Thursday, January 23, 2014

Years in Review

This week, I saw one of the presumed frontrunners in the Oscar race for Best Picture, 12 Years a Slave. Based on an 1853 memoir, it tells the story of Solomon Northup, a free man of the north duped into a trip south, where he was captured and sold into slavery. The film has built a reputation for being tough to watch, though ultimately a brilliant, even essential effort. If Oscar voters are willing to actually consider it, the argument goes, the film will likely wind up as the year's Best Picture.

I don't think it fully deserves the honor. I agree with the praise to a point. The story of Solomon Northup does indeed seem to me as one that "deserves to be known." But I think it's that story that's essential; this film's telling of it is flawed in areas, resulting in a film that is very good, though not great.

If an Oscar were awarded for a single scene, then 12 Years a Slave would certainly earn that. There are several powerful scenes throughout the movie, the most affecting and effective a whipping in the final act. It's a bold, single take of several minutes, with a free roaming camera that forces the audience to take in the horrifying event from every conceivable perspective. And as impressive as the choreography of it is, the performances are stronger still.

But as a whole, the film seems a bit unmodulated. Solomon Northup's tale may indeed be one of relentless woe (though I have read some commentary suggesting that at least some of the film's events have no basis in his original book), but a narrative film needs highs as well as lows. I'd offer as contrast a rival Oscar film, Gravity. Much of that movie is high-ratcheted tension, but it does find quiet moments of introspection and even a note or two of humor along the way, all of which makes the tension stronger still when it comes. Of course, it would take a skilled writer indeed to find an authentic place and way of inserting other tones into a story like that of 12 Years a Slave, but I still believe the absence of any other tone almost numbs the audience in places -- something which this story doesn't deserve.

Ultimately, I'd call that a minor quibble. The larger flaw in the film, in my view, is the casting. I say this even though I can't point to a single bad performance in the movie. The problem is the preponderance of recognizable actors. Oscar-nominated lead actor Chiwetel Ejiofor is largely unknown (except to fans of Serenity), as is supporting actress nominee Lupita Nyong'o. But the film also features Michael Fassbender, Sarah Paulson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Garret Dillahunt, Alfre Woodard, and Brad Pitt. Many of them appear for only one scene. With so few lines and so little screen time, and with the story so focused (rightly) on Solomon, there simply isn't room for even these skilled actors to present us much of a character. And so we're simply left looking at "the dad from Raising Hope," thinking about the new season of Sherlock, or realizing  "wow, it really is Brad Pitt."

Some of the supporting actors get enough screen time, are slightly less famous than the A-listers, or both, to get over this problem. Michael Fassbender, for example, is thoroughly deplorable as plantation owner Edwin Epps. Sarah Paulson manages to be even more oily and unlikable as his wife Mary. But I think it's no coincidence that Lupita Nyong'o gives the best performance in the film, the one all the critics are talking about -- she's the one true unknown in the cast, freeing her up to disappear into her character among all the famous faces.

When the movie is at full stride, it is remarkable. I was moved enough to give it the #8 slot on my Top 10 list of 2013, in fact. (At least for now.) But it's not my favorite among the Oscar contenders I've seen. I'd say it merits a B+ overall.


Anonymous said...

Which one would be your favorite?


DrHeimlich said...

Well, it's said to be a three-horse race between 12 Years a Slave, American Hustle, and Gravity (with 12 Years a Slave in the lead). My pick of those would be Gravity.

My real pick overall would be Bridegroom. But setting aside that they never would nominate a documentary made on the cheap for Best Picture, I'd pick Before Midnight. They totally should have given that a nomination.

Anonymous said...

I really want to see the whole Before series... and sorry, but I hope Gravity doesn't win. It's a technical achievement to be sure, but best FILM of the year? There's hardly any sort of plot (or character development) in there. It's the end sequence of Titanic, but in space.