Friday, February 23, 2018

Rank 'Em: The 2017 Best Picture Nominees

Well, I did manage to watch all the Best Picture nominees in time, but there's no way I'm going to be able to post all the reviews in time.  So, we'll just have to settle for a "Rank 'Em" post.  Frankly, this year has been a puzzler, and I have no idea how the frontrunners have turned out to be two of the weaker contenders.  But, more on that below.

Get Out - Once in a while, exactly the right film comes along at exactly the right time.  Jordan Peele's horror comedy, about the hidden dangers faced by a black man in America, does a fantastic job of being scary, funny, and insightful.  But more than that, it challenges and plays on the audience's expectations in such a way that demands self-examination.  This is also the most purely entertaining film of the nominees, with the kind of punch-the-air finale that I haven't seen executed so well in ages.   

Lady Bird - All the usual tropes of a coming-of age movie are present and accounted for, but "Lady Bird" isn't just about its title character, or her coming-of-age.  There are so many little details and so many little stories crammed in here, building this wonderful portrait of Sacramento and the socio-economic anxieties of the past decade.  It's also the rare examination of a mother-daughter relationship that captures all simultaneous affection and aggravation of two people on the verge of having to let go.

Phantom Thread - A truly wonderful surprise as its hidden layers reveal themselves.  Paul Thomas Anderson's period melodrama initially seems to be throwback to older domestic pictures, but there's nothing old fashioned about our heroine, Alma, or her relationship with a difficult, set-in-his-ways dressmaker.  Vicky Krieps and Daniel Day-Lewis are fantastic together, playing scenes of incredible tension and emotional conflict.  If this must be the swan song for Anderson, it's a satisfying one.

Dunkirk - The best piece of cinema spectacle of the year.  Christopher Nolan and his collaborators beautifully execute grand scale epic filmmaking in their recreation of the Dunkirk evacuation.  The film's structure with the different time scales is a gimmick, but one that is made to work to the film's advantage.  There are inevitable weaknesses to this approach to the material, namely that it's difficult to connect to any of the characters.  However, as a purely visceral experience, "Dunkirk" delivers.

Call Me By Your Name - A tender first love plays out over the course of a lazy Italian summer in this atmospheric, nostalgic romance.  The combination of Luca Gugadino's sensual direction and a delicate James Ivory script is a winner.  However, it's really the ensemble that makes the movie, with special kudos to Timothee Chalamet as Elio, and Michael Stuhlbarg stealing the picture as his father.  Alas, the sheer length of the movie wore on me, and many of its charms simply weren't to my tastes.   

Darkest Hour - I'm generally a fan of Joe Wright's showy directorial flourishes, and there are certainly plenty of them here.  However, they don't overshadow the Gary Oldman performance that is central to the picture.  Some of the liberties taken with the historical record are entirely too precious, and Winston Churchill surely doesn't need so much breathless lionizing.  But overall, the film is a very effective piece of patriotic prestige drama and makes for a decent counterpart to "Dunkirk" as well.  

The Shape of Water - I adore so many of the pieces of this film and the sentiments behind them.  However, the execution is another matter.  The scripting is just dire in some places, and far too much time is spent on secondary characters to the detriment of the central romance.  There are enough good performances, lovely ideas, and fascinating images here that I thoroughly enjoyed the film.  It could have been a far, far better one, though, if Guillermo Del Toro had been a little more focused.  

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri - Martin McDonagh's usual pet peeves and bad habits are all over this movie.  He did do one big thing right, however, which is the character of Mildred.  And it's mostly Frances McDormand's performance that makes this Midwestern parable about the dangers of misdirected anger worth watching.  This isn't a bad feature by any measure, with its timely messages and severely imperfect protagonists.  At the same time, I'm not sure it's any good either.  

The Post - These polished Steven Spielberg history lessons have gotten so predictable, they're more impressive to hear described than to actually watch.  So while it's hard to find fault with anything specific, and there are lots of little pleasures to be found, so much of "The Post" felt like a laborious exercise in historical re-enactment and homage to better films.  Alan J. Pakula's "All the President's Men" is evoked several times, but alas none of that feature's grit and gumption rubbed off on this one.   


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