Julie and I saw all 14 of the films that received Best Picture and acting nominations this year. All of them were good, and a few of them were great. Here are my thoughts about each movie, presented in order from least-favorite to most-loved.
6 Nominations: Best Picture, Actor (Daniel Day Lewis), Supporting Actress (Lesley Manville), Directing (Paul Thomas Anderson), Costume Design, Original Score
In a nutshell: An esteemed couturier in 1950s London finds his muse in a young waitress.
There is a plot contrivance in the final act of Phantom Thread that viewers are likely to find either inspired or ridiculous. I fall into the latter camp, and since I cannot take this aspect of the film seriously, its conclusion leaves me with a bitter aftertaste of ostentatiously clever, artsy-fartsy pretentiousness. It’s “oh no we di’int!” twist aside, Phantom Thread presents the compelling tale of a renowned fashion designer whose acclaim is counterbalanced by an inability to function outside of his accustomed routine. Daniel Day Lewis captures both the brilliance and the vulnerability of a man of undisputed genius who obsesses over the loss of his mother and relies on his sister to run his business. Vicky Krieps shines as the waitress who is flattered by his attention but desires more from him than he may be capable of giving.
The film is at its best depicting the mental chess match that develops between its combative protagonists, each seeking to absorb the other while retaining the power of independence. That would have been more than enough, but damn if it doesn’t squander its riches by indulging a preposterous denouement.
Bottom line: As sagely observed by Spinal Tap’s David St. Hubbins, “It’s such a fine line between stupid and clever.”
4 Nominations: Best Picture, Actor (Timothée Chalamet), Original Song (“Mystery of Love” – Sufjan Stevens), Adapted Screenplay
In a nutshell: An idyllic summer romance set amid edenic Italian countryside.
I suspect the PricewaterhouseCoopers scandal at last year’s Oscar ceremony may have led to an envelope mixup for this year’s nominations. I don’t know how else to explain Call Me By Your Name being overlooked for its gorgeous cinematography. If the city of Crema were anywhere near as beautiful as it is depicted, the world would be pulling up stakes and heading for northern Italy. Even the muted palette of a summer rain is rendered in alluring hues of lush, deep green. The captivating cinematography is the best reason to see the film.
My envelope mix-up theory also explains the curious nomination of Call Me By Your Name for Adapted Screenplay. Take away the exquisite rendering of its bucolic setting and a pair of fine performances by its handsome leads, and you’re left with…well, with a script that is mostly as lightweight and silly as a soap opera. Much of the movie suggests an arthouse take on a paperback romance. The welcome exception is a serious father-son discussion that is heartbreaking in its candor and lifelong regret.
In a nutshell: A dime novel in a pretty package.
6 Nominations: Best Picture, Actor (Gary Oldman), Cinematography, Costume Design, Makeup and Hairstyling, Production Design
In a nutshell: Winston Churchill, unpopular among even his own party in Parliament, faces the crisis at Dunkirk in his first days as Prime Minister.
For people of post-WWII generations, Winston Churchill is the iconic, unyielding savior of Britain, the most favorable example of a stiff upper lip. So it may come as a surprise, as it did to me, to learn that his ascension to prime minister as the successor to embattled Neville Chamberlain was a contentious affair, with his own party having little faith in his ability to lead the nation. During his first days in office, Churchill faced the immediate danger of the Nazi occupation of France, with the Germans surrounding more than a quarter of a million British troops cut off at Dunkirk. Their destruction would almost certainly mean the fall of Britain to Hitler. During the course of Darkest Hour, Churchill attempts to find a way to evacuate the men stranded at Dunkirk while rallying support from the British public.
Gary Oldman gives Churchill plenty of rough edges, especially in his ill treatment of a new secretary. Growling from within a perpetual cloud of cigar smoke, he is far from a sympathetic character. And yet, through the patient counsel of his wife and his own expressions of self-doubt, we begin to root for this unlikely hero. With the hindsight of history, we know his vital destiny, but the Churchill we see is a flawed mortal who is fumbling to make the best possible decisions, and few people seem to have his back. Although Darkest Hour uses a fictionalized subway ride as a vehicle for some famous witticisms and as a symbol of his rapport with the common citizen, the film is inspirational in its depiction of a mortal soul whose dogged persistence altered the fate of his nation and the world.
