Academy Awards

And the Best Picture Oscar Goes to… ‘12 Years A Slave,’ ‘Gravity,’ or ‘American Hustle?’

Ahead of Sunday night’s Academy Awards ceremony, our critics Marlow Stern and Kevin Fallon debate what will—and should—win the Best Picture Oscar.

We’ve reached the finale: the coveted Academy Award for Best Picture. A prize that’s been bestowed on some of the finest films in Hollywood history—Casablanca, Lawrence of Arabia, The Godfather Part II—and a plethora of forgettable ones as well (The King’s Speech, anyone?).

This year’s pundits see it as a two-horse race between Alfonso Cuarón’s 3-D epic Gravity, starring Sandra Bullock as a marooned astronaut drifting off in space, and Steve McQueen’s poignant drama 12 Years a Slave, chronicling the journey of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) from freedom to bondage and back again. The dark horse is David O. Russell’s saucy caper American Hustle, which could sneak in and steal it.

What film will achieve Oscar immortality?

Marlow: So here we are. The Big Kahuna. Now, if I was the Wizard of Oscar, I’d elect Spike Jonze’s futuristic love story, Her, as the Best Picture Oscar winner. The film, starring Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore Twombley, a melancholic, soulful romantic who falls in love with his sentient operation system, voiced by the husky-voiced Scarlett Johansson, is the film that—in this writer’s opinion—was not only the most moving film of the year, but also says the most about the times we live in; a poignant portrait of contemporary-urban ennui tackling the intersection of technology, communication, and romance. But alas, if Oscar history has taught us anything, it’s that the most prescient, thought-provoking films usually don’t win the big one (see: Dr. Strangelove, Network, etc.). And now, the Best Picture Oscar is determined by a very complex weighted system wherein the 6,000-plus Academy members rank their choices for Best Picture from 1 to 9, so the least objectionable film will usually take it home—like last year’s Argo, which probably received a lot of 2’s and not a lot of lower rankings. Still, the Best Picture winner is required to have at least 5 percent of the total votes cast in the first position. Now that this mumbo-jumbo is out of the way, let’s talk 2014. What ya thinkin’?

Kevin: I’m thinking it’s a three-way race right now, right? Unless I’ve been asleep these past few months and there’s a coterie of voters who are just really into Philomena right now, Best Picture will be either 12 Years a Slave, American Hustle, or Gravity. It’s actually quite exciting, though, right? I mean, as exciting as these things can really ever be. Usually the Best Picture winner is a foregone conclusion by this point—did anyone really think The Artist or Argo would lose?—or just a two-race—The King’s Speech vs. The Social Network, for example. It’s kind of fun that this year that there’s three verrrrrrry different movies that could all realistically take the prize.

Marlow: Agreed. And it’s been a great year overall for movies. As tickled as I was by the scene in Philomena where Dame Judi Dench is watching Big Momma’s House on cable, or that Dame Judi Dench actually utters the words “Big Momma’s House” in it, it’s got no chance. Sorry, Harvey.

Kevin: 12 Years seems like the obvious choice. How boring would it be if it won? Don’t get me wrong—it’s a good film and an important film and all that. But if we’re being honest with ourselves, wasn’t it also a little bit pedantic and preachy and maybe even kind of exploitative? I feel like I can’t be the only person who feels that way. Actually, I know that a lot of people were turned off by the movie, calling it “torture porn,” or annoyed by the excessive Oscar-ness of it all, which is why I don’t think it will win. Like you mentioned with Argo, it helps that a film is liked a lot by a lot of people—ranked 2 or 3 on the ballot—more than liked a lot by a few people and hated by just as many. 12 Years falls in the latter category, while Gravity undeniably falls in the former. I’m hoping and praying that American Hustle is in the latter category alongside 12 Years, too. It was a fun and ambitious and sexy little film with a lot of wigs and shiny dresses and boobies to look at, but one that I find laughable in the conversation with Gravity, 12 Years, Her, Wolf of Wall Street, and the rest of the Best Picture contenders.

