Tagged: 12 Years a Slave

Best Picture Breakdown

This year’s Academy Awards looks like it could be a very interesting one indeed. It the favourites were to win in each of the major categories we could see a real spread of awards, with no one film dominating proceedings. This means that the big gong of the night, Best Picture, is still a reasonably open contest. So what do each of the films have going for them? And what is standing in their way? What follows is a basic for and against for each of the nine nominees which will hopefully shed some light on their chances in tomorrow’s ceremony.

12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave

Nine Nominations

Notable Awards: Golden Globe Best Drama, BAFTA Best Film, PGA Outstanding Producer of Motion Pictures, AFI Movie of the Year, NBR Top Ten Films

Why 12 Years a Slave will win: There is no film in the field that looks more like a traditional Best Picture winner than 12 Years a Slave. It is a masterful piece of filmmaking, beautifully shot, well written and superbly acted. It is also a serious film dealing with socially important subject matter (filmmakers like to see themselves as playing an important social role so like to promote films like this). The fact that it is the first film about slavery to have been made by a black director and written by a black writer also gives the film a special significance. This has all been backed up by some good momentum coming into the Oscars having already won Best Drama at the Golden Globes and Best Picture at the BAFTAs and tied with Gravity for the Producers Guild’s top award.

Why 12 Years a Slave won’t win: 12 Years a Slave is rightfully the favourite, albeit a slight favourite, for the award. But while the film has been widely lauded it is not as widely loved as some of the other films in contention and in a tight race that could be significant. When it comes down to a fight between the film voters admire and the film they love, sometimes admiration alone doesn’t get the job done. Also, the Academy now uses a preferential voting system whereby voters rank the nominees from one through to nine. The votes are then counted, with preferences redistributed round by round until a film manages to secure more than 50% of the vote. In what looks to be quite a tight race, the odds that a film will secure over 50% of the votes in the first count is highly unlikely, so the preferences become very important and the system could end up favouring the film that can be everybody else’s second choice.

American Hustle

American Hustle

Ten Nominations

Notable Awards: Golden Globe Best Comedy or Musical, SAG Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture, AFI Movie of the Year

Why American Hustle will win: With ten nominations, American Hustle is tied with Gravity for the most nominated film in the field, but American Hustle’s nominations have come in more telling categories. For the second year in a row a David O. Russell film has been nominated in the big seven categories (Picture, Director, Actor and Actress, Supporting Actor and Actress, and one of the Screenplay categories), and American Hustle is the only film in the field this year to have achieved that feat. The four acting nominations may prove particularly important as actors make up the largest branch of Academy voters and it is possible that a film built on the strength of its ensemble cast is more likely to catch their eye than a film built on its outstanding technical achievement.

Why American Hustle won’t win: Of the major contenders, American Hustle is the one which seems to have lost a bit of momentum leading into the awards. Coming up to the announcement of the nominations it was arguably the front runner, and its ten nominations appeared to confirm that. Since then, however, people seem to be cooling on it. Even Jennifer Lawrence, who a month ago was an unbackable favourite to win her second Oscar, is no longer so far ahead of the pack. While Russell’s won the Golden Globe for Best Comedy or Musical, the Golden Globes have not proven to be a strong indicator of Oscar form, and it was also in a separate category from 12 Years a Slave and Gravity, the two films seen as being its greatest rivals for the Oscar so it is difficult to take much from that success.

Captain Phillips

Captain Phillips

Six Nominations

Notable Awards: AFI Movie of the Year

Why Captain Phillips will win: Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips is an intensely gripping thriller based on recent real life events which impressively also manages to really humanise the players on both sides of its hostage situation. But when it comes to the Oscars, Captain Phillips really has one very big ace in the whole. Tom Hanks. Tom Hanks has been an Academy favourite for a long time, and while Forrest Gump is his only film to have won Best Picture, he’s had a number of films around the mark. While he surprisingly missed out on a nomination for a performance many – myself included – felt would have had him as a serious contender for Best Actor, Argo’s win last year after Ben Affleck’s director snub showed that a surprise snub can help to build support behind a film.

