Anatomy of a Best Picture: 12 Years a Slave

My achilles heel as a filmgoer has always been my ability to create unrealistic expectations for a highly anticipated movie. When 12 Years a Slave began making the festival rounds, earning glowing praise at each stop, I immediately took notice. Critics hailed it as a “game changer” and talked about it being a film experience that rivaled Spielberg’s Schindler’s List in its emotional impact. It instantly rocketed to the forefront of the Best Picture race and positioned itself as the film to beat during awards season. I visited all of my most trusted critics websites such as Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic which heaped plaudits on the production awarding it universal acclaim. I envisioned how the film would play out in my mind and I expected to experience one of the most moving and unflinching portraits of slavery in the history of the medium. When I finally did see 12 Years in the cinema I remember feeling strangely unmoved. I thought it was a very good movie that was handsomely mounted and powerfully acted but it wasn’t a masterpiece. Was I missing something? Did I allow my sky high expectations to mute what I had witnessed? I knew a second viewing would be essential before I could put my feelings on paper.


Flash forward 4 months later, 12 Years a Slave triumphed at the 86th Academy Awards taking home 3 gold statues including the coveted Best Picture trophy. A week later, it was released on home video. I immediately went to the Target near my apartment and purchased a copy. I watched it a second time from the comforts of home that evening. I thought to myself, now free from the expectations I had placed on it, I could appreciate the film for what it was instead of what I wanted it to be in my mind. Surprisingly, this second viewing did not clear up my feelings about this film and, in fact, I found more flaws this time around then in my initial viewing. What the Hell was going on? Have I become some curmudgeon, incapable of feeling what thousands of critics and audience members felt around the world? Perhaps, I need to let this film continue to simmer in my thoughts. Until then, I will try to explain my reasoning behind why I was left underwhelmed by this film. Please feel free to disagree with me, I welcome the dialogue.


In 1853, Solomon Northup released his memoir entitled Twelve Years a Slave. The work recounted his incredible story of surviving the antebellum south, toiling away on plantations under numerous masters both surprisingly genteel and incredibly cruel. What made Solomon’s tale all the more extraordinary was that he began his life as free man in Saratoga, New York. A well educated, soft spoken musician with a wife and two young children, Solomon was kidnapped in Washington D.C. and sold into slavery in Louisiana where he would endure a hellish existence that played out like a living nightmare. Director Steve McQueen uses Northup’s tale as a canvass to depict both a brutal, eye-opening account of slave life and an incredible story of survival from the depths of despair.


Now it may seem, based on my initial commentary, that I flat out disliked this movie. Nothing could be further from the truth. On the contrary, there is much that I admired about McQueen’s film starting with the director himself. I was first introduced to his work two years ago, when he released his riveting portrait of sex addiction, Shame, in 2011. I appreciated the way he challenged his audiences with difficult subject matter and never made them too comfortable. He dove headfirst into the darkest recesses of the human condition and managed to do so without the slightest whiff of exploitation. These comments also apply to 12 Years a Slave. Here is an American production that asks its audience to tackle the subject of slavery head on and without remorse, to acknowledge the past sins of our nation so that we may reach some semblance of catharsis. McQueen is an unblinking, nonjudgmental presence that observes unspeakable atrocities and leaves it to the audience to come to their own conclusions. However, it may be his more academic style that also left me so cold emotionally. I so desperately wanted to feel something during my viewing experience and it just never happened. Perhaps McQueen didn’t want to pander the audience with overt emotional manipulation. Either way, the film engaged my mind and left me with much to reflect on.


On the acting front there is, with one glaring exception, no fault to be found. Chiwetel Ejiofor, one of those actors who everyone recognizes but can’t recall his name, is magnificent as Northup. Playing a real life character who went from freedom to bondage and back again required Ejiofor to run the gamut of human emotions. Shock, confusion, anger, sadness, despair, he hits every nuance with subtlety and grace. What’s especially noteworthy is how he uses his face, and particularly his eyes, to express these emotions. McQueen elected, rightly I think, to forgo a voiceover narration in this film, requiring Ejiofor to portray much of what was written in Northup’s memoir without words. Viewing the film, you witness firsthand his triumph.


