This year’s Academy Awards race is one of the closest in recent memory with three of the nine films nominated for best picture in a tight heat. Oscar analysts agree that at the conclusion of Sunday’s ceremony, Hollywood’s most coveted prize will be presented to the producers of either “Gravity,” “12 Years a Slave” or “American Hustle.”
Entertainment Weekly, in its Oscar predictions issue, forecasts that 19% of the Academy vote will go to “Gravity,” with 18% for “12 Years a Slave” and “American Hustle” with 16% of the ballots. Last month, in a rare occurrence, “Gravity” and “12 Years” tied for the top prize at the Producers Guild Awards. The ceremony is usually a good predictor of Oscar outcomes.
For months, the three front-runners have generated considerable buzz. “Gravity” racked up an impressive $700 million at the global box office. “American Hustle” crossed the $200 million mark and even the harrowing “12 Years” drummed up $100 million in ticket sales. The fact remains, however, that many people have not bothered to head to the theater to see what all the fuss is about.
Of course, this isn’t unusual when it comes to the Oscars, a ceremony that is treated with reverence in Tinseltown but tends to elicit yawns from an indifferent general public. Unless it’s one of the few years in which a major blockbuster is nominated — “Avatar,” for instance, viewed by practically everyone on the planet — it’s common for best picture candidates to languish unseen.
But this time around, the front-runners are worthy of your time and attention. In a year of exceptional films, they are the best Hollywood had to offer — a visually innovative cosmic thriller; a brutally honest historical drama; and a shamelessly entertaining glitter-pile of 1970s glam.
Oddly enough, it is “Gravity” that seems to have encountered the most resistance from a certain segment of filmgoers. I’ve talked to a number of people who stubbornly turn up their noses at Alfonso Cuaron’s space odyssey. Perhaps their reticence stems from the film’s minimalist but epic premise. At first I couldn’t imagine what could possibly be so compelling about watching Sandra Bullock and George Clooney float around in outer space.
Still, the skepticism is baffling, considering what a taut nail-biter of a thriller the film is, not to mention its stunning visual achievements and emotional heft. If you’re lucky enough to find a place where you can still catch an IMAX screening of the movie, it will be one of the most suspenseful, immersive, uplifting and intense cinematic experiences of your life. The film was released Tuesday on Blu-ray, so you can watch it from the comfort of your couch, but you’ll be missing out. If ever a film demanded to be seen on the biggest screen possible — preferably in 3-D with a kick-ass sound system — this is it.
The story of a medical engineer adrift after her space shuttle is torn to shreds, “Gravity” features one of Bullock’s most fragile and moving performances. The film ingeniously registers on two levels – it’s one heck of a popcorn movie ride but it’s also packed with existential symbolism and musings on hope, rebirth and the significance of humanity in a terrifyingly infinite universe. It’s as deep or as shallow as you want it to be.
“American Hustle” is an easier sell. Directed by “Silver Linings Playbook” helmer David O. Russell and reuniting several members of that crowd-pleasing comedy-drama’s cast, “Hustle” is a trashy, over-the-top romp through 1970s sleaze and the most fun many of us had at the movies in 2013.
Nothing about the film is hard to love, from the gloriously kitschy period costumes and art direction, to the go-for-broke acting, to the twisty plot about a pair of con artists embroiled in a government sting operation. Bradley Cooper’s perm and Christian Bale’s comb-over may appear to steal the show, but it is the film’s leading ladies – both nominated for Oscars – who are the real stars. Amy Adams, as a chameleonic temptress looking for love, and Jennifer Lawrence, as an unstable, accident-prone housewife, deliver the most mesmerizing performances of their already accomplished careers.
“12 Years a Slave” is difficult to love, despite the fact that it is quite possibly the most authentic movie of its kind. While other films about America’s dirty, devastating past soft-pedal the indignities of slavery, director Steve McQueen lays them bare in merciless fashion, making for a film that is necessary, yet excruciating. After seeing it, my husband and I were silent the whole way home. There was literally nothing to say in the aftermath of so much shame and sadness.
McQueen specializes in depicting human depravity and desperation — he made a movie titled “Shame,” after all — and “12 Years” is his masterwork. It is brilliantly acted with performances so naked, it’s hard to look them in the eye — Chiwetel Ejiofor as the kidnapped Solomon Northup, Michael Fassbender as a lascivious slave owner and, most searing of all, Lupita Nyong’o as the tormented target of that slave owner’s twisted obsession.
Yes, “12 Years” is painful to watch, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t watch it, even if you only watch it once. The film has profound and indispensable things to say about the insidious nature of racism.
There are great treasures to mine, great revelations to discover in Oscar’s favorite trio and time and opportunity to rectify what you’ve missed, long after the Oscars are over.
Why deprive yourself of greatness?