All Things Entertaining and Cultural
While I long for a time when fine movies were released throughout the calendar year, the crop of films that came at the end of 2017 are a superb lot. Yes, a performance or two from the spring or summer may have gotten lost in the shuffle, and one might wonder when Colin Farrell is going to earn a nomination, but the nominees for this year’s Oscars made moviegoing from October until now a treat.
I say “this year’s Oscars” rather than putting a year because dates are in dispute. Once upon a time is was clear that the date given to an Academy Award referred to the year of release. By that paradigm, the current nominees would represent 2017, which I think is the correct assignment. Google and other references, probably compiled by nerds who weren’t film buffs — Is that a paradox, or an oxymoron? — decides the award year by the year the awards are handed out. That would made the current crop 2018 films.
But why argue against nincompoops who outnumber me?
Stubbornly. I sail on looking at 2017 movies and guessing who might be the 2017 recipients of the most important of all entertainment prizes, filmdom’s Academy Award.
Here is a category-by-category rundown of the six most important contests, which means the six I care about. (It once was seven, but I gave up on Best Song somewhere around the time of “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” — “Hustle and Flow” 2005, Google year 2006.)
The nominees are Call Me By Your Name, Darkest Hour, Dunkirk, Get Out, Lady Bird, Phantom Thread, The Post, The Shape of Water, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
This is, as said, a good bunch, one of the best of recent years. Everyone had merit, although I would probably remove “Get Out” for being slickly gimmicky instead of truly satiric or commentating and “Dunkirk,” though beautifully cinematic, for remaining an overview rather than focusing on a single character in a way that would grip and provide audience concern instead of admiration for a large story told as an epic. Even the characters and performances of Mark Rylance, Tom Glynn-Carney, Fionn Whitehead, and Damien Bonnard didn’t create than individual connection that is prime to great storytelling. (I bet, except for Rylance, most people who saw “Dunkirk” aren’t sure who the others played.)
So I eliminate those two as strong contenders even though their directors were chosen for nomination in a field of five ahead of “Ebbing, Missouri’s” lauded Martin McDonagh or “Darkest Hour’s” Joe Wright. As you’ll see, when we get to the directors’ category, it’s the one field that is a bloody, stupid, probably political mess.
“Call Me By Your Name” is a beautiful coming of age story that shows a serious, sensitive, talented boy at a crossroads. It stimulates interest beyond its lovely homosexual passages and has some wonderful acting, particularly by Timothée Chalamet and Michael Stuhlbarg, who excels in three nominated movies and did not earn a Supporting Actor nod for any of them. It has all the marks of an Oscar contender but competes in a year in which both its elegance and sensibility is surpassed.
“Darkest Hour” features the person I consider the most important single individual of the 20th century, and of my lifetime, Winston Churchill. (If only someone like he was available to run as President!) The story is compelling, and Gary Oldman is remarkable in the lead role. The movie has everything but doesn’t seem as special, as new, or as creatively cinematic as its rivals.
“Lady Bird” takes coming of age in a different direction. Saoirse Ronan’s character, Christine, is searching for individual identity and the genuine maturity Chalamet’s character has in “Call Me By Your Name” in addition to sexual experience. Great Gerwig makes Lady Bird’s discoveries and realizations equally profound and comic. This is a film where the quirks entertain but don’t take over, as in “Get Out.” This is one the three nominees that most deserve an award. The tone is lively, and Gerwig, as writer and director, seems to have a sense of the real and the way individual prisms affect one’s perceptions.
“Phantom Thread” and “The Post” are both fine achievements, but each lacks something. “Phantom Thread” keeps you distant and cold. “Dunkirk” can fascinate in its breadth. It chooses to tell a large story in a large way. “Phantom Thread” keeps its story too small. Urbanely high-toned though it is, it wears out its welcome. Ultimately, I was glad I slogged through it, but elegant and polished as it is, I was at one point tempted to say “I saw enough” and leave. Paul Thomas Anderson glomming a director’s nomination ahead of McDonagh makes no sense.
