What Did We Learn From Cinema in 2013?

Film both influences and draws its inspiration from culture. This is not a revelation, as art in general tends to do the same. But in 2013, we saw the releases of a bevvy of interesting films that often turned the mirror on ourselves and offered us a look at how we live, where we’re headed, and why we love cinema in the first place.

But what can be learned? What sort of commentary might we glean from these various depictions?

1) Not All is Lost

Let’s be honest; a lot of the films released this year were total downers, chock full of stressful and intense situations the likes of which we worried our heroes would never escape. Doom was inevitable, the odds were stacked impossibly high, and many of the key characters in film were faced with insurmountable dilemmas.

But despite these hardships, many of our heroes came out on top. We saw this first in Gravity, the Alfonso Cuaron-directed film that put mission specialist Ryan Stone in an epic battle against nature when she’s stranded in space and tasked with traveling in zero gravity. Captain Phillips had his own set of hardships to deal with as well, having to navigate delicate negotiations with desperate Somali pirates. A steady stream of events upped the ante in nearly every scene of the Paul Greengrass-directed film, and seeing him come out on top at the end was both a relief and a heartening example of what the human spirit can overcome.

That alone is probably one of the most pervasive and powerful messages conveyed by cinema this year. No matter how difficult things might be, no matter how hard the tribulation we face, there’s always a small amount of hope that, when harnessed, can often lead to our overcoming the odds in nothing short of a miracle. Sure, it might be a tired and overused trope that can easily be turned into schlock, but with the likes of films such as the aforementioned pieces to others like All is Lost and even the quieter Frances Ha, we’ve seen brilliant depictions of the hope that can drive humanity during our most difficult times.


2) What is the American Dream?

This question alone yields many fascinating discussions, and many of the films in 2013 had something to say about it. With its flamboyant and gross depiction of wealth and its ability to corrupt, The Wolf of Wall Street shed light on what power and money can do to corrupt and manipulate a person into becoming a self-indulgent monster who forgoes empathy and repeatedly caves in to an id running wild. The Great Gatsby, although severely lacking in any sort of depth or substance, also touched on ideas of the fragility of The American Dream, and while at times heavy handed in its approach, Elysium even offered some commentary on ideas of wealth, status, and power denied to the every day person.

So, what is to be learned from this? Truly, there was very little by way of positivity surrounding the subject this year. Much of what we saw about the American Dream and the promise of opportunity was spun into a somewhat cynical and disturbed look at how it can be manipulated at the innocent’s expense. This, perhaps, may also speak to a growing frustration we have in our culture toward the ideas of power, class, and influence.


3) Animated Films are Still a Financial Powerhouse

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Iron Man 3 both took the first and second places at the box office this year, both domestically grossing a healthy $410 million and $409 million respectively. When considered, that’s not all that surprising, especially considering the fact that both have a very strong built-in fan base.

What is surprising is the fact that the third and fourth spots on the top five highest-grossing domestic films of 2013 are taken by Despicable Me 2 and Frozen, both earning $367 million and $305 million domestically, with Frozen continuing to impress at the box office weeks after its Thanksgiving release.

While many might be quick to dismiss animated features as “kid’s films,” they’ve always proven to be some of the most lucrative films to hit theaters ,sometimes to favorable public and critical acclaim. You may be the person for whom trailers of animated features causes a groan, but 2013 has shown us that you can expect to see them continue to dominate the box office for a long, long time.


4) We’re All Coming of Age

The idea of coming of age and the movies that harness the themes of young people discovering their identities certainly isn’t anything new, but it’s something we saw quite a lot of this year in varying degrees of quality. The Spectacular Now tackled difficult topics and issues in a wonderfully well-realized way, while films like The Kings of Summer and The Way, Way Back tended to fall short of greatness in favor of sticking to tired and over-used indie film tropes. Mud was an excellent film that doubled as both a coming of age film and a fascinating character study who forewent a major plot in favor of familiarizing us with its characters, Frances Ha beautifully depicted the confusing and turbulent times of a twentysomething’s life, and Short Term 12 was a heartbreaking look at the struggles too many teens have to deal with today. At some point or another, we’ve had struggles and came to terms with our own identities and visions of ourselves, and 2013 gave us a great opportunity to dissect these emotional moments in our lives with a great deal of depth.


5) Young Adult Fiction Really Can Make For Some Decent Movies

The likes of Twilight, Mortal Instruments, and even Percy Jackson might suggest otherwise, but 2013 has proven to us that young adult novels really can inspire more than just schlocky and poorly-executed films.

Beautiful Creatures and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire were great examples of this, both films actually harnessing and tacking the delicate relationships between characters and within the world to great effect. Beautiful Creatures was a great example of how a paranormal romance actually can be something compelling and meaningful, while Catching Fire and Ender’s Game feature themes that are much more mature and delicate than those found in many of their young adult novel counterparts. Hopefully Divergent can do the same in 2014.


6) There’s Still Much to Be Said About Civil Rights

Race relations and how we interact as people of different races were both extremely sensitive subjects seen on screen this year in several films, from the rough times of Jackie Robinson in 42, the evolution of society as seen in Lee Daniel’s The Butler, and experienced in the harsh and visceral 12 Years a Slave. Being faced with these issues and watching them unfold is never an easy thing to witness, but they’re a necessary reality of which we should never forget,and many of the films this year masterfully exemplified this sentiment.


7) Character Studies Are Alive and Well

Character studies are essentially films that forgo classic narrative structure in favor of focusing and deconstructing its characters and their overall bearing on the film. These are films that might have much quieter or diluted narratives, but make up for their lack of traditional story in order to really expose you to the people depicted in the film.

American Hustle is among the best of them, a film that pursued strong characterization almost to a fault. The story itself was somewhat diluted, but the real charm of seeing David O. Russell’s film was watching how the different characters in its ensemble cast developed and grew throughout the film. The aforementioned Frances Ha was another one of these, whose plot was really governed by the trials that befell our main character and how she chose to deal with them. Inside Llewyn Davis gave us a look at how a tortured artist dealt with hardship throughout the course of one week, Emma Thompson delivered a highly evocative performance as a grief-stricken woman dealing with a traumatic past in Saving Mr. Banks, and Mud was almost a quiet meditation on how its characters dealt with ideas of love, loss, and belonging through its thoughtful and deliberate pacing.


What lessons did you learn from cinema this year? Tell me in the comments below!