Category: Drama


Leviathan1

Nature is cruel and horrific.Yes, it can be beautiful. It only takes a trip to a major natural landmark to establish that, but the entire premise of “life” is predicated on barbarism: murder to survive, starvation for those that don’t, ultimate extermination of anything that can’t assert its dominance at the top of the food chain. And a fair existential question is: If your chances in life of experiencing consistent suffering are so high — much higher than living a life of ease and pleasure — then why should we keep trying at this experiment in life at all? Most people — myself include — would respond with: family, friendship, romance. Those heights transcend the inherent tragedy of life, but in the bleak Russian drama Leviathan, it’s not easy to keep those escapes in mind when an avalanche of tragedy takes hold.

The story of Job as I imagine Michael Haneke might conceive it, Leviathan equates the oppressive cruelty of nature and life with existence under the post-Soviet Russian state and unlike Job, a benevolent God doesn’t exist at the end of the tunnel of your trials. Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov), a hot-headed mechanic in a small, coastal town in northern Russia, faces the seizure of his home and garage by his town’s corrupt mayor, Vadim (Roman Madyanov). Although Kolya’s former army buddy and closest friend Dima (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), a handsome lawyer from Moscow, has dirt implicating the mayor in gruesome crimes, Kolya’s temper, the deep unhappiness of his long-suffering wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova), and the oppressive power of the Russian state threaten to grind Kolya away until there’s nothing left but his bones… not unlike the titular skeleton of the “leviathan” whale on the town’s coast.

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Blue1

Life is as much defined by loss as it is by growth and experience. We lose relationships, our youth, our hair, and, if we get old enough, our memories which are the very nature of our existence begin to fade. Learning to deal with these losses is a defining element of the life experience, and the most successful lives are charted by facing these troubles and persevering. But there are the losses that we can move past: losing a girlfriend, the death of an elderly parent, getting fired from a job; and then there are the losses that create black holes at the center of our very being. The emptiness consumes our entirety and we are broken possibly for the rest of our lives. No film has explored that type of loss with such raw precision as 1993’s Blue from Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski as part of his French “Three Colors” trilogy.

There are few fears more intense than the death of a child. Even for the childless, the safety and well-being of children is paramount, and when children die of cancer or in school shootings or at the hands of a serial predator, it sparks our deepest existential fears. If children, particularly those too young to yet be corrupted by the world, can suffer the pains and cruelties of this world, then the idea of a benign and caring creator seems laughably unlikely. And if you lose both your child and your husband at once, what reason could you have for continuing in a world intent on taking those things which matter above all else? By the end of Blue, it’s impossible to avoid that question ever again.

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Her1

One of the great myths of life is that love is something magical, that it exists beyond our electrochemical human functions, that it is pre-ordained and written in the stars. It isn’t. We love because of chemical reactions in our body, socialization, and the pool of people we have the geographic (or, in our modern time, digital) capability to love. But, just because something is natural doesn’t mean it can’t be beautiful and just because you can love others doesn’t mean that your love for a specific individual is lesser. Love would be less messy and less painful if we could recognize that we will never truly be one with another human being and simply celebrated the moments we can share with others who value our presence and affection. Perhaps more efficiently than any film since Manhattan, Spike Jonze‘s Her cuts straight to the core of romantic love, wrapping it all in a sci-fi world that seems all too real now.

It’s easy to talk about love in a logical way. It’s easy to recognize the evolutionary functions it no longer needs to serve. But living life in a way that maximizes your romantic pleasure and minimizes yours and (just as importantly) others romantic pain isn’t as easy as philosophical discussions. To err is human and we want to possess our partners. We want to be the missing piece of our partner’s existence and for them to be the same for us, but no one can meet those expectations and fantasies. And romance wanes and dissolves when the person we love isn’t the person we fell in love with and the cycle of loneliness and misery begins anew. So, it’s no wonder it takes a machine to solve this most human of dilemmas.

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Unforgiven1

When they’re wronged, most people feel an immediate need for justice to right that wrong. When someone steals, we put them in jail. When someone kills, a handful of states (in a barbaric practice) will kill in return. And while putting someone in jail can keep them from stealing again and executions can keep someone from killing again, is that justice? It doesn’t restore the stolen property. It doesn’t bring the dead back to life. It simply appeases our need to feel that something has been done even if nothing productive came out of the act itself. And the idea that we then commit violence for violence’s sake becomes terrifying and that paradox of how to make right that which is wrong lies at the core of the mature and thematically complex anti-Western, Unforgiven.

