Yes, this will be fun. Examining the hero story within the movie is one of our primary goals here at Reel Heroes.
I picked my heroes based on how transformed they were or by how much they transformed those around them. Here are my top ten heroes for 2013:
Greg’s Top Heroes
10 – Tim (About Time)
9 – Ellis (Mud)
8 – Katniss Everdeen (Hunger Games: Catching Fire)
7 – Dr. Ryan Stone (Gravity)
6 – Ender Wiggin (Ender’s Game)
5 – Walter Mitty (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty)
4 – Cecil Gaines (The Butler)
3 – James Hunt & Nikki Lauda (Rush)
2 – Ron Woodroof (Dallas Buyers Club)
1 – Jackie Robinson & Branch Rickey (42)
I used the same criteria in evaluating the heroes, too, Greg. In addition, I looked at the presence or absence of other features of the classic hero journey, such as whether the hero acquires allies, mentors, father figures, villains, and love interests. Here’s my top ten heroes list:
Scott’s Top Heroes
10 – Liesel (The Book Thief)
9 – Ron Woodroof (Dallas Buyers Club)
8 – Philomena (Philomena)
7 – James Hunt & Nikki Lauda (Rush)
6 – Tim (About Time)
5 – Jackie Robinson & Branch Rickey (42)
4 – Solomon Northup (12 Years a Slave)
3 – Ellis (Mud)
2 – Cecil Gaines (The Butler)
1 – Ender Wiggin (Ender’s Game)
Well it looks like we have some common views here and there. Let’s start off looking at my #5 pick. I loved Walter Mitty in Ben Stein’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. He starts out very timid and introverted. He’s too shy to ask a girl out. And rather than voyaging out and doing something with his life he spends all his time day dreaming about what he could do. But after his hero’s quest in search of the missing negative, he is transformed. He’s confident, outgoing, and he’s done more in a few days than most people have done in a lifetime. It’s a great hero’s journey, one that I’m going to watch again.
Walter Mitty didn’t make my top-ten list, but he is a worthy inclusion. I enjoyed watching his transformation from meek dullard to bold adventurer. The story is a simple yet powerful tale of self-discovery and self-realization, which is essential in any good hero story.
My #5 pick was Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey in the movie 42. These two heroes don’t quite fit the buddy-hero mold; perhaps 42 is best described as a mentor-mentee hero story. Rickey sets in motion a plan to revolutionize major league baseball by introducing Robinson as the first African-American player in 1947. This past year Harrison Ford has established his versatility as an actor who can play an outstanding mentor to the main hero, who in this case is Robinson himself. In 42 we see Robinson endure great suffering and humiliation, and he must also show tremendous restraint if he is to break the racial barrier. Rickey and Robinson work together to overcome this barrier and in doing so they make a fabulous hero duo.
Scott, this was a flawed film, but a great story of transformation. And that is why Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey were my #1 pick for greatest heroes of 2013. For the reasons you mentioned, Robinson is a great heroic figure. He had to take the humiliation of the racist crowds and his racist teammates. But he could never show his anger. Rickey risked his entire franchise to break the color barrier. Between them, Robinson and Rickey transformed all of baseball forever. That is a huge accomplishment. American sports would never be the same. Baseball documentarian Ken Burns addressed it this way: “If you are a Brooklyn Dodgers fan and you’re a racist, what do you do? … You can quit baseball altogether, you can change teams, or you can change.” And in the end the fans chose to change. I don’t think any of the heroes on either of our lists had the sweeping impact that Robinson and Rickey had on American culture. And that’s why they gained my #1 spot.
My #4 pick was Cecil Gaines from Lee Daniel’s The Butler. This is another true-life hero brought to the silver screen. Cecil was brought up from nothing, a sharecropper’s son who worked hard and grew to be the head butler in the White House. He attended to the most important people in the nation and the world during his tenure. And he had a lasting impact on the White House staff as he single-handedly changed the pay structure there. I also enjoyed the dual-buddy role played by his son who grew up to be a civil rights leader. Ultimately Cecil was transformed from a quiet servant to an activist himself. It was a great story of transformation.
Cecil Gaines as The Butler is my #2 pick, Greg, and for all the reasons you mention. He not only evolved nicely as a hero in this story, he also witnessed — and played a small part in — the enormous transformation of the American culture. This vast societal transformation is also seen in the type of U.S. President he served under, from conservatives such as Eisenhower and Nixon to our current African-American President Barack Obama. There is also a nice atonement with the son, a clever spin on the usual father atonement seen in the classic hero journey.
