Comedies, dramas, action and animated movies to watch for in 2013

This year's movies have a lot to live up to.

In 2012, movies were good. Even the franchise ones. "The Avengers," "The Dark Knight Rises," "The Hunger Games" and "Skyfall" led the North American box office, which hit a record $10.8 billion, and were critical hits as well.

"For a long time, a lot of the big sequels and brands were just dumb popcorn films," said Gitesh Pandya, editor of the box-office website boxoffice.com.

Not now. Studios stepped up their games, Pandya said, to keep viewers from waiting to see films on DVD or streaming, and to combat fatigue experienced by audiences who, in previous years, would drop $20 a pop to see 3-D blockbusters and then be disappointed.

After years of declines, actual ticket sales -- a number unaffected by 3-D or IMAX surcharges -- rose 6.4 percent in 2012, according to numbers-tracking site boxofficemojo.com.

Franchise films likely will rule the box office again in 2013. A few, like "Star Trek Into Darkness" and "Hunger Games: Catching Fire," also might be really good, judging by their predecessors.

In honor of the discerning filmgoers of 2012, here is a very picky 2013 preview, composed only of movies I really want to see. I have seen one of them -- the Oscar-nominated "Amour," which arrives here in February. The rest were picked based on the track records of the directors, actors and studios involved.

Except the comedies. They were chosen purely on goofball factor. Dates are subject to change, and can vary from city to city.

COMEDY

"Identity Thief," Feb. 8

"The Heat," April 5

Directors: Seth Gordon, "Identity"; Paul Feig, "The Heat"

Cast: Melissa McCarthy and Jason Bateman, "Identity Thief"; McCarthy and Sandra Bullock, "The Heat"

Why: Because this is the delightful comic actress McCarthy's moment as a Hollywood lead, or at least the moment the movies that were made because of her success with "Bridesmaids" are being released.

In both films, she plays characters who do not have a hoot to give, and that is always McCarthy's best look.

In "Identity," her character has stolen Bateman character's identity (his name is Sandy) and run up his credit-card bills. In "Heat," she is the rough-hewn cop who teams, buddy-comedy style, with Bullock's by-the-book FBI agent.

Bullock and Bateman both make great straight people (see Bullock in "Two Weeks Notice" and Bateman in "Arrested Development" and ... everything). The directors' bona fides impress as well if you liked "Horrible Bosses" (Gordon) or "Bridesmaids" (Feig).

"Anchorman: The Legend Continues," Dec. 20

Director: Adam McKay

Cast: Will Ferrell, Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, David Koechner, Christina Applegate

Why: Because quotes from this comedy about a pigheaded 1970s San Diego anchorman (Ferrell) will never leave the lexicon. When someone urges you to stay classy, that's because of a certain mustached Scotch lover from the 6 o'clock news.

Ron and his news team of pervs, grotesques and idiots (Koechner, Rudd, Carell) will return. So will Applegate, as Ron's co-anchor and lady love, Veronica. Look for important history lessons like the one Ron gave Veronica in the first film about how San Diego was "discovered by the Germans in 1904."

ANIMATION

"Monsters University," June 21

Director: Dan Scanlon

Voice cast: Billy Crystal, John Goodman

Why: There is no more reliable brand in moviedom than Pixar, which this summer will show how Sulley (Goodman) and Mike (Crystal), the monster duo from 2001's "Monsters, Inc.," first met back in college.

"Monsters, Inc." was great fun, even if it relied too much on vocal star power, as those "Ice Age" films do. But it's a small quibble, as quibbles with Pixar films tend to be. It also is worth pointing out that Pixar movies have only increased in humor, warmth and loveliness in the 12 years since "Monsters, Inc."

If its website (monstersuniversity.com) is an indication, "Monsters University" will be a blast. Set up like a college website, it touts athletics and diversity and lists campus rules for students: "No pets are allowed on campus, with the exception of seeing-eye snakes."

DRAMA

"Amour," Feb. 8

Director: Michael Haneke

Cast: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva

Why: Aging as a cinematic subject usually serves only as a springboard for grumpy-old-men or bucket-list comedies. "Amour," a French-language film by Austrian director Haneke, takes an intimate, unsparing look at real issues tied to aging and illness.

