Marginalizing of Moral Tales

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?

  • Bobby Peru

    Agree on all Jeff about them being the two best, but it’s pretty simple — both films are being unfairly labelled as either “divisive” or “difficult” or “unrepentant” or “too much” or “hard to watch” or whatever variation thereof, and this year there are so many alternate choices that it’s easy to vote elsewhere. And very unfortunately there seems to be a lack of real passion for 12 Years a Slave, rather a more begrudging respect for its lessons and merits instead of a euphoric endorsement of its drama.

  • kwisatzhaderach

    The Oscars generally award mediocrity. Oliver! over 2001 A Space Odyssey (not even nominated!). Kramer vs Kramer over Apocalypse Now. Forrest Gump over Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption. Shakespeare In Love over The Thin Red Line. American Beauty over The Insider. Return of the King over Master and Commander. The King’s Speech over The Social Network. The Artist over just about every other film nominated that year (Moneyball, The Descendants, Midnight in Paris) Argo over Zero Dark Thirty.

    I’d much rather 12 Years A Slave and Wolf of Wall Street joined the list of artistic pictures that last through the years than be the ones that are the recipients of a lot of hoopla and statuettes and are then forgotten a few months later. When was the last time anyone mentioned Crash, The Artist, Chicago, Argo, The King’s Speech etc? All forgotten.

    • Jeff

      I think my belief in the Academy died with the The King’s Speech and The Artist winning back to back. The Artist is fucking terrible.

      • drerivas

        I agree. The Artist is fucking terrible if you hate movies. And I fucking hate movies.

    • moviewatcher

      While I don’t agree with a few of the examples you gave (especially with the blanket statement that they’re all “mediocre”), with the most obvious case being Return of the King, which is not a case of AMPAS awarding mediocrity at all, I feel you’re mostly right in your assessment.

      I’m just glad AMPAS often nominates great films, even though they rarely win anything. That’s always the saving grace for me and the reason I care about Oscars. These lists last forever and if a great film manages to get even one top 8 nomination, that alone will help it survive that decrepit thing called time.

      • kwisatzhaderach

        ‘Return of the King’ is not mediocre, but it’s hardly the best representation of film art from that year.

    • Awardsdaily

      I know, I know. It can’t be helped it seems, no matter how much people protest this – when a consensus vote takes hold it’s like they’re lifting up the golden god and trotting him through the kingdom, dropping roses at his feet. No one really thinks about it because it feels so good. But…

    • berg

      I was talking about Argo just the other day …. some guy i knew at whole foods was talking to me about it because he had just seen it …. “ah you know this film Argo” “yeah i’ve seen it”

    • Jesse Crall

      Ha, I would have gone with ALL THAT JAZZ over KRAMER & APOCALYPSE. And LEBOWSKI over anything else in 1998. And ANOTHER YEAR over KING’S SPEECH & SOCIAL NETWORK. And that’s the issue: People with edgier tastes will fracture a bit leaving a clear victor for the more down-the-middle masses (although I though think KRAMER V KRAMER is excellent; honest, intelligent & character-driven flicks deserve love even if they’re not breaking stylistic barriers).

      • Gordon Cameron

        Another Year was my favorite film of 2010, too.

        1998 I would probably go with Private Ryan. It’s a deeply flawed movie but IMO the opening is one of the greatest and most influential sequences ever put on film.

      • thevisitor967

        Agree with character-driven flicks deserving love. That’s why I’m still glad Ordinary People beat Raging Bull.

    • pretto

      Let’s be honest; all those movies you are upset about “The Artist” beating?…They don’t come up much in conversation either these days. (Seriously, The Descendents?! Most people would have to Google the title if you talked about it.)

    • JenMara66

      Argo won because Hollyweird is all up George Clooney’s ass & Ben Affleck’s ass , and people felt sorry Affleck didn’t receive a Best Director Oscar nomination .

  • bastard in a basket

    Jeff, one of the reasons I love this site is because of the passion you have for the films you love. But at some point you just have to accept that a lot of people just don’t “get it.” Gravity is named best pic by the LAFC (in a tie). How is it possible that anyone with a thinking brain can objectively think that it’s a better film than 12 Years? You just can’t wrap your head around this stuff sometimes.

