Variations on a theme running through this year’s strongest five films in the Best Director category — Gravity, American Hustle, 12 Years a Slave, Nebraska and The Wolf of Wall Street — all spring from the notion that the main character, or characters, are lost. Literally, accidentally, deliberately. They struggle to find a way home, each hoping to be found again.
Lost in space with two options — fight to get home or die in surrender. This choice propels Gravity’s singular heroine to risk life and limb to tumble through the void back through Earth. Cuaron never blinked when choosing a woman near the age of 50 to take on this role, even though it caused some studios to flinch and many an audience member to doubt the credibility. Instead Cuaron propelled Sandra Bullock spinning into action, a capable and smart scientist whose “lesser” strength compared to a man’s was really of little consequence, not in zero gravity. It is a thrilling thing of beauty, this film, especially in crisp 3D, with the space debris flying right at you. Surely the most advanced use of the format yet. Cuaron was comfortable in silence, especially for a major film out of a studio. There was almost too much dialogue even though there was hardly any. Cuaron’s camera, Bullock and the vast infinite silence was all the film needed. From beginning to end, Cuaron never backed off the emotion. He isn’t embarrassed by it. He knows that when we edge that close to death what do we have left but emotion. By the time Bullock emerges with a second chance at life, an Amazon pinned again to the ground by ferocious unstoppable permanent gravity, she is reborn. That is how you hold an audience in the palm of your hand. Gravity is Cuaron’s best and most accomplished masterpiece, a film like no other released this year.
Bruce Dern plays Woody, a man who finds himself lost at the end of his life in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska. He knows the American Dream promises life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness but he discovers the pursuit is really the key. We are conditioned to believe that happiness is the end goal, a thing that can be obtained, usually by buying stuff. We get the good job, the family and supposedly we’re supposed to be happy by the end of it. Woody holds in his hands a crumpled piece of paper that promises him the wealth he’s always dreamed of, refusing to read the fine print of the built-in lie that this dream is beyond his grasp. The way Woody finds fulfillment isn’t through the wealth shimmering in that mirage, but in the oasis of a life he’s already built — his son, his wife and his past. His own story is a good one, even if it is as sad as it is amazing. The normalcy of our lived lives takes on greater importance when we near the end of it. We can’t take it back. We can’t rewrite it. We have no choice, really, but to treasure the choices we made. Woody’s dream comes true, maybe not exactly how he wanted it but it’s good enough. And in the end, isn’t that what all of our lives amount to: perhaps not a perfect fit but a gift all the same.
In his third movie about a lost man hitting the road, Alexander Payne has made a masterpiece of a man adrift — the central figure in the American tale, the ordinary man living a life of quiet desperation. In spite of Woody’s inability to articulate, Dern tells his pain through glances and throwaways lines. Dern acts with his whole body, delivering at last the best performance of a distinguished career.
In American Hustle David O. Russell dives into the 1970s to deliver an ensemble piece that hearkens back to Flirting with Disaster. The hand held camera, the wildly free performances, the unpredictability of the characters, the full absorption of the music all contribute to a celebration of what feels like Hollywood and American right now. This is a film about characters who do not see the tragedy in what they’re doing. They are all using each other, lying to each other, trying to exploit each other. No one is trustworthy in this film and everyone is operating from a place of treacherous deception. Russell does not put any limits on what he can do, and with this, he has seemed to have found his groove. Russell’s gift is with actors and here, he lets them fly free. Russell has captured what many men right now seem to long for — the nostalgia of the 1970s, when things were a lot less complicated, when women could wield wily power because “feminist” wasn’t yet a dirty word — no one had yet clamped down on the wildness of the 1960s. We can’t not revel in that part of our American past. That is one of the reasons American Hustle has struck such a chord. If we still can’t quite face who we’ve become in the post 9/11 world, if we don’t yet know who we are, we certainly know who we once were. But the truth about American Hustle’s success is in its assemblage of actors who trust their director because he puts them front and center. This is especially true of his muse, Jennifer Lawrence. Whenever she is on screen a light is switched on — the magic of director and actress here is really what makes American Hustle what it is. Some would call it Russell’s masterpiece. And perhaps it is that. I feel like he has more stories left in him to tell and I can’t wait to see what those are.
At 71 years old, Martin Scorsese did not seem like a man with another masterpiece up his sleeve yet that is exactly what he has given us with The Wolf of Wall Street. It’s Scorsese’s fifth collaboration with Leonardo DiCaprio, who delivers the performance of the year as Jordan Belfort – a twisted jester who exploits a system that seems to encourage guys like him to sprout up every five minutes. If a sucker is born every minute, a Belfort must also be there to take advantage of the situation. With a brilliant script by Terence Winter, Scorsese is every bit the vibrant exuberant storyteller he was in his early career and yet he has somehow learned to harness his gift. That must be why, by the final scene of Wolf of Wall Street, we suddenly realize we’ve been in the palm of this director’s hand the whole time. We’ve been had. We’ve been charmed by an unreliable narrator who not only had the opportunity to bail out many times along the way, but one who has no idea what kind of trouble he’s caused and worse, doesn’t care. He lives in a world where everything is for sale. Scorsese and his longtime collaborator, Thelma Schoonmaker deliberately set out to make a movie that moved at a breakneck pace and then slowed way down for the conversations. He invents a new way of telling this story which, at three hours, never feels long.
