Danai Gurira might be one of the strongest and most important voices in American Theatre today. The playwright’s production of Eclipsed gathered thunderous applause and approval from both critics and audiences when it premiered off Broadway at the Public Theater last year and subsequently, it moved to Broadway’s Golden Theatre, where it has received just as much positive buzz. This marks the second New York show in a year for Gurira, who also stars as Michonne in the AMC television series, The Walking Dead. Her other hit show, Familiar, received an extension at Off Broadway’s Playwright’s Horizons before closing on April 10th. [Read more…] about Theater Review: Danai Gurira’s Powerful “Eclipsed”
12 years a slave
Manhattan Digest film reviewers Peter Foy and Dane Benko discuss the major categories of this year’s Oscar nominations.
BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
PF: Well, the Best Animated Feature Film category has always interested me, as some of my picks for best film of the year were actually the winners in that category
DB: And this year has surprising selections.
PF: Yeah, no Pixar!
DB: And The Croods, for some reason. Frankly three of them only have a chance, Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises, Frozen, and Ernest & Celestine.
PF: Yeah, and I regret to say I had not heard of Ernest & Celestine till the announcement.
DB: Right, me either… I don’t think it’s going to win, but the nomination itself is a huge honor for it.
PF: Still, it seems to be that Miyazaki is an almost sure-bet.
DB: Yeah, Frozen has perhaps a chance because of the surprising amount of audience fondness of it, but frankly Miyazaki is too big of a name, regardless of the fact he’s won before (for Spirited Away).
PF: Yeah, it’s just the film is being hyped as his “farewell masterpiece,” so that alone should edge it towards the Academy’s favor. I wanted to see Frozen, but somehow it eluded me amidst the bustle of Oscar Season.
DB: Yeah, my Facebook feed is alive with talk about how awesome the songs are, and I was surprisingly engaged by the trailer, but this is the only time I’ve looked at the Animated section and felt at a loss as to where my year of movie watching went, precisely. And why the Croods?
PF: Yeah, that does seem an odd choice. Especially as Monsters University did receive decent critical recognition for a sequel, while it seemed like both audiences and critics were lukewarm towards The Croods. Hey, maybe they were persuaded to nominate it just to have a dark horse in there.
DB: In the end, last year’s Oscar win for Pixar seemed a little shoed in, so all in all I’m glad to see different options this year (even though I’m a die-hard Pixar fanboy), but I don’t think Despicable Me 2 or The Croods really replace that slot. Ernest & Celestine would be the most interesting win, but it’s already reaped a major award just by being featured. Frozen could be a surprise hit but only because audiences were surprisingly keen on it. But this year goes to Miyazaki
PF: I would agree, and I’m also totally for it. I feel that Miyazaki really has earned his coveted title as being perhaps the most celebrated animator of our generation, and has really made the medium an art form
Not only has he used animation to tell fantasy stories that appeal to all ages, but does them with a sense for wonderment and joy that most directors (including live-action ones) couldn’t even hope to capture.
I would call him the Walt Disney of Japan, but in all honesty I think he’s even greater than that.
DB: I still am not 100% sure he’s finished in the world of animation, the last few movies he’s made grumblings about being his last, but since he seems to want this one to underline his ouevre, I respect that.
PF: Yeah, I don’t know if this will really be his last film. He had said that about Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away also. But giving his age, and the acclaim and anticipation that this film is already receiving, then I feel it only builds to it’s stature for us to envision this as being his last work. Kind of like with Jay-z’s The Black Album! Same standard!
DB: But why The Croods?
BEST ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE:
DB: Scrolling up, how do you feel about the Supporting Actress nominees? I always have a difficult time with the actors segments., but it’s the actors that bring in the viewers, as the Oscars is really a celebrity showcase.
PF: Yes, very much so. I’m happy with the Supporting Actress nominations for the most part. I’m glad that they nominated Sally Hawkins, as I felt she gave a really strong and careful performance in Blue Jasmine, and I felt that some people didn’t acknowledge it due to Cate Blanchett’s lead.
