“12 Years a Slave” hasn’t had a very good week on the awards circuit, with losses handed down by New York and Los Angeles film critics and the National Board of Review, but there’s still the possibility it can rebound. OK, I admit it: “12 Years” happens to be my favorite film of the year. I rarely give in to wishful Oscar thinking, but then my favorite film of the year is rarely one of the top contenders. All the same, bear with me.
First off, I can’t deny that Tom O’Neil is right when he says the recent losses for “12 Years” are a major blow. This is the kind of tough, downbeat film that seemed destined to ride a wave of critical support leading up to the greater challenge of trying to please the industry guilds, which are the most important precursors because they, like the Oscars, are decided by Hollywood filmmakers. If the critics are jumping ship, what chance does “12 Years” have later on?
But there could be a silver lining for “12 Years”: it may be able to shake off the perception that it’s the frontrunner. It’s a dangerous thing to be the favorite early on. It puts a target on your back, makes you susceptible to backlash, raises expectations that can be difficult to meet.
A frontrunner that survives long enough could then encounter Frontrunner Fatigue, where everyone is tired of the same film hogging the attention. That may be how “Shakespeare in Love” pulled off its last-minute upset against “Saving Private Ryan,” which seemed like the frontrunner from the moment it came out in the summer of 1998.
With “12 Years” taken down a notch, maybe it can start to pick up momentum as an underdog, the way “Argo” did last year when the Oscars snubbed Ben Affleck for Best Director. The good news for “12 Years” is that recent awards groups have been divided, instead of announcing one clear alternative. New York picked “American Hustle.” The Gotham Awards went with “Inside Llewyn Davis.” NBR opted for “Her.” L.A. chose both “Her” and “Gravity.”
And despite losing the more high-profile groups, “12 Years” has quietly picked up accolades from other organizations, including Boston Society of Film Critics and New York Film Critics Online. If support ends up split going forward, “12 Years” could still edge past them at the finish line.
Alright, back to reality.
If “12 Years” really is down for the count, “Gravity” might be the strongest contender. Though it takes place in outer space, it’s a more realistic take on sci-fi than, say, “Star Trek Into Darkness.” It’s also a big, populist blockbuster hit and has a director (Alfonso Cuaron) with both strong artistic cachet and the weight of history: like “12 Years” helmer Steve McQueen, Mexican Cuaron would be only the second non-white Best Director in Oscar history, following Ang Lee, who just won his second trophy last year for “Life of Pi.”
“American Hustle” is also a threat. It has a more populist feel than “12 Years,” which many people will look at like homework. And director David O. Russell has established a reliable Oscar track record in recent years with nominations for “The Fighter” and “Silver Linings Playbook,” so voters might decide it’s his turn.
However, “Hustle” isn’t a heroic story. It’s a suspenseful film about a risky operation, just like “Argo” was, but “Argo” was about good guys saving the day, while “Hustle” is mostly about con men conning other cons. No good guys to root for. The last film to win with so many anti-heroes was “Chicago.” “The Departed” and “No Country for Old Men” had plenty of bad guys too, but they also had morally upstanding characters fighting to save the day.
Sadly, “Her” is probably a non-starter. It’s an outstanding film telling an unusual kind of love story, and winning with NBR and L.A. critics gives it a better-than-expected shot at major nominations, but if “The Social Network” went over the academy’s head, the sentient operating systems in “Her” probably won’t fare any better. This is the same academy that last year could barely figure out how to vote with a computer, let alone fall in love with one.
But I do think “12 Years” is still in the race. There’s no one clear frontrunner in its place, so it’ll really be the guilds that decide which way the race ultimately turns. “Argo” swept the guilds, then Oscars, after failing to win most critics’ groups. “The King’s Speech” also dominated the guild prizes, despite near-unanimous critical support for “Social Network.”
So “12 Years” may be down, but it’s not out. Not yet anyway.