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Sunday, November 3, 2013

12 Years a Slave and Gravity

Conventional wisdom has it that this year's Oscar race will come down to two heavy hitters: intense historical drama 12 Years a Slave and the groundbreaking space spectacle Gravity.  It's an exciting contest, and one I'm thrilled to watch play out after seeing both of these remarkable films. You can count me on team 12 Years, but I loved them both.

12 Years a Slave

As central as the horror of slavery is to our American history, it's interesting that more films haven't been made about the subject.  Those looking for a straight-up dramatic view have usually gone to TV's Roots, an important milestone more than 30 years old.  With 12 Years a Slave, director Steve McQueen has done something perfectly right: made a film that's so essentially about its specific protagonist but also able to hold the weight of other stories in its orbit.

I really liked director Steve McQueen's first two films: Hunger, about the hunger strike of IRA members, and Shame, about a sex addict in modern New York.  Those two films were unrelenting, purposefully artistic, and hard to shake.  McQueen takes this same formal intensity to the live of Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an educated free black man kidnapped into slavery in the 1840s.  The film follows him through a couple of masters, but never loses sight of his particular experience.  McQueen films the movie as a set of specific incidents, focusing and concentrating on each scene and giving the audience time to process each moment.

It's an intense movie, and certainly has scenes of violence that are hard to watch.  McQueen strikes a good balance, though, of not blinking through the savagery and yet also not seeming exploitative.   The performances are amazing across the board.  Chiwetel Ejiofor gives a performance of quiet intensity that carries us through his story, newcomer Lupita Nyong'o is unforgettable as an abused slave, and both Michael Fassbender (who has been in all of McQueen's movies) and Sarah Paulson dig down deep to bring psychologically terrifying performances as slave masters.

 There are a few movies I see and am so immersed in that I am almost unaware of regular time passing. 12 Years a Slave was definitely one of them.  As the movie ended, I was literally overwhelmed by the story and the work of art I had seen.   It's a brave and brutal movie, and an essential work of filmmaking.

Grade: A


I am definitely a superfan of Mexican Director Alfonso Cuaron, and have been anticipating Gravity for quite some time.  He directed two of my favorite movies of the last decade, the teen road trip movie Y Tu Mama Tambien and the dystopian sci-fi Children of Men.  He managed to make both movies effortlessly profound, and he has another great success with Gravity.

Gravity is, first and foremost, a brilliant technical achievement.  No one has ever done a movie set in space with such remarkable imagery, sense of weightlessness, and beautiful and haunting cinematography.  When thinking of Gravity, which I saw a few weeks ago, I'm constantly thinking of moments and images, such as the first long tracking shot, and a beautiful shot when Ryan (Sandra Bullock's character) sheds her space suit and simply floats.

The vastness of space is so great, and the sense of suspense so all-encompassing, there is almost no need for a backstory, and some critics have quibbles with this element of the movie.  I found it moving, and it gives us just enough details to help us understand Ryan's trip to space, and her desire to survive.

I'm not the biggest Sandra Bullock fan, but she does a terrific job here, being on screen just about every single moment and carrying a big action movie on her shoulders without ever leaning too hard on her movie star charisma.  I was a little more mixed on George Clooney.  I typically enjoy him in films, but I think the movie would have been better served by a less well-known actor in this pivotal role.  He seemed to be gliding by on his charm.

 I think Gravity will be remembered for a long time to come. I know its special effects will eventually be topped, but I think it will stand as a milestone.  It seems like a more humane 2001: A Space Odyssey to me, with its final moments (space to earth) working as a sort of counterpoint to 2001's Apes throwing a bone (earth to space) opening.  It's a blockbuster that deserves its audiences and its acclaim.

Grade: A/A-

Quick Notes

Here are very quick reviews of some other 2013 recent views:

Mother of George

A movie about Nigerian immigrants in Brooklyn, and how tradition follows them into the modern world.  A visually stunning singular take on a culture.  Slow at times, but always beautiful to watch.

Grade: B+

The Great Gatsby

When it works, it's quite a bit of fun and when it doesn't it tends to crash a bit.  I enjoyed the colors, the energy, and the parties, but I didn't buy many of its tender and emotional moments, and not sure director Baz Luhrmann had the right take on one of my favorite books.

Grade: C+

World War Z

Didn't hate it, but didn't find much to grab me.  Zombies come to attack, and Brad Pitt works against them.  Those looking can find deeper meaning, but it lost me by the end.

Grade: C


This Spanish movie is a silent take on Snow White, with bullfighting as a major plot point.  Gorgeously shot, and I loved the creepy ending.  Not as entertaining and charming as The Artist, but still fun to watch.

Grade: B