It's the kind of validation "12 Years a Slave" has been
earning from experts, critics, audiences and the film industry
for six months now. Even so, the acclaimed drama may falter in
the final test, losing out on the most coveted of movie prizes,
the Academy Award for best picture.
The film from British director Steve McQueen appears to be the
frontrunner for film's highest honor at Sunday's ceremony but
has at least three factors conspiring against it: another
high-quality, groundbreaking movie called "Gravity," the tricky
math of Oscar voting and the film's own brutal depiction of
"I think it is a hard film to watch," said Stevenson. "One of
the things I think Steve McQueen does extremely well is capture
the violence of the institution."
That unflinching portrayal of a real American story, that of the
free black man Solomon Northup who is tricked and sold into
slavery, may win on the gravitas scale. But sometimes the
6,000-plus voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts
and Sciences just want to reward enjoyable entertainment and
"Gravity" gives that in spades.
If this year's nine best picture nominees add up to the
strongest year for film in recent memory, they also have
injected a good dose of uncertainty into Hollywood's biggest
night. Voters had a good and varied lot from which to choose,
with big successes such as "American Hustle" and "The Wolf of
Wall Street," and smaller films "Nebraska" and "Philomena."
"In the 12-13 years that I have been doing this stuff seriously,
I can't remember a best picture race in which there was less
certainty than there is this year," said Scott Feinberg, awards
analyst at The Hollywood Reporter.
Over at the other trade publication, Variety, awards editor Tim
Gray said that "more than ever, I'm totally flummoxed."
"I think best picture is between '12 Years a Slave' and
'Gravity' but I wouldn't bet money on that," Gray said.
In a telling sign of the tight battle, the two films had an
exact tie in one of the most reliable predictors of the Oscar
best picture, the Producers Guild Award.
The heightened drama around the big prize could give viewers an
extra reason to tune in to the live ABC telecast of the
glamorous event, hosted this year by comedian Ellen DeGeneres.
The cliffhanger category also stands in contrast to more
predictable outcomes in the top acting races. Cate Blanchett
should win best actress for "Blue Jasmine," while Matthew
McConaughey is favored for best actor for "Dallas Buyers Club"
and co-star Jared Leto has a lock on best supporting actor.
The best supporting actress category could see favorite Lupita
Nyong'o, the slave Patsey in "12 Years a Slave," upset by
Jennifer Lawrence's loopy wife in 1970s caper "American Hustle."
For best animated film, the tale of Nordic princesses "Frozen"
is expected to give the Disney Animation Studios its first Oscar
in that category since it was added in 2002.
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"American Hustle" and "Gravity" lead nominations with 10 nods a
piece, followed by "12 Years a Slave" with nine. But if the best
picture award were decided at the box office, "Gravity" from Warner
Bros. and Mexican director Alfonso Guaron would be the winner.
The outer-space thriller starring Sandra Bullock, for which Cuaron
pushed the technical and visual effects boundaries, has brought in
$270 million in North America and $703 million worldwide. That's
nearly as much as the $780 million earned collectively by the nine
best picture nominees in the U.S. and Canada. For his feats, Cuaron
is favored to win best director.
"12 Years a Slave," in comparison, has pulled in $49 million at the
domestic box office, a respectable figure for a hard-to-watch
picture that features bloody whippings, lynchings and evil slave
Even the studio feared members of the Academy might skip it,
compelling Fox Searchlight Pictures to goad them into seeing the
film with ads during the Feb 12-25 voting period showing slaves
embraced with the tagline "It's time." Some Oscar watchers said the
ambiguous phrase could also be seen as shaming voters.
The voting system for best picture also complicates the fortunes of
the slave drama. It is a so-called preferential ballot in which
members rank their top films rather than vote for just one and the
consensus can emerge from films that are many people's second or
But if history is a lesson, the Academy voters should go for the
more serious subject matter.
"They generally are not looking to just reward the most fun movie,
they are looking to reward the movie that has something meaningful
to say," said Feinberg.
"And if that is the case this year, the winner would clearly be '12
Years a Slave.'"
The Academy would also make its own history with that choice: "12
Years a Slave" would be the first best picture from a black director
in 86 years of awards.
(Additional reporting by Eric Kelsey;
Editing by Ken Wills)
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