My Oscar predictions are on the way next week, but for this week I’m breaking down the rest of the Oscar films you still have a chance to see before March 4th.
Meryl Streep has no patience for your man-splaining in The Post.
Just when we think we’ve explored every facet of the Pentagon Papers story on screen, 2017 brings yet another entry in the timeless (and timely) saga of national security and journalistic ethics in the form of The Post. The film follows Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham and journalist Ben Bradlee in the wake of the New York’s Times publication of classified documents leaked by government contractor Daniel Ellsberg. Ellsberg’s portfolio of documents, the Pentagon Papers, exposed the US’s questionable motivations and actions throughout two decades of the Vietnam conflict. In The Post, Bradlee’s team makes a move to acquire the documents for themselves and then must weigh the risk of publication (which could include Graham and Bradlee going to jail, although the film never makes this threat seem very real). The Post is a good film and very much a paper drama in the same vein as All the President’s Men and, more recently, best picture winner Spotlight. It does suffer a bit from too much star power, to the point that the seemingly endless calvacade of “extras” who are stars in their own right becomes distracting. Streep and Hanks are excellent, but neither ever really finds immersion in their respective roles. I love newspaper dramas (after all, “don’t send that e-mail!” doesn’t have nearly the gravitas of a good “stop the presses!” scene), but the story I found myself more interested in here is the one that took place offscreen at the New York Times: the reporters who initially interfaced with Ellsberg, how the story was “found”, the decision process of the New York Times in their initial publication of the classified content. The Post also suffers from trying to tackle too much in a single film – there’s drama about an initial public offering, Graham as a female leader and the accompanying skepticism on the part of some of her male colleagues (there is a scene where Meryl Streep stares down a mansplainer while wearing a caftan that is for the ages), an examination of the relationship between the press and Washington society (“how will this affect Katherine Graham’s social life” is unbelievably a point of some significance), philosophical musings on the role of the press in a free and democratic society, and on and on. It’s a movie whose reach exceeds its grasp and will leave you satisfied, but also maybe reaching for that DVD of BBC’s version of State of Play (because James McAvoy).
If Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner were a horror movie, it would be Jordan Peele’s Get Out. This film had slipped off my Oscar radar because it was released so long ago (I think I saw it in theaters in March of last year). When Chris and Rose (played by Brian Williams’ daughter!!) have been dating for a few months, she brings him for a “meet the parents” weekend at their upstate country home. No spoilers, but from there things get very weird and terrifying. Get Out is a must see horror offering, but it also poses some big questions about race and (surprisingly) presents them in a more nuanced manner than many other films this year, including Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit. Extra kudos for the film’s very positive portrayal of the often-maligned TSA in a heroic and at times hilarious performance by Lil Rey Howery.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is the most-Coen brothers-like film that wasn’t made by the Coen brothers. Almost universally criticized for its depiction of race relations, it is still likely to take home some Oscars thanks to strong performances by Sam Rockwell and Frances McDormand. McDormand is exceptional as a mother grappling with the brutal murder of her daughter and frustration with a small town’s police department (led by sheriff Woody Harrelson) who have let the case go cold. McDormand is truly a presence (and she gives great awards show speeches), but I found Three Billboards to be Sam Rockwell’s show. I don’t know whether Rockwell’s character deserves a redemption arc (another controversial aspect of the story), but he plays every beat of it perfectly. Late in the film, there’s a climatic confrontation scene in a bar (weirdly set to “Don’t Walk Away Renee”) that will haunt you long after seeing it and will send Rockwell home with a shiny statuette a few weeks from now. I would encourage viewers not to be intimidated by Three Billboard’s bleakness –it’s certainly a challenging film, but there’s enough dark humor to pull you through.
Phantom Thread is this season’s requisite Oscar movie about a misunderstood genius and the women who enable his bad behavior. That said, I really did love Phantom Thread, in large part because of Daniel Day Lewis’s impeccable performance as Daniel Woodcock, a fussy and tortured fashion designer in 1950s Britain. Post-viewing, I struggled to define what Phantom Thread is. At one level, it’s a simple story about relationships (between Woodcock and Alma, his muse and later wife, and his sister Cyril, played by the divine Lesley Manville). In another reading, it’s a meditation on art and the environment artists need to create. This is also allegedly Daniel Day Lewis’s last film, but oh, what a swan song it is.
Don’t leave us, DDL.
