Gravity — The Best Film of 2013
Joshua Sikora | On Jan 17, 2014
Gravity is a film not to be missed on the big-screen. It’s even one of those rare films that truly benefits from the 3D experience. Gearing up for awards season, Gravity is back in theaters for a short period of time over the next couple of weeks. If you didn’t catch it last year, take advantage of this brief theatrical encore to experience Gravity the way it’s meant to be seen. Also, for more film recommendations, check out Clint Cullum’s list of the Best Films from 2013.
Looking back on the movies I saw in 2013, one film stands far above and far apart from the rest. It was the one film I saw this year that harnessed the power of the cinematic medium in a way I had never experienced before. It took me on a harrowing journey — a visceral roller coaster that left me physically stunned. Its story was beautiful in its simplicity, its imagery sublime. It was not just the best film I saw this year, but one of the greatest cinematic experiences I’ve ever witnessed. I’m talking of course about Gravity, the brilliant and bold space survival film from masterful filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón.
This is high praise that could easily sound hyperbolic or unjustified — after all, what really happens in this film? Stray debris cause an accident that leaves Sandra Bullock and George Clooney stranded in space and we spend the next 90 minutes watching them struggle to survive. This isn’t Shakespeare. The script isn’t exactly deep. What little plot there is seemingly exists to get us from one set piece to the next.
Sure, there are flashes of profundity. Sandra Bullock’s character goes through something of a rebirth throughout the film, as she struggles to overcome grief and depression and push forward with her life. This triumph of the human spirit — the willpower to survive and overcome — is clearly the narrative core of the script crafted by Cuarón and his son Jonás. At points, they riff on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey — echoing imagery and beats of isolation, evolution, and transcendence. The film even touches on spirituality as Bullock finds herself under the watchful protection first of a Russian icon of Jesus and later a small golden Buddha.
For some, these narrative threads and visual references anchor the film and give it an emotional resonance — they bring meaning and richness to the experience. For others, this all comes across as overly trite and obvious — a sort of formulaic seasoning to try and spice up a mostly meaningless action film. Honestly, I think both perspectives may miss the point.
It seems to me that our culture tends to critique cinema almost exclusively as a sort of image-based literature. Understanding the story is the central objective of the experience and we parse through character actions and images and symbols and then form our opinion based upon how deep and rich this narrative experience is. And considering that most of our films today are essentially dramatized books or photographed plays, this approach actually kind of works. We have thousands of years of storytelling in our bones — we understand how to read a story, whether it’s in the pages of a novel or flashing across a screen in front of us.
And yet as an artistic medium, cinema is so much more than just a storytelling device. Like music, painting, dance, and other art forms, the medium can be harnessed in many different ways. And sometimes, story is the least important element you can experience while watching a film.
I’m reminded of a tradition my family had when I was growing up. Every Christmas, we would drive up to San Francisco to see The Nutcracker ballet performed. As a kid, almost the only part of the ballet that I enjoyed was the battle with the mice. Growing older though, I learned to appreciate the exquisite choreography — this beautiful fusion of rhythm, movement, and music. Now looking back on it, The Nutcracker doesn’t have that interesting of a story. It’s simple, formulaic, and pretty much just exists to move us from one dance to the next. In order to appreciate and enjoy the ballet, you have to look past the story — not because it isn’t a good story, but because that’s not the point. The point is to experience the dance. To hear the music, watch the movement, and be immersed in the beauty.
And that’s what happened to me when I watched Gravity. I was taken on a journey — a visceral, powerful journey to space. Since I was a small child, I’ve been fascinated by space. The vast endless vacuum, the weightlessness, the view of our blue planet from above. I’ve seen hundreds of films set in space, but never have I felt so transported. So literally there. Cuarón harnessed every tool in his cinematic arsenal to take me there — and then challenged me to survive. Through expertly choreographed performances, visual effects, light, sound, and music Cuarón crafted an experience that let me feel the grandeur of space, the cold terror of isolation, the crippling effect of defeat. I felt the adrenaline rush through me as if I was on a roller coaster. He had me gripping my seat in fear, unable to move as I tumbled through one obstacle after another.
Reflecting on the experience, I’m reminded of the myth of Icarus — fashioning wings that he might fly, only to soar too close to the sun, sending him plummeting back to Earth. I long for space, but my place is here on Earth. I’m not built to survive in that cold, lifeless vacuum. There is beauty to be found all those miles above our planet, but in the end we must return to our home. To our Earth, the place where we can stand and thrive.
It’s all there in the film — in the script and in the images — but more than that, it’s in the experience. I’ve heard this story before. It’s a story as old as time. But never have I experienced it in this way. More than anything else, Gravity taps into our gut — it cuts past reason and emotion, and grabs onto that deeper, more instinctual core. It awes us, it terrifies us, and then when it’s all over it challenges us — stand up, move on.
It is a simple, familiar story. Yet as a cinematic experience, it is unprecedented.
Also Recommended: All Is Lost
Oddly enough, this year saw not one, but two cinematic survival tales. While Gravity takes us to space, filmmaker J.C. Chandor sails us through a storm in All Is Lost. In a profoundly moving performance, Robert Redford plays the lone character in the film — a nameless, resourceful sailor who finds himself caught in a dangerous squall with no hope of rescue.
All Is Lost is more observational than Gravity. While Cuarón wants us to experience every harrowing moment as if we’re flying through space ourselves, Chandor’s direction tends to shield us from the danger, letting us watch with compassion and concern as Redford’s character battles the elements and struggles to survive.
With only two or three lines of dialogue in the whole film, All Is Lost is distinctly visual. The power is within what we observe and what we experience. It is rich and suggestive like a piece of music without lyrics to anchor your thoughts. This is the kind of art that sweeps you up and washes you away before you even realize it, leaving you swimming with ideas and emotions conjured by its artistry.
Like Gravity, it is a work of art distinct to cinema. I cannot imagine either existing in any other medium. These films harness the visceral power of the medium to transport us and immerse us in temporal experiences that reveal deep truths about our humanity. They don’t rely on plots or symbols or music — they are distinctly cinematic. And distinctly beautiful.