When someone is assaulted or violated in some physical manner, society’s focus tends to be on the aggressor of that violence rather than the victim? And while it’s important to ensure that these acts can’t occur again, why is that the epicenter of our attention? Why isn’t it the person that’s hurting? They are the ones who suffered the most, not the society that punishes the action causing the pain. And, while their names may be invoked in the quest for “justice,” too often their actual needs are swept under the rug. And throughout Unforgiven, men seek “justice” while the woman whose brutalization sets the film in motion never has her world returned to normal.

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Among artists of a certain stripe, there’s an uncontrollable urge to make art of meaning, and if they can’t make art that contextualizes some aspect of the human experience, it can drive these artists to mania and depression. And while art that forces us to examine our place in the universe is often the most rewarding, we can’t discount the power of entertainment and escape. Situated at the tail end of Woody Allen’s transitional period from his early comedies to his later “serious” films, 1980’s Stardust Memories is a pitch-perfect encapsulation of one artist’s struggle against his own commercial talents as he desperately craves the ability to craft work of genuine import. And, in the process, he discovers maybe you can do both.

By 1980, Woody Allen had won a Best Director and Best Picture Oscar for Annie Hall, and Manhattan was a turning point for him as a dramatic storyteller, but the mixed critical reaction to Interiors and the even more mixed audience reaction to the increasingly dark and realistic nature of his films was taking its toll on Allen. He felt pigeonholed as a director of silly farces, but Allen cut his teeth on foreign art house cinema, and he wanted to make works more inspired by Bergman and Fellini than the Marx brothers. And Stardust Memories is a stunning work of art as self-therapy as Allen reconciles these warring impulses in a feat of pure cinematic magic truly worthy of its clear cinematic peer, 8 1/2.

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Nightcrawler1

(A quick aside before I begin my review. It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these. My Funny Games review from August to be exact. It’s been a busy Fall for me. I finally have a final draft version of my long gestating film noir screenplay that’s consumed me for much of this semester. I also got hired to be the interim managing editor for a month for the music journalism site that I write for on occasion, and I also more recently got hired to do freelance reviews by GameSpot, one of the internet’s biggest video game journalism websites. That said, it’s my goal to do these reviews for my “A” and “A+” films with more consistency cause I like to keep this particular writing muscle fresh.)

Civil libertarians (that are not the same thing as the Rand-ian variety) will tell you that if there’s a societal demand and there isn’t a net negative utility to the supply of this demand, then there should be no governmental impediment to its delivery. Generally, I’m inclined to agree with that world view. But, as with all axiomatic principles, that involves accepting some rather ugly consequences of that philosophy. We want to get high, but addiction flourishes. We want freedom of artistic expression, but crude and vapid reality television rules the airways. We want unfiltered access to “news” and the stunning Nightcrawler examines how low we’ll sink to get it.

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AIArtificialIntelligence1

(A quick aside before I begin my actual review. I promised you all in my last Best Of list [well, actually, it was in the post explaining why there would be major differences to my Best Of lists and arranging all the films I viewed by score] that I would start at least reviewing the “A” and “A+” films that I’ve watched again. Well, last week, I finally got around to watching one of those films. And in an instant reminder of why I’d had to retire this blog, I’ve only just now found the time to do this write-up. But, I really have a lot to say about this film so here goes.)

Terrence Malick’s last two films, The Tree of Life and To the Wonder, both dealt with questions as old as mankind itself. Why are we here? Is there a purpose to my life? Are we alone even when those we love are physically in our presence? What do we do when we don’t have the answers to our own existential queries? What makes Terrence Malick so special is his own humility in knowing he can’t possibly hope to provide a definitive answer to those questions. At best, he can speculate on what he believes and capture the despair of our mortal need for answers in a world where those answers are impossible to grasp. And if a mainstream American blockbuster has ever come close to matching Malick’s existential introspection, it’s Steven Spielberg‘s 2001 science fiction opus, A.I. Artificial Intelligence.

