Monday, December 16, 2013

12 Years A Slave (2013)

WHO: Steve McQueen directed it, Chiwetel Ejiofor (above) starred in it, John Ridley adapted it from the original memoir, and Sean Bobbitt was cinematographer.

WHAT: I finally saw the film that most people who care to hazard guesses about future Academy Awards results think is likely to win to prizes such as Best Picture. I'm still sorting out my thoughts, but for the most part I was extremely impressed with the film. It's not the simplistic, pandering sainting of a historical figure that we often expect in films released at this time of year. It shows a segment of the kinds of horrors that my ancestors were in some way complicit in perpetrating upon people of African descent until less than a century and a half ago. But I found its greatest strength to be the set of questions it raises about the way different people (both blacks and whites) developed social strategies to survive the slavery system, and the moral, psychological and (for blacks) physical toll these different strategies might take on them.

Some interesting articles on the film that have been informing my post-screening thoughts on the film include Glenn Kenny's spotlight on dialogue present in Ridley's screenplay, Peter Malmud Smith's comparison of the film to Schindler's List that raises interesting points that I don't have the time presently to work on refuting, and Ann Hornaday's controversial article about modern cinematography- and videography- as relates to filming skin tones darker than Max Factor Pancake 101. Among its other problems, the latter article fails to note that 12 Years A Slave was in fact filmed on 35mm stock and not digitally.

WHERE/WHEN: Screens multiple times daily at least through Thursday at the 4-Star, Embarcadero, Sundance Kabuki, AMC 1000 and many other theatres throughout Frisco Bay.

WHY: Yesterday the San Francisco Film Critics Circle announced their awards, and the big winners were 12 Years A Slave and Gravity, which received three and four total awards, respectively. As usual, the most interesting selections were their "special citation", for the UFO-of-a-movie Computer Chess and, their (slightly diluted in impact due to a first-ever split decision) Marlon Riggs Award to Fruitvale Station writer-director Ryan Coogler and to Roxie Theatre E.D. Christopher Statton. This was also the first year the SFFCC decided to announce publicly their "nominees", a decision that for me also diminished ever-so-slightly the group's credibility as a collectively confident film-evaluation unit.  Perhaps a contradiction in terms, but you'll never catch the New York or Los Angeles critics groups releasing a memo-to-the-Academy-style listing of five finalists for each of their awards, I'd wager.

But since the SFFCC has given us the data to play with, I'll do a little. It is sometimes somewhat interesting to notice what was strongly considered, and what wasn't, by a critical consensus. I'm not going to do much second-guessing, because although I've seen all but one of the award-winning films (American Hustle) I haven't seen many of the "nominees" that ended up going home empty-handed, such as yet-to-screen-publicly-in-Frisco-Bay titles like Inside Llewyn Davis and The Wolf of Wall Street. That said, there are only a few categories in which a "nominated" title that I've seen seems to me measurably superior than a winning title that I've also seen. Splitting the Best Picture/Best Director category seems odd to me when coming from a critics' group (I guess they're not all auteurist critics, I might jokingly aside) and maybe odder when the Director winner (Alfonso Cuarón for Gravity) has more mainstream appeal than the Picture winner (12 Years a Slave). And I'd probably go along with Mick LaSalle's public disappointment that Adèle Exarchopoulos in Blue is the Warmest Color failed to beat Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine in the Best Actress category, even though I was not that excited by either movie as a whole.

The most passionate armchair critiquing of the SFFCC picks this year I'm going to engage in, which I'd probably bring up even if their nominees had not been made public, is in the cinematography category. I've mentioned before that I think the visual achievement of Gravity is better termed as "visual effects" or perhaps even "animation" than as "cinematography", and having seen Sean Bobbitt's work on 12 Years A Slave makes me feel strongly that there's an award-season "victim" of this miscategorization. Bobbitt's images, captured (like Bruno Delbonnel's for Inside Llewyn Davis) on 35mm film, are stunning. It makes me wonder how many of the critics who helped pick Gravity in this category had seen 12 Years A Slave projected on film rather than digitally.

HOW: 12 Years a Slave screens digitally everywhere except for at the 4-Star, which shows it on 35mm until Thursday, after which it will be replaced by American Hustle.

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