    • Correcting Jeff

      “How is it possible that anyone with a thinking brain can objectively think that it’s a better film than 12 Years?”

      Because it’s actually possible?

      Gravity is a fantastic film, one that exploits the power of cinema technology in 2013 to provide the audience with an experience they’ve never had before.

      You won’t find a bigger fan of 12 Years than I, but I refuse to bring down the excellent Gravity simply because I admired the equally excellent, but very different, Cuaron film.

      • bastard in a basket

        It’s a good movie, but “equally excellent”?, you don’t believe that. And the special effects are over praised, especially when Bullock’s pod enters earth’s atmosphere and the movie starts to look like a CGI cartoon. Then you have that horrible overbearing score (Jeff is SO right about this) and that cheesy last shot of Bullock standing with the score just blasting.

        Captain Philips was better than Gravity. I was riveted to my seat by the documentary type feel of the movie. That movie feels like real life with real stakes, not like I’m watching something created in a computer. The first half hour of Gravity is mesmerizing especially the way Cuaron uses POV, but the rest is mediocre.

        But of course I expect Gravity to win best picture. That or Saving Mr. banks

        • Jeff

          I think Cuaron has paid his dues and the first 30-40 minutes are so incredible a Best Picture win would be a marked improvement over recent winners. Its not better than 12 Years performance-wise but the visuals sort of balance that out and both stories are rather manipulative.

          • VicLaz2

            How is 12 Years a Slave manipulative?

            • Jeff

              Virtually every scene beats you over the head with how horrific slavery is and does its best to make it feel revolting. Slavery is absolutely both these things but there are almost no scenes of levity that allow you to catch your breath. It is a fantastic movie to be sure there isn’t a lot of ambiguity outside of Cumberbatch.

              • VicLaz2

                So you cant handle 2 hours of tension followed by eventual triumph? Slaves couldn’t catch their breath. I’m sure by “ambiguous”, you mean ambiguous WHITE characters. The kind we’ve been trained to look for in most films about slavery. Sorry. This is a film told STRICTLY from the point of the slave. You see, what they see. When there world is confined to a few square miles and a few white faces, you don’t get ambiguity.

                In 12 years a Slave, Northrup is the audience surrogate. He, like all of us, could never know what slavery was really like. By the time This is an attempt to give the audience the physical and psychological slave experience. Yes it is a “nightmare” film.

          • Pete Miesel

            It’s trendy to bash Gravity, but it’s a technical marvel that used very clever practical effects to keep the budget low. It’s made 700 million, not bad for a movie with a two actor cast and a plot that can be summarized in one sentence. Cuaron got away with it, and deserves the kudos.

            Think of it as the makeup Oscar for Children if Men

  • Jeff

    Well the Wolf locked its cut like a week ago, Paramount is pretty much asking people to walk out of the screening and call it the film of the year, if they even get to see it. Some of the blame needs to be in their or Scorcese’s camp for the last second picture lock. “Oh yeah we have this incredibly dark comedy that runs 3 hours about unlikable people and you need to recognize it as a masterpiece RIGHT NOW.” As far as 12 Years, its a tough rewatch about things white folks like to forget with no real hero. I thought 12 Years was brilliant but much like Schindler’s List, I have no desire to see it ever again.

  • VicLaz2

    I really can’t see how any film critic can vote for Gravity over 12 Years a Slave.

    It seems as though the majority of the critic community is firmly entrenched in a geek mentality obsessed with “hipness” (movies about 25 to 40 year old white people) or well executed genre fare (Gravity). This year may see a reversal where the crotchety old Oscar voter actually making the right choice over black-rimmed glasses wearing white boy brigade.

    But alas, there is a strange aversion to films with black leads throughout award season history. There has never been a best picture winner that was solely focused on a black character. 12 Years will not break that trend.

    • bastard in a basket

      It’s also the sci-fi geek critics who were convinced Gravity was going to be a masterpiece before they saw it based on Cuaron’s very good but also HUGELY over praised Children of Men. Now they have to convince us and themselves that Gravity was the best film released this year.

