It isn't like last year, when it was down to "Argo" and "Lincoln," and it was already looking like "Argo." This year's Academy Awards ceremony, to be March 2, feels to me like a tricky three-way scenario among "American Hustle," "Gravity" and "12 Years a Slave." So already the Oscars are 33 percent more interesting than usual.
These three pictures are as dissimilar in subject, tone and style as any three films in English released in 2013. All feed off the idea of reinvention by necessity. The crooks at the crooked but sincere heart of David O. Russell's dark comedy "American Hustle" aren't who they say they are. Neither is Solomon Northup, the free-born Northerner abducted into slavery in Steve McQueen's drama, based on Northup's own 1853 memoir. And in "Gravity," directed and co-written by Alfonso Cuaron, the grieving woman lost in space played by Sandra Bullock is reborn, symbolically, and delivered back to terra firma after more separate, relentless and dizzying perils than "The Perils of Pauline" ever hatched.
But there's a more concrete and instructive element linking these films. Each was made by a director with a knack for knowing where to put the damn camera. And how long to sustain a shot. And when to cut, for reasons other than routine expediency.
The grabber is "Gravity," in that you really notice the duration of the shots. Cuaron's interest in putting the audience inside a magically sustained swirl of action predates his biggest success to date. Take a look (or another look) at his "Children of Men" sometime, for the scene of the ambush in the English countryside. There's a car carrying Julianne Moore, Chiwetel Ejiofor and others. It is beset by adversaries. Characters are shot, screaming, bleeding, the car keeps plowing on, more gunfire, more carnage. Cuaron's fiendishly complex shot appears to be a single, sustained take, though it really isn't. But the experience of watching the chaos unfold is truly extraordinary. The camera seems to oscillate and careen inside the car, and then outside of it, as if controlled by mysterious forces.
Now consider Cuaron's opening shot of "Gravity," which lasts about 17 minutes, or appears to. We float in space. The earth dominates the screen, huge and silent and blue. We hear radio transmission conversation on the soundtrack. The Hubble telescope drifts into the frame, as does George Clooney's character in a jet pack.
Biomedical engineer Ryan Stone, the Bullock character, floats into the frame next, struggling with nausea and the part of the machinery she's fixing. Then Ed Harris' voice tells the NASA crew members to abort the mission. Space debris starts flying at them at insane velocity. Close calls, whizwhizwhizbang, and then Ryan is cast adrift, alone, into the blackness. And … cut.
Already the "Gravity" opening is famous. Cuaron has spoken of his goal of turning the audience into "a third character," floating "with our other two characters." Elsewhere in the film the camera appears to do more modest but equally impressive magic tricks, showing us a point-of-view shot from inside Ryan's space helmet, looking out — a shot that continues on the outside of the helmet looking in.
As moviegoers, we have been trained by routine movies to expect routine rhythms. Someone talks, the camera records, and then cuts to a reaction shot of someone else, waiting for their line. Cuaron establishes a teeming, multilayered universe inside the frame. And holds it.
For "Gravity" he and his army of designers and effects wizards developed new digital technology to ensure we didn't lose the human element inside all the bravura. In The Daily Beast, Marlow Stern explained some of the magic this way. The director and his cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, cooked up "the idea of rotating lights around a stationary actor to make it appear as if he or she was moving around rapidly. They developed a 9-by-14-foot 'light box,' nicknamed 'The Cage' and lined with six giant LED panels composed of millions of lights, which surrounded the actors, who were held up by harnesses that appeared invisible on screen. Then they designed a 'race track' outside The Cage where a car-manufacturing robot with a camera installed inside would race around it and pop its arm inside various openings, to re-create the effect of floating and spinning around in space. The background, meanwhile, was added in post-production."
And it worked.
