Saturday, March 3, 2018

2017 Best Picture Rankings

Every year, after viewing all the Best Picture nominees, I rank them based on my assessment of their worthiness for the Best Picture award.  Note that this is not a prediction of who will win, but rather a statement of how I would vote if I could and how I'd rank the also-rans.

2017 was a surprisingly minor year in films.  I'm honestly not sure if we're going to remember this slate of films very clearly a few years down the road, aside from maybe recalling this as the year they nominated a funny horror flick directed and starring African Americans.  As a result, this year's rankings were more difficult than usual to decide.

9. Phantom Thread

Phantom Thread is a very good movie.  However, one has to wonder: If this weren’t Daniel Day Lewis’s final announced film, would it have been nominated?

Daniel Day Lewis shines as usual as top designer Reynolds Woodcock, a character name that appears to have escaped from the 50 Shades franchise.  Vicky Krieps has her moments as Alma, the waitress seduced into Woodcock's world only to find that Reynolds is much more charming when courting than when you deal with him on a daily basis.  There are really no other memorable performances, and that's too bad, because the film feels a little empty as a result.

I do kind of want a film just about the ladies in white, though.  What do they do at the end of their days?

Part of the film's challenges is that it doesn't seem to go far enough.  Phantom Thread looks at genius and the darkness that comes with it, but it doesn't go very far down that path.  Similarly, it looks at dysfunction within relationships of volatile and somewhat deranged people (to the point that during the film I wondered if this should be considered Britain's answer to Gone Girl), but again pulls back on the reins just a bit.  There's a twist at the end, but I found it more curious than perception altering.  Ultimately, it doesn't feel like the movie's trying to do anything other than present a relatively straightforward film about some wacky creative people and the messed up people who love them.  That's enough to garner a nomination, I suppose, but it's not enough to appear anywhere near the tops of the rankings.

The film is as restrained as the many in-the-car scenes shot throughout.

8. Call Me By Your Name

Call Me By Your Name is a very slow building coming of age film about life's first great heartbreak.  But it also delves into the very modern story of complexities of sexual identity.  It's an admirable tack on a classic plot, and the deftness with which the topic is addressed should be honored, as it was with its nomination.  However, looking at it more closely purely as a film, things start to break down just a little bit, the tarnish seeing through the polish here and there.

There are solid performances throughout, with Timothée Chalamet nailing the moody teenager role. The film works primarily because of Chalamet's ability to handle the quiet moments: The final scene, with a lingering shot of Chalamet's Elio dealing with the aforementioned heartbreak, is possibly the signature shot of the entire film.  Michael Stuhlbarg, as Elio's father, Dr. Perlman, is criminally underused, and it's his perspective on his own past that lends a context and an unspoken future for Elio.  Armie Hammer, on the other hand, is getting a little long in the tooth to be playing the college student roles, and while his demeanor fits the inscrutable side of summer intern Oliver, Oliver's more open and joyous side feels a little awkward on Hammer.

Someday Stuhlbarg needs to be recognized for his reliably solid acting.

The direction is able, but there are several questionable moves, both with pacing and with cinematography. For example, in the early scene in which Elio and his girlfriend hop to the window to see Oliver arrive, the director has placed the camera on the bed with them, which bounces it as they get up.  It was an interesting choice to make, and I was waiting to see that particular "camera as part of the scene" mechanism either explained (was this an important scene needing a particular point of view) or reused (creating a signature technique for the film).  Neither was the case, which makes me believe it was perhaps done out of convenience.  That's too haphazard for a film to be taken too seriously as a Best Picture candidate.

As a result, while Call Me By Your Name is a fine film that tells a very modern take on a classic plot well, it finds itself near the bottom of my rankings.   Aside from the novelty of its premise, it really does nothing to make itself stand out.  While many of the performances are stellar, none rise to being serious Oscar contenders.  It's not the kind of movie that will stay with most moviegoers for the days after they leave the theater, which is what a good Best Picture candidate should do.

Though the significant number of shirtless scenes will stick with some.

7. Get Out

This has become a bit of a trendy pick, but I'm sorry, I just don't see it.  Don't get me wrong, I think it deserves its nomination at least more than two other contending films. But as you'll see later, I felt it fell below a film that wasn't even nominated.

