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by Peter Knegt and Eric Kohn
September 20, 2013 9:00 AM
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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

Chiwetel Ejiofor in '12 Years a Slave,' directed by Steve McQueen.

Now that the fall season has officially started and Oscar buzz has commenced, Indiewire chief film critic Eric Kohn and senior writer Peter Knegt have decided to jump into the fray. In the following e-mail exchanges, they address several issues. Among them: Has "12 Years a Slave" already secured Best Picture before its release date? Can anything beat "20 Feet From Stardom" in the documentary category? And what, if any, surprises are in store? Most importantly, why should anyone care? Read on and decide for yourself.

ERIC KOHN: When it comes to Oscar chatter, I can never tell if it's never too late or always too soon. As a critic, I'm predisposed to thinking that it's just not worth the effort. The whole apparatus -- or so the conventional thinking goes -- has been rigged to favor productions with the most marketing dollars thrown behind them.

So far, it looks like the hype machine is being driven by Rupert Murdoch's bank account, as Fox Searchlight hopeful "12 Years a Slave" has gathered enough deafening buzz to suggest that it has already secured its Best Picture win. Let the deep sighs commence.

My cynicism comes from a sincere place: I'm definitely keyed into the usual crotchety/hip-to-the-underground mentality about this whole dog and pony show. If I had my way, the Best Picture field would center on a close call between "Computer Chess," "Upstream Color," "Spring Breakers" and Dan Sallitt's "The Unspeakable Act," all 2013 theatrical releases that under no conditions will make their way into the real Best Picture race. And maybe "Before Midnight," by contrast a popular favorite, could dominate the lesser categories.

OK, so that's a bit extreme. Here's the reality: I love "12 Years a Slave," think that it's the apex of director Steve McQueen's career and unquestionably the best movie about slavery ever made. It's also the rare situation where a movie made by an out-and-out formalist who uses a cinephile-friendly bag of tricks like long takes and complex sound design has the potential to leave an emotional dent on pretty much everybody. Chiwetel Ejiofor's performance is some next level stuff. I'm thrilled about the prospects of this movie going all the way to the Kodak Theater and cleaning up in a couple months.

And among the current candidates that have screened publicly and are considered serious frontrunners, I'm definitely behind this one more than anything else. "Gravity" is a great ride and a major technological accomplishment, but even so, its gadgetry seems relatively facile when compared with the fusion of art and ideas on display in "12 Years a Slave." I saw McQueen's movie at Telluride and willingly contributed to that aforementioned hype machine because, dammit, how often does this race really involve movies you love more than anything else out there? I mean, I thought "Argo" was fine, "Lincoln" was okay, but there's something to be said for movies made with greater ambition than pure entertainment value or an adherence to classical modes of storytelling, really unique stuff that actually breaks through the dense crap surrounding this industry and manages to dominate it -- even it only gets there for a brief moment.

"Rush."

To wit: If the Oscar buzz was centering around "Rush" more than "12 Years a Slave," I'd be reticent to embrace this year's race. "Rush" is one of those not-bad but pretty conventional biopics that could get tiresome as a talking point over the next few months. "12 Years a Slave" deserves a prolonged role in the spotlight. It might even be revelatory.

So what do you think? Am I jumping the shark like all the other lemmings churning out awards season content or is there something to be said for the ridiculous volume of Oscar hype being heaped on this movie right now? Could those anticipated fall season movies yet to screen for critics and audiences -- "Saving Mr. Banks," "Foxcatcher," "Her," "The Wolf of Wall Street" and "American Hustle" chief among them -- really shake things up, or have we arrived at the rare situation where the game is done and over with before it even revs up its engine? Set me straight.

PETER KNEGT: If you're jumping the shark, you're not alone. I also enter the six month madness awards season with a lot of cynicism. Maybe if it had the time frame of an actual season it'd be easier for me to keep the necessary mentality that it's all just a game that's really fun to watch. But I tend to fall in and out of that, particularly when the season is led by films I'm not particularly enthusiastic about ("King's Speech," "The Artist" and "Argo" have made this the case three years in a row). So that's why it's so, so refreshing to have a (current) frontrunner that I'd probably vote for myself.

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...