Toronto 2013: 12 Years A Slave Review

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rating: 4.5

If you are an Oscar hound and festival fiend such as myself, you have likely heard of the ecstatic response Steve McQueen's newest film, 12 Years a Slave, has received on the internet. The film had a momentous response in the mountains of Telluride, where many Oscar pundits declared the Best Picture race over and done with. Then, the film made the trek north of border to Toronto, where it got an equally warm response from the more "general audience", movie-going public at TIFF, where it won that festival's People's Choice Award as the festival's best film, an award usually given to more upbeat film's such as last year's winner, Silver Linings Playbook. All of these enthusiastic responses have clearly placed 12 Years a Slave as the current frontrunner in the race for Oscar gold, but lost in all this track betting buzz is much in-depth conversation of the film itself. Obviously, part of the reason for the optimistic punditry and awards chatter is because people, prognosticators and real human beings alike, really liked and were affected by the film itself. Even so, the specific merits (and possible demerits) of the film have been far to elusive to find, but hopefully this review will do a very small part in refocusing the spotlight on the film itself, instead of just its award prospects. If you are unaware of its inspiration, 12 Years a Slave is based on a true story (turned into an autobiography of the same name) about a free African-American man, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), living in Saratoga, New York during the 19th Century. A respected family man who earns his living as a musician, Northup is convinced by two men to come down to Washington D.C. for a lucrative gig. The whole thing turns out to be a wicked ruse, as the two men have Solomon drink himself into a stupor until they deposit his body to the confines of a nefarious slaver. Despite all his protestations of his status as a freeman, he is beaten mercilessly for his defiance until he is forced into submission. Shipped to New Orleans, he is sold on the slave market to one William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). Ford is, relatively speaking, a caring slave owner who clearly knows the arrangement is wrong, but is too cowardly to speak out or fight against an institution that is so ferociously defended by the keepers of the society. After an unfortunate altercation between Northup and a malicious slave driver, John Tibeats (Paul Dano), Ford is forced to sell Northup to a vicious slave owner by the name of Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), where things go from bad to worse. 12 Years A Slave It's a remarkable story that has rightfully drawn a lot of attention. McQueen, with help of his talented cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, elegantly present the brutality of the institution of slavery in an unfussy and stark manner that lets the full horror of slavery unfold fully in the minds of its audience without pulling on any sentimental strings. It's not flashy, but it's effective. The paramount strength of 12 Years a Slave though, and the aspect of the film that makes it most deserving of all the awards chatter, is its terrific cast. The film is a veritable showcase of thespian talent, allowing its actors to display emotional extremes without ever endangering them by tempting any predilections they might have toward histrionics. As with the style of the film itself, the performances are real and sparse. With an ensemble of superb supporting turns from the likes of Paul Dano, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Sarah Paulson, and Lupita Nyong'o, practically every scene contains some riveting performance. Of course, the primary performance at the heart of 12 Years a Slave is that of Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup. Northup is, at least in terms of the film, an "everyman" character that the audience can easily identify with, but beyond being simply a cipher, Ejiofor instills a certain dignity into the character that is touching to all but the most cold-hearted human beings. It's not quite "one for the record books" as some have reported, but a fine performance nonetheless. However, the single strongest performance of the film, and the thing that will linger longest in the minds of its viewers, is the performance of Michael Fassbender. Since he exploded onto the cinematic scene in the late 2000's with films like Inglourious Basterds and his previous two McQueen collaborations (Hunger and Shame), Fassbender has been one of the most consistently top-notch actors around. Even in summer blockbuster schlock such as Prometheus, Fassbender has given award-worthy level work, but in 12 Years a Slave, he truly out does himself. Portraying one of the cruelest, sadistic slave masters ever portrayed on film, Fassbender's Edwin Epps is an obsessive, privileged SOB who shouldn't ever be in a position of even minor power but unfortunately has complete and utter control over the lives of far too many unfortunate souls. Fassbender never veers into maniacal super villain territory though, and his performance is so strong, I can't imaginable another male supporting performance topping it this year. Let's hope the Academy feels the same way. 12 Years A Slave1 There are a few points of the film that hold me back from giving it the full five-star review that many in the media have seen fit to bestow upon it. In the first third of the film, we get the briefest of glimpses into Northup's life prior to his involuntary servitude, but this feels like a token measure just so the audience always has in the back of their mind that Northup is, "a regular family man". What the film is really interested in at this point of the proceedings is chronicling the physical brutality of slavery. It's a harsh and necessary exercise, but the film takes too long to really delve into its characters, taking advantage a bit of the shock value of being the first film to portray an uncensored view of the brutality of slavery. In this way, it partially relies on a novelty factor that is somewhat similar to the visceral violence that made Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ a controversial new take often told story of the crucifixion. 12 Years a Slave though ultimately has much more depth than Gibson's adaptation of Christ's death. Particularly in its second half, as the docu-drama angle fades and the film finds the right balance between reality and cinema, this is one memorable and powerful film. While not the automatic Best Picture winner that some have eagerly declared it, if it is truly fate that 12 Years a Slave should join the pantheon of previous Best Picture winners, it's a film whose merits would increase the average quality of the vaunted Oscar club.
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A film fanatic at a very young age, starting with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle movies and gradually moving up to more sophisticated fare, at around the age of ten he became inexplicably obsessed with all things Oscar. With the incredibly trivial power of being able to chronologically name every Best Picture winner from memory, his lifelong goal is to see every Oscar nominated film, in every major category, in the history of the Academy Awards.