Why Captain Phillips won’t win: In a nine film Best Picture field, one of the basic indicators of who the real contenders are and who are making up the numbers is to look at which films get nominations in the Best Director category. Hollywood is still a very auteur influenced film culture, invested in the overall artistry of the director. Captain Phillips is one of the films which wasn’t recognised in the Best Director category, and only four films have ever won Best Picture without a Best Director nomination. While Argo managed to do just that last year, what are the chances it could happen two years in a row? Also, given how central Hanks’ performance was to the effectiveness of the film, the fact that it was overlooked for a nomination suggests that Captain Phillips is not seen as a real heavyweight.

Dallas Buyers Club

Dallas Buyers Club

Six Nominations

Notable Awards: NBR Top Ten Independent Films

Why Dallas Buyers Club will win: Like 12 Years a Slave, Dallas Buyers Club ticks a number of the boxes of a Best Picture winner. It is a well written (it got a screenplay nomination) and directed film about a serious issue, based on a real life person, and built around two absolutely brilliant performances. The story of Ron Woodroof’s transformation from homophobic bigot to unlikely AIDS activist is quite uplifting and Academy voters have a bit of a history of being suckers for sentimentality over merit (Forrest Gump over Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption in 1995, Rocky over Taxi Driver in 1977). While Dallas Buyers Club has a hard edge which makes it far from the most sentimental film ever to get a Best Picture nomination it is definitely an inspirational, underdog tale.

Why Dallas Buyers Club won’t win: While Dallas Buyers Club has won a number of awards in the lead up to the Oscars they have been almost solely for the performances of McConaughey and Leto, not for the film as a whole. It is almost as though people have struggled to look past the brilliant performances to see the merits of the rest of the film.



Ten Nominations

Notable Awards: AFI Movie of the Year, DGA Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Feature Film, NBR Top Ten Films

Why Gravity will win: No film this year received a stronger audience response than Gravity. Alfonso Cuaron’s immersive, experiential film had audiences legitimately awestruck and is the highest grossing film in the field. Its ten nominations have it equal with American Hustle as the most nominated film this year. While it lost out to 12 Years a Slave for the big prize at the Golden Globes and the BAFTAs, it tied for the top gong from the Producers Guild of American and, more importantly, Alfonso Cuaron won the Directors Guild Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Feature Film. Of all the lead up awards each year, this one has the best track record of identifying the Best Picture Oscar Winner. Ten times in the last eleven years, including last year with Ben Affleck and Argo, the film whose director has been recognised by the DGA has gone on to win at the Oscars.

Why Gravity won’t win: Name the last science fiction film to win Best Picture. Here’s a clue… it’s never happened. Gravity is far from being typical Best Picture fare so would have to buck the trend of dramas being preferred over genre films. While it received ten nominations, many of them were in technical categories and it failed to receive a screenplay nomination. It is possible that Academy voters will see the film as a marvellous technical achievement more so than a marvellous all-round film. While Cuaron is the overwhelming favourite to take home Best Director, just last year we saw Ang Lee take home that award for a brilliant visual achievement in Life of Pi without the film winning the major award.



Five Nominations

Notable Awards: AFI Movie of the Year, NBR Best Film

Why Her will win: One thing that Her really has going for it is that it is by far the most original film of the nine nominees. Jonze’s film about the relationship between a man and the operating system on his computer is really unlike anything we’ve seen before. It is also original in a way that garners praise and attention (as evidenced by the many screenplay awards it has already won) rather than merely confronting and frightening people. While it hasn’t won any of the major lead in awards, it was named Best Film by the National Board of Review, so there is at least one instance where it has trumped the other nominees.

Why Her won’t win: Another film without a Best Director nomination, Her is also the only film in the running to not have a single nomination in any of the acting categories (even though Joaquin Phoenix would have been a deserving nominee). So you can add to the fact that only four films without a directing nomination have ever won Best Picture the fact that only 11 films without an acting nomination have won. It all adds up to suggest that Her is up against it.



Six Nominations

Notable Awards: AFI Movie of the Year, NBR Top Ten Films

Why Nebraska will win: This black and white, slow, small, indie film stands out a bit in the field. But unlike last year’s little indie nomination Beasts of the Southern Wild, Nebraska already has some serious Oscar credibility. It is director Alexander Payne’s third film in a row to be up for Best Picture – after Sideways in 2005 and The Descendents in 2012 – with each one being better than the last. Does that mean he’s getting closer? Many critics have likened the film’s tone and style to films of the Hollywood Renaissance period of the late 1960s/early 1970s, in particular Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show. With that period being such a revered moment for many Academy voters could they really value that association in Nebraska? The stunning performance of veteran character actor Bruce Dern so late in his career also gives it a feel good element.