  • VicLaz2

    And Goodfellas DID NOT get shafted by DANCES WITH WOLVES. Dances with Wolves is just as much of an audacious risk taking artistic triumph as Goodfellas was. Both are two of the best films ever made.

    They are pretty much equal but the last 45 minutes of Dances outdoes Goodfellas by a long mile. The “I am Dances with Wolves” scene, death of the horse and two socks, and the show stopping “I am Wind in his Hair!”scene… Seeing all that in a theater was overwhelming. Without the benefit of constant reviewing, how could you not vote for Wolves after that?

    • Pete Miesel

      Dances was very well directed, and no one saw that out of Costner.

    • Awardsdaily

      It’s not one of the best films ever made, Dances with Wolves. It has lovely moments in it but come on, that hair for starters. Secondly, it is such a monument to Great White Man who helped save Indians and Keep Land Pure. I guess it depends on where you come from and what you’re about but Goodfellas is a movie that you can watch ten times and see something new each time.

      • VicLaz2

        A movie that ends with the foreshadowing of the total decimation of a culture is not a “Great White Man who helped save Indians and Keep Land Pure.” I swear, I think people just rinse and repeat memes about films without thinking about it. Yes it is a pretty damning indictment of Manifest Destiny and how this country was built on the blood of brown people but Dunbar himself is COMPLETELY INEFFECTUAL to the outcome of the Sioux. He does not save anyone, He is only lucky enough to witness the beauty of a culture on its way out.

        Dances is no “Driving Miss Daisy” style liberal fantasy. The scene, for instance, where the Sioux rescue Dunbar with that grand heroic John Barry score blaring in the background, is a bold subversion of 100 years of Western shoot em up s where white men kill Indians. It was much needed counter-propoganda to decades of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood.

        And I can forgive the hair like I can forgive Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco playing people in their late teens/early twenties. Minor, nitpicks.

    • berg

      Two Socks gets you every time … other animal deaths in Costner films: the donkey in The Postman

    • fahrenheit290

      Agreed, totally. Dances with Wolves was on Showtime a few weeks ago. It doesn’t hold up. The 90s haircuts on the Indians. The pacing, which is not well executed. I loved the scene of Costner dancing around the fire with the wolf and Barry’s music. The scenery is beautiful (oh pretty does not = great cinematography). Overall it’s not impressive filmmaking. Surely, it was a good first effort from Costner, and it remains probably his best directing, but Goodfellas, the Copacabana shot alone trumps the entire film.

  • Guest

    I’ve accepted the fact the Oscars reward medicority. I mean what can you say about an organization where they work up passion over Argo.

    But the film critics have really let the great lovers of cinema down. They through Zero Dark Thirty overboard last year for Argo. Now they did the same for the 2 best reviewed films of the year 12 Years and Inside L Davis.

    I was a fan of Gravity but it’s not one of the top 5 films I have seen so far this year.

  • Tucker Dimpy

    I’ve accepted the fact the Oscars
    reward medicority. I mean what can you say about an organization where
    they work up passion over Argo.

    But the film critics have really let the great lovers of cinema down.
    They threw Zero Dark Thirty overboard last year for Argo. Now they
    did the same for the 2 best reviewed films of the year 12 Years and
    Inside L Davis. I know 12 won the minor film critics today but it’s clear the NY Film Critis had a strong anti 12 Years brigade that prevented it from winning several categories. And LA pretty much gave the Academy the green light to give Gravity Best Picture. Not sure they even needed it either.

    I was a fan of Gravity but it’s not one of the top 5 films I have seen so far this year. It is far better than some recent winners.

    12 Years and Her are my favorite so far this year. Also liked Inside L Davis, Nebraska, Blue Jasmine, and yes I agree Captain Phillips in terms of tension for me was > Gravity. Have no seen Wolf or Hustle.

    • bastard in a basket

      To be fair, critics were on board for ZDT last year but it was the ugly and false campaign by Senator Feinstein that destroyed its chances.

      • pizan‹ćamore

        True about the critics (largely), but Feinstein didn’t orchestrate the campaign. She was just a reactionary player in it. (ETA: That is, once the “campaign” against it started unfolding, she and the others decided it was prudent to cover their political asses.)

