“Dear Academy” is a series where our writers make their cases to the Academy for the films they believe should win Best Picture. Voting began on February 14th and ends February 25th. Here is Duncan’s plea on behalf of Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity.
“It’s not the right choice, but it’s also not the wrong choice.” For some time this has felt like my go-to phrase in response to the Academy Awards, and it particularly rang true of last year. Argo. Jennifer Lawrence. Christoph Waltz. Anne Hathaway. These are all strong achievements that I’ll still defend adamantly against detractors, even if they’re not my absolute favorites in the field. I’ve engendered a protective distance from the Oscar race, because I know how painful disappointment can be – I’m still weeping for Viola Davis. Furthermore, it’s been much easier to maintain that emotional distance when my own favorites have often been outside the race entirely.
I would’ve been over-the-moon if the Academy had been brave enough to nominate Tabu, Meek’s Cutoff or Where the Wild Things Are for the top prizes. They’ve never been close, and that’s fine. My intimate, untouchable love and fascination for them has been enough for me. I’ve still smiled at how stunning, difficult work like The Hurt Locker, Black Swan and Zero Dark Thirty have cracked their way into the Academy’s interest, or even won the season. This season in particular, I’m surprisingly unafraid of disappointment, particularly since I have either respect or love for any of this year’s Best Picture frontrunners.
But why have I clung so desperately to Gravity? Its placement at the top of my list of 2013’s best films still feels like a point I must defend, if simply because it’s a less independent choice than I’ve made in past years. It’s landed atop a high number of critics’ top ten lists, and its body is quintessentially immersed in the studio system. It wouldn’t have been possible without Warner Bros.’ faith in the project, and yet its very existence still feels impossible. That such immaculately conceived visual effects are utilized in such a jarring, riskily experimental way. That it avoids the compulsion to cut away from the isolation of space, fully immersing us in that near-death terror.
Most of all, though, that it still feels, against all odds and universal praise, intimate and uniquely personal. It’s something that doesn’t exist elsewhere in the Best Picture race the way it does here. Though also an intense tale of survival, 12 Years a Slave is most immediately concerned with its cutting-edge social message, one I earmarked early on this season as transcending what I called “trivial and repulsive Oscar speculation”. American Hustle features flawed, hilarious and ultimately relatable characters, but it’s much more openly sociable as popcorn entertainment. What makes Gravity such an engrossing and emotionally piercing film is how it moors us with a character whose absolute desperation we’re either certain we’ll feel one day, or have already felt.
I’ve more often found myself describing Gravity as an experience than a film, a tendency which has led many to isolate the film’s sensory achievement from its screenplay. Personally, I can justify the occasionally on-the-nose dialogue as being part of the film’s zero-barrier attitude. In space, nobody can hear you talk, so what’s the use in being subtle or articulate? I’d testify that space is not a setting you seek out with the intent of subtlety, and if the film’s symbolism feels obvious, I’d say that its breathless commitment to that overt sentimentality helps to convey the emotion even more passionately.
More than that, though, Gravity is wholly propelled by tools unique to the cinema, and I don’t simply mean those that help realize the look and feel of outer space. So much emphasis is placed on the physical experience, at first in the crisp details of satellite debris ripping their shuttle to ghastly shreds, but later focusing in on details of human physicality. The sweat and visible exhaustion on the face of Ryan Stone (a timidly commanding and palpably empowering Sandra Bullock) as she tumbles through empty space, or later the frailty of her body as she drifts embryo-like inside a space station. Though spread across a vast canvas, it’s pivotally interested in our weak human bodies, but also how anachronistically strong the human spirit can be.
So yes, Gravity is ultimately a triumph-of-the-spirit film, the likes of which are regularly drawn towards sentimentality, but rarely with this level of mastery over craft and storytelling. It’s simple, but archetypal, allowing any audience member to glean passing, yet piercing similarities to their own lives – personally, the passing line of “Dad wanted a boy” explains everything I need to know about Ryan’s character to have endless sympathy and profound empathy for her and her situation.
At the end of the day, it’s a film about finding reason to live in a universe where there’s no discernible reason for it. Even Ryan Stone’s reason for being in space, installing a system for hospital use, hints at her desperation to validate and justify life in general, not just her own. After all the lights in the sky have gone; after all her work and the work of countless astronomers has been ripped to shreds by a freak accident, what reason is left to go on? Quite simply, and enthusiasm and curiosity for that unknown, be it in astronomical terms or personal ones. You can’t predict how the spirit will rise and flatten throughout a lifetime, let alone the jarring 3.5 hours the film’s entire narrative takes place within (note how Ryan sets her watch for 90 minutes twice during the film’s runtime).
You can only enjoy the ride, and Gravity packs in both the terror and excitement of that in its brisk runtime, one whose length and effect feels different each time you revisit it. Should it win, it may well be the greatest Best Picture winner since the 1970s, but more significantly it’s the most powerful and empowering film of this year’s otherwise incredible lineup. It’s a film that, regardless of the situation, I can trust to pull me out of apathy and me on the right course, reinvigorated for every coming triumph and disastrous failure alike.