Sometimes you’ll watch a movie with lower expectations than need be. I brushed off 12 Years a Slave as probably another Oscar bait piece and maybe not as an enduring piece of cinema. I regret thinking in such a foolish way because it is quite possibly my favorite film of 2013. No other film from 2013 moved me so emotional, showed the brutality and the disgusting aspects of human nature in a way that needed to be shown but at the same time has this quiet beauty to it with long, lingering shots and gorgeous cinematography. It tells the real life story of a freeman in 1841, Solomon Northup played with such care and consideration by Chitwitel Ejiofor and tells the story of his 12 years where he is kidnapped into slavery. If Chitwitel Ejiofor didn’t give the best performance of 2013, I don’t know who did. What an incredible actor. Every shot in which his face takes up most of the frame you can see it in his eyes. The lifelessness that slavery has brought to him. How emotional broken he has become. The tears that occasional fill his eyes. It is all so incredible.
On top of that, this is easily the best ensemble cast of the year including actors such as Michael Fassbender as a brutal slave owner, Lupita Nyong’o as a mother ripped away from her children, Benedict Cumberbatch as a sympathetic (as sympathetic as a slaver owner can be) slaver owner, Brad Pitt as the only white man in the film who sees blacks as equal, and Paul Dano as an extremely brutal and completely lacking any sympathy plantation runner. It is one hell of a cast. And it allows the movie to come to life with such ease with these amazing performances. But, it isn’t just the actors that help this movie come to life, it is the score, the cinematography, and the careful direction of Steve McQueen.
The score, done by Hans Zimmer who to me is either a hit or miss composer, he is hit in films like Inception and to me is a complete miss in something like The Dark Knight Rises where the score is incredibly overbearing. The score is used in slight ways, mostly with the recurring character theme for Solomon which is a beautiful composition which to be honest, sounds similar to many things Hans Zimmer is done but fits the film’s tone with perfection. There is also plenty of tense, unnerving compositions written because this film is hard to stomach at points because of how brutal it is in depicting what are unfortunately…true events. The cinematography provides some of the most memorable aspects of the movie. Done by Sean Bobbitt, who did the cinematography for Steven McQueen’s other two features (which I have not seen) but also did it for The Place Beyond the Pines which is another favorite film of mine from this year with also beautiful cinematography. Three main aspects of the cinematography caught my eye the most: The beautiful shots of nature, the incredible length that some of the shots last for, and the incredibly well-done close-ups of many of the actors.
Those lingering shots are what make this film a risky ambition at points in which I’m sure has to do with some of McQueen’s direction. They will stay…even at parts that are hard to stomach. And it makes the movie have so much more of a lasting impression just from a simple artistic choice. It is rare to see shots linger for so long nowadays and I was throughly impressed by it. It only helps emphasize the brutality and the disgusting nature of slavery and how it is one of the worst things we have done as human beings. Never have I seen a film depict such a horrible aspect of humanity with such brutal honesty, reality, and give it the visual product it needs. Racism is still alive, don’t forgot that, and even though this movie can be taken as a singular aspect of history and is something that happened well over 100 years ago, that doesn’t change the fact. It deals with it up front and center and it needs to be. Overall, I haven’t seen a movie from 2013-or for that matter, in general-that deals with a horrible historic event and displays it with honesty and leaves such an enduring, long-lasting impact that I’m sure won’t go away long after watching-an essential piece of cinema.