Doug Orleans (dougo) wrote,
Doug Orleans
dougo

Best Picture thoughts, 2017 edition

When the Oscar nominations were announced, I had already seen five of the nine Best Picture contenders, which is a new record for me by far! So I made sure to see the rest of them, and I figured I ought to write up my impressions of them like I did two years ago. Again, these are in the order I saw them; my faves were Get Out (I predicted it would get nominated!) and Call Me By Your Name.

Dunkirk

I'm not big on military films, and World War II especially seems done to death and beyond, so I was loath to see this. (I had forgotten that I already somewhat knew the story of the Dunkirk evacuation via Foyle's War, so for some reason I was expecting more of a grim Battle-of-the-Bulge milieu.) But then I saw that the film was by Christopher Nolan; even though I hated Interstellar, I guess I'm still vestigially a Nolan fanboy, thanks to Memento, The Dark Knight, and Inception. (I also finally saw his first film, Following, earlier last year, and enjoyed that too.) Anyway, it turns out, Nolan's trademark out-of-order storytelling style does in fact make a WWII story more interesting. Beyond that, though, it's visually stunning, and, in a theater with a good soundsystem, the most visceral filmgoing experience I've had since Heat.

That said, while grim and cathartic, this still felt more like a particularly-artistic summer blockbuster popcorn flick than a prestige Oscar-quality film. It doesn't feel like it has a deeper message than the usual "war is hell", "we're all in this together", "keep our humanity during crises" tropes. At least it didn't try to squeeze in "love conquers all", and I like the decision to avoid having any identifiable German characters at all, rather than either trying to humanize or demonize them. But, that's not exactly subversive.

Lady Bird

I'm a big Greta Gerwig fan (Damsels in Distress, Frances Ha, Mistress America, Maggie's Plan) so I was certainly curious to see her debut as a writer and director. And yes, I enjoyed it as a quirky-but-touching coming-of-age indie film with touches of Wes Anderson, Whit Stillman, and the Duplass brothers. I also enjoyed it as a period piece, a love letter to early '00s Sacramento. But I couldn't quite get past Saoirse Ronan (whom I really didn't like in Brooklyn, I'm just now remembering) doing a Greta Gerwig impersonation rather than really inhabiting the role, almost like how so many Woody Allen leading actors seem to just do their best Woody Allen impersonation. There was one scene in particular, in the kitchen with her mother, that felt so much like an acting exercise that it took me out of the film. I was pretty surprised that she was nominated for Best Actress, but maybe I don't know what I should be looking for? I thought all the other acting was great, though, particularly Laurie Metcalf (whom I knew well from the Norm Macdonald sitcom "Norm"!) as her mother. Anyway, the film was pleasant, inoffensive, and I wouldn't mind seeing it win, but it seems a bit thin for a Best Picture.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

At first I was pretty into this, with Frances MacDormand as a small town no-nonsense mother of a rape/murder victim harnessing her righteous anger to get the incompetent/corrupt local police to get serious about investigating the crime. But then the story takes a few turns that I wasn't really on board for; I couldn't tell if I was supposed to stop liking her character, but I kinda did, and/or start liking Sam Rockwell's dumb racist cop who had a sudden jolt of conscience and competence, but I kinda didn't. And the ending, especially, seems morally questionable at best, yet the film seemed to want me to cheer? Or did it? I dunno, man. I think the best thing about it was Woody Harrelson's beleaguered and befuddled police chief, but even his reveal of hidden complexity had dubious ethics as well. If that's the point of the movie, that people are complicated and things can never be as black-and-white as they seem, I can respect that, but I guess I needed a little more sign that the film really is smarter than its characters.

Get Out

I skipped this at first, not being a big horror fan, and imagining how a crowd-pleasing horror/comedy allegory about race relations could be forced, or campy, or unappealing in many other ways. But the buzz continued, and when it came to HBO in the fall I was curious to give it a watch. And I was happily surprised at how complete a movie experience it turned out to be. Yes, it is genuinely creepy, and also hits all the thriller/slasher tropes, but the humor goes beyond the tension-relieving laugh lines of the genre and into some subtle but deep observations about the black experience amidst white privilege (and white guilt). But much of it also just plays as an engaging suburban existential drama, feeling a bit like American Beauty in that regard. It also just looks great—Toby Oliver deserved a cinematography nomination. What I'm saying is, this turned out to be my favorite movie of the year, and after watching it I really could see it following in the footsteps of Silence of the Lambs to transcend genre and win Best Picture. And I hope it does.

