Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Oscar's Weighty Choices

Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Oscar's Weighty Choices

Article excerpt


Gravity is precisely what "Gravity" lacks.

Certainly, it's a lightweight entertainment compared to "12 Years a Slave," widely considered to be running neck-in-neck with it as a best-picture contender at the Oscars tonight. But that could be the very thing that puts Alfonso Cuaron's vertiginous space thriller over the top.

Everything hinges on whether the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences this year wants to take its medicine. Because "12 Years a Slave" is a Medicine Movie, if ever there was one.

You know the kind. The "serious" movie. The tough-issues movie. The movie that might be painful, dreary or difficult to watch, but will make you a better person for having seen it. The movie that, like penicillin, is good for you.

The movie you will definitely have to see, sometime - only right now, you're going to see "Gravity."

"We laypeople don't want to take our medicine on a Friday night, when we're on a date," says Hackensack's Caseen Gaines, a film critic and historian ("A Christmas Story: Behind the Scenes of a Holiday Classic").

Medicine Movies don't necessarily score big at the box-office: "Gravity," domestically, earned $269 million, to "12 Years a Slave's" $49 million ("Gravity," to be fair, played on three times as many screens, including 3-D Imax screens at a higher ticket price). But they often score big at the Oscars.

"Academy voters know they are voting for history when they cast their ballots," Gaines says. "With something like '12 Years a Slave,' you want to have your thumbprint on history. They want to say, 'We as a body viewed this as an important film.' Academy members don't mind taking their medicine. That's a sign of seriousness."

Other 2014 best-picture nominees, to be sure, have their claims to weight, substance, gravitas.

"American Hustle," widely viewed as a third possible top contender, has trenchant things to say about political corruption. "Dallas Buyers Club" deals with AIDS, "Philomena" with religious controversies. "Captain Phillips, "Her," "Nebraska" and "Wolf of Wall Street" all have claims to seriousness - if only, in the case of "Wolf of Wall Street," in a satirical sense. Any one of these could be an upset winner.

But for sheer crushing weight and earnestness, none can compete with "12 Years a Slave," based on the true story of a free black man who is abducted and sold into slavery. The film includes vivid depictions of whippings, killings, brandings, rape and torture. Not to mention - for many viewers -- a heavy dose of guilt for living in a country where such things were tolerated in the past, and not fully acknowledged in the present.

"Gravity," by contrast, is merely liable to make you sick to your stomach.

"On the whole, [the academy] seems to lean toward the more challenging films," says Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for Rentrak, a global media measurement company. …

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