Some are praising Get Out for elevating the horror movie genre, but let's get something straight: Get Out is not a horror movie.  Horror movies, first and foremost, attempt to frighten their audience.  That doesn't happen here.  Get Out instead does an excellent job using horror movie tropes to craft a story that discusses and somewhat explores cross-racial dispositions in current American society, but without actually being, you know, scary.  At least not in the traditional sense.  It's a brilliant use of a genre's shorthand to establish an atmosphere of implicit understanding on the part of the audience.   Remove some of the horror film trappings such as the remote location in the woods or the odd acting background characters and you have a complete but fairly straightforward thriller structure.  Adding these elements not only creates an instinctually unsettling atmosphere for the audience, it also immediately makes them sympathize for the protagonist, Daniel Kaluuya's Chris Washington, who we know has to be a generally good guy with minor flaws (in his case, smoking) because the main heroes of horror films are generally good people or else we might want to see them punished.  Similarly, this shorthand causes us to assume an innocence to Allison Williams's Rose, which sets us up for the "big reveal", which ultimately isn't as earthshattering as, say, The Sixth Sense's climactic twist.

Am I the only one icked out at least slightly by the implications of Rose essentially prostituting
herself to potential victims?  I mean, when she sits down for breakfast with her grandfather,
does she find herself remembering what his current penis felt like inside her?

The big sell for Get Out as a Best Picture candidate is its exploration of cultural appropriation and white liberal racism.  But I find these elements flawed. Part of the conceit of this film is that its rich white people don't want to appropriate blackness, they want to actually be black, as if that Little Black Dress that should be in every woman's closet should be made of skin.  But the beginning and end of the film both undercut this concept.  For all the "black is in" talk of the movie, the myriad police shootings paint a different reality, as do incidents such as the Harvard professor being arrested for breaing into his own house or the former baseball player and Ivy Leaguer being questioned for shoveling snow outside of his own home.  When we instinctively fear for Chris's safety as the police arrive (normally a sigh of relief for horror movie fans), it underscores the realities that black people face every day in America. Director Jordan Peele gets this, as evidenced in his discussion of the scene in interviews.  But as a result, the fact that the white rich people happily transplanting themselves into young black people somehow never experience these aspects of black life in 21st century America rings so false that it ruined the movie for me.  It's one thing for the rich white people to be this naive about black people's situation in America, but an entirely different thing for them to never have this naivete ended for them.

Ultimately, while well done and a promising start to Jordan Peele's new career as a film director, Get Out felt too much like an extended Twilight Zone episode to appear higher on this list.

Though seeing a modern auction featuring a black man as its
featured item was more than chilling.

6.5 The Florida Project

I want to take a moment and talk about a film that was not nominated, but should have been.  Sean Baker's The Florida Project was one of the year's best films of the year that had more to say than many of the films on this list.  The fact that it was not nominated was a travesty.  Nerdwriter1 covered the film's graces far more expertly than I could, and I recommend anyone interested in this take to watch his video below (and go see the film if you haven't already).  Few films unsettle me like this portrayal of the life of the modern poor in vacation destinations like Orlando, where mere blocks from the Magic Kingdom are the modern equivalent of projects and shanty towns.  Baker paints a compelling picture of life in these hidden slums of Orlando, and the fact that it's done from the perspective of a child is all the more haunting.  The Academy should be ashamed of themselves for failing to recognize this film.

6. Darkest Hour

Hollywood loves a good biopic, and so do I.  Gary Oldman is absolutely stellar as Winston Churchill, one of the most intriguing world leaders to inhabit the 20th century.  Darkest Hour is an able descendent of The King's Speech, showcasing the behind the scenes activities of one of the most important moments in British history, the beginning of World War II.  Darkest Hour was aided somewhat by the fact that it was released mere months after Dunkirk, keeping the battle and evacuatlon fresh in moviegoers' minds while the characters discuss, debate, plan, and wait for Operation Dynamo to be carried out.  Much like with many other Best Picture nominees over the years, including some winners (Spotlight, I'm looking at you), the fact that it can remain so riveting while consisting almost entirely of people sitting or standing around and talking is a testament to Darkest Hour's quality as a film.

And when I say talking, I mean a lot of talking.

In an odd way, Darkest Hour combines the themes of many of the Best Picture nominees.  It hits on the difficulty of living with and/or working with an uncommon leader in much the same way that Phantom Thread portrays the difficulties of living with genius.  It examines resilience during wartime, though on the home front instead of Dunkirk's battlefields.  And it embraces political intrigue and the impact that lies and misconceptions can have in the prosecuting of war in a way that is not unrecognizable to The Post.  Add in some racial concerns and a coming of age story, and we'd pretty much have a full set.