DB: Sally Hawkins and June Squibb are the interesting ones. I… don’t see Jennifer Lawrence winning again. I love Jennifer Lawrence. She’s awesome. And she won last year. And I think the Academy thinks the same way I think about that.
PF: Yeah, Jennifer Lawrence was great though… and if the Academy wants to make history they may let her win as if she did win the best supporting role again this year, she would be the youngest actress to do so
DB: If the Academy Awards wants to make history (more on this when we discuss Best Picture), they’ll pick Lupita Nyong’o, which I wouldn’t be surprised to see. She did an amazing job in 12 Years a Slave, and 12 Years a Slave is pretty much a showcase of Oscar-quality talent. She may even be my pick.
PF: Yes, that’s true. She gave a very gripping performance, and her performances in the film’s most harrowing scenes were simply astonishing. She might be my pick as well, as any actress would need to go to intense places to deliver in a movie like that. I can’t comment on Julia Roberts as I haven’t seen August: Osage County
DB: I haven’t either. Fact is I’d be surprised if it wins many, or any, awards. I actually have the suspicion that the movie itself is different from the trailer, as the trailer seemed to highlight the reprehensible character Meryl Streep plays.
PF: Yeah, it’s not uncommon for trailers to be misleading these days.
DB: The movie clearly operates on that basis of ensemble performance. This is one reason why it would be sort of interesting to have an ensemble cast section for Oscars. But people’s reactions to it seem to be along the lines of, “I’m jealous of the dead character.”
PF: Ha, well if one film legitimizes the necessity for an inclusion of that category then it’s American Hustle, a film I think we will be discussing quite a bit of…
BEST ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE:
DB: I sort of want to head this one off by saying, I like Jonah Hill and all, and I loved This is the End, but his performance in The Wolf of Wall Street seemed more like he was acting out a sketch about being in a Martin Scorsese movie, than him actually acting in a movie directed by Scorsese. I’d even, in this list, eagerly give him the award for This is the End, because he played off himself perfectly, really subverting his own celebrity. I think Barkhad Abdi and Jared Leto seem like good contenders to add diversity to the list, but this really seems to be a showdown between Cooper and Fassbender.
PF: Yeah, I don’t think Jonah Hill has a chance. Barkhad Abdi is a fantastic actor though, and was just as strong a screen presence in Captain Phillips as Tom Hanks. Jared Leto might also get my honor for “best comeback performance” of the year, but yeah, it looks like it’s a showdown between Cooper and Fassbender, and I think the Academy is likely to tip in Fassbender’s favor.
BEST ACTOR IN A LEAD ROLE:
PF: I actually was having a conversation with someone that Tom Hanks was snubbed a leading actor nomination the other day.
DB: Oh? I don’t know, hasn’t Tom Hanks sort of proven his Academy chops?
PF: Yeah, and in actuality I don’t think his performance was quite as remarkable as the other 5 gents that the Academy nominated this year. Although the climax to Captain Philips shows that there’s still plenty of range for the veteran actor
DB: The Best Actor category seems like one of the most competitive. It’s not surprising that many good roles were lost in the shuffle. I honestly have about as good a chance predicting this one as a Magic 8 Ball.
PF: Yeah, I know that feeling. I can tell you I’m rooting for Matthew McConaughey though. In fact I wanted to see him nominated for Killer Joe last year
DB: Yeah, I can see that. The Academy has this really bad habit of awarding talent the year after the movie they deserved to win for. It seems a lot of people feel Leonardo DiCaprio is overdue for an Oscar. I throw my support behind Chiwetel Ejiofor.
PF: Yeah, as 12 Years a Slave really is a star making performance for him. Getting back to snubs… I still think they could of fit Joaquin Phoenix in there…
DB: Oh man…
PF: …as I felt he deserved to win last year for his incredibly unique and volcanic performance in The Master.
