The Oscars are upon us again and as I usually do every year, I try to watch all the movies nominated for Best Picture. I must say, this year´s batch of contenders was worse than 2017´s (you can read that list here). Although, those movies mostly didn’t feel like “Oscar” material they at least gave me some entertainment value.
This year, I was only truly engaged with my top three picks. I appreciated the artistry in my number four and five picks and nearly fell asleep or wanted to throw something at the screen as a reaction to the others.
My list, as always, doesn´t comprise of what movies I think will win (or even in some cases, “should” win) but instead, of movies which I enjoyed watching.
Last year I came close to predicting the Oscars, though, with La La Land being my favourite movie which I also thought deserved the top prizes. I think my favourite movie from this year will also take home the top prize. So here is the list, from worst to best.
9. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
This was the last of the Oscar contenders that I saw and it was a tight race for the last place on my list. Certainly, the acting was solid, but even great actors can’t make a bad script good.
The main issue I had with this movie is that it didn’t know what it wanted to be: a hard-hitting drama or a dark comedy. Scenes that had dramatic intensity were followed by scenes that felt like they had been written for The Room (it’s a shame The Disaster Artist got no Oscar-love, BTW).
One particularly embarrassing example of this is a scene where a Francis McDormand´s character faces off with her ex-husband in a most violent fashion. The scene is gripping and digs deep into Francis’ character who still feels guilt over the loss of her daughter. However, it is broken up by the husband’s very young girlfriend who barges in through the front door asking to use the bathroom but talking like an extra from Legally Blonde. The jarring tonal shift makes no sense, as does the daftness of the character (she appears again later and seems to know how to read but not know exactly what she is reading).
This mix of dark comedy and dark drama is not executed as well as imagine it would have been in the hands of Quentin Tarantino, David Lynch or even past McDormand collaborators, The Cohen Brothers.
Besides the uncalibrated tonal shifts, this movie also works in a vacuum where actions have zero consequences. In Ebbing, you can be a total asshole, a racist, and even near murderer one minute and be absolved for it when the script calls for a change. I am not sure what the point of this movie was (other than the obvious cliché “how one event can affect so many people’s lives”), so for its lack of good editing, pacing, and believable writing, I put it in the last place.
8. Lady Bird
I am not sure how this movie made it onto a Best Film Oscar list, but here it is. I have more fun watching cattle auctions than I did sitting through this drag of a film. Yet, it manages to have a consistent tone and characters who earn their development unlike Three Billboards, which is why it eeked into second-to-last place on my list.
There is a case to be made about how Lady Bird explores the relationships between mothers and daughters, and some mother and daughter duos out there may certainly appreciate it for that. I didn’t get much out of the film aside from a headache. The main character was unlikeable, the parents too aloof, and the storyline bland and uninspired.
If you dug Lady Bird then please tell me in the comments what exactly it was that I missed.
I will put on my absolute objective lenses and say that Nolan’s Dunkirk is an impressive piece of filmmaking from a purely technical angle. The shots are spectacular, the sound is incredible, the acting is spot on. If he wins Best Director or if the film wins Best Picture, I would not complain.
That said, this is my second time watching this movie (I saw it when it first came out) and it wasn’t much better of an experience for me than my initial viewing. To illustrate this dislike clearly, I think I may have stopped the movie to check my Facebook, use the bathroom, and see my WhatsApp messages about 6 to 8 times. There are simply no significant character or plot development to hold my attention through the running length of this film. I made it to about 30 minutes of watching ships sail, soldiers swim, and planes flying before my brain started wandering.
To end, I can completely understand why someone would love this movie (the events on that beach and the brave men and women who participated in it is truly extraordinary and should be honoured), but this is a list of my favourites from the Oscar selection and Dunkirk simply does not make the grade. This is sad because I am a fan of Nolan and what he has brought to the film medium. So, good luck to all the Christopher Nolan fans, this may be the year he finally gets the recognition that he deserves.
6. Call Me By Your Name
“When you least expect it, nature has cunning ways of finding our weakest spots.”
That line from the end of director Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name sums up this coming of age story set around a romantic relationship between an older man, Oliver, and a younger boy, Elio.
The story is quite simple and doesn’t have much in the way of conflict, either internal or external. Yet, somehow, the characters were enchanting enough to maintain my interest.
The film also doesn’t really add anything fresh or interesting to the gay-themed coming of age stories. There are plenty of classic French and Italian films from the 50s and 60s that have explored the theme extensively – including intergenerational love.