Lost among much of the military strategy and political intrigue is what I think highlights a riveting aspect of Churchill's persona: his ability to connect with common Brits while not having a clue about them.  Having had his "V for Victory" hand gesture corrected by his secretary Miss Layton from one that has much more rude connotations, a scene meant to show how out of touch with the masses Churchill the man is, Churchill nonetheless finds himself to be a man of the people while surrounded by fawning Londoners on the tube in what I consider the real climax of the film (though traditionally one would call the "We will fight on the beaches" speech that he delivers just afterward the climax).

Darkest Hour is sixth on my list, and I do think the next five are more deserving of the Oscar, but this is the first film in the list I wouldn't completely question the Academy over if it should win.

I have a feeling that if Donald Trump hopped on the Metro, he'd
be greeted by a slightly different reaction.

5. Dunkirk

It seems like most recent years have seen at least one Best Picture nominee that is a technical filmmaking marvel.  Dunkirk (and to a lesser extent, The Shape of Water) is 2017's.  Dunkirk manages to tell a very expansive story with timelines that have varying durations but intersect in key, climactic ways without bogging the viewer down while building up a traditional linear narrative.  By intermixing the ground, sea, and air elements of Operation Dynamo, Christopher Nolan avoids the slow build while also avoiding a situation where all the interesting action takes place in one frenetic intercut scene.  Achieving this interwoven narrative structure was incredible technical work, even though little of it relied on technology.

Dunkirk is a story of intense bravery in the face of almost certain ruin.  On the Mole, Kenneth Branaugh's Bolton and James D'Arcy's Winnant must keep the troops' morale up and organized while trying to save as many of them as possible from the encroaching Nazi hordes.  At the same time, Fionn Whitehead's Tommy, Harry Styles's Alex, and Aneurin Barnard's Gibson must find a way to survive as their options for escape keep diminishing.  On the sea, Mark Rylance's civilian boat captain Dawson and his tiny crew sail unarmed into war to rescue as many of their soldiers as possible.  And in the air, Tom Hardy's Farrier speeds into battle to cover the evacutation despite knowing he will not have the fuel to return.  These are the kinds of stories that make you want to run through a wall or charge a gun emplacement to save others, and the tales of their heroics and, at times, sacrifices bring real power to the film.

"When it is done and the German Air Force is in ashes, then you have my permission to die!"

If there was one downside to the film, it was that for the enlisted stars of The Mole storyline, Nolan put together a homogenous cast of actors.  When film scenes move quickly, audiences depend on easy telltales to visually separate the characters throughout the action.  When every meaningful role in those scenes is populated by a a young, dark haired, skinny, white guy in an Army uniform, it's hard to tell who's doing what.  While I guess someone with different tastes than me might have instantly picked out which one was Harry Styles at all times, all the young soldiers just kind of blended together for me.  Still, that's a relatively minor issue, especially since there was only so much diversity to take advantage of in the British Army of that era.

Seriously, is this World War II or Attack of the Clones?

4. Lady Bird

Lady Bird is a coming of age story, and Hollywood has more of these than it knows what to with them.  Yet Lady Bird manages to be so nearly perfect a coming of age story that it feels uncommon.  The film has a scintilating script the likes of which we've probably not seen since Juno, and Greta Gerwig the director knows how to get the most of Great Gerwig the screenwriter's words.  Speaking those words and taking that direction is a strong cast, including multiple Oscar nominees, some of them not even for this film.

The star of the movie, of course, is Saorise Ronan as the titular Christine "Lady Bird" McPherson.  Lady Bird is a dreamer, and she know she's destined for more than her teenage existence in the suburbs of Sacramento seems to promise.  She is determined, intense, creative, and incorrigable, almost a modern teenaged Anne of Green Gables.  Lady Bird desperately wants to stand out, but continuously struggles to figure out how.  A typical teenager, she does not easily recognize her own responsibility for her troubles, but as most teenagers do, she learns.  Saorise Ronan plays her with with an intelligent yet still somewhat childish intensity, and it really brings the character to life.

It's a beautiful fantasy that Lady Bird has built for herself.  Too bad
that guy is gay and that's not her house.

