Monday, February 17, 2014

Best Picture Blitz 2014: Part 6

On Saturday, Precocious Daughter and I took a deep breath and saw 12 Years a Slave.

I knew what a fine movie this is. I knew it was a difficult and unrestrained take on American slavery. And yes, I was afraid it was going to be the cinematic equivalent of cough syrup: good for me but profoundly unpleasant.

See also: Brussels sprouts.
But I'm pleased to report that 12 Years a Slave, while indeed a physically and emotionally painful film, is also beautiful, lyrical, and profoundly moving. It just picked up BAFTAs for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor, all well deserved.

Also, Steve McQueen seems like a lovely man.

Chiwetel Ejiofor, in particular, is majestic as Solomon Northup, the free black man from New York who is kidnapped and sold into slavery. A man of education and great dignity, he speaks pages of dialogue that flow like the greatest19th century literature, and Ejiofor is a joy as he embraces the beautiful formality of the period language. The deliberate, painful choices Solomon makes over time to conceal his erudition from his white masters will resonate with anyone who has had to choose between authenticity and acceptance.

But my favorite performance in the movie is that of Michael Fassbender as not-just-evil-but-probably-batshit-crazy slave owner Edwin Epps. I can't believe any actor would be brave enough to play this role without pulling any punches and subtle enough to do it without coming off as a cardboard villain. Fassbender not only does it, but does it brilliantly. And I think it's only the fact that the Best Supporting Actor category is so ridiculously competitive this year - Jared Leto as a transgender AIDs patient, hello? - that will keep him from winning for his eye-popping performance.

Did I mention that Benedict Cumberbatch plays an almost-sympathetic slave owner?

I mean, relative to buying and selling human beings
like livestock.
He makes an awesome Southern gentleman. And Brad Pitt acts the crap out of a brief, two-scene role as a Canadian abolitionist. Someday I will forgive him for Meet Joe Black. Producing and acting in this film helps a lot.

12 Years a Slave is beautifully constructed, shot, and edited. Director McQueen knows exactly how to draw out a moment until it is almost exquisitely painful. Yes, there are violent depictions of whippings and beatings here, but they are not in the least gratuitous. Still, you feel flayed yourself as you watch them. And at the end you feel Solomon's eventual triumph as if you'd earned it yourself.

I'm not going to delve into nonsense about white guilt and black propaganda and politically correct visions of history. There are important conversations to be held on all of those points. But I'm talking about an Oscar-nominated movie. And this one is superlative.

I'll leave you with this: After each of first four Best Picture nominees we've seen, PDaughter and I have turned to each other as soon as the credits rolled and asked, "Well? Did you like it?" At the end of 12 Years a Slave, we both sat quietly for several minutes, not even looking at each other. The consensus was that we both loved it. But it took more than the raising of the lights to break the spell of this one.

1 comment:

  1. My concern when I saw the trailers for Twelve Years A Slave was that it would be less like cough syrup and more like Karo syrup. That's what makes this the best kind of review possible. There are no spoilers, but it reminds me to leave my expectations at the ticket booth.

    Okay, I'm pretty sure I didn't know that Benedict Cumberbatch was in it, although it shouldn't surprise me. Cumberbatch is rapidly becoming almost as ubiquitous as Christopher Lloyd was back in the late '80's. The major difference is that when Cumberbatch is sympathetic he's really amazingly sympathetic, and in other things where he's batshit crazy he's still pretty sympathetic.


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