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Discarding fears of artificial/synthetic intelligence overlords like Skynet or Mass Effect‘s Geth, we live in an exciting era of machine intelligence. I’m skeptical of a truly intelligent/sentient machine existing in my lifetime (although Ray Kurzweil’s prediction for the technological singularity places that in 2049 which would be the year I turn 60. So, maybe…), but programs like Wolfram Alpha or even less complex virtual intelligences like Apple’s Siri mean that an age where computers can be trained to understand natural language systems and return answers based on those queries is already upon us. And what happens when we have machines that can not only process information and provide answers but can also draw inferences and attachments to the sensory input they take in? Which is to say, what happens when a machine begins to have emotions?

What could have been a redundant and unnecessary question, one that had been thoroughly analyzed through Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation, is given new life and greater insight in Spielberg’s A.I. A.I. is the story of David (Haley Joel Osment), the world’s first “mecha” capable of genuine, unconditional love. Set in a world where global warming has raised the sea level and destroyed all of the world’s major coastal cities, population is strictly controlled, and few families are lucky enough to be given the license to have children. One such family, led by scientist Henry (Sam Robards) and his wife Monica (Frances O’Connor) have an ill son kept alive through cryogenic sleep until scientists can find a cure for him. And, in the meantime, they are the test parents of David, designed to be the world’s perfect mecha son.

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Although Monica does not appreciate her husband’s decision to bring a robot boy to their home as a substitute for her sick son, she quickly warms to David, and once she “imprints” on him, he more than warms to her. He experiences the obsessive, protective, desperate love towards his new mother that only young children can understand. But, through a set of circumstances beyond David’s control, Monica is forced to abandon David into the cruel, dystopian world in which she lives. And David starts a manic and crazed quest to find the Blue Fairy of the Pinocchio myth which he is convinced will turn him into a real boy so that he may finally have the love of his mother which he so desperately craves.

If A.I. were simply about whether or not David were a sentient being capable of emotion and genuine self-awareness, it would be unnecessary. And the film dispenses with those questions almost immediately. As soon as David’s capacity for unconditional love is awakened, he becomes a boy. A boy that is slightly off but a boy nonetheless. He is capable of hopes and dreams and aspirations. He wants love and affection. He wants to impress his mother. He ignores the logical and sane response to the Blue Fairy myth (which is to say that it is a myth) and believes that he can actually become a real boy. Therefore, he is capable of that most human of responses, self-delusion.

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And because A.I. has the sense to be about more than whether or not David is a sentient being, it is able to ask deeper questions. Was it ethical to create David at all? The world is a cruel, miserable place, and is it right to create a being as innocent as David and then thrust him into this misery? Of course, by the end of the film, David’s woes and journey and existential quest become a stand-in for all of humanity. Is there something inherently selfish about the act of human procreation? Is our human habit of creating grandiose justifications for our own existence desperate self-delusion or beautiful despite its falsehood? Can our existence be its own justification? Is our human need for love a strength or a weakness that consumes us when it’s not provided?

And through Steven Spielberg’s marvelous direction and a story conceived by the late Stanley Kubrick, A.I. takes a long, hard look into the potential nihilism of our own existence and manages to provide something beautiful and meaningful at the end. Let there be no mistake. A.I. is not the cloying melodrama that Spielberg is prone to in his weakest moments, but it also refuses to be an empty reflection of the abyss that happens in Kubrick’s darker pictures. Instead, A.I. paints a heartbreaking and horrifically sad portrait of growing up, loss, mortality, and parenthood while also saying that the beauty of some of those experiences and the narratives we craft in our lives makes our existence worthwhile.

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A.I. Artificial Intelligence isn’t a perfect film. There are moments where its most heartbreaking moments wildly shift from genuine despair to forced melodrama. At two and a half hours long, the film has more than enough to say to suit its lengthy run time, but there are still scenes that could have used more editing simply because a number of scenes just run slightly too long. Although the film is very much meant to be a science fiction fairy tale, it is a science fiction fairy tale grounded in realism, and one scene involving fish in the submerged ruins of New York City breaks that illusion of realism.

But these are minor complaints about what is easily one of the finest science fiction films of the aughts. Great science fiction holds up a mirror to modern society and forces you to engage with the great questions of your time, or in the case of the best science fiction works, of all time. And A.I. Artificial Intelligence will have a shelf life that I hope lives on even into the days where artificial intelligence isn’t simply something we see in works of fiction. If you want a film that presents a marvelous fairy tale and thrilling adventure for chidlren but poses the kind of questions and insights you expect as an adult, A.I. is everything you could wish for.

“I am. I was.”

