By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist December 23, 2013 at 9:05PM
It seemed as though 2013 was positively clogged up with major "event" movies, each one bigger, louder, and more expensive than the last. Every week some new gargantuan thingummy was trying to one-up the previous week's path of destruction. While many of these movies turned out to be numbing and dull, there were still a few that were actually pretty dazzling, or at the very least featured one truly outstanding sequence that caused you to drop your popcorn or spill your oversized soda in pure, unabashed delight. Almost every big movie in 2013 was marketed at 13-year-old boys; the very best of them made you actually feel like you were 13 again, if only momentarily.
So below, we've compiled a list of fifteen of the very best action sequences from the past year. Let it here be noted that these are not wholehearted endorsements of entire films because, frankly, a lot of these movies are flat-out lousy. It should also be noted with a raised eyebrow just how many of these sequences involve trains. Not only is a train fixation odd in the year 2013, but these are movies that routinely plumb the limitless bounds of imagination and technology and conjure forth things that audiences can oftentimes barely comprehend. So to spend all that money and energy and creativity on trains seems weirdly regressive and yet, if our choices are to be believed, still curiously effective. All aboard then, here's fifteen of the year's very best action sequences.
15. Ninja Mountain From "G.I. Joe: Retaliation"
The decision to postpone “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” from its original release date was in order to add a 3D post-conversion which largely didn’t make a lick of difference. Except in the case of NINJA MOUNTAIN. There’s a bit of nonsense involving NINJA MOUNTAIN, where Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes meet and once again air out their grievances in mortal combat. But once a clan of ninjas absconds to the hilly peaks of NINJA MOUNTAIN, suddenly the IMAX scope of the film is no joke. A sly mix of CGI and practical effects, ninjas rappel down NINJA MOUNTAIN like they're in a ballet, balancing on their toes as they glide in all directions by rope, engaging in a series of swordfights at butthole-tightening heights, each side trading a MacGuffin that allows for near-misses, breakneck stunt work and violent clashes that leave a few masked marauders dead and buried in the snow. Perhaps the reason they call it NINJA MOUNTAIN (God, savor it) is because this mountain is built on the corpses of ninjas that have tumbled from their midair battles. Even in a film that boasted the muscle power of both Dwayne Johnson and Bruce Willis, the sight of multi-colored combatants bouncing off the side of snowy mountaintops remained a major highlight to an otherwise forgettable movie. Say it one more time and let it wash over you pleasantly: NINJA MOUNTAIN.
14. Kryptonian Prologue from "Man of Steel"
“Man Of Steel” is largely a terrible, inert, ridiculous mess. But man, does Russell Crowe work his magic like a boss. Though his performance is given underneath ridiculous space armor and through heavy-lidded, barely-awake eyes, he manages to sell the gravitas of a crumbling Krypton as an apocalyptic scenario as well reminding audiences that his son Kal-El isn’t the only superhero up in this joint. He dispenses with pleasantries against a couple of Kryptonian thugs in a fist-fight before taking it to laser-town against Zod (Michael Shannon) and his minions, but his greatest moment is whistling to his Kryptonian space-bird to make one final daring flight, a trip to grab a piece of the Kryptonian codex that preserves their world’s genetic code. Crowe gets to run, jump, punch, shoot and swim in this sequence, but you feel the weight in a small moment when his flying dragon is harmed and barely staying afloat. As it absorbs near fatal wounds, Crowe’s Jor-El reassures the beast that it will be alright with a paternal pat that suggests these two have been on many adventures together, and inevitably it was going to end with one sacrificing himself for the other. Amongst Superman films, we’ve never really seen the destruction of Krypton before, and Zack Snyder’s collapsing vision convincingly portrays Jor-El as the planet’s last true living hero. Or at least the last one that isn't a baby.
13. The Drone Attack from "Oblivion"
Joseph Kosinski is a young director whose films don't resemble traditional motion pictures as much as elaborate, multimillion-dollar video installations. His first film, "TRON Legacy," was set in a moody computerized world lined with glittery neon piping. So few things actually happened that the stark images, accompanied by Daft Punk's atmospheric electronic score, very nearly hypnotized you. For his second film, Kosinksi returned to science fiction, this time with the more naturalistic "Oblivion." The filmmaker had a better grip on the action this time, while still creating immaculate visuals that betray Kosinski's architectural background. (It also helps that he got a spiky performance out of Tom Cruise in the lead role of a mechanic working to clean up a post-human earth.) One of the very best examples of Kosinski's newfound action set-piece confidence is a sequence where one of the "drones," (artificially intelligent spheres with major firepower and a willingness to turn enemies into ash), infiltrates the headquarters of the "resistance." One of these drones gets in and starts laying waste to people, moving through and up levels in what appears to be an abandoned mine. Watching it unfold is nothing short of eye-popping, the fact that it was almost entirely computer-generated is even more startling. The way that Kosinski moves the camera, virtual or otherwise, is noteworthy for its grace and technical precision. Unlike similar directors, who do not have his same background, Kosinski is content to let the scene play out wide, to maximize both the visceral and emotional impact.
12. The Bullet Train Fight From "Wolverine"
Action sequences are sometimes the most effective when they spring, unexpected and organically, from the narrative flow of the movie, popping up to entertain in a way that you couldn't quite have guessed even five minutes before. This was how it was with the bullet train chase in James Mangold's uneven but perhaps underrated "The Wolverine." Following a big shoot-out at an old acquaintance's funeral, Wolverine finds himself (and the old man's daughter) in the crosshairs of the yakuza, the Japanese mafia. Boarding a high-speed bullet train won't even slow down their pursuit, and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, killing it once again) has to take out a few of them on top of the train. The sequence acts as an effective homage to a half dozen Alfred Hitchcock thrillers as well as a similarly staged sequence from Brian De Palma's "Mission: Impossible," while adding its own unique, high-tech spin. Maybe the best moment in the entire sequence is when Wolverine lets go of the train completely, extending his deadly metallic claws, and stabbing into one of the nameless goons, an appropriately cinematic spin on the "fastball special" from the comic book (in which Wolverine is usually hurled towards an opponent by another, super-strong mutant comrade). While occasionally the green-screen work does look a little phony, the sequence is wittily conceived and executed, with some wonderful, humorous little moments (like when one of the gangsters almost makes it to a skylight right behind the young girl, but she doesn't notice because she's listening to her headphones). If only Mangold could have shown the same amount of restraint and visual panache for that overcooked finale…