From the Online Film Critics Society press release: “The Online Film Critics Society proudly announces the recipients of the 17th annual OFCS awards for excellence in film. Steven McQueen’s ’12 Years a Slave’ was the standout winner, with recognitions for Best Picture, Best Actor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Best Supporting Actor (Michael Fassbender), Best Supporting Actress (Lupita Nyong’o), and Best Adapted Screenplay, for John Ridley’s hand in bringing Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir to the big screen.”
Normally, the OFCS results are not predictors of the Academy Awards, but this year I would expect 12 Years a Slave to dominate the awards circuit.
Sadly, there were very few viable award candidates this year from the weird genre. I 2011, my first year of voting, there was The Tree of Life; in 2012 Holy Motors was a contender. In 2010, the year before I joined, there was Black Swan and Dogtooth. This year, only conventional films were nominated, and frankly the experimental filmmakers did not do a good enough job to deserve nominations. I thought that Harmony Korine might have snuck in some nominations for Spring Breakers: James Franco definitely could have shown up among the best supporting actors, and technical awards for cinematography or editing would not have been out of the question. Not even dying could get Raoul Ruiz noticed for Night Across the Street, nor could Amy Seimetz break free from the shortlist in the Best Actress category for Upstream Color. I didn’t press for John Dies at the End or Strange Frame: Love & Sax, which are good cult movies but peculiar things not likely to impress the mainstream. Even sometimes weird directors like the Coen Brothers and Hayao Miyazaki chose to play it safe with their offerings this year; so, we were left with a rather boring slate of dramatic realism to chose from in 2013. That being said, I’m more upset about weird filmmakers failure to come up with anything worth nominating than I am with my fellow critics’ failure to nominate anything weird.
As always, I take my voting responsibility very seriously. Here is the list of winners along with my choices and a touch of personal commentary.
Winner: 12 Years a Slave
Also Nominated: American Hustle, Before Midnight, Blue Is the Warmest Color, Drug War, Gravity, Her, Inside Llewyn Davis, Short Term 12, The Wind Rises
G. Smalley’s Vote: Gravity
Comments: It was absolutely predictable that 12 Years a Slave would win Best Picture. It’s beautifully made. It’s a historical drama, the prestige genre. It’s full of outrages, without being the slightest bit controversial. What is perhaps more surprising than the success of 12 Years is the fact that there have been so few movies made about American slavery (compared to, say, the glut of films made about the equally dramatic subject of the Holocaust). The most important previous film depiction of the life of a plantation slave was the excellent 1977 TV miniseries “Roots.” 12 Years had the freedom to be much more brutal, and much more explicit about the sexual component of the “peculiar institution” of slavery. While I had a few minor quibbles about the direction and some of the acting decisions in the movie, there was nothing that prevents 12 Years a Slave from being an anything less than an honorable selection.
Personally, among the nominees, I slightly preferred Alfonso Cuaron’s survival-in-space odyssey Gravity, simply because it was more pioneering in its cosmic visuals and in its daringly minimal narrative. We’d seen bits and pieces of this in space movies before, but Gravity was a quantum leap forward, playing like the scene where Dave Bowman was trapped in space outside the airlock in 2001: A Space Odyssey if that segment had been stretched to full film length.
Still, I would have voted for the groundbreaking banality-of-evil documentary The Act of Killing if it had been nominated. Blancanieves, the Spanish silent film that sets the legend of Snow White in the world of bullfighting, would have been my second choice for Best Picture, had it been nominated.
BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
Winner: The Wind Rises
Also Nominated: Despicable Me 2, From Up on Poppy Hill, Frozen, Monsters University
G. Smalley’s Vote: The Wind Rises
Comments: It was a remarkably thin year for animation. Disney’s Frozen was the only serious competition to Hayao Miyazaki‘s atypically adult farewell film. Sentimentality nudges us to vote for Miyazaki-san, but Wind Rises, which tells the solemn story of a Japanese aviation engineer who ends up designing Zeros for the Imperial Navy, is good enough to win the award on its own (though it’s lucky to face such a weak field).
BEST FILM NOT IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE
Winner: Blue Is the Warmest Color
Also Nominated: Drug War, Museum Hours, Wadjda, The Wind Rises
G. Smalley’s Vote: Drug War
Comments: “Three-hour film about French lesbians” sounds like a punchline about the kind movie your average popcorn-muncher imagines stuffy film critics spend their time watching, but it’s the reality of Blue Is the Warmest Color. The film is brilliantly acted and far from a bad movie, but it has some issues with over-length, overindulgence, and over-sexualization (the length, explicitness, and contortionism of the love scenes ultimately detracted from the serious drama). Obviously, I would have preferred to see Blancanieves or the (also un-nominated) Night Across the Street in this spot. Of the remaining nominees the unpretentious Drug War, a Chinese police procedural that is reminiscent of the films of the Hong Kong New Wave, was the most entertaining and therefore earned my vote.