Score: A

 

Philomena1

If you had asked me when the Best Picture nominees were announced which film I thought I would enjoy the least, Philomena would have easily topped the list. Every year has a movie like that. I knew before I even watched The Help or War Horse that it would be unlikely if I enjoyed those films, and sadly, they were even more disappointing than I thought they would be. Their subject matter seems trite or cliche, and you wonder how they were ever nominated for the highest honor in all of cinema. And from its plot description to its advertisements, Philomena seemed like it was ripped straight out of the cloyingly sweet, artificial school of filmmaking. I am happy to admit that I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I’ve said it on this blog before, but it bears repeating. There are few feelings as refreshing as  a film lover than when  you go into a film expecting to hate it but find yourself loving it instead. I call that the anti-Les Miserables (a film I expected to love but instead loathed). And Philomena is one of the most pleasant examples of that phenomena for me in a long time. With sharply drawn characters, wonderful acting, a beautiful aesthetic from The Queen‘s Stephen Frears, and a genuine respect for characters who don’t share a compatible world view, Philomena is a grown-up film that serves as shining example of the lost art of understated drama.

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Philomena is the true story of the quest of Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a disgraced journalist for the BBC, to help Philomena Lee (Skyfall‘s Judi Dench) find her son who she was forced to give up for adoption 50 years prior. When Philomena was a teenager, she was impregnated by a boy she met at the fair. Her father disowned her and dropped her off at a convent/orphanage run by nuns who housed and fed the pregnant women until they had their children and then the nuns sold the kids and used the women as slave labour for four years. And beause of her Catholic guilt about premarital sex, Philomena kept her first child a secret for 50 years.

Martin, who has recently been fired from the BBC because of some vaguely explained connection to Labour, is in a rut of his own. He has no job, and he’s depressed and his only other idea is to write a book on Russian history. And when Philomena’s daughter suggests that he do a human interest story on her mother (because the daughter has only just now discovered that Philomena had a son 50 years prior), he initially balks at the idea of doing such a soft story. But when he realizes that there’s a story here about exploitation by the church, Martin agrees to look into Philomena’s case, and they are both taken on a ride that leads them to America and places they never imagined.

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I don’t want to spoil too many details of Martin and Philomena’s investigation to find her son because the film delivers some twists and turns although, honestly, the quest to find her child is not nearly as important as the journey itself and what it reveals about this odd couple on this journey. Philomena is a devoutly religious Irish Catholic who is kind and not in the least bit worldly. She’s direct and painfully honest, and the whole world is beautiful and wondrous to her. Martin, on the other hand, is a bitter and cynical depressive, an atheist, and tends to look down on those who aren’t as cultured as he is although he’d usually never come out and say it.

The film’s view of the world is somewhere between Martin and Philomena, but the film has the utmost respect for both of them. Just like The Queen, Stephen Frear never forgets that these two are people, and it never belittles either of their worldviews. I’m unsure if I’ve ever watched a film that managed to be so sympathetic to both religion and agnosticism without also being some type of hippie-dippie nonsense. Philomena has her view of the world; Martin has his. And, Philomena is content to let that be. Because, there are moments where, yes, Philomena is hopelessly naive, but Martin is equally bitter and broken, and the film understands that so well about both of them.

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It also doesn’t hurt that the film is beautifully acted and shows restraint from beginning to end to never become overly melodramatic or cloying. Dame Judi Dench is one of the true treasures of the screen, and her performance as Philomena is one of the finest of her career. Much like Helen Mirren in The Queen, Stephen Frears gets a perfectly understated performance out of Dench. You feel Philomena’s hurt and despair but also her endless love of life and optimism, and watching Dench perform, it’s clear you’re watching someone who has mastered the acting craft, and when we lose Miss Dench, it will be a huge blow to acting and the screen.

Steve Coogan, who is primarily a comedic actor, also shines as the more world-weary Martin. Martin is a prick. There’s no easy way getting around that. But, Coogan always humanizes him even at his snootiest. But, he’s got a perfect understated British comedic delivery to give the film its much needed comic levity. That was one of the most surprising facts about Philomena. It is often laugh-out-loud funny, and both Judi Dench and Steve Coogan deliver plenty of laughs. Ony the British could make a film that deals with such serious material as mothers having their children stolen from them but also find time to include the necessary laughs without cheapening the serious material.

