Oscar Primer 2014: 86 Years an Oscar

During the lead up to this year’s Oscar’s on March 2nd I will be covering a lot of the nominees for the upcoming Academy Awards. This will not be your usual Oscar primer, but in fact more of a “catching up to speed” series. I will be dissecting a few films in each installment. I will be going over what the nominees are, and what chances it stands to win. In the last installment HERE I covered “Lone Ranger”, “Before Midnight”, “Saving Mr. Banks” and “Lone Survivor”. This time I will be talking about “12 Years a Slave”, “The Great Beauty” and “The Book Thief”.

“12 Years a Slave” was directed by Steve McQueen, produced by Plan B Entertainment and was released on November 8th. The film has nine nominations.

–        Best Picture- Steve McQueen, Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner and Anthony Katagas

–        Best Director- Steve McQueen

–        Best Actor- Chiwetel Ejiofor

–        Best Supporting Actor- Michael Fassbender

–        Best Supporting Actress- Lupita Nyong’o

–        Best Adapted Screenplay- John Ridley

–        Best Editing- Joe Walker

–        Best Production Design- Adam Stockhausen (Production Designer) and Alice Baker (Set Decorator)

–        Best Costume Design- Patricia Norris

The film follows the story of a musician and free black man Solomon Northup who is drugged and sold into slavery. Somehow he managed to escape being owned after twelve years, and he ended up writing a book chronicling his harrowing journey for all to learn about. Steve McQueen of “Shame” (Michael Fassbender gets naked) and “Hunger” (Michael Fassbender starves himself) fame, helmed this film that took an unflinching and brutally realistic take on the feeling on having everything taken away from you. Seeing Solomon graphically beaten into submission was impossibly difficult to watch. This is a horror movie except you see the bad guy coming and know what to expect in every scene, pain. This is an emotional film that charts how much a man can take and how there is always hope inside us, no matter how small it is. Solomon just wants to survive and get back to his wife and children. I can’t think of a mainstream Hollywood film that is so graphic and in your face, a fact that should make this required viewing for everyone. Slavery may seem like a far off memory in North America but it was over only less than 150 years ago which is just a drop in time. McQueen, being British, offered a unique and fresh view of one of the greatest stains in human history. The Best Picture and Best Director races come down to “12 Years a Slave” and “Gravity”, a deeply intimate human tale or a sci-fi technical masterpiece one of which will win both awards, or like last year split the two like “Argo” (Best Picture) and “Life of Pi” (Best Director) did. Frankly I am fine with either film taking home the awards as they both stand on their own and have advanced film as a medium in very different ways.

Partially what made this film work, were the actors who brought so much life and pain into their roles. British actor Chiwietel Ejiofor playing Solomon was something excruciating to watch as his face was so pained in every way. Seeing him open up and trust a white slave and asking him to mail a letter for him, only to be betrayed was one of the most heartbreaking moments. While the Best Actor race is Matthew McConaughey’s to lose, Ejiofor is next in line should the Academy decide to reward “12 Years a Slave” the most handsomely.

To contrast the constant pain in Ejiofor’s eyes was the brutal slave owner Edwin Epps played by Michael Fassbender with an unbearable sadistic energy. Every moment Epps was onscreen he was seething with hate and anger, all of which he directed at the slaves he owned. He makes his slaves compete to pick the most cotton and those that collect the least would be whipped. Seeing his drunken smirks while forcing his slaves to dance for him in the middle of the night is sleazy ten times over. I couldn’t decide what emotion I felt more, hate or fear. While it appears to be Jared Leto’s year, Fassbender equally deserves to win and I don’t doubt it will be long before he gets his own statue.

Lupita Nyong’o playing Epps favourite slave Patsey induced some of the most painful parts of the film to sit through. Epps may adore her, but Patsey felt anything but the same while being raped by him (shown once in the film, but it is safe to assume it happened many times). Epps didn’t hide his love for Patsey, to the point where Mistress Epps would openly belittle her and try to force her husband to choose between his slave and wife, to which Epps chooses his slave cruelly. There is an extended scene of her being whipped, which may be the most graphic scene I have experienced, and the sickening length of time the camera is only on her face makes me upset just remembering it. The fact that Nyong’o was able to portray such pain in what is a just a scene in a film causes you to pinch yourself to remember that it is only ‘acting’ and not real. This girl’s debut was ferocious and she stands most likely to win the Best Supporting Actress race with only last year’s Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence next to her.

