The 2018 Oscars: Best Picture Nominees

It’s the Oscars! The granddaddy of all awards shows! It’s the fancy one without drunk celebrities (so, you know, boring).

We know, the Oscars are “political,” and self-congratulatory, and overall very silly. Big studios are always going to have a big advantage because they can market their films and launch luscious campaigns to Academy voters.  However, it is kind of a fun way to look at movies, and a good way to find movies you might not have otherwise watched. Movies outside of your favorite genre! For example, I generally don’t enjoy romantic movies, I enjoy dramas and action, I find romances boring. But this gives me a chance to see high-quality films that I might not have otherwise considered, like The Big Sick or Call Me By Your Name. And the Academy likes to occasionally throw an Indie or two a bone, so keep an eye out for those.

I try to watch as many of the movies in at least the Best Picture category as I can every year as my own little tradition. The Academy expanded the nominations in 2009 to up to 10 nominees every year, just to make my life more difficult. I mean, they really failed to take my needs into consideration. Many of these movies don’t expand to wide release until January, sort of compressing the “awards season” for us non-media movie watchers. Professional movie critics get to see many of these films during Film Festivals or via screeners, or of course they can get to movie premiers. Also, it’s their jobs. But as an audience member, I always find this a little frustrating, I would like to see all these movies! Before the Oscars! (Please feel free to send me screeners, the Academy.)

Whining about timing aside, this year I feel that all the movies nominated are very deserving. They’re all beautifully filmed, precise, technical, properly structured and paced, and wonderfully acted. The dialogue is genuine and generally avoids clichés. It’s also a fairly diverse group of films for a nice change. I don’t feel very strongly about the order of the top 6 in my list, any one of them could win and I feel that would be perfectly acceptable. I do have negative feelings about Lady Bird, Phantom Thread, and Three Billboards, but my complaints focus around story rather than the quality of the film, so that may simply be a question of taste. Most people loved those films in my bottom three, so I’m clearly in the minority. Anything could happen, but I don’t feel like I will be personally insulted if my favorite isn’t picked.

This is also going to be an interesting, awkward, difficult, and complicated year to host the ceremony after the accusations against Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Brett Ratner, James Franco, Casey Affleck, Woody Allen…the host will have to thread the needle between sensitivity to those issues and humor, a rather delicate balance. Good thing the show is being hosted by,…*squints at notes* the former host of “The Man Show,” Jimmy Kimmel. Oh good.

My ranking of the Best Picture nominees:

  1. The Shape of Water
  2. Get Out
  3. Call Me By Your Name
  4. Dunkirk
  5. The Post
  6. Darkest Hour
  7. Lady Bird
  8. Phantom Thread
  9. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

The following post is very long, so I organized it in the order listed above, and then each movie is discussed in three categories, a summary, what I think makes this movie great, and the odds of this film winning Best Picture.

***SPOILERS FOR ALL THESE FILMS. TURN BACK NOW IF YOU WANT TO REMAIN UNSPOILED. ALSO, DON’T WATCH THE OSCARS IF YOU WANT TO REMAIN UNSPOILED. WHY ARE YOU EVEN HERE?!***

The Shape of Water

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Summary: A mute woman, Elisa (Sally Hawkins), lives her perfectly satisfactory, if routine, life, as she works the late shift as a cleaning lady at a mysterious scientific facility. She lives over a movie theater, next door to an older gay man, Giles (Richard Jenkins), who has lost his livelihood as an artist for advertisements. Their friendship is adorable as they watch movies and eat meals together. Her best friend at work, Zelda (Octavia Spencer), is a black woman and a fast-talking ally. The movie takes place in the cold war era, as the United States searches for new weapons in the arms race against Russia. These three characters are all vulnerable in this society, and together they give each other support and love, especially when they make questionable choices. Giles has a crush on a young man at the local soda shoppe, Elisa worries for him if he acts on his crush. Zelda loves her husband, but she seems to be trying to convince herself of his worth. Elisa…falls in love with a fish.

Ok, a fishman, who was considered a god in his home in South America from which he was kidnapped. He (Doug Jones) is also mute, a lanky humanoid with glowing lines and fins, his gills reflect the scars on Elisa’s neck. The two connect because they find a way to communicate. Elisa brings him food and company, and after witnessing his torture, cements her decision to free him. Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) is the human monster of this film, he wields his power over all characters, and rages as the creature defies him and fights back. Strickland is obsessed with the “normal” way things should be. He clearly feels he should be the head of his family, the head of the research facility, in charge of employees. Women should acquiesce to his demands, people of color should note his superiority. He festishizes his power and actively hates anything that threatens to disrupt his normal life. So much so, that he refuses to acknowledge the fingers he had re-attached are rotting away after the Amphibious Man bit them off, a clear show of disrespect. Del Toro aptly makes Strickland’s desire for the status quo with him on top the outlier in the story, and you root for the gang of outcasts to save the fish man and Elisa’s love. As Strickland’s hand rots, so does his mind, and he devolves wildly into a monster of no reason as he tries to prevent Elisa and her friends from saving the Amphibious Man.