The bottom line: As Daniel Day Lewis conveyed the humanity of Lincoln, so does Gary Oldman for Churchill.
11) THE POST
2 Nominations: Best Picture, Actress (Meryl Streep)
In a nutshell: Behind the scenes at The Washington Post as its owner and editor debate whether to print excerpts from the Pentagon Papers.
The thing that annoys me about director Steven Spielberg is his reluctance to trust the power of his material without pandering to the audience. Even Schindler’s List, arguably his best and most important work, was marred by the unnecessary distraction of the “girl in the red coat,” an admittedly clever device that nonetheless calls attention to itself and the artificiality of film during a narrative that already packs a wallop of an emotional punch.
The equivalent misfire in The Post is a shot that trucks down the steps of the Supreme Court to show the perspective of Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep), whose status as a female newspaper executive is a novelty in 1971. So what does Graham see as she descends from the pinnacle of American justice? An improbably aggregated, demographically diverse gaggle of smiling women admiring this glass-ceiling breaker. See, the socioeconomic constraints against women at that time are embarrassingly misogynistic to our modern eyes! Well, of course. At least John Williams’ atypically restrained score doesn’t milk the moment.
And you know, it wouldn’t bother me so much if The Post were a lesser movie, but the film is so much smarter than that obvious moment. Streep and Tom Hanks (as Post editor Ben Bradlee) offer compelling performances, and the thought-provoking script draws inevitable parallels between freedom of the press, then and now, without belaboring the point.
The bottom line: A fine political confection with a tad too much Spielberg syrup.
1 Nomination: Actor (Christopher Plummer)
In a nutshell: When John Paul Getty III is kidnapped, his mother must contend with his super-rich grandfather’s refusal to pay the ransom.
This is the film that received more publicity than it ever could have bought thanks to its eleventh-hour replacement of the disgraced Kevin Spacey with Christopher Plummer and the jaw-dropping salary difference of Michelle Williams and Mark Wahlberg for the reshoot required by that replacement. In the end, Wahlberg donated his $1,500,000 reshoot fee (Williams was paid less than $1,000) to the #TimesUp legal fund in Williams’ name, and Christopher Plummer crafted such a fine performance that Spacey’s absence may have been the movie’s greatest fortune.
Plummer embodies J. Paul Getty with an unapologetic amorality; his sole concern is amassing and retaining as much wealth as he possibly can, particularly in the acquisition of valuable objects (unlike people, “things” never disappoint him). Williams delivers the torment of a women who is incorrectly assumed to be wealthy and must battle with her father-in-law to pay the astronomical ransom for her kidnapped son. Even evidence of physical torture does not move the old miser to part with a slice of his fortune.
The epilogue echoes the darkest truth of Citizen Kane: one lonely man’s obsessive accumulation of vast wealth to no apparent end. Yet there is redemption as the heirs decide what is to become of J. Paul Getty’s estate.
The bottom line: A sobering look a the heartless core of ruthless greed.
7 Nominations: Best Picture, Actress (Frances McDormand), Supporting Actor (Woody Harrelson), Supporting Actor (Sam Rockwell), Film Editing, Original Score, Original Screenplay
In a nutshell: A woman publicly shames the local sheriff and his racist officer for failing to solve the horrific rape and murder of her daughter.
