’12 Years a Slave’ is major Oscar contender after taking Telluride by storm

A week before its official world premiere at the Toronto film festival, “12 Years a Slave” was screened at Telluride to rave reviews that push it to the forefront of Oscar contenders.

Fox Searchlight was savvy to sneak this powerful picture at this low-key fest as it now heads into TIFF with the kind of buzz that will make it stand out among the nearly 300 titles being screened there. Indeed, three of the last five Best Picture champs — “Slumdog Millionaire” (2008), “The King’s Speech”(2010) and “Argo” (2012) — debuted here before playing to bigger crowds in Toronto. 

Steve McQueen‘s biopic is based on the extraordinary life of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who was born a free man in New York but was kidnapped in the nation’s capital in 1841 and sold into slavery. Brad Pitt, one of the producers of the picture, has a small role as one of Northup’s benefactors. And newcomer Lupita Nyongo stands out in her supporting role as a slave whose suffering becomes the focal point of the film. 

Third time could well be the charm for the director and actor Michael Fassbender who features as a cruel plantation owner. Their first film together — “Hunger,” the story of IRA martyr Bobby Sands — put them on Hollywood’s radar back in 2008. Their second collaboration — “Shame,” a raw tale about a sex addict — won Fassbender a slew of critics prizes in 2011 but was snubbed at the Oscars. 

With reviews likes that below, expect both men to be serious Oscar contenders, along with Olivier champ Ejiofor (“Othello”) and Nyongo. John Ridley looks like a strong possibility for adapting Northup’s autobiography while Oscar-winning composer Hans Zimmer (“The Lion King”) could reap his 10th bid. 

Peter Debruge, Variety: Though the film brims with memorable characters, the show ultimately belongs to Ejiofor, who upholds the character’s dignity throughout. McQueen shrewdly limits everything audiences see and feel to the sphere of Northrup’s direct experience, drawing us into his head and keeping us there by including occasional shots in which this hyper-intelligent individual (in many ways the superior of his captors) struggles to make sense of his station. When it comes time to bestow awards, voters tend to prefer characters who suffer to those who abuse, and yet, this actorly transformation may be Fassbender’s most courageous yet, tapping into a place of righteous superiority that reminds just how scary such racism can be. 

12 Years a Slave” makes the top 10 on our Best Picture chart and is sure to move up the ranks as  are both McQueen and Ejiofor. Fassbender is already a solid second for Best Supporting Actor

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