Tommy Lee Jones has directed a Western so profound that you may need to see it twice. While he plays a claim jumper that makes beef jerky look soft, the movie really focuses on Hilary Swank’s frontier spinster and the fate of women in the West. It’s more feminist than Kelly Reichardt’s poky Meek’s Cutoff, and definitely more about real women than Clint Eastwood’s hooker-heavy Unforgiven. We are so far away from telling all the stores of women in the West — and this is a great one. Also, Jones has learned a few things since his brilliant and trying Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada: keep the movie at two hours and give it a pronounceable title.
Resounding applause. A humble speech name-checking the requisite agent, filmmaker, studio executive, and the Academy. “For all of them, all I can say is a very special thank you.” And in that rather unremarkable way, history was made as Sidney Poitier broke through and won Best Actor for “Lilies of the Field” at the 1964 Academy Awards.
Fifty years after that watershed moment, Sunday’s historic Best Picture win for “12 Years a Slave” was remarkable in that same unremarkable, quietly dignified way. A film about the singular journey of a black man — directed by a black man and starring a mostly black cast (both Best Picture firsts) — simply fulfilled its promise as a Very Important Film, The Oscar Favorite. “12 Years” was pegged as the top Academy Award contender from its debut at last September’s Toronto International Film Festival, and it was a position the film never shook in a year hailed by the Washington Post as “a flat-out, stone-cold, hands-down spectacular year in movies,” a year that saw the makeup of the Motion Picture Academy become younger and more colorful.
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With each win along the road to the Academy Awards, “12 Years a Slave” delivered.
And while “12 Years” did not score the most trophies Sunday, it took home the big prize as Steve McQueen, who also directed, and fellow producer Brad Pitt (winning his first career Oscar), were among those collecting the statuettes for Best Picture. Its other wins included Best Adapted Screenplay for John Ridley and Best Supporting Actress for astonishing newcomer Lupita Nyong’o.
The in-your-face, disturbing drama recounts the true story of Solomon Northup, an American freeman kidnapped and sold into the most brutal bondage in the antebellum South. Difficult subject matter that no doubt turned off some filmgoers just as it turned off some Academy voters (a few of whom went public in the days before the ceremony admitting they couldn’t bring themselves to watch).
The film grossed about $130 million worldwide, considerably less than “Gravity’s” $700 million-plus haul. But McQueen’s film embodies the kind of highbrow material that allowed the Academy to pat itself on the back. This is a film already deemed “impactful” enough to become part of the standard high school curriculum.
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As much as the industry appreciates the bottom line, its members like to use the Oscars to serve the public, in this case bringing a relatively little-known chapter in American racial history to a much broader audience.
Fox Searchlight picked up on this sentiment, reflected in the distributor’s recent marketing campaign and its simple two-word tagline: “It’s Time.” Time for what? For a tough look at the Peculiar Institution, and a movie that puts the African-American experience front and center. And it didn’t hurt that the film had Pitt as producer, co-star and cheerleader-in-chief. As he told a Toronto audience: “If I never get to be in a film again, this is it for me.”
Back at the Princess of Wales Theater in Toronto at the Canadian premiere, McQueen closed out the night, saying: “There are actors and there are artists. These are artists: surprising, thrilling, dangerous and brave.” Clearly the Academy agreed… and followed the script to the end.
“Two things could happen tonight,” host Ellen DeGeneres quipped at the top of the show. “’12 Years a Slave’ could win Best Picture. Or you are all racists.”
Poitier arrived onstage Sunday to a thunderous ovation, accompanying Angelina Jolie to present the award for Best Director. It underscored a legacy that extends not just to “12 Years a Slave’s” Best Picture win, Nyong’o’s triumph in her first feature, and the nomination for Chiwetel Ejiofor in the title role. Somali native Barkhad Abdi got a nomination for Best Supporting Actor in “Captain Phillips.” Add to that the principal players in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” “Fruitvale Station,” “42,” “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” and “Blue Caprice,” and it has been a strong year for people of color at the movies. The Academy acknowledged it needed to diversify its membership and inducted a new class accordingly.
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That said, outspoken actor Isaiah Washington is among those not ready to declare a complete racial victory just yet. “Killers and slaves, butlers and maids: it sounds like it’s going to be a great Oscar night for people,” Washington, who played a serial killer based on Beltway Sniper John Allen Muhammad in “Blue Caprice,” and did not see any Oscar attention despite a fine performance, told Yahoo earlier this season.
While “12 Years” took home the big prize, another filmed shared the limelight. “Gravity” scored the most awards, led by Best Director for Alfonso Cuarón, and represented a major moment for the much-maligned science-fiction genre.
“2001.” “Star Wars.” “Close Encounters.” “Alien.” “ET.” “Avatar.” Dinged by sci-fi’s reputation as low-brow — a relic of its roots as B-movie 1950s popcorn fare — not one of those films, despite near-unanimous critical acclaim and mainstream success, was deemed significant enough to earn the kind of Oscars that validate a genre.
After Sunday, however, sci-fi matters.
Like “12 Years,” Gravity exploded on the scene in Toronto, as Cuarón’s thriller about an ill-fated space mission starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, took hold of the public imagination, soared and never fell back to Earth.
