'12 Years a Slave' and the Top 10 Movies List


Art doesn't belong in a listicle. That wasn't my first thought, or even my 15th thought, after seeing the excellent 12 Years a Slave last weekend. But it was one of them.

Now, we aren't big about listicles around these parts, but we do love our year-end movie lists. It's an enjoyable way to recap the year that was -- to place a concrete marker down that both looks back at all the great films we have seen and, in a way, resets things for the coming calendar year. Yes, to a big degree it's arbitrary. But it's also fun to catalogue what you've seen and participate in a larger debate in the film community that, really, rages from December to Oscars time.

I've been starting to think about my Top 10 list for 2013, especially because we've now reached the time of year where a disproportionate number of the movies that make those lists happen to be released. 12 Years a Slave, will almost certainly make the cut for me as it will for the many, many others in the coming months.

Beyond just putting it on the list, though, I don't really know what to do with Steve McQueen's masterpiece. By that I mean that 12 Years a Slave is not a film that is meant to be enjoyed. It is not an exhilarating thrill ride or a spectacle or even an uplifting drama. Its point is to expose you to the horrors of slavery in uncomfortable and minute detail -- to make you squirm in disgust for a couple of hours. As my cohort put it in his review of this grueling film, "it’s all for none and one for one: get yourself out and worry about the others later."

When that's the impression a film leaves on its audience, well, how do you go about comparing it to Gravity or Mud or the other great films you've seen in 2013.

The answer, of course, is that you can't really. Gravity, to pick just one example, was a much more enjoyable experience than 12 Years a Slave. But that doesn't make it a better film because, well, that wasn't really the point of 12 Years, and the fact that the latter wasn't enjoyable doesn't diminish its power in the least. In fact, that's the source of much of its power.

I suppose this is obvious to intelligent film fans. There's a tacit understanding when we slap a rating at the end of one of our reviews that we, as critics/film buffs, are participating in a very informal debate about the place each particular film occupies in the overall landscape. We're categorizing the film relative to our own tastes and expectations. It doesn't go much beyond that.

Tacit though that understanding might be, it's still worth speaking aloud every now and again. The greatness of 12 Years a Slave can not be encapsulated in a rating or in a spot on a year-end Top 10 Movies list. If it's true of this film, then it's true of all the others -- good and bad -- that I've reviewed this year, and of the other nine that will end up on my list in a few months.