Frances McDormand has been the toast of the awards circuit for her tough-as-nails performance as grieving mother Mildred Hayes in Three Billboards, and it’s certainly a good one. However, if the no-nonsense demeanor she’s exhibited while collecting her accolades is any indication, the role might have been not so much of a stretch. Hayes remains clench-jawed and angry throughout, with a few mild thaws thrown in for depth. Contrast that with the demands placed upon Sam Rockwell, whose violently ignorant and racist police officer faces a transformative reckoning with the pain he has caused. Rockwell imbues Officer Dixon with a child’s intellect and the arrogant swagger of a man who’s too dumb to know just how dreadfully unqualified he is to be in a position of authority. When Hayes taunts him by repeatedly dropping the “n-word,” Dixon is outraged and indignant, but only because he has been told to use the phrase “African American.” He is too obtuse to spot any irony. Yet however thick Officer Dixon is, Rockwell also gives him a mind capable of evolving, as it must if he is to find any redemption for his misdeeds.
The film works best when taken as an allegory about the frailties of human nature as embodied by its complex characters (including fine turns by Woody Harrelson as the paternal sheriff and Peter Dinklage as Hayes’ would-be suitor). If the narrative were approached realistically, Hayes’ Falling Down-esque rampage of revenge would earn her a stiff jail sentence and a flurry of lawsuits before she ever could unleash her full fury.
Three Billboards was an early favorite at the dawn of the awards season before attracting criticism for what some viewers perceived as its tone-deaf marginalization of black characters and an underemphasis on Dixon’s racial crimes. But these qualities make sense within the context of the film. While McDormand captures our attention as the protagonist, Three Billboards is also about the world as seen through the eyes of Officer Dixon, a perspective that is – if we have any hope for a better future – subject to change.
The bottom line: An interesting exploration of injustice and the complicated ethics of revenge.
1 Nomination: Supporting Actress (Mary J. Blige), Cinematography, Original Song (“Mighty River” – Mary J. Blige), Adapted Screenplay
In a nutshell: A black sharecropping family and the white family that owns their farm endure a hardscrabble existence in rural Mississippi while awaiting the return of loved ones from Word War II.
Mary J. Blige snagged the nomination, but Mudbound features the best ensemble cast of all the award-contending films. It’s hard to highlight anyone at the expense of others, but I’ll name three. Jason Mitchell is outstanding as the black tank commander who must manage PTSD while enduring belittlement and threats from white citizens of his home town. Garrett Hedlund sensitively portrays his white counterpart, a fighter pilot who has seen enough of the world to know just how backward their bigoted community is. And Rob Morgan is unforgettable as the black patriarch who must decide which battles the family can afford to fight. But that’s merely the tip of the iceberg of acting talent that makes this film come alive.
The story is dense and multi-layered, shifting perspective among five different characters in a manner that befits a film adapted from a novel. Its unflinching look at social justice and personal sacrifice is heartbreaking. Complimenting all of this is cinematography that makes the copious titular mud as real and vital as the characters themselves. You can’t have life-sustaining soil without slogging through the muck, and Mudbound finds both the beauty and the terror of the dichotomy.
The bottom line: Far more deserving of a Best Picture nomination than a few that got the nod.
1 Nomination: Actor (Denzel Washington)
In a nutshell: An eccentric lawyer who has devoted his life to pursuing social justice must adapt to the norms of a modern law practice.
This may not be the best or most appropriate comparison, but I find some parallels between my appreciation of Roman J. Israel, Esq. and, of all things, the 1996 remake of The Nutty Professor starring Eddie Murphy. Let me say from the outset that almost everything about these two films could not be more different. But years ago, I remember immensely enjoying Murphy’s performance whenever he appeared as the impressively rotund Sherman Klump to the extent that the narrative was secondary. So endearing, entertaining and moving was this character that I wouldn’t have minded two hours of Sherman Klump doing almost anything.
Although Roman J. Israel is a genre and multiple degrees of seriousness away from The Nutty Professor, I am similarly impressed by Denzel Washington’s performance as a preoccupied civil rights lawyer whose professional passion has left him decades behind in fashion, technology and social mores. He is an anachronism and an oddity, subsisting on peanut-butter sandwiches as he lives in a shabby apartment and pursues his vocation as his one and only motivating force. He is also unapologetically honest and direct, with an goofy, gap-toothed smile on those rare occasions that fortune favors him. And much as Murphy was almost unrecognizable as Klump, it hardly seems possible that the actor behind Israel is the same man who portrayed a bitter garbageman in Fences (2016) or the cocaine-addicted pilot of Flight (2012).