The Shape of Water

Only recently did I realize that I had somehow been confusing Guillermo del Toro with Alfonso Cuaron for a long time. So no, the same guy didn't direct both Pan's Labyrinth and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban! And in fact Pan's Labyrinth was the only del Toro film I'd seen before The Shape of Water, and I wasn't a big fan of it. But I wasn't really thinking about it much going into this film. Which is probably good, because I liked this a lot better! It's a tidy fairy tale, a somewhat magical-realist take on 1950s B-movie sci-fi, specifically The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Maybe a bit too tidy... something about it felt a bit airless, hard to put my finger on. Surprisingly unsurprising? But the acting was great all around, and the atmosphere kept a nice balance of whimsy and wistfulness, with dark undercurrents of 1950s societal dysfunction. This seems to be getting the most Oscar buzz, and I wouldn't be upset if it won, but it still doesn't really seem like a Best Picture kind of movie to me.

Call Me By Your Name

This was the opposite of airless—it's all air! Which is not to say it's insubstantial, just that it's full of scenes that just breathe and unfold naturally, or have no connection to the plot but just convey a mood. And the mood is largely: languid, summer, summer romance, summer romance in rural Italy, first romance, gay romance, first gay romance. But also confusion, fear, shame, frustration, not to mention existential angst. I spent the whole movie just dreading what impending artificial drama was around the corner—someone would turn violent, or there would be some betrayal or exposure plot point... But, spoiler, this never came: everyone stayed kind, and the stakes stayed small, just magnified by the inherently exaggerated drama of being a teenager. In retrospect, I wonder if the dread I felt was intentional on the part of director Luca Guadagnino, or if it's just me imposing my American film expectations on what is a thoroughly European style of film (despite the characters being mostly American). Perhaps on rewatch I would be much more relaxed.

I'm not a huge Sufjan Stevens fan, but the soundtrack was aptly dreamy. Again, great acting all around, particularly a magnificent speech by Michael Stuhlbarg near the end. And I particularly enjoyed the way the ending credits were done—not something I'd ever seen before, which in itself was surprising. Overall, this was my second favorite, and I would be quite happy to see it win... but much more shocked than to see Get Out win.

Phantom Thread

Much like Christopher Nolan, Paul Thomas Anderson is a surprisingly mixed bag for me. Loved Boogie Nights, Magnolia, There Will Be Blood, hated Punch-Drunk Love, The Master, Inherent Vice. But much like Nolan, apparently I am still a fanboy and willing to give him more chances. And this one... ends up squarely in the middle. Lots to like, from Daniel Day-Lewis's usual melting into a finely observed and memorable character, to Jonny Greenwood's amazing score, evoking both the elegance of high-fashion dress-making and the obsessive passionate monotony of Woodcock's personality. But the unpleasantness of his abusive behavior kept me feeling out of sorts throughout, and though it felt like I was supposed to come around to accepting the peculiar sort of balance reached in his relationships with his wife and sister by the end (a twisted form of #meToo comeuppance I guess), I just didn't buy into this enough—there was no redemption, he was still just...bad. And besides that, the film ultimately felt too claustrophobic, an intense examination of the relationship of these three characters, without a whole lot to say about anything else. Great score, though.

The Post

I really had very little desire to see this before it got nominated: from all indications it seemed like it would just be a by-the-numbers historical rehash hitting you over the head with political parallels to current events. And, well, yep, that's what I got, but even with those lowered expectations, I was surprised at how much it seemed like everyone was phoning this one in. In particular, that early scene with Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks at breakfast felt like a rehearsal run-through that was inexplicably left in the final cut. Still, by the end I was actually engaged with the drama, without feeling quite as manipulated as expected. But, it was odd that all of the dramatic tension in the film came down to just two decisions: Katherine Graham's decision whether to run the story, which, while she anguished over it (for rather longer than seemed dramatically necessary), ended up feeling like more or less a coin toss; and the Supreme Court's decision to allow the publication, which happened entirely off-screen and felt like a deus ex machina. This was my least favorite of the nominees, yet I can completely imagine it winning as a safe bet due to the old-guard star power. And I am dreading the predictable political acceptance speeches that would result...

Darkest Hour

I was similarly not very excited to see this, another historical tick-tock recounting of events, but this time with an extra helping of scenery-chewing that seemed inevitable from portraying such a larger-than-life figure as Winston Churchill. But, dang, Gary Oldman really won me over. He managed to melt into the character as much or moreso than Daniel Day-Lewis, yet was also a likeable bastard without being cloying or sentimental. The climactic scene in the Underground was obviously apocryphal, fantastical, and almost fairytale-like, the sheltered aristocrat finally communing with the common man, but surprisingly I found it genuinely moving, in a subtle way that I can't quite explain. What was missing from this film, though, was any sort of look into his past that would motivate his attitudes, abilities, and flaws—I wanted to see more about why everyone was loath to let him lead to begin with, why they were eager to kick him out after the war, and why he was able to make the most of his opportunity in between. But I suppose there are eleven other films about Churchill that I could watch to fill in that gap!
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