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What Makes This Movie Great: The Shape of Water is one of Guiellermo del Toro greatest films, in line with his original masterpiece, Pan’s Labyrinth. Del Toro concentrates on the monstrosity of humanity, and how perceived monsters might be the heroes we’re searching for. But in this tale, the characters who were all socially less powerful wield the real power. This is a theme that could easily become preachy or simple, but avoids becoming so by showing how the characters resist even their own growth. Giles is conflicted about adopting new technology and about his own expressions of love. When he finally expresses himself and puts himself out there he finds his strength, even if it wasn’t the result he was hoping for. Zelda finally realizes how weak her husband is compared to her strength. And Elisa finds her own courage to break from her safe routine.

As in all Del Toro movies, he layers in themes. In Pan’s Labyrinth part of the story was about finding one’s own courage to step away from faith, no matter how deep your belief, as portrayed by the Satyr (also played by Doug Jones). The Shape of Water uses water as a powerful force for change. In the beginning of the film, the water represents comfort in stability, satisfaction with the status quo. Elisa starts her day in the bathtub with some self-satisfaction, perfunctory, timed with an egg timer. As the film progresses the water becomes more violent, murky, hiding secrets as the Amphibian man slowly becomes more comfortable with Elisa. The water here is a prison. By the end of the film, the water has seeped into every nook and cranny of Elisa’s life (and her apartment, and the movie theater downstairs), it is a force for change.

Odds are…Very strongly in Water’s favor that it will win Best Picture. It leads with 13 Oscar nominations, and leans into an old classic Hollywood theme that Academy voters swoon for. Del Toro is the favorite to win Best Director as well, a category highly correlated with a Best Picture win. However, it has that squidgy factor of a woman falling in love with a fish man, and some people simply did not get it. Oscar nominations include: Production Design, Editing, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing, Costume Design, Cinematography, Original Screenplay, Original Score, Supporting Actress (Octavia Spencer), Supporting Actor (Richard Jenkins), Lead Actress (Sally Hawkins), Director, and Picture.

The Shape of Water has unfortunately been hit with a lawsuit claiming copyright infringement, and it seems very serious. I’m not sure if that will hurt its chances of winning, but voting didn’t end for the Academy until February 27.  My personal feeling is that this is a theme that Del Toro has constantly explored, and the closeness of the Fish Man to Abe Sapien of Hellboy makes me feel like that was more or less where those ideas came from. However, I’m not looking at all the evidence. I would be really disappointed if this turns out to be true.

Get Out

Film Title: Get OutSummary: A movie meant to look straight into the heart of “benevolent racism.” Get Out starts with a young black man, Chris (Daniel Kaluuye) going to meet the parents of his white girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams), in upstate New York. And you think you know where this is going…but this is a horror story, not a rom-com. Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener play Rose’s parents with deft complexity, subtle and manipulative. And eventually creating one of Twitter’s favorite gifs of her father telling Chris he would’ve voted for Obama for a third term in a sort of well-meaning-but-actually-uncomfortable white way. The family is having a large party, full of oddly behaving wealthy white people. They talk about him to him, his build, his genetic background, and he smiles through it all as somebody who has lived through every type of “polite” interaction with white people who think they’re being kind. Then he spots one other black man, and Chris is visibly relieved to be able to drop his polite, young, black man act for a moment…but is shocked to find that his fellow person of color is very strange. Andre’s (Lakeith Stanfield) eyes shift from fear, stress, trying to express something, but return to passive happiness. The interaction is quick but disturbing. Actually, every person of color Chris runs into at the house is acting strangely, disturbing, like something is lurking behind their eyes and is in deep conflict. Which speaks to the amazing abilities of all these actors, that the conflict of having two personalities warring for dominance shines through in all their faces.

Film Title: Get OutLater, Rose’s mother tells Chris she can help him quit smoking through hypnosis. He reluctantly says he’ll give it a shot, and we’re introduced to “The Sunken Place,” as Chris falls deep into his own mind and finds he cannot escape. When he wakes up, Chris is deeply uncomfortable and wants to leave. As he searches for his belongings (who keeps unplugging his phone?!), he finds pictures of Rose with a slew of other black men, so he knows she lied when she told him she had never dated a black man before. As he angrily makes his way to the door, mom appears with her teacup and he’s sinking again as she implements the hypnotic suggestion. A teacup has never been so intimidating. Chris wakes up to find himself strapped down to a chair, and about to have a new personality implanted from the disabled white man he had met at a party, who won the silent auction Chris had been absent from (when did they get that huge blown up picture of his face made?). Chris’s strength of mind helps him get away and take out this deranged immortal family. His escape, with the help of his friend Rod (our audience avatar who constantly shouts, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” at the screen, we love Rod), who recognized Chris was in a scary movie long before he did, is violent and terrifying. Rose, who is all in on the family’s evil machinations, loves her family and the family “business.” She would definitely continue this on her own, she has to go.

What Makes This Movie Great: The themes of “duality” and “otherness” play big roles in this film. Chris must be polite and suppress rolling his eyes at the non-convincing cool that the party members attempt to impress him with. Rose plays a woman who seems loving, kind, and naive, but is actually cold, calculating, and not afraid of violence. How we act in front of others versus how we act with our friends, how race plays a role in everyday interactions even when we try to pretend race isn’t important, and how even well-meaning white people make people of color feel as if they’re a separate part of society. Finally, trying to steal one’s body after festishizing it is the deepest sort of terror.