Scorsese, Winter, Schoonmaker and DiCaprio know the story they want to tell and they tell it with flawless, frenetic grace, representing the best American film has to offer. Set in the bullish ’80s, this film plunges a skewer through America that reaches all the way to 2013. It is the side of our economic culture we don’t really want to face. Wealth is applauded no matter how it was acquired. Scorsese represents the modern American male in such an unflattering light that it offended many film critics and even caused on Academy member to shout, “Shame on you.” But that’s perhaps because it exposes a truth no one really wants to acknowledge. In one scene Belfort is being pressured to quit his pretend business. He’s just a neighborhood Joe play-acting at being a Wall Street big wig. On the spot he cons himself into deciding to stay. His staff whoops and hollers in support, all of them beating their chests in celebration. It is absurd. It is funny. It is grotesque. It is unlike anything else anyone has done in film in the last twenty years. Scorsese is a master of the form. No one is ready to give him an Oscar now, not for this. But oh the beauty of this man’s talent behind a camera. Scorsese is an American treasure — but even he has never made a movie like this.
Solomon Northup is already damned in 19th Century America by the color of his skin. You couldn’t be a black man in the South and ever really be free, and going North afforded no better buffer. Freedom is something black Americans have had to seize, often violently, and still do. As part of three pivotal films about African American history last year, 12 Years a Slave tells the beginnings of slavery, but it also foreshadows the end. Mostly, though, it brings us right up to today when we are still asked what is the difference between being born black and being born white in America? Northup had to live his life torn from his family and his freedom. No one would assume he was anything but a slave simply because of his skin color. Steve McQueen takes us through a story like we’ve never seen before. This, because he never considers the black characters to be of a uniform type. The black characters in 12 Years a Slave are afforded something few American films about black citizens ever does — the chance to be shown as complex individuals with flaws. With education, or without. With hubris, or without. Where Tarantino’s depiction of the various hierarchy of slavery in Django Unchained we were still looking at stereotypes, even if he did try to shatter some of those. But no one has ever done this like McQueen has. You can’t tell the story of slavery without showing lynching, whippings and rape. Those were the main weapons in the crimes against humanity that much of white America has really never atoned for. 12 Years a Slave dares to tell the story of the sex crimes too — the little known reality that many southerners didn’t want slavery to end because they didn’t want the free unchecked unregulated rape to end. We witness this horror in Michael Fassbender’s grooming of the young girls on his plantation. Lupita Nyong’o plays Patsy, his latest obsession. She evolves in this film from a girl born as property to a woman embracing a notion of self-worth that she might be a human being after all. The mixed messages she receives from her “master” sometimes make her feel “special.” But all of that evaporates when it’s time for her punishment.
McQueen has made three films so far and all of them, in their own way, deal with suffering. He is a director who is not afraid to let a wound bleed freely. He is never going to play it safe for the audience’s sake. At the same time, his work is drenched in beauty. Even here, the cruelty of the acts is sometimes mixed with scenes of heartbreaking beauty — Patsy sitting in the cotton fields making cornhusk dolls, the wind in the willow tree gracefully draping the plantation. Even the most brutal scene of Solomon Northup hanging from a tree is beautifully composed in its own horrible way. Such is the genius of McQueen’s eye. He operates fully on instinct and seems to be making up his own rules as a director as he goes along. McQueen would have no way of knowing when he started that he would be making the definitive American film about slavery. He would not have known that it would be thrust into an Oscar race that has never honored a black director in 85 years of its history. He would perhaps not have considered or cared that the last and only film about slavery to win the Oscar was 1939’s Gone with the Wind, a film that helped define both how black actors were treated in Hollywood and how they would be perceived in Hollywood films for decades afterwards. McQueen would have no way of knowing what a hornet’s nest all this would stir when he started, yet that is where he finds himself. The industry now has a choice whether to honor a film they know is important although many have trouble identifing with. They are a majority of white industry voters, many of them middle-aged and elderly males. To some of them, slavery has been sufficiently dealt with in their minds and is over. They’ll want to vote for the movie they always vote for — the one they like, the one that makes them feel alive, the one that entertains, lets them escape. And herein lies our dilemma. Will history be made this year? Very likely not. Considering that it took over 7 decades for the first black actress in lead to win — it’s been eleven years since — the chances of another black director getting this close to winning with a film as daring and exceptional as this one seem slim at best.
But whether the film gets the Oscar or not, whether the voters decide it’s time to finally evolve beyond their comfort zone, there is no taking away what 12 Years a Slave is, the film he made, and how many of us it has touched with its brilliance and its daring. We see that world, we reject that world. Chiwetel Ejiofor looks back at us for a long time, his searching eyes asking us “what now”? Do we have an answer for that? After all of these years, I really hope that we do.
Best Director isn’t an easy call this year, not with these five. I would say that, all things considered, there is really one whose win would mean something. The race will never go that way. It rarely does. Our American identity feels unidentifiable right now. It is no wonder the Academy prefers nostalgia. How much easier to understand who we were. We knew where that story ended up. The world today is changing so fast. Everything we know has been upended. But the Oscars can sometimes redefine who we are by what they reward. Or not.
If we are truly lost in search of our modern American identity, these films surely represent that. We’re driving in circles perhaps, soon we must decide which direction is our truth north. The great thing about art is that it helps to point the way home.