Why Nebraska won’t win: Left of centre indie films tend to earn critical praise and art-house admiration but that doesn’t have a history of translating into Oscar wins. That said, Alexander Payne has already won two Oscars for screenwriting. However neither of those films managed to capture the big prize. Nebraska is not the favourite to win in Best Original Screenplay and it would seem unlikely that it would win Best Picture without a win in that category.



Four Nominations

Notable Awards: N/A

Why Philomena will win: While as a small, British film, Philomena would seem a real longshot to win the major award there are some punters who are seriously talking about it as a potential spoiler. Like 12 Years a Slave, Philomena has an important social message to its story, but the key to its chances lie in the fact that it is targeted at an older demographic. With the way the preferential voting works, there is the thought that with 12 Years a Slave, Gravity and American Hustle all so evenly matched they could steal each other’s votes, effectively cancelling each other out, and if the Weinsteins can effectively lobby the increasingly aging pool of Academy voters to get behind Philomena it could sneak through.

Why Philomena won’t win: Philomena’s four nominations are the least of any of the contending films, and it isn’t favoured to win in any of them. While Grand Hotel managed to win Best Picture in 1932 despite not being nominated in any other category, in the last 20 years The Departed with five nominations (for four wins) has had the least nominations of any Best Picture winner and it had the advantage of the Academy desperately wanting to give an Oscar to Martin Scorsese. Philomena hasn’t had any noteworthy wins in the lead up to the Oscars, so there is no evidence yet of judges rating it above the other nominated pictures, and it is another film which does not have a Best Director nomination.

Wolf of Wall Street

The Wolf of Wall Street

Five Nominations

Notable Awards: AFI Movie of the Year, NBR Top Ten Films

Why The Wolf of Wall Street will win: The Wolf of Wall Street appears to be the film most likely to challenge from outside the three favourite. One thing it has its favour unpredictable motives of the Academy voter. Scorsese is the filmmaker of his generation, but for a long time he went unrecognised by the Academy and it was seen as one of their great oversights. That would change in 2007 when he took home Best Director and Best Picture for The Departed. But even then, many felt that The Departed didn’t represent Scorsese’s best work, and more to the point it wasn’t a traditional Scorsese film. Academy voters, like tipsters, have been known to vote for the nominee they want to win rather than the one they think should win. With The Wolf of Wall Street being hailed as a return to the Scorsese of old, will the Academy voters jump at the chance to recognise a “real” Scorsese film?

Why The Wolf of Wall Street won’t win: The Wolf of Wall Street is easily the most controversial film in the field and controversy is something that is rarely rewarded on Oscars night. With its avalanche of sex, drugs and profanity, Scorsese’s film has been accused of distastefully celebrating and lionising the abhorrent behaviour of selfish, criminal stockbrokers. It only requires a small percentage of voters to conscientiously object to the film to have it out of the running.


So with all that in mind, for mine the nominees can be broken up into four categories…

The Contenders: 12 Years a Slave, American Hustle, Gravity

The Potential Dark Horses: Her, The Wolf of Wall Street

The Outsiders: Philomena, Nebraska

Thanks for Coming: Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club

By Duncan McLean

The Doctor of Movies’ Top 10 of 2013

Silver Linings Playbook1. Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell)

For mine, you have to go all the way back to the beginning of the year to find 2013’s best film. David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook is a flawless picture. This beautifully written and compassionate film is a life affirming piece of cinema and, importantly, seeks to take the otherness out of mental illness. Cooper and Lawrence have tremendous chemistry and make for a memorable onscreen couple, and the supporting cast is equally impressive.

Gravity2. Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón)

Gravity is the most overwhelming cinematic experience in recent memory. Earning comparisons to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey – high praise indeed – Cuarón’s film succeeds in making outer space at the same time breathtakingly beautiful and utterly terrifying. By far the most immersive use of the 3D format I have experienced, this simple narrative is a tight, 90 minute exercise in suspense and tension.

All is Lost3. All is Lost (J.C. Chandor)

I love the bravery of this film. With this minimalist film – one character, one setting, little to no dialogue – J.C. Chandor puts a lot of trust in his audience. He trusts them to care about this man even if he doesn’t burden us with backstory and character detail. Redford is compelling as the stoic and unemotive protagonist, refusing to overact. From beginning to end All is Lost is simply riveting.