Ample praise also goes to McQueen regular Michael Fassbender for his volcanic portrayal of slave master Edwin Epps. Described as a “nigger breaker” he uses scripture as justification for his vicious treatment of slaves on his plantation. After he doles out a particularly vicious beating he states, “Sin? There is no sin here. Scripture dictates a man can do as he pleases with his property!” He stumbles around like a lunatic, often drunk, terrorizing all in his path. Epps also harbors a twisted affection for one of his slave girls, Patsey, whom he rapes on an almost nightly basis. Fassbender, with his piercing blue eyes, is ferocious in this portrayal. One of the most truly evil characters since Ralph Fiennes psychopathic Nazi commandant, Amon Goeth, graced the screen, Fassbender makes Epps compulsively watchable even at his most odious.


Newcomer Lupita Nyong’o, who plays the aforementioned Patsey, is also a real find. The heartbreaking scene where she begs Solomon to end her life probably locked up her Oscar win. A luminescent talent, I look forward to where her career takes her. Sterling supporting work from Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, and Sarah Paulson also deserve praise. There is one weak link to be found acting wise, and its a big one. Brad Pitt’s portrayal of Bass, the sympathetic Canadian laborer who ultimately helps Solomon obtain his freedom, is horribly miscalculated. This film is full of character actors that, while recognizable, are capable artists who disappear into their roles. Brad Pitt is a movie star, NOT a character actor. His appearance is distracting and has the effect of taking the audience out the film. You’re totally aware that it’s Brad Pitt, not Bass, that you’re watching. Im aware that Pitt is one of the producers of this film and he was instrumental in getting the film made, however, this doesn’t warrant him getting cast in a pivotal role. A bad mistake on the part of the filmmakers that is only magnified on repeated viewings.


One of the oddest things about discussing 12 Years a Slave is that, despite harrowing subject matter and content, it’s absolutely gorgeous to look at. Filmed on location in New Orleans on several former slave plantations, the crew nails the look of the antebellum south. Lots of wide angled shots of sun drenched fields, beautiful oak trees, Spanish moss blowing in the wind, peaceful bayous gorgeously magnified by the colors of the sun. Its almost as if the set is mocking the horrific events that took place there. McQueen himself stated that he wanted the visuals in this film to evoke the works of Spanish painter Francisco Goya, “When you think about Goya, who painted the most horrendous pictures of violence and torture and so forth, and they’re amazing, exquisite paintings, one of the reasons they’re such wonderful paintings is because what he’s saying is, ‘Look – look at this.’ So if you paint it badly or put it in the sort of wrong perspective, you draw more attention to what’s wrong with the image rather than looking at the image.” One such scene, in which Solomon is almost lynched, demonstrates this perfectly. He is drawn up but then dropped and left to dangle, using his tip-toes to avoid strangulation, he proceeds into a sort of grotesque ballet to stay alive. McQueen holds this shot for an agonizing period of time, the only soundtrack being the growing chirp of cicadas as the hours stretch into dusk. The beauty of the surroundings in this shot provide stark contrast to the man struggling for his life at its center.


Before I bring this piece to a close, I’d like to pose a few questions which I’ve been pondering since I watched this film. Firstly, if 12 Years a Slave is indeed the most realistic depiction of slavery in America, was it right to frame it through a survival story? Solomon Northup was an exceptional, intelligent man who could both read and write. He garnered preferential treatment from most of the masters he served under. Here was a man dropped into incredible circumstances and just as suddenly snatched out of the Hell fire. What about the many who weren’t so lucky to know true freedom? A similar criticism was launched at Spielberg and Schindler’s List. Is it a true depiction of the Holocaust to focus on 1100 Jews who miraculously survived versus the 6 million murdered? Perhaps to reach a mass audience, the filmmakers looked for an entry point where the public could grapple with the subject matter and not fall into despair. Secondly, why has it taken so long to bring a story like this to the screen? And why not from an American filmmaker? If you didn’t know, McQueen is British. Is the subject still too uncomfortable for us to confront? I don’t think so. Perhaps this film will open up the proverbial can of worms and push other filmmakers to have an honest dialogue about slavery as part of American history in their own works.


