It’s all comes down to what resonates with people, or the Academy Voters, more.
Seeing Gravity in IMAX 3D is definitely one of the greatest cinematic experiences of the last 15 years. You literally feel like you’re in space from the moment the camera gradually brings you into the action at the start of the film and you’re brought face to face with this environment that only a few humans have ever experienced first hand.
You experience the entire film almost as an astronaut yourself - the camera seems to be suspended in this weightless environment along with George Clooney and Sandra Bullock. Enough so that some could believe that the movie was actually filmed in space. And with those stylish 3D glasses on, you’ll be dodging the space debris that that’s traveling towards you at bullet speed just like the two main protagonists.
Gravity is being praised because of the revolutionary way it was made, while 12 Years a Slave will probably end up being the seminal “Story of Slavery” film that will still be relevant 20 years from now. Not only because it tells a true story in a very graphic, realist way, but it forces viewers to look at the culture that made this way of life possible. A culture where a workforce is an inhuman commodity. Yet the stability of that workforce is crucial to the stability of an upper, and middle, class.
If Gravity is an innovative benchmark for Hollywood in the way Star Wars and Titanic were, then 12 Years is the type of deep, affective storytelling we’ve seen in The Shawshank Redemption and Goodfellas. (Fun fact: Goodfellas lost the 1990 Best Picture Award to the constantly referenced and universally replayed Dances With Wolves.) The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences may not be as in touch with the way a movie resonates with someone who takes the subway to work everyday or a single mother who was directly affected by the subprime mortgage crisis, but they do occasionally get it right.
Regardless of the winner, the people are the ultimate judge of how long a movie stays relevant. These people outside of the Hollywood community and movie-making “nerds.” In short, “the customer is always right.”