Steve McQueen

Ben Stiller’s film, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” is one of several late contenders for the awards season in 2014. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox. 

Colin McLaughlin: We’d like to spend the last installment of Oscar Bait talking about the state of the awards race and then move into highlighting some of the awards categories we’ve largely ignored up to this point. As far as the top two awards, Best Picture and Best Director, they haven’t changed since October. “12 Years a Slave” and “Gravity” are the top contenders for Best Picture, and their helmers, Steve McQueen and Alfonso Cuaron, are really the only ones being talked about for Best Director.  

Lee Henry: Absolutely. Other well-received directors like Alexander Payne, Paul Greengrass and the Coen brothers, are basically jockeying for spots in the category. There are some potential, late-breaking surprises such as recent Academy darling David O. Russell’s “American Hustle” and Martin Scorsese’s “Wolf of Wall Street,” but no one has seen either of them, and I doubt either will be able to take down McQueen or Cuaron.

CM: The Hollywood Reporter has already filmed its yearly Director’s Roundtable, which featured McQueen, Greengrass, Russell, Cuaron, Ben Stiller and Lee Daniels. Stiller’s film, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” is screening well so far, so he may have dark horse status. Right now, I’m guessing that Daniels won’t be nominated given that “The Butler” is by now so distant compared to the other contending films. 

LH: In just a month’s time, we’ll have seen most of the winners for the major film critics’ societies, as well as the nominees for the Golden Globes and Screen Actor’s Guild Awards. Russell’s last two films have forged intense emotional connections with their audiences and led “The Fighter” and “Silver Linings Playbook” to awards success, and “American Hustle” will be the most recent film in a lot of voters’ minds as they nominate. I don’t like to predict films I haven’t seen for nominations, but I won’t be surprised if it happens. 

CM: “Captain Phillips” is receiving strong support for director, actor and likely Best Picture nomination. To me, it looks like one of the films that will garner a lot of nominations — mostly technical — but few wins — sound editing and mixing is the best bet for a “Captain Phillips” win, though “Gravity” very well could make a technical sweep. “12 Years” will take the adapted screenplay award. Nothing else could possibly stand in that category — “Philomena,” “Captain Phillips,” maybe even “Before Midnight” — against John Ridley’s take on Solomon Northup’s memoir. You’ve seen “Inside Llewyn Davis” and “Blue Jasmine,” both by directors that are known for their writing ability. Thoughts on the original screenplay category?

LH: As far as Best Screenplay, it is almost certain “12 Years a Slave” will take Best Adapted Screenplay. Best Original Screenplay is more up in the air. 

CM: The potential award winning movies still to come out this year include “Saving Mr. Banks,” “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” “The Wolf of Wall Street,” “August, Osage County,” “Inside Llewyn Davis,” “Labor Day” and “Her.” 

LH: After winter break, we’ll discuss the inevitable craziness of awards in December and January and see how our personal predictions stack up against reality.

“12 Years a Slave” is not the sweeping historical epic the trailers are selling, and it certainly isn’t the world-changing, Oscar-destined cinematic revolution the early reviewers declared it after its premiere at Telluride Film Festival. Instead, it’s a quiet masterpiece — an affecting narrative that’s equally riveting and horrifying.

Based on the true story of Solomon Northup, “12 Years a Slave” chronicles the journey of the New York violin player, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor. When Northup is kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South, he lands on the plantation of the reasonable and kind Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). After Northup clashes with one of Ford’s hired hands, he’s sent to work for Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a horrifying, impulsively violent plantation owner who promises to make Northup’s life an unpleasant affair. 

Director Steve McQueen never shies away from the ugly details of slavery, and the film has several starkly frightening moments, capturing the depth of slavery’s cruelty without reveling in it. Thankfully, McQueen purposefully balances his most painful moments with the smallest of triumphs, keeping the film ever watchable and emotionally engaging.

“12 Years a Slave” is penned by John Ridley, whose last script, “Red Tails,” was a disaster that handled similar material very clumsily. His work here is among the best of the year, boasting a wealth of eloquent turns of phrase. His dialogue is appropriate to its period setting, yet never antiquated, and as the dark reality of Northup’s situation begins to sink in, Ridley nails every stroke of the character’s dueling assimilation and defiance. If there’s one criticism to aim against “12 Years a Slave,” though, it’s that the passage of time isn’t especially well communicated, and what should be a powerful reminder is more of a titular courtesy.

