It’s Oscar time again, and here’s my annual self-imposed project of catching up with mainstream Hollywood, taking a break from my usual foreign films and giallos. Ironically, none of my favorite foreign films got anywhere near Oscar consideration this year – Robin Campillo’s BPM (Beats Per Minute) (France), Ana Urushadze’s Scary Mother (Georgia/Estonia) and Bruno Dumont’s Slack Bay (Ma Loute) (France) are all worth tracking down.
Call Me By Your Name – Lots of people love this film. My results varied – I didn’t buy into most of it, and it’s at least twenty minutes too long. I was looking forward to it; I had found Luca Guadagnino’s 2009 film, I Am Love, to be pretty thin – some good ideas, the always-committed work of Tilda Swinton and Yorick Le Saux’s lovely camerawork notwithstanding – and the buzz here indicated a big step up. A handsome young academic comes to Italy to intern with an older, well-respected mentor, but finds himself irresistibly attracted to his mercurial seventeen-year-old son. I haven’t read the highly-regarded André Aciman novel from which this is adapted, but I suspect there’s a lot of internalized narrative that James Ivory’s adaptation, despite his best efforts, simply couldn’t put at Timothée Chalamet’s disposal. Guadagnino, again, takes picturesque advantage of the lovely and sunny Italian countryside, but there’s no trace of a foundational narrative environment in which these two people would believably fall in love with each other. There’s a lot going on with Chalamet’s character, Elio, and I started actually believing some of it about 2/3 of the way through. For me, though, Armie Hammer’s Oliver never took credible hold. I think that’s far more on Guadagnino and Ivory than on Hammer’s clear hard work. Supporting turns from Michael Stuhlbarg and Amira Casar are rock-solid, as usual. Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (who has done far more adventurous work for Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Miguel Gomes) is the cinematographer here, but Guadagnino honestly doesn’t give him much to do besides make pretty pictures. I’m also surprised that the film hasn’t been more scrutinized for casting two straight men in an evolving gay relationship – 2013’s Blue Is The Warmest Color was hammered for this, and it’s a fair call for debate. Guadagnino’s absence from the director’s nomination makes this a longer shot for Best Picture, but James Ivory might steal Adapted Screenplay from Aaron Sorkin.
Darkest Hour – Winston Churchill in 1940 was not a very well-liked man. Among his historical sins were an aggressive hawkish streak that he’d developed in his youth in the British Army and carried along through various military-secretarial postings in the British government, a dislike for Mahatma Gandhi leading to deep disagreements with his fellow conservatives during India’s negotiations for independence, and his beseeching King Edward VIII not to marry Wallis Simpson and abdicate the throne, completely estranging himself from then-Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin and his peers. But when the Nazis marched across Europe, decimating British military resistance, and Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain resigned his post, the British government took an odd risk and appointed the most qualified man for the job. And the first job they put in his lap was rescuing 300,000 British soldiers from the beaches at Dunkirk.
It’s instructive, if you’re inclined, to watch Darkest Hour and Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk in short succession. Knowing the more pragmatic details of the Dunkirk situation, and witnessing the urgency with which it was dealt from London, fills in a few blanks in Nolan’s more abstracted and segmented narrative. Joe Wright’s film is a hyper-showy version of old-school Prestigious with a capital ‘P’; all lushly upholstered residences, the stern hardwood-appointed Parliament, and Rembrandt / Caravaggio chiaroscuro lighting and framing throughout. Bruno Delbonnel’s rich cinematography serves Wright well, but it is a bit much, the visual equivalent of a plummy British accent. The supporting actors are all quite good (Kristen Scott Thomas, Stephan Dillane, Ronald Pickup), but the primary appeal of the film is Gary Oldman’s effortlessly compelling, out-of-the-park performance as Churchill. He’s the draw, but it’s not close to the Best Picture this year.
