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by Peter Knegt and Eric Kohn
September 20, 2013 9:00 AM
5 Comments
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Has '12 Years a Slave' Already Won the Oscar? Indiewire's Peter Knegt and Eric Kohn Sort Through Early Awards Season Buzz

I was totally bowled over by "12 Years a Slave" and it looks to me like the rare case where a sentimental or politically-motivated vote will go toward a film that, you know, actually deserves it. There is clearly a lot of time to left and a lot of films to see, but it's hard to deny the narrative this year of decent ("Lee Daniels' The Butler") to good ("Fruitvale Station") to downright brilliant ("12 Years a Slave") films with important black stories being directed by actual black filmmakers. Which I say only because so many times over the years, films with major black characters have been huge Oscar contenders ("Driving Miss Daisy" and "Crash" being the obvious two), but they were representationally problematic ones directed by white dudes. If this is the year of the black filmmaker, Steve McQueen is a remarkable one -- who is wholly deserving of what's about to come his way.

Or not. Saying anything will win Best Picture before September is over is a disservice to anyone who cares about this kind of stuff and to the film itself (it's always helpful to be an underdog at the beginning). And besides the dozen or so films we haven't seen yet, there's plenty for "12 Years" to contend with that has already screened, especially "Gravity" -- and, to lesser extents, "Inside Llewyn Davis" and "Captain Phillips." I'll happily wager that all four of them will be Best Picture nominees. It's a pretty impressive quartet: McQueen, Alfonso Cuarón, the Coens and Paul Greengrass. A Best Picture race even critics can approve of! Or maybe I should be ending that sentence for you with a question mark.

EK: No, you're right to be emphatic: We have legitimate reasons to be enthusiastic about this round. On paper, however, it doesn't sound like anything new. What's interesting about almost all of the contenders you mentioned -- with the exception of "Gravity," of course -- is that they're either inspired or based on true stories. That might end up being even more of a trend for the fall season crop than the proverbial "survival narratives" theme that has already been highlighted numerous times. I do have to wonder if movies like "Fruitvale Station" and "Captain Phillips," both effectively made but not on the same caliber of filmmaking as some of the other contenders, would even enter into this discussion if they didn't have some sort of non-fiction basis. When a story is real, it commands a certain importance in the national conversation, which is why it's sort of ironic that in the actual non-fiction Oscar category -- the documentary section, of course -- it's starting to look it won't be the biggest issue-driven movie that takes home the prize.

Last year, the enjoyable music-mystery doc "Searching for Sugar Man" triumphed over weightier movies like "How to Survive a Plague" and "5 Broken Cameras" -- which, by the way, featured much more powerful, effective filmmaking to fit their content. This year is looking like a rerun, with another crowdpleasing music doc, "20 Feet From Stardom," poised to beat out a stunning achievement of non-fiction storytelling like "The Act of Killing." Joshua Oppenheimer's unorthodox approach to unraveling the evils behind the Indonesian genocide is an unparalleled accomplishment that assails viewers with its up close look at retired gangsters boasting of their exploits. Is the truth just too much for the Academy? Or, conversely, now that the entire branch can vote in this category, might the masses see the light and realize that a simple, fun movie isn't as deserving as a major one? In some ways, this category invites a lot more speculation than its bigger brethren. What say you?

Radius-TWC "20 Feet From Stardom"

PK: The rule change happened for the first time last year, though it wasn't changed until January so most campaigns were unaware of it until the final stretch. This year they'll be aware from the get-go, and I suspect that'll make it even easier for more mainstream, crowdpleasers (like "Sugar Man" was last year) to take this category. "20 Feet From Stardom" is certainly the 2013 answer to "Sugar Man," so it's definitely the frontrunner. However, "Stories We Tell," "Blackfish," "Tim's Vermeer," "After Tiller" and, yes, "Act of Killing" will definitely have their share of passionate supporters. I think this could be a very interesting year for that category -- Sarah Polley versus Penn & Teller? -- though it seems likely that the more challenging films are going to have a tough time going for the win.

But yes, it definitely appears that films inspired or based on true stories will dominate this year. That's pretty much commonplace (two of the last three Best Picture winners have fallen into this category), but this year it's even more so than usual. My current predictions for best picture have nine films that are at least loosely based on true stories, and just one that isn't. The latter of which is, yep, "Gravity." Which might bode well for it since it could stand out being the lone exception to the rule.

EK: I know I said it wasn't my favorite of the crop, but that's mainly because of "12 Years." Look, if a special effects action-adventure that's also a charming, thoughtful two-hander beats out the current favorite, well, there are worse things that can happen (let's not contemplate them quite yet). I'd love to see "Gravity" keep its momentum going because it's such an unorthodox spin on the blockbuster formula, and the jittery, sensorial experience it offers up might be the closest that a lot of viewer come to enduring the effects of abstract experimental cinema. That is a significant achievement.

