How does one begin to relate the white-knuckle space adventure of a thrill ride like Gravity to the soberly grounded realism of a docudrama like Captain Phillips? How is the intimate conversation piece Before Midnight at all similar to the sprawling historical tragedy 12 Years a Slave? What do any of these films have in common with each other – or any of the dozens of other applicable films released in the past 12 months – besides the fact that they are among the finest motion pictures of 2013? It's a question I find myself asking not only this year (which is being touted as one of the best for American cinema in a critic's age), but every year, as my mind mulls over the thematic patterns that connect the cream of the annual movie crop.
In 2009, 'escapism' was the pervasive theme connecting such disparate stories as Up in the Air, Avatar, The Hurt Locker, An Education, and Precious, among others; In 2011, 'nostalgia' and 'inspiration' connected many of the year's most celebrated titles, including The Artist, Hugo, Midnight in Paris, and many more; And for me, 2013's greatest films were connected by... well, 'connection'. Indeed, and as generic as it sounds, it's hard for me to recall a year in which so many memorable screen characters seem to triumph or fail as direct result of the connections they forge (or don't forge) between themselves and their fellow human beings.
Other films this year find the antithesis to this concept by presenting us with characters who, despite stoic composure or tremendous power, are at their weakest precisely because they do not confide in the loved ones who are trying to help them heal. Grace (Brie Larson) of Destin Cretton's Short Term 12 provides invaluable council to at-risk teens with all manner of troubles, but she neglects to take her own medicine of emotional transparency by allowing the memory of her abusive father to continue haunting her. For Elsa (Idina Menzel) of Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee's Frozen, the magical ice-making powers which she has been instructed to “conceal, don't feel” since childhood can be symbolic of any repressed identity that manifests itself as deeply hidden self-loathing or dangerous outbursts. These women hurt both themselves and others as a result of their bottled emotions and closed off hearts. Depression is a mental illness for them, but one which is overcome when they finally learn to accept the love and empathy of those willing to connect with them.
Sometimes the disconnection is not merely a mental one, but an actual physical gap that represents the character's emotional distance. Sandra Bullock plays a woman adrift (in every sense of the word) in Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity, suspended helplessly in space same as she floated aimlessly through life on Earth. Although her desire to live among people died when she suffered a parent's worst fear, the connections she forms during her celestial adventure (whether via radio with an Inuit fisherman or being literally tethered to George Clooney) remind her that people are what life is worth living for at all. Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) of Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave already knew this and treasured his family accordingly, but what he was disconnected from was the plight of his race during the era, and the precarious “privilege” of his place in civilized society. When he is separated from his family and made to suffer the indignities of a slave's existence in a less enlightened region of the country, the political and geographical disconnect between those two worlds is what keeps him in bondage for over a decade.
Family connections also came to define some the year's best films. Sarah Polley's extraordinary memoir Stories We Tell probed the messy, tangled ties that encompass what she would classify as her family. And Woody Allen, himself a master at orchestrating frictional family dynamics (and I'm not even talking about his own real life drama), gave Cate Blanchett the role of her career in Blue Jasmine as a woman whose “shameful” familial ties drive her 'round the bend while she still relies on them in the wake of a personal crisis.
Maybe you don't glean the same similarities between these films (or the several others not even mentioned in this piece) as I do, or can shrug them off as purely coincidental, but for me there can be no doubt of the collective message that movies were sending us this year:
“To connect with others is why we're alive”
It's unsurprising that this might be a filmmaker's philosophy, for filmmakers thrive – nay, are utterly dependent – on their connections; Connections to their actors, to their crews, their writers, their producers, and their audiences. When a group of creative minds connect, art is made, and when art is made, audiences connect. It merits championing that the creative minds behind the cinema of 2013 were able to connect us in so many unique, captivating, and enriching ways.