The Oscars 2018: How I’d Vote


Tonight is the 90th Academy Awards and, as I have done in previous years, I am presenting a post about how I’d vote if I could. Mostly for my own posterity purposes.

This is not a prognostication game; it is not which films I think will win, but is instead how I would vote if someone handed me a ballot.

I have greyed out some nominees, representing films I have not seen. With only a handful of exceptions, I refrain from “voting” for something I didn’t see.

As with any type of Creative awards, this is extremely subjective. Sometimes you simply don’t like a thing — maybe you have solid, specific reasons; or maybe you don’t, and can’t precisely articulate why you didn’t like it. Maybe your issue with a piece is wholly because your personal/life context tinges how you perceive it; or maybe a story just isn’t your story (i.e. the story for you.) (I’ve noticed we talk about that concept a lot as writers/readers, but rarely in the realm of film and its directors.)

I generally try presenting a fair rationale for my choices, but I do occasionally get a bit flippant. It happens. I hope we can all acknowledge none of this means much more than “it’s just kind of fun to do!”

Warning that this is extensive, and SPOILERS will abound…

 

BEST PICTURE

Get Out
Dunkirk
Call Me By Your Name
Shape of Water
Lady Bird
The Post
Phantom Thread
Darkest Hour
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

You’ll recall that there is no single vote in this category ever since the AMPAS instituted the Best Picture ranking system. What you have above would be the way I would personally fill out the Best Picture ballot, in this order.

For me, it is impossible to escape that Get Out was, truly, The Picture of the Year. And I mean that in a few different ways. There are certainly films that feel fresher or more vibrant in my mind, or more personal; but Get Out was the film everyone talked about, and then kept talking about all year. It broke a lot of presumed rules about when studios release their “awards movies” by releasing in February and refusing to disappear from pop culture consciousness. It is actually something that struck the zeitgeist. (I love the word zeitgeist, by the way.) Its widespread, far-reaching success meant something broader and deeper culturally to a lot of people, and holds meaning for films moving forward. Everyone has written about Get Out. There are countless think-pieces — most of them positive dissection, but there are some intriguing, articulate critiques out there too — and it’s already being taught in film and story classes. Personally, I think it’s a master lesson in tonal tightrope-walking. It is the product of vision, skill, control, and I am consistently struck by Jordan Peele’s attention to detail. His world feels vivid, lived-in, and grounded; and yet simultaneously it manages to strike heightened humor and horror notes without ever feeling like its straining for them.

Get Out tops the list because no matter what your specific feels on it may be, it cannot be denied that it has been a cultural force all year long (and will be going forward), driving significant dissection, debate, and discussion.

 

***

Fact: I watched Dunkirk grudgingly. I’d been resisting it for some time because, while I like Christopher Nolan a great deal, the idea of him (of all the possible people) doing a war film did not sound initially appealing. Sheer emotional depletion made me dread having to endure a war film at all, let alone one done by the man last seen doing the (arguably) overstuffed and (arguably) overworked emotional onslaught that was Interstellar. I did not want to like it. However, one night I braced myself and dove in. And I’m glad I did. I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered what Dunkirk actually is…

It is spare, and restrained. Dialogue is bracingly minimalist. It strips away and disrupts nearly every traditional war film rhythm and expectation. And, personally, I find its tiered POV/timeline structure to be fascinating and (mostly) effective. There is “The Mole” and the beach which spans one week; the “Little Boats” on the sea which spans one day; and the air (with Tom Hardy as a Spitfire pilot!) which is one hour. Whether or not that structure works for you, it is certainly a daring way to go about things and I applaud the ambition.

While there has been an argument made about Nolan’s clean and tidy detachment being a disservice to some of the grimier historical realities (both in literal physical sense, and a political one), I came out of the film impressed by his overall achievement. And I’m not wholly convinced he is buying into a romanticized “great British spirit” selling line quite as much as has been implied (Darkest Hour is really the emblem for that.) Other than Mark Rylance’s character (and, I suppose, Kenneth Branagh’s with his steely stare-at-the-sea gaze), that view isn’t as ubiquitous as suggested. There is certainly no “Keep Calm and Carry On” ethos for the group of boys on the beach; those poor derps spend the whole movie scrabbling like rats to survive. And when the surviving boys do return home, and read Churchill’s oratorical salesmanship of the event, that moment of stereotypical grand inspiration is disrupted by the addition of a single extra beat at the end — an added moment in which the fancy soaring words thud dead.

I’m also impressed with how well Nolan retained the feeling of his different POVs, and was affected more by his restraint than by the “reality” of blood and grime. As a film, Dunkirk plays with choreography of tensions; not brutal, bloody chaos. Many of its compositions convey either eery distance or claustrophobia (which creates a precarious atmosphere more than anything else.) The aerial view of a plane going down into the water is almost silently beautiful… or of a boat slowly sinking, its occupants rendered nothing more than tiny dark dots. It’s an unnerving disorientation. A soldier from The Mole hears only distant shouting before seeing a torpedo’s silent approach in the water (because torpedos don’t come with dramatic soundtracks.) There is something gut-clenching about a light gently moving through the water, harmless… until it strikes your boat. There is something haunting in the wide sight of hundreds of indistinguishable helmeted soldiers ducking on a pale beach. And there is something extra unsettling about “the enemy” remaining an abstract force with no face or sense of personhood. The onslaught is so impersonal that it stings more in some ways. And, in yet another of the war film disruptions, sure, we never get the lived-in lives of our characters (hell, most don’t get spoken names, let alone dialogue about their lives.) But why do we need that to care or be affected? The boys’ lived-in lives aren’t relevant. What matters is a mass of young people is desperately struggling to merely survive through what’s happening; no less, and definitely no more.

 

***

Call Me By Your Name. First thing out of the way… to those people out there (yeah, we all know you exist) who’ve been griping that a “gay movie” won last year? Ahem… CALL ME BY YOUR NAME 👏🏻 IS 👏🏻 NOT 👏🏻 MOONLIGHT! Seriously, sear that across your brain in big, flashing letters. But also: What the fuck is wrong with you?? Aside from representing two wildly different times and places, the two films’ textures are worlds apart, and thrum on different emotions.

And it is the word texture that comes to mind when I think specifically about Call Me By Your Name (which is based on an ’07 novel by André Aciman.) Many have described it as ‘lush.’ And it is. Lush, and rich and, as a film, is transitory in a way its source material isn’t quite. Director Luca Guadagnino has a remarkable sense of placing — not only as demonstrated by the Perlman’s Northern Italian villa and the early-80s time period, but also emotionally speaking, and especially down to the smaller physical (at times almost stage-esque) movements of its characters. What struck me throughout was how profoundly aware Guadagnino and his leads (and his camera) are of every minute physicality and rhythm of Elio’s push and pull in Oliver’s orbit. And it is a remarkable push and pull — both in how consistently Elio and Oliver physically ebb to and from one another, drifting and retreating, and in their mirrored emotional (and intellectual, and artistic) prods and withdrawals. And if the way I phrased some of that sounds like some sly implication of sex, then go you for noticing! Because these non-sex (but sex-like) rhythms are exactly what lend to the overall breathless sensuality of the film, long before Elio and Oliver actually engage in sex with one another. It also makes for a clever shorthand/replacement for the novel’s more explicit sexual encounters which Guadagnino largely eschews. Opinions on whether or not this is a good or bad thing has seemed to vary from devoted fans of the novel — on one hand, does removing a significant portion of the explicitness effectively neuter what was a joyfully sexually explicit gay relationship by making it more “universal?” Or does pivoting focus away from that explicitness better emphasize the emotional/romantic connection, and ensure people (albeit the sillier ones) don’t get distracted by trying to pass it off as being merely ‘tee hee hee gay sex’? Mileage on this will probably vary depending on what it is you get out of the novel. Ultimately I  think that the differences are a good thing — having the novel and movie exist parallel to one another strengthens each.

The film on its own (regardless of its originating novel) is painfully lovely and sensual and fleeting. And I would be remiss if I didn’t call out Michael Stuhlbarg’s stunning monologue at the end. It is the emotional thesis for the entire film, and Stuhlbarg delivers it as a thing of tenderness, hurt, love and affirmation. I have this damn speech scribbled in about three different notebooks, and it catches in my chest every single time.

I saw this alone on a rainy Saturday afternoon with a small handful of older gay couples who were all sniffling from their various seats around the theater by the end of it all.

 

***

I admit I initially walked out of The Shape of Water with the immediate thought “this is going to be hard to beat.” Part of that is coming from the fact that Shape of Water ticks a lot of Academy boxes (and not just because it’s Guillermo Del Toro.) It is, for lack of any better a phrase at the moment, purified Cinema (capital “C.”) It is storybook-style fantasy escapism, but for adults — i.e. when your heroine + fish-man fable can, and does, include sex.

After repeat viewings I come away thinking that individual enjoyment of Shape of Water will vary largely depending on how much you enjoy/tolerate old-fashioned fables. At times the film does have a sense of overly-crafted Whimsy (capital “W”), and that can be unexpectedly grating. But a stickier point is that, because it is a fable, it operates by broad strokes in many ways. Characters here fulfill storybook “roles,” and aren’t particularly multi-faceted, fleshed-out or explored (I think Michael Stuhlbarg might be the biggest exception in this regard.) At times it it reminded me of an old-school oral tale — our heroine and fishman are in love because the narrator says they are. You either accept it at its face value, or you don’t.

I go back and forth on how well this sensibility works and, more vitally, where it works. Broad characters can be fine and effective tools, particularly in storybook/fable land. For example… I think this idea suits Michael Shannon’s role quite well — he is the monster of a fable; ultimately, he doesn’t need nuance. (And I love how GDT films him so often like a fantasy monster.) However, in other places this idea starts to feel borderline squicky — our main heroine, Elisa, basically gets surrounded by “sad but sassy and supportive besweatered, cat-loving gay friend” (even though Richard Jenkins is great at it) and “pragmatic and supportive black friend” (even though its Octavia Spencer.) In spite of the intended ‘cast of outcasts’ mentality, the story’s broad fablism (if you will) means there’s a bit more there to wrestle with and interrogate. The identities are there, absolutely; but they are also calibrated to be as inoffensive and as unobtrusive to the story as possible.

That said, there are other refreshing details GDT includes! A big one is that Elisa is presented from the very beginning as a sexual being — bath-time masturbations and all. That’s just not something we typically get to see women do on screen. And the film doesn’t dodge the idea of lady+fishman sex — it goes there, and then prioritizes her within that context.

… There is also a brief black-and-white lady+fishman song-and-dance number. And if that idea doesn’t delight (or at least amuse) you, then there’s a good chance you’ll struggle with much of the movie.

Ultimately I do enjoy fables; and I can’t deny that the script, the cinematography, the performances, the art direction, the music — it does all fall into some kind of spellbinding (if imperfect) Cinematic sync.

 

***

Here now I am going to take a kind of pause, and say that if I were personally in charge of everything and single-handedly making a Best Picture list consisting of the old-days five nominees, then Dee Rees’ Mudbound would be here, as the fifth nominee, even though it didn’t even make it into this nine deep field.

Mudbound had the odds stacked against it in a lot of ways. It premiered at Sundance, got a great reception… and then no one bought it. It received a couple low distribution offers (far under its budget), and sold very late during the festival when Netflix stepped in. Netflix’s involvement both saved the movie and, I think, eventually hampered it when it came time for these “bigger” awards.

There is certainly a lot to be vented about the idea that if Dee Rees had been a male director (and not a queer black woman), this would’ve sold instantly and been groomed to lead the awards season pack. I do think that is true. Although maybe not, considering many distributors were also reportedly squeemish about a large investment in a “race” picture after what happened with Nate Parker’s Birth of a Nation last year. Though there’s a lot to vent with that excuse too (i.e. there’s always an excuse.)

It really is a shame because I think if this had sold and gotten a wide cinematic release, it would have raked in significantly more than the few nominations it still did manage here. With bitter bitter irony I think if a sexist and racial intersection hadn’t crippled Mudbound and Dee Rees from the starting line, it probably would’ve danced on that same intersection and done very well. If it had been released wide in theaters, if people had seen the Jackson and McAllens on big screens, I believe it would’ve been a force to be reckoned with.

And that’s because Mudbound manages to be sprawling and epic whilst retaining small, smart empathic details and perspective. Empathy has become one of my most valued traits when digesting films (and tv shows too.) And Mudbound has it. Nearly every character has their say — sometimes whether they really deserve it or not. Dee Rees exhibits incredible insight and control in regards to her characters, their interiors, and their relations to one another, their environment and their circumstance at any given moment. She is able to present the film’s black characters (the Jackson family) with understanding, love and sympathy while simultaneously doing clear-eyed, unwavering (yet still inherently empathetic) work at examining/exposing the differing veins of racism in its white characters (the McAllen family.)

It is a symphony of disappointments and tensions and small graces, all negotiating against an epic backdrop of war and muddied fields and conflicting life experiences.

 

***

Remember up above when I said sometimes you don’t like a movie because of a complex personal tinge? Unfortunately that is Lady Bird for me. My reasons are hyper specific, but deeply personal to the point that I am not remotely comfortable with casually discussing them.

Saoirse Ronan’s performance is great. Laurie Metcalf’s performance is great. The script is detailed, humanistic. Director Greta Gerwig and her cast and crew deserve every accolade that comes their way, and I wish them the best in future endeavors. Their craft is there; the specifics and personality are there. I can see it all. (Hell, if you asked me to not count Mudbound, and only pick a top five nominees from the available list, the fifth would probably be Lady Bird.)

BUT when all is said and done, this movie left me cold (and pretty depressed) in a way that it did not for most of the people who saw it. So it sits where it does.

 

***

The Post is well done. The Post is well scripted, dutifully acted, and filmed with efficiency (if not somewhat emotionally and narratively scattershot.) Everything about The Post is capably done; yet I have a hard time working up much overt enthusiasm for it.

Part of this could be that Spielberg filmed it very fast, and so it doesn’t feel as congealed as it could be. Or part of it could be that I can’t escape the sensation that its just so Awards Season Picture… like it would be a joke prestige film in some sitcom or something. Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep are great, but I am acutely aware the whole time that I am watching Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep do their thing and say lines well to one another. This kind of lack of verisimilitude (if you will) is not inherently a bad thing, but it does means The Post is constantly struggling with the fact that I recognize everyone in it and that kinda becomes distracting. It’s very hard to be serious watching Zach Woods and Jesse Plemons debate legal points with Tom Hanks and Bob Odenkirk. I can’t stop giggling because this strikes me as funny somehow — like some ridiculous name-dropping Hollywood anecdote.

It’s very easy to compare this to Spotlight from a couple years ago. I walked out of Spotlight feeling like it was refreshing how it circumvented many of the standard prestige drama cliches. It was low-key, methodical, a low-and-slow burn that didn’t go for swelling speeches and dramatizing every small thing. Walking out of The Post, I couldn’t stop laughing because it actually was everything that I expected Spotlight to be.

Bottom line: comforting and crowd-pleasing can be a fantastic skill, and Spielberg is very good at doing that when he wants to. I cannot (and do not) argue that. And I even think there is a place for that kind of filmmaking. We can always rely on Steven Spielberg to turn in reliable, enjoyable pieces (all unique and comforting in their own rights.) Unfortunately, this year there were just too many other innovative and/or trilling things coming from newer, less establishment voices that I do think deserve priority.

 

***

Phantom Thread is a bizarre fucking movie. Literally, I would be willing for that to be my sole quote on it. (And I feel like anyone who has seen it should, on some level, respect my glibness in this regard.)

Going in, I did not anticipate a bizarre fucking movie; what I anticipated was general “asshole but he’s a creative genius!” wankery. And in many ways Phantom Thread is exactly what I expected! It is “asshole but he’s a creative genius!” wankery. But… it does have a few Hitchcockian kinks thrown in there…

The thing is, those kinks 1) come too late to make up for how much I’ve already watched  2) feel a bit like a heavily forced excuse in many ways and 3) ultimately seem irrelevant.

I’ve heard all sorts of reads on this movie. From it being romantic… to being a kind of darkly campy melodrama… to being a Hitchcock-esque psychodrama… to it being a strange combination of all the above. (Personally, I think some combination of last two is probably the most accurate.)

Except a major part of the problem for me is that films indulging in this idea of fussy, emotionally abusive creative men just feels incredibly tiring right now — regardless of whether or not the film intends them to engender sympathy. I remember sitting in a packed theater, listening to how many people were chuckling over Reynolds Woodcock’s fussy baby-man abuses and tantrums like they were just some funny quirk to be expected from someone as genius and artful as him. This widespread reaction bothered and unsettled me; and yet it’s plagued me with doubt as far as my own reads on the movie. I did not find any of this stuff remotely funny (you throw that goddamn toast in his fucking face, Alma!) and so buying into the final ‘twisted romance’ hindsight of it all failed (and kinda disturbed) me. Whether its meant to be an indictment (I have a hard time seeing that read) or not, it’s two hours of indulging the idea that all an emotionally-abusive sociopath needs is a woman who is kind of into it??? Ehhhhhhhhhhh…. I really don’t know if that’s where I want to place my emotional energies. And ya know the funny (not really) detail to remember about Hitchcock? He was a fussy, emotionally-abusive ‘genius’ to the women around him.

 

***

What I had peripherally heard about Darkest Hour was largely a sharp critique of its lionization of Churchill. That made sense to me (in that it’s precisely what most historical bio-dramas do), and that’s why it was one of the very last films I watched heading into Sunday.

At the beginning of it all, the word “lionization” seemed overstated. Early in the film, the problem seemed to fall from an opposite (but not dissimilar) line of thinking that was more in line with Phantom Thread‘s problem — “yeah sure, he’s kind of a bastard, but sometimes great men need to be!” Pfffphhht. Basically, upfront it seemed like the film wasn’t going to ignore Churchill’s flaws so much as attempt to excuse them. Oh boy did that change as the film progressed… The arc director Joe Wright wanted was that Churchill starts a flawed and doubtful man, but grows into his destined greatness by virtue of overcoming an impossible national test. Yes, somehow Darkest Hour manages to have both problems in the same movie.

There’s a great deal about this movie that doesn’t quite feel like Joe Wright — aside from a couple touches here and there, I feel more like I’m watching some companion piece to Hooper’s King Speech (ugh.) Gary Oldman laps up his role with enthusiasm; but there is never much in the way of broader interrogation about the popular idea of Churchill being “The Myth and Legend, Winston Churchill” only because history happened to bend itself towards justifying questionable choices/actions. (Also because our perception of history is often controlled by the priveleged, and when it wants it can conveniently divest a lot of unsavoriness in favor of a particular desired narrative.) In the specific context of Darkest Hour, this is best demonstrated through the simplified vilification of Chamberlain & Co.’s point of view which glosses over much of the emotions/rationale driving their position. Let me clear: it’s not that appeasing fascists was the right thing to do, but it felt like there should be a better acknowledgment that may were just that desperate to not put Britain through another war (and so soon after the War to End All Wars.) In this case I don’t think it’s a question of rightness or wrongness, but merely the fact that the debate is framed with a kind of hindsight smugness that is off-putting.

It was also very strange watching this after seeing Dunkirk a few times. It is taking place over the same time in history (the evacuation of Dunkirk is the film’s prime narrative obstacle with which Oldman’s Churchill contends), and a number of people have considered them unexpected companion pieces, sharing the same flaw of romanticizing “The British Stiff-Upper-Lip Spirit” (as I mentioned in my Dunkirk section as well.) I do agree that the films make for an interesting cross-section, but I think it’s one that reinforces the Dunkirk perspective and detracts even more from Darkest Hour. While Churchill blusters and speechifies about the importance of “getting our boys!” its hard to not think of poor Fionn Whitehead out there just trying to survive sinking ship after sinking ship… Both films end on the same speech, but whereas Darkest Hour treats that speech as the pinnacle of uplift and inspiration, Dunkirk treated it more as what it was — pretty but hollow words painting an ill reflection of experienced reality.

 

***

The closest thing I have to a compliment for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is that it is almost mesmerizing in how much of a disconnected mess it is.

It’s a trainwreck. And yes, I say this knowing it has won awards, and that a number of smart and reasonable critics have liked it. I did not. I hated (like, I think actually hated) nearly everything about this.

I think it is a mess of characterization and narrative control, aside from its culture deafness (as if the latter weren’t enough of a problem.) I think McDonagh tried building something with a bunch of tools he didn’t understand, and showed no interest in trying to understand. So much of his construction feels under-examined and lazy.

Many people feel that a major flaw is that it creates a redemption arc for a character that never earns it. And I agree with them. A popular counter-argument to this has been that it is not a story of redemption but more of damnation. To that I say: maybe?? *dubious face* But then I still don’t think it’s a very good story of damnation. So little about its external framings and internal beats don’t point towards damnation. No — every narrative and character framing, every visual beat and external cue is of a redemptive nature. Damnation stems from judgment; redemption stems from mercy/grace. There is no real judgment, and there is too much thematic absolution and grace-granting to allow for damnation. So much about how the story is filmed is totally counterintuitive to the ideas of damnation. So if that truly was McDonagh’s intent, then I come back to the same idea of under-examination, lack of control, and laziness.

The overall trainwreck feel of the film, I think, is because of this mishandled intersection of the social/cultural and the theological. It’s a hard collision; and not one that feels like it was done with greater intent or control (one of my favorite word in this post, apparently.) It makes it feel like no matter which way you try spinning the movie, it fails each direction… It fails at redemption because the inner characterizations actively work against that; it fails at damnation because the outer filmmaking choices actively works against that; and it fails at ‘being neither of those’ because the characterizations, filmmaking and, yes, cultural position don’t permit it that kind of luxury. And so… we have a mess inside and out.

 

BEST DIRECTOR

Paul Thomas Anderson (Phantom Thread)
Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird)
Christopher Nolan (Dunkirk) 
Jordan Peele (Get Out)
Guillermo del Toro
 (The Shape of Water)

First? Dee Rees belonged in here.

If I made room for Dee Rees, the director I’d eject from this list would be Paul Thomas Anderson. One of the things I will give him is that Phantom Thread sure is pretty — the way it is composed and lit feels almost like a series of paintings at times (or, fittingly, a fashion photography coffee-table book.) But I end up being too frustrated by many of its content choices.

It’s a shame Greta Gerwig spent a great deal of this awards season struggling to get widespread recognition for her direction of Lady Bird. Especially since there is always a movie like this. Every. damn. year! … Except those movies are usually filmed by men who sweep up praise for their humanism and emotional attunement. Gerwig does the same, and it is swiftly dismissed as “yeah, but it doesn’t really feel directed.” And hey — I admit I have been a person that has said that about movies in the past. I carry that shame with me. And the thing is, I believe it can be true… sometimes I do think it feels like a director just pointed a camera at top-class actors and said “and do your thing” (cough cough Hooper cough cough Kings Speech.) Distance and seeming transparency can be meticulously crafted skill… but sometimes distance can also be distance, and transparency flimsiness. The prime point here is that I do not think Gerwig qualifies as the latter.

But.. that said, she ultimately falls middle of this pack for me. Along with GDT (love him; but he doesn’t get my vote here.)

For me it’s really down between Jordan Peele and Mr. Nolan. Jordan Peele is the man who made the movie of the year, which by some default reasoning means he deserves Best Director. And I do not totally disagree with that. As much as a Get Out sweep would be amazing to see, total sweeps in general can feel disheartening because there were other good things made this year!

So I’d vote for Christopher Nolan (in part) so I can spread some of the love. Like Peele, he too made a film that felt like nothing I’d seen before. He took an ages-old genre and did something new and different with it. Yeah, Nolan’s the boring same-old same-old white guy vote. And yeah, Get Out might be the film of the year. But Nolan turned in something harrowing and breathtaking and ambitious, and (white guy or not) I still loved his movie.

 

BEST ACTRESS

Sally Hawkins (The Shape of Water) 
Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri)
Margot Robbie (I, Tonya)
Saoirse Ronan (Lady Bird)
Meryl Streep (The Post)

Here’s the thing about frontrunner Frances McDormand in Three Billboards: she is acting her fabulous ass off… with what’s she’s been given. But considering how misplaced and misdirected Mildred’s anger is without enough hard text to interrogate her for it, she comes across as somewhat shallow, “quirky” rage. Her flawed anger feels like a superficial character note for driving questionable actions; not complex layers running deep. Basically, I don’t feel as though she’s actually being challenged to do as much with Mildred internally as I think she could be.

Streep is Streeping. She Streeps the Streep. Probably my favorite aspect about The Post is the variety of tiny ways she and Spielberg find to reinforce the ideas of how out-of-place and against-the-stream a woman could feel in male-dominated field. Sometimes it was an acting note — in a flinch of Katharine Graham’s face when a man brashly interrupts or talks over her… And sometimes its in a visual note like her being self-conscious of her stack of folders and research while all the men sit with simple legal pads. Those were the small moments that broke my heart and made me connect with the movie, and it was mostly down to Streep’s skills.

Saorise Ronan, I think, would be my runner-up. I love this woman in basically anything. She is always very good at being her characters through and through / inside-out. And I love Lady Bird. I have profound love and sympathy for her. She is a well-tuned, authentic balance of lady teenagedom — a force both admirable and terrible, as likable as she is infuriating. She is soft, sarcastic, selfish. Strong-willed and struggling. She is veritably bursting at her seams with thoughts and feelings and wants and needs. That’s a lot to balance, and Ms. Ronan does so winningly.

But it’s Sally Hawkins who anchors an entire film as a heroine without speaking words. There is a point to be made here about a fully abled actress playing a mute woman; however, I do think Hawkins did well with her central role. As I said, she anchors the whole affair through sheer power of expressiveness — from her face to her body language. Everything and everyone else swirls around Elisa, and she manages it all without ever speaking. That is a great accomplishment

 

BEST ACTOR

Timothée Chalamet (Call Me By Your Name)  
Daniel Day-Lewis (Phantom Thread)
Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out)
Gary Oldman (Darkest Hour)
Denzel Washington (Roman J. Israel, Esquire)

Daniel Day-Lewis does his Daniel Day-Lewis thing; but I think there is a frustrating lack of layering in Reynolds Woodcock. He is a fussy asshat through and through, and I’m not sure DDL ever quite finds enough humanity in him.

Gary Oldman disappears under his Churchill make-up, and tackles his role with aplomb.

Daniel Kaluuya’s work in Get Out is multifaceted and under-acknowledged. That movie does not work without his performance. He had to essentially operate as about three different types of leading man (from three different movies) all running parallel to one another. That’s quite a task, and he does it with seeming effortlessness.

But I’m going with Timothée Chalamet as Elio, and his complex inner network of irregularities. Must I cite the long final shot alone?? (Also he was great as Kyle, his minor part in Lady Bird.) And his hair is AMAZING (which is a major selling point for me.)

 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Willem Dafoe (The Florida Project)  
Woody Harrelson (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri)
Richard Jenkins (The Shape of Water)
Christopher Plummer (All the Money in the World)
Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri)

Frankly, from my point of view, this category is an omissions mess this year. Seriously — no Michael Shannon for Shape of Water??? No Armie Hammer???????????? (nor Michael Stuhlbarg) for Call Me By Your Name???

FUN SIDENOTE! Michael Stuhlbarg was also terrific in Shape of Water as the conflicted Soviet scientist; and he appeared in a tiny role in The Post; and he fuckin’ nailed it on season 3 of Fargo (with help from an epic mustache.) Michael Stuhlbarg is officially the recipient of my annual “Domhnall Award.” (With Caleb Landry Jones being my runner-up for his appearances in Get Out, Three Billboards, and Florida Project. As an actor he has totally charmed me.)

Both the Three Billboards fellows suffer (broadly) from similar problems as Frances McDormand. Rockwell clearly does what is being asked of him… but the character is a mess (and by that I mean he is written messily.) Whatever weird mix of quirks Dixon was supposed to be, they never fully read; and neither does his internal pivot. And as for Woody Harrelson, part of the problem is Willoughby is so utterly nonsensical a character (and around so briefly) that I’m not sure why he merits an award here.

Richard Jenkins is entertaining (also: his character basically feels like what could have happened to Salvatore Romano. I miss you, Sal.) Giles was the character who made my entire theater laugh the whole movie. … Even though I still think there is something questionable about the quippy-yet-sad besweatered, old-movie-loving gay neighbor… who is soft and supportive no matter what… EVEN WHEN HIS CAT GETS EATEN. It still bothers me immensely how quickly understanding/forgiving he was about that… It doesn’t make him an unsupportive friend if he’s forkin’ pissed about your damn fish boyfriend EATING. HIS. CAT. Ugh. Sorry. Tangent. … I just wonder a lot about how much of a compilation of stereotypes Giles is vs. how little his story gets played through. It is there, and acknowledged, certainly; but ultimately Giles is relegated to being kind of a token ‘outcast’ identity whose primary reason for existence is to be of service and aide to our leading lady. He gets precious little opportunity to become more than that.

My vote goes to Willem Dafoe for The Florida Project (a fantastic movie which got far too little attention this season.) While the movie truly belongs to Moonee (and an extent her mother, Halley) who live in a motel in the shadow of Disney World; it is Bobby (the motel’s frazzled yet compassionate manager) who operates always on the peripheral as a sort of nexus point for everything else. He is a piece of Moonee’s world, and he is the one by whom we get more of the outer sphere which defines her world. He is consistently firm, and yet (wearily) strives to remain as kind as he can within his limits. As a frustrated, angry Halley stalks behind him furiously shouting he’s not her father, it’s one of those clarity moments that only emphasizes he is very much the motel’s father/grandfather of everyone. It was an unexpected performance to get out of Dafoe, and it was great.

