Here we go again! Every year I rank the films nominated for Best Picture. As always, these are not predictions nor is the order based on films I “liked” the most, but rather my opinion of which films are most worthy to win the Best Picture Oscar. Tune in Sunday night to see if the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voters agree with me (probably not!).
9. Phantom Thread
After emphatically stating this is not a list based on how much I liked each film, I will begin by explaining why I did not like Phantom Thread. I’m sorry Daniel Day Lewis and others involved with making this film – clearly it’s not you, it’s me. Ninety-one percent of Rotten Tomato critics, as well as my wife, love this film.
My disdain for Phantom Thread is similar to my minority opinion several years ago about another Oscar-nominated film, Sideways (96% on Rotten Tomatoes). I simply cannot abide a film in which I do not find a likable character. That was true of Sideways in which I felt trapped for 127 minutes (that I will never get back) with two excruciatingly irritating people. It was like a middle-seat flight from hell.
I did not like the primary characters in Phantom Thread. Ultimately, their story turns out to be Fifty Shades of White, with Sewing and Mushrooms as its S&M.
Phantom Thread is beautifully filmed and marvelously acted. I was interested for about 2/3 of it but never emotionally invested. The end result was the worst thing I can say about a film – I was bored.
Again, the critical acclaim indicates this may be a lack of taste on my part. Your mileage may vary . . . significantly.
8. The Post
Numbers 2 through 8 were the most difficult to rank on this list. Phantom Thread was my clear #9, and as you will see I have known my pick for Best Picture since viewing it months ago. But the other films are all excellent and therefore difficult to compare.
It makes me a little sad to put The Post so low on this list. Even without the Hollywood Holy Trinity of Spielberg, Hanks, and Streep, the story of the publication of the Pentagon Papers is both important and timely. The Post is a powerful and much-needed reminder that a free press in vigorous pursuit of the truth is an essential check on those who would abuse their authority.
I have heard complaints that The Post moves a little slow. I believe the languid pace is more a feature than a bug, necessary for the change in Meryl Streep’s character to seem real. Streep’s Kathryn Graham begins as a housewife who excels at hospitality but depends upon the “experts” (all men) to run the newspaper she has tragically inherited after her husband’s suicide. By the end of the film, she has assumed leadership and become a potent, independent force.
The Post is not just about Kathryn Graham or even the incident it depicts; it is a universal story about the evolution of women’s roles. Perhaps the best scene in the film is when she walks down the steps of a courthouse and young women literally look up to her, more able to imagine an empowered future for themselves.
Tom Hanks is excellent as always, but this is really Meryl Streep’s film. If this weren’t such an incredible year for Best Actress nominees, she would be a favorite to win another statue.
Why then is The Post not ranked higher on this list? It’s a very good and worthwhile film, but not Best Picture caliber. I’ve written before that one of my criteria for a great film is one that I wake up thinking about the next day; The Post is not memorable in that way.
7. Darkest Hour
Gary Oldman. Gary Oldman. Gary Oldman.
Gary Oldman will win the Best Actor award on Sunday for his portrayal of Winston Churchill. That is the surest thing about this year’s Academy Awards. As they used to say in movie ads, “Gary Oldman is Winston Churchill.”
The makeup artists should get strong consideration in that category as well.
Darkest Hour almost certainly won’t be awarded Best Picture, but it is a worthy nominee. Joe Wright’s direction is excellent. What could have been a static, talk-heavy film bristles with interest and intrigue.
It is a happy coincidence that Darkest Hour and Dunkirk were released in the same year. Darkest Hour tells the political back-story of the events so well-depicted in Dunkirk (more about that later!).
6. Get Out
Get Out is not an extraordinary horror movie.
But Get Out is an effective and eviscerating satire. It employs horror tropes in service of a subversive statement about race, racism, and the hypocrisy of facile liberalism. Director/Screenwriter Jordan Peele could have set his film in Alabama or Mississippi to score some easy points about redneck-racism. Instead he expertly skewers upstate New York progressives and racist hearts that may lurk below mouths that spout rote pieties (“I would have voted for Obama a third time if I could’ve.”)
Although Get Out is a notch below the most serious Best Picture contenders, Peele should receive serious consideration in the Best Original Screenplay category. He is the first African American to be nominated for the trifecta of Best Picture (as producer), Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay categories, and only the fifth African American to be nominated for Best Director. (Incidentally, no African American woman has ever been nominated for that award; perhaps Ava DuVernay will change that this year with a nomination for A Wrinkle in Time, the nomination she SHOULD have received for Selma a few years ago).