12 Years a Slave is a difficult film and should be applauded for the important questions it asks of it’s audience. We are asked to do a lot of heavy lifting as we sift through the dark maelstrom of the human condition. Powerfully acted and beautifully shot, it didn’t deliver the emotional haymaker I was expecting. It engaged my mind but didn’t touch my heart. A very good film, even necessary, but I stop short of calling it a masterpiece. Grade: B+


Criticisms from the Couch: Dan’s Top 8 Movies of 2013

By Dan Leyendecker

        Already two months into 2014 with Sochi, True Detective, and a big shake-up on late night network television, Kyle graciously let me dive into my favorite films of the last year. Oscar Day is still a few days away, so let’s just assume this list is still somehow relevant. I’ve enjoyed talking about this year in movies with friends and family, but Kyle convinced me to throw some of my unreliable opinions out into the world.
I can’t tell if I’ve been looking for meaning in movies, whether I’m in a particularly well-targeted demographic, or if 2013 was just a quality year. Maybe in scribbling my thoughts down, I can finally get some of the films off my mind.
Disclaimer: I have not seen TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE, BLUE JASMINE or some of the other top movies that will be heavy hitters on Oscar Day. My Netflix queue is backed up. Second disclaimer: I haven’t written in a while, so bear with me as I shake the dust off. Spoilers ahead.


This trailer grabbed my attention in the middle of last year; I remember posting it on Facebook and Kyle immediately texting me. He knows the kind of stuff I’m drawn to–the description attached to the SAINTS trailer promised a 1970s crime drama in the Texas Hill Country and a love triangle with three charismatic leads. Also, that title sounded like something ripped straight out of an old blues song or hymnal. Yup, this felt like my jam.
The director, David Lowery, caught some flak from the critics for emulating his apparent hero, Terrence Malick. The movie features lots of magic-hour vistas and long shots of sprightly women walking dreamily through amber waves of grain, but Lowery grounds these tropes with a strong human story and crackling action. So while the movie takes a leisurely pace, the atmospherics do not overwhelm a good yarn. Casey Affleck plays an obsessive outlaw who veers between heartfelt and unhinged. Rooney Mara, who possesses such an expressive face that she looks like a moving Byzantine icon, succeeds in depicting real strength in what could have been a simple damsel-in-distress role.
But Ben Foster, I think, turns in the most powerful performance. Like Mara, he takes an otherwise stock role, a tortured lawman caught between his passion and sense of ethics. He infuses the role with such humanity that makes him fascinating to watch.
The trio benefits from a great collection of surrounding characters, classic rural characters who love, protect, or want to help our three leads. Go get it.


It’s always exciting to feel as if you’ve “found” some new talent, which is what happened when I stumbled upon THE SPECTACULAR NOW. Both Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley give the kind of work that makes you want to see what’s next. Teller owns an effortless charisma that is both weighted down by a deep sadness. His character’s burgeoning alcoholism is played subtly, and never to his or the story’s detriment.
Woodley’s character drew fire by some critics for being an underrepresented, lightly drawn female character, who is simply there to assist Teller’s character on his narrative arc. I think that’s a little lazy — she’s no manic pixie dream girl, and her innocence is an important counterbalance to Teller’s puffery. The ending, in particular, treats her with an appropriate measure of respect.
The SPECTACULAR NOW is also a Southern movie that captures the flavor of its location the right way — unassumingly. No gleaming Mason jars of sweet tea here. I need to look up the writer, because his or her dialogue is perfect in the easy way the characters talk, fight, negotiate, and fall in love with each other. And I realize now, remembering the movie, that I was excited by discovering these gifted actors because they made me feel so deeply for their characters in such a short amount of time. Can’t wait to see what the duo, and their director, James Ponsoldt, get up to next.


Last November, I’d mentioned to my grandparents that a new Martin Scorsese was coming out that I’d looking forward to. My grandma particularly likes Leo, so it’s understandable that she and my granddad would invite their friends, another elderly, church-going couple, to see the blockbuster that their grandson recommended. Halfway through, probably during the massive debauchery in the airline, the other lady leaned over to my granddad and said, “I think your grandson needs to come to church some more.”
I’ve seen WOLF twice and enjoyed it in two different ways. I watched it the first time on a droll holiday weekend and found the colors (lots of searing yellows, big blues?) and tone unsettling. I guess I had anticipated a little bit more of a cat-and-mouse situation between DiCaprio and Kyle Chandler, who plays the FBI agent that eventually takes Jordan Belfort down. Their showdown on the yacht, in which the two engage in a classic battle of posturing, is probably my favorite scene of 2013. Still, I just couldn’t properly explain the movie afterward, except its over-the-top decadence.
I enjoyed my second watch much more, and I’ve heard others describe the same shift. Instead of trying to figure out what it was all about or the moral implications of the real-life story or its cinematic delivery (all good questions), I let Scorsese take me through something decadent, manic and undeniably weird. WOLF sports a distended structure, manic energy that also feels at once tired, and glossy colors of the mid-90s — actually, is this what the mid-90s was like outside of my backyard? The final scene, in which the camera pans over a completely rapt audience to Belfort, was not only a funny visual joke on the audience but also reflected my state of mind afterwards. Sure, I guess I was being sold to — but wouldn’t it briefly be fun to be the seller?