12 Years a Slave4. 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen)

McQueen has established himself as a filmmaker who does not shy away from difficult and provocative subject matter and doesn’t pull his punches and 12 Years a Slave is no exception. It is a brutal and unrelenting look at 19th Century slavery in the American south. It is also visually quite beautiful and has a haunting score by Hans Zimmer. There is a surprising lack of cinematic explorations of American slavery and this film, written by a black screenwriter and made by a black director, could be the most important on the subject thus far.

Life of Pi5. Life of Pi (Ang Lee)

For a decade Yann Martel’s beloved novel was believed to be unfilmable, but Ang Lee demonstrated that in the hands of the right filmmaker there is no such thing. Lee’s film is visually breathtaking using digital effects to create a heightened reality. It is also a deeply spiritual film, which separates it from other lost at sea films like All is Lost or Cast Away. Also contains the best performance by a CGI tiger I’ve ever seen.

Her6. Her (Spike Jonze)

A perculiar and surreal film, Her is very much a story for our time. The story of a romance between a man and the artificial intelligence operating system of his computer, the subject matter which could have been silly had Jonze’s film not been so very sincere. Her features two brilliant but unconventional performances: one from Johansson as a disembodied voice, the other from Phoenix who for much of the film only has that voice to play opposite.

Stoker7. Stoker (Park Chan-wook)

Stoker was film I knew nothing about until I saw it and was the year’s pleasant surprise for me. Park Chan-wook’s first English language, this psychological thriller retains the director’s talent for visual storytelling and creation of tone. It is a creepy and chilling film that elicits a visceral reaction. Had its second half maintained the subtly of its slow-burning first half this could have been the film of the year. Strong performances from a trio of Australian actresses in Wasikowska, Kidman and Weaver.

Secret Life of Walter Mitty8. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller)

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a film for the dreamers, for those ordinary people who long to do something extraordinary. Stiller’s fifth feature film as a director, it contains a much stronger visual aesthetic than you would expect from a director best known as a comedic actor. It is a charming, whimsical and incredibly earnest film, and though it ventures into the overly sentimental, it is hard to begrudge it that.

Way Way Back9. The Way Way Back (Nat Faxon & Jim Rash)

Writer/director/performers Faxon and Rash had this screenplay stored up before they were brought on board to work with Alexander Payne on The Descendents for which they won an Oscar. The Way Way Back is a witty, affecting and at times hilarious coming-of-age story about a teenage boy from a troubled family who finds himself in a holiday job at a waterslide park. Sam Rockwell is at his charismatic and funny best, Allison Janney is brilliant as always and Steve Carell, one of the most likeable men in Hollywood, shows he can play a real jerk.

Captain Phillips10. Captain Phillips (Paul Greengrass)

Based on a true story, Captain Phillips is an interesting and gripping procedural thriller that is elevated by Greengrass’ strong direction and a fantastic performance from Tom Hanks. For Hanks, this could be the performance that puts him alongside Daniel Day Lewis in the three Oscars club. As the only name in the cast he carries the picture, with the post-trauma scene towards the end of the film being among his best ever work.

Not far off: American Hustle (David O. Russell), Blancanieves (Pablo Berger), Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow), Rush (Ron Howard), Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino), Prisoners (Denis Villeneuve), Blackfish (Gabriela Cowperthwaite)

The Worst Movie of the Year: Scary Movie 5. It isn’t even close. With seven years passing since the fourth instalment in this lowest common denominator franchise you have to wonder if this was really the best they could come up with? A comedy without laughs and a horror movie without scares, thank God it was mercifully short.

Cinematic Highlight of the Year: This year provided me with a number of opportunities to see great old films on the big screen for the first time. It was wonderful to see The Searchers, Alien and Buster Keaton’s The General as they were intended to be seen, but the one which stands out as the biggest highlight of the year was seeing Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder in 3D. While it was shot for that format in 1954, 3D exhibition quickly went out of fashion so it was primarily screened in standard 2D. Seeing it in 3D takes this great film to another level, breathing life into the shot compositions and creating a real sense of space and geography. It was a real treat.