5. Call Me By Your Name
Let’s leave the horror of upstate New York behind and spend some time remembering the light and bright colors of “Somewhere in Northern Italy,” as the title card says that precedes the events of Call Me By Your Name. It is a place where erudite and unconditionally accepting families spend summers and Hanukkahs, where the apricots from the back yard orchard are always succulent and peaches are always available if you need them for, uh . . . better if you see the film yourself. It’s a place where the worst thing that will happen if you break up with your girlfriend because you’d rather have a boyfriend is that she will want to be friends for life. And it’s a place where when your parents realize that attraction, they will suggest you take a trip with the object of your affection.
It is easy to make Call Me By Your Name sound kind of silly. The wonder of the film is that the beauty of the location and the stellar performances drew me into what is ultimately sort of an idealized coming of age story. Sure, it’s too good to be true, but why not enjoy the setting and the people who inhabit it for a couple of hours.
The other significant achievement of Call Me By Your Name is that although it focuses on a same-gender relationship, it feels quite universal in its exploration of love and especially a young adult figuring out who he is and who he will be.
What would be a pleasant diversion is elevated to Best Picture worthiness by the last ten minutes of this film. Michael Stuhlburg makes one of the great dad-speeches in film, speaking to love and loss with great lines like, “Don’t make yourself feel nothing so as not to feel anything. What a waste. . . .We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster than we should, that we go bankrupt by the age of 30.” Stuhlburg embodies empathy in this monologue, which imbues everything that has transpired with both deeper and higher meaning. Then there is the extended – really extended – shot that closes the film that allows us time to process the end of the ideal world in which we have been immersed, and perhaps the transition from the idealism of youth to the reality of adulthood.
4. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Three Billboards proved the most difficult film for me to place on this list. I enjoyed the heck out of this film as I enthusiastically hopped on board Best Actress probable winner Frances McDormand’s revenge train. I applauded Best Supporting-Actor favorite Sam Rockwell’s apparent redemption, and wept at shoulda-been-nominated Woody Harrelson’s tragic demise. Best Director nominee (and very likely winner) Martin McDonagh had me right where he wanted me.
But the more I thought about Three Billboards, the more conflicted I felt. As I considered its glorification of revenge and the increasingly destructive actions of its protagonist, and how I had reveled in them, I felt compelled to repentance or a shower.
Especially troubling is the film’s police brutality backstory. The film relegates this apparently racially-based beating to a footnote, but upon reflection this underexplicated event staunches sympathy not just for Rockwell’s character who perpetrated it but also for Harrelson’s police chief who seems more concerned about protecting his officer than the injustice he wrought.
On the other hand, perhaps the film’s moral ambiguity should be praised when so many films traffic in easy right and wrong obviousness. Perhaps the film does not celebrate revenge as much as it ultimately reveals the futility of vengeance.
There are no easy answers in Three Billboards. One plot twist I genuinely appreciated was that Rockwell’s apparent solving the case through a ridiculous coincidence turns out to be a red herring. A lesser film would have allowed everything to wrap up neatly with good feelings all around.
Instead, we get a fittingly inconclusive ending with McDormand and Rockwell, two damaged and destructive individuals, on their way to do . . . something. Or maybe not.
Perhaps I should move this film higher on the list. I’ve thought about Three Billboards much longer than just the morning after I saw it. I hope it’s clear I still haven’t worked through my feelings about it, and that’s the mark of an excellent film. Although I do believe the next four films are more worthy of a Best Picture Oscar, I won’t be disappointed if Three Billboards wins.
Or maybe I will.
3. Lady Bird
Of the nine nominees, I most enjoyed watching Lady Bird. It is a film with a huge heart. Even the least likable characters have redeeming qualities.
The best films on this list, and in general, create and immerse us in a world that seems real no matter how alien to our experience. Lady Bird ‘s milieu is not that exotic, but it is foreign to most of us – early 2000’s Sacramento, California as seen through the eyes of a young woman on the edge of adulthood. Lady Bird is notable for telling a coming of age story from the point of view of a female director and screenwriter. Greta Gerwig expertly and eloquently establishes the setting; the characters, plot, and dialogue all ring true.
