By Cody Willoughby
Nominations for the 90th Annual Academy Awards were recently released. As always, the choices are all over the map.
It’s difficult to put cynicism aside for an occasion like the Oscars, given that many of the films nominated are done so with cynical intentions; it’s not irregular for movies to make it through, not due to legitimate quality that exceeds all other films, but rather due to politics (because the studio chose to fund a marketing campaign, because the movie’s subject matter is topical in that particular year, etc.)
The Academy changed the rules for nominees in 2009, allowing for up to ten Best Picture nominees to squeeze in each year. This was coming off of 2008, a year when a number of strong mainstream films, such as The Dark Knight, were shut out of the Best Picture race. The expanded list of nominees were initially thought to offer an opportunity to more mainstream films. If you ask me, it’s largely just allowed more little-seen art pieces to get through, but that’s neither here nor there.
The point is that of all the films that make the shortlist each year, there are always at least one or two choices that are questionable at best. At this rate, it would seem entirely sensible for the Academy to change the rule back to a standard five nominees, if only to cut the blatant fat.
Fortunately, I have seen all nine of this year’s nominees and will examine what makes each film good, and whether each film deserves its nod. The awards will be televised Sunday.
Call Me By Your Name
Based upon the 2007 novel by Andre Aciman, this film chronicles the summer of 1983, in which 17-year-old Elio begins a provocative affair with Oliver, his father’s visiting research assistant. Drama arises as Elio’s family and friends catch wind of their budding passions.
Despite being intriguingly acted and photographed, “Call Me By Your Name” feels like the treading of water. A secretive gay romance is something that audiences have not only seen before, but also something the Academy has lauded with acclaim before. It’s fine for a film to chronicle a passionate gay relationship, but not when there are so few stakes or other plot elements involved. It feels like these characters have very little to lose, which is what ought to make a secret romance worth watching in the first place.
As previously stated, the performances and on-location filming are great, and are mainly what carry viewers through to the end, but otherwise the film’s singularity on the topic actually makes it feel somewhat dated, which is a real shame.
Verdict: On the fence. It’s tastefully made, but lacks the impact of originality. In a stronger year, it wouldn’t stand a chance.
The one surefire thing this film has going for it is Gary Oldman’s crackling performance as Winston Churchill. It seems the clear frontrunner for the Best Actor Oscar and has kept the film in the limelight throughout the season.
Reminiscent of “Lincoln”, “Darkest Hour” does not chronicle the life story of Churchill, but rather a period of six turbulent weeks in his first year as Prime Minister. Unlike “Lincoln”, however, “Darkest Hour” is appropriately titled, which infers a clear vision was in place from draft one.
Credit also ought to be given to director Joe Wright, infusing what might’ve been a stuffy film with bounce and energy, and also to Kazuhiro Tsuji and his makeup team, who just might’ve delivered one of the greatest prosthetic jobs ever displayed on film.
It has the aroma of what some call “Oscar bait,” but due to thoughtful planning, the movie rises slightly above that.
Verdict: Yes, for its concise vision and winning execution.
I’m likely not the first to say it, but “Dunkirk” is highly reminiscent of “Gravity”. It’s more a cinematic experience than a conventional movie, relying more on technical expertise and epic scope than it does on by-the-books storytelling. Don’t get me wrong — that isn’t to say “Dunkirk” isn’t gripping from start to finish.
This could’ve been your run-of-the-mill chronicle of a harrowing World War II beach evacuation, but what sets it apart is its masterful time dilation, telling three separate stories — in the air, on the sea, and on the beach — over separate periods of time — an hour, a day, and a week. This felt very much like a touch of director Christopher Nolan, who has become famous at this point for finding creative ways to re-spin traditional stories.
The only questionable decision in “Dunkirk” is its provision of a small ensemble of characters who share equal importance rather than one true protagonist, which may turn off some viewers.
Verdict: Deserving overall, for its effort to do something different.
This film is interesting, but it’s been over-praised. There, I said it.
The premise of “Get Out” is probably best kept quiet so that viewers can go in as open-minded as possible, and the story’s nuanced social commentary definitely makes the film a cut above other thrillers.
While its entertainment value is undeniable, “Get Out” is not as profound a piece of filmmaking as the buzz suggests. It would fit in right at home on any number of weird anthology series TV has offered up over the years, but it’s ultimately just that — a strong feature-length entry on “Black Mirror” or “Tales from the Crypt.”
Also, “Get Out” is absolutely a black comedy (not “black” as in race, “black” as in tone), and I fear that its comedic undertones were lost on a lot of viewers. Some seemed confused when it was nominated as a comedy at the Golden Globes, but that call was spot-on.
While I do think credit is warranted for its sure-handed directing by Jordan Peele, I’m uncertain “Get Out” as a whole is going to be remembered decades down the road the way “The Sixth Sense” or “The Silence of the Lambs” have proven to be.
Verdict: No to its Best Picture nomination, but yes to some others.
This film’s a bit of a puzzler; while it’s a solid enough indie film about a teenage girl coming of age, its critical treatment has been that of far greater achievements. Coming-of-age stories about teenage girls more or less come out every year, don’t they?
