The Long Shot: ‘Gravity,’ ’12 Years a Slave’ and a little less conversation

Admittedly, Oscar season never felt half as long when it wasn’t part of my profession to cover it — and to think there was a time when the Motion Picture Sound Editors’ awards would simply pass right by me — but it’s increasingly hard to believe we once put up with it all the way until late March (or even early April, in some extreme years). The internet has doubtless egged on the speedier expenditure of Oscar-related conversation, exhausting relevant points of argument from as early as September.

Now, nearly six months after “Gravity” and “12 Years a Slave” were unveiled within days of each other to equal but differing flavors of acclaim — only the latter inspiring immediate, instructive “call off the Best Picture” race proclamations, not necessarily to its benefit — that conversation has essentially circled back to those two films, still standing sturdy of the the frontrunners and totem titles of the season. Arguably, the race has taken fewer detours than usual.

Only “American Hustle,” for a few frisky weeks, looked a feasible spoiler: whether you believe that its chances were deflated by the curiously hostile awards-media backlash to the film, or implausibly trumped up by that same media contingent to begin with, or both, says something about distraction we crave (only to sometimes furiously reject) in a season defined by upfront heavyweights. (As for the cynics who insisted in the early winter that “Saving Mr. Banks” would be the cream-puff contender that wound up taking it all, they were speaking more out of contempt for the Academy than any considered appraisal of the film or the race.)

The relative impermeability of this two-horse race hasn’t made for unexciting watching — indeed, I’d go so far as to say that for the first time since the 2006 Oscars, the Best Picture race isn’t at all easy to call at this late stage. (No, Academy, no one’s buying your own revisionist history that “The Hurt Locker” was a surprise victor.) From that wild PGA tie to “Slave’s” fragile, last-minute victories at the Globes and BAFTAs, it’s been a tense, teasing duel between two hefty, even-matched and vastly contrasting rivals; that’s something to celebrate even if neither film is your idea of the year’s best.

But if the race itself has been compelling, the same does not go for the conversation it has prompted. As is customary in the blogosphere when a contest comes down to two candidates, banal polarities are enforced: in all too many discussions, a vote for one film is a vote against the other, and heaven forbid you should support both. Depending on whom you read, one film is major and the other minor; one is magic and the other homework; one is art and the other product. Whichever one the Academy selects supposedly says any number of things about the industry and its priorities – the simple notion that it produced at least two excellent films in one year not among them.

That’s par for the course, whether the perceived divide is one of might versus right (the irresistible David-and-Goliath narrative of “The Hurt Locker” versus “Avatar”) or youth versus conservativism (“The Social Network” versus “The King’s Speech”). What’s interesting about this year’s face-off, however, is that however much journalists try to simplify it, there’s no consensus as to what the stakes in this contest actually are, or which faction is more fashionable.

That’s in large part because neither film strictly adheres to the conventions of so-called “Oscar bait.” Some might say “12 Years a Slave” fits the bill, given that its a weighty, handsomely produced drama about a critical period in American history. But just as many would argue that its visceral physical violence, its complex politics of looking and its still-unusual racial composition make it far from an easy choice for the Academy – most conventional Oscar bait, after all, doesn’t come from directors as thorny and avant-garde in their origins and sensibility as Steve McQueen.

Some might say “Gravity” instead represents the more typically Oscar-friendly option – the lavishly crafted, star-driven, sentiment-loaded studio blockbuster that shows off the industry’s technical advancements to dazzling effect, while also demonstrating the singular vision of a foreign artist Hollywood has come to embrace as its own. That’s a lot of boxes ticked, but others would counter that “Gravity” actually represents quite a leap for Academy voters, who mostly haven’t, er, gravitated toward mass genre entertainment in recent years, and may find Alfonso Cuaron’s deliberately disorienting spectacle a little too cutting-edge for comfort. (Others cite a bias against sci-fi within Academy ranks, the relevance of which point depends on how you define science fiction – it’s a contemporary astronaut thriller, not “Dune” – and how rigidly you stick precedent in your Oscar analysis. After all, a decade ago, no fantasy film had ever won Best Picture… until one did.)

That leaves us, then, with a race that can be interpreted in any number of ways, before and after the final outcome. Will a “Slave” victory be a pioneering victory for abrasive art film, black cinema and fractious revisionist history, or a safe retreat into the unimpeachable prestige territory of period drama? Will a “Gravity” victory be a insular demonstration of Hollywood self-celebration, or a forward-looking endorsement of boundary-pushing artistry? Is the Academy confronting the past or investing in the future? Given the possibility of the final vote democratically dividing the top races between them, might they wind up doing both, or committing to neither? These are the conflicting reasons this year’s Best Picture race isn’t just suspenseful, but genuinely intriguing, and its contenders deserve better than merely being rhetorically pitted against each other.

Meanwhile, the other seven nominees deserve better than also-ran acknowledgement. (Disagreement may still linger as top the merits of the expanded Best Picture field, but it has resoundingly failed in one area: increasing the number of nominees hasn’t made the final stretch any more competitive.) Between the past-future spectrum of the frontrunners lie a couple of films – “Her,” “The Wolf of Wall Street,” even “Philomena” – that their most ardent supporters believe speak expressly to the social, economical and/or political present. Yet they, too, wind up cornered into petty arguments with a shelf-life the expires punctually on March 2 – there can hardly be much more said about “Wolf” versus “American Hustle” at this point, yet both films still seem ripe for ideological picking on their own terms.

Naturally, we all have our favorites; cometh the hour, there’s one film we’ll be rooting for a little bit harder than the others. My own favorite film of 2013 is one of the frontrunners, which is an entirely unfamiliar position for this reinvigorated Oscar geek. But it seems to me that there’s much to gain from this year’s race even if my horse loses; the implications of any outcome this year are richer than our personal value judgments. Let’s keep the conversation bigger than the contest.