Odds are… probably good. Get Out is the rare film that is critically praised and a box office success, it has picked up numerous awards from smaller circles, Daniel Kaluuye has been nominated for Best Actor, Jordan Peele is nominated for Best Director, and the screenplay is up for Best Original Screenplay. It’s likely to get Original Screenplay as a consolation prize, and other films seem like favorites for the other awards categories. The horror genre is still a little outside the comfort zone for the Academy. A dark horse pick for sure.

Call Me By Your Name

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Summary: Elio (Timothee Chalet) spends his days at an impossibly beautiful Italian villa (which is for sale IRL!) with his academic father (Michael Stuhlbarg) and mother (Amira Casar). Elio is 17-years old and trying to grow up, trying to be cool, trying to be disaffected, and clearly a little mystified about his sexuality. He hides in books and music, but goes out with friends to dance in town, and thinks he should date a girl. His parents gaze at him with love throughout the entire movie, quietly guiding him here and there so his coming-of-age phase doesn’t hurt him too much.

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Every year, his father accepts a student to study with him for the summer. This year, Oliver (Armie Hammer) arrives, all American swagger and cute good looks. He’s casual, he’s modern, he’s gregarious. He seems so carefree. He leaves every conversation with a flippant, “Later,” and is confused by soft boiled eggs. Elio initially rejects his own interest in Oliver, but takes every opportunity to socialize or be near him. He tries dating a young French girl, Marzia (Esther Garzia) to further how disinterested he seems. They even sleep together, but the relationship is cut short, c’est la vie. Eventually, Elio and Oliver begin their romance and it’s exceedingly sweet. They swim, and bike, and read. They dance and play and tease. But it’s all short lived. Soon Oliver’s study has come to an end, and after one whirlwind trip through the Italian countryside together, he’s gone. Elio calls his mother to come pick him up from the train station with a broken heart. She doesn’t say a word, but moms know.

What Makes This Movie Great: I did not think I would like this movie. Romance is not my favorite genre, Armie Hammer has been a fine if rather forgettable actor, and young actors like Chalamet are rarely good. Additionally, I didn’t understand how the title was a romantic thing to say, (to be honest, I still think it’s weird and awkward). Further, it has the potential to look predatory given the stars’ and characters’ difference in age. But instead, it’s full of youthful exuberance and the awkwardness of first loves. The signals we sent at that age that we thought were so subtle and important and uniquely ours turn out to be the common language of stumbling through a first relationship. It also tells us that our mistakes in those first relationships could be forgiven, and that it’s ok to forgive yourself for making them.

The photography is gorgeous, reflecting a warm, ephemeral memory. And what’s even more interesting is Elio is allowed to run sort of free through the Italian countryside and with the local youths and discover himself. His parents rarely intervene, and when they do, they do it with a light touch. His father chastises him for a silly joke about his friends, a gay couple, who come to visit one night. One of my favorite moments is almost an aside, when Elio’s mother intervenes with his first girlfriend who is feeling slighted after he ghosts her to spend time with Oliver, “come to dinner,” she says to her friend, “and bring Marzia.” Later, Marzia forgives Elio and asks to be friends, and you can infer that mom gently mentioned that Elio might not be interested in women, and that she shouldn’t take it personally. Elio never realizes his mother knows.

But of course, the most poignant moment is when Elio’s father speaks to him about the end of a love story at the end of the movie. The whole talk is beautiful, but he advises his son,  “We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster than we should that we go bankrupt by the age of thirty and have less to offer each time we start with someone new. But to feel nothing so as not to feel anything – what a waste!” and by the end you’re ugly crying because of Michael Stuhlberg’s perfect delivery. This perfect story is clearly a fantasy, but it’s so beautiful.

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“We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster than we should that we go bankrupt by the age of thirty and have less to offer each time we start with someone new. But to feel nothing so as not to feel anything – what a waste!”

Odds are…Not looking good for this little fantasy love story. It’s original release was bungled, and it’s hardly been a box office winner. It’s nominated for four Academy awards, Lead Actor (Timothee Chalamet), Adapted Screenplay, Original Song, and Best Picture. It’s most likely to win Best Adapted Screenplay.  A Best Picture win without a Best Director nomination is very rare.

Dunkirk

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Summary: (I stole most of this summary from my own review of Dunkirk) Americans may not be as familiar with the details of the Dunkirk evacuation in 1940. British and French armies had been forced back to the most-northern point of France, the titular Dunkirk, by German forces. The British soldiers lined up on the beach, awaiting ships that might never arrive, ducking for cover when attacked by bomb-dropping Luftwaffe, resignedly lining back up after another round of chaos and carnage. From the opening scene they are exhausted, and just hoping to survive, desperately wishing for home. Back in England, the Navy requisitions civilian boats to send to assist with the evacuation at Dunkirk across The Sea. 