DB: It was ridiculous. I didn’t even see Phoenix the person in Her. I certainly saw Phoenix in The Master, and still thought he was powerful. Oh and by the way, as a terrible Pynchon fan, I can’t wait to see him in Inherent Vice. He’ll rock Doc Sportello. But believe me, we’ll get to discussing Her in a bit!
PF: Ha! I can’t wait to see Inherent Vice!
DB: Maybe that’s why Phoenix wasn’t put up for this year. Next year is being prepped for a long anticipated Pynchon adaptation Oscar streak.
PF: If he wins next year, then I’ll be completely ecstatic about it! Back to the best acting nominees though…What do you think about Christian Bale getting another nod? I feel he might have another good chance to win, just cause it’s a role so different from what he’s played before, and he once again perfects it
DB: My opinion on Bale is best described by the scene in Rescue Dawn where he eats maggots with a …. maggot-eating grin: Dude chews scenery in a way I adore, but I wouldn’t give him an award. I feel like I’m more on a rollercoaster than watching a performance. I’d almost feel like giving him the golden man for American Hustle would be more boring than his performance deserves. But I’m not one of the voters, so what do I know?
PF: Bruce Dern is another likely contender. Either for an Oscar, or a lifetime achievement award. As you said all five of the nominees gave career highlights this year, but, who knows, maybe the average age of academy voters will dictate them voting for the oldest nominee in the bunch.
BEST ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE:
DB: Let’s start talking about Best Actress! No in all seriousness, this is one of the better line-ups of actresses in my memory, being that women are finally not always secondary characters in their own stories anymore.
PF: Yes, very much, although I feel that Brie Larsson was snubbed for her performance in Short Term 12
DB: Oh really? I… I don’t know what that is.
PF: It’s just it was a little-seen independent film with an arthouse veneer. So yeah, it’s not exactly the type of movie that would attract Oscar voters. I felt she just gave such a complex and hard-edged performance for that film.
DB: Well, you certainly caught me off-guard. I was gonna mention that Melissa McCarthy should have been nominated for The Heat. I am absolutely serious, she’s the Lou Costello of our generation.
PF: Yeah I didn’t see The Heat, but I thought she should have been nominated for Bridesmaids.
DB: But since Sandra Bullock got nominated instead for Gravity, that’s about the only segue I had to this otherwise eclectic mix of characters. Like Best Actor, I don’t even know where to start here.
PF: I feel Cate Blanchett might be the most likely contender
DB: Yeah Blue Jasmine was something else. I never thought Blanchett would top her performance in Coffee and Cigarettes. And of course there she only had a segment. Now she had to hold up a movie.
PF: Yeah, she gets serious props from me as she was able to balance the humor of her character against the distraught nature of her as well. What an ending too? It was rather disturbing I found.
DB: Actually now that you use that word, pretty much all the actresses this year had disturbing roles.
Bullock’s was the most lighthearted, and it was about the grief of losing a child! Or maybe Meryl Streep’s because we were supposed to laugh at her character?
PF: Yeah, that’s true. Although there aren’t many years when an actress gets nominated cause of how “happy” their performance was. Well for me Brie Larsson’s performance outshone the rest.
DB: Right. So we’re agreed. Brie Larsson should have won, and, uh… we have no clue who will win. But we can agree that all of these actresses do a fine job at making you feel sad.
PF: Yep! Exactly!
PF: Moving onto best picture now!
DB: Well alright then. To cut to the chase, I can’t help but feel this comes down to 12 Years a Slave versus Her. The rest of the movies are great.
PF: Really, I don’t think Her has much of a chance of winning. To be honest I wouldn’t have been surprised had it not even been nominated
DB: It’s been pretty much universally embraced by critics and audiences alike. And as a separate, specific feature, it’s good up and down and through and through. Good design, good performance, good acting, good editing, and a story that seems to be hitting close to an area big on people’s minds.
Plus Megan Ellison is about as celebrity as producers get.
PF: Yeah, but it’s not exactly an Oscar-type of movie. While it is a film about contemporary relationships, it’s also a high-concept sci-fi film that also seems aimed at indie-rock fans.