Dunkirk – Christopher Nolan wants to express the surreality of 300,000 soldiers politely standing in single files on a beach in France, waiting for deliverance or annihilation; he wants to express degrees of duty, common and uncommon personal courage, the need to survive, the need to surrender, anticipation, anger, despair and fear. He’s pretty successful at finding narrative structures for most of that – four separate ones, actually – but he’s sacrificed a great deal of identifiable emotion to the exacting, persnickety, clockwork mechanics of his chosen locales: the rocky breakwater pier on which the larger military ships are loading soldiers and wounded, with varying degrees of success or disaster; a small family cruising boat piloted by a modest but loyal everyman who wants to do his part for Churchill, England and Our Boys (the reliable Mark Rylance, superb again); two young soldiers trying, failing, trying, failing and trying again to find a boat to get off of that beach and back home (for such an eventful thread, oddly uninvolving); and a persistent pilot who just needs to take out one more German plane (Tom Hardy, delivering another uncanny minimalist gem). Impressively, this is Nolan’s first film under two hours since 2002’s Insomnia, and he wears the brevity well. It’s all pretty watchable, but there isn’t much of a dynamic – everything comes at you at the same deliberate pace, like he’s making sure You Got That Bit before moving to the next, and his transitions are either too abrupt or too deliberately orchestrated. Hoyle van Hoytema’s camerawork, from claustrophobic ship-holds to aerial dogfights, is well-managed and executed, but the expert visuals don’t blend anything more effectively than the narrative does. Even where his films fall short, I always respect Nolan’s big ideas and the sense of scale he aspires to. This is a film of genuinely moving moments and some real inspiration, but it’s just all too segmented and fussed over to pick you up and carry you along.
Get Out – my personal favorite of the nine, and in the top three of possible winners. It’s hard to believe this is Jordan Peele’s feature film debut. There’s such creative individuality in the tone of the film, in his admirable hybrid of horror film, socio-cultural exposé and black comedy, that you have to reach back to George Romero to find much of anything like it. It’s a withering critique of white privilege and the ‘othering’ of black (or any minority) Americans, but you never feel like you’re being preached at or convinced of something. Things are how they are, how they’ve always been, and the film offers no facile sociological advice or recourse beyond its emphatic title. As an old straight white guy, it’s easy to see lots of myself in these villains, and to empathize with Chris, Walter, Georgina and Andre. But I’m also good with Peele not caring whether I’m his intended audience or not, or whether I might be put off by any of it. My minor quibble is the late elaboration on “how it’s really done” that sets up Chris Washington’s (Daniel Kaluuya) blood-soaked escape – things were scarier when Walter, Georgina and Andre were just weirdly off, and Chris was at a bigger disadvantage. But that’s negligible. No other film this year was as flat-out entertaining as this (Lil Rel Howery’s turn as Chris’ friend on the ‘outside’ is worth the price of admission alone), and I’m tugging on your shirtsleeve right now for you to go see it. It’s rewarding to see a film that accomplishes so well exactly what it intended to do.
Lady Bird – a lovely film, surprisingly edgy and muscular for your basic teenage-white-girl bildungsroman. As a writer, Greta Gerwig has previously collaborated with other writer/directors, notably Joe Swanberg and Noah Baumbach, but, for her solo writer/director debut, this is an impressively good film with an admirably distinctive female viewpoint. Individual scenes and images are hilarious and/or heartbreaking by themselves, but Gerwig’s screenplay weaves those moments into the credible whole unobtrusively – there’s a really smart sense of transition and dynamics here, and her obvious alacrity in working with her actors only enriches things along the way. Saoirse Ronan doesn’t shy away from the abrupt or awkward, and puts her likability at risk more than once – she trusts the script, and Gerwig holds her up. They’re both very good at avoiding sentimentality – the ‘valuable lessons’™ tend to sneak up on you rather than parading themselves. It’s also a film with strong male characters who are OK with not being primary concerns. The supporting cast is uniformly superb, and Laurie Metcalf’s Marion might be this year’s best acting performance in any category. Gerwig and Ronan are overmatched for Director and Actress, but, although the competition is fierce, I think she wins Best Original Screenplay here. A contender, and a terrific film, but not the Best Picture this year.