In The Air, Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) swoop in to provide air support and take out the enemy bombers harassing the beach at Dunkirk. Farrier and Collins take down the faceless enemy, staying calm in the face of what must seem like inevitable death. The ocean promises u-boats or the possibility of drowning.  The skies hide the enemy above and below the clouds.  The beaches are far, and fuel is limited. Farrier watches his comrades being shot down. Hardy, who has learned to act around a wide variety of face-covering implements (seriously directors, is getting Hardy to act with only half his face some sort of running gag or just an added level of difficulty for the man?), conveys concern, calculation, and determination through just a variety of squints and brow furrows. 

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The Air is where the cinematography truly feeds life into the film, and is where most of the IMAX footage was shot from.  The Sky reaches out forever, The Sea below is never ending. Even the beach seems to go on into the distance.  These sprawling landscapes have the effect of being too big and simultaneously claustrophobic.  Nowhere, not the sea, the air, or the beach, is safe. Every landscape hides the enemy.  When Collins is shot down and lands in the ocean, he prepares to calmly bail out of his plane as water begins to seep in.  When the hatch reveals itself as stuck after the impact of hitting the water, panic joins the water trickling into the scene, the camera remains focused tightly on his face and in the cockpit.  We don’t know this story, there is no main character guaranteed to make it to the end of the film, so this pilot could very well be in danger. The tense scene is echoed in the camera not being allowed to escape the hatch along with Collins, giving the audience a real sense of dread and fear.

Nolan wisely focuses on the mission of the Dunkirk evacuation, and we never get to know the characters in depth.  This approach is very different than most war films wherein the focus is on one lead character, and follows their mission ala Saving Private Ryan.  This technique helps narrow the scope of an otherwise sprawling, difficult to grasp, bigger than life event, and make it personal.  Dunkirk ignores this concept, and the narrative, which is extremely sparse on dialogue, focuses on the mission.  It’s a big mission, and it would be dragged down by focusing on any one individual character.  The soldiers are nearly identical dark haired young men.  There is no one hero in Dunkirk, survival was the goal, and everyone had to play a part for success. We might recognize some regular Nolan players (and even Michael Cain manages an appearance of sorts!), but they are among the few characters that need to stand out so we can subsequently identify them in later scenes. Even the enemy is faceless as we never see the German forces, but they are always present. Civilians entered a war zone to save their countrymen, pilots fought on despite their dwindling fuel supplies, colonels stayed to ferry more men to safety.

What Makes This Movie Great: Lauded as one of the truly great cinematic experiences of the year, Dunkirk employs gorgeous photography and limited dialogue to create an immersive atmosphere of desperation and fear. The music ticks to increase your heart rate. The camera induces agoraphobia and claustrophobia. Nolan uses every tool at his disposal to focus the audience on the plight of the soldiers placidly waiting on the beach for a rescue that may never come. It’s tragic and terrifying and frustrating to watch as the soldiers suffer and die. Nolan is one of this generations greatest directors, and this film is the culmination of a great career working with talented casts. 

Odds are…slim for Nolan and company to take home the big award. It seems like a safe bet as a movie about World War II, but it’s not nearly as buzzy as Get Out or The Shape of Water.  It seems stodgy in comparison. Dunkirk is nominated for eight Oscars: Sound Mixing, Production Design, Film Editing, Sound Editing, Original Score, Cinematography, Director, and Picture. This is Nolan’s first nomination for the Best Director category, which is puzzling considering his filmography. It will likely win some technical awards and be snubbed in the bigger categories. 

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There is some controversy around Dunkirk due to its all-white cast. This casting specifically removes Indian and black faces from the historical events surrounding the events of the Dunkirk evacuation. One of the problems I had when I watched this film was that I had heard Harry Styles was in it. I have no idea what Harry Styles looks like, but I found myself searching for him because I thought he might stand out. And I realized all of the soldiers look very much alike. Every one of them had dark hair and eyes, and was slim to the point of looking hungry. My interpretation was that the soldiers were not meant to stand out from one another, which coincides with the cold, technical take of the rest of the movie. Not to dismiss them as a dehumanized, faceless mass, like the Germans were, but rather as just kids in a war they don’t fully understand. Children who could be anybody’s friend or family, just hoping to survive. Dunkirk is not a documentary, it’s clearly art, it’s meant to be thought provoking about the event, not the individuals that endured it. That being said, Christopher Nolan movies are white AF, and he needs to better understand that instead of becoming defensive of the critique. He could have implemented the same ideas with a more diverse cast, and should have.

The Post

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Summary: Directed by Steven Spielberg, starring perennial Oscar nominee Meryl Streep, and America’s most likable human Tom Hanks. Supporting actors include Bob Odenkirk, Mathew Rhys, Sarah Paulson, Bradley Whitford, Alison Brie, Carrie Coon, and Bruce Greenwood. Written by the guy who wrote and produced the Oscar winning Spotlight. It covers the release of the Pentagon Papers and the affect it had on the Nixon administration, and how it might have affected its subsequent actions at the Watergate Hotel. Its release coincides with a time when the freedom of the Press is very much in the air as the current administration rails against negative stories, calling any non-favorable coverage “fake.” This movie was practically designed to win awards, and yet somehow, has failed.