That is not to say that the plot of Roman J. Israel, Esq. is not substantial. As it happens, the story has a lot to say about the cavalier attitudes of modern professionals, the passion for change that can arise from existential emptiness, and the sad fact that even the best among us are not immune to temptation. But I would still be happy to watch two hours of Roman J. Israel doing almost anything.
The bottom line: A good movie that is nearly eclipsed by a great performance.
13 Nominations: Best Picture, Actress (Sally Hawkins), Supporting Actor (Richard Jenkins), Supporting Actress (Octavia Spencer), Cinematography, Costume Design, Directing (Guillermo del Toro), Film Editing, Original Score, Production Design, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Original Screenplay
In a nutshell: A lonely, mute woman falls in love with an aquatic creature held captive in a government laboratory.
There are flaws in The Shape of Water, to be sure. For example, the villain makes his first appearance clad entirely in black and holding a cattle prod as the soundtrack takes on a sinister tone. He gobbles handfuls of hard candy that clack against his teeth and crunch beneath his molars at an impressive number of decibels. Things get uncomfortably close to the emotionally manipulative aspects of E.T. And the story includes a preposterous consequence to putting a towel against the bathroom door while leaving the tub and sink taps running. But The Shape of Water is so good that these things hardly matter; they are a small price to pay in order to enjoy an inventive and visually beautiful film.
Perhaps the most vital component of its success is Sally Hawkins, whose gentle and intelligent evocations of loneliness, love and desire are mesmerizing. Of course, major credit goes to director, co-producer and co-writer Guillermo del Toro. His presentation of the aquatic creature that captures Hawkins’ heart is delicately tuned to elicit empathy without descending into contrived cuteness. Kudos as well to Richard Jenkins and Octavia Spencer as our heroine’s only friends. Oh yes, and that’s Doug Jones in the amphibian suit. It’s all ridiculous, of course, but this is a thoughtful fantasy, and its themes resonate with true human nature. There is even a fantasy sequence (yes, a fantasy within a fantasy!) that gives movie audiences the most surreal, wild and silly moment in all of the nominated films – and it’s great.
The bottom line: Don’t be put off by the bizarre premise; this is both a crowd-pleasing romance and a fine film.
3 Nominations: Actress (Margot Robbie), Supporting Actress (Allison Janney), Film Editing
In a nutshell: Figure skater Tonya Harding and her ex-husband give conflicting accounts of their involvement in the notorious 1994 attack on rival Nancy Kerrigan.
Oh, how I wish there were an Academy Award for Best Bit Player, those character actors who shine longer than a cameo appearance but shorter than a supporting role. Because if there were, I would bestow this year’s honor upon Paul Walter Hauser, whose portrayal of Jeff Gillooly’s friend (and Tonya Harding’s “bodyguard”), Shawn Eckhardt, made me laugh repeatedly. That’s no small order for a tale that is far sadder than it is amusing, but Hauser’s take on delusional, self-unaware idiocy is brilliant.
Eckhardt, as depicted in I, TonyaI, is but one of a cast of idiots, the stupidest being knee-whacker Shane Stant and his getaway man, and the wisest being the notorious Gillooly. Higher in intelligence but cruelest of all (once again, as depicted) is Harding’s mother. Somewhere in the murky glop that runs among this rogue’s gallery is the infamous Tonya Harding, unquestionably a victim, perhaps a perpetrator. The three principal actors (Margot Robbie as Harding, Allison Janney as her mother, and Sebastian Stan as Gillooly) are simply great. The device of presenting both Harding and Gillooly’s perspectives (based on actual interviews) allows each of them to contradict the other while addressing the audience directly, sometimes during the narrative itself (as in a memorable moment when Harding fires a rifle and immediately breaks the fourth wall by declaring, “This never happened.”). All the while, Harding’s mother is relentlessly critical and toxically resentful.