Easily my most anticipated movie of 2013. A heist/ensemble/period piece with a director who had just started coming into his own?! I fell in love with the trailer when it came out in the middle of the year and grew so obsessed that I memorized its quotes, beats and cuts. The last time I did that was with the RETURN OF THE KING trailer back in ’03, so you do the math.
Like WOLF, I’ve seen the movie twice and enjoyed it even more so the second time. I first saw the movie over Christmas break with a couple of friends from my hometown — both of them ended up bringing their large families and we essentially took over the small theater. The second time was with a friend at the much-larger Slaughter Lane Drafthouse. Despite the runtime, both camps left in a heady mood.
I wish I knew more about cinematography so that I could pinpoint why I enjoyed the look of this movie so much. I don’t mean the period-specific clothing, hairstyles, etc — in fact, I was relieved that those things didn’t sour into gimmickry — but the actual look and color of the film. It seemed vivid, alive, and crisper than the usual movie. Even the indoor scenes had the quality of a brisk and clear fall day.
The frenetic energy of HUSTLE never detracts from its humanity. It’s clear that David O. Russell has real affection for his characters. Back to my initial obsession with the trailer, real quick — I became fixated on a shot in which Christian Bale’s character, Irving, sits in a sleazy ’70s pool house. There’s a shelf of cheap booze just above him. His eyes are closed and he’s really feeling whatever he’s listening to — in the trailer, the shot is paired with “Good Times, Bad Times” by Led Zeppelin, while the movie it’s Duke Ellington’s “Jeep’s Blues” — he’s fist pumping, his gut is out, and he looks hilariously gross. To me, he looks briefly content, and in a way, noble. Though he uses each character’s foibles for humor, Russell is not nasty or harsh in the way he treats these people. While this is definitely not a “feel-good” movie, I think Russell is much brave for sidestepping the easy cynicism of the subject matter.
A quick rundown of those characters: Bale underplays Irving with moody cool, Amy Adams is electric and, I think, outguns Jennifer Lawrence’s showier performance, while Bradley Cooper never played a better shithead. The supporting cast excels.
Favorite scene: Bale and Adams sit nervously in the Plaza Hotel. It’s a brief moment of quiet after weeks of exhausting double- and triple- crossing. They have one last gamble. Adams says something like, “We’ve got to get over on all these guys. That’s what we need to be thinking about right now.” Bale pauses, collects himself, and then agrees. “It’s gotta be the best we’ve ever done.” Dig it!

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I’d never seen any of the BEFORE trilogy until 2014, and there is a chance that my love of the first two in the trilogy bumped MIDNIGHT as high it is. While I love Linklater, I had stayed away from the series because I thought the premise sounded a little cheesy and SUNSET was simply off my radar at age 15. More of a DAZED AND CONFUSED era. But MIDNIGHT was getting big reviews, all of my friends whose opinions I respect swear by all three movies, and I decided to tear through each installment over three nights.
Watching Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke age nearly two decades in 72 hours was one of the stranger but enjoyable movie experiences I’ve had. The method added another weird layer to the series’ questions of time. In those three days, I saw two people express their hopes, grapple with circumstances and, finally, fear that they’d become what they hated. Do they even perceive the situation they’re in, and would they even be better off seeing their own arc in 72 hours? At one point Jesse says something like, “I’m still that guy on that train. You’re still the girl who got off of that train with me.” Surely, these intelligent, passionate, alive people could avoid such a fate, but the ending is not clear.
I’m closer to their ages in SUNRISE, and felt a real familiarity with the first two movies. I still “know” Jesse and Celine in MIDNIGHT, but their problems are further off and less immediate. Or maybe not. Either way, I’m not sure if I could handle another chapter in 2022.
BEFORE MIDNIGHT is my number four because Jesse and Celine feel nearer to my close friends instead of characters on screen. They remind me of myself and, if you’re reading this, they probably remind me a lot of you. And that is a magical thing.