More recently, the 1996 British film Beautiful Thing and the lovely 2001 film Y tu Mamá También from director Alfonso Cuarón touched on the subject of same-sex love while adding many more layers to the awkward years one spends discovering one’s self.
Despite not being anything new, Call Me By Your Name is beautiful to look at and tells a story that many can relate to about the pangs of first love – whether it be gay or straight. The main character, Elio, (played by best actor nominee for the role, Timothée Chalamet) is subdued throughout – not knowing how to express something that he feels so intensely. When he does finally get his moments to truly be how he wishes, the joy shines through the screen – as does his sadness in moments of grief.
I don’t think this movie deserves to win Best Picture, but I am happy The Academy is recognizing the small movies that don’t scream “OSCAR!!!” for being “incredible” stories or having “once in a lifetime” performances, but that are, rather, films which simply wish to express a feeling, a thought, a narrative without many frills. I have seen many variations of Call Me By Your Name (some better some worse) in the past. However, none of those films takes away from the subtle beauty of this one.
5. Phantom Thread
Given all the rave reviews, which strangely kept any plot details hidden, I was truly looking forward to seeing what this film had to offer. Add to that the drama of Daniel Day-Lewis saying that this film made him go to places so dark that it had helped him in his decision to retire from acting that it made me even more anxious to take a look at what all the fuss was about. However, upon viewing, I didn’t see anything too intense or dark. Instead, this film felt like loose threads which were sewed together just neatly enough to offer 2 hours worth of visual and acting prowess to disguise its lack of actual depth.
Phantom Thread is a story about the power struggle between its two main protagonists. It plays out in a very subtle passive aggressive manner until the big reveal at the end. It’s also a love story about a man who doesn’t know how to let his guard down long enough to love and a woman wily enough to figure out a way to teach him how to do so.
While there are plenty of elements there to make this film extraordinary, it comes off as a bit stilted as it doesn’t really dig into the psyche of why these two people need to have this amount of power and this proof of love in their lives. Most frustrating is that just as it seems that the film is going to turn the corner into darker places of its character’s minds, it settles for your basic “strange boy meets strong-willed girl” motifs.
After watching it, it did make me wonder (perhaps because of the similarity of style, pacing, and composition in direction and drama) what Woody Allen or the late Louis Malle would have done with the same premise. These constant aborted resolutions took me out of the film more than a few times, despite how neatly arranged everything looks on the screen.
I am not sure Phantom Thread will take much away at the Oscars, but it is certainly a well-crafted piece of cinema – sadly, it’s more bark than bite.
4. Darkest Hour
Joe Wright directs this straight-forward historical drama depicting the weeks during which British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was appointed to power and his decision to not only stand up the oncoming Nazi invasion but persuade a nation to stand with him. Although the movie is well paced and well written, it is essentially the Gary Oldman show (who is nominated and may very well win his first Oscar for the role of Churchill).
The fire, nuance, and pause that Oldman is able to bring to the role, unfortunately, create an imbalance in the film as it overshadows a directorial style that doesn’t allow for everyone else to feel the same weight of the world that Mr Churchill experiences within and without. Compared to other films with tour de force portrayals of historical characters, namely Oscar-winning Gandhi and Lincoln, the rest of Mr Wright’s movie can’t match the same epicness and scope of its lead actor in the same fashion as the aforementioned films.
Darkest Hour is a solid outing, though. It just doesn’t bring anything new to the table. Its true spark lies in Gary Oldman who deserves to be recognized for a performance so rich, that one forgets the actor completely from the first second he is introduced as Mr Churchill. Because of him, I enjoyed Darkest Hour greatly, but I very much doubt it will win Best Picture.
3. Get Out
I saw Get Out way back in February of last year. In fact, you can read my first review here. I was completely blown away by the film, thinking it very original, cynical, and smart and hoping the Academy would recognize it for that.
After watching it again nearly a year later, my thoughts have not changed much. In fact, I found it to be even stronger than on first viewing. I noticed small details that I hadn’t before and was actually more comfortable with the brutal ending, which on first viewing felt rushed and too slasher-horror after such a slow psychological build up.
I will admit that I was surprised that it got nominated for Best Picture. I had only thought that it had a good chance at getting a nod for either Best Original Screenplay or Best Director (with its best chance of winning being in the Original Screenplay category). Yet, here it is in the running.
