Friday, November 8, 2013

'12 Years': The Best Movie of 2013?

For the second year in a row, one of the year's best films is about slavery. But unlike Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, which was an uplifting tale of the demise of our national shame, or Django Unchained, which was a thrilling, fictional action romp, 12 Years a Slave takes a dark look at American slavery and for a (relative) change of pace tells it from the perspective of the oppressed. It also carries the distinct point of being based on a true story; it's adapted from Solomon Northup's autobiography of the same name, released back in 1853. Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) was a free black man raising a family and making a living as a renowned violinist in New York. But when he was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the deep south, he couldn't dare try and convince anybody in authority as to his identity in a place where simply knowing how to read would be a death sentence for a black man. And so for twelve years, Northup (under the given name of Platt) was forced to pick cotton, build guest houses, punish his fellow slaves, and witness or suffer some of the worst atrocities visited upon man in the whole of our nation's history, all before his eventual (and statistically unlikely) escape all those years later.
We're going to have to learn to pronounce his name, now.
Directed by Shame's Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave is arguably the toughest movie to watch in 2013. McQueen does not shy away from difficult topics, and when a whole race of humans were subject to the kinds of dangers that slaves were subject to in the two decades leading up to Lincoln's presidency, there is no shortage of material for the director to mine. Starting with kidnapping and slavery, we see murder, rape, lashings, lynchings, inhuman punishments, families broken up, and people worked to death. That McQueen and his crew can capture the sheer force of that inhumanity and not flinch at the emotional devastation it brings is more than remarkable; when fellow slaves refuse to get involved in an attempt on Northup's life that literally leaves him hanging from a tree for most of a day, you really get a sense of how that depressingly real world worked on a daily basis. Hans Zimmer's score highlights this all nicely, adapting to the events of this dreary world and excelling where it needs to without threatening to overshadow the scene itself.
Wait... is that Garret Dillahunt? I LOVE him!
McQueen also has the help of an all-star cast to supplement his directing talents. Ejiofor has long been recognized as a talented actor, but not necessarily one that has achieved mainstream success. Arguably his biggest role before now came in the British thriller Pretty Little Things, and that was over a decade ago. Here, he makes the argument that we really should have been paying attention to films like Kinky Boots, Serenity, Children of Men and Redbelt in the years before this. When we're tasked with witnessing Northup's trials over his dozen years of enslavement, you need an actor who can carry that load and look impossibly more tired and worn down from one scene to the next. You can't just ROOT for a character like Solomon; his journey demands that he literally be in the gracious thoughts of the audience, to be PRAYED for, even by nonbelievers. As an actor, Ejiofor manages to elicit that quantity of sympathy with his performance, putting forth a masterful showing that so far outpaces anything else seen this year.
Solomon dearly wishes he knew how to quit him.
And Ejiofor isn't alone, though the extensive cast has a "mixed bag" status. There are some truly epic, award-worthy performances here, especially from the likes of Michael Fassbender, Paul Dano and Sarah Paulson. While each of their characters have similar character traits (evil, quick to anger, sadistic folk), their skills prevent them from becoming overly repetitive, also thanks to the fact that they have their own unique motivations and desires. Other actors would be lucky to have such depth to work with; both Benedict Cumberbatch and Brad Pitt put in excellent efforts, but neither is given incredibly much to do, with Pitt narrowly winning out in sheer importance to the story. It never hurts to have such exemplary talents in your cast; sometimes you just wish more had been done with them. That is especially true when noteworthy actors (like The Wire's Michael K. Williams and Academy Award nominee Quvenzhane Wallis) are loaded into "blink-and-you'll-miss-them cameos.
Somehow I don't think he's in the mood for "pat-a-cake"
But even the best films possess a few flaws, and 12 Years a Slave is no exception. McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt put together some gorgeous shots (Bobbitt's work also excels in The Place Beyond the Pines), but occasionally become lost in them, focusing a bit too long on the beauty of the shot, slightly undermining the nature of the setting. Another quibble (because these are indeed quibbles) is one that other reviewers seem to love, the performance of Kenyan newcomer Lupita Nyong'o. Don't get me wrong, I DID like Nyong'o's performance (even if it's not as groundbreaking as people are saying); it's just that the character itself seems to be a fictional catch-all for black women slaves, a design created explicitly to suffer the tragedies of the era that Solomon Northup was not necessarily in danger of suffering. Again, Nyong'o is fine, but her character seems fabricated merely as a side note to deflect attention briefly away from Northup's story. Personally, I preferred Pariah's Adepero Oduye as a mother separated from her children a more compelling overall character, despite substantially less screentime.
Um, is that Beasts of the Southern Wild's Dwight Henry?
As the closing credits roll, you'll probably never want to see 12 Years a Slave ever again. It's has all the makings of a modern classic, but its subject matter ensures that - while arguably one of the year's best - you're not going to walk away feeling all happy and gleeful and wanting to take your friend to see it as well. It even caps the whole thing off by reminding you that Northup's experience was a unique one; of thousands of free blacks kidnapped and sold into slavery, few were ever heard from again, let alone rescued. 12 Years is a story that took far too long to make its way to the big screen, and the result under the direction of McQueen is quite easily among the year's best. So do yourself a favor and see it once. Even if you never want to see another movie anytime soon, I think you'll agree the risk is worth the reward.


Richard J. Marcej said...

Saw this last Monday. With just a month and a half to go, easily the best film of 2013 (IMO). I'd also say that Chiwetel should be a shoe in for the Beast Actor Oscar, but after seeing Redford's performance in "All Is Lost" yesterday, I'm not so sure.

Mr. Anderson said...

All the love in the world for Redford, because I really loved his performance in "All is Lost" as well. If he's going to pose a challenge, though, he'll have to overcome the light splash his movie has made, and hope that buzz will last longer than "Nebraska"s Bruce Dern, who has the advantage of being in an Alexander Payne flick.

Richard J. Marcej said...

Am looking forward to seeing "Nebraska". I was just thinking how lousy this year in film was late this spring and into a pretty forgettable summer, but the late summer/fall surge plus some excellent looking holiday season releases have turned this year around.
2013's suddenly looking like an excellent year! (well, except for "The Counsler". I can't get that stinker out of my memory. Cameron Diaz (and her double) screwing a car should win a Razzie on it's own!)