The Post begins by showing us Daniel Ellsberg (Mathew Rhys), a military analyst, disgusted by the realization that the United States Government was suppressing the realization that we could not win the Vietnam War. He smuggles the Pentagon Papers out a few pages at a time. The New York Times gets hold of them first, but is stymied from printing further stories by the government citing the Espionage Act. The Washington Post gets hold of the Papers, and must decide if they should print and defy the United States Government, or defend their First Amendment right.

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This all sounds like a pretty cut and dry newspaper movie. And it shares a lot of the same DNA with Spotlight, which won Best Picture in 2015. However, the drama occurs more outside the newsroom, between editor Ben Bradlee (Hanks) and publisher Kay Graham (Streep). Both are political insiders. Bradlee was close with the Kennedy family, and Graham was a socialite among the DC elite, she had Robert McNamara (Greenwood) at her home regularly, before her husband who ran the paper died. This sets up intense conflict of interests for both of them, and some serious self reflection. Will they stand up for their ideals even though it might hurt their personal relationships AND cost them the Washington Post? Graham also had to deal with the sexism of dealing with her late husband’s business. The Post was her father’s business, but when she married it seemed natural for him to run the paper. Kay was inexperienced in business, but she had been steeped in the news all of her life. Kay and Bradlee butt heads throughout the film. Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) tracking down Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers is almost a comical aside.

Justice Hugo Black wrote in his concurring opinion on New York Times Co vs. United States, “Government’s power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the Government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people. Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government. And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell…The Framers of the First Amendment, fully aware of both the need to defend a new nation and the abuses of the English and Colonial governments, sought to give this new society strength and security by providing that freedom of speech, press, religion, and assembly should not be abridged.”

“The Framers of the First Amendment, fully aware of both the need to defend a new nation and the abuses of the English and Colonial governments, sought to give this new society strength and security by providing that freedom of speech, press, religion, and assembly should not be abridged.” Justice Hugo Black, New York Times Co vs. United States

What Makes this Movie Great: Watching Streep portray Kay Graham, a woman in a very powerful position who is not very comfortable being there, surrounded by men who are mostly ignoring her, mansplaining, is very powerful as she evolves. She’s hesitant to take chances with her company though she clearly cares very much. She puts in the work studying the details of the public offering, and simultaneously understands the political intricacies of the puzzle her paper has created for her. There is no shouting, no loud moment when she *becomes,* she simply, finally, voices the most important decision possibly of her life, “Let’s do it.” And with that, the Washington Post became one of the most important and admired newspapers in the country.

Odds are… The Post is a great movie that will almost certainly not win Best Picture. Meryl Streep is a treasure. Tom Hanks is great even though his Boston/Kennedy accent comes and goes (it IS a thing that happens when you leave the area). It’s only nominated for two awards this Sunday, Lead Actress (Meryl Streep), and Best Picture. It lacks the rhetorical grandeur of Lincoln, and it’s topic is almost too topical. We’re living through a similar sort of drama, so the parts that hit hardest are in the third act when they begin to really debate how to treat their responsibility, and how they treat each other. The rest, we’re somewhat numb to. 

Darkest Hour

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Summary: After Neville Chamberlain is forced to resign, Winston Churchill takes over as Prime Minister of the U.K. on the verge of World War II.  He’s given a choice, to negotiate with Hitler or defy him and go to war. Churchill’s own party is uneasy with him, the opposition party is hungry to see him fail, and the King frets that he’ll have to go to Canada because he has no confidence in Churchill. Churchill knows what he’s up against, he realizes he’s been given the Prime Ministership of a sinking ship, an impossible task. His intelligence, and quick tongue keep him afloat as he faces enemies from all sides. He only has his loving wife and the support of his very tolerant secretary to help him. We spend a lot of time in map rooms discussing the potential outcomes of each move, and defying those who counsel negotiating for peace, “You cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth!” he shouts in frustration.

In the end, we see him decide to sacrifice one battalion to evacuate the bulk of his forces at Dunkirk. And galvanize the nation for war by delivering one of his best known speeches. “We will NEVER surrender!” he declares to the cheers of Parliament that had moments before been sharpening their knives.  Later, the Viscount recounts how he won over England, “He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.”

What Makes this Movie Great: Darkest Hour is a movie that the Academy has traditionally loved. It’s classically told, about a historical figure, with a great actor under heavy makeup creates a full transformation. But it is a little boring. Darkest Hour is a drama that unfolds, in the driest, most British possible way; seeing Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk actually made this film more interesting. If Dunkirk had been absent this year, Darkest Hour might have been overlooked, saved only by Oldman’s performance as Churchill. And it’s a great performance, he embodies the boozy, unpredictable politician perfectly. He exudes the cleverness the politician would have to embody to make the right choices, and impress the right people.

But the movie itself is talky, it fails to give more than bare outlines of any other character other than Churchill. And Churchill’s trip to the subway never happened. It defies suspension of disbelief even if you aren’t aware that it’s a fantasy. However, Churchill, as a character in this film, is a tour de force. He must navigate British politics, save his country’s military, deal with royalty, and determine the future of his nation. It’s a lot of power and responsibility, and Oldman admirably portrays it with skill.

