In October I called 12 Years A Slave a masterpiece. The best film ever made about American slavery, I said. I expected it to be utterly overlooked when it came to the Oscars. I knew it would get nominations - the subject matter made it too important to totally overlook - but I assumed something else would win. American Hustle looked to be the big winner this year, and in December I was so certain it would take the gold that I wrote a piece about how the film - a middling, enjoyable piece of fluff - would be forever destroyed by a win. But the best thing possible happened to American Hustle in that it didn't win and now it can be caught on cable and laughed with without being judged against winning an undeserved award.
I was wrong about Hustle, and I was wrong about 12 Years getting left out. The film - the first Best Picture winner directed by a black filmmaker - got some of the key awards of the evening, including the top statue. 2013 was an extraordinary year for the movies, a year so full of cinematic wealth that even with Inside Lleywn Davis getting largely snubbed in the nominating process the Oscars were loaded with worthy winners. Alfonso Cuaron straight-up earned that statue with his incredible work on Gravity, as much a director's showcase as any I've ever seen. Dallas Buyers Club dominated the male performance categories as we all expected, and while some have ideological problems with Jared Leto's casting in the film it's hard to run down the actual performances themselves. Frozen was beautifully recognized as one of the best films of the year, animated or otherwise. Even Sarah Jones got her moment onscreen. But it's the awards that 12 Years A Slave took home that left me beaming, since the movie isn't just 'important' cinema, it's GREAT cinema.
Too often the Oscars get it wrong - profoundly wrong, like in the fact that Hitchcock and Kubrick never took home in-competition statues - but every now and again they get it right. Did they get it right on purpose? A lot of pre-show buzz had Academy members too squeamish to watch 12 Years A Slave (a fate that I believe befell Drafthouse Films' excellent Act of Killing), but perhaps many voted for it anyway? However the result was acheived it was the right result; the film is not only a terrifying, inspiring look at slavery and what it means to be human, it's an actual art film from an art filmmaker. This isn't The Artist or The King's Speech, the kind of middlebrow stuff that often takes the awards, it's an actually challenging work of formal excellence and emotional resonance.
12 Years A Slave is a great film, which is why it's so surprising that it won. We've spent years getting used to the fact that this night of glitz usually acknowledges the wrong people, and that even when it acknowledges the right people, it's for the wrong movies (see Scorsese winning for The Departed, a movie I quite like but COME ON, that's his Oscar film?), and then last night they got it so largely right (even though I wish there could have been something for The Wolf of Wall Street). This is going to make it hurt so much more when something terrible wins Best Picture for the next five years.
If you haven't yet seen 12 Years A Slave you should seek it out as soon as possible. It's not an easy film - I described it as a horror movie - but it's absolutely riveting and transporting. It's a movie that makes you feel deeply, that brings you low and elevates you again, that makes you despair for humanity before restoring your faith in it. It's truly one of the most special movies I've had the privilege to review. I know I'm not really adding much to the larger discussion here, but I wanted to take a moment to be happy with you guys about this - too often we grumble about the awards and how the good films get slighted. That didn't happen in 2014.