Duncan McLean

Golden Globe Nominations Announced

Golden GlobesWe have arrived at the most wonderful time of the year to be a movie buff (unless you are a more high falutin cinephile who likes to think of lists and awards as being trivial and beneath them). December brings with it a flurry of top ten lists and the first round of nominations for the award season. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association has announced its nominees for the 2014 Golden Globe awards. As always the Golden Globes only give a slight indication of how things will pan out come Oscar time, particularly as the Globes divide categories between Drama and Musical or Comedy. However, we can none the less start in earnest to speculate as to who will be in the mix when Oscar nominations are announced on 16th January 2014.

Best Motion Picture – Drama

  • 12 Years a Slave
  • Captain Phillips
  • Gravity
  • Rush
  • Philomena

If this award were to go to anything other than 12 Years a Slave or Gravity it can be considered quite an upset. It will be interesting to see which way this goes. There was no other film that got quite the overwhelming response that Gravity did, but 12 Years a Slave is also a brilliant and important film which is a much more traditional ‘Best Picture’ type.

My tip: 12 Years a Slave

Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy

  • Nebraska
  • American Hustle
  • The Wolf of Wall Street
  • Inside Llewyn Davis
  • Her

Again, this would appear to be a two horse race between American Hustle and Inside Llewyn Davis, with these two films plus the two favourites from the other best picture category likely to be the four main contenders for the Oscar. The fact that Joel Coen didn’t get a directing nomination might swing things in the favour of David O. Russell’s film.

My tip: American Hustle

Best Director

  • Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity)
  • Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave)
  • David O. Russell (American Hustle)
  • Paul Greengrass (Captain Phillips)
  • Alexander Payne (Nebraska)

Where this category is usually dominated by the directors from the best drama field there is a bit more of a mix this year with David O. Russell and Alexander Payne representing the musical or comedy category. While it is yet to be seen if voters consider Gravity to be Best Picture material, there is no doubt that it is a directorial achievement and it is not without precedent to see directors rewarded for amazing technical achievements (see Ang Lee’s Oscar win last year). In all, this is probably the strongest contested field at this year’s Golden Globes.

My tip: Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity)

Best Actor – Drama

  • Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave)
  • Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club)
  • Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips)
  • Robert Redford (All is Lost)
  • Idris Elba (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom)

An interesting field featuring veterans (Hanks and Redford), breakout performances (Ejiofor and Elba) and someone who is slowly but surely becoming quite an impressive actor (McConaughey). For mine, Redford’s work in All is Lost is the most impressive acting I’ve seen this year, but it also feels like the kind of film that will get overlooked. Don’t be surprised if momentum builds behind Tom Hanks and he’s an unbackable favourite by the time the Oscars come around.

My tip: Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips)

Best Actor – Musical or Comedy

  • Bruce Dern (Nebraska)
  • Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street)
  • Christian Bale (American Hustle)
  • Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis)
  • Joaquin Phoenix (Her)

It’s great to see an old dog in Bruce Dern back in the mix and Christian Bale’s amazing fluctuating weight gets him in the frame again, but Joaquin Phoenix was so impressive in Her, performing the majority of the film only with a disembodied voice to play off, so I’d be inclined to go that way.

My tip: Joaquin Phoenix (Her)

Best Actress – Drama

  • Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)
  • Sandra Bullock (Gravity)
  • Emma Thompson (Saving Mr. Banks)
  • Judi Dench (Philomena)
  • Kate Winslet (Labor Day)

There is a bit of a usual suspects feel to this category with every nominee being a previous Golden Globe and Oscar winner. Cate Blanchett would seem hard to beat in this category unless the voters go left field for something out of left field and opt for Dench.

My tip: Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)

Best Actress – Musical or Comedy

  • Meryl Streep (August: Osage County)
  • Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Enough Said)
  • Amy Adams (American Hustle)
  • Julie Delpy (Before Midnight)
  • Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha)

The amazing Meryl Streep gets her obligatory nomination here, but this one will likely come down to Amy Adams and Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

My tip: Amy Adams (American Hustle)

Best Supporting Actor

  • Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave)
  • Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club)
  • Bradley Cooper (American Hustle)
  • Daniel Brühl (Rush)
  • Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips)

Michael Fassbender has done the best work of his career when under the direction of Steve McQueen and his performance as the violent Epps in 12 Years a Slave will likely see him edge out Brühl and Abdi for the honours.

My tip: Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave)

Best Supporting Actress

  • Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave)
  • Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle)
  • Julia Roberts (August: Osage County)
  • June Squibb (Nebraska)
  • Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine)

Lupita Nyong’o was very impressive in 12 Years a Slave, her first feature film role, and Sally Hawkins earned praise for her work opposite Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine, but 2013 has been Jennifer Lawrence’s year and her combination with David O. Russell should see her strike gold again.

