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Drifting Through the Movies of 2013

December 30, 2013

By John Corrado

Gravity Poster 1This might just be the strangest analogy for the movies of 2013 that you are going to hear, but several times throughout the year I was reminded of an unforgettable scene in Disney’s 2002 animated gem Lilo & Stitch.  The scene in question comes when the adorable little alien sits alone in the middle of the woods, looks up at the sky and finally chokes out the words “I’m lost.”

Lost.  That is the word I would use to describe the characters in some of the best films of 2013.  Maybe I’m projecting my own experiences onto the past year in cinema, or maybe I’m just making this comparison because Lilo & Stitch will always hold a special place in my heart.  But some of the finest films of 2013 were about characters who were both literally and figuratively drifting through their lives, struggling to survive against forces beyond their control and sometimes of their own accord.

A scientist (Sandra Bullock) floating through space in Alfonso Caurón’s masterful Gravity.  A man (Robert Redford) lost at sea in the mesmerizing All is Lost.  A Captain (Tom Hanks) held hostage by Somalian pirates struggling to make ends meet in the tense Captain Phillips.  A free man (Chiwetel Ejiofor) sold into slavery and fighting to survive in Steve McQueen’s powerful 12 Years a Slave.  A struggling folk singer (Oscar Isaac) drifting through Greenwich Village in the Coen Brothers Inside Llewyn Davis.  An old man (Bruce Dern) so convinced he has won a million dollars that he takes a road trip to the title state with his son (Will Forte) in Alexander Payne’s bittersweet Nebraska.

I can still find more examples of characters drifting through their lives.  A man (Joaquin Phoenix) falling for his sentient operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) in Spike Jonze’s Her.  A once wealthy socialite (Cate Blanchett) left broke and riddled with panic attacks in Woody Allen’s sharply written Blue Jasmine.  The teenage alcoholic Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) in The Spectacular Now, and his middle aged counterpart of sorts Gary King (Simon Pegg) in Edgar Wright’s The World’s End.  They are both drifting through life and alcoholism, the former struggling to hold off his oncoming adulthood, with the latter still clinging to his youth.

I’m sure there are even more analogies, but I think you get the idea.  These characters are all lost, their struggles providing representations of our own confusing times, a cinematic mirror onto which we can project our personal anxieties and fears, as well as hopes and dreams for a better future.  All of the films listed above and many more will be included on my annual top ten list and ensuing countdown of honourable mentions that is set to be published in January.  But for now I would like to use them to look at what 2013 meant in general, a year of ups and downs both on the big screen and in real life.

I’m not lying when I say that 2013 wasn’t the best year for me personally, and I could list any number of disappointments in my life.  For those of us in Toronto, the year culminated with a recent ice storm over the holidays that threatened to derail our celebrations and left many of us without power for days.  But I don’t want to make this a list of complaints, because that would defeat the point of my entire article.  No matter how you cut it, 2013 was a great year for movies, and the silver lining is that with the help of these films we have made it through, a shining testament to the power of cinema to guide us and even change our lives.

Watching movies provided some of the brightest highlights for me in 2013, the moments when I was able to get lost in another world, and I’m thankful that many of these experiences were shared with family and friends.  I think two of the best analogies for the year in general come at the start and finish of two very different but equally great films.  They are the opening of Inside Llewyn Davis and the unforgettable finale of Gravity.  At the start of the former, the title character sings “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” in front of a crowd, and the audience is allowed to experience the entirety of this melancholy song.  What we witness is someone who is broken, struggling to piece his life back together again.

Themes of struggling and survival permeated some of the best movies of 2013, and these stories couldn’t have come at a better time, because they make us stronger.  Not only is Gravity visually stunning, it’s also a deeply moving allegory about making the choice to go on living, even when the odds are so clearly against us and there are so many opportunities to just give up and drift away.  By the end, the film is about planting your feet back on solid ground and taking those first steps all over again, and that’s the sort of rebirth and new beginning that should come with the passing of every year.

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