Saoirse Ronan turns in a stellar performance as the title character. It is hard to believe she is the same performer nominated for Best Actress as an Irish immigrant in Brooklyn, but she convincingly plays a suburban high school senior struggling with that adolescent conundrum of desire to both cling to, and break from, her family. Laurie Metcalf is outstanding as her loving mother who can’t seem to resist passive-aggressiveness (among other faults).
I was disappointed Tracy Letts did not score a supporting actor nomination for his work as Lady Bird’s quietly supportive father (and Metcalf’s long-suffering husband). Maybe he and Michael Stuhlberg could share a “Movie Dad of the Year” award.
Lady Bird is a critical triumph (for a long while it had a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes) but probably not the Best Picture winner.
2. The Shape of Water
If I were still a betting man, my money would be on The Shape of Water to take home the Best Picture Oscar. It is a paean to movies and those who create them. Vintage films, especially musicals, seem to be the only programming available on the televisions in The Shape of Water. The settings and overall atmosphere of the film echoes Hollywood pictures of old. What could be a better bet for an award determined by the voting of filmmaking folks?
If The Shape of Water is crowned Best Picture on Sunday, it will be well deserved. Director Guillermo del Toro has crafted a gorgeous film that deserves to be viewed on a screen bigger than what is available in your living room. If you haven’t yet, go see it at a movie theater. There you can better appreciate its contrasts of light and darkness, pastels with grays, and color with black and white.
Cinematographer Dan Lausten should run away with the statue in his category. del Toro calls Lausten’s camera always into motion, sweeping and swirling around the beauty, strangeness, and occasional sanguine gore. Even the blood is disturbing but beautiful in its own bright crimson way.
The Shape of Water is a work of magical realism that asks the viewer to suspend disbelief for a couple of hours. Immersion in its world is well worth the surrender to its extraordinary strangeness.
Perhaps the best reason to see The Shape of Water is the performance by Sally Hawkins as the mute heroine of this cross between Beauty and the Beast meets The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Without uttering a word (except in an exquisite dream sequence), she communicates more with her expressions and emphatic signing than most actresses convey with pages of dialogue. Hawkins is my choice for Best Actress among the stellar performances in that category for her work in The Shape of Water and also in Maudie earlier in the year (although Frances McDormand will most likely win).
Dunkirk is the only film I saw twice in the theater last year. The first time was on a regular screen; the second was in IMAX. I returned not just to experience the enhanced picture and sound, but to pay more attention to how director Christopher Nolan intricately wove the strands of three stories with three different time frames into one coherent unit.
Nolan has always messed with time. The plot of his first widely available film, Memento, unspools backwards yet still manages to provide a surprise “ending.” Both Inception and Interstellar deal with realities where time proceeds at different rates – remember the levels of dreams in Inception? In Dunkirk Nolan’s time-bending skills serve the telling of history. Incidents overlap and diverge as we experience events from the 2-week perspective of soldiers on the beach, the 2-day perspective of sailors coming to the rescue, and the 2-hour perspective of pilots providing air cover.
As awed as I am by Nolan’s manipulation of time, there is a more basic reason Dunkirk would have my vote for Best Picture. Film is a medium of showing rather than telling, and that is precisely where Dunkirk excels. The dialogue is minimal and occasionally (as some have complained) unintelligible. But the visual power of the images Nolan orchestrates need no narration. (If you want a fuller picture of what’s going on, watch Darkest Hour before you see Dunkirk.)
From the start, Nolan drops us into the chaotic middle of things without exposition or buildup. Dunkirk never lets up. None of the standard war picture tropes clutter the action – for example there are no flashbacks to better know the characters. Some have criticized this as a flaw, but in Dunkirk the characters are stand-ins for the thousands who were trapped on the beach, or sailed civilian vessels to rescue them, or supported the rescue from the air. Too much character specificity would have detracted from the sweep of the film and the incredible history it depicts.
More than any of the other nominees, Dunkirk demonstrates the power of filmmaking. It is the Best Picture of 2017.
And the Best Picture not Nominated for Best Picture . . .
Wonder Woman! If nominated, Wonder Woman would have been in the top five on the above list. I am not a big fan of comic book movies, but Wonder Woman transcends its genre. Director Patty Jenkins probably deserved a nomination as well.
And finally, my favorite film of 2017. . .
The Big Sick. Ray Romano and Holly Hunter should have been nominated for Best Supporting Actor and Actress and it wouldn’t have killed the Academy to give a straight-up comedy a Best Picture nomination even if it does not deserve the award.
If you haven’t seen The Big Sick, do yourself a favor and watch it!