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First Glimmer Of Oscar Season Arrives With ‘12 Years A Slave’

It’s not the kind of thing most moviegoers are itching to see.

It’s not in 3-D, and Sandra Bullock doesn’t float around weightless in her underpants.

But “12 Years a Slave” is still one of the best movies of the year.

It’s also one of the most unsettling.

The acclaimed drama from director Steve McQueen ( “Shame” ) is based on the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man and accomplished violinist in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., who’s abducted and sold into slavery in 1841. He’s told he’s a runaway slave from Georgia named Platt before he’s beaten with such ferocity that the paddle breaks. Then he’s whipped for good measure.

That’s just one of many degradations heaped upon Northup as he’s passed from a slave trader (Paul Giamatti) to a decent-ish plantation owner (Benedict Cumberbatch) to a maniacal, dehumanizing one (Michael Fassbender) prone to waking his “property” in the middle of the night for impromptu dance parties.

We’re still a long way from the heart of Oscar season, but “12 Years a Slave” is already poised to be a major contender. The inspirational tale is worthy of nominations for best picture and director as well as acting nods for the quietly sorrowful Ejiofor and Fassbender, who taps into his inner lunatic in fascinatingly hateful ways.

Making her film debut, Lupita Nyong’o may have walked away with the supporting actress trophy with her powerhouse performance as Patsey, the slave mistress of Fassbender’s character. When he forces Northup to whip her mercilessly for the crime of procuring a bar of soap, it will simultaneously break your heart and make you throw up in your mouth.

Christopher Lawrence is the movie critic at the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at clawrence@reviewjournal.com.

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