“The Post” seemed run of the mill and smacked a little of fashionable Hollywood dogma circa 2018 but not necessarily 1972. I became nostalgic seeing journalism being treated as important, an antique notion these days. This is a good watch, but it doesn’t have the compelling nature of “Spotlight,” the 2015 Oscar winner that probably helped “The Post” get its green light. I fervently wish designers had left Tom Hanks’s hair alone. His Ben Bradlee “do” seemed false. I fixated on it, loathingly, more than on Hanks’s generally good performance.
“The Shape of Water” was a great surprise. I, in general, do not like fantasy or sentimentality about an alien creature. That said, the warm and often hilarious way Guillermo del Toro found to tell his story brought the idea of the misunderstood outsider home much better than some realistic picture and with oodles less self-consciousness than the cheapo “Greatest Showman.” I’ll take sweet, funny, and done-just-right over the bombastic (“Greatest Showman”) or self-congratulating (“Get Out”) any day of the week. Yep, this another of my strong three.
I worry about how much I generally enjoy Martin McDonagh’s dark, sick comedy. The cat that appears at the end of “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” can make me laugh at the mere thought of it. McDonagh revels in cheeky horror and the craziness behind seeming reality. He keys into the disdain and violence in all of us and, bless his heart, never gets so civilized he suppresses a drop of it. Anger and retribution flourish in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” A major crime goes unsolved, foot-dragging triggering the ruckus that ensues, but major characters get to express their strong emotions in more than writing on rented posters. Crimes abound. The most excusable may be a sheriff just not having the evidence he needs to bring a case of rape and murder to justice while bombs and gunshots go off with reckless and unpunished abandon. This is a movie about passion and small-town status quo. Fists, Molotovs, and gun barrels take a nasty and retributive toll. It makes you a tad ashamed as you guffaw cheerfully at McDonagh’s copious excesses. “Three Billboards” has to be an Oscar front-runner, in spite of some recent backlash — The call today is to be so ‘good.” — and it’s the third of the three I think some contend the most strongly.
PREDICTION: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri PREFERENCE: Lady Bird
The nominees are Timothée Chalamet for Call Me By Your Name, Daniel Day-Lewis for Phantom Thread, Daniel Kaluuya for Get Out, Gary Oldman for Darkest Hour, and Denzel Washington for Roman J. Israel, Esq.
Such a good field, it doesn’t include Tom Hanks, Kenneth Branagh, Jamie Bell, Hugh Jackman, or Michael Shannon, and they’re not even missed. Who would you eliminate to add them? Even when it would be hard to complain if one of them was there in place of an actual nominee.
The parts these actors played are as different as can be. Chalamet is a strong contender for his complete and sensitive portrayal as a generally gifted and perceptive young man who is confused by sexuality and is open to finding love and tenderness in a man while being more teenage about his equally sweet, if not as intense, affair with a woman. A brave three-minute or more sequence of Chalamet contemplating his deep summer romance as he stares almost blankly into a fireplace shows this young actor’s discipline and scope. He deserves to be in contention.
Washington follow his self-conscious turn in last year’s “Fences” with the kind of naturalistic, realistic performance you expect from him in “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” There’s a reason this is Washington’s eighth Oscar nomination. He’ll get some consideration but not an award.
To me, the Daniels are the odd nominees out. Usually, Daniel Day-Lewis dominates the field and is a shoo-in when nominated. His performance enhances the polish of “Phantom Thread” and gives it needed depth and appeal, but it is minor Day-Lewis and minor in regard to the other nominees of 2017. Daniel Kaluuya belongs more fittingly in the supporting category, but it is he who puts needed charm into “Get Out,” and recognition wherever is due.
Gary Oldman is a chameleon in the same way Day-Lewis is. Maybe more of one, since Oldman captured attention first and renews the admiration he engenders with every new role. He understands the human and monumental side of one of the greatest and most useful people of all time, Winston Churchill. Oldman’s portrayal of the master statesman and soldier conveys the inspiration and greatness of the Pantheon Churchill himself. This is a towering performance and, in a year when all nominees are excellent yet could be replaced by five just as good, he deserves this Oscar. (Let’s hope Hollywood’s current spate of McCarthyism doesn’t rob him of it.)