I think the two most likely picks for best picture are American Hustle and 12 Years a Slave. The former just comes off to me as this year’s Argo
DB: Yeah but that might be why it loses…
PF: Yeah, I thought about that as well, but it also seems hard for The Academy to resist it.
DB: 12 Years a Slave seems like a good pick because in a weird way we’re overdue for the sober social consciousness film. It also fits the Academy’s MO.
PF: Yeah, although I do notice that the Academy does still tend to like film’s that have a little bit of levity to them. Which 12 Years a Slave certainly does not have
DB: Well in theory, the purpose of these awards are to argue for artfulness of film. 12 Years a Slave is an important film whether you enjoyed it or not. So that sort of sets it to demand people’s, including Academy voters’, attentions.
PF: Yeah, and if we’re talking about craft, then the film is a shoe-in for best picture. I absolutely feel that 12 Years a Slave will win for best director. Steve McQueen really has established himself as such a visionary with only just three films.
DB: I feel like Gravity is misplaced in these two departments. Strictly speaking Cuaron is worthy of being considered for Best Director and the movie is astounding, but it is a technical showcase that should sweep whatever technical awards its up for. But it’s kind of the odd-man-out of the rest of the titles in the Best Picture category.
PF: Yeah, well they have one of those every year (i.e. Inception)
DB: I feel like American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street will cannibalize each-others votes as historical looks at decadence and power. 12 Years a Slave has the biggest chops and Her has the feverish word-of-mouth. Which makes them create an interesting sort of unintentional narrative about whether the award will go to the mistakes of our past, or the hopes of our future.
PF: I don’t think Wolf of Wall Street has much a chance of winning. But that’s fine, you can tell Scorsese didn’t make it to win an award
DB: I don’t think Scorsese made The Departed to win an award.
PF: Yeah, but he did make The Aviator to win one. I personally think he wouldn’t have done that movie had he won an Oscar at that point, and I do feel it’s one of his weakest films because of that
DB: I wouldn’t want to answer for him. My feeling is that Scorsese is a case in point that the Academy tends to award a filmmaker about a year or two after the point when people feel the filmmaker deserves it most. Which is why Leonardo DiCaprio is either getting an award this year or next.
PF: A very solid accusation. In fact bearing that in mind, then maybe Leo will indeed win this year as the he has said he’s going on hiatus from acting, so the academy may want to award him now before he takes off for a bit.
DB: I trust his hiatus about as much as I trust Soderbergh’s various retirements. Film people seem to be like that one guy on message forums that’s always announcing his departure from the community. The ones that make the loudest announcements are typically the ones that can’t quit. Heck, Phoenix’s hiatus was a performance in and of itself. Anyway, perhaps I am being too confident in Her. I just strongly feel it is the title that SHOULD win, though 12 Years a Slave is the title to beat.
PF: Yeah, well I didn’t mention it earlier, but I would of liked to see my favorite film of the year nominated (Before Midnight). Her and 12 Years a Slave are my favorites of the batch nominated and Her is what I feel should win, but 12 Years a Slave seems the more probable outcome.
MINOR AWARDS AND ERRATA:
PF: What do you think about how Inside Llewyn Davis didn’t receive any major nominations?
DB: Don’t feel it should have. Loved the movie, isn’t as caustic and daring as A Serious Man and the Coens already settled their score with No Country for Old Men. It still got cinematography award nomination, and it looks friggin’ beautiful. I actually really hope it wins that category.
PF: Yeah, I liked how the film looked like the cover of a folk album. Really evoked The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’s, but it wasn’t surprising to see it wasn’t nominated for best picture. But, I don’t think the Coens really care either way.
DB: It’s also up for sound mixing but that should go to Gravity. Full dynamic atmospheric subjective sound. Llewyn Davis’ audio award should be for Music. But those categories have to be original song or original score.