Odds are… slim to none for Darkest Hour to win Best Picture.  It is nominated for six awards including Production Design, Hair and Makeup, Costume Design, Cinematography, Lead Actor (Oldman), and Best Picture. The lack of Director and Screenplay nominations, again, say quite a bit about its odds in the Best Picture race. It’s likely Oldman will pick up his first Oscar for Best Actor.

Gary Oldman has been sweeping up awards for his portrayal of Churchill. However, in the wake of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, some old accusations of domestic violence have been once again brought to the forefront of pop culture news. To be totally fair, Oldman said the police investigated and found no reason to press charges. However, Oldman also defended Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic rant, called Nancy Pelosi some terrible names, and said that people thought that if they didn’t vote for 12 Years a Slave (2013) for Best Picture they would be considered racist. He’s not doing himself any favors there, though he later apologized for his comments. In a year when Casey Affleck withdrew as a presenter for Best Lead Actress (he won Best Lead Actor for Manchester by the Sea last year, and the winner of the year prior traditionally gives out the award to the opposite sex. Traditions are weird.), and James Franco had been considered a contender for The Disaster Artist until sexual assault allegations against him surfaced, and of course, the Harvey Weinstein awfulness, it’s hard to imagine this can be ignored.  Therefore, I am not 100 percent sure Oldman will take home the Best Actor trophy with the more diverse voting population this year, but I still believe he’s the most likely winner for that category.

Lady Bird

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Summary: People in Sacramento passionately love this movie, so I’m probably risking my life publishing this mildly derisive blog. But hopefully most die-hard fans saw the list at the top, noticed I placed Lady Bird in the bottom third, and threw their laptop out the window in disgust already.

Lady Bird is a nice movie about Sacramento and the relationships between mothers and daughters. It’s well made and well acted. It is otherwise boring. You’ve seen this coming-of-age film a million times, and you will see it again a million more. Sprinkle in a little superficial religion and voila! Lady Bird.

But most of the stories on this list have been told before! What makes Lady Bird fall so low? Mostly, a lack of ambition. It plays it safe through the whole movie.

Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) and her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), are trying to find the right college fit for her in California. Lady Bird wants to go somewhere with “culture” like New York. She’s frustrated her mom doesn’t understand what she wants, but she does but understands their family’s financial limitations. This establishes Lady Bird and her mother’s conflicts, and Lady Bird’s attitude toward the world around her. She hates Sacramento because it’s not as much of a city as she hopes for.

Lady Bird is also a cute story about first loves, but Lady Bird’s own selfishness prevents her from successfully seeing her gentlemen for what they are until it’s too late. When she discovers that her boyfriend is gay, it carries almost no weight, it just allows Lady Bird to move onto her new angsty, tousle-haired, snobby crush (Timothee Chalamet). Later, her gay ex visits her at work to beg her not to tell anyone, her self-absorption cracks a little, and you later see her support him in a play, but little else is said.

Beyond Lady Bird and her mother few other characters are anything but vague sketches, filling in certain tropes. Her best friend’s depression after Lady Bird abandons her for the popular girl is barely touched upon, and she is immediately cured by Lady Bird’s presence. Her drama teacher’s depression is likewise glanced over, even Lady Bird ignores it when faced with his crushed ego. Everything focuses on Lady Bird, and as a main character she’s pretty boring. Just another white girl living in a small city in America. She’s not special, she’s not original, she’s not even very interesting. She’s every girl who has looked at her life as it is and wished for more while trampling over the feelings of everyone around her while doing it. She’s petty and selfish. She’s a teenager.

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Lady Bird comes from a family of limited means, but she insists they send her to college in New York City despite the fact that her academic record is mediocre. Her parents refinance their house so she can follow her dream that she has only vaguely outlined. Why does she want to go to New York? To act? To learn? We never find out, we don’t know what her ambitions are. Her father is always the good guy, and her mother must always be cruel. I am annoyed with this girl. She has no regard for anybody but herself, she is every terrible impulse in every teenager. Lady Bird manages to show some mild growth in empathy for her not-cool friends, and even her mother, by the end of the movie, but now she’s still pushing for a future that she hasn’t really earned, a picture of privilege.

What Makes this Movie Great: Lady Bird is a loosely biographical film about writer-director Greta Gerwig. Lady Bird as the protagonist eventually learns gratitude and empathy for everyone around her. There is also commentary on how money really drives certain relationships. Laurie Metcalf’s performance of incisive realism contrasts with her daughter’s dreamy fantasies, and truly drives the drama of the movie. Marion is the sharp reality to contrast her daughter’s romanticizing, but they also share some moments of dreaming of a better life as they walk through expensive homes. But afterward, Lady Bird leans into the fantasy, whereas her mother has already been crushed by and will return to reality. When Lady Bird demands a “number” from Marion because she’s going to grow up and make a ton of money (doing what we’ll never know) and she’ll pay her back and never talk to her again, her mother simply cuts her down with a cruel, “I doubt you’ll get a good job.” These two characters, their relationship, and their conflicts truly make Lady Bird a well-written drama. They’re tough to love, but you can easily recognize the truth from both of them.  Can we follow our dreams or should we remain rooted in reality?