With a 97 percent fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes and fueled by mind-blowing 3-D visual effects, “Gravity” has been a success by any measure, with a leading seven wins on Sunday, including Cinematography, Film Editing, Visual Effects, Sound Editing, and Sound Mixing. Cuarón, who also shared the film-editing award, became the first Mexican filmmaker to win Best Director.
While “12 Years” and “Gravity” cashed in their early momentum with a clutch of gold on Sunday, “American Hustle,” the third member of what had been a three-horse race, fizzled in the home stretch.
Only a year after his “Silver Linings Playbook” was nominated then largely ignored, David O. Russell’s flashy period caper earned a whopping 10 nominations, with A-list stars Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams, Christian Bale, and Bradley Cooper gaining nominations in each of the acting categories. But at the end of the night, “Hustle” came up empty.
Notably, “American Hustle” premiered later in the season, well after Toronto. It entered the fray after frontrunners had already established themselves. And not only did it fail to make up for lost time, it was also bested by another early entry: “Dallas Buyers Club.” The moving drama about an unlikely AIDS activist rode outstanding performances from Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto dominated the male acting awards, along with a third statuette for Best Makeup and Hairstyling.
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In addition to “American Hustle,” high-quality films “Nebraska,” “Philomena,” and “The Wolf of Wall Street,” the latest flashy collaboration between Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese, were also shut out.
In the end, 2013 was a vibrant and competitive year, where movies in space and earthbound, comic and tragic, arty and action-packed competed. The Best Actress category reflected a rise in strong roles for mature women, while the battle for the Best Actor was so competitive that many deserving performances (Tom Hanks, Robert Redford, Oscar Isaac, James Gandolfini) didn’t even sniff a nomination.
Even President Obama joined the discussion at the national water cooler, hosting a series of screenings at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
To quote Poitier from 50 years ago, 2013’s year in cinema deserves “a very special thank you”: movies still matter — and are essential to the American dialog about who we are now, and how we define ourselves in the future. We have the capacity to both reach for the sky in the future, and face down our darkest demons in the past.
I had a great time collaborating with Marc Istook, Amy Paffrath and Lindsey Calla on the Yahoo Movies video event:
In honor of the Oscars on March 2, I’m pulling up some of my Awards Season interviews, like this one of Oscar frontrunner Cate Blanchett: Between performing in "The Maids," and dining with her three sons, Cate Blanchett, 44, could be mistaken for another multi-tasking mother, struggling to juggle career and family. But in Blanchett’s case, the load also includes the burdens of being an early Oscar frontrunner – again – this time for playing the title character of Woody Allen’s latest, "Blue Jasmine." In this film, Blanchett plays a New York socialite forced to move in with sister in San Francisco after her shyster husband’s financial empire collapses. Blanchett’s character is a tragicomic cross between Blanche Dubois from "A Streetcar Named Desire," a character she played at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2009; the wife of Bernie Madoff; and yet another fluttery, neurotic chip off the Allen mold.
How much of Jasmine really is Blanche? I sat there waiting for Bobby Cannavale’s character to rip off this T-Shirt and ravage her. (He never does.) "Streetcar" was a while ago, there was never any discussion with Woody about that at all. Obviously, there are parallels in the set-up. Jasmine is a grand character and she’s deluded. Also, the fact that Jasmine has difficulty navigating the fine line between reality and fantasy, the world is too horrifying and her social shame, that’s something that she and Blanche share. But the way this story unfolds is very contemporary. It has the rhythm and tone of a Woody film. To try to overlay one character over the other would be futile.
Jasmine is so thin-skinned and emotionally porous; did you take the character home with you? My children were in town with me and they weren’t interested in meeting Jasmine at the dinner table. You have to shed one thing and move on. When the character is so well-drawn and her set of experiences is so entirely different form your own, the leap is easier. Still, there is a certain feeling and texture that overhangs. I love San Francisco as a city, but I was psychologically ready to go to New York for happier days.
RELATED: ‘Blue Jasmine’ Premiere
There’s already Oscar buzz for your performance: do you take that in stride? Oscar? That’s nice but there are a lot of movies coming out. My focus has been the production of "The Maids" in Australia. Not long after I talk to you I’m going to get in my pajamas and see my children.
You have three sons with your husband, the playwright and director Andrew Upton. Do you try to shelter your children from your career, or immerse them in your world? We don’t quarantine them from what we do. Andrew and I run a theater company. They’re backstage. It’s a fun place, full of play and adventure. They also see the hard work that goes into the production department and see the commitment. They watch the set being bumped in. They see the hard work behind the outward glitz of it all. They don’t see just the product, they see the process. I think that’s interesting and they enjoy it.
Did that carry over to the set of "Blue Jasmine?"
You look at all of Woody’s films: there’s a chemistry about the ensemble. The kids see it’s never just one person. Everybody has to be on, including the cinematographer and the focus puller. It’s a communal focus.
Even though it’s an ensemble, this is a movie, like "Annie Hall," with a woman’s name in the title. It revolves around your character and her complexities. Jasmine’s like so many women who’ve fallen from grace. Hopefully I’ve presented her warts and all. Hopefully, in the end, her naiveté and how deluded she is humanizes her. There’s no malice, there’s just an incredible amount of pain, damage and delusion. Still, it’s not all heavy. Just look at the sister’s names: Ginger and Jasmine sound like a Thai restaurant.