Usually, when the Oscar for Best Director goes to someone who didn't direct the Best Picture winner, I feel like the Academy members are just hedging their bets between something genuinely, excitingly good, and some other thing, draped in prestige, adorned with the gaudy earmarks of "excellence." If a movie is beautifully shot, give it Best Cinematography; if it's well acted, give one of the actors the prize. But if we believe that a movie is truly great, then, as the film's primary author, the director should be rewarded for that achievement, right?
On Sunday evening, 12 Years a Slave won the Academy Award for Best Picture, and the award for Best Director went to Gravity's Alfonso Cuaron, and that's exactly as it should have been. 12 Years a Slave is a powerful and provocative film, and maybe an important one; as another online commenter stated, this may be the first time a film about slavery has been created at this scale, and to this degree, by primarily black artists (source material, screenplay, direction, performances, etc.). Every individual element of the film was absolutely on point and award-worthy, but the overall effect of the film, brought to life as it was by a huge, staggeringly talented cast of actors, was even more than the sum of these individual parts. This was a film that inevitably needed to happen.
Gravity, on the other hand, could be said to be lacking in certain areas; much of the screenplay seemed perfunctory. The acting--from two movie stars tethered eternally to their public personas--was, at times, flat and unconvincing. And yet, these arguably weaker elements function just well enough to support the realization of an inarguably epic and unique motion picture experience. Simultaneously minimalist in setting, plot, and characters, and at the same time delivering some of the biggest, loudest, and most terrifyingly intense CG thrills of any movie in years, nothing like Gravity would exist if not for the vision and determination of the artist at the film's helm. (Which of course, doesn't mean that Gravity didn't deserve its plethora of other Oscars, especially Emmanuel Lubezki's for Best Cinematography!)
I actually thought it was pretty cool that Sandra Bullock was nominated for Best Actress this year; she's not generally my favorite, and I honestly found her a bit grating during certain scenes of Gravity. But the thing you have to consider is that homegirl was being filmed for half hour stretches at a time, without cuts, delivering reams and reams of dialogue, all while hanging upside down in a rig, probably. If you consider the mental and physical strain of maintaining that performance, you really start to appreciate what she and the other filmmakers were able to accomplish. It's much easier to imagine the perfect movie, or snipe about how an existing movie could have been better, than it is to actually create something that obliterates the conventional movie mold, imperfect though it may be in its final form.
In many ways, it's insane to hold up two movies and decide that one is definitively better. But if we've all agreed to try, we owe it to the films we judge to take them for what they are, and appreciate their unique successes. Film is an art form, but it's also a technology. It can speak inspiring human truths, or delight in pure visual splendor. 12 Years a Slave is a technically perfect movie that just happens to be a brutal, cathartic exploration of the living evil that was invited as midwife to the birth of our nation; Gravity is a movie of wondrous artistic vision realized by technicians and computer effects wizards. I'd like to thank the Academy for honoring both.