“Produce great men, the rest follows.” Walt Whitman
The year’s most powerful film tells the story of Solomon Northup, a free black man stolen into slavery where he suffered under unimaginable conditions before finally finding a way to free himself again. He lost 12 years of his life, but somehow endured what can only be called crimes against humanity that built this “free” country of ours. 12 Years a Slave isn’t just a film about slavery — it’s the first film about slavery to get close to winning Best Picture since 1939, when Gone with the Wind swept. When that film premiered in Georgia no black actors were allowed to attend because of segregation laws. Hattie McDaniel had to persuade Clark Gable to attend because he’d threatened to boycott otherwise. Gone with the Wind seemed to be the ultimate film about the Civil War as far Hollywood and the Oscars were concerned. The next seventy or eighty years would be a continual fight for diversity in Hollywood and at the Oscars. Most black actors for decades after Gone with the Wind were relegated to playing “happy servants” and “mammies.” That would eventually change but it still wouldn’t be until 2001 that the first (and only) black actress would win for a leading role.
12 Years a Slave is about many things. It’s about oppression, survival, endurance in the face of horrific circumstances — but to me it is also about Hollywood. Coming just one year after Quentin Tarantino’s revenge fantasy Django Unchained, and Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, 12 Years a Slave has kind of done the impossible — it’s a black film about black characters made by black filmmakers that has achieved enormous critical acclaim and made a decent haul at the box office, considering. The early frontrunner for Best Picture already bored some critics by year’s end, as the majors went for other movies that were newer -— movies like American Hustle and Her. But after the critics on the coasts weighed in, the majority of critics throughout the country threw their unanimous support around McQueen’s film, not a traditional Oscar winner for Best Picture, by any means, but now with enough support to very likely go the distance.
Enter disgruntled white people who will protest the inevitable. But let’s skip over them for now and move on to 12 Years a Slave’s biggest challengers. There are two of them — Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, and David O. Russell’s surprise hit, American Hustle. I can make a strong case for both of these films to go all the way and there is a very good chance that either of them will. I’ve even heard people proposing a split vote between them – Cuaron for Director and American Hustle for Picture.
The only problem with these two movies is that they can’t, in any way, touch either the historical importance of McQueen’s film, or the potential to completely alter the Academy’s own oppressive history. So you’re thinking they had a similar opportunity with Brokeback Mountain and the voters went for Crash because they could not watch nor did they “like” Brokeback. That year was one of a few key years where the critics were overwhelmingly at odds with the industry. The end goals, it seems, of the two factions oppose each other. Critics vote more for artistically daring films (most of the time) while the industry votes for what they “like” best. This plays out because the consensus of voters is so large compared to critics. If the Critics Choice is the largest voting body of critics in the country you’re still talking only 300, as opposed to 100,000 SAG members, 4,500 Producers Guild members, 14,500 Directors Guild members and 6,000 or so Academy members.
The consensus always rounds down to the lowest common denominator — or the one film most people can agree on is best. They decide this mostly agenda-free but they do like to vote with their hearts, about films that have characters they care about, where they were entertained for a few hours. They don’t really ask for more than that. Voters fall briefly but passionately in love. Love, as we now know, is blind.
But love is exactly what people have been saying about Gravity, and now about American Hustle. You might hear various counter phrases about 12 Years, like “voters like it but they don’t love it.” For weeks now various Oscar pundits have been reporting that Academy members have gone crazy for Gravity — so much so that they can’t see any other movie. Gravity would also make history in a slightly different way — it would be the first 3D movie to win and the first film in 86 years of Oscar history to win with so few actors. It would be the first Oscar winner with a Latin American director. It is one of the few films to star a woman in the race (see part two of this column coming soon) and offers audiences true uplift by the end. Gravity is one hell of a ride — deeply life-affirming by the end of it. It is starkly contrasted with J.C. Chandor’s All Is Lost, which isn’t anywhere near close to winning the Best Picture race but can be regarded as having a similar thrust — the real difference is that in All Is Lost the main character (Robert Redford) is nearing the end of his journey but he’s fighting to stay alive, even for what the last remaining years might afford. Both films are ultimately about the compulsion to love this crazy life because the alternative is oblivion — space or the vast ocean, neither place designed for human beings.