My #4 choice is Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave. As I’ve noted elsewhere, 2013 is the Year of the African-American male hero, and Northup joins Jackie Robinson and Cecil Gaines as a powerful hero who must summon all his personal resources to triumph over horrific adversity. Northup’s ordeal as a slave is emotionally wrenching to watch in 12 Years a Slave. The brutality he endured and the resilience he needed are portrayed both painfully and magnificently in this film. In the end, as with any great hero, Northup drew from his agonizing experiences to better society. This hero story is gripping, compelling, and unforgettable, Greg.
Scott, I can see why you picked Solomon Northrup. He was a model of courage and tenacity. But when I scored him on either being transformed or transforming others, he just didn’t measure up to some of the other heroes of 2013. 12 Years a Slave is a must-see movie. But Northrup was very much the same man at the end of the film as he was at the beginning, albeit robbed of more than just the 12 years he suffered.
My #3 pick was James Hunt & Nikki Lauda from Ron Howard’s Rush. At the beginning of this film Hunt and Lauda are vicious rivals in formula one racing. In part due to Hunt’s brashness, Lauda is maimed in a racing accident. Strangely, it was this near-death experience that brings the two men together. Hunt comes to respect Lauda’s meticulous nature and Lauda comes to envy Hunt’s devil-may-care attitude toward life. I thoroughly enjoyed this buddy story.
Hunt and Lauda were my #7 pick, and I agree that their evolving relationship was fascinating to witness. What impressed me was how their friendship and mutual respect grew out of an initially strong disliking for each other. I would have assigned a higher rank to these two heroes if they had transformed society in a meaningful way, but as auto racers they were hardly in any position to accomplish that feat.
My #3 choice of a young boy named Ellis in the highly underrated film Mud. This is a movie that shows us the pain of adolescence, a topic to which most of us can relate. Like any young kid, Ellis is initially naive and trusting. He sees the world in black and white terms, and he seems hardly prepared for the volatile world around him. The movie depicts the manner in which Ellis copes with his parents’ break-up, his girlfriend’s betrayal, and Mud’s complex and contradictory behavior. Ellis undergoes vast emotional growth and becomes a man right before our eyes.
Ellis was my #9 pick and also one of my favorite characters from 2013. Mud was a great story of young love and a boy transforming into a man. In Mud Ellis finds a possible future and learns that unquestioning love can be taken too far. It’s a hard lesson but in the end we see Ellis attains a maturity that eludes his older counterpart. It’s a great story and Ellis is a great hero.
My #2 pick was Ron Woodroof from Dallas Buyer’s Club. Ron starts out as a redneck rodeo cowboy who was as tough as nails. He was also as homophobic as they come. When he is diagnosed with HIV/AIDS he is cast into a world of people who are shunned by society not only for their disease but for who they love. Woodroof’s transformation from an insensitive and ignorant man to a man who openly weeps when his homosexual business partner dies is touching and memorable.
Totally agree, Greg. Woodroof is my #9 pick. His transformation is as dramatic as they come. I enjoyed watching his motives shift in this movie. Woodroof started out completely self-absorbed and self-serving, and he’s also as greedy as they come. But over time, we see subtle shifts toward compassion that add up to a gigantic shift at the end. It’s a great hero story for sure.
This leaves us with my Number 1 hero of the year — Ender Wiggin from Ender’s Game. I guess you could say that I’m a sucker for coming of age stories. For all the reasons I loved the story of Ellis in Mud, I also love the terrific personal growth story of Ender Wiggin. What sets Ender apart from other heroes we’ve seen this year is his exponential growth in so many different facets of his young life. Ender grows intellectually, physically, socially, militarily, and emotionally. Once again, Harrison Ford plays a mentor, but here he’s a misguided mentor who molds and shapes Ender in ways that are both admirable and catastrophic. In the end, we see Ender surpass his mentor in wisdom — isn’t this the ultimate transformation in any hero?
You make a compelling case, Scott. I scored Ender only #6 on my list – but mainly because I thought other heroes had greater transformation. We both really liked Ender’s Game in our “Best Of” list (I scored it #1 and you #2). I also overlooked how he impacted both the society of his homeworld and that of the aliens. He truly transformed both worlds. Ender is one of cinema’s great heroes of 2013.
Well, Scott, 2013 is now a distant memory. I’ve enjoyed sitting in the theater with you and across from you at Sedona Taphouse afterwards. It was a good year for movies – especially the last two months. I’m looking forward to another year of analyzing Reel Heroes.
Me, too, Greg. It’s been a fun ride working with you to study the hero journeys in the movies in 2013. We’ve been privileged to encounter some truly unforgettable heroes as well as some truly forgettable ones. We hope that we’ve shed some light on the difference.
It’s been a pleasure sparring with you about the movies and the heroes in them. We often agree but it’s been fun to disagree, too. Now it’s onward and upward to Reel Heroes in 2014.