I don’t believe that the two finest, boldest and most morally definitive films of the year are Steve McQueen‘s 12 Years A Slave and Martin Scorsese‘s The Wolf of Wall Street — I know that they are. And yet the critics groups, so far, don’t seem to fully get this. Or maybe they do but they’d rather not. They haven’t been dismissing these masterpieces — everyone is respectful — but they’ve been kind of half-blowing them off and certainly not giving them the love they deserve. The Scorsese especially. Both films should be standing tall and proud on the mountaintop right now. Critics, guild members and film buffs alike should be bowing and cheering, but they seem to be hedging somewhat. Responses have been mixed and fluid and less fervent than initially anticipated.
I was euphoric when I came out of The Wolf of Wall Street and so far…well, some agree with me at least. I knew I’d seen a masterpiece when I first caught 12 Years A Slave in Telluride and now…what has happened exactly? I know about all the grumbling by long-of-tooth Academy members about how they respect it but don’t like it, blah blah. But why have the critics done a slight but noticable fade on Slave?
I think it’s fair at this stage of the game to ask Vulture‘s Kyle Buchanan, who famously declared three months ago in Toronto that the Oscar race was all but over after seeing 12 Years A Slave, to explain what might be happening.
Wolf and Slave couldn’t be more different in their tones, stylings and basic attitudes, but both are appalling, at times incredible-seeming portraits of moral malignancies eating away at the social fabric of this country. They both say “can you believe that determined, willful people got so caught up in their economic conumdrums that this kind of cruelty, insensitivity and debauchery not only happened but became absolutely common?” No other films have even attempted to deliver a Moral Tale with the mixture of artistry and blunt impact of these two, and yet…I just don’t get it, I suppose. I figured by now that Slave or Wolf would have hit the Best Picture jackpot by now with a major film-critic group. True, the New York Film Critics Online have given Slave their Best Picture prize and that’s fine, but a few days ago I was a bit more than half convinced that either McQueen’s or Scorsese’s film would take the top prize from the New York or LA or Boston film critics, or from the National Board of Review.
Nobody is a bigger fan of the films that have done well on the awards beat (I’m especially impressed with Spike Jonze‘s Her) but I’m a bit perplexed about the two strongest bulls-eyes of the year coming up empty-handed thus far. I realize that Scorsese’s film is only starting to screen and settle in among industry types, but everybody knows Goodfellas got shafted when Dances With Wolves won the Best Picture Oscar almost 23 years ago — everybody agrees this was a mistake. And yet this kind of history is repeating itself. If anything Wolf of Wall Street is Goodfellas reborn on some form of aesthetic steroids, cocaine and quaaludes — it’s Goodfellas on Wall Street by way of Fellini Satyricon, and people are once again going “uhm, yeah…I need to think about it but I didn’t like the characters very much.” What?