Oscars Combat: Chiwetel Ejiofor vs. McConaughey

Kevin Spacey, in “House of Cards,” just played one of the best villains I’ve ever watched. But in 1994, he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Verbal Kint, his character in “The Usual Suspect,” was a disabled “gimp” getting interrogated by a hard-ass special agent who keeps calling him “piece of shit.”

usualsuspects-06

Back when I was pickin’ beans in Guatemala . . .

0-0-0-0-0-0-0

This is another installment of The Flip Side’s Oscars Combat series. We’ve previously engaged the Best Supporting Actress battle, the Best Documentary battle, and the Best Supporting Actor battle. Go Fassbender. “The Wolf of Wall Streetis second or third in Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Picture.

0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0

“You’re stupid,” Agent David Kujan tells Verbal. “Worthless rat cripple.” Then it turns out he’s the baddest gangster in the entire world. He was lying and faking the entire time, to escape with $91 million he killed all those men for. On top of the money, his enemies are wiped out.

That was a classic performance. Spacey deserved to win an Oscar and he did and it was great.

There are people who claim to have figured out the ending of “The Usual Suspects” ahead of time. They shouldn’t talk. Because even if you knew Verbal was Keyser Soze, there’s a moment toward the end of the movie when Kujan says “It was Keaton,” and explains why. It’s a shockingly good case. So you might have know it, but for second there you thought you were wrong.

But wait, Keaton dies in the first scene, when a ship full of something worth $91 million that isn’t dope explodes. McManus yells. Hockney: “You sure you brought enough guys?” Benicio Del Toro’s Fenster mumbles like a young, drunk Vito Corleone. There’s a suitcase full of blueprints and blackmail files. “The Usual Suspects” was a thriller about huge heists and strong men’s secrets, with a twist ending and Keyser Soze. What a screenplay! By Christopher McQuarrie.

usual-suspects-line-up

The movie was nominated for two Oscars and won both. 13-year-old me knew Kevin Spacey was the best supporting actor. And that “The Usual Suspects” absolutely had to win Best Screenplay. I feel the same way about Chiwetel Ejiofor this year. (Choo-it-tell Edge-ee-oh-for.)

Ejiofor is indeed that great in “12 Years a Slave.” There’s a scene toward the ending, after poor Patsey’s back is obliterated by lash, when Ejiofor stares into the camera for a very long time. It’s how we finally get to take a break from the craziness, with Solomon Northup’s beyond-addled face looking right at us.

That’s acting. That’s something especially powerful. In some of the best scenes (like the funeral), the camera just frames Ejiofor’s face and holds still while he carries the best movie of the year. (Click here for another tiresome slobberfest over Ejiofor’s performance, and here for The Flip Side’s review, ecstatic over the cameos by Omar from “The Wire” and Eli from “There Will Be Blood.”)

Ejiofor deserves to win Best Actor. And Kevin Spacey rules.

P.S. I realize this is not a clean argument. The point I’m trying, without succeeding, to make is that one of the reasons the Oscars are cool, when the Academy Awards show is so uncool, is when you love movies you find yourself rooting for some of them to be rewarded in very specific ways. I loved Kevin Spacey’s performance in “The Usual Suspects,” and that was the first time I realized movies were written, and could be written amazingly well. Heath Ledger as Joker and Day-Lewis in “Blood” and Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay for “The Social Network” were other times I really loved a movie and knew how I thought it could best be acknowledged. “12 Years a Slave” is probably going to win Best Picture, but I really hope Ejiofor upsets Matthew McConaughey and wins Best Actor.

Internet Sports Lord Biffs on Big-Eyes: See Here, Oscar

The funeral. Do not listen to Bill Simmons. (Here’s his link.)

In “12 Years a Slave,” Chiwetel Ejiofor plays someone who’s kidnapped and imprisoned in a nightmare world. He is considered a subhuman and tortured. Multiple critics describe in their reviews his “deep, soulful eyes.” They’re big eyes, and when he’s scared they beam desperation.

