If you were talking about Steve McQueen five years ago, it was probably about Bullitt jumping over Nazi barricades on a motorcycle and stealing art from museums. Either that, or you were plugged into the museum scene and had an eye for experimental short films. While you were failing to stop Thomas Crown from pilfering priceless work, you were discovering a new Steve McQueen. The rest of us had to wait until 2008.

In the past five years, the new McQueen has translated two decades of success within docent-tinged walls into indie film domination and, now, mainstream emergence without compromise. That’s a simmering, meteoric rise into a cultural place that few filmmakers ever go.

The new McQueen was born a year after the old McQueen became Crown and Bullitt, but in a small amount of time, he’s solidified himself as a cinematic voice to take very, very seriously. In other words, if you’re talking about Steve McQueen today, there’s an odds on chance that you’re dissecting Shame or Hunger or 12 Years a Slave.

Over that time, a million words of praise have been written about McQueen, particularly as an unflinching artist looking difficult truths in the eye. His films are deeply intimate, often portraying profound power or powerlessness, often leaving audiences with a bowling ball in their gut. That skill is enough to push him into the upper pantheon of current creators, but it’s his outstanding ability to imbue a larger release with his sensibilities while maintaining a forceful vision that tops the roster this year.

Part of that is owed to a new frontier where big releases are mingling with independent spirit. Bigger names are feeling freer to power smaller projects, and for McQueen that meant leveraging Brad Pitt’s support into an opportunity to tell a non-Hollywood story to a Hollywood-sized audience.

It also means he’s earned a shot at becoming the first black man to win an Oscar for Best Director. If he does, it will be in recognition of what he’s done to bring Solomon Northup’s harrowing tale into vivid relief, but for fans who have been with McQueen since Hunger (or even earlier), 12 Years a Slave isn’t a surprise. McQueen is blisteringly good at making movies. Astounding films are what we’ve come to expect. Even before he pulled the hat trick, seeing his name on a poster was a reason for energetic anticipation and a slight fear that he was going to ruin you for more than two hours.

Box office performance is almost never a metric of quality art, but in McQueen’s case, it tells a fascinating story about trajectory that breaks the stereotype about what audiences want:

  • Hunger (2008) – $2.7M worldwide
  • Shame (2011) – $17.7M worldwide
  • 12 Years a Slave (2013) – $37M domestic and counting

We tend to think of arthouse and mainstream as two diametrically opposed film-going worlds, but McQueen’s popular rise challenges that thinking, particularly because those who fell in love with his work this year could easily discover his two previous outings with Michael Fassbender and find even more to love.

That — and many other things — make McQueen an exceptionally rare filmmaker. An artist who can speak one language of cinema in a way that becomes universal. Who can use the trappings of prestige storytelling and — without muddying them — deliver something to a broader audience that we typically believe can’t handle anything that doesn’t involve a sunset and people riding sweetly into it.

He’s emerged in 2013 beyond the museum walls and the borders of obsessive cinephilia to become a new force. It’s exciting to think that this is merely the beginning for him. It’s also exciting that when someone brings up the name “Steve McQueen,” you’ve got to ask if they mean the iconic actor or the iconic writer/director.

And, yes, a double feature of Papillon and Hunger does sound delightfully torturous.

More Best of 2013

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