American Hustle is a big, broad ensemble piece with director David O. Russell’s biggest talent on display: his gift for writing great dialogue and his ability to get the very best performances from his actors. All of the actors are aces — bouncing off each other with chaotic atomic fury. You never really know what each of them is going to do next. The film bops around all over the place with no deliberate focus on plot. It is best described as a screwball comedy less about ABSCAM than it is about seeing these actors tricked out in disco attire. Amy Adams once again brings the sex as she once did in Russell’s The Fighter — here she is on fire seducing two men at once. But it’s really Jennifer Lawrence’s show. The ditsy, funny actress is well placed within Russell’s cheery chaos. She never stops to wonder what she’s doing or why — she simply dives in. Both Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper are formidable as well. Actors will love American Hustle and actors drive the Academy. You could very well see a SAG ensemble/Editors Guild powerhouse heading into the Oscars which might general the unpredictable but often played “split vote” scenario. Or David O. Russell could win Director and the film win Picture. It is a promising contender right now, no doubt about it, after taking the New York Film Critics prize for Best Picture.
One of the best films of the year is Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips. It’s received no love from the critics awards and yet it remains strong in the race driven by two memorable performances,Tom Hanks and Barkhad Abdi. It’s a thrill a minute, vigorously directed and though some critics have said it’s an America: Fuck Yeah movie, the truth about it is that it really isn’t. It’s much more about the imbalance of power, the enormity of our imperialism around the world. It tells the story of Captain Phillip’s decision to sacrifice himself to save his crew, and how he managed to stay alive without killing anyone. That is, until the NAVY arrived.
The Coen brothers’ marvelous Inside Llewyn Davis has managed to stay vital since all the way back in May when it screened at Cannes. It stayed in the conversation because of T Bone Burnett’s faithful commitment to honoring the roots of folk music by promoting little known, but talented folk musicians in the HBO concert doc, Another Day Another Time. The soundtrack, and star Oscar Isaac’s singing have given the film continual and renewed vitality. The film just won Film Comment’s poll of the best films of the year. It tells the story of the wayward Llewyn Davis, a folk singer who got nowhere, despite putting his whole life on hold to make his dream come true.
Her, Spike Jonze’s lyrical, haunting romance for the modern age is at once a comment on how our lives have become all about our operating devices, our alienation from each other towards a world we think we can control. We watch Joaquin Phoenix’s romance blossom with his OS (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). We think we know which way it might go. Surely the human will outgrow the electronic device. Surely the lack of physical connection will be their ultimate doom. But the clever Jonze takes us in an entirely different direction. That is what makes this film great. It isn’t just about our modern age. It’s about love. It’s about the nature of intelligence. It’s about appreciating what you have when you have it because it could be gone before you realize it’s out the door.
Alexander Payne’s stark, funny, sad Nebraska is about how our lifetimes are shaped by what we do, not what we want to do, with our lives. Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans, said John Lennon, and that’s really what Payne’s film, with a screenplay by Bob Nelson is about. Bruce Dern plays Woody, who has just the one solitary dream to win the million dollars Publisher’s Clearing House promised him. In this country we are nursed to believe we are all potential millionaires if only we could figure out the secret to getting rich. The lotto, stocks, buried treasures — it’s all there for the taking in the land of opportunity. Woody chases the phantom that we’re all chasing, though he’s ridiculed for it by his old pals. It’s a film about family, ultimately. It’s a film about forgiveness and acceptance. It’s also a film about the America that exists once you scrub away the shimmer. Payne deliberately cast the film with ordinary looking folks — there isn’t a hottie to be found anywhere. Even the waitresses and the girlfriends look like women you’d see in Nebraska rather than in casting offices in Hollywood. Nebraska wasn’t written by Payne but it nonetheless closes his trilogy of road movies of a grown man finding himself, starting with Sideways, continuing with About Schmidt and finishing with Nebraska.
Dallas Buyers Club is about Ron Woodruff’s fight to help bring AIDS victims some relief with illegal medication. It’s also about homophobia really influencing much of how that research went down. It’s about Matthew McConaughey’s performance, and his co-star, Jared Leto. It is a moving, important, historical account of the history of finding a cure for AIDS — and how the FDA is all too often driven by corporate greed.
