Usually the year of films that are aimed at the Oscar race begins on a weak note. But 2013 wasn’t one of those years. With early films as good as Mud, Before Midnight and Fruitvale Station, you could tell already that it was going to be a heartbreaker. They all wouldn’t be remembered unless the films that hit during the festivals were duds. They weren’t. Those films would be remembered if the ones released later fell short. They haven’t. Or else we haven’t seen them yet. 2013 will be remembered as a year of so many great films it makes a contest to find the best almost beside the point. Worse, we run the danger of thinking films that don’t find their way into the awards derby to be somehow unworthy of our attention. That would be a mistake in any year but especially so in 2013.
The next few weeks there will be more awards handed down. First up, the Gothams. Indiewire has spitballed those. The critics will start to wind down their choices to vote on their winners. That will all take place around December. Soon after, the giant voting bodies take their crack at it and a real consensus is formed. By the time the Oscars are held we probably won’t be seeing any big surprises for Best Picture. By then, we should know.
The only surprises will be ones we build in our heads – beautiful impossibilities, fantasies unbound. What if. Those rarely take place because a consensus winner is like the Titanic. It’s often too late, and the ship is way too heavy, to turn in time to avoid the iceberg. It’s going to hit. The ship will sink. It’s only a matter of time. And so a consensus is a consensus is a consensus.
This year has been framed most memorably by three films that represent three different eras in our history. 12 Years a Slave’s depiction of slavery – not as a way to learn about our past, but as a response to Hollywood’s treatment of the subject, starting with Gone with Wind and ending with Django Unchained. It is a strikethrough response that defies anyone to pretend it was anything but what it was. How funny to read the flaccid backlash forming around the web because they have no choice. We build them up, we tear them down. Rinse, repeat.
Lee Daniels took on The Butler, a film that dwells in magical realism of the Civil Rights era. The end of the Civil War freed the slaves but it was really what happened later, with the Jim Crow laws that manufactured generations of criminals, the suppression of the vote, and segregation. It takes us right up to President Obama election. So much has changed. So little we the people know about that era.
Finally, Ryan Coogler closes the trilogy with Fruitvale Station, a film about what it’s like to be a young black man in America. All three of these stories are based in truth. But Fruitvale Station is the story you see when you look over your shoulder it’s so recent. We have our first black president but we still have racial profiling. Whites have still been conditioned — and Hollywood is partly responsible for the stereotyping, even now — to fear the black man. The result is Oscar Grant’s story. These three films might be here because of Obama. They might be here, partly, because of Lee Daniels whose Precious won Geoffrey Fletcher Best Screenplay, the first ever for a black writer. They might be here because ten years ago the seeds were planted, the ideas were developed and the films were realized.
We dove into the meaning of true love as it played out in fantasy and reality in Before Midnight, which finally depicts two people who hold on to the tender reed of love as they feel it all slipping away. Spike Jonze’s Her looks at love, too. And fantasy. But it does it by looking to the future of technology obsessed culture. What will be the future of love?
The other unavoidable theme of this year is survival in life or death situations. By the end, the film spits you back out into reality, spent, exhausted but ever so grateful to have your feet on the ground. Gravity, All is Lost, Captain Phillips, and the Dallas Buyers Club are about life and death struggles from way high up in space, to the treacherous waters of our oceans – to survive one must count on inner strength, resourcefulness, and sometimes, the kindness of strangers. The human experience is not a singular one. We’re all afraid to die – we reach out to the people we live here with. As flawed as life on Earth is, what a beautiful thing it can be.
Our American story was further explored with some of the best American filmmakers working today — Woody Allen took a cold, hard look at the financial crisis from a few years back, specifically the Bernie Madoff incident, but really the raping of the middle class by the 1%, most of whom stayed rich. Blue Jasmine is an indictment of the upper class many of his earlier films romanctized. While it’s mostly talked about as an acting vehicle for Cate Blanchett, the film itself represents an important reveal.
The Coen brothers ruminated on the fame and parallel lives in Inside Llewyn Davis; why do some people make it and others don’t? The folk era of the early ‘60s before Bob Dylan arrived turned out to be the perfect setting to examine the trajectory of a life, how good intentions can morph into irrevocable mistakes.