But to me the real strength to Lady Bird is how fleshed out her parents are, in particular her mother.  Most coming of age films that have strong, well-defined protagonists usually leave the parents as minor, poorly developed characters, but Lady Bird doesn't make that mistake.  Laurie Metcalf's Marion McPherson is the pragmatic partner in her marriage to Larry McPherson, who's a dreamer much like Lady Bird.  Larry indulges his daughter's passions with a hope and optimism that belies the depression he's been undergoing since losing his job.  Marion feels the weight of keeping her family together and pushes her daughter to excellence to combat what she sees as failings and lost opportunities in her own life.  Unfortunately, this leads her to becoming a negative influence in the family, as she becomes so used to saying no and expecting better that it takes over her entire dynamic with her daughter.  As nearly complete opposites in terms of outlook and demeanor, Marion provides the perfect foil for Lady Bird.  As I'll write about in a later post, Metcalf is my pick of Best Supporting Actress, and her scene driving away from and then back to the airport as her daughter leaves is an example of why she's so deserving of the statue.  Rarely do you see a full range of emotions conveyed on a single face in a single take with a smooth, clear transition among them.  That's some serious acting.

Sure, she doesn't have a bird on her shoulder, but should that matter?

3. The Shape of Water

The Shape of Water is another trendy pick for Best Picture, and honestly, if it wasn't for one unforgivable flaw, I might have it at the top of my list.  But more on that in a paragraph or two.

It's rare that you get to experience fantasy on screen in a well-constructed, well-acted narrative.  When you do, usually it's because Guillermo del Toro is the director, as is the case here.  del Toro artfully weaves a unique tale of outcasts and romance with all the superficial trappings of a classic era science fiction/horror film that he manages to elevate well beyond their normal level.  One does not normally associate an Oscar with a movie that can most simply be described as a love story between a mute girl and a fish man, but thanks to del Toro and his cast, The Shape of Water is engrossing, charming, and just a tiny bit precious.

While not perfect, the cast really delivers here.  Sally Hawkins (as Elisa) and Doug Jones (as the monster) both have to overcome the challenge of connecting with the audience (and with their other cast members and each other) without being able to use speech, and they wildly succeed.  Richard Jenkins is outstanding as Elisa's next door neighbor, a struggling advertising executive let go by his firm due to his "strange" (read: gay) qualities.  Octavia Spencer plays a very Octavia Spencerish character in Zelda, Elisa's co-worker.  Michael Stuhlbarg (there he is again) is solid as the sympathetic Dr. Hoffstetler, who happens to be a Russian spy.  And Michael Shannon is perhaps just a bit too intense as Colonel Strickland, who, though he is the villain of the film, gets his own storylines to flesh him out from just simply being a force of brutality.

A movie just about these two guys might have been almost as fun.

My one complaint about The Shape of Water, and this may seem minor to some, is a single scene.  In the midst of this roaring plot with various parties working at purposes that are at best orthogonal, del Toro derails the momentum with a poorly thought out fantasy sequence, in which Elisa, always the dreamer, envisions joining her monster in a Hollywood movie dance scene.  This little touch of Young Frankenstein really derails the tension the film had built to that point in time, and such a misstep should not be present in a Best Picture winner.  Remove that scene, and I might rank it tops for 2017.

There's only so much cuteness we can take in our monster movies, after all.

2. The Post

When I walked out of seeing The Post in the theater, I immediately hopped onto Facebook and posted, "You know what you get when you mix today’s most acclaimed director, the greatest actress of all time, and one of today’s best actors? You get fucking MAGIC, that’s what you get."  I stand by that statement.  In fact, until I started actually putting this article together, The Post was at the top of my draft rankings.  So what happened?  Well, the simple answer is that as I prepared to write about why the next film is number 2, I kept running out of reasons for why it shouldn't be number 1.  But that's better covered in that film's discussion.  For The Post, it's one hell of a movie and extremely timely, too.

A "based on a true story" film surrounding the publication of the Pentagon Papers, those pesky documents that revealed just how long the government knew we were completely screwed in the Vietnam War, The Post captures a high stakes battle between a President of the United States and the free press.  This is custom-made for the Trump era, and it comes off as incredibly prescient of the filmmakers considering they had to have started the development process for this film long ago.  Still, imagine a world in which this film comes out while President Hillary Clinton is defending herself from allegations brought by FoxNews, and the movie would take on a completely different tenor.