12-years-a-slave-trailer-image of Solomon

He doesn’t want to die, but there’s a madman with a gun in his face, screaming into his ear to whip Patsey until the skin on her whole back is shredded. You believe it, and want badly for this poor guy to survive such raw horror.

Ejiofor played the villain in a modern-classic science fiction flick: “Serenity,” written and directed by pre-“Avengers” Joss Whedon. Ejiofor’s character, The Operative, is a charming, interesting snake, hunting the heroes across space with a samurai sword and an army.

“12 Years a Slave” is a step above great villain. Three steps. Despite all the killing, Solomon Northup does fight back, and he hangs for it. He runs, and the universe sends a message with one of the saddest, most coldly violent things you could imagine seeing. We watch him face hell on earth with huge, sharp, sad, scared eyes.

#==#

Bill Simmons is ESPN’s best brand. His fan’s-take writing style was so fun to read he gained a massive following and now runs a website (Grantland.com:

Screen shot 2014-01-14 at 8.25.14 PM

God bless it) where many younger versions of himself cover every interesting topic in all sports and pop culture (movies, TV, music, novels sometimes). It’s made him an authority, with a TV show and a blockbuster podcast.

On that podcast, he said “It’s a slightly controversial opinion, but if I was gonna rank the best performances in that movie, I don’t know if, uh, if, if the. Say his name; I can’t say it.”

Responded Wesley Morris, Pulitzer-Prize winning movie critic on Grantland (sagely): “Chiwetel Ejiofor?”

“I don’t think he’s in the Top 3 for me, in that movie.”

Then Simmons started asking if younger versions of Denzel Washington or Don Cheadle would have been better as Solomon Northup. That’s what he walked out of the movie theater wondering.

The answer is no. They don’t have the eyes.

“I didn’t love the performance,” Simmons said. “I thought it was good. I didn’t think it was amazing, you know?”

No. Bullshit. That is no argument, and Ejiofor must be a contender for Best Actor.

#==#

There’s a funeral in “12 Years a Slave” for a man who dropped dead in the cotton field from heatstroke. The slaves are all singing and clapping.

Solomon Northup was kidnapped into that world. He doesn’t want to be a slave. He doesn’t want to sing with them. But they keep singing, and he’s looking at that grave, and he fights it and fights it but they keep singing. You see the entire struggle on his face, in his eyes, until he gives in and sings. Accepts he’s a slave. This is his family now.

That scene was amazing. He’d better be a Best Actor contender.

Omar Comin’ to “12 Years a Slave”

Omar is on the boat that takes Solomon Northup to slavery. The bad wolf of “The Wire”—Obama’s stated favorite character on that beyond-classic TV show—appears, at first, with a metal mask chained around his face, like Hannibal Lecter or Bane. He vows to fight, tries to fight, gets killed, and thrown overboard. He lasts maybe five minutes of film time, a mystery warrior who chooses to rebel. Solomon dumps his body and watches it drift out to sink below the waves. There’s a message there: Don’t fight.

This is an amazing cameo by the actor Michael K. Williams. He survived a prison stabbing attack in “The Wire,” but his “12 Years a Slave” character is dispatched via stabbing in practically no time. Slavery was so much more perilous than the modern-day Baltimore drug game.

tumblr_inline_mtt1aqL1ki1r4gc4k

#–#

I used to play handball with a guy who explained between games that modern government welfare was like slavery. Poor people are relying on the government for their food, he said, and for their shelter. That was the extent of his argument. “Slavery.”

Sarah Palin said the other day in a speech “When [our debt] comes due, and this isn’t racist … but it’s gonna be like slavery … we are gonna be beholden to a foreign master.”

These two won’t be seeing “12 Years a Slave,” but they should. The evil of slavery (personified by Michael Fassbender as a villain, Epps, destined to be remembered forever) was rape, torture, and demented physical and psychological abuse.

Solomon runs once—and happens upon one of the movie’s scariest, most graphic scenes. Another message from on high: Don’t run. Just like the boat death of Omar was a message not to fight.

