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25 Movies to See Before the Oscars: 14. 12 Years a Slave

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Nominations: Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Adapted Screenplay, Costume Design, Film Editing, Production Design

Over the past few years Hollywood has become disenchanted from the struggles of civil rights – so much of what is turned around nowadays has that finger-wagging have-you-learned-your-lesson condescension about it; the recent big hits Django Unchained and The Butler are perfect examples of such movies. Until now with 12 Years a Slave, the real-life account of freeman-turned-slave Solomon Northup played with aching power and self-awareness by Chiwetel Ejiofor, any film that covers the spectrum of the history of racial inequality in America have never had such a rapid-fire, present-tense tone to it.

J.J. Abrams has been called the next Spielberg by lots of people – well, of course he has their aesthetics and the narratives that attract them are strikingly similar – but J.J. Abrams is not the next Spielberg. Steve McQueen has only made three feature length movies as of yet (he’s only forty-four) and yet he’s demonstrated a driving desire to bring a new kind of authenticity to his art, full of bold ideas that could conceivably been written off as European smut had they come at any time before now. First there was the Irish prison drama Hunger, then the grueling portrait of a New York sex addict in Shame, and now his most accomplished film, as well as the most accomplished film of anyone this year, with 12 Years a Slave. Much like Spielberg with his groundbreaking masterpieces Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan, McQueen has completely redefined, among many other things, how an important albeit horrible period of world history will be portrayed in film forever. For example, being able to honestly though not exploitatively portray brutality on screen isn’t something one just happens upon as a filmmaker, but rather a true trial and error of practice and presentation. An apt Spielbergian example can be found in 1987’s Empire of the Sun: John Malkovich’s Basie is being relentlessly beaten by the Japanese POW guard for having apparently stolen a bar of soap, and yet all the audience sees is Christian Bale’s Jim, the real thief, looking on in helpless terror flinching with every hit – the concept of using a horror movie tactic of showing the emotions of fear on a person’s face instead of showing the object of fear was a brilliant move of directing on Spielberg’s part. Flash-forward twenty-six years to a similar scene in Slave, where Lupita Nyong’o’s beautiful and heartbreaking slave Patsey is being whipped first by Solomon’s forced hand and then by an inspired Michael Fassbender’s slave owner Mr. Epps (also for having a bar of soap) – McQueen holds on the bystanders while the lashes land crack after crack off screen…until he pans around so the audience sees Patsey strung up, bleeding, and crying out in pain. The balance is struck so artfully: you aren’t lulled into a false sense of it’s-just-a-movie security and you are assaulted with ultra-real gore à la The Passion of the Christ. McQueen lets his viewers slow-boil like a frog in a kettle, scalding you with the deeply emotional situation seen at a distance and finally killing you by confronting you with the reality. Such innovation deeply and humbly deserves great reward.

This movie is so timely an important it will be a sin when it loses recognition to the other great though not as great movies this year. Will screenwriter John Ridley’s giant artistic leap forward be rewarded? Maybe, maybe not. Will Nyong’o win the Supporting Actress Oscar? Probably not. Since the expansion of the Best Picture category to a possible ten nominees (there are nine this year), the Best Picture winner no longer has the happenstance monopoly on the Director category any more. With so much power in the respective corners of other front-runners, the winner of the ultimate prize is up in the air (Slave should win, but a vote encompassing all AMPAS voters usually means they will be playing favorites, likely for more pleasant fare)…but if justice be done, 12 Years a Slave will land at least one golden statue in the new-blood genius fingers of director Steve McQueen.

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