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December 30, 2013

12 Years A Slave

It’s a strange thing, that what seems like it must be Steve McQueen’s most personal project feels somehow less true to him than the films that preceded it. Perhaps it’s too early to be ascribing a style to McQueen’s work, but there’s an accessibility to 12 Years A Slave that almost seems designed to make it more palatable to the awards season crowd. And yet it dampens the resolute power with which McQueen commanded Hunger and Shame, like he’s on best behaviour, not to serve the story but to serve the season. This is not, then, the best film of the year. It’s not even Steve McQueen’s best film. But it might be his most likely to resonate.

In the end, we end up with some kind of compromise, in fact, because it’s in the moments when McQueen does discard his restraint that 12 Years A Slave is truly made. When our beleaguered hero is strung up for doing a good job, and McQueen’s shot holds on him, in his agony, for longer than we can bear, and them some. When Michael Fassbender’s demented plantation owner takes the whip to Lupita Nyong’o’s Patsey with such ferocity that we feel it might break the screen. If the approach is somehow more traditional, the effect is no less demanding. Solomon Northup’s 12 years were brief compared to the lifetimes served by those born into bondage, but we can be in no doubt that the acts related had no right to exist for a second.

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The 2013 Top Ten

After a devastating summer of almost total mediocrity I’d nearly given up on 2013. No amount of love for bombast and spectacle could forgive the embarrassing, cynical cash-grabbers we endured during this blockbuster season. But as we reach the end of the year, a lot has changed. I wouldn’t like to make a call on this year’s Best Picture winner right now, because I can think of at least 10 candidates all in with a pretty good shot. If push came to shove I might lean towards my number 10 entry below, and it nearly didn’t make it onto my list. I reserve an honourable mention for Mud, Jeff Nichols’s wonderful ray of light earlier in the summer, which slipped off after a re-viewing of 12 Years a Slave.

My methodology is a little unusual – I want to include the year’s awards stock, but I also want to work off the UK release schedule. I follow my variation of BAFTA rules: any from the 2013 release calendar, plus those that have qualified for BAFTA releasing between Jan 1st and Feb 14th 2014, and excluding any that did a similar qualifier for last year’s awards.

10.12 Years a Slave12 Years A Slave

Steve McQueen has never been closer to an Oscar – nor less Steve McQueen-y – than with 12 Years a Slave. Black history seems to have been the dominating theme of 2013, with Django Unchained (my last number one) leading us into the year. The Butler and the Nelson Mandela biopic Long Walk to Freedom have both been set up to run this awards season too. McQueen’s film outshines them – by far – though it’s safer than his previous artistry. More palatable. I think it might have been higher on my list if it had been similar in tone to McQueen’s previous. Honestly, I feel I learnt more about this world from Django Unchained. But a heart-wrenching narrative, and the outstanding thesping can’t be ignored.

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