I, Tonya explicitly casts doubt on the very nature of truth, as though its characters and their real-life counterparts exist in a multiverse wherein Schrödinger’s cat is both dead and alive, everyone is both hero and villain, and Tonya Harding is both inspiration and abomination. The absolute truth, such as it may exist, must be somewhere in between. But it’s hard to walk away from I, Tonya without a newfound empathy for America’s anti-sweetheart.
The bottom line: If you thought the drama between Tonya and Nancy was somethin’, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!
1 Nomination: Supporting Actor (Willem DaFoe)
In a nutshell: A six-year-old girl and her friends are raised in poverty not far from the gates of Disney World.
If you live or work in or near a socioeconomically depressed area, you know these kids. The ones who seem to have no respect for adults, no parental direction, no malleability to discipline, no tolerance for anything they do not wish to do. The Florida Project offers a look into the lives of these children and the desperate circumstances that shape their developing minds. What we see might prompt some of use to reflect, “what might I have been like if I were raised this way?” For the very young people we meet are neither inherently bad nor inherently good; they are resilient children seeking whatever pleasure they can find in an environment that offers precious little of it.
Willem DaFoe is certainly deserving of his nomination for the role of a patient hotel manager who genuinely cares about his cash-strapped tenants. He knows what they are going through and withholds judgment, especially when it comes to the kids. But DaFoe’s performance is no greater than that of his unknown yet outstanding costars. Bria Vinaite, in her debut acting appearance after being discovered by director and co-writer Sam Baker through her Instagram posts, is courageously genuine as a single mother who is doing whatever it takes to get by. Her six-year-old daughter is portrayed by Brooklynn Prince (who turned 7 during filming). If it were up to me, I would bump one of the Best Actress nominees (c’mon, Meryl, you must be melting these things down for jewelry these days!) and put Prince on the roster; she is absolutely incredible (She also gave one of the best acceptance speeches ever upon receiving the Best Young Actor/Actress trophy at the Critic’s Choice Awards).
The Florida Project (titled after Walt Disney’s working name for Disney World) raises cold truths and asks hard questions. Why are there homeless kids living in hotels just outside “The Happiest Place on Earth”? Where else is this happening? What are we doing about it?
The bottom line: Great performances in an uncomfortably provocative film.
5 Nominations: Best Picture, Actress (Saoirse Ronan), Supporting Actress (Laurie Metcalf), Directing (Greta Gerwig), Original Screenplay
In a nutshell: A Catholic high school senior yearns to escape her stifling existence in Sacramento for the excitement and opportunity of NYC.
You don’t have to have had a Catholic upbringing to appreciate Lady Bird, but you’ll probably laugh a little harder at its heroine’s brazen irreverence (it helps to know the difference between consecrated and unconsecrated hosts). Don’t be misled, however – this is not a disrespectful film. Rather, director and writer Greta Gerwig has crafted an intelligent and honest account of what it means to feel frustratingly constrained by convention on the brink of adulthood. She has found the perfect expression of it in Saoirse Ronan, who is positively magnetic as high school senior Christine McPherson, a nonconformist who prefers to be called Lady Bird. Can this possibly be the same Irish and American actress (not simply Irish American) who dazzled as the star of 2015’s Brooklyn? Indeed it is, and to me, that sort of chameleon-like flexibility is the mark of a great performer (see Denzel Washington, above, as well as All the Money in the World‘s Michelle Williams, unrecognizable from her character in last year’s Manchester by the Sea). Ronan is so true to the vacillating emotions and painful lessons at age 17 that we can’t help but root for Lady Bird and her quest to fulfill her potential. Laurie Metcalf is notable as Lady Bird’s sparring mother, and so is Tracy Letts as her sympathetic father and Lucas Hedges as her drama club friend and love interest.
Acting aside, I am impressed by the way Gerwig’s script allows for the subtleties and messiness of ordinary lives. There are no villains in Lady Bird; no one does anything that “would only happen in the movies.” It is bereft of violence and gratuitousness. In short, it’s a smart film that trusts the intelligence of its audience.