"Gravity" contains around a scant 150 or so separate shots, of varying lengths, some a few seconds, some a few minutes. This is a fraction of the usual for a film running less than 90 minutes. "American Hustle" works differently. Though his film has been widely and misleadingly compared to Martin Scorsese's "GoodFellas" in its energy and style, director and co-writer Russell doesn't favor the big wows, the attention-getting tracking shots that go on and on, exhilaratingly, such as the grand back-door entrance into the Copa in "GoodFellas."
Rather, Russell's camera engages in its little fox trots with the characters, a few seconds at a time, but still a few more seconds than most directors care to attempt. Take, for example, the sequence set to "I've Got Your Number." Irving (Christian Bale) and Sydney (Amy Adams) are falling in love. Their cons are taking off. In a seven-second shot we see their new digs, and the gold-plated sign on the wall reading LONDON ASSOCIATES — "for her accent," Bale explains in voice-over. The sign-installer joins the con artists in a Champagne toast. The camera noses in and then, with the extraneous character out of the frame, it pulls back out to capture the sip.
A few seconds later they dance across Park Avenue in New York. Literally: They're dancing. Nothing flashy in this shot's visual approach, but the camera dances alongside them for six seconds, and it's perfect, as if Irving and Sydney are imagining themselves as stars of their own '70s sitcom. Then, new shot, we're on the dance floor of the Plaza Hotel (actually the Copley in Boston, masquerading as the Plaza), and Irving and Sydney are lip-syncing the lyrics of the song under their breath, "We'll break the rules a lot …We'll be damn fools a lot." This is what people actually do on a dance floor, sometimes. It's a 24-second shot, sometimes coming very close to the faces of these two lovebirds, at one point tilting up to the mirrored ceiling to capture an image of the dance partners doing circles.
Simple stuff, really. But by allowing the camera free and easy interaction with the performers, "American Hustle" keeps the hustle buoyant. This isn't merely about making performers look good with the right light. It's about seeing how they move through their world. Someday Russell will make a full-on musical; already, with "Silver Linings Playbook" and now "American Hustle," he appears to be halfway there.
This sort of casual-seeming technique would be miserably out of place in a film such as "12 Years a Slave." Director McQueen isn't known for camera movement so much as camera stillness, though like all reputations, this one's not quite accurate.
In the film's infamous lynching scene, Ejiofor as Northup dangles from a rope that has somehow spared his life. The man's outstretched toes can barely reach the muddy ground. The shot goes on. Life on the plantation goes on all around him. "12 Years a Slave" editor Joe Walker said in an interview with Deadline: "The aim of this is that you're left with this awkwardness and deeply uncomfortable viewing of that wide shot of him hanging … and held to the point where there's no friendly cut. There's no relief. … It's almost like fueling the audience's subconscious that they are watching something real."
Compare the camera's role in that shot to what it does in an earlier sequence, the one featuring Paul Giamatti as the slave trader displaying his latest wares to customers inside a nicely appointed living room. Here, Giamatti leads the camera on a dance of death, ducking here and there, bobbing and weaving. Ejiofor claims only a corner of the scene. The humiliations and cruelties are properly matter-of-fact and played for truth, not melodrama. No Alan Parker-style ("Mississippi Burning") fulminations. McQueen's technique is at once classical and avant-garde, very much his own intuitive mixture. His film doesn't move or behave like any other historical epic, certainly not on this topic.
Shots of moderately or noticeably generous length and complexity hardly ensure quality. Look at Paul Greengrass, one of our finest popular contemporary filmmakers, represented in this year's Oscar race by "Captain Phillips." He cuts very aggressively, and harshly. And yet we never lose sight of what's happening to whom. He's a humane artist; the people on screen remain important, even when the dictates of an action sequence take over.
But here's what McQueen, Russell and Cuaron have in common. They are adults who take their time when the story, and the moment, calls for it. They are adults; they don't worry every second about boring the teenagers in the audience, or the technologically distracted and addled folks of any age.
They know how, and when, and where, and why they move their cameras. This year's Academy Awards are better for it.