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The State of the Race: Get Busy Living or Get Busy Dying


There is no doubt that the human experience feels more isolated and isolating now than it ever has. We’re more connected yet less connected than we ever have been. Our avatars seem to thrive while our human bodies continue to live out our mortal lives.

While we are more connected to one another than ever before, the films that have captured the zeitgeist so far this year deal with isolation, survival, fear and futility.   Many of us have people we’ve known all our lives updating us on Facebook about the image of themselves they want the world to see, all filtered through the fantasy lens of happiness.  A picture of a smiling couple on their wedding day, toasting the sunset in Belize, mid-jump into a pool on a summer’s day.  Every artfully filtered alternate existence constructed on Facebook and Instagram only makes our own lives seem more dull by comparison.

Why now? What is it about 2013 that seems to be a catalyst for this kind of end of days panic? What about our lives leads our storytellers, and our critics, to gravitate towards tales of mortality on one hand, and stories of life’s satisfaction on the other? With a dynamic new President who was supposed to represent a fresh world view imbued with hopeful vitality, we should feel less afraid for the future. And yet that’s what we are: afraid.  We’ve found out that our privacy has vanished — our conversations are being logged, our movements watched, our messages monitored. We’ve seen in one year 20 elementary students gunned down by a sociopath who was nursed by the NRA’s code of conduct and carpet-bomb marksmanship.  We’ve seen yet another isolated white male open fire in a crowded movie theater, and another and another. We watched the harrowing hours following the Boston bombing — as if that wasn’t frightening enough — to witness the manhunt end on live television with eighty rounds of automatic weapons fired at the suspect who lay wounded on a boat in someone’s backyard.  All of that was okay with us because he was our enemy.  We watched it on prime time TV.

A handful of films this year ruminate on quality of life — Her, August: Osage County, Nebraska, Inside Llewyn Davis, Labor Day and Before Midnight, and even The Butler in its own way. The other half represent the panicked urgency of literal life and death — 12 Years a Slave, Fruitvale Station, Captain Phillips.

In Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) says “I don’t want to survive. I want to live.” That defines much of what propels the year’s most prescient stories; the difference between surviving and living.

Hovering between the two worlds are Gravity and All Is Lost. Neither can be interpreted as solely about survival. After all, both of them dwell in the metaphysical. Gravity’s heroine Sandra Bullock must find the will to live because life on earth has to mean something. It is about both survival and about finding a better way to live the life you’ve been blessed with — or, get busy living or get busy dying.  Reaction to All Is Lost has divided its viewers into two camps: those who believe it’s about how clinging to life is futile in the inevitable face of death versus those who believe it’s about how we all struggle to get through life, one obstacle at a time. An equal number of people interpret All is Lost’s ending differently.  It was left deliberately ambiguous — a mirror reflected back at the audience to decide their own fate — give up or keep going. Either way, you walk away from both of these films appreciating your own feet on the ground, the air in your lungs and the hope of another better day to come.

In Spike Jonze’s luminous, heartbreaking love story, Her, technology has evolved to be more compassionate, to relate to humans with a warmer interface.  Shot after shot shows how disconnected society is to eventually become. There are families still and their offspring to create new families. But there are also outlets for the isolated among us — operating systems that are can function as our new best friends, potential lovers, even mistresses.  Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with a computer system that is supposed to be designed to fulfill his emotional needs. He doesn’t count on that system having needs of its/her own, which it eventually does. Phoenix’ character eventually starts examining his real life, or more to the point, his broken marriage. Her feels like a film about a modern crisis, a cautionary tale about how life might go for young single men who like their toys a little too much. It’s 2013 and we’re already almost there.  If there was an operating system invented right now like Samantha, millions would want to install it.  A person can have anything they dream of in our modern world as long as they can accept the notion that something unreal can be real if the imagination is powerful enough.

Llewyn Davis chases after a dream that does not belong to him. It isn’t even fate because he really does have the same chance at becoming a superstar as Bob Dylan. The only catch, he’s not particularly exceptional. His singular quest for his goal renders him impotent to the pleasures of real life — love, friendship, a family. Success is everything to him and he’s prepared to sacrifice every last thing in order to get it. The only problem is that what he wants most is an impossible dream.

In John Wells’ August: Osage County a whole family is oppressed beneath generations of madness. There is a gnawing sense of time passing, of wasted opportunities, wasted youth — women being abandoned by their husbands for younger women because older women are no longer seen as desirable.  The much needed affirmation of life never comes to the characters in Osage County. Their existence is a bleak one. They’re lucky if they escape at all. Death almost seems preferable compared to the hell they’re living. What do you do if you’re stuck in a room with people who make you feel like dying?  You walk out of the room.

Though August: Osage County is about abandoning the trappings of an unhealthy family, Nebraska is about rescuing that family — sticking together to find what little is left of a dying man. The opposite of Tracy Letts’ universe is Bob Nelson’s.  While at the end of the day the message rings loud and true: do not waste your time here by being cruel and settling, one film moves in a more compassionate direction as Will Forte lets go of what his father has done and figures there isn’t enough time left to look for more. Repair what’s there. In August: Osage County, Julia Roberts cannot survive if she does that. She will become the monster she’s been running from.