Phantom Thread – a gorgeous and engaging film with a sneaky streak of co-dependent perversity and wicked humor, Phantom Thread is this year’s “I Love To Watch Pros Work” film. The acting is near-flawless, the visual environment, art direction and camerawork (writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson shot the film himself) are beautifully enveloping, and it’s a novel treatment of the ‘tortured artist’ protagonist and a nice twist on the myth of Pygmalion. Daniel Day-Lewis’ Reynolds Woodcock is a dress designer par excellence for an exclusive layer of London’s second-tier royalty and old-money socialites, well-assisted by his loyal and cruelly-efficient sister Cyril (brilliantly arch Lesley Manville, who seems to have created her character with her cameraman, not her writer/director), but he’s not immune to keeping a revolving array of lover/muses as part of the tailoring crew. His latest, Alma (Luxembourgian find Vicky Krieps) , was a waitress in a countryside hotel/retreat before Reynolds whisked her off to London and made her his protegé. But Alma’s more forthright than his usual kept women, and stumbles across a unique way of cultivating Reynolds’ continuing affections. It’s really good, and I highly recommend it, but this is way far away from the industry’s affections – only “Call Me By Your Name” made less box office than this film. Best costumes, maybe…?
The Post – Like Spotlight from 2016, also written by Josh Singer, people are so enamored with this paean to Crusading Journalism, and its ripped-from-history’s-headlines story, that few people took notice that this film just isn’t very good. Particular supporting cast members draw genuine interest, most notably Bob Odenkirk, Bruce Greenwood and Tracy Letts, but there’s less-than-predictably-confident work here from Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep. Hanks as blustering Ben Bradlee brings his usual energy, but his role is weirdly underwritten by screenwriters Singer and Liz Hannah, and he’s eventually lost in the sea of characters and fractured intrigue. The writers do better with Katherine Graham, but Streep’s oddly fluttery presentation doesn’t present us, as viewers, with any credible handle. She’s a woman floating in wealth, leisure and privilege, and likable nonetheless, but when the big important things are at stake her seemingly courageous decisions come off as arbitrary whims, like the country and the media just got lucky (*whew*). Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski indulges Spielberg’s visual eccentricities reliably, but the harsh back-lighting and waist-height up-angles start to feel like clichés. Lincoln (2012) and Bridge Of Spies (2015) were far better films – better written, better shot, better performed. This one was a real letdown.
The Shape of Water – Guillermo del Toro really loves making monster movies, and his preferences lean towards the big, melodramatic, elementally humanistic Universal horror films of the thirties and forties. His latest is a very likable film that looks great on the big screen (Danish cinematographer Dan Laustsen has only recently acquired regular work in Hollywood, but he’s quite good), but falls down on some of the fundamentals. His tale of an amphibious humanoid creature, the creature’s merciless military/corporate captor, the scientists who want him/it kindly and animately preserved, and the lovely and compassionate outsider who falls in love with him/it is classically compelling horror fantasy, and you’d think del Toro would be the guy to take it to another level. But everything here feels formulaic – too straightforward, too obvious, too clockwork. All of the actors make two or three very basic choices and keep hitting those notes over and over and over. It all felt, to me, like the script was shot one draft too soon, well before he could smooth over the Amelie references, well before he could flush out more interesting nuances in his villain (Michael Shannon), or better blend some obtrusively obvious symbols and metaphors, or more clearly motivate the actions of his other supporting characters. Sally Hawkins does irreproachable work here, and she’s a real contender for Best Actress. I wouldn’t vote for him for this, but you could argue that del Toro, Anderson and Nolan are all due for a Best Director win, and del Toro is the likely favorite of those three. Shortcomings notwithstanding, the Academy loves big inspirational thriller/adventures like these, and I think they’ll pick this over Dunkirk and the more subversive Get Out. If they go full-on subversive, though, our next film is the dark horse.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – John Oliver, on his TV show, recently talked about how much he loves the U.S. despite the wild array of contradictions and nastiness evident every day. Irishman Martin McDonagh’s film is informed with that same sense of expatriate mixed feeling; can Americans maintain their uniquely eccentric humanity while continually immersed in their baser cultural predilections? We’re first presented with the overwhelming anger and grief of Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), who carries her daughter’s unsolved rape and murder around like a pillory stocks. But as the film progresses, and Mildred more publicly asserts herself, grief, guilt and anger spread themselves around the small Missouri community in both tragic and funny ways. McDonagh’s storytelling is somewhat blunt, and unerringly linear – the real gold is in his touch with his actors and the depth of the characters he’s written, even if those characters prove to be, or choose to be, irretrievable or irredeemable. Everyone swears too much, everyone’s got hair-trigger tempers; the film skirts caricature, but it’s nonetheless credible – a passionate urgency grounds everything the film conveys. The long run is rewarding, if potentially corrupting, and I was genuinely surprised at how good this turned out to be; I highly recommend it, and I put it in the top three.
