First of all, remind yourself that “Best Picture” is not a certificate of value passed down by God. It is a construct, and a con, dreamed up by the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (which never had anything to do with God or academia) as part of a suggestion that the film business has attempted to make “good” pictures, or even the “best.” The business was always out for profit, and these days the results of that are usually determined in the first weekend of release. Such numbers may be lied about in the short term, but generally time sorts out the real money from the paperless kind. So Gravity, a film about the most fanciful experience anyone could imagine, was a hit this year, beyond the expectations of the people selling it. If it cost $100 million, its domestic gross is already more than $250 million and climbing. Whether the picture has what we might call thematic or moral gravity is a different matter. Gravity is as much to do with space, movement, and jumping as Fred Astaire; but Fred was never nominated for Best Picture.
Those other gravities have never been strong in daily life at the Academy (when an institution presents a humanitarian award, you know it has a bad conscience), but like any business enterprise set on making money it welcomes the suggestion of a higher calling, and has been known to push Best Picture honors in that direction. This uncharacteristic and generally unwholesome high-mindedness has a candidate in 12 Years a Slave. By making a fuss of that film, the business may distract us and itself from the fact that slavery might have been a topic for a picture seventy or a hundred years ago. What a follow-up to the alleged racism of The Birth of a Nation it would have been if D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance had been about slavery. Let us also put aside feeble assertions that slavery has been touched before—in Mandingo, or, more ludicrously, in Django Unchained (which only displays the self-imprisoning fantasies of Quentin Tarantino). 12 Years a Slave shows the real thing, made by Brits for the most part, horrible, painful, but necessary—at last. It acts on the assumption that slavery is a bigger topic than film-making, so it is not a spectacular, innovative, or “dazzling” picture. It doesn’t believe it needs to be. It seems to me that as a source of self-respect and moral gravity, it should be the favorite for Best Picture. In which case, there need not be another movie about slavery for a hundred years (though probably the subject will abide patiently).
American Hustle, by contrast, is an unnecessary but very entertaining film, and in the final analysis, Hollywood has always known that entertainment is its prime necessity. This film claims to be aware of a real financial scandal in the America of living memory. That is a sham, the wisp of chiffon to garb a film that is nakedly dedicated to letting cool actors run riot. Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, and Jeremy Renner have a ball in the film, and we are encouraged to kick it around with them. In all the levels of humor in American Hustle, not the least is the mocking thought that anyone might care about or be indignant over the damage of financial fraud. In the end, the film’s ethic coincides with its raison d’être: we are all actors, so put on a good show.
The Wolf of Wall Street seems to come from a similar direction, but its satire is so flagrant and gross that one begins to discern an audacious attempt to demonstrate that we are by now so accustomed to financial fraud and deceit that we neither care about nor believe in correctives. It is a part of us. The Wolf is the most dangerous and subversive film by Martin Scorsese, and it makes fun of the fact that he actually once won Best Picture for the endlessly brutal and monotonously generic The Departed. This is a real movie, but probably too easily dismissed as “unserious.” I suspect that in twenty years or so it will look so much better than all the other films I have discussed here so far. And that’s the moment to remind you that you cannot trust Best Pictures. Over the decades, that award has gone to movies you would not sit through today, and which reek of humbug, archaic attitudes, and the remorseless exposé of history: Mrs. Miniver, Going My Way, Gentleman’s Agreement, The Greatest Show on Earth ... Patton, Rocky, Kramer vs. Kramer, Gandhi ... The Departed, The King’s Speech, Argo. (I imagine that I have by now offended 98 percent of my readership.)
Not too much needs to be said of the other Best Picture nominees: Her I regard as a frivolous and inane dare; Nebraska is a thoroughly decent, dry, austere picture, Chekhov in the Midwest, and nominated to be overlooked; Philomena opts for Dame-school acting (and gets it from Judi Dench) rather than excoriating fury—it is a small, mundane anecdote worth doing only if one is brimming with anger at the behavior of a well-known Church; Captain Phillips is a compelling adventure in which the technology of container ships requires an automatic pilot—it is effective and simple-minded, and offers a vivid Somali pirate without being at all interested in his point of view. The only other nominee that is more than fodder, I think, is Dallas Buyers Club, an HIV weepie by most standards were it not for the unbridled commitment of Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto. That’s the dark horse in the nine. It will win supporting actor for Leto; it could carry McConaughey to glory. And those emotional energies can justify themselves in the name of a good cause, albeit one that Hollywood is twenty-five years late in discovering.
Of course, earnest pursuit of Best Picture does not have to confine itself to the nominees. The absence from the list of Saving Mr. Banks and Inside Llewyn Davis might be produced as proof of adult intelligence, if you like. But that same self-righteousness then has to explain the way Blue Jasmine and All Is Lost were omitted. Wherever we put Blue Jasmine in the category of Woody Allen films, it happens to be the one recent film about financial fraud that shows unmistakable human damage. Jasmine herself is neither smart nor pleasant, but her life is broken in pieces and there is no hollow remedy in sight. Blue Jasmine may be the closest Allen has come to an honest film about unlucky and wretched people—as a rule, against all the evidence and his own rubbery gloom, he insists on charm and luck.
Why All Is Lost was lost is harder to credit. Again, I suspect time will reveal the picture for its full worth, just as it will be sustained by the mounting career of its director, J. C. Chandor. Were audiences and Academicians put off by seeing just one person in the picture, no talk, and an apparently certain result? Were there no longer enough yachtsmen in the Academy? Or could it be that, over the years, Robert Redford has earned enough hostility in the film world to merit a comeuppance? Perhaps you are astonished by such a suggestion, but that only helps to show how inadequate much film journalism is.
If I were to speak as the opinionated critic, I would say that The Wolf of Wall Street is the best film of the nine, and the best mainstream film of the year. Of the nine, it and American Hustle are the only ones I look forward to seeing again. But I think the Best Picture Oscar will go to 12 Years a Slave to an ovation full of dignity, self-forgiveness, and piety. Meanwhile, in and around the city where the Oscars are delivered, the conditions of valet-parking, waiting on tables, limo driving, gardening, child-minding, housekeeping, and picking vegetables in a drought, plus acting in movies and other forms of exploitative employment, will carry on without so much as an uplifted eyebrow. But few in America believe that servitude of any kind is a feature of our economics, where some people have and some don’t. And those who don’t are punished for their failure. When 12 Years wins, it would be piquant if someone receiving the statuette could say that, by and large, the honoring of black work has been just a myth in the smooth course of inattention and hardship. Ask Cuba Gooding Jr. and Forest Whitaker how much their Oscars did for them. Some people are concerned for Whitaker this year because he and The Butler were ignored. Others see that neglect as an act of kindness. The thing for which Whitaker is being criminally overlooked is that he helped produce Fruitvale Station—a revelatory independent picture that has grossed more than $16 million. I don’t know exactly how little it cost, but its profit ratio must exceed that of Gravity. It was not nominated—and few realists considered that it might be. But how can you take a list of nine nominees for Best Picture seriously if it excludes All Is Lost, Fruitvale Station, The Place Beyond the Pines, Blue Jasmine, Blue Is the Warmest Color, Stories We Tell, The Selfish Giant,and Spring Breakers?
David Thomson is the film critic for The New Republic and the author, most recently, of Moments That Made The Movies (Thames & Hudson).