My tip: Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle)

Best Screenplay

  • John Ridley (12 Years a Slave)
  • Bob Nelson (Nebraska)
  • Eric Warren and David O. Russell (American Hustle)
  • Jeff Pope (Philomena)
  • Spike Jonze (Her)

There are five very good screenplays nominated in this category but none is as bold as Spike Jonze’s for Her. His screenplay takes a scenario which could easily have been silly and makes it incredibly sincere and heartfelt and, as such, despite being an outsider I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he won.

My tip: Spike Jonze (Her)

Best Animated Feature

  • Frozen
  • The Croods
  • Dispicable Me 2

This has to be the least inspiring collection of animated films in recent memory. It doesn’t help that there is no contribution from Pixar or Studio Ghibli, the two most consistently excellent producers of animation in recent years. As such, Disney’s Frozen, an old-fashioned feeling Disney movie, is probably favourite be default.

My tip: Frozen

Best Foreign Language Film

  • Blue is the Warmest Color
  • The Past
  • The Hunt
  • The Wind Rises
  • The Great Beauty

This category lacks the out and out favourite it had last year in Amour, but there are a number of strong contenders. Blue is the Warmest Color, The Hunt and The Great Beauty have all made a bit of noise, winning numerous awards. It could go to any of those three, though Blue is the Warmest Color is probably the favourite at this stage.

My tip: The Hunt

The Golden Globes will be held on 12th January 2014


Review – 12 Years a Slave (2013)

Director: Steve McQueen

Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Sarah Paulson, Brian Blatt, Paul Giamatti, Brad Pitt

12 Years a SlaveIn 1853 Solomon Northup published his memoir 12 Years a Slave which told the story of how, as a free man living with his wife and children in upstate New York, he had been kidnapped and sold into slavery, spending the next twelve years of his life working on the cotton plantations of America’s South before finally being reunited with his family. The book was hugely influential in the years leading up to the American Civil War, exposing the inner workings of slavery and opening the public’s eyes to what it really was to be owned by another person. Now, 160 years later, British director Steve McQueen has brought Northup’s story to the screen in a film with the potential to be equally influential.

Despite being one of the defining periods of American history, antebellum slavery has not been widely explored cinematically, particularly from the point of view of the slave. The significance of 12 Years a Slave comes not only from the fact that it is a vivid portrayal of American slavery from the point of view of the slave, but also that it is the product of a the collaboration between a black British director and an African American screenwriter.

With his previous films Hunger and Shame, McQueen has established himself as a filmmaker who does not shy away from difficult and provocative subject matter and does not pull his punches. It should therefore be no surprise that his exploration of 19th century slavery is brutal and unrelenting. McQueen uses a number of long takes, holding the image and forcing us to take it all in. A lot of screen time is given to faces, allowing us to watch emotions unfold and develop within characters.

British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor delivers a powerful performance as a man thrust into an intolerable situation. Part of the appeal of 12 Years a Slave as opposed to other slave narratives for McQueen was that the narrative was the inverse of what we usually get, with our protagonist going from freedom to slavery. Having Northup start the film as a free man made him an effective surrogate for the audience. Slavery is as foreign and horrific to him as it is to us. It does, however, make for a less all-encompassing tale as in the confines of this narrative the injustice is that a free man has been kidnapped into slavery, not simply that any human being might find themself in slavery.

Northup’s story has the quality of an odyssey. This story of hope, of overcoming and refusal to surrender to injustice, is the story of Solomon Northup’s journey home to his family. It is a journey which takes place over a long period of time with constantly changing circumstances as he is sold from one owner to another, some seemingly benevolent, others ruthless.

McQueen regular Michael Fassbender plays Edwin Epps, the plantation owner under whom Northup spent the majority of his time. Fassbender is a brave actor unafraid to take on difficult characters, but the violent, hate-filled and insecure Epps might just be his most repulsive character yet.

The significance of this project, along with McQueen’s steadily growing reputation, has helped in assembling a tremendous supporting cast including the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano and Brad Pitt, who was also one of the film’s producers.

A harsh but incredibly powerful film, 12 Years a Slave is one of the finest films of the year and could already be the most important film made on this important subject.

Rating – ★★★★☆

Review by Duncan McLean