The verdict is in from Toronto, and the Oscar race now has two surefire contenders: “12 Years a Slave,” the slave-era biopic directed by British powerhouse Steve McQueen, and “Gravity,” the space survival story from Spanish auteur Alfonso Cuarón. The former took home the top prize at the festival, while the latter inspired special effects wizard James Cameron (“Aliens,” “Avatar”) to hail it as “the greatest space film ever done.” Talk about hype. In less than a month, both movies will be released nationwide, first “Gravity” on October 4 then “12 Years a Slave” two weeks later. Needless to say, I will be catching both in theaters, classes and schoolwork notwithstanding.
In anticipation for October’s arrival, we look back at a movie from each director’s oeuvre. These films exemplify the kind of daring cinematic vision that we are expecting from “Gravity” and “12 Years a Slave” based on early reviews and, promisingly, inhabit the same genres as those two upcoming films.
For McQueen, it all began with “Hunger,” a searing dramatization of the IRA protests that took place in Britain’s Maze Prison in the 1970s, launching both his career and that of actor Michael Fassbender, who’s since become the sort of liminal performer that can traverse both Hollywood stardom and avant-garde audacity with ease.
With a heightened visual aesthetic that approaches hyperrealism, “Hunger” is all about the essence of experience. A warden’s bloodied knuckles, the smear of excrement on the walls of a prison cell, an ephemeral dandelion seed floating in the presence of death – the images are alternatively shocking and beautiful, repulsive and seductive. Ultimately, the movie is about action and inaction, choices that are made and the consequences that follow. It’s political history told with a poetic, existential force, often difficult to watch but even harder to forget.
Obviously, merely retreading the aesthetic schema from “Hunger” would be less than optimal for “12 Years a Slave,” but the first movie’s strengths bode well for the kind of historical perspective the second might take. Too often, films gloss over this shameful period in U.S. history via watered-down melodrama and blockbuster sentimentality. Last year, this trend broke magnificently with “Django Unchained” and “Lincoln,” two movies that, in their own distinct ways, refuse to avert their eyes from the wrenching reality of their subject matter. It appears “12 Years a Slave” could follow suit. Expect an uncompromising look at antebellum America imbued with bleak detail and brutal violence, but also surges of humanity augmented by top-tier cinematic craft.
On the topic of craft, Cuarón’s name is always one of the firsts to pop up. His work has ranged from erotic road movie “Y Tu Mamá También” to the third installment of “Harry Potter”, but the director’s career acme arguably came with “Children of Men,” which presents a singular dystopian vision that deconstructs modern day Britain into a perpetual warzone racked by overpopulation and terrorism. In 2007, the film nabbed an Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography with its breathless steadicam sequences, which flesh out the experience of a lost world in all its moment-by-moment urgency and sadness.
The man behind the camera is Emmanuel Lubezki, a Cuarón regular who’s also responsible for shooting Terrence Malick’s most recent pictures. With “Children of Men,” the director-DP duo proved they can dazzle us with gritty, ground-level sci-fi. As things are looking currently, “Gravity” will be their high-wire dance among the stars.
Incredibly, these films are only two highlights in what’s becoming an unusually strong Fall/Winter lineup. Tomorrow marks the release of both Ron Howard’s much-anticipated Formula One biopic “Rush” and the unexpectedly well-received “Prisoners,” heralding a potential wave of acting nominations come March 2014. The tide is high for Tom Hanks’ much buzzed about performance in “Captain Phillips” as well. Throw in Ridley Scott’s star-studded “Counselor” and Scorsese’s flashy, brassy “Wolf of Wall Street” and it becomes clear that 2013’s amounting to one doozy of a year for the movies.
Jeng is a member of the class of 2016.