For the first time since the Academy expanded the Best Picture race to more than 5 nominees, the industry seems divided between three strong films. The actors branch clearly loves David O. Russell’s American Hustle, giving it nominations in all four acting categories, plus the SAG ensemble win. The directors and the producers have put their might behind Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity. Finally, 12 Years a Slave, the underdog in this race hangs on with a Producers Guild tie. Some pundits enthusiastically predict their best potential outcome — that Cuaron will win director but that the Academy will “do the right thing” and award 12 Years a Slave Best Picture. Here’s a tip: they won’t.
The Academy, like the DGA, doesn’t ever “do the right thing.” They vote for the film they like best, or the director they like best, or the film they can watch as opposed to the film they can’t. 12 Years a Slave is film many will not even watch, partly because they feel it’s “too violent” (it’s not), or because they don’t want to relive a bummer they feel isn’t an important issue anymore (slavery) or because it’s a “feel bad” as opposed to “feel good” movie. Either way, don’t expect 12 Years a Slave to win Best Picture, not without a DGA win for Steve McQueen.
The race feels tight because the big guilds have split. Clearly there are supporters of all three of these films, with probably large factions voting for the party crashing Wolf of Wall Street. American Hustle’s base has likely been weakened by Wolf’s presence, and perhaps even 12 Years a Slave. Gravity’s supporters are solid because they are voting with their hearts. They were moved in the right way by Gravity – it is life-affirming. It stars a woman. It represents Hollywood’s future whether they like it or not. Tent poles, big budget effects-driven 3D films are the future of Hollywood, international appeal, you get the idea.
But let’s take a closer look at the trajectory of these three films, their presence in the race thus far, and what their wins might ultimately mean .
Gravity hit the ground first, making a splash in Venice. This, after some early word of mouth that the movie was in trouble helped put in place those necessary lowered expectations. Once people saw it many believed it to be a masterpiece. It then hit Telluride where the reaction was similar. But another movie was hitting Telluride at the same time. Brad Pitt had produced Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. It shattered audiences there at a surprise screening with Pitt in attendance. Suddenly Gravity felt like an afterthought except to some pundits like Kris Tapley, Greg Ellwood and Anne Thompson who firmly believed 12 Years a Slave was never a movie the Academy could handle, nor would ultimately vote for. Gravity, they said, is the one to beat. Turns out, they may very well be right.
After Telluride, Vulture’s Kyle Buchanan wrote a column declaring 12 Years a Slave the film to beat for Best Picture. That set it up as the dreaded defacto frontrunner. That meant critics groups looking to distinguish themselves certainly weren’t going to go for the obvious Oscar bait. That is why no one wants to be the frontrunner out of Telluride and likely why the Gravity folks were thrilled to be shunted to the side at that same time. They knew what they had, just like Argo last year, when the goal was to fly under the radar as long as possible.
After festival season, Captain Phillips and American Hustle screened just before The Wolf of Wall Street. These late breaking films often have a hard time making it in to the race, but these three made such an impact they had no trouble at all. At first American Hustle looked like it wouldn’t be an “awards movie.” Anne Thompson declared good but not awards material. Ditto my own reaction and that of other pundits in attendance, like Steve Pond, Tapley, etc. American Hustle would win the New York Film Critics before reviews had a chance to hit. The group did the same thing last year with Zero Dark Thirty, choosing a film that hadn’t been reviewed or widely seen for their top prize. That put American Hustle squarely in the running but its real prominence wouldn’t become apparent until the BAFTA and later the Oscar nominations gave it acting nominations in all four categories. Hustle would lead the Oscar nominations, along with Gravity. 12 Years a Slave would get all the essential nominations it required but wouldn’t lead.
12 Years a Slave would collect two Best Picture prizes in a row — from the Golden Globes and the Critics Choice. In both cases, however, Alfonso Cuaron was picking up Director. The pundits then circled their theory that the awards will split that way when it comes to the industry. Had 12 Years a Slave won the PGA outright, and Cuaron won the DGA, that might bolster a split. But with Gravity winning the PGA and the DGA that sets it up to win Best Picture now, and thus it must be considered the frontrunner without question, despite what the pundits are telling you.
What do each of these movies represent?
Gravity is a breathtaking ride, a vigorously directed masterpiece by Cuaron with dazzling visual effects and a lonely lead character who takes us on her journey to choose life over death. Ultimately, Gravity’s story is thin. So thin it couldn’t manage a Best Screenplay nod at the Oscars (though BAFTA gave it one). But that only means it plugs more easily into the modern version of a universal story — that kind of film that works in any language, doesn’t need any sort of background information going in and doesn’t require you to think (unless you want to). It is the movie that would fit the tagline used by the King’s Speech: some movies make you feel. Gravity is the modern masterpiece in that way. It will play all over the world and barely require subtitles. Its win would represent the Academy’s moving forward to accept and embrace this modern trend, to finally break out of their need to reward nuts and bolts filmmaking (non-effects based), traditional storytelling with sets, costumes and dialogue built by humans and not computers — Argo, The King’s Speech, The Artist, The Hurt Locker, Slumdog Millionaire, etc. Young film fans have long wondered why the Academy cannot evolve into the modern era, why they must always adhere to what they know. Gravity’s win would usher in this younger audience of film and Oscar fans. It would also give a golden seal of approval to the kinds of films the Academy has firmly resisted.