Labor Day and Before Midnight also dwell on the passing of time but they’re also about how the first spark of love is sometimes a mistake that might take a whole life to live through. Labor Day is about seizing the moment when it comes your way as both Josh Brolin and Kate Winslet’s characters are finished paying for past crimes and now long to regain all that slipped away in the meantime. Before Midnight is about a couple doing everything they can to live up to the idealized love that gripped them twenty years ago.

Finally, in The Book Thief, Death himself is a character. He longs to be human, even, because what he sees in those he takes away is everything beautiful. The film closes with this passage, among many great ones in this story:

“I wanted to tell the book thief many things, about beauty and brutality. But what could I tell her about those things that she didn’t already know? I wanted to explain that I am constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race-that rarely do I ever simply estimate it. I wanted to ask her how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words and stories so damning and brilliant. I AM HAUNTED BY HUMANS.”

We live in a world that is changing so fast many of us can’t keep up with it. How much easier it is to simply tune it out, to live out one’s days staring at a computer or smart phone, waiting for the days to pass. The Best Picture race will always thread through the collective consciousness of right now, even when they reflect backwards to those moments in our history we understand.

When Solomon Northup says “I don’t want to survive, I want to live” he might as well be erasing 150 years of history to speak to current generations who live in a much different time, a time worth appreciating, freedom still worth dying for. Northup doesn’t just speak for the African American holocaust — but for all the generations to come, anyone who squanders freedom because they’ve allowed themselves to be locked in a life they can’t bear.

Perhaps the film that can challenge Gravity or 12 Years a Slave will be different from the rest. The Butler or Saving Mr. Banks are more traditional narratives that examine true stories when our roles were more clearly defined. Will Oscar voters want to be challenged by films that push the boundaries outward? Can they really step up to the plate with 3-D and visual effects by embracing Gravity? Pete Hammond and Anne Thompson think perhaps they will.

Or will they feel the pulse of making history with the chance to reward Steve McQueen and 12 Years a Slave? It’s not just a film that give a black director the first Academy win in 86 years — it’s also the only film about slavery other than Gone with the Wind to get this close to winning Best Picture. Yet there has been some reported pushback among voters.  The films’ rivals will have to ensure that pushback turns into a full blown whisper campaign and that somehow minds will change.

Or will the Academy simply do what they’ve always done — reward the film with the least amount of baggage, the film anyone can watch without breaking a sweat? It’s still too early to say — and will probably be too early until the Producers Guild announce their nominees.

Some of the films this year have changed the way we look at our lives, our history and our future. Some have even challenged the way we view our own mortality, the limited time we’ve got left. Whether they pick up hardware on Oscar night or not makes no difference in the longterm. They’ve already made their mark — sometimes brutal, sometime glorious — touching lives for as long as our lives are willing to be touched.

Tentative Big Category Predictions

Best Picture
12 Years a Slave
Captain Phillips
Saving Mr. Banks
The Butler
Inside Llewyn Davis
All is Lost
American Hustle

Dark Horse: The Book Thief

Also in the running
Dallas Buyers Club
Blue Jasmine
Fruitvale Station
Labor Day
Before Midnight

Still waiting for: 
Wolf of Wall Street

Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave
Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
Alexander Payne, Nebraska
Paul Greengrass, Captain Phillips
JC Chandor, All is Lost
Alt: John Lee Hancock, Saving Mr. Banks

Best Actor
Robert Redford, All is Lost
Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
Bruce Dern, Nebraska
Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club
Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips
Alt: Forest Whitaker, The Butler

Best Actress
Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Sandra Bullock, Gravity
Emma Thompson, Saving Mr. Banks
Judi Dench, Philomena
Meryl Streep, August: Osage County
Alt: Amy Adams, American Hustle

Supporting Actor
Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club
Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave
James Gandolfini, Enough Said
Tom Hanks, Saving Mr. Banks
Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips
Alt: Matthew McConaughy, Mud & Chris Cooper, August: Osage County

Supporting Actress
Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave
Oprah Winfrey, The Butler
Margo Martindale, August: Osage County
June Squibb, Nebraska
Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
Alt: Emily Watson, The Book Thief

Screenplay, Original
Bob Nelson, Nebraska
Kelly Marcel, Saving Mr. Banks
Joel and Ethan Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis
Woody Allen, Blue Jasmine
Nicole Holofcener, Enough Said
Alt: Danny Strong, The Butler, JC Chandor, All is Lost

Screenplay, Adapted
John Ridley, 12 Years a Slave
Tracy Letts, August: Osage County
Billy Ray, Captain Phillips
Michael Petroni, The Book Thief
Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, Richard Linklater, Before Midnight
Alt: Steve Coogan, Philomena

Still waiting: Wolf of Wall Street