        • fahrenheit290

          You can thank Affleck and co. for the ZDT controversy, which magically ended right after the Oscars. Possibly even the Dreamworks team too, and the Weinstein Company, all of whom has those political connections that could ruin the public/Academy perception of the film. And they did that without one consideration of the filmmakers who spent years on the project. A total shame all around.

  • erniesouchak

    Morally definitive? Slavery: bad. Freedom: good. Yes, I guess that is definitive.

    • VicLaz2

      You think that was the point of 12 Years a Slave?

  • pizan‹ćamore

    “Morally definitive” = middlebrow.

    Winning an Oscar = rewarded by status quo.

    A film that is truly the “boldest film of the year” should neither win Best Picture nor be “morally definitive.”

  • SmaugAlert

    American Hustle will win the Oscar. Mark my words.

  • Charles Peligro

    It’s simple. Great film criticism is a thing of the past. There is no longer a Sarris, Kaufman, Kael, or Ebert. There is only Rotten Tomatoes and the superficial chatter of Twitter.

    • fahrenheit290

      Everything has become way too bureaucratic. Like the film industry itself. Anyone can be a critic these days, and the Internet rules all. Truly significant critics with taste outside of mainstream Oscar movies (look at some of their top 10 lists) are very rare. Is the NYT a last bastion? Studios have way too much influence on the reviewers, providing facetime with stars and directors ahead of year-end awards, clearly influencing their picks. The NYFCC voted to block 12 Years from winning. The LAFCA gave almost as many ties as single victors. Real indie films don’t even register, and their are few advocates among critics helping to usher in the next generation of great filmmakers. It’s a hostile world.

    • Marigny

      I believe there is some truth in this…I didn’t always agree with those critics, but they were measured and thoughtful. I feel nowadays there are the predetermined “favorites” and the chatter on twitter, RT, face-time with celebrities, studios (hello, The Artist), and producers can overwhelm other films….

      Look at how many journalists and critics had anointed American Hustle as the film to blow all else out of the water before they even saw it…or looking at a non-awards type of film, the situation with John Carter. Did it suck? Sure. It wasn’t as terrible as it was made to seem though, but the overwhelming negative buzz on twitter and through the press combined with the terrible advertising killed that movie and then ate it’s dead corpse.

  • Awardsdaily

    A consensus vote means that a lot of people have to agree – and let’s face it, great art of any kind is generally divisive. The more divisive a film the less of a chance it has to win a majority vote. I don’t get the critics this year but I do know that it’s been one hell of a year. There really isn’t a bad movie I can think of that threatens to win the big prize.

  • pjm

    “12 Years A Slave” is just not a very good film – blandly visualized, pedantic and reductive, it uses caricatures to simply reassure us that we, the enlightened people of the modern world, could never condone or even imagine a world where such things as slavery could ever happen. The only reaction it evokes is “What a horrible thing slavery was!” WAS being the operative word, not IS. It’s as simplistic and offensive as “Schindler’s List.” “Look at those horrible Nazis. Thank goodness I would never do something so inhuman, since I, of course, am a human, and they were not.” What BS.

    • thatpj

      Nailed it.

      • Diane_Chambers

        What films have you actually enjoyed this year (among those that have publicly opened)? Just curious.

        • Jeffrey Wells

          You’re asking me or someone else?

          • Diane_Chambers

            God no, it’s obvious that you have a lot of passion for various films this year.

        • pjm

          If you’re asking me, I haven’t seen many. “All Is Lost” is the best student movie I’ve seen in awhile, but that’s about it. “Frances Ha” was unbearable – a movie made by people who’ve been told they’re smart by their parents and friends too often, but apart form that, waiting to get a chance to see a few more. Scorsese’s looks interesting, if only as a technical exercise or an attempt to reassert himself as the youngest old filmmaker around.

  • bill weber

    Hunger is easily McQueen’s best film to date.

  • D.Z.

    Again, Marty’s already got his win with The Departed. And I imagine The Wolf of Wall Street is doing badly, because even a parable against corporate greed is not going to sell to people already currently screwed by it. To casual viewers, it’s just a reminder of how evil those vultures really are. As for 12 Years a Slave, maybe if they had made it a few years after Django Unchained, it would’ve had more impact.