Ejiofor hasn’t had a leading film role since 2008’s “Redbelt,” but he’s never been used quite as effectively as he is here. Even as Northup slowly surrenders to slavery, notably in a scene where he joins his fellow slaves in singing, Ejiofor always retains his basic hope and optimism, which makes every moment of submission enormously powerful. It’s an outstanding, soulful performance, the kind that defines careers and wins Oscars, and Ejiofor plays beautifully off of the rest of the cast.

The film also boasts an incredible ensemble, with even the smallest of roles filled by actors like Michael K. Williams or Dwight Henry. With only a few scenes each, Scoot McNairy is deceptively jovial, Paul Giamatti is shamelessly slimy and Paul Dano is pathetically reprehensible. Fassbender nearly steals the show as Epps, Northup’s master. Epps is full of self-loathing, expressing it through impulsive bursts of violence, and Fassbender is terrifying in the role, putting viewers on edge every time he’s on screen. Over and over again, Epps extinguishes every glimmer of hope in Northup’s life, and Fassbender is fearlessly evil here. Equally effective are Sarah Paulson, subtly toxic as Epps’ wife, and newcomer Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey, a fellow slave whom Northup befriends.

There aren’t many films this year that are going to evoke such powerful emotions as “12 Years a Slave,” and the film is nothing less than essential viewing. McQueen’s work is so powerful and measured, Ridley’s script so well written and Ejiofor and the rest of the cast so perfectly portray their roles that it’s impossible to deny their greatness.

The fall movie season is one of the most reliably inconsistent as audiences have to contend with the wasteland of September before ramping up into the awards-season onslaught of November and December. While there are plenty of great films in theaters now (“You’re Next,” “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” “The World’s End” and “The Spectacular Now” chief among them), The Daily Texan has put together a list of upcoming releases to keep an eye out for in the unreasonably warm winter months.

“12 Years a Slave”

Steve McQueen is one of the most measured, compelling young directors working today, and his strong sense of restrained style should be interesting when applied to the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free African-American man who’s abducted and sold into slavery in the South. Frequent McQueen collaborator Michael Fassbender (who gave his best performance in “Shame,” McQueen’s last film) returns as Northup’s brutal owner. The rest of the ensemble includes Brad Pitt, Paul Giamatti and Paul Dano, and the film should be one of the most shattering works of the year.

Director: Steve McQueen

Genre: Drama

Release Date: Oct. 18 

“The Wolf of Wall Street” 

Martin Scorsese’s collaborations with Leonardo DiCaprio are consistently interesting efforts, and the timeliness, style and cast of this film are intriguing. While the film’s propulsive, Kanye-scored trailer showcases performances from DiCaprio (starring as real-life Wall Street criminal Jordan Belfort), Jonah Hill and Matthew McConaughey, supporting turns from Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner and Spike Jonze promise to be fascinating additions.

Director: Martin Scorsese

Genre: Crime Drama

Release Date: Nov. 15

“Inside Llewyn Davis” 

No filmmaker has such a finely tuned sense of time and place as the Coen brothers, and this exploration of the New York music scene in the 1960s earned rave reviews at the Cannes Film Festival. The Coens’ last musically inclined film, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” was one of their most strange but endearing works, and T-Bone Burnett has returned to do the music for “Inside Llewyn Davis,” along with cast member John Goodman. Goodman is joined by Oscar Issac, Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake, several performers whose sensibilities should pair nicely with the Coens’ sense of humor and melancholy.

Director: The Coen brothers

Genre: Drama

Release Date: Dec. 20

“Anchorman: The Legend Continues”

Ours is a generation that grew up loving “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy,” and the fact that we’re finally getting a sequel, nine years later, couldn’t be more exciting. Even if director Adam McKay can’t manage to capture lightning in a bottle twice, it’s exciting to see the entire cast returning for what promises to be the movie everybody sees on Christmas with their folks. Judging from his last few films, Will Ferrell has been saving all of his funny for this one, so let’s hope it lives up to the glorious heights of the first “Anchorman.”

Director: Adam McKay

Genre: Comedy

Release Date: Dec. 20