PREDICTION: Gary Oldman PREFERENCE: Gary Oldman
The nominees are Sally Hawkins for The Shape of Water, Frances McDormand for Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri, Margot Robbie for I, Tonya, Saoirse Ronan for Lady Bird, and Meryl Streep for The Post
I have to keep saying each group is a superior group. Once again, others such Rachel Weisz, Jessica Chastain, or Annette Bening could have been among this group without causing complaint, but these five are prime. I was expecially happy to see Robbie make the cut for her tough and exuberant portrayal of Tonya Harding.
Meryl Streep continues to show her ability to be ineluctably Meryl while creating an interesting, compelling character with a distinctive voice and accent. Katy Graham should be pleased to be so well represented. Streep is such a great actress because she can morph so easily into another person so convincingly without resorting to actors’ tricks. She is not the chameleon Day-Lewis and Oldman are. (That would be Hawkins.) She nevertheless has gifts that extend her career as a leading lady beyond anyone’s except for maybe Katharine Hepburn’s, and make her so frequently nominated. 2017, however, is not her year.
It belongs to Frances McDormand, Sally Hawkins, or Saoirse Ronan, probably McDormand.
Frances McDormand is a genius at playing women with a purpose. For McDormand, it’s always the role. Few actresses have cared so little about how they look or what people will think of their character. This year, with Millie Hayes, McDormand has created an instant classic. This is a woman of palpable anger, resentment, and resolve. She can also outwit any adversary, tactically and verbally. McDormand can wisecrack, and she can be precise in her rage. I told you, a woman of purpose. Frances and Millie blend seamlessly in “Ebbing, Missouri.” This is a master class in acting and a masterful characterization in one.
Yet Sally Hawkins and Saoirse Ronan can lay legitimate claim to a 2017 Oscar.
Hawkins is so lovingly real and sincere as the maintenance worker who befriends a creature from another evolutionary time or distant planet, if not galaxy. She is endearingly human, whether she is acting out her longing in her bathtub before encountering the strange being at the government lab where she works, or feeling empathy for a fellow creature she finds a way to calm and communicate with, communication being important since Hawkins’s character is mute. (Had she been deaf the Oscar might be hers. Ask Jane Wyman, Anne Bancroft, Patty Duke, or Marlee Matlin.) “The Shape of Water” is one of the great achievements of 2017, and Hawkins helps to make it work.
Ronan, who came to the screen as a child in “Atonement” and “The Lovely Bones,” and matured beautifully in “Brooklyn,” goes back to being a teen in “Lady Bird” and convinces. Ronan reveals more about her budding character than Timothée Chalamet does in “Call Me By Your Name.” There’s spirit that mixes with angst, superiority that mixes with doubt, assumed maturity and independence that somehow gets checked. Ronan is the best actress of her generation, a hard judgment to make with Natalie Portman, Jennifer Lawrence, and Jessica Chastain in the running. She will have an Oscar one day, and possibly a Streep-like string of nominations, but I think she’ll have to wait 2017 out.
PREDICTION: Frances McDormand PREFERENCE: Sally Hawkins
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
The nominees are Willem Dafoe for The Florida Project, Woody Harrelson for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Richard Jenkins for The Shape of Water, Christopher Plummer for All the Money in the World, and Sam Rockwell for Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri
Willem Dafoe might be a sentimental favorite as one who has given dozens of great performances but has not yet received an Oscar. Woody Harrelson is an excellent addition to this field and could have been in either the Best Actor or Best Supporting Actor race. It’s just good to see him recognized for this work as the put-upon, dying sheriff of Ebbing, Missouri.
Richard Jenkins is droll and real in his part as a neighbor who helps his best friend kidnap an alien. Jenkins’s vintage “good life” airs, clothing, and taste add to The Shape of Water’s” charm nd accentuate its bygone period.
Christopher Plummer earns kudos for refilming a role first played by current Hollywood pariah Kevin Spacey. Of course, Plummer makes that role his own and lays legitimate claim to Oscar’s consideration.
Sam Rockwell is the one who takes an overwrought character and makes him as fascinating as he is annoying or despicable.
