By Eric Thomas
“12 Years a Slave” was the best movie last year, and it doesn’t much matter what happens in that little ceremony on Sunday in Hollywood. Oh sure, there are some rumblings that “Gravity” or “American Hustle” could take the prize, but that doesn’t have any effect on what the best movie was. “12 Years a Slave” was the best film. This is a statement of fact; if you disagree, you haven’t seen the movie.
“12 Years a Slave” isn’t just the best film from last year, it’s the best I’ve personally seen in 10 years—and might even be the best film I’ve ever seen. It’s certainly up there. It’s visually stunning, from the slave dungeon in Washington DC to the antebellum plantations, where amber threads of light glisten in heavy humid air, juxtaposed with scenes of horror and depravity.
How good are the visuals on “12 Years a Slave?” The director, an artist of stunning talent named Steve McQueen, deliberately drew inspiration from 19th century Spanish painter Francisco Goya. McQueen explained his inspiration in an interview with Rotten Tomatoes. “When you think about Goya, who painted the most horrendous pictures of violence and torture and so forth, and they’re amazing, exquisite paintings, one of the reasons they’re such wonderful paintings is because what he’s saying is, ‘Look – look at this.’”
McQueen, whose career started as a painter before he became an Oscar nominated director, is a visual artist of the highest order, and his visuals are so stunning they make it impossible to turn away, even when you really wish you could.
That’s kind of the problem. There has never been an honest film about slavery in America. The subject has always existed in the periphery, in films populated by runaway slaves. Quentin Tarantino applied a spaghetti-western spoonful of sugar to Django Unchained, but 12 Years doesn’t flinch. The film is a masterpiece of art, but it’s also the vehicle for a true story. The source material is from the book published by eventual abolitionist Solomon Northrup, a free black musician living in New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. The book was read widely at the time, to the point where Union soldiers sought out and visited many of the landmarks mentioned in the book they invaded the south during the Civil War.
It’s tragic that some people stay away from the film, worried about spending two hours in hell. You’re missing out. The movie doesn’t exist to shame you. The movie’s genius, and I haven’t quite heard this articulated, is that it somehow avoids race. The white people in this film are monstrous, no question, but this film is more about humanity and the struggle to survive.
Solomon and the other free black men in the movie seem to look down on the people born as slaves and see themselves as separate. The movie is more about humanity’s ability to look away, and the empathy we sacrifice when we do so. The film is about human beings as property in the pre-war south, but it feels current. In the hands of a less competent director, it could have turned into a treatise on race, but McQueen keeps the focus aimed directly at the heart.
“12 Years a Slave” deserves to win every single Oscar. Chiwetel Ejiofor turns in a quiet, volcanic performance as Solomon. There isn’t a single false note when he’s on screen. Michael Fassbender deserves two Oscars for his performance as the slave-breaking plantation owner Epps. Fassbender tackles one of the most awful characters in film history, and somehow portrays him as a human and not a caricature, you can see the deep seeded feelings within him. McQueen absolutely deserves Best Director. If Lupita Nyong’o doesn’t win for her titanic portrayal of Patsy, Hollywood should be ashamed of itself.
Not taking anything at all away from Gravity. It’s a widely loved film, written and directed by Alfonso Cuarón, a man whose work has been approaching genius for the past ten years. He made the Harry Potter films leaps and bounds better after he directed the third one. Gravity’s not a flaccid, easy to swallow turkey that the Academy decided to choose over a challenging film. It’s not Argo.
That would be “American Hustle.” I’m a big fan of David O Russell, and I love Amy Adams in this movie, but the film never took flight. It’s a bundled together collection of committed performances and Jennifer Lawrence largely plays herself with a Bronx accent. I’m a fan of Christian Bale, but I never really bought him as the hustler guy, and Bradley Cooper seemed to be just doing a version of his character from Silver Linings Playbook, only a scoop more desperate. When Robert DeNiro shows up in the middle of the film, playing a familiar gangster, the whole experience begins to feel false.
It’s a deftly directed, star-studded romp with occasional laugh lines, pretty actors and little substance, so I guess that makes it an Oscar contender. If you want a good movie by O Russell, go rent The Fighter or Three Kings, because American Hustle is an aptly named disappointment.
If you haven’t seen “12 Years a Slave,” rent it this weekend. It sticks with you, and you probably won’t be able to talk about it for a while, but you’ll never forget it. Like all really great art, it changes who you are and what you think. It’s the best film last year by a country mile, and might be among the greatest movies ever made. It doesn’t matter if the mouth breathers in Hollywood agree or not.