Spielberg is on point with this film, and it's to his credit that we just consider his filmmaking prowess to be "ho hum" today.  Let's look at this: he took a story that everyone knows how it turned out yet few who weren't adults at the time really understand featuring abslutely no action whatsoever (here's looking at you again, Spotlight) and featuring a supporting cast of folks best known for their comedy (as well as the continuously underrated Michael Stuhlbarg, who yes, is in one third of the Best Picture nominees) and created a riveting, tension filled film.  That's Apollo 13 territory.

Seriously, David Cross? Bob Odenkirk?  In an Oscar nominated drama? 

He was aided by having two of today's greatest living actors leading the way.  Tom Hanks brings a previously unseen level of crustiness to his portrayal of Washington Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee.  It's not the strongest performance that Hanks has ever produced, but Bradlee's not the most dynamic character he's had to play, either.  Still, he brings a level of comfort to the movie as the voice of authority and moral center to the film.

The real MVP is Meryl Streep, who Meryl Streeped the crap out of her role as Post owner Katharine Graham.  As the events of the film unwind, Mrs. Graham finds herself in a web of uncomfortable options.  She is in the midst of taking the paper public in order to ensure its financial survival while continuously being second guessed by her board and advisors as they compare her to her late husband and father, and the Pentagon Papers controversy threatens both the IPO and her position among the board.  She's also a close personal friend of former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and the controversy threatens not only that, but also her privileged position among White House elite.  Streep's Katharine is vulnerable yet steely, and the deftness she's able to flip from one to the other (or combinations in between) is mesmerizing.  I don't have her picked as Best Actress this year, but damn, she's earned every bit of her legend.

I'd seriously love to see them do another film together.

Should it be selected by the Academy, The Post will be very deserving.  What finally caused me to change my mind has nothing to do with The Post, but everything to do with its challenger.

1. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (to be called Three Billboards for the next several sentences) is a dark, dark movie.  But it's dark with a purpose.  The complex makeup of its cast of characters is riveting.  There are no clear heroes in the film, as even the primary protagonist, Frances McDormand's Mildred Hayes, falls to her own demons along the way.  Perhaps the most innocent of all the characters is Peter Dinklage's James, the town dwarf/drunk who has a thing for the middle aged divorcee.  But this is balanced by few full villains existing, either.  The slimy advertising salesman sticks up for Mildred when pressured by the sheriff's office.  Demented Deputy Jason Dixon swings from being the films onscreen villain to its protagonist (a swing deftly handled by Sam Rockwell, more on him later).

They do make a cute couple, don't they?

The superficial plot of Three Billboards is a mother's search for justice for her raped and murdered daughter.  But that superficial plot is hiding a much deeper exploration of good and evil.  As Mildred becomes less and less patient with the progress of investigations into her daughter's case, she acts more and more unhinged.  Similarly, Deputy Dixon goes from being a bully trying to shut Mildred down to being her victim in an arson gone wrong to taking a heroic turn to try to get evidence against the possible murderer, and finally to a cool vigilante about to cross the country to bring someone else's rapist to a violent end.  The fact that this final mission is left uncovered by the end of the film is part of its power.  As the credits roll, the vigilante duo embark on a Schroedinger's cat of quests.  They will both go through with the killing of the admitted rapist or they will stop themselves short.  Which is ultimately "the truth" in our reality is left as an exercise to the viewer.  The movie ultimately is about the light and dark in all of us and the blurring of the lines between hero and villain.  And that's what makes this movie so great.  It asks each of us to consider how far we'd be willing to go to right a wrong, and also at what point would we go from hero to villain (or back again) in doing so.

While the overall cast is uneven, the primary two characters are realized in tour de force fasion.  Frances McDormand makes sure you feel Mildred's pain, and it's a performance that should garner her another Oscar.  Sam Rockwell breathes Deputy Dixon, a part that seems tailor made for him.  Few actors can embrace both goofy and dark, especially in the same role, like Rockwell can.  He should be the runaway favorite for Best Supporting Actor, and part of that is due to the fact that Dixon comes within a hair's breadth of really being a lead character, especially once you realize this is his story, too.  The moments, scant as they are, where the two are on screen together are electric, and I find myself wondering what else they might accomplish if paired together in future films.

Two actors who know how to do a face off.

In the end, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri convinced me because it has the best lead actress, the best supporting actor, and it's stayed with me the longest and has caused me to do the most thinking after leaving the theater.  That's what a Best Picture should do.

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