Odds are…though Lady Bird had some early awards season success, notably winning Golden Globes for Saoirse Ronan’s performance, and Best Picture, it seems its momentum has slowed. It’s lack of wins at the Screen Actor Guild awards said a lot  more about it’s odds for the Best Picture Oscar, unfortunately. Nominated for five Academy Awards, Lady Bird is likely looking at a shutout: Original Screenplay, Director, Supporting Actress (Metcalf), Lead Actress (Ronan), and Best Picture. It might have the opportunity to steal the Original Screenplay award, though that looks like a lock for Get Out at this point.

Phantom Thread

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Summary:Phantom Thread is a “love story” in a way, though it’s more about obsession and emotional manipulation. I began to feel uncomfortable when Alma (Vicky Krieps), at the beginning of the movie, said, “Reynolds has made my dreams come true. And I have given him what he desires most in return.” The doctor asks, “And what’s that?” “Every piece of me.” But you sense from the delivery and the way Alma is framed and lit that there’s more to her response than you see in that moment. Something sinister, perhaps.

We meet Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) in post-War London. Reynolds designs gowns for stars, royalty, and socialites, his dresses are the pinnacle for London’s elite ladies to aspire to wear. A young lady approaches Reynolds at dinner one night and declares, “I would like to be buried in one of your dresses,” apparently thinking this a great compliment. He thanks her, and as she moves along his sister comments, “and you’d dig her up to get it back!” He’s obsessive about his designs, and every part of his life. He does not appreciate change or disruption to his patterns. He does not believe in marriage, and women come and go from his life quickly. Cyril is quick to protect him from any disturbance of his brilliance and fragile personality. She does the dirty work of removing his most recent mistresses from his presence once he grows bored or annoyed with them, sparing him, and also the young lady, the indecency of negative emotions. He is dependent on Cyril, when he needs something he always turns to her.

Reynolds meets Alma on a trip to the country. She is beautiful and smart, she happily accedes to his demands to her attention, time, and body. Alma stands up for his work, passionately defending him, when a duchess embarrasses herself she demands the return of his gown. Reynolds is clearly impressed by her passion for him. Alma models his work, so he is naturally attracted to her because he’s so impressed with himself.

Turns out, Alma wants the love, affection, and attention of Reynolds more than anything else. She’s mildly jealous of his sister who commands a great deal of his attention due to the fact that she runs the business side of his greatness. But Alma refuses to be removed, and Cyril isn’t entirely sure she should leave, she’s grown to like her and her passionate defense and protection of her brother and his work.

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Alma is smart and perceptive. She notices that after Reynolds has focused and worked and spent himself creating a new collection or the perfect gown, he becomes exhausted and sequesters himself away to rest and recuperate. During those times he tends to be more receptive to affection, and allows her into his personal space, he craves her during those times. She has also noticed how dependent he is on Cyril when he needs something. When Reynolds begins to grow bored with Alma, she senses it, and enacts a plan she had been concocting in case of just such an event. She finds some poisonous mushrooms and puts them into his tea, making him dreadfully ill. During his illness he depends on her for everything, even asking Cyril to leave him in Alma’s care, and she stays by his side. He’s so dependent on her, when he recovers, he asks her to marry him. This act is grossly manipulative, it repulsed me as I watched it. They get married, and at first all seems well. But naturally, Reynolds begins to grow weary of her presence again. Marriage does not suit him, he wants to stay in his comfortable routine, he doesn’t want to go out dancing with his young wife on New Year’s Eve. They begin to tatter around the edges, and she, in her rage and need, poisons him again.

HE KNOWS. He knows that he’s being Munchausened and accepts it. She wants him helpless, and he wants to be dominated. I  completely fail to find this romantic. The film concludes insinuating that this is the pattern for the rest of their lives. She poisons him, he gets ill, she cares for him, he loves her doting affection, they’re temporarily happy, then he begins to fall into his old habits and the cycle begins again. Not to mention it seems narratively inconsistent. When did we establish that he wanted to be forced into love, to be dominated by it? At best, we can say he is dependent on the women in his life, and loves the worship Alma provides.

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I’m definitely looking at this film through my own, modern, lens, but this is a movie made in the era of #MeToo. I don’t understand how we can talk about diversity and #OscarsSoWhite and #TimesUp and then turn around and say, “What a beautiful love story this is!” We cannot continue to make these period films so we don’t have to face these difficult issues of racism and misogyny, because it’s “of the time.” This sort of emotional manipulation is terrible and should certainly not be revered as romantic. Jennifer Lawrence told Marc Maron on his WTF podcast, “Is he kind of like a narcissistic sociopath, and he’s an artist, so every girl falls in love with him because he makes her feel bad about herself, and that’s the love story?” Same girl, same.

Red Reed of the New York Observer said, “Anderson’s movies are never coherent enough to appeal to the mainstream, but this one is so ravishing and meticulous and exquisite that you have no difficulty ignoring its inherent lack of logic.” For me, it was never meticulous or exquisite enough to ignore the lack of logic. I left the theater incensed that this was Daniel Day-Lewis’s final film.