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Ultimately, Philomena is about what we believe, why we believe it, and how much pressure our believes can take before they seem outdated and wrong. And, at a little over an hour and a half, it’s the perfect length for this tale. There’s not a wasted second in the script or the film, and I suspect were Philomena any longer, I wouldn’t have enjoyed it nearly as much. But, as it is, Philomena stands as one of the surprise delights from this year’s crop of Best Picture nominees. If, like myself, you didn’t see how you could possibly enjoy this film, let me assure you that is far better than any of us had given it credit for. It’s a much watch film for all movie lovers. Just bring some tissues. You’ll need them.

Final Score: A

 

Serpico1

I harped on this issue for one of the other websites I write for, but we live in the age of the anti-hero. It’s easy to understand why. Morally ambiguous leading men fit our fractured, cynical age. But, at the same time, the world still needs heroes, and we don’t have nearly enough well-written ones today. When heroes do arrive, they are products of trite, melodramatic sentimentality with no grounding in the real world even when they’re based off of real figures. But, when a true story comes of a regular man fighting a monumental fight simply because it’s the right thing to do, and the film is devoid of cliche or obvious manipulation, you must stand up and applaud. And Serpico is one of those films.

Sidney Lumet’s Serpico is one of the rare films that has it all. It has a thrilling story about one cop’s stand against the entrenched corruption of the NYPD. It has an important message about how easy it is for corruption to become institutionalized and how difficult it is to cleanse corruption from major institutions once it gains a foothold. It has a magnetic and charming hero who has more dimensions than you’d expect. You have a firebrand performance from Al Pacino at the prime of his career. And, you have the marvelously understated direction of Sidney Lumet. There is no audience this film isn’t right for.

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Serpico is the true story of NYPD officer Frank Serpico (Glengarry Glen Ross‘s Al Pacino), an honest man in a police department where practically every other cop is on the take. Frank has a college education, listens to opera, speaks Spanish, and takes ballet lessons to impress a girl. He has a long beard and dresses like a hippie and that alone would be enough to garner the ire of everyone else in the department. But, when Frank is placed in the NYPD plainclothesman division, he quickly learns that his fellow cops are as crooked and dirty as the criminals they put behind bars, and the Italian organized crime syndicates have most of his coworkers in their pockets.

And, Serpico’s life becomes a series of intimidations and harassments from his fellow officers. On his first day in the plainsclothes division, another office slips him an envelope full of money which Serpico gives to his commanding officer, and nobody looks into the bribery. Serpico refuses to take money beyond his salary, and every day he feels his life is in danger because his fellow cops think he’s going to get them arrested and that they can’t trust him. Serpico is bounced from unit to unit as no department in the NYPD knows what to do with him, and the corruption is a cancer eating away at one of the largest police departments in the world. And it isn’t until a few of his fellow officers decide to make a stand with him that Serpico is able to make any change, but his life is far from a happy ending.

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Young Al Pacino is as good an actor as any other man that ever lived. Although his 90s/2000s output is a caricature of his early roles, there has never been another actor with such a coiled physical presence. Pacino in this or (a rare excellent later role) Glengarry Glen Ross or The Godfather: Part II has the ability to switch from boiler-plate tension to a controlled explosion. And Serpico’s entire arc is built around feeling his world closing in around him and not being able to trust anyone, and nobody besides Pacino could play that man and make it feel so documentary real.

And, that element of documentary realism is critical to what makes Serpico work. If Serpico weren’t a true story, it would probably border on unbelievable (I want to read the non-fiction book it’s based on to see how closely it hews to the truth). But, Sidney Lumet shoots the film almost like a documentary with a dash of the stylistic touches of the political thrillers of the 1970s (think All the President’s Men). Though there are obvious elements of the film that are spiced up to create a movie, unlike virtually every crime thriller ever made, Serpico feels completely grounded in reality.

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Also, Serpico is clearly a hero, but he is also clearly a man. Serpico doesn’t do what he does because he dreams of glory or being the greatest cop; he just wants to do what he thinks is right. And no one else in the police department wants him to be a good man because it represents the antithesis of how they lives their lives. And that’s what makes a hero. Serpico is doing what’s right with no expectation of a reward, and Serpico refuses to romanticize Serpico’s actions. They just contextualize it as him not knowing any other way to live his life, and that allows the film to make a moral statement without turning Serpico into a Messianic figure (although his hippie beard gives him a visual allegory for Jesus).

