The Academy Awards are on Sunday night. Who will win? Who should win? National Review asks discerning movie watchers.
This year’s Best Picture race is the most competitive in years, with three films that have a real shot — Gravity, 12 Years a Slave, and American Hustle — and a dark horse, Philomena, that can’t be entirely discounted.
Since Gravity and 12 Years a Slave are, respectively, my No. 3 and No. 2 films of 2013, I’m pleased that they are the front-runners. (I admired American Hustle and Philomena, but not enough to root for either of them. My No. 1 film of 2013, a little indie called This Is Martin Bonner, went unnoticed by the Academy.)
The last three Best Picture winners — Argo, The Artist, and The King’s Speech — were all entertaining crowd-pleasers with feel-good endings. Gravity would continue that trend.
Gravity is also the first front-runner since Avatar that pushed the medium forward and appealed both to critics and to popular audiences. You’d think that would be in its favor. Paradoxically, it may sink it.
After all, Avatar didn’t win. The Oscar that year went to The Hurt Locker, a much-praised, little-seen, hard-hitting character study about a politically important subject — like 12 Years a Slave. The Academy may like crowd-pleasers, but it hasn’t had much use lately for blockbuster spectacles.
12 Years a Slave is the standard bearer in a year with an exceptional string of films about injustice and the African-American experience (Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Fruitvale Station, and the Jackie Robinson biopic 42). As the first major fact-based film about the slave experience in America, it’s also a historically important film.
Finally, 12 Years a Slave is, I think, a better film than Gravity. Both are visually gorgeous, and Alfonso Cuarón will likely take home Best Director. But 12 Years a Slave is also verbally elegant, whereas the less said about Gravity’s popcorn dialogue, the better. (There’s a reason it’s the only one of the front-runners with no screenplay nomination.)
— Steven Greydanus is a film critic for the National Catholic Register and writes regularly for Catholic Digest, Christianity Today, and Catholic World Report. You can find more of his work at Decent Films.
This year’s Oscar race for Best Picture comes down to a fundamental, timeless question about the nature of the film medium itself: What is the highest, worthiest goal to which any motion picture can aspire?
Those Hollywood insiders who believe that movies at their best will make a social statement, enlightening the mass audience with fresh perspectives on past or present, will cast their ballots for 12 Years a Slave. Based on a true story, with vigorous attention to historical detail, the film achieves a deep visceral impact with its portrayal of the unspeakable brutality of the slave-based society in the ante-bellum South.
On the other hand, many film fanciers cherish the notion that the greatest achievement for motion pictures involves the convincing creation of an alternative reality, placing the viewer in a fantastical universe that offers more adventure and astonishment than the drab world of the everyday. Academy voters who see imagination and visual razzle-dazzle as the greatest gifts of any movie-maker will rally to support the Best Picture campaign of Gravity, which takes people along for an unforgettable ride with death-defying astronauts far above the earth’s surface.
And finally, there’s the strong sentiment behind American Hustle, based on the old-fashioned idea that the greatest films emphasize characterization above all — creating a rich array of fascinating personalities who take on a vivid, electrifying life of their own and insert themselves, permanently, into our consciousness. Few recent films have achieved that goal more effectively than David O. Russell’s latest masterpiece, and it’s no surprise that all four of his leading cast members (Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, and Bradley Cooper) have been nominated for acting awards by the Academy.