Tuesday, September 10, 2013

"12 Years a Slave" Impresses Tiff and Raises Oscar Buzz Potential

Left to right: Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong'o, and Chiwetel Ejiofir
This past week saw many already put the stamp on what is going to be the Best Picture winner this year.With such high praise, many critics who attended the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) were privy to seeing one of my most anticipated movies of the Fall: director Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave. While it has also given many other reveals on potential nominees (including the critically panned August: Osage County), this is great news not only from the standpoint of the director, but for the season to come. It may make the season dull, but to know that we already have a front runner suggests that Oscar Buzz season is starting off just right.

I have previously written about how much I am looking forward to 12 Years a Slave, and my mind is only more excited now. Going in, it is simply baffling that this film is getting as much mainstream attention for one sole purpose: Steve McQueen. This is his third film, and of the collection, he has dealt with a starving Irish prison (Hunger) and graphic sex addiction (Shame). While I will list Shame among some of my favorites, it seems baffling that someone whose films are generally drawn out, brutal, and bleak is now a front runner for the Oscars. Of course, it is also shocking that he managed to seal such an impressive cast. 

As I begun reading early TIFF reviews, I discovered that this is the real deal. The most blatant example that I have found comes from Vulture writer Kyle Buchanan, whose opening paragraph almost comes across as a fact. A humbling, exciting fact:
"Not only will 12 Years triumph in the Best Picture category, but I'd put my money on a historic Best Director win for Steve McQueen, and I'd mark Chiwetel Ejiofor as the front runner for Best Actor. Like, what's gonna beat this movie? Freakin' Monuments Men?"
The rest plays as reassuring hyperbole that only suggests that we are living in a time where my initial predictions that it would be struggling for contention is in fact understating the reality. It is too early for things to really be justified, but as a fan of McQueen's no-nonsense approach to film making, it seems like we're getting an uncompromising look at a touchy subject in America's history. It is ironic since the director is himself British. To matters even more assuring, there's even been comments comparing it to past triumphs in Academy Awards history, including Mike Ryan's post via Twitter:
"12 YEARS A SLAVE is the SAVING PRIVATE RYAN of slavery movies. In that it goes all in on the horrors of a subject like we've never seen."
I could go on and on choosing the most reassuring quotes, but with all of this news in mind, I figured that I would take time in this post not only to promote a film that has swept TIFF, but one that will probably win over audiences. I am as baffled as anyone that a film from a director of such vanity-free projects has gotten this honor, but if this is a film on par with Saving Private Ryan or Schindler's List, there's little doubt that it will have much of a challenge for any of the prizes.

It is interesting that this comes out in a year when other top contenders include The Butler and Fruitvale Station. At very least, it is presenting probably one of the most diverse representations of African American culture in the Best Picture race with plenty of chance for this to be a historic year. Of course, the Academy has always been trying to make historic counts. Just go back to last year when they nominated both Quvenzhane Wallis (also in 12 Years a Slave) and Emmanuelle Riva in the Best Actress race for both the oldest and youngest nominees in history. Also, director Ang Lee made history by being the first Asian director to win Best Director (with Brokeback Mountain) twice (with Life of Pi), which is an admirable attempt to recognize non-white filmmakers.

This isn't the first time that slavery has been represented at the Oscars. Ironically, all of the comparisons to Steven Spielberg are apt, as his film The Color Purple was nominated for 11 Academy Awards including Best Picture. It lost everything and Out of Africa won top prize that year. While I don't look favorably on that film, it is one of the more notable examples of slavery at the Oscars. By having The Help receive nominations a few years back, it showed that the Academy is still willing to give the concept a chance, but that maybe we're still a little timid to address the issues of America's past.

What exactly is the historic moment that this film could break? Besides the very idea that it could sweep the Oscars, getting more nominations than I initially perceived, it could take home a few honors, provided that the reception is as positive as it is out of TIFF. While it isn't the first film to receive a Best Director nomination for an African American, it could be the first to win for Steve McQueen. If it wins Best Picture, it could also be the first Best Picture winner to be directed by an African American.

No matter how you look at the Oscars, the most impressive thing about them right now is that they are slowly becoming more and more progressive. It isn't necessarily enough that they have changed some of their old habits, but with the Academy recognizing more independent fare like Beasts of the Southern Wild and Winter's Bone, there is a better chance that anything can happen. It would be impressive if the film managed to succeed where The Color Purple failed, but I think that for now, the amount of Oscar Buzz it has attached to it will suffice.

At very most, it would be a nice change of pace from last year's slavery movie. Where director Quentin Tarantino turned slavery into an epic bloodbath with silly language in Django Unchained, I feel like it was more escapism fare than Oscar material. Even if it got nominated solely because of the Tarantino bias carried over from Inglourious Basterds, I feel like the film did little to address its issues. While I have yet to see 12 Years a Slave, the positive buzz so far makes me feel like this is at very least righting the wrongs by making a poignant, unflinching look at slavery.

At very least, it will be a nice change of pace from the past few years, in which the Academy has felt a little on the safe side. While I love The Artist and Argo was pretty solid, there is no doubt that they won solely on the bias that they were about the power of movies. I am hoping that they don't pull a triple play with Saving Mr. Banks. Still, there are moments in the Academy's history where things are hit or miss. Still, when you get to those masterpieces, they seem to make the right move most of the time. I don't want to call 12 Years a Slave that just yet, but I feel like if the Academy wants to do something strong, do a film that many are hailing as the best of the year, and one with an enduring legacy.

I know that this is more of a post highlighting the film and raising buzz, but do know that once it comes out, I will re-edit my predictions on what categories it deserves. For now, it is looking like a strong contender in most of them. The only concern is that it would be too dark and too emotional for many to handle. Otherwise, it is a period piece and like Schindler's List before it, if the drama is moving enough, I don't see why we're not already case closed with the awards season.

Will it take Best Picture? Is Steve McQueen too brutal to win? Is the Oscar Buzz starting too soon around it?

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