There are great movies and important movies, but rarely do those two qualities meet on the global stage of the Academy Awards. Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave" is the first in ages to offer that opportunity. In the half year since it gobsmacked audiences at the Telluride Film Festival, "12 Years a Slave" has earned its establishment credentials with plaudits from black history scholars and Harry Belafonte alike. These nods of approval allow McQueen's achievement safe passage to mainstream canonization, but they don't confirm its aesthetic powers. That comes from seeing the movie on its own terms, not through its implicit linking of past and present, or its capacity to bring a dark chapter in American history to vivid life. These entry points would mean nothing if "12 Years a Slave" were also not a beautiful work of art.
In that regard, it's hardly alone in this year's best picture category, which makes history in its own right by displaying the range of possibilities afforded by individualistic filmmakers working within and around the Hollywood studio system. Alfonso Cuarón's "Gravity" and Spike Jonze's "Her" both utilize technology in innovative ways without negating the lasting power of a single telling closeup. Paul Greengrass' "Captain Phillips" manages to explore a tense survival tale while sneaking in sly critiques of the industrial system responsible for it through a canny manipulation of perspective. David O. Russell's "American Hustle" is a wacky, flamboyant caper that simultaneously harkens back to a better era of American comedies and represents its filmmaker's scrappy, self-satisfied technique when allowed to reach its potential. Even "Philomena," a gentle whisper of a movie, ultimately arrives at a thoughtful indictment of institutionalized religion. "The Wolf of Wall Street" is Scorsese gone wild, chastising capitalism in its own vernacular, and we're all the better for it.
Still, none maintain the holistically satisfying dimensions of "12 Years a Slave." Its layered appeal starts with Chiwetel Ejiofor's endlessly troubled face, his sense of peril saying more than any crass music cue could possibly do. The diegetic music — Solomon Northup's violin, which he's forced to play under awful circumstances by his lunatic overlord (Michael Fassbender), the moving spirituals hummed at the cotton fields — provide an elegiac tone that's deeply affecting while always rooted in this carefully detailed world. John Ridley's screenplay probes the environment with an eye for details, by taking the larger historical framework into account but never turning up the volume.
There's a thread of urgency to the situation. The slaves whisper among themselves about survival tactics, their master yells at them about laboring the fields, and yes, Brad Pitt shows up with a messianic glow in the final act to decry the entire institution. But nobody places these events in any context outside of the cycle in which we witness them.
Northup, a free man kidnapped into slavery, provides an ideal entry point for encountering this madness in linear fashion until time stops having any meaning. By implication, it's a slavery movie for the ages, one that manages to comment on the bleakness of the scenario while considering its ramifications in the present. But that extraction never takes on overt definition. When Northup is strung up by a resentful carpenter (Paul Dano) and left to hang for minutes on end, the resulting long take defines the movie's brilliance in a single package: It conveys a genuinely terrible moment while allowing it to simply sit there in front of your eyes, like a living canvas, open to interpretation while maintaining specificity. At times like a fusion of experimental art and literary fiction, "12 Years a Slave" foregrounds textures and feelings; it uses the medium's capabilities to tell a story and comment on the limitations of storytelling at the same time. You have to experience it to know why it matters.
Of course, McQueen's ability to tackle the institution of slavery from a measured point of view has given "12 Years a Slave" the credibility to make this far. The precedent for such an accomplishment was no less than 20 years ago, when "Schindler's List" managed to become more than a movie and receive institutional acceptance as a historical landmark. People tend to forget the shrewd, cynical first act of Steven Spielberg's movie, which soaks in the luxury of Oskar Schindler's comfortable existence before unveiling the bleak emptiness of concentration camp experiences in the later scenes. Yet its triumphant finale, with a weepy Liam Neeson and contemporary documentary footage of survivors, backed away from the prospects of the daring creativity in its earlier scenes.
By contrast, "12 Years a Slave" never backs down. It's a daring snapshot of hopelessness that functions as a gripping survival narrative while leaving open the possibility that no amount of survival is ever enough. It's a radical, provocative statement on the dangers of a society operating like a closed system. It casts a searing gaze with vulgar intensity that outdoes even "Spring Breakers," to say nothing of "The Wolf of Wall Street," the year's other features with the audacity to explore ugly antics by burrowing inside them. They do so with impressive results, but "12 Years a Slave" expands on its critical outlook with unparalleled delicacy.
The scene in which the abused, broken-down Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o) begs Northup to kill her conveys the brutal finality of her conditions, but it's also an efficient means of building the framework for the character's desperation. When Northup finally gets his ride home, she collapses in soft focus behind him, like an elemental light particle dwindling out of existence. This subtle approach, in which passing nuances say more than monologues or other handy signposts, allows "12 Years a Slave" to accrue a painterly quality unlike anything produced by a commercial studio in recent memory. Nothing else in contention for the best picture Oscar comes close.
Whether or not the Oscars exist to acknowledge first-rate cinema or first-rate campaigns, this one deserves to go all the way. If it doesn't win, the Academy has collectively — if not consciously — rejected an unparalleled opportunity to recognize the strongest achievement in motion pictures released last year. Should "12 Years a Slave" lose, the outcome will amount to a statement of carelessness and naiveté on the part of the only voting body with the strength in numbers to correct clichés associated with American movies' downward-spiraling dumbness. Fortunately, even if we don't see "12 Years a Slave" onstage this Sunday, when the hype dies down, we'll still have "12 Years a Slave."