Skip to main content

Anxious America hustles through 2013

By Carrie Rickey
updated 8:14 AM EST, Fri December 27, 2013
In December, we asked CNN readers to pick their top 10 favorite films of the year. After counting up thousands of votes, these titles came out on top: In December, we asked CNN readers to pick their top 10 favorite films of the year. After counting up thousands of votes, these titles came out on top:
HIDE CAPTION
CNN readers' favorite movies of 2013
No. 10: '12 Years a Slave'
No. 9: 'Monsters University'
No. 8: 'Fast & Furious 6'
No. 7: 'Man of Steel'
No. 6: 'Despicable Me 2'
No. 5: 'Thor: The Dark World'
No. 4: 'Iron Man 3'
No. 3: 'Gravity'
No. 2: 'Star Trek Into Darkness'
No. 1: 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Carrie Rickey: Themes that 2013 movies tackled include survival, economic anxiety
  • Rickey: Many character-driven films featured hustlers who tried to take advantage of others
  • She says a number of films explored the idea: forget about living, survival is enough
  • Rickey: Of course, we have the usual end-of-the-world and large-scale attack movies

Editor's note: Carrie Rickey is the former movie critic of The Philadelphia Inquirer. Follow her on Twitter: @CarrieRickey

(CNN) -- If you were to take one line of dialogue in a film of 2013 to represent the year's mood, it would be from Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in "12 Years a Slave." The abducted freeman shackled into bondage is plainspoken and eloquent: "I don't want to survive, I want to live!"

"American Hustle" may be the title of David O. Russell's satire of con artists (Christian Bale and Amy Adams) aiding federal agents to carry out the Abscam sting, but it's also a dominant theme in American films of 2013.

If you think hustle in its various meanings -- the swindler and the determined -- then just about every character-driven film did the hustle.

Carrie Rickey
Carrie Rickey

Occupying the amoral lowlands, there is Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort in "The Wolf of Wall Street" and the title figure in "The Great Gatsby," living large - the mansions! the boats! the planes! -- by defrauding the little people. There is Alec Baldwin as the Bernard Madoff-like ex of husband-hunter Cate Blanchett in "Blue Jasmine," both of them delusionary in the belief that they are entitled to other people's money. And there is Bale in "American Hustle," who rationalizes, "People believe what they want to believe," indicting the suckers for their faith in his cons.

Up on the moral high ground, there is Ejiofor in "12 Years a Slave," caught in a double bind. If, as an intellectual and a freeman, he defends himself against racism, he will be hung; if he does not, he suffers the humiliations of slavery. Chadwick Boseman as ballplayer Jackie Robinson in "42," likewise is doubly-bound: advised to repress his righteous anger at racists or he will be brutalized and won't be able to play in the big leagues. In "The Butler," Forest Whitaker, who wears one face as a White House domestic and another as a family man, ultimately reconciles his two faces.

Then there is a clutch of films that collectively say forget about living, survival is enough.

Filmmakers purveyed the human hustle in stories of those facing near death challenges and variously hanging onto life by a thread, a fraying rope, a stranded lifeboat, safety tether or not. Think of Robert Redford fighting for his life in "All is Lost," Sandra Bullock clinging to tether in "Gravity," Jaden Smith depending on intelligence from his wrist radio in "After Earth" and Tom Hanks facing death in a lifeboat in "Captain Phillips." Also tested in a life-and-death narrative was Jennifer Lawrence in the Survivor-tinged "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire."

Out of breath? Take a good, deep one. We haven't even begun to discuss the year's end-of-the-world movies. The apocalypse was nigh -- not only in action movies like "Pacific Rim" and "Oblivion" but in comedies like "This is the End" and "The World's End." On screen the U.S. and British capitals were under terrorist attack in what seemed like an infinite loop of destruction: "Olympus Has Fallen," "White House Down," "G.I. Joe: Retaliation," "Star Trek: Into Darkness," "Thor: The Dark World." Los Angeles and New York also endured attacks and were defended respectively by the mettle of Robert Downey in "Iron Man 3" and Henry Cavill in "Man of Steel."

What does it all mean? We don't need a professional to detect the pervasive anxiety in these Darwinian narratives of survival. Might this reflect Hollywood's guilt about its role as con artist fleecing the easily duped? Or do these films in part show Hollywood's unease about its own future in a world where moviegoers are just as likely to download or stream a movie than buy a ticket for one?

Perhaps this, as much as the real-life economy, explains why another theme of 2013 films is economic anxiety. It is symbolized in "Elysium" by an underclass living on a polluted and overpopulated Earth and the 1 percent living in the pristine atmosphere above, with controlled climate and top-flight health care.

Job insecurity reverberated through a broad swath of the year's movies. Consider the Harlem inspirational "Black Nativity" and the '60s-era "Inside Llewyn Davis," where the protagonists have trouble making the rent. Consider the Brooklyn hipsters in "Frances Ha" to the Oakland underclass in "Fruitvale Station" where protagonists sought work. Even straight-out comedies like "We're the Millers," in which a drug dealer hires underemployed individuals to pose as his family in order to make it easier to smuggle marijuana over the border, is peripherally about fewer legitimate jobs than those looking for them.

It wasn't all about angst, though, even if the laughter at the multiplex was rueful. "Before Midnight" and "The Best Man Holiday," two superb sequels, are comic looks at relationships and fidelity. One is sparked by the performances of Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, the other by an ensemble including Morris Chestnut, Taye Diggs, Sanaa Lathan and Nia Long.

The most moving relationship film of 2013 is "Her," Spike Jonze's wistful story of a lovesick writer (Joaquin Phoenix) who falls in love with his operating system (voice of Scarlett Johansson), and finds the chasm between human and artificial intelligence is as wide as that between Mars and Venus.

Another slice of dialogue representative of movie romances comes from Julie Delpy, exasperated with life partner Ethan Hawke in "Before Midnight:" "Sometimes, I think I'm breathing oxygen and you're breathing helium."

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Carrie Rickey.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
updated 1:29 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT