For about a decade I’ve tried to catch every Oscar-nominated film. This year I actually managed it.
Catching Oscar Nominees in a timely fashion sounds easier than it is. Many films fall in the early-year window, but there’s always one or two that require some premonitionary skills the previous year. Often, a few features fall short of their post-big screen cycle in the window between the shortlist being announced and the ceremony. If it’s even worse for the Golden Globes or BAFTA in the Oscar warm-up slots they’ve battled to secure over the years – The Shape of Water only surfaced on Valentine’s Day – for all the focus around the American Academy Awards, you can imagine how I felt when the Best Film short-list doubled at the start of the decade.
This year, it wasn’t simply the stars that aligned on the red carpet. As one of Hollywood’s most difficult years unravelled, promising another ceremony with much-anticipated subtext, confronted with the fallout from major scandals as well as the first wave of films responding to the rise of Western populism. The British standing is strong this year, and it’s hard not to see a shade of Brexit in the three films set in British history. And as for America, well…
Catching all the nominees, cramming a fair few into the past week, highlighted common themes between the apparently eclectic shortlist. But the crossover of talent is also notable. Particularly eye-catching was the last film I caught – Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird with superb, varied performances from The Post‘s Tracy Letts and Call Me By Your Name‘s Timothée Chalamet. And it’s in thespirit these films should be looked at; the meeting of hard work, relevance and excellence, celebrated in the circus of Tinsel Town.
Only one of two films bold enough to break a 2018 release date, Dunkirk is firm proof that Chris Nolan hasn’t only invented his own release schedule, but his own genre. And with one of the greatest examples of that Nolan genre, I suppose it was inevitable he reached the sub-genre of war after tussling with the science fiction of Interstellar.
Dunkirk is both a throwback, a warning and a charge to the future. It returned the war film to a blockbuster stage. Nolan’s continued melding of CGI with physical effects and the huge canvas of IMAX cameras is a strong and successful stand against the direction set by many blockbusters or, more pertinently, the rise and rise of home streaming studios. It’s anything but a Brexit film, conceived and in production before that referendum result ever felt possible, but that can’t help colouring it this side of the Atlantic. America has its own fleet of shadows and elephants in this list: populism is a great equaliser in some ways. Is Dunkirk Nolan’s best film? No. But it’s a worthy nominee on this list and a full throttle, visceral, and phenomenal addition to his canon.
Hardly the flipside to Dunkirk, but Joe Wright’s return to form after taking on the tricky world of the blockbuster returns him to the top – challenging Tom Hooper as British award-botherer of choice. But labelling this as anti-blockbuster is harsh. It’s a heavy-hitter on many levels, and Wright fills it with camera sleights and film tricks that inform the action and elevate it above a standard biopic. Or country-pic.
Holding almost every scene is Gary Oldman’s central performance. The film’s built around the complex aspects of his personality even as it softens the great figure under their glare (see his wife’s toast upon arrival at Number 10). Oldman’s performance is as striking as his make-up, but may require a mellow voting crowd to take the Acting crown this year, under Hollywood’s current self-scrutiny. Perhaps it’s too easy to draw a comparison between one late, pivotal scene, when Churchill meets the public in a way unthinkable for the UK’s current Prime Minister. But then again, the timing of that relevance is just coincidental and it’s easy to get carried away… It’s credit enough that Darkest Hour won the 2017/18 battle of the Churchills.
Call Me by Your Name
Another historical piece, I was swayed by one of films period greats. He may not be well known for crafting pieces from the 1980s, but James Ivory’s hugely modest acceptance speech at the BAFTAS did wonders, and sure enough this film is unmissable.
Armie Hammer’s suffered rather unfairly at the box office, but this is gratifyingly piling on its $3.5 million budget, and he’d be a stand-out if the quality of acting, drama and comedy on screen wasn’t of such quality. Potentially the most unpredictable film on the shortlist, I’d wager this adaptation is the most layered. It’s an astonishing exploration of love, and beautifully written. The jumps and non-sequiturs mimic life, and exceptionally so. This really is art holding a mirror up, but away from the contemporary glare that colours many of its rivals. And not only does Call Me By Your Name end with the greatest ‘gamut of emotions’ close-up, from the exceptional Timothée Chalamet, since Bob Hoskins saw Pierce Brosnan in the back of a taxi in the Long Good Friday, it has a superb soundtrack headlined by Sufjan Stevens and The Psychadelic Furs. Sold.
Get Out might be the most important film on the list. It doesn’t only hold up a magnifying glass to American, and non-American, civil rights, and take a healthy stand on whether horror, and comedy, have roles in tackling worthy issues. It also signifies the rise of a new Hollywood model in the wake of The Weinstein Company collapse. Blumhouse could cause a major upset at this ceremony, even in this the Best Picture field, and it would be well deserved. Rightly splitting the crowd over that mix of comedy and horror, the weight of issues at the heart of Get Out shouldn’t just set the standard of conversations that nominees should encourage, but establish them not as horror or race-ticking exercise, but as the norm.
Another of those great old coming of age dramas, Greta Gerwig’s served up a quiet masterpiece as Saoirse Ronan continues her irrepressible ascent. So much of the ground Lady Bird uncovers seems familiar, but Gerwig hooks it simply, and crucially around the relationship of mother and daughter. Along with Get Out, the former queen of mumblecore is here to elevate real issues, and dolls out subtelty, underplayed twists, and light misdirection with incredible skill. The conversation isn’t whether the helmer can become the second woman to lift the wee gold baldy, but how soon she’ll become a regular fixture in the directorial shortlist.
Overshadowed by Danial Day Lewis’ retirement, Phantom Thread is more remarkable for being PT Anderson’s first film set outside California (and he films in Whitby with the meerest suggestion of the town’s famous tiled roofs). It’s a fantastic companion piece to one of my all-time favourites, There Will be Blood. Even if it doesn’t ascend those heights. The staging and acting is exquisite, the three main characters holding court in fittingly Oscar-bothering fashion. The control of yet another immersive Anderson-world is strong. And yet, it’s challenging. It’s difficult to suggest an Anderson film is too long, but there’s a definite change two hours in that stretches some unwieldy concepts before it’s quite astonishing endpoint. A masterclass in obsession and manipulation, where apparently major plot points can be stitched under the cloth of the larger human condition. And what an incredible score from Jonny Greenwood.
The Post is probably this list’s outsider. Its inclusion, much like Spielberg’s acceleration of the project, very much to do with the current American climate. It’s a fine, wonderfully acted, and worthy addition. Alongside some mannered, slightly off-typical performances from Streep and Hanks, it packs in some of my favourite small screen actors of recent years, especially Carrie Coon and David Cross.
My issue, with a particular interest in journalism, is that it comes so soon after Spotlight. That true story recounted a minnow paper earning its scoop, capturing the journalistic chase across a brilliant cast. While The Post hangs on a scoop of its own, a nationally sensitive one, it’s less simple and more muddled. Perhaps those are the times, even a short couple of years on, and when diving back tot he 1970s. The Post’s is a scoop on a scoop, dwelling on the publishing as much as the editorial, itself timely in the light of Time Up. But the real focus is the First Amendment, and as the final scenes prove, all sights are on the White House. Perhaps a little too much to make a satisfactory film. I can easily say that, but with Steven Spielberg, John Williams et al, it’s nothing short of a consummate piece of film-making.
The Shape of Water
As the envelope nears a presenters hand, The Shape of Water has risen to favourite in the Best Picture category. On one hand, it’s a safe choice. A tribute to Golden Age Hollywood, but focussed on a central, strong woman. On the other hand, while Guillermo del Toro probably should be front-runner in the directing field, there’s a sense that this is a job half done. Mary Shelley was acknowledged in heartfelt fashion by the director at the BAFTAs, and is dominant in the film, but this isn’t quite the realisation of his lifelong quest to film the perfect thematic Frankenstein. The monster of the piece isn’t quite the one anyone expects when they walking into the film, despite the less than ambiguous promotional work.
Shelley’s masterstroke 200 years ago (a timely anniversary), wasn’t to highlight the danger of Man playing God, as much as Man’s lack of responsibility. It’s to The Shape of Water‘s credit that it pursues that second, important but often overlooked strand. But del Toro often leaves me a little too cold. The lines between emotion and stylisation are a little too broad here, and I have a feeling his finest tribute to the legacy of Shelley is still to come.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
It feels like Three Billboards was announced years ago. It was a fascinating prospect, not least for bringing Frances McDormand back to an awesome, surely-award-baiting role. From the moment I walked out of it, the phrase “All human life is there” was running around my head. I can’t reference that beyond a line from The Divine Comedy’s National Express, but who am I to doubt Neil Hannon.
Really, Three Billboards encompasses life like no other film on this list, and that’s saying something. The comedy, nonsense, violence, horror, surprise, rottenness, surreality, it’s all there. On one level it seems sketch-based. Some elements don’t quite ring true (I have some rather relevant form in some of its broad areas). But the characters and the exquisite acting behind them, have created something quite exceptional. That’s part of the reason Three Billboards is the stand-out on a stand-out list. It can be seen in the way that the use of three billboards has swiftly swept around the world, becoming not a meme, but a physical sign of protest. that’s something not seen from this field since Alan Moore gifted masks to Anonymous. It’s even more remarkable in the year of Me Too and Time’s Up. It’s splitting the voters by the sounds of it, but it’s an astonishing film that can hold its head, and ideals, high should it claim the baldy. And if it’s not the Billboards, let the last word be “Get Out”.