PF: Well, it will be interesting to see which movies win in the screenplay categories, as once again, this year saw so many great scripts. Although I’m not exactly sure why Before Midnight is up for best adapted screenplay…
DB: Yeah I was wondering that as well. I guess “Adapted from the characters by Linklater.”
PF: Yeah, probably just an excuse to put the film in that category, but hey, you hardly see sequels nominated for Oscars also.
DB: It would be kind of funny if the Adapted Screenplay went to 12 Years a Slave and the Original Screenplay went to Her. “We’ve adapted to the past, and now we’re originating the future!”
PF: Yeah I was thinking that myself. It could very well happen too, as Her demonstrated that Spike Jonze is a talented screenplay writer, in addition to being a fantastic director, and as you said, The Academy seems due to acknowledge a somber film about America’s darkest past.
Well here it is, the fruit of my loins as a cinephile. Every year, I find that it’s a critic’s most joyful duty to compose a top ten list, and this year had no shortage of quality releases. I actually contemplated doing a top 20 list, but I the felt that that would prove distracting, and that these ten films I’ve chosed as my personal favorites round out the year perfectly well. Hope that many of you concur with my picks, and if you don’t then I cordially invite you to have a friendly debate with me.
10. Blue is the Warmest Color
Abdellatif Kechiche’s film has received so much discussion since it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes for it’s sprawling running time and explicit sex scenes, that it’s almost easy for one to call the film 2013’s most overrated film. Even if that’s true, it’s still a terrific saga about going through a first-love experience, that’s effectively both tumultuous, cautionary and joyful. I mean hell, it’s a three-hour French film about a lesbian romance, so I don’t think too much could of gone wrong with it.
9. Computer Chess
Arguably, the mumblecore film that critics have been dying to see, as director/writer Andrew Bujalski (who inspired the movement 10 years ago with his film Funny Ha Ha) has given us a film with the most minuscule of budgets that has the largest of ideas. Examining a weekend tournament between chess software programmers during the early 1980s, Computer Chess is a layered look at the foundations of our current technological climate, all while shot in a deliciously blurry black-and-white hand-held style that makes the film feel all the more organic and retro. Often hilarious, surprisingly surreal, and always cerebral, Computer Chess is a stunning document on the magnetic power that American independent cinema is very much capable of holding in this day-and-age.
8. Inside Llewyn Davis
If the Coen brothers have entered their latter day career period now, then perhaps that’s why their latest film acts as a pessimistic picture on a young talent. An ode to folk music, the film follow the title character (embodied by a career sparking performance by Oscaar Isaac) in his unlucky pursuits through New York in the early 1960s. It’s possibly the brothers most idiosyncratic film since O Brother Where Art Thou, as Llewyn is every bit a Coens creation, as he’s leeching and hypocritical, yet also a gifted musician who happens to be a bit of a victim of his surroundings. We see our character fail again-and-again throughout the film, but with the Coen’s talent for creating eccentric characters and stunning period decor, the film proves to be a dismal trip that also happens to be a lot of fun! Plus, it’s just so gratifying to see this film and realize how much of New York’s element has remained in tact for over half-a-century now
7. The Past
Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi became a bit of an overnight-sensation for arthouse cinema when his 2011 film A Separation received near unanimous praise as a masterpiece. For his follow up film, the director has crafted a film that’s similar to A Separation, both thematically and cinematically, but that doesn’t make it any less of a necessity. It’s an intense family drama that only grows more intricate and ambiguous as it unravels, and it ends with an image of true poeticism and beauty. Another masterpiece from one of the world’s best new film makers.
6. Frances Ha
One of the most appealing things to me about Frances Ha is that all the reasons I love it, are what other viewers will find middling. The kitsch style, the intentionally spotty narrative, and the glorification of contemporary white-priveleged 20-somethings just really connected with me, and I couldn’t help but find the film as a real spoke’s person for our generation. Of course, none of this would matter if not for Greta Gerwig’s lead performance, as she transforms her character into the most endearing indie film chick of the year. I can hear Lena Dunham’s envy already.
