This year’s Oscar race for best picture comes down to a fundamental, timeless question about the nature of the film medium itself: what is the highest, most worthy goal to which any motion picture can aspire?
Those Hollywood insiders who believe that movies at their best will make a social statement, enlightening the mass audience with fresh perspectives on past or present, will cast their ballots for 12 Years a Slave. Based on a true story, with vigorous attention to historical detail, the film achieves a deep visceral impact with its best-ever portrayal of the unspeakable brutality of the slave-based society in the ante-bellum South.
On the other hand, many film fanciers cherish the notion that the greatest achievement for motion pictures involves the convincing creation of an alternate reality, placing the viewer in a fantastical universe that offers more adventure and astonishment than the drab world of the everyday. Academy voters who see imagination and visual razzle-dazzle as the greatest gifts of any movie-maker will rally to support the best picture campaign of Gravity, which takes people along for an unforgettable ride with death defying astronauts far above the earth’s surface.
And finally, there’s the strong sentiment behind American Hustle, based on the old-fashioned idea that the greatest films emphasize characterization above all – creating a rich array of fascinating personalities who take on a vivid, electrifying life of their own and insert themselves, permanently, into our consciousness. Few recent films have achieved that goal more effectively than David O. Russell’s latest masterpiece, and it’s no surprise that all four of his leading cast members (Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper) have been nominated for acting awards by the Academy.
So, which one of the leading best picture contenders will go home with Oscar?
I’d still bet on 12 Years a Slave, which easily qualifies as the year’s “most important” film for its educational and historical value. But the increasing de-politicization of the Hollywood establishment, motivated in part by growing disillusionment with Barack Obama and his presidency, means that victory isn’t assured and a plurality of voters could turn instead to the other-worldly adventure of Gravity or to the astonishingly accomplished ensemble acting of American Hustle.
The wide open nature of the race for the gold makes it nearly as captivating and revealing as the wide-open race for the GOP presidential nomination two years from now.