(Editor’s Note: If you’re wondering why I have not posted reviews the last two weeks… well, welcome to February! I have not been out to see a film by choice in quite a while. There’s just not a lot of quality stuff out this month and my outings have otherwise been to screenings for reviews that should be published soon. Regardless, I should be catching up on a few films over the weekend and next week, when some of my reviews will also be online to share. So stay tuned for those.)
I would like to start this opinion piece by thanking the Academy.
For all the criticism that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gets – including the ubiquitous complaint that their voting body is too old, too white and too out of touch with the daring, essential films of the period – they have done some pretty good picking for their awards show this year, to be held this Sunday. My favourite movie of the year, Her, is nominated for Best Picture and four other awards, and Spike Jonze is the odds-on favourite to win Best Original Screenplay. My favourite animated movie of the year, The Wind Rises (which I saw at the Toronto International Film Festival but recently opened in theatres), is nominated for Best Animated Feature Film. My favourite subtitled film of the year, The Hunt, is a dark horse contender to win Best Foreign Language Film.
It is always easy to play “Monday Morning Quarterback” with the Academy, picking on whom they snubbed from awards glory the previous evening. When Crash defeated Brokeback Mountain in the most shocking Best Picture upset ever, author Annie Proulx – who wrote the short story Brokeback was based on – wrote a vitriolic response, calling the victor “Trash” and blaming its win on an overtly conservative Academy that was out of touch with contemporary culture. It also was not the only time the Academy barred a more daring film that captured the zeitgeist from the top honour in favour of a crowd-pleaser (see: Saving Private Ryan vs. Shakespeare in Love or The King’s Speech vs. The Social Network). After the Oscars, culture commentators take to the web, look into their imaginary crystal ball and declare something like this:
“I will NEVER watch those stupid awards ever again! How dare they give it to ‘Film X’ instead of ‘Film Y.’ In 50 years, ‘Film Y’ is going to be remembered as a magnificent milestone in cinema that people still talk about, film professors still teach, etc. ‘Film X’ will be forgotten in a week. People will look back at the Academy and ask, ‘What were they thinking?!’ You just wait and see. What a bunch of turds that Academy is!”
Well, we have finally come to a year where the Best Picture race is actually, well, a race. Normally, it is very easy to predict the night’s top winner. The film that wins Best Picture with the Producers Guild of America has an astounding success rate with capturing the top Oscar. If that remains true this year, then two films will tie for Best Picture: Gravity and 12 Years a Slave. (It is actually nice to not have a pretty confident feeling of what the envelope will read.) Regardless of which of those two films – and really, it is very likely to be either Steve McQueen’s true story of enslavement or Alfonso Cuaron’s sci-fi survivalist epic – the Academy has bestowed its honour on a deserving film.
The slogan on Los Angeles billboards for 12 Years a Slave’s campaign reads, “It’s Time.” That could be a vague statement for a poster aimed at Academy voters, until you look at the history. 12 Years a Slave marks a rarity for any Oscar-nominated film: it has a black Briton lead actor, a black Briton director and an African-American screenwriter, all with decent to very good chances of taking home Oscar gold on Sunday. If Ejiofor wins, he will be only the fourth black Best Actor winner in history, after Sidney Poitier, Denzel Washington and Jamie Foxx. If McQueen wins, he will be the first black director to ever take home the prize. In fact, 12 Years a Slave is only the second – yes, you read that correctly – Best Picture nominee in history to have a black director. (Would you believe that the first was Precious, only four years ago?!)
However, 12 Years a Slave should not be bestowed gold because it marks a turning point for black talent. It should win Best Picture because it is a good film. Does it deserve the top prize? In my opinion, yes, even though it did not make my top 10 films of 2013 list. It is a tough and uncompromising watch, as it should be. (Perhaps the “It’s time” slogan was directed at Academy members avoiding their screener DVD of the brutally violent film.) Like 1993’s Schindler’s List, it is a horrifying true story that is too remarkable to pass up and depicts a place, time and person in history that everyone should know about and learn about.
In the same way that Steven Spielberg’s Holocaust drama became a tool for education and a re-awakening of survivor testimony after its release, 12 Years a Slave has a good chance of doing the former. A recent effort to bring the book the film is based on into American high-school curriculum for slavery units has been a success. Meanwhile, the film manages to be a chilling portrait of history without succumbing to an overwrought, simplified dramatic arc. It’s a film filled with pain and almost no pleasure – and it should be awarded for its unnerving storytelling and excellent performances.
12 Years a Slave could be the first film to focus on the African-American experience to win Best Picture (the second if you count 1967’s In the Heat of the Night, although that was a more conservative film that had a white protagonist). On the other hand, Gravity could also make history by becoming the first science-fiction film to grab the top honour. As much as the Academy has neglected films that are not about white people, they also neglect films from genres more reliant on audacious stories, visual effects and computer-generated craftsmanship. Like Star Wars, another storytelling milestone renowned for its visual effects, Gravity is slated to win a slew of technical categories. However, Star Wars lost to Annie Hall, despite picking more awards that evening (seven for George Lucas’s space odyssey, four for Woody Allen’s relationship comedy). The Academy could bring Gravity, ahem, down to earth with a Best Picture loss.
But moviegoers should not doubt the pull that the critically acclaimed, box office behemoth has. Although it does not have a screenplay nomination – normally a stain against the film – it is just as visceral and terrifying a ride as 12 Years a Slave, but far more entertaining. Meanwhile, it boasts some of the most groundbreaking achievements in filmmaking – that 13-minute opening shot is probably already in the first line of DP Emmanuel Lubezki’s obituary – and it does so in the pursuit of creating a more authentic story environment, not empty bombast. Just as in the literary world, makers of science fiction content have been looking for the genre to be validated as one that is serious and worthy of merit in the cinematic realm.
Gravity is as important for what it does with filmmaking as 12 Years a Slave is essential for what it does with storytelling. Nevertheless, both films are deserving of Best Picture and all the rest of the Oscar gold they will likely receive. It is easy to look back at years when a surefire classic lost out to a film of lesser influence or quality and bemoan the Academy’s poor decision-making. When looking back at the race for the 2013 Academy Awards, it would be hard to decry either of these likely champions for triumphing over the other.
It’s time for a fine Oscar race between two very worthy, wonderful films.