Although an effects-driven film, Gravity moves people. Cuaron is overdue, riding a career trajectory that includes the beautiful Y Tu Mama Tambien and Children of Men. Gravity would be the first film starring a woman to win probably since Shakespeare in Love in 1998. Those are among the reasons it could win Best Picture and Best Director. Really, though, at the end of the day what drives the passion vote for Gravity is that it is a feel good film anyone can watch and get. Anyone. If you have a choice between a film that makes you feel bad or uncomfortable and a film that makes you feel good and contented, industry voters nowadays will choose to feel good every time. I think of it like the Prozac Nation Oscars. Gone are the days where darkness reigned, when they could feel comfortable awarding something that didn’t end in a euphoric release. No one is going to pick 12 Years a Slave first over Gravity when they’re looking at their screener pile.
American Hustle is more the kind of film the Academy ordinarily supports. Low budget with a high box office return, strong on writing and acting, luxuriating in the boomer nostalgia of yesteryear, featuring the “cool kids” of Hollywood today — the most popular actors in town, two of the hottest actresses scantily clad and fighting over the film’s central male character. It is light and fun, unpredictable and though it has elements of Scorsese throughout it is distinctly the work of David O. Russell, who gives his actors the space to deliver fully realized, uncorked performances. Actors rule the Academy and actors love directors who make movies with lots of them in it.
American Hustle is about deception, sure, and about financial scams, of course, but at its core it’s really a love story between Amy Adams and Christian Bale. Everything that happens in the film moves those two characters closer to each other. What American Hustle lacks is gravitas. There is nothing particularly urgent at stake, so if you vote for that you are most likely opting out of the narrative in any awards race that winning films must be at least feign some sort of “importance.” With so many heavy films handling emotionally wrenching stories — Captain Phillips, Nebraska, 12 Years a Slave — American Hustle stands out as one of the lighter rides. With a SAG win, a potential WGA win coming up, and perhaps an Eddie, American Hustle stands poised as potential spoiler, if Gravity doesn’t win Best Picture, which it easily should by now.
Absent this Oscar season are the astonishing range of African American stories the year gave us. 2013 represented what might be called the Black New Wave of filmmakers who crossed over into the realm of film critics, tastemakers and industry voters. The Weinstein Co. backed two important films about African American history — The Butler and Fruitvale Station. The Butler made over $100 million but became fodder for the hipster set who tweeted continually condescending things about Lee Daniels and the film itself, labeling it as Oscar bait early on — too soft, not smarmy, too whatever to be “accepted” as a serious film.
Fruitvale Station was given a pat on the back too: “Nice try Ryan Coogler but you are no Benh Zeitlin, that’s for sure.” Both films were completely shut out of the Oscar race. Both were serious stories that crossed over to white and black audiences. The only acceptable film about race was Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, an earnest, raw, moody depiction of slavery as it ought to be told. The British McQueen wasn’t given a pat on the back and a “nice try,” at least not yet anyway. Perhaps that’s coming when the film wins only Supporting Actress and maybe Screenplay. McQueen is already a filmmaker who has crossed over, having made two films about white characters already — he is someone who doesn’t feel as though the only movies he CAN make are movies about people from his own race. In fact, the thought never even occurred to him. He’s telling a good story is all, one about an African American hero in our collective history. We forget that Solomon Northup’s story is every bit an American story as Argo. It’s just that we don’t get to be the good guys. Nearly all the white men in 12 Years a Slave have to be the bad guys, and with them the culture and country they based on wicked oppression, an economy that thrived on unfathomable cruelty, an empire built on the backs of slaves.
The most intensely vivid, memorable scenes in 12 Years a Slave are hard to watch. How could they be otherwise? It’s not intended to make us feel good about our “rightful” place in the universe. The indictment isn’t life-affirming, particularly. Solomon Northup rising up against his slave master and getting nearly lynched as a result, yeah, not a pretty picture. Patsy getting whipped across the back because she’s owned by an oppressor who can’t live with her, can’t live without her. Not pretty. Our American past is ugly, as ugly as anything yet Hollywood has thus far refused to own it in any significant way. Gone with the Wind, Driving Miss Daisy, Django Unchained, Crash — these are Hollywood and Oscar’s tidy answers to dealing with the race issue. That, and movies like Precious and Training Day where black characters are portrayed in a negative light.
No film other than The Wolf of Wall Street was better directed this year than McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. What a shame it got caught in the Oscar loop thereby forbidding the elite critics to put their full support behind it. Of all of the films I saw this year, Gravity is close to being one of those I can’t forget. There are moments in Gravity I will carry with me long after this season ends. But the moments in McQueen’s beautiful, unforgettable 12 Years a Slave have imprinted themselves in my mind’s eye and have changed the way I look at the world. Hard, brutal, uncompromising — these are the elements that make this film the masterpiece that it is. It’s the inhumanity of mankind. It is our shameful past and our potentially shameful present and future.
But the industry’s voice of resistence is beginning to emerge. There will be no film directed by the first black director to win. There will be no films about African Americans to win any major prizes. Those stories will have to reside where they always have — on the fringes of the mainstream. That they were made at all, that people know these filmmakers exist, must mean that doors are slowly being cranked open. The Oscars are moving with the major studios towards our big budget blockbuster future — that seems inevitable. Anything else will belong to the ages.