The film, nominated for five Academy Awards including Best Picture, arrives at every sentiment honestly as it shows Georges' (Trintignant) challenges in caring for his wife, Anne (Riva), after her debilitating stroke. Frustrations arise on both their parts, but love never leaves them.

"The Place Beyond the Pines," spring

Director: Derek Cianfrance

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Rose Byrne

Why: Cianfrance and Gosling made "Blue Valentine," one of the most powerful and authentic, if also occasionally excruciating, portraits

of a marriage in film history.

Their new collaboration looks more fun. Or at least like it contains 100 percent more motorcycle trick riding.

Gosling plays a stuntman who comes off the circuit when he finds out his ex (Mendes) had his son. Needing to support his family, he uses his motorcycle skills for robberies (shades of "Drive," but that was a different director). Cooper plays a cop with his own wife (Byrne) and son and an aversion to trick-riding crooks.

Other reasons "Pines" intrigues: Mendes became 10 times more interesting by appearing in the weird, tremendous French film "Holy Motors"; Cooper has been my favorite current actor for weeks, since I saw him channel his untrustworthy vibe into a highly sympathetic performance as the struggling guy in "Silver Linings Playbook."

"The Great Gatsby," May 10

Director: Baz Luhrmann

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, Tobey Maguire

Why: Luhrmann ("Moulin Rouge") likes to go big and anachronistic, with results that are, at the very least, interesting.

Luhrmann's "Gatsby" will combine F. Scott Fitzgerald's tale of big money and corrupt morals with music by Jack White and, reportedly, Jay-Z. Plus, the whole thing is in 3-D, a format not previously associated with Fitzgerald. Expect 1920s sequins to shimmer right at you, and drinks to fly toward your face.

The picture's surest bet is DiCaprio as the dapper, party-throwing Gatsby. DiCaprio is a fine actor who also can hold the screen in a big-budget Hollywood film. And he already showed he can play a rich enigma in a period piece, in "The Aviator."

ACTION/SCI-FI

"Star Trek Into Darkness," May 17

Director: J.J. Abrams

Cast: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Benedict Cumberbatch

Why: Because Abrams is such a solid action director. From "Mission Impossible: III" to the 2009 "Star Trek" to the Spielberg homage "Super 8," Abrams' films offer clean, inviting visuals, compelling story lines and good acting.

Abrams does not try to be the biggest or baddest, just highly entertaining, always keeping pop-culture references and a wry sense of humor in his back pocket. "Star Trek Into Darkness," in which the crew of the Enterprise discovers a terrorist threat in its ranks, might test the humor part. That title is so serious it doesn't even have a colon.

"The Hunger Games: Catching Fire," Nov. 13

Director: Francis Lawrence

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth

Why: Last year's "Hunger Games" successfully transported Suzanne Collins' young-adult novel from a story closely linked to the perspective of one character -- teen archer and fight-to-the-death participant Katniss Everdeen -- to a broader sci-fi and action film.

Francis Lawrence ("Constantine," "Water for Elephants") directs, taking over from Gary Ross ("Seabiscuit"). That does not inspire confidence. But the cast does.

Jennifer Lawrence is the best actress to also be a believable action star since Sigourney Weaver. Stanley Tucci and Elizabeth Banks, eccentric joys to watch in the first "Games," are back, and Philip Seymour Hoffman is newly on board as head gamekeeper.

For actual young-adult followers of this young-adult franchise who don't care about middle-aged character actors, there's this: Peeta (Hutcherson) and Gale (Hemsworth) are back, and Gale likely gets more to do this time. The Adonis-like Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin) also appears in the sequel.

"Pacific Rim," July 12

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba, Rinko Kikuchi, Ron Perlman

Why: Del Toro ("Pan's Labyrinth") produces and "presents" so many films without directing them that we yearn for the Mexican director's true filmmaking imprimatur, for his visual inventiveness and magical realism.

He directs this one, in which giant robots are developed to fight Earth-threatening creatures called Kaiju.

No, this movie is not dubbed. But it will be in 3-D.

The film also gets credit for inspired casting. Cable favorites Elba ("The Wire") and Hunnam and Perlman ("Sons of Anarchy") will appear. Perlman starred for Del Toro in the two "Hellboy" movies. And Kikuchi, from "Babel," is always a wild card.

(Contact Carla Meyer at cmeyer@sacbee.com. Follow her on Twitter: @CarlaMeyerSB.)

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