Odd comparison, but I often think of WINTER’S BONE when I try to recall INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS. The two couldn’t differ more in terms of content, but echoes of Greek tragedy, the washed out blues and grays, and the fact that both are two of my favorites from the ’00s align them in my mind.
For the first 45 minutes or so of LLEWYN DAVIS, I never quite knew where it was going. I enjoyed the beautiful music and crisp depiction of an early ’60s New York winter, but I found myself asking something like, “When’s it going to get weird and more…Coens-y?” Semi-spoilers ahead.
But the road trip to Chicago (at turns spooky, hilarious, and heartbreaking) is one of my favorite things the Coen brothers have ever done. John Goodman shows up just for a bit, but to powerful effect. Llewyn’s meeting with a big recording executive is harrowing in its truthfulness. It was there that I learned what the movie was getting at. Llewyn’s loss of his friend hangs over the whole movie. And on the return trip, in a snowy scene which could have been lifted out of Fargo, cars whoosh past Llewyn like otherworldly creatures. Death is all around. Llewyn feels the loss of his friend more acutely than ever.
Kyle felt that the Coens went too dark by subjecting Llewyn to crueler treatment than necessary. A host of one of my favorite podcasts, Filmspotting, mentioned that this was a story about the loss of not only a creative partner but someone’s other half. He went on to say that surely this must have affected the Coens somehow, as creative a pair of brothers as there has ever been. While the brothers are not gentle to Llewyn, I got the sense that they explored what it would be like to lose a brother. It’s bold in its melancholy.


I ordered my movies by how much they resonated in 2013. PINES missteps a few times (the same friend who I watched INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS with said that the guy who plays Bradley Cooper’s son should seriously think about never acting again). The RottenTomatoes summary describes the movie perfectly as “ambitious to a fault.”
THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES is the stuff of dreams. Robbing banks. Following a monster down a dark forest road. Exacting revenge on someone who’s wronged you and your family. And best of all, that electric thrill of flying, weightless and solitary. I’m thinking of two scenes here: one from the first act, when Ryan Gosling’s character is shot from above on his motor bike, the road yawning out ahead of him and the trees enveloping all around. His son (played by Dane DeHaan, who more than carries the third act) unknowingly recreates this, as he finally gets closer to the mystery of his dead criminal father and hurtles down the same road on his beloved bike. Both scenes are shot through with a sense of heightened reality, excellent Technicolor thrills that envelop you deeper into this little pocket of America.
While Gosling kind of plays a punker version of himself from DRIVE, he still possesses the charisma and intensity to make the first act the best. It’s a strong enough presence that lasts throughout the whole movie. Ben Mendelsohn is an excellent ne’er do well hermit in the woods. Bradley Cooper plays a straight arrow (still with his own streak of shithead) who struggles with the expectations of his own father. Rose Byrne and Mahershala Ali turn in quality small roles.
Like BEFORE MIDNIGHT, PINES addresses the complexities of time and consequences. When Eva Mendes opens an envelope from her son, to a bent photograph of what was, for an instant, a happy family, you acutely feel each character’s loss. PINES also uses Hall & Oates in an impromptu dance sequence, to great comedic effect, so it’s already an automatic #2. Can’t wait to watch again.


I’m sure my friends and family tired of me proselytizing about this movie way, way before 2013 ended. MUD is a modern-day myth set in the swamps and small towns surrounding the Mississippi. By now, everyone is familiar with the “McConaughaissance,” a term that will surely be played out by the time I send this to Kyle, but it’s been thrilling to see Matthew McConaughey go after such bold choices after a while in the rom-com wilderness.
He doesn’t disappoint here. And neither do the two boys who play Ellis and Neckbone (“That’s a hell of a name, son”), characters drawn with influences from Mark Twain, STAND BY ME and other adventure stories. Ellis is struggling to make sense of his world, which is falling apart due to the tension between his parents (the excellent Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson). In this fractured sense of growing up, he befriends Mud, a drifter who is a little bit childlike, charming, and in very real danger.
I’ve found myself talking a lot about “shots” and the “feel” of a movie, and MUD is at the top of my list because it contains the best of both. A weathered boat in a tree, writhing snakes in a pit, hired killers kneeling down to pray, shirts that supposedly contain magical powers and wide, beautiful vistas of the biggest river in the country. A friend of mine mentioned that he felt as if he were right there in the deltas, along for the adventure. You feel as if you’re in on the adventure.
MUD strikes upon all the good stuff: friendship, love, and growing up, all cast against Southern and Biblical motifs. Jeff Nichols shows an even stronger affection for his characters, and that translated so well to me. I wanted Ellis’s parents to figure out some happiness, I wanted Sam Shepard’s character to re-enter the complicated world. I wanted Ellis to find his way in a suddenly bigger world. I wanted Mud to find some peace.