LadyBird is Greta Gerwig’s love letter to misfit girls of any age, but particularly those who grew up in the early 2000s. Saoirse Ronan is superb as the titular Ladybird, a drama nerd navigating a tempestuous relationship with her mother (Laurie Metcalf) during her senior year of high school. At its heart Ladybird is a movie about class in America and carries a strong message about the power of female friendships. The key takeaways for teenage girls watching this movie seem to be: a) you’re probably incredible just the way you are, even if you don’t realize it and b) teenage boys really aren’t worth the romantic effort. Not even if they’re Timothy Chalumet. Not even if they read A People’s History of the United States outside pretentious coffee shops. If you’re lucky, you’ll have this realization while listening to Dave Matthews Band on the way to prom.
Moral of Ladybird: don’t be seduced by teenage hipsters.
Molly’s Game. Movie Studio: “We’ve got this incredible, real-life drama about a remarkable woman – a retired champion skier who wound up running a high stakes poker ring that involved Hollywood A-listers and the Russian mob. Surely no one could write this in such a way as to make it about the men who are peripheral to the story.”
Aaron Sorkin: “Hold my beer.”
The Shape of Water. “If I told you about her, the princess without voice, what would I say?” Jim Broadbent asks us at the beginning of Guilermo del Toro’s fantatisical Shape of Water. The answer to that question unravels with the story of Elisa (Sallie B. Hawkins), a mute janitor at a government research facility who discovers a fish-man acquired by the US military in the Amazon. Elisa and the creature fall in love (stay with me here), but their romance stands to be thwarted by Michael Shannon, in a scenery chewing role as the soulless, cattle-prod wielding facility director (Shannon seems to have based his performance on Bull Turner), who wants to dissect the creature and/or exploit him for military purposes. Guillermo’s take on Creature from the Black Lagoon re-envisioned as high art is certainly the most visually stunning film you’ll see on screen this year and it’s the most romantic to boot (yes, I’m actually telling you a fish-woman love story is the most romantic thing out there in 2017). I’ll be breaking down my Oscar nomination predictions on the blog next week, but look for this to take home Best Picture.
While hard-boiled eggs are certainly not the way to my heart, del Toro’s fish man finds them enticing.
Call Me By Your Name. If we’re basing awards on the movie that made me sob like a baby in a theater this movie season, all the gold goes to Call Me By Your Name. The film is the love story of graduate student Oliver and Elio, the son of a humanities college professor. Set during a summer in the Italian countryside in the ’80s and accompanied by a beautiful piano score and synth pop offerings from Sufjan Stevens, it’s nearly impossible not to be swept up by the beauty of this film. Call me By Your Name is surprising on many levels, but it is fair to say that your expectations for the narrative (based perhaps on similar stories like Brokeback Mountain) won’t be met. There’s no religious judgment to be had here. Oliver’s parents (who, we later learn, knew about the relationship all along) don’t come down harshly on it. There’s no threat of violence (even when Oliver and Elio are in public) or (remarkably since the story is set in the ‘80s) mention of AIDS. There’s just a dreamy pull between these characters that we get to be privy to for a snapshot in time. When the shoe does drop in exactly the way we expect it to, we’re every bit as devasted as Timothy Chalumet. Trust me, you’ll spend the credits crying along with him (for 4 minutes — it’s a long take). For what it’s worth, this was one of two films I saw this year that got a round of applause from the audience following the credits (the other was Shape of Water). Armie Hammer was overlooked for potential Oscar gold, but I’m currently seeking to join his bike-riding, ’80s dance party across Italy. Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go, Armie.
Darkest Hour is the second best film about Dunkirk you’ll see this year. Most of the focus on the film this awards season has been on Gary Oldman’s performance (which is as good as advertised and deserving of all the awards bestowed upon it), but Lilly James is also a standout as Churchill’s beleaguered typist. Gary Oldman aside, Darkest Hour is a fairly conventional film and it will feel very much like one you’ve seen before. It’s also bold for a historical drama to use a completely fabricated interaction (which features Churchill riding the tube and chatting with a baby – really!) as its turning point. This is a good companion piece to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, as it captures the “war room” aspect of the story that Nolan intentionally left out of his telling.
I, Tonya isn’t really a movie about figure skating. It also isn’t a movie about the objective truth of the Nancy Kerrigan attack (because no one, perhaps not even Tonya Harding herself, may know what that is). It is a film, like Florida Project and Ladybird, that is very focused on issues of class and the emotional toll of abuse. Harding’s hard scrabble background, which riled up many in the US figure skating community for challenging the traditional “ice princess’ image, is at the film’s center. Turn your empathy meter up to 11 for this one. In the most powerful piece of dialogue (almost directly co-opted from the “30 for 30” ESPN documentary on Tonya vs. Nancy, which I also recommend), Harding reminds us that the world was in uproar when Nancy Kerrigan was hit, but for Tonya it was an everyday occurrence. Allison Janney is certainly taking home some Oscar gold as Tonya’s “devil woman” of a mother.