All of this is to say, Gravity will win… right?

Marlow: I enjoyed 12 Years a Slave—well, “enjoyed” isn’t the right word, but I found it very moving. The “torture porn” allegations levied by the wacky Armond White and others were a bit silly because how else could you accurately portray the slave experience without including some very gruesome imagery? My issue with McQueen’s oeuvre, and this extends to Shame and parts of Hunger as well, is that as a visual artist, he’s very seduced by images. He holds shots for minutes, his camera lingering on his subject—the scene where Solomon Northup (Ejiofor) is hung on a tree or the closeup on Northup toward the end of the film—to elicit a sympathetic reaction from the audience. It’s a neat trick, but a manipulative one as well. There’s also, in much of McQueen’s oeuvre, an image-narrative disconnect. Yes, the films are imbued with lush and horrifying imagery, but much of it is just that—imagery—much of which is emotionally hollow. But the performances and lensing are top-notch here. The preferential ballot will definitely favor Gravity, which I felt was a superior film anyway. The one hiccup with Gravity is that many Academy members indulge in Oscar screeners instead of attending screenings in cinemas, which could hurt Cuarón’s film since, with its cutting-edge 3-D, it was meant to be seen in the theater. But I’ve heard through the grapevine that a lot of Academy members have turned out for Gravity in theaters, and that Cuarón has been a real charmer on the awards circuit—shaking lots of Academy hands and regaling them with fun Q&As.

Kevin: Cuarón is adorable. Really. I know it shouldn’t matter, but it kind of really does, I think. At the very least it doesn’t hurt. When Cuarón won the Golden Globe, he was so funny and cute and personable and humble and all those things you want someone to be when they win awards. He’ll have the chance to be just that again on Oscar night—he’s as much of a shoo-in as there is for Best Director—but I think his charm offensive also really bolsters Gravity’s chances for Best Picture. It’s a lot easier to vote for people that you like.

Marlow: Agreed. Really nice guy, and Cuarón’s got the Best Director Oscar in the bag after winning the DGA. Only seven times since the DGA’s inception in 1948 has the winner not also taken home the Academy Award.

Kevin: And just to be clear, I’m not trying to disparage anything about 12 Years a Slave. It’s a wonderful movie, but not a perfect, “best” picture. A good movie should feel seamless, transport you from beginning to end to the world it’s depicting without ever wanting you to leave. The writing, the directing, the acting, and, maybe most importantly, the editing are all responsible for making that ride so seamless, so transcendent. That’s the total package that Gravity has that 12 Years is lacking. At a brisk, 90 minutes, Gravity is a master class not just in technical achievement, but in judicious editing. 12 Years, on the other hand, had more than a few stretches where I was wondering if it would be rude to take out my phone and play a few games of Candy Crush to help move the time along faster.

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So what do we think? Is Gravity for sure going to win? Could Hustle or 12 Years squeak out a victory instead? Or am I totally off the mark and we’re in for an upset of Crash-like proportions? “Best Picture goes to…Captain Phillips!

Marlow: Oh, goodness. Unlike last year, there’s no overwhelming wave of guilt that’s washed over the Academy for denying a George Clooney-produced Ben Affleck film a Best Director nod. It’s really a mystery at this point. American Hustle had a lot of momentum after taking home the Golden Globe (for musical/comedy) and the SAG, while 12 Years a Slave has taken home the BAFTA, Golden Globe (for drama), and tied with Gravity for the PGA. The prevailing opinion is that we’ll have a Crash/Brokeback Mountain split a la ’06, where they split Best Picture and Best Director, with Cuarón taking director and 12 Years taking picture. That very well could happen, but my money is on Gravity taking both. It is, like we said, the least objectionable film of the bunch, in addition to being the most worthy of the prize.