Alexander Payne’s magnificent examination of the pursuit of happiness, the American dream collapsing onto itself like a dying star. Bruce Dern plays a bewildered, older man who has no idea where his life went. He faces dementia and regret. In his hands he clutches a wrinkled promise of the Publisher’s Clearing House payday. If only it would come true, oh, how his dreams could be fulfilled. That promise of happiness would at last be his. But we know life isn’t like that. We know the American dream has become the Capitalist manifesto: buy things and you’ll be happy. Nebraska is a distinctly American story, just as Blue Jasmine and Inside Llewyn Davis are.
These films will be joined by two more that help tell our American story – also by visionary American directors: David O. Russell’s American Hustle and Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. These films haven’t really been seen and therefore still reside on the outside of the Oscar race, though they are being included regardless because of their directors, their history and the subject matter. It’s expected these will be among the best films of the year.
Pundits are chomping at the bit, getting restless. They want everything to have been seen so that they can lock in their predictions before the season really starts. One flew to London to be among the first to see Saving Mr. Banks. Moments before the film screened there was buzz about town that this might be the movie to unseat 12 Years a Slave. Or Gravity. Or…
Whether they saw Saving Mr. Banks in London or not does not change the film’s fate; even if they saw it and declared it not a Best Picture winner that doesn’t mean it won’t or can’t win Best Picture. What matters more than one guy’s opinion is several thousand opinions. Best Picture is the film most people can agree is best.
Best Picture in 2013 means that if voters had ten slots to fill they would have no problem at all. The Academy dropped that method when members started complaining that they only wanted to pick five. If they could still name ten, some of the films that hover on the fringe would have a shot at making it into that tenth slot. As it is, voters name five films. When you’re predicting Best Picture you have to take that into consideration. These will be five films voters passionately love, but they will also put down the year’s “important” films, even if they didn’t “like” them as much.
The hardest part of waiting is waiting. There is still a month to get through. With nothing else to talk about pundits, critics and bloggers begin cannibalizing the offerings, finding faults with the favorited films because there is nothing else to write about. You think it’s bad now, imagine what it will be like when they start handing out the wins.
Here are a couple of different scenarios that might play out.
1) 12 Years a Slave wins everything. It starts winning and doesn’t stop, helped along by Brad Pitt’s charm, Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance and Lupita Nyong’o’s mere presence. It wins New York, Los Angeles, the Golden Globes, the Producers Guild (Brad Pitt!), the DGA (Steve McQueen) and the SAG ensemble. The film won’t slow down and will take the Oscars by storm. The first black director in 86 years of Oscar history will win during President Obama’s second term, and the Academy’s first year with a black female president, in a year when the Academy was trying to take steps to diversify. Voters will be uncomfortable with the film but that won’t stop them from rewarding cinematic excellence. The artsy McQueen will then be thrust into the forefront (please no superhero movies).
2) 12 Years is too hot to touch, or it is the frontrunner too long and gets hit with the inevitable backlash. Or voters simply refuse to watch it, preferring instead to put on crowdpleasers during the holiday season wherein they cast their votes. What movie will the whole family love? That will be the one that gets played and that will be the one that wins the vote; after all, most voting members of the Academy don’t see it as their duty to right the wrongs of history. They just want to pick the best picture. That could be Gravity, or Nebraska, or American Hustle. When you all see Nebraska you’ll see why I keep mentioning it. Of many of the films we’ve seen Nebraska offers one of the few truly happy endings. It is a feelgood movie ultimately, even if it’s depressing in the beginning.
3) There is a distinct divide between critics and guild members. We think we have our critics’ darling with 12 Years a Slave. It might win everything leading up to the Producers Guild. One movie could take over the guild awards, one that is bigger overall. We enter the race with a cliffhanger. Maybe Gravity wins the PGA, McQueen wins the DGA, but something altogether different wins the SAG ensemble, like August: Osage County. DGA tends to be the big indicator of what will win Best Picture but we will still have a suspenseful race on our hands.
Predictions of films that have been seen:
1. 12 Years a Slave 2. Gravity 3. Captain Phillips 4. Nebraska 5. The Butler 6. Inside Llewyn Davis 7. All is Lost 8. Her 9. Dallas Buyers Club 10. Fruitvale Station Some of these might be supplanted those I have yet to see: 1. The Wolf of Wall Street 2. American Hustle 3. Saving Mr. Banks 4.
Best actor still appears to be down to Chiwetel Ejiofor, Robert Redford and Matthew McConaughey. Best Actress feels like it’s down to Cate Blanchett, Sandra Bullock and perhaps Judi Dench.
The awards could be divided up all over the place or one film could take everything. We still don’t yet know what kind of year this is – but we’ll find out a month or so from now. But what a great year for movies overall, and an exceptional year for American film.