12 Years a Slave
Dallas Buyers Club
The Wolf of Wall Street
What won: 12 Years a Slave
What should have won: 12 Years a Slave
My favorite: American Hustle
Why my pick should have won
I think this year, the academy was right on. 12 Years a Slave was a tough watch, but it confronts the darkest attribute of America’s infancy in a powerful way.
This movie was thought-provoking without becoming preachy. Steve McQueen made a great movie that should have facilitated constructive discussion about race relations and been a positive backdrop for progressing toward a more racially compassionate, egalitarian America. Not only was the plot thought-provoking, but 12 Years a Slave became the first film directed and produced by a black filmmaker (Steve McQueen) as well as the first to be written by an African-American (John Ridley) to win the Academy Award for Best Motion Picture of the Year. For now, all I will say is this: Instead of praising the triumph of a powerful achievement in film and using it as a springboard to scrutinize race relations, the catalyst was instead a tragedy underscoring conflict (Ferguson), perpetuated by the media in order to satiate the need for high ratings. Progress be damned.
12 Years a Slave is the most faithful exploration of American slavery in a feature film to date. That’s not to say there haven’t been other “good” movies that portray slavery – only that this one was better than the rest. Just a year earlier Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012) tackled slavery, but in a satirical, sometimes frivolous manner. Gone with the Wind (1939) was good enough to win Best Picture, but it is riddled with inaccuracies. The silent epic The Birth of a Nation (1915) is often celebrated as a landmark in filmmaking, but it is entirely fiction and so intensely racist it borders on propaganda. I really, really like Amistad (1997), but it also suffers from factual mistakes, and is a film about slavery featuring a primarily white cast. The beauty of 12 Years a Slave is also the horror. The film was relatively simple – it didn’t need exaggeration, misrepresentation, or condescension to manifest a powerful message.
Building on that line of thinking, while slavery is not the most pleasant topic (or perhaps because of it), the horrors of American slavery have not always been properly painted by Hollywood. Thankfully, 12 Years a Slave is steeped in historical fact, something filmmakers all too often forsake because the entertainment industry is not as concerned with scholarship as it is dollar-ship (see what I did there?). Whether it’s a slight anachronism or an entire genre sprouting from myth (i.e., the classic Western), Hollywood hasn’t much cared for truth in the message; the business model doesn’t lend itself to such ideals. Typically, a broad appeal to a large audience will trump any facts, regardless of how glaring the discrepancy with reality may be. Authenticity doesn’t stand a chance when millions are on the line.
My hope is that this movie will give future films a standard for factual storytelling in historical dramas. Either way, there is little doubt in my mind that 12 Years a Slave will eventually be considered a classic, and it will have the added bonus of factual integrity. Unfortunately, if Selma (2014) is any indication, my hopes have already been dashed. Even more disappointing is the fact that a movie as significant as 12 Years a Slave only grossed 4.2 million dollars more in the U.S. than Tyler Perry’s A Medea Christmas (2013), which came out two months later ($56.6 versus $52.4 million).
Finally, looking at the other nominees, 12 Years a Slave, American Hustle, and Dallas Buyers Club are the only three that should have been seriously considered, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the latter two split some votes. Take Tom Hanks out of Captain Phillips and it doesn’t get a nomination; wasn’t that good. Her made an interesting point, but at the same time, it was too weird. I liked Gravity, but it was a lot of spectacle and more of an achievement in the filmmaking process than it was a well-rounded film. Philomena and Nebraska were nice little movies, but that’s about it. The Wolf of Wall Street was a complete farce and seemed to try to be a caricature of itself, which didn't work. I honestly thought it was a disappointing year for Oscar-caliber films in general, with 12 Years a Slave and Dallas Buyers Club outrunning the rest of the pack.
Why I loved American Hustle
Let me begin by getting the pessimistic thoughts out of the way. As “achievement in filmmaking” goes, I didn’t feel like American Hustle had anything special that would put it in the same category as 12 Years a Slave or Dallas Buyers Club. I really don't say that for the purpose of taking away from American Hustle, but instead as a criticism of what the academy has been looking for in a best picture contender over recent years. Lately, movies like this one and Argo (2012) are getting nominated (Argo actually won). Don't misunderstand me, these are good, entertaining movies, but that's all; I feel like the bar for greatness has been lowered. American Hustle was a good-not-great film with a lot of big names that helped generate a healthy box office. I enjoyed watching it more than the rest of this year’s field of nominees, and I appreciate it as a story. Still, the overall film wasn’t as great as the performances given by the cast. So if you watch it, expect less artistry or social consciousness and more star power and entertainment value.
Now onto the positive: I really like American Hustle. It is fun, and I don't feel like it takes itself too seriously. If it did, the comedy may have fallen by the wayside. Every character is so self-absorbed that their pathetic behavior is actually a source of humor rather than disgust, even though these really are pretty despicable characters. I love the ensemble cast – each actor carrying his or her weight on screen. Having said that, I believe Jennifer Lawrence and Christian Bale in particular deserve especial praise.
For my money, Jennifer Lawrence steals the movie. I was worried her role as Katniss in the The Hunger Games franchise would make her comfortable and keep her from pushing herself. Her performance as Rosalyn in American Hustle allayed my fears. I hope she continues to invent likable yet flawed characters for many years to come.
Once again Christian Bale radically changed his appearance for a role. He gained 40 pounds for this film when it would have been far easier (and much healthier) to strap on a fat-suit. He got down to 91 pounds for The Machinist (2004), then bulked up for Batman Begins (2005), then slimmed down again for The Fighter (2010). What he’s doing to his body to create authentic characters is literally dangerous. By the way, who knew he could be funny?
Each movie nominated this year has some entertainment value. Each movie is at least a good movie. However, American Hustle had the best mix of drama and comedy to compliment the story. What it lacks in being "important" it makes up for in likability. It's what The Wolf of Wall Street could have been if it had stayed within itself and attempted any redeeming quality, rather than being a total money-grab. Anyway, all-star cast, good music, fun story ... it was my favorite movie from the best picture candidates this year.