Rockwell had his work cut out for him because his deputy sheriff is genuine slime. Hollywood may even deny Rockwell an Oscar because many are critical of the character he plays. The repulsion, I remind folks, comes from how craftily Rockwell plays him. Also, I see McDonagh-style amorality when Rockwell and McDormand’s characters come together at the end of the movie while detractors see redemption and forgiveness. No the McDonagh way. Venom, spite, and resentment pour from the writer and from Rockwell’s character. Of course, he’s callous and dismissive. Of course, he depends on his authority as the law to claim he is justified and right in his nefarious actions. Rockwell makes this truculently plain, and that’s why he’s the front runner unless backlash sends this award to Dafoe or Plummer.
PREDICTION: Sam Rockwell PREFERENCE: Richard Jenkins
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
The nominees are Mary J. Blige for Mudbound, Allison Janney for I, Tonya, Lesley Manville for Phantom Thread, Laurie Metcalf for Lady Bird, and Octavia Spencer for The Shape of Water
I love Lesley Manville, adored her icy, no-nonsense sister and businesswoman in “Phantom Thread,” and can’t wait to see her opposite Jeremy Irons in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” but what is she doing in this category in place of castmate Vicky Krieps, Kristin Scott-Thomas from “Darkest Hour,” or Bria Vinaite or Brooklynn Prince from “The Florida Project?” She’s on screen for maybe 10 minutes in a two-hour film, and her character never varies.
That’s one down. But then I was fooled in 1976 by Beatrice Straight in “Network.”
Octavia Spencer is proving to be one of filmdom’s most reliable character actresses. Her role in “The Shape of Water” shows her once again warping a stereotype (while empoying it when useful) and showing how witty she is in making a character come to vivid life.
Mary J. Blige lets people see she has yet another talent in her bountiful arsenal. Like Cher, Mo’Nique, and Shirley Jones, she has shown herself to be an effective actress in addition to the other arts she’s mastered.
Spencer and Blige are wonderful, but the contest in between the two TV stars who also has significant stage credits.
Allison Janney and Laurie Metcalf both play mothers, strong domineering, insulting mothers with daughters that notice their strength and cringe at their candor but don’t always appreciate the affection or experience behind it. Both have their acts down pat in terms of arch line delivery. Both have sentimental moments to go with their flinty ones. Janney may have an edge because her character is larger, more bizarre, and more jaded with life and her daughter. Metcalf deftly plays the working woman who is doing her best in all directions and gets no credit, or great love, from anyone. She is gives the more natural, realistic portrayal.
PREDICTION: Allison Janney PREFERENCE: Laurie Metcalf
The nominees are Paul Thomas Anderson for Phantom Thread, Guillermo del Toro for The Shape of Water, Greta Gerwig for Lady Bird, Christopher Nolan for Dunkirk, and Jordan Peele for Get Out
Three of the choices for this category seem so wrong compared with other candidates who would have been more suited for 2017 nominations.
OK, Christopher Nolan used cinema well in “Dunkirk.” But I was interested in it the way I am interested in documentaries. Humans were singled out for us to follow, but none was permitted the opportunity to engage us. “Dunkirk” was admirable but cold.
By all means, give Jordan Peele credit for writing, but his direction of “Get Out” was at best pedestrian. It certainly isn’t what drove the picture or made it work. A gimmick did, a gimmick that was as “oh, brother” risible as it was potent. ‘Get Out” must be the most overrated, overnominated movie of 2017.
Paulk Thomas Anderson was another who kept his movie, “Phantom Thread” emotionally distant. It is a beautiful movie and has genuine artistic touches, but it’s visuals and camera work aren’t what sell the film or bring the audience to it. Daniel Day-Lewis does that.
So, for me, with Martin McDonagh out of the mix, it all comes down to Greta Gerwig and Guillermo del Toro, both of whom showed wit and a knack for storytelling in their work.
PREDICTION: Christopher Nolan PREFEREENCE: Guillermo del Toro
Oh, don’t forget to practice speedy use of mute buttons in the event of political speeches by people who have help to do their paperwork and can’t think past what CNN tells them. Oh, for a muse of fire that would singe their eyebrows when they made the slightest political utterance.