A shout-out to the production design: Lady’s Bird’s home. She’s from a lower-middle class background, in contrast to some wealthy friends she acquires. A lesser film would exaggerate the differences, but Lady Bird makes the point with a clean and comfortable home that is nice for what it is, but nowhere near the perfection of an upper-class mini-mansion.
The bottom line: An engrossing slice of life, as amusing, frustrating, joyful and sad as the real thing.
8 Nominations: Best Picture, Cinematography, Directing (Christopher Nolan), Film Editing, Original Score, Production Design, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing
In a nutshell: A novel presentation of the 1940 evacuation of troops from Dunkirk as seen from land, sea and air.
Director Christopher Nolan likes to play with time, as evidenced by such films as Memento, Inception and Interstellar. For Dunkirk, Nolan ingeniously distorts time to reflect a single event experienced from three different perspectives. That event is the Dunkirk evacuation of 1940, in which over 300,000 British, French and Belgian troops were rescued from Nazi annihilation by the British Navy with the vital assistance of requisitioned civilian vessels. For some of the soldiers on the beach, it was a week-long ordeal of survival along the German-strafed beach before rescue. The civilian vessels took a day to cross the English Channel and execute the evacuation. The aircraft that supported the mission required only an hour to get there. Thus, Nolan tells the same narrative as it unfolds over one week, one day, and one hour – simultaneously. This means that we see unique moments occur more than once and from varying perspectives. Sometimes a scene that would otherwise be unremarkable has a poignancy due to what we have learned from a previous depiction of the same moment. Sometimes a cliffhanger is resolved when we see the same moment repeated and continued from that tense point. It’s a riveting way of telling a story that rewards attentive viewing with arcing waves of tension and resolution.
This effect is heightened by the soundtrack and the cinematography. The score consistently employs the ticking of a second hand and tones that seem to cycle perpetually upward. The sounds of bombs and bullets are distinct and overwhelming. In a remarkable contrast, however, the cinematography is strikingly beautiful. This may sound impossible given the dire subject matter, but Dunkirk repeatedly delivers artistically pleasing shot compositions and compelling layers of sand, sea and sky.
The performances are first-rate as well, but it is the remarkable imagery, immersive sound and an innovative story structure that make Dunkirk remarkable.
The bottom line: Christopher Nolan makes movie magic again.
4 Nominations: Best Picture, Actor (Daniel Kaluuya), Directing (Jordan Peele), Original Screenplay
In a nutshell: A liberal, white family’s warm reception of their daughter’s black boyfriend belies a sinister subtext.
Wow. Jordan Peele, of the comedy duo Key and Peele, makes his directorial debut with a film destined to become a classic. He has created the sort of movie that hasn’t been made in years, a smart horror flick with a high concept bearing influences of The Stepford Wives, Rosemary’s Baby, The Twilight Zone and The Manchurian Candidate. To this stew of twisted ideas he adds a racial component that is at once outrageous and relevant to real social politics. It is darkly disturbing, delightfully eerie, and it is also genuinely funny.
Get Out sets up its story with the sweetly romantic relationship of an interracial couple. Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) balks at the idea of meeting his girlfriend’s parents when Rose (Allison Williams) reveals that she has not informed her mother and father that her boyfriend is black. She assures him that all will be fine, as her parents are quite liberal and haven’t a shred of animosity toward black people. Despite the objections of his skeptical friend Rod (a boisterously funny Lil Rel Howery), Chris goes along with Rose’s wishes. He is soon relieved to discover his fears were unfounded, even if Rose’s family is a little quirky. And then things get progressively weird.
To say any more would rob you of the pleasure of seeing Get Out with virgin eyes, for this cleverly constructed film will be a different experience in subsequent viewings. All of the cast are at the top of their game, including Best Actor nominee Kaluuya, yet I wish Allison Williams had received a nod from the Academy as well. But I shan’t say more. The less said, the better. You must see it. You will not forget it.
The bottom line: You can tell who I’ll be rooting for on Oscar night.