The late, great film critic Roger Ebert once said that "movies are the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts." If he is correct -- and I think he is -- and the greatness of the medium lies in its ability to inspire compassion, to help all of us "identify with [other people], so I'm not just stuck being myself, day after day," then the last year was indeed a fantastic one for movies. Crowned as the Best Picture of the year Sunday night, 12 Years a Slave is the most obvious example of this. The tale of Solomon Northrup, a freedman kidnapped from the North and sold in to slavery in the antebellum South, demands your attention. Northrup's quest for dignity, as portrayed by Chiwetel Ejiofor, stands in stark contrast to attempts to dehumanize him at every turn. The Epps plantation -- where Michael Fassbender's Edwin and Sarah Paulson's Mary rule the roost -- is the place where Northrup is challenged the most. But there's a subversive quality to many of the other whites featured here who played a part in the slave trade, from Paul Dano to Paul Giamatti to Benedict Cumberbatch, all of them complicit in some way, all of them laying waste to the damaging apologies made for slavery in an attempt to rewrite history.
12 Years a Slave is a film that, even if you know a great deal about slavery, compels you to ask again how this could happen anywhere, and especially here? How could anyone treat other human beings like this?
But it was not alone among the best films of 2013 in confronting humanity and the human condition head-on. Dallas Buyers Club was not as effective as 12 Years a Slave, but it did succeed in confronting another, more recent ugly chapter in American History -- the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and the unconscionable homphobia that came along with it. It too asked Ron Woodroof and then later the people butting heads with Woodroof how we as a society could let people be treated in this way. Philomena, another of the Best Picture nominees, touched tangentially on the AIDS crisis, but also trained its focus on religion. Interestingly enough, it was damning of both the institutions that robbed the title character of a relationship with her son and the people who would blame religion itself for such an abuse. Again the question becomes how could we as a society let helpless young women like her be so mistreated?
Empathy isn't all about social consciousness, though, a point that seems worth making now that I've run down what some might call the "serious"/"important" films of the year. Gravity and Her, each in their own way, make us feel for lonely people. In a world where we can shoot someone in to space, it seems hard to fathom that someone like Joaquin Phoenix's Theodore would need an artificially intelligent operating system to get a human touch. Yet as technology seeps in to every corner of our lives, the silly-seeming near-future imagined by Spike Jonze in Her seems more and more plausible, especially where it comes to technology's ability to both bring us together and leave us completely isolated.
There are two more films I must mention in this mix, in a way because their primary subjects share so much and yet also so little on the subject of empathy. The Wolf of Wall Street, with the narcissistic, nihilistic broker Jordan Belfort at the eye of a hurricane of drugs and debauchery, operates in the negative space of empathy. He is concerned only with himself so much so that the average Joes he defrauds to amass his fortune -- people he initially cons on the phone -- seem like an abstract concept, as if he's not actually robbing real men and women. Wolf does not stand on perfectly solid moral ground. A cameo for the real-life Belfort is proof enough of that. But Martin Scorsese's film is effective at thoroughly lampooning Wall Street's utter disconnect from the people they now so routinely harm all the same.
Joshua Oppenheimer's documentary The Act of Killing is the chronicle of a monstrous figure of another kind -- a mass murderer -- truly facing his crimes for the first time. Through a series of bizarre, must-see-to-believe reenactments, Oppenheimer encourages his subjects, Anwar Congo and other members of the Pancasila Youth, a paramilitary group in Indonesia, to confront the mass murders they committed in the 1960s. This make believe of actual events has a profound impact on Congo. He spends some of the final moments of the film dry heaving -- an apparent physical reaction to the realization of the atrocities he has committed. In a year defined by empathy, The Act of Killing might have had the most interesting take of all simply by capturing empathy in semi-real time.
What does it mean that empathy was so richly explored and profoundly inspired on film this year? I think mostly just that and little else. Though I might have seemed to imply it at the beginning of this piece, I do not think, as others do, that it was a particularly great year for movies. Quantity, yes, real quality, no.
I would like to argue that this groundswell of empathy means something more -- that seeing brutal depictions of slavery or the harrowing, isolating effect of the AIDS crisis on the gay community is a response to the seemingly growing legion of people who appear incapable of seeing the world from any other point of view than their very limited one. But I think that ignores the possibility that this was all kind of a fluke. And I think it gives those so lacking in empathy far too much credit. After all, are we really less empathetic than we used to be as a species or are we simply more sensitive and more exposed to injustices than ever before?
I think it's the latter, but who can really say for sure. All I know is that the movies of 2013, collectively, were profoundly affecting in a way that feels abnormal.