I’m at work right now, and I’m training a new hire so I’m going to bring this review to an early close. It’s not much of a stretch to say that Serpico joins End of Watch and Training Day as being one of the greatest cop movies I’ve ever seen. It works as an entertaining tale of one man battling insurmountable odds, but it works on so many other levels, and like Lumet’s best works, it’s a technical marvel. For anyone that loves cop films and the vein of classic cinema that allowed excursions away from the main plot so that characters can breathe, Serpico is a can’t miss classic film with Al Pacino at the height of his career.

Final Score: A

 

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The first “important” book that I ever read was The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley. I read it in middle school long before I could fully appreciate the complexity of Malcolm X and Alex Haley’s examination of what it meant to be a black man in America in the middle of the 20th century, but even as an adolescent, the power of El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz’s fury and critique of American culture stuck with me in a way that forever changed my life. Although I’m white, I have biracial family members of African-American lineage and, growing up, my family took care of a family of four African-American foster children for many years. And through my immersion in real life to the legacy of institutionalized racism (and the more casual kind that still lingers to this day) as well as my exposure to Malcolm X’s story at such a young age, I was always aware of and sensitive to issues of race in ways that few of my white friends are or ever will be.

Even as a child, I was always astounded by the ways that people in the American South (West Virginia may have technically been part of the North during the Civil War, but we were one of the last states still actively fighting racial integration in the 60s) romanticize antebellum chattel slavery. These are people who have seen Gone With the Wind one too many times, and their idea of slavery are happy Mammy’s and Prissy’s who were glad to serve at their master’s beck and call. Clearly, they never read Roots. It is impossible to read Roots or The Autobiography of Malcolm X and have any romantic feelings towards the factual history of slavery and institutional racism in America. Yet, people do. We can add British director Steve McQueen’s masterful film 12 Years a Slave to the list of must-see works on that dark page of American history.

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The Academy Award winner for Best Picture is easily the darkest and most complex film to win that award since Schindler‘s List although for my money 12 Years a Slave is an entirely different class of filmmaking, and it is easily one of the finest films of this decade so far. In fact, 12 Years a Slave has such a richly faceted point to make about morality and ethics that I’m unsure if the Academy actually understood the subtext of the film because films this fatalistic and cynical don’t generally win Academy Awards. As an examination of the way that society is capable of normalizing cruelty and how the institutionalization of cruelty against marginalized groups robs even victims of their ability to empathize with other sufferers as they simply try to avoid more victimization themselves, 12 Years a Slave is a masterful philosophical treatise at a Bergman level.

12 Years a Slave is the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man living in New York in the 1840s, making a living as a violinist with his wife and two children. Solomon accepts an offer from two men in a traveling circus to play his violin as part of their show, but when they reach Washington, D.C., they drug Solomon and sell him to slave traders. And it isn’t long before Solomon, who was born free and had never been a slave his entire life, is sold to a string of masters in the American South and is exposed to the cruelty and barbarity of antebellum slavery firsthand.

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Upon being kidnapped and sold into slavery, Solomon’s name is changed to Platt, and he is beaten several times within an inch of his life as he protests his new appellation. Solomon must also hide the fact that he can read and write from his new masters because a slave that could read was considered the most dangerous type, even more than runaways. And although Solomon is initially sold to a relatively decent master, Ford (Star Trek Into Darkness‘s Benedict Cumberbatch), it isn’t long before a fight with a cruel overseer results in Solomon’s sale to a brutal and barbaric rapist and sadist, Edwin Epps (X-Men: First Class‘s Michael Fassbender) where he will spend many long years, a witness to not only his own suffering but also that of Patsey (Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o), Edwin’s favorite slavegirl that he rapes and abuses at a whim.

The obvious “text” of 12 Years a Slave is that slavery was a barbaric, unfathomably cruel system that no civilized nation can ever explain away. The text is likely what 12 Years a Slave won its Academy Award for, and Steve McQueen captures the barbarism in no uncertain terms. Slave women are raped repeatedly. Solomon and Patsey are both beaten towards the point of death, and we are given graphic looks at their backs where the flesh has literally been ripped from the bone. Mothers and children are ripped apart and when the mothers cry, they are beaten for their tears. McQueen ensures that there is no way to sit through this film and think that slavery was anything other than the evil system of exploitation and cruelty that it was.