5. The Spectacular Now
The year’s surprise masterpiece! This adaptation of Tim Tharp’s novel could have turned out like so many teen romance films before it, but instead it’s so much more thanks to a superb script, top-notch directing, and brilliant chemistry between it’s two leads. All I need to say is that as soon as the movie was done, all I could say was this: “Finally, a teen-romance movie that actually get’s it.”
4. Short Term 12
Short Term 12 is exactly the type of film to restore your faith in American independent cinema. Destin Cretton proves he’s as valuable a director as he is a screenplay writer, giving us a film that touches on every human emotion, while also being a very realistic look at a topic that isn’t explored nearly enough in fiction. Also, Brie Larsson gives a performance of utmost power and range in this film, and I’m certain the Academy will all but ignore it. Heartbreaking, funny, plausible, and fluid, Short Term 12 is truly something special from beginning to end. It might not be what I’d call the “best” film of the year, but I’m thinking it might be my personal favorite
3. 12 Years a Slave
If it’s not the best film ever made about slavery, then it’s certainly the most brutal, humane and relevant one. Steve McQueen’s adaptation of the true story of the free African-American Solomon Northup and his kidnapping and enslavement by white men is an astounding period piece that showcases the horrors of America’s most despicable sins. Gritty and hard-to-watch, yet also profound, brilliantly filmed and handled by a cast of some of Hollywood’s best actors, 12 Years a Slave legitimizes Steve McQueen as an auteur that can be mentioned in the same breath as Martin Scorsese.
2013 was a great film year for love stories (about 50% of my top 10 list will tell you that), but leave it to Spike Jones to give us the most original and subversive one of the year. The story of a man falling in love with a computer certainly could of come off as hooey, but instead Jonze crafts his near-future world with an eye for humanity that makes us all completely embrace his believable vision, and the complex love story at the heart of it. Joaquin Phoenix also gives a perfectly sweet and vivid performance here that actually is very much a parallel to his volcanic turn in last year’s The Master, and yes he does have the utmost chemistry with Scarlett Johansen’s voice. Spike Jonze should be very proud, as he just proved he doesn’t need a screenplay from Charlie Kaufman in order to make a great film.
1. Before Midnight
Best three-quel ever? Well, besides Toy Story 3, I’m blanking on one that comes even remotely close to Richard Linklater’s majestic film on imperfect-yet-true love. Just like Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, Linklater keeps directing tricks at a minimalist level (although there is no shortage of great shots in the film), and instead lets Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke work their magic. The dialogue and character interactions are even richer than before, and the film’s lengthy “argument” scene may be the single best scene shot for an American film for this generation. Here’s hoping that Linklater, Hawke and Delpy will retain the creative stamina to make another great installment of this series for the next decade (and onward).
Honorable Mentions: Nebraska, Blue Jasmine, Fruitvale Station, Mud, American Hustle, Gravity, No
And the Oscar race begins…
Damn, we’re in mid-November already? The Oscar race is in full swing, and we have all the familiar parties present and accounted for, and in just two months we’ll know for certain who’ll be running the final lap to the Oscars, and wasn’t it just last week that I had seen Before Midnight, and was telling everyone it was a shoe-in for best picture…well, at least my best picture. As astounding in craft as that film was, it just looks too European and arty to fit the Academy’s definition of prestigious, plus it came out way back in May. As much as I’d like to tell you that the whole theory about awards season is a myth, it’s just irrefutable that the Academy pays select attention to films that come out during the October-December period, and no matter how great a summer release is, it’s integrity it likely to diminish in the eyes of Acadamy members when it comes time to cast their votes. A shame indeed, but all is not lost, as it looks like this year might see quite a few people taking home a little golden guy for the very first time, and be every bit deserving the honor for their hard work as well. Here are my thoughts on how surprising and not so surprising some of the categories for the 86th Academy Awards will be.
