DunkirkI'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 BirdI'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, MissouriAt 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 OutI 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 WaterOnly 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 NameThis 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.