The two biggest reasons outside of the acting that makes this film so personal and deep are the writing and the editing. The film starts with an awkward sexual encounter between slaves that leaves one of them crying after the consensual deed is finished. Then it goes to a flashback of Solomon being a happy man walking around town with his beautiful family and dressed up. Throughout the first half of the film there are periodic flashbacks of Solomon and his family, the juxtaposition of a scarred and miserable person and a loving happy man cut you to the core. The scene where Solomon is being transported on a river boat to be sold is haunting, instead of showing the slaves, the river boat wheel was shown slapping the water and with each rotation bringing these people closer to their nightmares. Since the source material was so amazing writer John Ridley had plenty to work with. While a lot of slaves were born on plantations and never educated, Solomon was, and he had to be treated as a very intelligent man. His ability to talk Epps out of punishing Patsey or convincing Epps that he couldn’t have written a letter were brilliant scenes. The Best Editing award looks like it might go to the more taught “Gravity” or “Captain Phillips”, but the Best Adapted Screenplay looks like it is “12 Years a Slave” to lose, being a Best Picture contender and all.

The plantations and other sets looked realistic, taking pages out of the opulent masterpiece “Gone with the Wind”. The interiors of the Epps manor were grand and regal for the time period, while the slave houses were disgusting and crudely built. Every prop looks like it was aged for two hundred years. The costumes are no different, from the rags the slaves were forced to wear, to the elegant suits worn by the rich folks. The handmade suits Solomon wears as a free man are beautiful and intricate. Unfortunately “The Great Gatsby” seems to be the frontrunner for both Best Costumes and Best Production Design and “12 Years a Slave” are just too far down the list to be a serious threat.

I am shocked that this film did not get nominations for Hans Zimmer in the Best Original Score category and Best Hair and Makeup for the scars the slaves got after they were whipped.

“The Great Beauty” was directed by Paolo Sorrentino, produced by Indigo Film and was released on November 15th. The film has one nomination.

–        Best Foreign Film- Italy

“The Great Beauty” tells the story of Jep Gambardella, who after turning 65 starts to figure out what was most important in his life and learning about what the great beauty in life may be. The film doesn’t have much of a linear plot, but you slowly get to learn who Jep is as he meets people from his past. Lead actor Toni Servillo is a marvel to watch as his acting is so subtle yet impactful. Italy has a long history with this category being nominated 28 nominations and 13 wins, the most in both respects. This year looks to continue this trend as “The Great Beauty” is the film to beat. While “Broken Circle Breakdown” and “The Hunt” are dark horses and it is a fool’s errand to claim to know who will win this award with certainty, Italy is in a great position to take the gold.

For a more in depth look at the film’s themes please see my review found HERE.

“The Book Thief” was directed by Brian Percival, produced by Fox 2000 Pictures and was released on November 27th. The film has one nomination.

–        Best Original Score- John Williams

“The Book Thief” is about a young adopted girl who hides away books while living in Nazi Germany; all the while the country burns all non-state approved literature. The young girl learns to read from her progressive family who during the film hide a young Jewish man in their basement. The man’s only source of entertainment is the girl’s readings and sense of imagination. John Williams, he of 49 previous nominations and 5 wins wrote the score for this film which seemed like a generic war/against all odds music. While the music wasn’t as insulting as the soundtrack for “Saving Mr. Banks”, nothing new was heard. The film was overly sappy at some points. It also seemed to have an identity crisis, was the film meant to educate kids about freethinking and the horrors (done mildly) that the Nazi’s caused? Or was it an adult movie about keeping your imagination alive that happened to feature child protagonists? If you watch it, at least you have the incredible Geoffrey Rush and his playfulness at full display which made the movie somewhat enjoyable.

About author

Music Editor at Live in Limbo and Host of Contra Zoom podcast. Dakota is a graduate of Humber College's Acting for Film and Television. He now specializes in knowing all random trivia. He writes about music, sports and film. Dakota's life goal is visit all baseball stadiums, he's at 7.