With the Oscars looming just a few days away, we’re starting to see more and more predictions of who’s going to win. The critics at RogerEbert.com came together and offered up their predictions. To wit:
Best Supporting Actress: Lupita Nyong’o, “12 Years a Slave“—Essay by Glenn Kenny
Best Supporting Actor: Barkhad Abdi, “Captain Phillips“—Essay by Omer M. Mozaffar
Best Original Screenplay: “Her” written by Spike Jonze—Essay by Nell Minow
Best Adapted Screenplay: “Before Midnight” written by Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke and Richard Linklater—Essay by Brian Tallerico
Best Director: Alfonso Cuaron, “Gravity“—Essay by Peter Sobczynski
Best Documentary: “The Act of Killing“—Essay by Olivia Collette
Best Actress: Cate Blanchett, “Blue Jasmine“—Essay by Susan Wloszczyna
Best Actor: Chiwetel Ejiofor, “12 Years a Slave”—Essay by Odie Henderson
Best Picture: “12 Years a Slave”—Essay by Matt Zoller Seitz
I can get on board with this list. Cuaron for Best Director is an interesting choice, given that the movie got mixed reviews from critics. Everyone loved the visuals, but others displayed considerable disagreement over the screenplay, the plot, and the acting. Yet, from a directorial standpoint, it could, and perhaps should, win. The “visual” aspect of Gravity isn’t just about special effects; it’s not Avatar, reliant only upon special effects (even if extremely innovative ones) to impress people. Gravity’s visual appeal required a lot of directorial decisions that made it unique.
Most obvious was the opening scene, a nearly 20-minute single shot of the characters attempting to make repairs to a satellite while floating in space. Such long shots are no easy feat, as if anything goes wrong — anything at all, even a lightbulb going out — the entire scene must be shot all over again. They’re high pressure and anxiety-provoking for everyone involved in shooting the scene, as no one wants to be the screw up that ruins the shot and makes them have to start again, especially when you have a very limited amount of time in which to get the shot. And when you have numerous things happening, such as people floating around to choreographed moves in “space,” more can go wrong.
Cuaron showed a similar propensity for long shots in Children of Men, a nervewrackingly fantastic film about a dystopian world where the human race has ceased to be fertile and will extinguish entirely in 60-80 years. In the film, the protagonists fight to save a pregnant girl and get her to somewhere safe, away from war, racism, and hopelessness. There is one very long (~20 min) single take scene in which the main characters are in a car, trying to escape their enemies, in which the camera pans around and films everyone in the car as well as all the action going on outside the car. One reviewer called Cuaron’s single takes “boastful” — I say that in a world with lots of cuts and shaky cams that try to make fight scenes look better than they are (yes, I’m talking to you, Bourne), the single take, especially in an action movie, is worth boasting about.
I didn’t find Gravity’s story to be a problem. Was it groundbreaking? No. But it didn’t need to be. The film made us believe we were watching these people in space, even adhering pretty closely to the laws of physics (unlike many sci-fi films). It made us feel the palpable isolation and loneliness of the main character, and offered us something unexpected, unique, and stunning.