*** and 1/2 out of ****
The true story of Solomon Northup, a free African-American living in New York in the 1840s who was kidnapped and sold into slavery, makes for one of the year's best films in 12 Years a Slave.
Chiwetel Ejiofor, who has quietly been doing outstanding work in films since 2003's Dirty Pretty Things (check it out if you haven't seen it), will hopefully get the recognition he deserves for his work as Northup. It's understated, subtle work that recalls Morgan Freeman at his best. The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent, including Michael Fassbender as a sadistic plantation owner and Benedict Cumberbatch as a slave-owner who desperately wants to be seen as kind and generous, even if his ultimate actions indicate otherwise.
Director Steve McQueen did excellent work in Shame, a small-scale indie about sex addiction. 12 Years a Slave is his first large-scale drama, and he nails it. His long takes during scenes of cruelty remind the audience that this was a daily way of life the slaves couldn't escape from.
Whether it ends up winning awards or not, 12 Years a Slave is a must-see.