Best Foreign Film
Blue is the Warmest Color will definitely be nominated, and there’s little doubt that it will win also. It was the first film at Cannes to win the Palm d’Or for both directing and acting, and it’s reception has been overwhelmingly positive. What’s more, the film has been doing very well for an NC-17 rated French film that is only being played in a handful of theaters throughout America, and this is something the Academy is certain to notice. However, the Iranian The Past does have a shot, as director Asghar Farhadi’s 2011 film A Separation won for this category two years ago, and it’s possible that Academy voters will find more merit in a film that focuses on characters in an older age group.
Noah Baumbach, Destin Daniel Cretton, James Ponsoldt, and Richard Linklater should all be nominated in this category…but they all almost definitely will not. It’s the same thing every year, as we tend to see quite a few great indie/arthouse filmmakers get snubbed in this category just cause there films don’t tend to fit the frame work that the Academy prefers (it also doesn’t help that they all released their films during the summer months). Instead you can expect the usual suspects to be nominated here. The likes of Martin Scorsese, David O. Russel, and the Coen Brothers are likely to take up 3 of the five slots, but maybe we can expect two irregulars as well. Steve McQueen and Alfonso Cuaron both have equal chances of getting a nomination this year, and it’s rather likely that they both will as well.
Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, and Forest Whitacker are the easy guesses, but there are other likely candidates as well. It would seem criminal not to at least consider Chiwetel Ejiofor for a nomination, after his harrowing portrayal as Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave. Matthew McCoanaughey is very likely to receive his first best actor nomination this year (about damn time!), but his characher in Dallas Buyers Club is a little too grimy and diseased to win him the award. Also, it would be satisfying to see Joaquin Phoenix receive another nomination this year, as critics have been saying that in Her he finally plays the sweet and loving character that so many of his previous roles suggested he was so sublimely capable of.
I very much would like to see Brie Larson receive a nomination in this category, as she delivered such a complex and emotional performance in Short Term 12, but sadly I don’t think it’s likely that the Academy will acknowledge a little-seen indie film starring a 24-year old actress previously best known for comedies. Instead though, we’ll have to look at a veteran actress who starred in an internationally successful film directed by one of Hollywood’s most beloved directors. Those that have seen Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine must understand that Cate Blanchett is a lock for a nomination (if not a straight up win). Don’t be surpised to see her competing against the likes of Sandra Bullock and Meryl Streep also.
I’m not a fan of The Academy’s decision to allow more than 5 films to be nominated for best picture. I feel that by including up to 10 entrees in this category, it’s just a desperate ploy for the Academy to try to appeal to all different demographics, and give summer blockbusters (albeit better than average ones) some spotlight come the big day. So you can expect the regular prestige flicks (Saving Mr. Banks, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, The Wolf of Wall Street), along with the slightly more offbeat fare (Inside Llewyn Davis, American Hustle, Nebraska), along with one or two films that are more in the realm of genre (Gravity, The Hobbit ). I feel it’s still too early for me to pin-point on who is likely to win or not, but I can tell you one thing: It won’t have Before or Midnight in the title.
What is necessary for a filmmaker to do in order to carry the title of auteur? Well, it’s certainly a term that’s meaning has changed over the years, as it was coined by French critics as a way to form a familiar link between filmmakers and literature (auteur literally being the French word for author). Critics have since argued that if a director obtains a unique vision and sense of creativity towards his work than it’s enough to touch on auteur-ism. In my eyes though, that’s a rather vague analysis as most filmmakers have their own distinct directing style. Hell, in that regard you could say Michael Bay is an auteur. For me, an auteur is a filmmaker that has honed their craft in such a way that he’s a most singulary talent, and makes films that only he/she can truly work brilliantly. For that reason, I feel that if Steve McQueen’s third feature, 12 Years a Slave, isn’t quite enough to bestow on him that title, than it’s more than enough to give him ample consideration for it.