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But, what makes 12 Years a Slave the masterpiece it is (and easily the greatest Best Picture winner in over a decade) are the nearly countless levels of subtext in the film. There’s a moment somewhat early in the film where Solomon has nearly been lynched by a foreman of the first plantation he worked on, and although the plantation overseer stops the lynching, he leaves Solomon hanging from the tree for hours to make a point. And in a magnificent long take, you start to see other slaves leaving their dwellings and return to their daily routine. Almost none of them so much as look at Solomon (one kind soul gives him water) and slave children play in the background eventually. It shows how in the world of slaves where you can be beaten or killed for one stray look, no one sticks their neck out for one another. You simply try to survive, and because of that, the film resists the temptation to even romanticize the suffering of the slaves by trying to make them too heroic or noble.

On the other level, even the kindest whites (with one major exception) are only able to extend mercy or understanding to slaves to a certain point before it begins to inconvenience them. At that point, they simply revert to believing that the blacks aren’t real people and that they can’t risk themselves to help them. Ford is kinder to Solomon than any of his other owners, but when Solomon tries to tell Ford that he is truly a free man, Ford refuses to hear any of it and sells him to Edwin Epps even though it’s clear that Ford believes Solomon on some level. And a friendly plantation neighbor to Epps allows Solomon to keep his wages for playing his violin, but he still utilizes Solomon for slave labour in the cotton fields. And, one seemingly friendly white quickly sells Solomon out because he thinks it will make him a quick buck.

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But, the kicker to the film’s themes of how systematic repression and cruelty robs victims of their ability to empathize with one another is a scene with actress Alfre Woodward (Primal Fear) as a former slave who was freed when she married her master (the same man who allowed Solomon to keep his earnings for a violin performance). She has been a slave. She was in the same position that Patsey was in. But, now, she lives in the comfort that is provided to her on the back of the forced labour of her former people. She gives a small speech at the end about the karmic judgment waiting men like her husband, but she seems totally unaware of the hypocrisy of her own position. And it’s because her suffering has created a mindset of “at least, I’ve managed to escape the lash for now.”

It also doesn’t hurt 12 Years a Slave‘s case that it has one of the finest ensemble casts in years. Chiwetel Ejiofor gives one of the best leading man performances of last year (in a year overflowing with superb performances) by playing Solomon’s suffering as realistically and with as little melodrama as possible. Solomon is human, and even he becomes tone deaf to the suffering of those around him on occasion, and by simply making him a man (rather than a symbol for all of slave’s suffering), Ejiofor and McQueen turn him into one of the most well-crafted characters of the 2010s.

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Although I’ve yet to see any of the other Best Supporting Actress performances besides Julia Robert’s in August: Osage County (she’s great in that film, but the movie is terrible and also Roberts was the leading lady), I can’t imagine I’ll be at all upset about Lupita Nyong’o’s Oscar win. Although she spends much of her early moments on screen not actually speaking, Nyong’o’s role eventually blossoms into an example of the suffering slave women (particularly beuatiful slave women) faced at the hands of male master’s who saw them not as people but purely as tools for giving them pleasure. And, one of the most memorable scenes of the film’s involves Patsey begging Solomon to kill her and put her out of her misery and his refusal to do so because he knows how much trouble it would be for him if Epps found out.

Michael Fassbender got a well-deserved Academy Award nomination as well (I have trouble believing that Jared Leto was ever better than him in anything but I haven’t seen Dallas Buyer’s Club yet so I can’t judge) as the bordering on psychopathic Edwin Epps. Fassbender makes it clear how brutal and sadistic Epps can be, and his actions in the film are monstrous, but Fassbender never turns Epps into a total monster, and that’s the beauty of his performance. Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Garrett Dillahunt, Paul Dano, Brad Pitt, and Sarah Paulson also all shine in smaller roles.

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After a quick scan of the last 20 odd years of Best Picture winners, there seems to be little question that 12 Years a Slave is the best winner of that award since Unforgiven. Although I’ve enjoyed every Best Picture winner of the 2010s, I haven’t thought any of them were remotely Best Picture worthy, and it is beyond refreshing to see a film of this magnificent a caliber finally being rewarded with the highest honor in the film industry. I still have to see most of the other Best Picture winners (the only others I’ve seen so far are Captain Phillips and The Wolf of Wall Street), but 12 Years a Slave has set not only a high bar for them to clear but also any other prestige films to come out the rest of this decade. It is a must-see film event for all who love the fine art of film.

Final Score: A+