I gave up watching the Oscars 20 years ago, but that doesn’t mean I don’t care which films are nominated. I just don’t care which ones win. This year I’ve seen all the nominated movies except for “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” and as usual, the list is a combination of solid audience-pleasing Hollywood fare and a couple of more demanding pictures to prove the Academy cares about art. Of the sure-to-please variety, “The Post” about the publication of the Pentagon Papers in The Washington Post is the standout. Steven Spielberg can make these films in his sleep by now, but that shouldn’t blind us to the enormous skill required. “The Post” is gripping despite our knowing what happened, and it’s emotionally satisfying, with terrific performances and the obligatory Spielbergian sentimental ending. I loved all that old-timey newspaper production stuff too; mine is probably the last generation that will read off newsprint, so we deserve a bit of indulgence.
“Darkest Hour” is another traditionally enjoyable film, one that reminds us of our own pluck and courage in a perilous time. (What could be more satisfying than that?) Gary Oldman is awfully good as Churchill as he confronts the British army’s defeat in France and potential disaster, and the movie has all those great production values the Brits do so well. I preferred Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk,” which covers the same historical period, for its filmmaking bravura, however. Almost without dialogue, the movie tells a complicated tale from three perspectives and three chronological points. Amazing editing by Lee Smith and brilliant cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema. I almost always prefer to watch movies in the theater, but this one in particular needs the biggest screen you can find to get the full impact.
Guillermo del Toro is one of my favorite directors, and I really enjoyed “The Shape of Water,” which mashes together lots of his obsessions. The messiness of the film (monsters, spies, romance, myth, implacable villains) didn’t bother me; what ties it all together is the power of stories. From ancient myths of underwater creatures to classic fairy tales like “Beauty and the Beast” to genre Cold War spy movies, we tell stories to make sense of our experiences and/or to make our lives bearable in a world where wickedness so often wins. “The Shape of Water” is not as austere or frightening as del Toro’s masterpiece “Pan’s Labyrinth,” but it’s always a pleasure to enter into his visual imagination. And can anyone humanize a moral monster like Michael Shannon?
We usually have some coming-of-age stories among the nominees, and this year’s two are ”Lady Bird” and “Call Me by Your Name.” Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird” doesn’t break any new ground, but Gerwig manages to infuse this familiar genre with so much fresh and authentic feeling that I found the film a delight. Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf are superb as the antsy teenage daughter and overburdened mother, and the rest of the cast is great too. Although the movie focuses on Christine’s struggle to separate from her parents and strike out on her own, Gerwig manages to touch subtly on so many other topics–clinical depression, middle-class economic struggles, body image issues, sexual identity, nostalgia, student-teacher crushes, and more. Nothing’s overdone and it all fits together beautifully.
I can’t say the same for the gay romance “Call Me by Your Name,” which I found almost excruciatingly boring. Briefly, 17-year-old Elio develops a crush on his professor father’s graduate student assistant who is working for the summer in rural Italy. The older grad student responds in kind and the two have a brief affair. I never believed that Elio and Oliver actually wanted each other, and Timothee Chalamet’s boyishness compared to Armie Hammer’s man’s body creeped me out a little. Nothing in this film felt real or true. It’s set in 1983, a decade after the gay-rights movement got going, but the atmosphere in the film feels like the 1950s. Although Elio has spent every summer in this Italian town, he doesn’t seem to know the other teens very well. The girl he romances is surprised that he reads! Michael Stuhlbarg’s speech at the end, which has gotten so much praise for its sensitivity, left me cold. If the implication is that he is also gay, what are we to make of his marriage? Is his wife the sacrificial victim of his buried desires? And what of Oliver’s fiancee? Another sacrifice to convention? The movie felt endless too, with lots of brooding glances and boring dialogue. Funny that two of the actors, Chalamet and Stuhlbarg, give much better performances in other nominated films, in my opinion.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Phantom Thread” is gorgeous, fascinating, and deeply enigmatic. The story of the peculiar relationship between a haute couturier in 1950s London (Daniel Day-Lewis), his young muse/girlfriend, and his business-partner sister (a fantastic Lesley Manville), the movie manages to be funny, disturbing, and just plain weird, while still looking like one of the exquisite dresses Reynolds Woodcock (!) creates. Is it a study of a sado-masochistic trio, and if so, who is the sadist and who the masochist? Is it a metaphor for filmmaking, a deeply collaborative art where the execution of the auteur’s vision depends on a whole team of craftspeople? Is it a wry commentary on the mysteries of the human heart and its endless variety of desires? And who exactly is Alma talking to? A therapist? A writer? Regardless of the mystery, “Phantom Thread” is highly enjoyable and merits more than one viewing. I can’t wait to see it again and study the claustrophobic set and the interactions between the three characters, each as interesting as the others. If this is indeed Day-Lewis’s last role, it’s a doozy. He leaves at the top of his game.
I never go to horror movies, but I’m so glad I saw “Get Out.” The first feature from Jordan Peele, of the comedy duo Key and Peele, “Get Out” is so much more than a standard screamer. There are indeed truly frightening scenes, and lots of humor too, but Peele delivers a nuanced and ultimately tragic view of American race relations. The plot involves a young black man traveling to visit his white girlfriend’s parents only to discover that they are up to no good. In fact, they are essentially sucking the souls out of black folk. Peele’s view seems to be that white Americans can accept African Americans as fully human only if they become “white.” They can never be themselves; they can only be vehicles for white people’s fantasies. That’s pretty scary in itself. The movie is anything but pedantic, though, and it can be enjoyed on lots of different levels. A super confident debut, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.
Now we just have to wait until March 4 to find out who wins. Well, you can wait — I’ll read about it the day after.
I saw two unusual animated films recently — a Chinese noir and an Iranian expose. “Have a Nice Day” by Liu Jian is a convoluted story about a driver who steals a bag full of money from his boss to help his girlfriend get plastic surgery. There are crosses and double-crosses and a lot of tough-sounding talk, but the animation is strangely static, and I found the whole thing less than gripping.
“Tehran Taboo” is much more successful. Set in Tehran, the film follows several men and women who are trying with varying degrees of success to maneuver around Iran’s sexual hypocrisy. A prostitute who wants a bill of divorce from her imprisoned drug-addict husband has to provide services to the judge who can give her the document. Another young woman is desperate for an abortion so she can get out from the control of her husband and in-laws. A third woman needs to have a surgery that will enable her to pass as a virgin. Obviously, most of the burden of this hypocrisy falls on women, but the men in the film have their own problems. The portrait that emerges is of a society that presents the appearance of primness but is the opposite beneath the veil of piety.
Have fun at the movies!