When the Oscar for best picture is handed out at Sunday’s 86th annual Academy Awards, we’ll work hard to convince ourselves that it means something. Because we’re a culture obsessed with winning, we need to think a movie that places first in the oldest, most respected cinematic horse race of all is the best of the year. We believe that choice says important things about the movies, the culture, and our lives.
And maybe it does. But what if the entire field says something more important? 2013 was such a good year for film that any of the nine best picture nominees would be considered a front-runner in a weaker season. Indeed, there are movies that didn’t even get nominated — “All Is Lost,” “Before Midnight,” “Fruitvale Station” — that might have been lauded or even won in other years.
What the nine movies up for best picture say — as a totality — is that the art and commerce of film remain strong even as the medium is under siege from new technologies and cultural shifts. Who goes to the movies anymore? Not you, probably, unless you make a special effort to break from your over-scheduled life. Not your kids, unless it’s a generational event like “The Hunger Games.” Anyway, everything’s on Netflix or iTunes soon enough, ready to be streamed to your 54-inch TV, laptop, or handheld.
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In the face of such apocalyptic rumblings, we have this year’s best picture nominees. They are a strikingly diverse group, mostly united only by an understated tenderness for the flawed humans at their center. “Captain Phillips” and “Dallas Buyer’s Club” turn true stories of life-and-death struggle into clear-eyed, evenhanded drama. “Philomena,” “Nebraska,” and “Her” concern themselves with average people as they define themselves against the past, the present, and the future. Only Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” is the unkind exception: It looks at its imperfect characters and brays long and loud with mocking laughter.
And then there are the three generally acknowledged front-runners for best picture: “12 Years a Slave,” “Gravity,” and “American Hustle.” It almost seems planned. Each of these films represents a different kind of movie experience, each of which is an essential reason why we go to the movies. Meaning, amusement, spectacle — these are the three legs of commercial cinema and have been for well over a century. They feed separate but equal human needs in storytelling: the urge to make sense of life’s hard complexities, the wish to escape them for a few hours, and the hardwired love of being awed — of being taken outside ourselves to a bigger stage than we thought imaginable.
How big is the stage in “Gravity”? Try the size of the universe. Alfonso Cuarón’s lost-in-space suspense drama has been faulted by some for the simplistic trajectory of its story line (Sandra Bullock’s free-floating astronaut has to get back to Earth and — spoiler alert — she does), but no one who saw the film on a giant 3-D screen can deny its immense and immersive visual power. Cuarón and his army of technicians want to put us in that spacesuit, to make us feel at a gut level what it’s like to be a tumbling mote in a field of infinity. It’s a mark of the sheer craft of “Gravity” — rendering a void on a soundstage — that some moviegoers found themselves physically ill from the experience. Others just didn’t go, leery of losing their lunch or confronting phobias bigger than most of us care to name.
That’s entertainment? With three-quarters of a billion dollars in worldwide grosses, it appears that way. More to the point, “Gravity” plugs into our yen for the cinematic big top, the three-ring megillah — our desire to see what life can’t show us but the movies can. That desire has fueled movie visionaries and hucksters alike, from the all-stops-out productions of Cecil B. DeMille (whose 1952 best picture winner was, suitably, “The Greatest Show on Earth”) to the mind-bending conundrums of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” If anything, “Gravity” is a canny fusion of the two: The Greatest Show Off Earth.
“American Hustle” wants to dazzle us, too, but with the comedy of sweet knuckleheads and inspired play-acting. David O. Russell’s film is ostensibly about the Abscam scandal of the late 1970s, but really it’s just an excuse for the writer-director to gather his favorite actors and put on a show (about putting on a show — how’s that for meta?). The movie’s a throwback to the New Hollywood of its setting, in loosey-goosey tone, lackadaisical plotting, and the rewards that can come from letting limber performers follow their instincts.
Mostly, though, “American Hustle” is straight-up entertainment — “The Sting” for the 21st century — and it works well enough to compensate for a weak third act and Russell’s leering camera moves. You have four sneaky petes working across the grain of their talents: Christian Bale lowering his intensity to stun instead of kill, Bradley Cooper essaying the empty bravado of an insecure perm, Jennifer Lawrence confirming her status as the unguided heat-seeking missile of her generation, and Amy Adams giving the film’s deepest, darkest performance as a woman whose many masks can’t hide her from herself.
Finally, there’s “12 Years a Slave.” Simply put, if most of us use movies to escape, we also understand the need for those films that won’t let us. Every generation has to come to terms in its own way with the fact of American slavery, whether it’s “Roots” on TV or “The Confessions of Nat Turner” in print. The accomplishment of director Steve McQueen, writer John Ridley, stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, and Michael Fassbender is that they render the ordeal of Solomon Northup in terms of current movie realism. Will the film seem dated? Someday. And so the story will have to be told again. As we know it must, if we’re to know who we are as a nation.
The scene in which Solomon (Ejiofor) is forced to whip Patsey (Nyong’o) goes on far too long, but most audiences understand that our bearing witness is the point. It’s not easy, and it shouldn’t be — not when we get to stand up and go home at the end of the movie. A similar impetus has galvanized best picture winners in the past, and whatever you think of “Schindler’s List,” “Dances With Wolves,” “Platoon,” all the way back to “All Quiet on the Western Front” in 1930, they are necessary mass-market histories and a culture’s hedge against forgetting.
In the end, barring an unprecedented tie, one film will take home the Oscar. It will probably be “12 Years a Slave.” That will have an impact and it will deserve to. But it bears reminding, at a time when our diversions are infinite and always at our fingertips, that the movies continue to keep their end of the bargain. They do what they do remarkably well. Our job is simply to see them and remember them. And in the case of the best picture nominees of 2013, that means all of them.Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com.