And then there’s Martin Scorsese’s wild ride, The Wolf of Wall Street — a film so good it almost carves out its own category. It doesn’t even attempt political correctness. It is told from the wolf’s point of view, after all. It is a high dive into a murky place where American dreams fester in the fecundity of false promises. It is filmmaking at its absolute best. Does it have a shot at the Oscars? No man can say.
Let’s take a look at how the top tens are faring going by the groups that give out top ten winners or nominees in the pre-guild phase. The Screen Actors Guild have rung in but the other big ones have yet to be announced.
|12 Years a Slave||12 Years a Slave||12 Years a Slave||12 Years a Slave||12 Years a Slave||12 Years a Slave|
|American Hustle||American Hustle||American Hustle||American Hustle||American Hustle|
|Inside Llewyn Davis||Inside Llewyn Davis||Inside Llewyn Davis||Inside Llewyn Davis||Inside Llewyn Davis|
|Captain Phillips||Captain Phillips||Captain Phillips||Captain Phillips||Captain Phillips|
|Wolf of Wall Street||Wolf of Wall Street||Wolf of Wall Street||Wolf of Wall Street||Wolf of Wall Street|
|Saving Mr. Banks||Saving Mr. Banks||Saving Mr. Banks||Saving Mr. Banks|
|Fruitvale Station||Fruitvale Station|
|Dallas Buyers Club||Dallas Buyers Club|
|August: Osage County|
12 Years is where Lincoln was last year and will likely be one of the only films to hit everywhere across the board. Does that mean it’s the winner? It’s too soon to know. Those who object to it strongly object. It isn’t exactly the film voters will dive across the room to put into the DVD player over the holidays.
Welcome to the new normal of the Oscar race. It is no longer required that you pick the best film of the year by artistic merit or by importance. Somehow along the way we’ve discarded importance and artistry in place of likability. Academy members pick what they like and resist the urge to vote for what they “should” vote for. It’s the publicist’s job to temper that response however they see fit. A tough road to hoe if you’re Fox Searchlight. If you’re American Hustle or Gravity you only need encourage voters to not feel that obligation. It’s a tightrope no matter which film you’re working for.
Nonetheless, it’s nearly impossible to look at the state of this race and not conclude that one film is becoming too big to ignore. For all of the reasons we know to be true — for history’s sake, for the future’s sake, and the least of which is McQueen’s stoic, clear, truthful representation at a repugnant dimension of our American story, how can the Academy look away?
NOTE: Part Two, The Vanishing Stories of Women is soon to follow.
12 Years a Slave
Inside Llewyn Davis
The Wolf of Wall Street
Dallas Buyers Club
Saving Mr. Banks
Alt: Fruitvale Station, Philomena,The Butler
Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
Bruce Dern, Nebraska
Robert Redford, All is Lost
Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips
Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club
Alt: Forest Whitaker, The Butler, Leonardo DiCaprio, Wolf of Wall Street
Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Emma Thompson, Saving Mr. Banks
Sandra Bullock, Gravity
Judi Dench, Philomena
Meryl Streep, August: Osage County
Alt: Brie Larson, Short Term, Amy Adams, American Hustle
Best Supporting Actor
Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club
Barkhad Abdi Captain Phillips
Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave
Daniel Bruhl, Rush
Bradley Cooper, American Hustle
Alt. James Gandolfini, Enough Said, Jonah Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street
Best Supporting Actress
Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave
Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
Oprah Winfrey, The Butler
June Squibb, Nebraska
Julia Roberts, August: Osage County
Alt. Octavia Spencer, Fruitvale Station, Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine
Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave
Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
David O. Russell, American Hustle
Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street
Spike Jonze, Her alt. Paul Greengrass, Captain Phillips, Alexander Payne, Nebraska
Joel and Ethan Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis
Best Original Screenplay
Eric Singer, David O. Russell, American Hustle
Spike Jonze, Her
Joel and Ethan Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis
Bob Nelson, Nebraska
Ryan Coogler, Fruitvale Station
Alt Woody Allen, Blue Jasmine, Nicole Holofcener, Enough Said
Best Adapted Screenplay
John Ridley, 12 Years a Slave
Tracy Letts, August: Osage County Terrence Winter, Wolf of Wall Street
Steve Coogan, Philomena
Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, Richard Linklater, Before Midnight alt Billy Ray, Captain Phillips