Best Picture –
should win – Get Out
will win – The Shape Of Water or Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Best Director –
should win – Jordan Peele, Get Out
will win – Guillermo del Toro, The Shape Of Water or Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk
Best Actor –
should and will win – Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour
Best Actress –
should win – Sally Hawkins, The Shape Of Water
will win – Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Best Supporting Actor –
should win – Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project
will win – Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Best Supporting Actress –
should win – Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird
will win – Allison Janney, I, Tonya
Movie I didn’t expect to like so much (Last year this was Jackie.):
I, Tonya – hitting the right tone, and maintaining that intangible tone throughout the filmed story you’re telling, is crucial. Jordan Peele nailed it in Get Out, but I ‘d argue that Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya might have had a much harder job of it, and you honestly can’t take your eyes off of this. This particular version of the rise and fall of Tonya Harding’s ice skating career has plenty of opportunities for derisive ridicule and condescending exasperation, but Gillespie won’t have it. Everyone is presented in their own admirable or miserable light, or blends thereof, in a straightforward manner. No one blinks, no one lets you off the hook, no one lets you in on the joke. Unreliable narrators? Plenty. Darwin Award winners? Throughout. But Gillespie is diligent about giving these characters their own say, with respect nonetheless, and, by the time the film is through, you won’t imagine it could have happened any other way.
Movie I wanted to like but didn’t (Last year this was a tie – Manchester By The Sea and Toni Erdmann.):
Blade Runner 2049 – I shouldn’t be too hard on a film that had such an unrealistically high bar to reach, but Ridley himself was one of the executive producers. Really good ideas march past you never to be engagingly explored or resolved; one really bad idea was the character of Niander Wallace, the acquirer of the Tyrell Corporation who seeks to torment Deckard-in-exile (Harrison Ford, solid), much to the nonchalant minor irritation of ‘K’ (Ryan Gosling, bless ‘im, but any thirty other actors could have done this), the replicant who has inherited the task of rogue-replicant termination. Most of the main characters’ motivations are somewhat cryptic, but Denis Villeneuve is disturbingly, spectacularly clear on how hard his future is on women. From Robin Wright’s angry, isolated police lieutenant to Wallace’s enforcing consigliere Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) to the lab failures and obsolete models being disposed of in gasp-inducing fashion, the misogyny dissuades you from thinking twice about the more well-conceived but poorly-executed aspects that you might want to give more credit to later on. Hans Zimmer’s Dunkirk soundtrack was a surprisingly restrained admirable fit for that film, but he’s up to his usual honking intrusive sawtooth-wave nonsense here, making mincemeat of the Vangelis precursors he’s trying to emulate. This was a slog in a big theater, but visually it held up. I can’t imagine there’s any hope of following along with this thing in your living room. Zzzzzzzzzzz…