Chiwetel Ejiofor in '12 Years a Slave,' directed by Steve McQueen.
Chiwetel Ejiofor in '12 Years a Slave,' directed by Steve McQueen.

As Telluride Film Festival co-director Gary Meyer reminded at the opening day press conference, he and co-directors Tom Luddy and Julie Huntsinger like to stay away from the word "world premiere." But they do in fact book them and it seems that the Telluride Oscar record is so good that more and more studios and indies are bringing films here as well as Venice and Toronto and New York. In fact, Cannes entries "All is Lost," "Inside Llewyn Davis" and "Nebraska" are skipping Toronto on their way to New York. So I made sure to see them here. (More later.)

Paramount's Jason Reitman romance "Labor Day" debuted Thursday, while two unannounced big films made a big splash Friday: Warner Bros. awards hopeful "Prisoners," which nabbed rave reviews for Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal and Fox Searchlight's "12 Years a Slave," directed by Steve McQueen. Alfonso Cuaron's "Gravity," which we reviewed in Venice, will play Saturday night. Weinstein Co. was planning to bring "Philomena," which scored well in Venice (our TOH! review), but will unveil their Salinger documentary instead.

Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor as a free black Northerner abducted and sold into slavery, "12 Years a Slave" is director Steve McQueen's followup to the elegant, if cold, art films "Hunger" (2008) and "Shame" (2011), which both premiered at Telluride. Searchlight is launching its Academy Awards campaign here. The lavish cast includes McQueen mainstay Michael Fassbender, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, Sarah Paulson and Quvenzhane Wallis. A roundup of reviews of "12 Years" below, and "Prisoners" and trailers after the jump.


For all McQueen's considerable skills as a filmmaker, "12 Years" would not succeed without Ejiofor's incredible turn.  In this day in age it may be hard to believe why a free man wouldn't run for his life or fight to his last breath in Northup's circumstances. Ejiofor makes history palatable as he captures Northup's desire to survive as well as his despair as the weight of his plight increases over time.

Based on Solomon Northup's 1853 bestseller, "12 Years a Slave" owes much to Ejiofor's knockout performance. But it's a particularly noteworthy advancement in McQueen's already impressive filmography, as it funnels the cerebral formalism of his earlier features (the prison strike drama "Hunger" and the sex addict portrait "Shame") into a deeply involving survival narrative. As a result, "Slave" injects its topic with immediacy.

The first thing fans of McQueen's "Hunger" and "Shame" will notice here is the degree to which the helmer's austere formal technique has evolved -- to the extent that one would almost swear he'd snuck off and made three or four films in the interim. Composition, sound design and story all cut together beautifully, and yet, there's no question that "12 Years a Slave" remains an art film, especially as the provocative director forces audiences to confront concepts and scenes that could conceivably transform their worldview.

McQueen's previous two films -- "Hunger" (2008), which is about a hunger striker, and "Shame" (2011), which is about a sex addict -- both also debuted at Telluride. And like them, "Twelve Years" is an extremely dark and disturbing work that will almost certainly resonate more with critics than the general public. But unlike those earlier two films, which received a grand total of zero Oscar nominations, this one, because of its larger historical canvas and the magnificent performances from its giant ensemble cast, will almost certainly resonate more with the Academy.

As for McQueen’s work, advance chatter had some wondering whether he had what it took to make a mainstream entertainment his third time around, but there won’t be much questioning of that after doubters see “12 Years a Slave.” It has the strokes you’d expect out of a studio picture but also some moments few other directors would have attempted, like an agonizingly beautiful sequence in which Solomon literally tip-toes his way through a near-hanging that goes on for several silent minutes.

A roundup of reviews of "Prisoners" after the jump.