I believe that are enough subtle touches and strokes of genius that Jordan Peele put into, this, his first major film that it has just a good a chance as any of the other films to take home the gold. Some detractors will say that The Oscars have never been too kind to the horror or comedy genres but Get Out is neither – it is a satire and social commentary, which the Oscars are much kinder to. Birdman, American Beauty, Forrest Gump, Shakespear in Love are just a few past winners with a bit of a cynical view.
And what a great satire it is! Get Out is a commentary on race relations at a level I haven’t seen, as a movie-goer, for a very long time. And Peele has demonstrated a freshness and vibrancy in his film which is reminiscent of early Spike Lee. No wonder the two are slated to work together on a project – maybe he can put some swing back in Lee’s step.
Unfortunately, given the backlash from the #OscarsSoWhite debacle of a few years back, Get Out has gotten some unfair criticism for being nominated only because a “black quote” needed to be filled. I don’t buy into that. It’s a fine film for our time and brings a lot to the table as far as discussion, debate, and conversation. I hope it takes home some prizes, but for now, I am simply glad it got the recognition that it deserves.
2. The Post
Steven Spielberg, between making blockbusters, has dedicated himself to making smaller budget films with just as much power and allure as any of his Aliens and Dinosaurs. The Post is yet another masterstroke from this American treasure.
The films centres around The Washington Times’ decision to publish “The Pentagon” papers, a series of documents which proved that Americans were lied to for years about the country’s involvement in the Vietnam War.
Spielberg manages to keep a tight grip on the story, much in the fashion of other stand out movies about journalists like All The President’s Men (that almost feels like a sequel considering the little nod at the end of this film) and Spotlight, the Best Picture winner of 2016.
What Spielberg manages to do better than those films (as is his usual forte) is bring out the humanity of the players involved. His characters are not simply journalists following leads against insurmountable odds, but real people, who are flawed, scared, and unsure if what they are doing (or have done) is truly worth all that is at stake if they fail. And there is a lot at stake. The President Nixon White House was not a friend to the press and threats of treason for publishing top secret classified documents were being flung about effortlessly.
Meryl Streep’s character, Washington Post owner, Kay Graham, is a particularly interesting character study. She is the only woman in a world which was still very much controlled by the men in suits. Her decision to publish the Pentagon Papers was met with derision from every side, and mostly due to their lack of belief in her capacities as a publisher. She has a great moment (which is an extension of an earlier scene with Tom Hanks’, Ben Bradlee) where she realizes that the times have changed. As a woman, she feels more empowered, but with that power comes greater responsibilities. The days of newspaper publishers and editors sitting with cigars at dinner with politicians and other sources was over. Darker times had arrived and The Washington Post, along with the rest of the country, had to awaken from its slumber.
Although The Post does not have the tight wire tension of either of the two other films on journalism that I mentioned above, this film carries itself well in tone and message. Spielberg is not concerned about the ins and outs of how The Pentagon papers made it on to the front page of The Washington Post, but the emotional, psychological, and practical impact that this had on everyone involved, including the readers. The film doesn’t beat us over the head with this, deciding, rather, to allow it to seep through each frame in slow bits. Spielberg shines in this movie as do his actors and story. Unfortunately, this film is not mentioned a lot in the Oscar talks, so I hope it comes out as a dark horse winner against the lesser films in this Oscar race.
The Shape of Water
The Shape of Water is set in a segregated Cold War America, but it pushes the boundaries of what prejudice and suspicion looks like as its lead, Elisa, a mute, (played to perfection by Sally Hawkins) falls in love with a creature from the Amazon who is brought into the heavily guarded government facility where she works. Guillermo manages to make this unique love story feel natural as it inhabits a world that feels so grey outside.
The set up is simple but the execution is masterful.
While there is a particular scene in this movie, which involves a dance number, that takes the viewer on a magical voyage inside Elisa’s mind, its main strength is remaining grounded. At every turn, I cared about the characters in a very real sense and never felt like I had been transported to dreamland or a modern version of Beauty and the Beast (shame that movie got zero love from the Academy this year). This was simply a movie about love transcending all, and what we as people are willing to do to protect love.
This film will likely win the top awards of the evening, and it deserves it. Even in a stronger Oscar year, it would have stood out as a gem. Guillermo del Torro is a young child inside of a grown man’s body. His imagination has proven to be one of the greatest gifts to film on numerous occasions, and The Shape of Water is no exception.