For those not familiar with this director, I strongly recommend seeking out his two previous films before seeing this new one. Hunger, was possibly the most impressive debut film of the last decade, and his sophomore feature, Shame, was a no-holds-barred psycho-sexual drama rich both in film theory and intriguing subject matter. His latest, however, is the closest he’s come to making a genuinely great film though. Based on Solomon Northup’s autobiography (published in 1853), 12 Years a Slave is a harrowing account of the real-life ordeal this poor man went through. Set in 1841-1853, the film shows how Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man living with his family in Saratoga, New York, is drugged and sold into slavery by two white men. The film’s title is enough to let viewers know that he will achieve freedom eventually, but the trek getting there is anything but calming.
Steve McQueen’s is a filmmaker who doesn’t hold back, as can be seen with the grim images of starvation that were in Hunger, or the raw sexual content that got Shame the infamous NC-17 rating. 12 Years a Slave is perhaps even more harsh a film, as throughout it’s 134 minutes there really isn’t any levity. 12 Years a Slave shows us the unspeakable cruelty that these poor people had to go through, and McQueen knows just how to handle the material. Several times throughout the film McQueen will utilize lengthy takes to show Northup’s struggle, from a brutal back beating upon his enslavement, to a really ugly scene that comes after an attempt to hang him. Not to give away too much detail, but lets just say after viewing Northup’s survival method, it’s not likely you’ll ever see walking on your tippy-toes the same way again (feel free to say this movie ruined ballet for you).
12 Years a Slave, however, does have utmost purpose towards showing such rough material. Although born in Britain, McQueen is a black man with heritage from Grenada, so it’s possible that he feels this story has a connection to his heritage and family history. Some people I knew that championed McQueen’s earlier work have complained that this film is far more linear in it’s narrative, and not as rich in symbolism. Perhaps that’s true, but I also don’t think is should not be disregarded that this is his most emotionally stirring work as of yet. The filmmaking shows that McQueen has researched this time very fruitfully, and also wants us to think about how it wasn’t even two centuries ago that the subject matter in this film took place. Some of the film’s best scenes involve the white character doing really appalling things all while remaining entirely stoic, or even giddy. One such example is a part when Paul Dano’s sings a little diddy that’s chorus is, “run nigger, run, yeah you better run away,” over a sequence that shows the slaves working really hard in the dense southern heat. I don’t know about you, but I feel that’s enough to give someone a good ol’ case of white-guilt.
I feel that the majority of the viewing public that have seen the trailers for 12 Years a Slave will almost certainly comment on how the film has an “all-star” cast. It’s a cliched term for sure, and most of the actors in the film have such limited screen time that it would be amiss to call the film an ensemble drama, but we can also be grateful that McQueen assembled such a mighty list of talented actors. Chiwetel Ejiofor holds are attention and are sympathy for the entire film, and hopefully the actor will be receiving more leading roles in the future. It certainly was no surprise to see McQueen cast Michael Fassbender, the star of his last two films, in a central role again here, but it’s certainly evident that the two have a Scorsese-De Niro Chemistry. Fassbender’s performance as Edwin Epps, Northup’s second and even more despicable master, is utterly fantastic, and it’s further proof that his acting ability is best reserved for more low-key film makers like McQueen, as opposed to Hollywood-heavies like say…Ridley Scott. Other big name actors in the film (Brad Pitt, Paul Giamatti, and Benedict Cumberbatch) have relatively brief roles, but their all necessary in their performances for the film’s overall theme and substance.
As of this writing, I just cannot think of a better film about American slavery than this. Amistad was a noble effort but came off more as Oscar bait than something truly profound, and while Roots was a landmark series in several ways, it hasn’t aged as well as we might have initially thought it would. It’s funny that this film comes out a year after D’jango Unchained, as I feel now that audiences will be calling this film the serious version of Tarantino’s wacky schlockly blaxploitation-western, which is actually okay in my book. As much as I appreciate genre’s ability to turn horrible atrocities into crowd-pleasing entertainment, it’s important that we see the horrors of slavery without being so sensationalized as well. If 12 Years a Slave won’t be considered the breakthrough slavery drama, it will still continuously be cited as being one of the best.