Saoirse Ronan is very good in it, and Laurie Metcalf, who plays her mother, is even better, but this felt like a step backward for those actresses in some ways. Ronan was nominated for Brooklyn two years ago, which indicates she should probably be past playing parts this young. For Metcalf, this role feels 15 years overdue.
Something about the film, though, does feel refreshingly honest, if not a bit meandering, and it’s easy to understand why a viewer would endear to its charms in that respect.
Verdict: In a weak year (2017), yes. In most other years, no.
When the trailer for “Phantom Thread” first appeared, I thought it looked dry as a bone. When it was announced that this would tentatively be the last Daniel Day-Lewis performance, I felt let down, assuming his big finale would be underwhelming. I concede that “Phantom Thread” proved slightly more compelling than expected.
Delving into the mid-20th-century London fashion scene, “Phantom Thread” chronicles a genius seamster’s tumultous affair with a young muse, and his struggle to juggle his relationship with her and the passions of his work.
That love triangle aspect between the two characters and the work was what saved the film, as that sentiment is probably echoed the world over for anybody forced to sacrifice their passions for those they care about. Still, this subject matter is mildly pretentious in nature, and only worked due to talent in place that elevated its delivery.
Verdict: Leaning toward yes. There’s nothing inherently wrong or broken about its technique, but its lofty, head-in-the-clouds approach will surely isolate a lot of people.
This is a disappointing film, for more reasons than one. Here you have this great cast, being directed by Steven Spielberg of all directors, with a golden opportunity to create something rich and topical to parallel current events and enstill within viewers the importance of an honest and principled press.
None of that happens, really.
One could blame the script, which seems patient to slowly crawl its way to nowhere in particular, or the washed-out Janusz Kaminski cinematography (who has now done 17 of Spielberg’s films, each one looking more overlit than the last), or even the rushed production (completed from beginning to end in under a year.)
Ultimately, the film gave me prescient nostalgia for works like “All the President’s Men,” “Network,” or even “Spotlight” from 2015, all three of which were nominees or winners of the Best Picture award, and all of which gave this subject matter a much stronger and more compelling platform.
“The Post” was nominated for only two Oscars: Best Picture and Best Actress. I’d argue both as nominations-by-default.
Verdict: No. If you want worthwhile films about journalism, check out the three mentioned above.
The Shape of Water
One thing’s for sure: nobody can accuse director Guillermo Del Toro of phoning this one in.
“The Shape of Water” is a sort of fairy tale mish-mash of familiar narratives, taking from the likes of “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Splash,” and even Del Toro’s other films. It’s done through the scope of the turbulent early ’60s, in which social prejudices of all sorts were more cruelly prevalent, and one of the film’s great strengths is in its casting, including Sally Hawkins as the deaf do-gooder protagonist, and Octavia Spencer and Richard Jenkins as her confidants, both of whom are living as outcasts in their own way.
What really makes this film stand out is its visual style, boasting seamless special effects, prestigious production design, elegant period costuming, and strategic usage of color in every scene. There hasn’t been a film that has used the color green this effectively since perhaps “The Matrix” trilogy.
It explores some unorthodox romance and feels slightly rushed at the end, but for all of its flaws, “The Shape of Water” is ultimately memorable, a trait many Oscar hopefuls forget to even put in their sights.
Verdict: Deserving, for its display of artistic craftsmanship.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
In an earlier piece this year, I indicated that this was the best piece of cinema I saw in 2017; that’s still probably true.
“Three Billboards” does everything a good film ought to do; it fleshes out complex characters who have satisfying story arcs, its narrative sticks to a core theme that all of the characters have a stake in, it drops an exciting “action beat” every ten minutes or so to keep viewers on their toes, and all of it is rounded out with pleasant cinematography and sound.
Despite having many comedic moments, the film does deal with bleak subject matter that may not to be to viewers’ tastes, and its slightly ambiguous ending could be interpreted as a cop-out by some, but I feel that both were acts of bravery by a filmmaker taking some chances in telling a compelling story.
Already sweeping the awards circuit leading up to the Oscars, “Three Billboards” is the frontrunner for the Best Picture Oscar, as well it probably should be.
Verdict: Definitely. It packs a punch like no other nominee.
Did any deserving nominees get shut out? “The Big Sick”, easily the best romantic comedy script in years, should’ve made it, particularly since a tenth slot was open for the taking. Arguments could also be made for “Blade Runner 2049”, for its ingenious visual execution, or “The Florida Project”, for its achievement in human intimacy.
If we’re looking to get a couple more mainstream titles on the list, I wouldn’t have minded seeing “Baby Driver”, “Logan”, or “War for the Planet of the Apes” break through, all of which were nominated in other categories, which proves the Academy recognized their quality.
Last but not least would be the longest of long shots — A Ghost Story. It stands as maybe the most gripping emotional experience that cinema gave us in 2017. It’s sad, strange, surreal, and disquieting, but it’s truly great.
Contact Cody Willoughby at firstname.lastname@example.org
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