Esquire’s Charles P. Pierce calls Sarah Palin Princess Dumbass of the Northwoods. Unless she’s willing to say on-the-record that “12 Years a Slave” isn’t accurate, Princess Dumbass should shut up about comparing anything to slavery. Everyone should.

#–#

My wife said the movie made her “physically uncomfortable,” and demanded afterward to be taken straight home to hug our baby. So much for a drink. There were sobs throughout the theater as we left.

“The Passion of the Christ.” That’s the last time I felt so physically afflicted—in the face and gut—over a movie character. (Maybe “Boys Don’t Cry,” too.) Except in this case, visceral sadness and sympathy are a byproduct of an exciting, interesting flick filled with great actors playing compelling characters.

Scene after scene is just excellent. When Solomon wakes up in chains it plays like raw horror. Then there’s the auctioneer (Paul Giamatti) walking among his kidnapped slaves, many stripped naked, hitting them and pulling on their faces. A family is split apart despite an appeal to the auctioneer’s decency. (There’s no decency.) A little later, we watch the kindest of Solomon’s owners, Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), preaching gospel over the sound of a mother weeping for having lost her children. Ford’s religion probably makes him feel better about enabling such a wretched institution, but it can’t cover the basic wrong he’s committed.

The whippings in this movie make that famous Denzel Washington scene in “Glory” look G-rated by comparison. Even something as simple as a letter being burned in the dark takes on profound meaning because it’s filmed so thoughtfully by director Steve McQueen and the filmmakers.

And oh, God, what happened to Patsey? Epps’s wife is a Hitchcockian monster (think a meaner Mrs. Danvers from “Rebecca”) who torments poor Patsey with physical attacks that make you cringe. And what Epps himself does to her is so much worse. Patsey, man. Patsey. She could pick 500 pounds of cotton a day. . . .

#–#

Other favorite cameo, besides Omar? Paul Dano. He shows up to be evil for a while, squeaking like he squeaked as Eli Sunday in “There Will Be Blood.” Is “12 Years a Slave” the best movie since “There Will Be Blood”? It’s a fair comparison, since both films feature the main character beating the hell out of a shrieking Paul Dano. Kudos.

12-years-a-slave-paul-dano-600

See that rope behind him? Messing with Paul Dano had some seriously vicious consequences for Solomon.

How many acting Oscars can one movie be nominated for? We’re about to find out. Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon, for so many scenes but especially when he sings at the funeral. Fassbender, for sure. Dano? Paul Giamatti as the auctioneer? Lupita Nyong’o, who plays Patsey, is gonna be a Supporting Actress favorite. Just wait. Sarah Paulson as Patsey’s jealous tormentor is gonna get a look, as well.

#–#

This blog had some fun previously with Brad Pitt’s “World War Z.” Pitt produced “Z” and that movie seemed an indulgent vanity project. It stripped away everything but the title from a beloved horror novel to make a zombie blockbuster without any good zombies.

But Pitt’s production company also made “12 Years a Slave,” and Ejiofor said it was Pitt’s star power that made the movie happen.

He puts himself in the movie, toward the end. Brad Pitt gives one of the very few featured performances that won’t get nominated for an Oscar, but that probably doesn’t matter. I imagine Pitt swung the deals to get this movie made and put himself in there because he simply wanted to be in something so great.

This is the best film of his career. He said so.

There’s a scene where Fassbender’s Epps is chasing Solomon with a razor. They run through a muddy, shitty pig pen and as Epps is jumping the fence he catches his knees and flips forward to smash into the ground. He growls. A pratfall like that is normally meant to be funny. In this case, it’s an instant of surreal physicality driving home two points:

1) This is a ridiculous, insane situation.

2) The acting, writing, and directing in “12 Years a Slave” are amazing in ways both big and small.

This is the best movie of Brad Pitt’s career, and he was in “Fight Club.” It may go down as one of the best pictures ever made.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.