Winner: The Act of Killing
Also Nominated: 56 Up, At Berkeley, Blackfish, Stories We Tell
G. Smalley’s Vote: The Act of Killing
Comments: I’m happy to see the Society made the right decision here. I think The Act of Killing, in which grandfathers shamelessly re-enact the massacres they committed in their youth in the style of Hollywood movies, was the best movie of the year. The postmodern vérité irony bites viciously, but an unexpected dose of humanity holds out some hope for healing.
Winner: Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
G. Smalley’s Vote: Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
Comments: It seems odd that the Society would hand out so many awards to 12 Years a Slave, but overlook Steve McQueen, the man who oversaw the entire enterprise. I think Cuaron may have narrowly slipped ahead of him because of the innovation needed to tell Gravity‘s more demanding narrative.
Winner: Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
Also Nominated: Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips; Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis; Mads Mikkelsen, The Hunt; Joaquin Phoenix, Her
G. Smalley’s Vote: Oscar Isaac
Comments: Maybe it’s a prejudice, but I always favor portrayals flawed characters over renditions of heroes who are unqualifiedly noble. Ejiofor’s performance was touching. Oscar Isaac, as an irritable folksinger scrounging for gigs and a couch to sleep on for the night, embodied a far less likable character. Isaac annoys the audience, then sits on a chair and delivers a heartbreaking rendition of “The Death of Queen Jane” that could makes you cry; you feel how he channels his personal disappointments into song. Isaac’s performance makes the movie, which is otherwise a fairly minor moment in the Coen brothers canon. Had he been nominated, however, I would have voted for Robert Redford’s one man show in All Is Lost.
Winner: Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Also Nominated: Amy Adams, American Hustle; Julie Delpy, Before Midnight; Adèle Exarchopoulos, Blue Is the Warmest Color; Brie Larsen, Short Term 12
G. Smalley’s Vote: Adèle Exarchopoulos
Comments: Confession: I did not see Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, so I can’t comment on the worthiness of Blanchett’s award. As the lead in Blue Is the Warmest Color, Adèle Exarchopoulos put in a brave and often amazing performance; at one point, she holds back tears until she cries through her nose. I wasn’t overly fond of the film, but it should be a star-making turn for this young actress.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Winner: Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave
Also Nominated: Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips; Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club; Matthew McConaughey, Mud; Sam Rockwell, The Way, Way Back
G. Smalley’s Vote: Michael Fassbender
Comments: This was an extremely competitive category and although Fassbender’s chilling slaveowner affected me the most deeply, I can see any of these nominees as the winner. I do feel a little bad for Matthew McConaughey, who’s had a number of great roles in the past few years (Mud, Dallas Buyer’s Club, Bernie, Killer Joe) but always seems to be an afterthought come awards time. I suppose he will just have to cry himself to sleep on a pillow stuffed with hundred dollar bills. Had he been nominated, my vote would have gone to James Franco for his incredibly sleazy (and weird) portrayal of dreadlocked white rapper “Alien” in Spring Breakers.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Winner: Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave
Also Nominated: Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine; Scarlett Johansson, Her; Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle; Léa Seydoux, Blue Is the Warmest Color
G. Smalley’s Vote: Lupita Nyong’o
Comments: Although I have yet to catch Blue Jasmine and Her, it’s hard to imagine any supporting actress surpassing Kenyan Lupita Nyong’o's empathetic performance as the deeply-abused slave Patsy.
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Also Nominated: American Hustle; Blue Jasmine; Inside Llewyn Davis; Museum Hours
G. Smalley’s Vote: Inside Llewyn Davis
Comments: I’m not sure how my fellow critics saw Spike Jonze‘s Her—they must have all caught it at one of the four select film festivals it played. I went with Inside Llewyn Davis, almost by default. My original choice, which did not make it to the second round of voting, was for J. C. Chandor’s All Is Lost, which performs the rather amazing trick of creating unbelievable suspense with only one word of dialogue.
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Winner: 12 Years a Slave
Also Nominated: Before Midnight; In the House; Short Term 12; The Wind Rises
G. Smalley’s Vote: 12 Years a Slave
Comments: As sure a thing as it was that 12 Years a Slave would win Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay was an even more certain achievement. Born a free man, Solomon Northrup’s 1853 autobiographical account of being kidnapped and sold into slavery is turned into a gripping narrative that never seems needlessly episodic.
Also Nominated: 12 Years a Slave; Drug War; Her; Inside Llewyn Davis
G. Smalley’s Vote: Drug War
Comments: The Best Editing award traditionally goes to an action-oriented film; I thought this would be a good place to recognize the thrilling chases and shootouts of Drug War. If I had free reign to select from among the un-nominated my award would again have gone to Blancanieves, which features some joyously rapid Soviet-style montage editing that at times reminded me of a slightly restrained Guy Maddin.
Also Nominated: 12 Years a Slave; The Grandmaster; The Great Beauty; Inside Llewyn Davis
G. Smalley’s Vote: Gravity
Comments: This is another category where there will be little disagreement. Gravity was a spectacular visual achievement.