. Along with the promise of a Wizard of Oz prequel and the Spidey know-how of director Sam Raimi, Oz the Great and Powerful should have been a hit. Instead, Oz devolved into the story of a self-centered conman who gets to rule Oz basically because he is male. Three powerful witches are reduced to jealous love interests and impotent villains. And the special effects-heavy 3D visuals deprived the film of any real heart or magic.
Surprise: Miley Cyrus’s Bangerz
With her cringeworthy VMAs stunt and all the questions of cultural appropriation it brought up, you’d be forgiven if you thought Miley the musician would pale in comparison to Miley the spectacle. But with the October release of the erratic, fun and unforgettable Bangerz, Cyrus proved that she has earned her place among today’s top pop stars. “Wrecking Ball” is the best pop ballad of the year and “Adore You” is on par with Katy Perry’s best love song, “Unconditionally.” In a Rolling Stone cover story, Cyrus emphasized how much Bangerz meant to her and how hard she was willing to work at it. On the final record, it shows.
Disappointment: Ryan Gosling’s Semi-Retirement
In March, a cataclysmic event overtook the Hollywood news stream: Ryan Gosling announced his retirement (for now) from acting. The Internet’s favorite feminist-friendly imaginary boyfriend explained that he “needs a break from myself as much as I imagine the audience does” and waxed poetic about the pressures of being a leading man. “The more opportunities I’m given, the more I learn about how easy it is to [expletive] it up. You fight for freedom and then you get it, and then you have enough rope to hang yourself. It’s like trying to exercise some restraint, because I do have so much freedom.” The heartbroken masses got two last films from Gosling in 2013, both exceptional: Place Beyond the Pines and Only God Forgives. And although he won’t be on camera, we still have Gosling’s directorial debut to look forward to: the dark fantasy How to Catch a Monster, starring his (real) girlfriend, Eva Mendes.
Surprise: The Return of Music Veterans
Arguably the most pleasant surprises of 2013 were the returns of music greats who we weren’t expecting to hear from. David Bowie graced us with The Next Day; My Bloody Valentine resurrected after 22 years to give us m b v; Daft Punk bamboozled Coachella hipsters, dropped Random Access Memories, and soundtracked our summer with “Get Lucky”; and the once ubiquitous Mazzy Star came back with Seasons of Your Day.
Disappointment: Pacific Rim
Kanye West gave it two thumbs way, way up, but for the portion of audiences who were already fans of anime-like mecha adventures, Guillermo del Toro’s monsters-versus-robots epic was nothing we hadn’t already seen before: A headstrong young man is given the responsibility of an enormous robot suit and sent to save the world from monstrous invaders, and he gets the girl while doing it. This is the basic plot of an entire genre of anime, most notably the 1990s series Neon Genesis Evangelion. Pacific Rim added little to the already well-known story, making the entire film predictable from the start.
Disappointment: The Collaboration by Ben Urwand
It was a promising setup: A book about the astonishing measures Hollywood studios took to please Nazi Germany during the years before World War II. An adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’s satire It Can’t Happen Here was never made because it was “not politically propitious”? An anti-Nazi screenplay was re-written as Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent for fear of offending Germany? Tell us more! But Ben Urwand, the author of The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact With Hitler made such dubious arguments (“It is uncertain whether [Georg] Gyssling [Hitler’s consul in Los Angeles] actually did this at this particular point in time—the evidence is inconclusive—but he probably did” is a sentence that somehow made it into the book), that the entire project falls flat.
Surprise: Beyoncé’s Surprise Album
What kind of pop star releases an album near the end of her current tour? Beyoncé, that’s who. The queen of the Beyhive dropped her fifth solo studio album in the dead of night, with no promotion, no teaser trailers, no magazine covers—just her music and a series of accompanying videos. The album has already spawned a radio hit with the swooning “XO,” topping off a year of presidential inauguration performances, HBO documentaries, and the Mrs. Carter Show World Tour. Long live the queen.