What Makes this Movie Great: This movie is precise, very much in the style of its director, Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood). The cinematography is gorgeous, the costume design is outstanding (a necessity considering the topic, really, it would be tragic if the costumes were hideous in a movie about a precise, celebrated, arrogant designer!), the script is subtle where it needs to be, exposition is limited. I simply think the story is atrocious, and it makes me furious that this is Daniel Day-Lewis’s final film so I’m ranking it almost last.

Odds are… very slim for Phantom Thread. The film is nominated for six Oscars: Original Score, Costume Design, Lead Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis), Lead Actress (Lesley Manville), Director (Paul Thomas Anderson), and Best Picture. It’s most likely to score in Best Costume Design. The lack of a screenwriting nod is telling about its odds for the more prestigious categories.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

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Summary: A mourning mother buys ad space on three billboards accusing the local police department of failing to properly investigate her daughter’s gruesome murder. Mildred (Frances McDormand) is full of rage and the only place she can direct it is at Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and his small police force in a tiny Missouri town. She calls the billboards a “focusing event,” and within the context of the film it certainly is.  Sides are taken almost immediately, and Mildred has to deal with crazy dentists intent on exacting their feeling on her with unnecessary tooth extractions (resulting in her defending herself with a dentist drill to the thumb), students who are brave enough to throw drinks at her car but not admit to throwing the offending beverage, and intimidating strangers drifting through town.

Frances McDormand is fantastic as a woman blind with rage at how life has been unfair to her, her family, her daughter. She is done with consequences, and she’ll stand up to the racist police officer (who beats people of color in prison), she’ll burn down the police station, she’ll kick children, just to get the people to pay attention to the horrific death inflicted on her daughter. It’s a small town, everybody knows everybody, and when Chief Willoughby tries to play on Mildred’s emotions by revealing his cancer diagnosis, she waves him off, “practically everyone knows.” But when he spontaneously coughs blood on her during her interrogation (after her assault on the dentist), she is immediately motherly toward him. Her shell cracks just a little, and he insists that all the charges against her are dropped as he is maneuvered into an ambulance. These small town residents know each other so well it’s tough, the movie tells us, for them to not treat each other like family.

Mildred descends deeper and deeper in becoming the monster she wants so desperately to find and punish. She fails to support her son, she kicks children in the crotch, she eventually end up throwing molotov cocktails at the police station. When Chief Willoughby dies, so does good sense and decency in the movie. Mildred may start as the wronged mother seeking vigilante justice, but by the end, she’s descended into destructive madness.

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The final main character, Dixon (Sam Rockwell), is where the problems for Three Billboards begin. He’s a problematic police officer whom everyone seems to know tortured a black man while he was in custody. Though everyone seems to know this about him and show him quite a bit of disdain, it’s played for laughs. He’s a drunk, he’s violent, and clearly terrible at his job. The problem here lies in screenwriter and director Martin McDonagh’s failure to understand the current air around racial tensions in the southern United States, specifically in Missouri, which is home to Ferguson, Missouri as well. Where the plague of the shooting of black bodies in this country came to a head, and where months of protests echoed throughout the nation. It’s completely tone-deaf to portray this terrible man for laughs, and then turn around and attempt to redeem him. He spends the entire film being established as the villain, he arrests Mildred’s coworker and friend Denise for a minor infraction (and then we hear almost nothing more about that, it’s completely unimportant so she is disregarded), but when he hears the stranger who threatened Mildred bragging about raping a girl in the way that Mildred’s daughter was killed, he leaps into action. Of course, because a white girl was hurt, now we should view this man as capable of redemption?

This movie also has a small part for Game of Thrones actor Peter Dinklage. Unfortunately, he shows up out of nowhere to defend and help Mildred, and then is played for laughs as well. And specifically to allow jokes about little people. It’s clear that the person making those jokes is awful, but the point of even bringing an actor of Dinklage’s caliber to be the butt of frat boy-esque immature jokes is incredibly disappointing. In a movie full of fairly well developed supporting characters, I feel like I know more about Jerome, the black kid who helps hang the titular billboards, than I ever learned about Dinklage’s James, other than the fact that he’s short. Why did he help Mildred? What motivated him to ask her for a date? We may never know.

What Makes this Movie Great: Frances McDormand. Plain and simple, she is the best part of this movie. Her portrayal of a woman finally pushed over the edge to rage-fueled drastic measures is poignant and beautiful even when it’s cruel, and elevates an otherwise incoherent film.

Odds are… not good for Three Billboards. Ira Madison III describedThree Billboards as this year’s Crash, and not in a complimentary way. This was a movie that had early buzz in the Film Festival circuit and was expected to be an Oscar contender. However, film critics who attend film festivals are overwhelmingly white. When critics of color began seeing Three Billboards, the effervescent sheen of this film was stripped away as they started pointing out it was trying to redeem the racist character because he was trying to defend a raped and murdered white girl. This played out a lot like the controversy around Birth of a Nation. So though Three Billboards had some early success in awards season, it’s unlikely to pick up much beyond a likely trophy for McDormand, unless Sally Hawkins somehow steals it. Three Billboards’ seven Oscar nominations include: Film Editing, Original Screenplay, Original Score, Supporting Actor (Harrelson and Rockwell are nominated in the same category), Lead Actress (McDormand), and Best Picture.

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