When the lights came up after Steve McQueen's latest film, 12 Years a Slave, I was as anxious as I probably ought to be as a white man watching a film about slavery. Where was the backslapping bonhomie that accompanied Tarantino's runaway hit Django Unchained? Aren't I supposed to feel good at the end of the movie? 12 Years' director, Steve McQueen, a filmmaker so talked about on the awards circuit that it's actually a feat that the hype for this film has eclipsed his personal brand, has never been one to believe in happy endings. His previous films, Shame and Hunger, respectively about a sex addict and a hunger strike in a Northern Irish prison, have dealt, in equal parts, near-lethal doses of pain and remorse. Like both of them, 12 Years is a potent reminder that all wounds have not been healed.
Solomun Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the freeman on whose true-life memoir the film's story is based, is a talented violinist and proud father living in Saratoga, New York. Tricked into making a visit with two apparently well-intentioned gentlemen to Washington DC, he is subsequently betrayed there and sold into slavery. Details of the 12 years that follows are too numerous to recount here, as are moments of poignancy. Through his ordeal, Northrup, forced to adopt the slave name "Platt" by his captors in a particularly heinous scene of brainwash-by-whip, remains an outsider, his knowing eyes bearing witness to those around even as he lives as a slave.
If he is the viewer's proxy then McQueen's favorite monster, X-Men actor Michael Fassbender, is his guilt. In contrast to Platt's mostly benevolent first owner, Mr. Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), Fassbender is a madman in full Kinski mode as the fiery, mercurial Edwin Epps. Ever-wild, Fassbender visits his fire-and-brimstone wrath on Platt and the rest of his charge, especially his favorite slave, Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o), the object of both his domineering lust and a great deal of his rage. Though it's clear he values her more than even his wife, it's not as a human being but as chattel, prize livestock that may be disposed of at any less-than-convenient moment. In the extravagant South, death is always in the balance for the enslaved. In one harrowing scene, a nearly lynched Platt hangs in the foreground, tip-toes barely touching slick mud, while the other slaves go about their business, knowing that any further protest toward his innocence means certain death.
Some formidable talent resides in front of the camera in 12 Years, and everyone behind it seems to have risen to the occasion as well: Sean Bobbitt (McQueen's cinematographer of choice for Shame and Hunger) proves he can work as flawlessly outdoors as in the confines of prison cells and apartment buildings, and the soundtrack by Hans Zimmer hums along at genius level, mixing his trademark string motifs with ominous cracks, buzzes and thuds that call to mind avant gardeist Thomas Köner. To McQueen's great credit, Tarantino's runaway blockbuster is looking especially shabby next to 12 Years--racist at worst, sloppy at best. Anyone looking to doubt the film's worthiness for the Academy Awards it will likely receive this year can take note that the former received two--and consider it reparations. Rotten Tomatoes: 96%. Sundance Kabuki.
God Loves Uganda - This SFIFF 2013 highlight is a largely narration-less documentary is about Christian Missionaries in the African country and their tacit responsibility for the pressure behind Uganda's anti-homosexuality bill, which is currently in consideration by parliament, and the penalty for which is death. You may remember laughing at the notorious "Eat da poo poo" video online. Sadly, this is not a joke. Rotten Tomatoes: 100%. Roxie.
Blue is the Warmest Color - Palme d'Or winning Cannes sensation Blue reads as a mostly-heartfelt romance, except in moments where it slips into exploitation or untruth. It's rescued from a write-off as "that three-hour lesbian movie" by the sheer power of its two lead actresses Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulos, who make the material sing. NC-17! Rotten Tomatoes: 91%. Sundance Kabuki.
Suspiria & Halloween III - Vortex Room stays true to it's horror roots with this All Hallow's Eve screening of a pair of stone cold classics. Dario Argento's influential masterwork, Suspiria, flanks Tommy Lee Wallace's so-corny-it's-great "techno-pagan horror conspiracy" Halloween III: Season of the Witch. Check out last week's article for other in-season cinema treats. Vortex Room.
Let the Fire Burn - For anyone breathlessly anticipating 12 Years a Slave or unfamiliar with the tragedy that befell the radical African-American group MOVE in the mid-1980s, Jason Osder's doc is recommended viewing. It's one of the most terrifying visions of cops-gone-wild since Waco: Rules of Engagement, indisputably told through real footage. Rotten Tomatoes: 94%. Opera Plaza.
Enders Game - This adaptation of Orson Scott Card's sci-fi masterstroke (since greatly tarnished by its author's many anti-gay, racist, conspiracist rants) is one that audiences have been waiting for a long time. I'm sure it's alright. Rotten Tomatoes: 69%. AMC Van Ness.
Informant - Stanford filmmaker Jamie Meltzer's Errol Morris-esque doc about Brandon Darby, the informant responsible for the contended arrest of young RNC protestors in 2004, is a masterful character study of a chameleon of nigh Mephistophelian proportions. Those who condemn Informant as propaganda have clearly missed the point of this highly watchable must-see. Rotten Tomatoes: 89%. Roxie.