I had a dream my life would be
So different from this hell I'm living.
Almost everyone can identify with these lines from "Les Miserables," which are almost certain to earn Anne Hathaway an Oscar. Whether it's the loss of a loved one, of a job, or of a dream, at some point almost all of us feel as if life has killed our dreams. The 2013 Oscar Best Films tell stories of great loss and heartbreak redeemed by grace and hope; some are broadly spiritual, others conspicuously religious, but all seem to offer the possibility of redeeming the hell the characters find themselves in, of finding some sort of Heaven. Great stories make us feel as though we are not alone, and these stories offer us the opportunity to enter into stories of great suffering -- and to cultivate the fervent belief that suffering will somehow, someday, pass.
Few historical figures so clearly partook of grief as Abraham Lincoln, and in the pictures of his craggy face and haunted eyes -- and in the remarkable performance of Daniel Day-Lewis -- Lincoln seems a man with barely enough mastery of his sadness to take a step, and then another. In "Lincoln," we see one dark night of the soul, as the president stalks the White House in the middle of the night, as he sits with the night shift telegraphers and talks with them about fate and circumstance. "Lincoln," like "Titanic," is one of those stories we already know ends sadly. But like James Cameron's Oscar magnet from 1997, despite the tragedy at its core, there are victories and personal redemptions in Lincoln. Although he will not live to see it change the nation, Lincoln does get to see the 14th Amendment pass, miraculously. Moreover, we in the audience are permitted to see one of the reasons why crusty Rep. Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones, seemingly playing Tommy Lee Jones) cares so deeply about the cause of equal rights -- his love for his African-American housekeeper. These are bright rays of hope in a story that otherwise might seem too dark to bear.
Happy endings are an integral part of "Silver Linings Playbook," David O. Russell's romantic comedy about mental illness. Although Pat (Bradley Cooper) has lost his wife and his job (she and the school, we discover, have restraining orders against him after he almost beat his wife's lover to death), he has a plan: to think positive, to hope for the best, to try and get back what he's lost. But early on, confronted by the unhappy ending of Ernest Hemingway's "For Whom the Bell Tolls," he loses it. Like us, he knows that happy endings are essential: Why toil and struggle if all it means is we lose everything at the end? Pat does find his silver lining, although it isn't the one he expected. Like those of us who pray for a specific outcome and then are unpleasantly surprised when we get something else, Pat wants his wife back; what he gets instead is Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence). He thinks she is crazier than he is -- but he ultimately comes to realize that she is just the right crazy for him and his crazy family. Romantic comedies are always about unlikely happy endings, but those are the best and most necessary kind. At the end, when Pat sits holding Tiffany despite all the reasons it could have gone wrong, we get a sense of the true possibilities of love to change us and the world.
And despite all the conflict, all the action, and, yes, all the singing, love is at the heart of "Les Miserables," which concludes that "to love another person is to see the face of God." The Christian love of the Bishop (Colm Wilkinson) for vagabond thief Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) allows Valjean to renew his hope and reshape his life to become one that ultimately saves many besides himself. Valjean's own Christian love for Fantine (Anne Hathaway) leads him to rescue her daughter and raise her as his own (and later, to rescue the one she loves and carry him away from the barricade to safety). Love is the one thing that the pursuing constable, Javert (Russell Crowe) never truly understands. He and Valjean each face a dark night of the soul -- with identical music! -- but he cannot see what Valjean does, that love is the necessary flipside of justice. In his pivotal moment, Valjean embraces hope; Javert leaps to his death, broken inside and out. Valjean ultimately dies and is led to Heaven by Fantine and the bishop; Javert dies and is dragged down into the sewers. At the end of "Les Miserables," in fact, all of the dead are brought back onscreen to see their suffering redeemed -- all except Javert.
For all our deriding of "Hollywood endings," happy endings are not simply sentimental pablum. As scientist and theologian John Polkinghorne has written, Christian hope dictates that nothing is ever lost. In these stories and in all the stories that really matter, the dark night has a silver lining.
Maybe it's love. Maybe it's justice. Maybe it's unexpected grace.
But what makes these films spiritually significant year is this: Everyone has a dream that life will someday blow to dust.
And all of us need to believe that on the other side of that dark night is one day more.