TELLURIDE REVIEW ROUND-UP: ’12 Years a Slave’ Reduces Critics to Tears

12 Years a Slave - Best Picture Oscar Predictions 2014Our interests are still caught up in a swirl of Venice thoughts and feelings, that festival already seeing the alleged studio blockbuster apex of this year in Gravity and the bittersweet announcement of Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises as his final film. It’s easy to forget that Telluride, Colorado has been booming with activity all weekend, having already launched Jason Reitman’s Labor Day, Denis Villaneuve’s Prisoners, and Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin before they arrive at any other festival. We’ll get to those in due time, but the film that’s been lighting up the net most since its premiere has been 12 Years a Slave, the anticipated new film from Steve McQueen, whose last two films Shame and Hunger were enthusiastic critical hits in their years.

As you may have noticed in Alex’s Oscar predictions, 12 Years a Slave provides McQueen with his first legitimate Oscar vehicle, his brutal focus taking on a broader subject. Though some worried that would mean a loss of that aforementioned brutality, word from the reviews gathered below is that 12 Years a Slave does not disappoint.

Todd McCarthy of The Hollywood Reporter

Ejiofor is terrific in a demanding character who’s put through the wringer physically, mentally and emotionally. One feels his determination to get back to his family virtually at all times even though he doesn’t talk about it, and toward the end there is an unusual extended close-up of him in which he looks out toward the unknown future as his eyes express a quicksilver array of emotions, from wonder to fear to hope.

Peter Debruge of Variety

The first thing fans of McQueen’s “Hunger” and “Shame” will notice here is the degree to which the helmer’s austere formal technique has evolved — to the extent that one would almost swear he’d snuck off and made three or four films in the interim. Composition, sound design and story all cut together beautifully, and yet, there’s no question that “12 Years a Slave” remains an art film, especially as the provocative director forces audiences to confront concepts and scenes that could conceivably transform their worldview.

Chris Willman of The Playlist

’12 Years’ has a sex scene within its first five minutes, which will have some viewers sniggering that they wouldn’t expect anything less from the director of “Shame.” But there are no pleasures to follow for any of the characters after that brief undercover coupling in a crowded slave’s quarters. After that flash-forward, we see Solomon Northup (Ejiofor) and his family in happier times, as free and even privileged blacks in the north, before he’s kidnapped and transported to the South for a quick and easy sale. He pleads his case to captors along the way, who respond by pounding Northup each time he insists his name isn’t really Platt. It’s a classic wrong-man/mistaken-identity setup, although no noir ever required this many scarring prosthetics.

William Goss of Film.com

All of that impeccable composure and noble intent would be for naught were Ejiofor not the one grounding each indignity as Solomon. It’s not that this ensemble is a feeble one — I’ve failed to yet mention Sarah Paulson, Alfre Woodard, Garret Dillahunt, or astounding newcomer Lupita Nyong’o — but especially when compared to the showy ferocity offered up by Fassbender or bland sympathy provided by co-producer Brad Pitt as a Canadian abolitionist, Ejiofor’s tightly clenched conviction perfectly embodies hope and righteousness against all odds. He gives the best performance of his career to date, and what’s more, he gives “Slave” its bruised, beating heart with every scene.

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