But in spite of our enthusiasm, there's not a whole lot that's experimental about this year's race. As you pointed out, the doc rule change took place last year. The Best Picture field expanded to a maximum of 10 candidates several years earlier. And all the major candidates for Best Picture are studio movies with stars -- lest we forget, Brad Pitt was instrumental in bringing "12 Years a Slave" to fruition. So let's end this conversation with a cliffhanger: If so much is certain early on and several aspects of the race remain unchanged from previous editions, where can we look for surprises? My guess is that you're going to bring up the Best Actress race, but like everything we're talking about here, that's just a hunch.

PK: You got me! Yeah, right now the category I'm most fascinated by this year is best actress. It's not even October and there are four performances that seem like almost sure-things: Meryl Streep in "August: Osage County," Cate Blanchett in "Blue Jasmine," Judi Dench in "Philomena" and -- coming back to "Gravity" -- Sandra Bullock. I'm heading into serious Oscar nerd territory, but the fascinating thing is not only that all four of them have already won, but that most of the women most likely to join them  have already won, too: Julia Roberts (also for "August"), Kate Winslet ("Labor Day"), Emma Thompson ("Saving Mr. Banks") and Nicole Kidman ("Grace of Monaco"). Last year, the Best Supporting Actor race offered a first time situation where every single nominee had already won, and it seems like we could be heading there again.

That could result in a showdown battle of some of the greatest living actresses. My hunch, however, is that Amy Adams -- who has been nominated four times for supporting actress but never won (or been nominated for lead) blows us all away in "American Hustle" at the last minute and wins. But then again, has the lead actress Oscar ever been won two years in a row for two different films directed by the same person (in this case, David O. Russell)? It could be a feast of fun firsts for Oscar nerds this year!

5 Comments

  • Ian Mantgani | September 23, 2013 5:19 AMReply

    Erik - have you seen every movie about slavery ever made? Have you even seen a decent amount of slavesploitation?

    (interestingly, Steve McQueen hasn't - he said he deliberately didn't watch other movies to prep for making 12YAS, as he was more interested in doing justice to the book than adding to a cinematic tradition)

  • Jamie | September 21, 2013 5:52 PMReply

    I am totally hating the year end crowding of potential nominees. It is not fair to the audience or to the films. With no time to truly absorb, critique and evaluate audience response, a great film could get shunted aside and some average to good film slide through. We are all judging by trailers, festivals, and early critical reviews none of which tells you whether they are something the audience actually enjoys.

    Just this morning there was a whole slew of trailers before the showing of Prisoners. If I were an academy voter right now. Yes to Gravity and Her; No to The Counselor and American Hustle for all the interest they stirred and none of them actually felt like Best Picture winners. Now I know I will probably change my mind about these as I actually get a chance to see them, but a chance to see them before the nominations would be nice.

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  • Lynn | September 20, 2013 12:01 PMReply

    I'm sure '12 Year A Slave' is a fantastic film, but as excited as I am to see it, I think it's way too early to say that it has "already won the Oscar". The amount of praise and awards the film has received out of the festivals has it guaranteed for several Oscar nominations, but I think people are jumping the gun a little too much. It's only September, and the awards ceremony is not until February or March. Also, because it's only September, there are still a huge amount of films that have not been screened yet ('American Hustle', 'Wolf of Wall Street') that have massive awards potential as well. People should also not count 'Gravity' out of the best picture race. It has received a massive amount of praise, including the acting, directing, and in particular, the level of spectacle and technical achievement. The reviews have said that it displays something that hasn't been done before in filmmaking, which calls to mind the early reviews of 'Titanic' back in 1997, shortly before it broke the record for the highest number of Oscar wins.

    This hype also reminds me of the praise behind 'The Descendants' back in 2011, which many considered to be a lock for Best Picture. 'Brokeback Mountain', another fantastic film, was also considered a lock for Best Picture in 2005 and lost to 'Crash'. I am not doubting the hype behind '12 Years A Slave' being pegged as an amazing film, but in past years when December and January roll around, the attention and hype surrounding certain films in the awards race can shift dramatically.

    To sum it up, I'm very excited to see '12 Years A Slave', as well as many other films this fall/winter, but I think calling it a lock for best picture is very presumptuous. It's just too early.

    ~The Monkey's Paw~ October 8th - http://monkeyspawthemovie.com/

  • sean | September 20, 2013 11:32 AMReply

    "But then again, has the lead actress Oscar ever been won two years in a row for two different films directed by the same person (in this case, David O. Russell)?"

    I would've thought William Wyler would be the best bet, but he didn't do it. In fact, it appears that the closest time gap is three years, unless you count:
    - Victor Fleming may have been an uncredited co-director on "The Good Earth", in which case he would have a two year gap
    - Frank Borzage directed two performances of Janet Gaynor's in the same year, and that was the first Academy Awards when they gave Oscars for multiple performances.

    I know it has happened with Supporting Actress (Woody Allen, if not more) and Supporting Actor (Clint Eastwood is the most recent). I don't see any examples in Best Actor, though I saw one two-year gap, which would mean that the biggest gap in this would be in the Best Actress category. Intriguing...