 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Mary J. Blige (Mudbound)  
Allison Janney (I, Tonya)
Lesley Manville (Phantom Thread)
Octavia Spencer (The Shape of Water)
Laurie Metcalf (Lady Bird)

Octavia Spencer is, once again (and as always) eminently watchable. She is an actress whom you just enjoy watching her perform. To me, though, her role as Zelda feels overshadowed at times by the other things that Shape of Water has going on — as I mentioned above, there are times where her entire role feels like not much more than playing the sidekick. It’s a shame, because I would love to see her do more than supporting characters (many of whom all feel frustratingly similar.)

It is Allison Janney and Laurie Metcalf who seem the frontrunners here (both playing emotionally-abusive mothers.) I haven’t seen Janney’s performance, so I can’t comment on that one. Metcalf is a strong actor who feels like she always has a strong handle on what she’s supposed to be doing; she feels experienced. It is mostly with the role of Marion herself that I struggle with some of the character fine-tuning as it applies to the movie’s overall ambition.

Lesley Manville’s performance in Phantom Thread would probably settle for runner-up. Cyril was probably the thing I like the most about that bizarre fucking movie. “Don’t pick a fight with me. You won’t come out alive. I’ll go right through, and you’ll end up on the floor.” And all while sipping tea…

But I’m going with Mary J. Blige’s intuitive yet diligent work as Florence Jackson. Unlike Spencer’s Zelda, Florence Jackson is sidekick to no one. She is one of many cast members, yes… and much of what she does centers around her role of motherhood (something that can grate the nerves when done wrong) but the movie makes a strong point with all of that. Rees & Blige give Florence a strong voice in everything that goes on around her, and that makes a big difference.

 

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird)
Emily V. Gordon & Kumail Nanjiani (The Big Sick)
Jordan Peele (Get Out) 
Martin McDonagh (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri)
Guillermo del Toro & Vanessa Taylor (The Shape of Water)

Ugh. I feel like I’m doomed to watch McDonagh win this… His characters make so little interior sense, and that never lets him exhibit control on his dark comedy. And whenever you go reaching deep to mine comedy from very un-funny subjects, you need to have control. You can’t just make a wild scattershot of ‘taboo’ jokes and expect that your sheer audacity for the taboo-ness somehow insulates you from critique. “It’s dark comedy! It’s not a normal narrative so you can’t judge it as such! You don’t understand it!” Please. Dark comedies need extra sensitivity, vetting, care and management. Not less. McDonagh’s whole script is a an out-of-control blunder to me — never in-tune within its own context, and never fully grasping with what its doing, how, or why.

I’m not sure the major strength of Shape of Water lies in its script… And I chafe with certain fine-tuning in the Lady Bird script.

I’m happy that Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani are getting recognition for their small little sweet romance based heavily on their real relationship. It is funny and tender and authentic, and works with other shades beyond the central love-story. But it’s also based heavily on their actual relationship… and so because of that, I admit I internally war over the idea of how much to ‘count’ it as original…?

I also think this category should simply belong to Jordan Peele and what he did with Get Out. Every original work ever takes influence from other things that came before, but Jordan Peele took all of that and made his work feel unique and new, with a fresh perspective and sensibility.

 

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

James Ivory (Call Me By Your Name)
Scott Frank, James Mangold & Michael Green (Logan)
Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber (The Disaster Artist)
Aaron Sorkin (Molly’s Game)

Virgil Williams & Dee Rees (Mudbound) 

Well this is an agony of choice…

I like Ivory’s script a lot, but I think once all is said and done I’ll side with Virgil Williams and Dee Rees mostly because they juggle more characters. I appreciate CMBYN‘s intent focuses, but Williams & Rees managed to effectively manage more characters and never lose sense of any of them.

 

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

Roger Deakins (Blade Runner 2049)
Bruno Delbonnel (Darkest Hour)
Hoyte van Hoytema (Dunkirk
Dan Lausten (The Shape of Water)
Rachel Morrison (Mudbound)

FUN FACT: Rachel Morrison is the first ever woman nominated in this category! And she just did Black Panther too! (I made a happy yip sound when I saw her name at the end credits.) I am excited to see what else she is going to do in her (hopefully) long career.

Speaking of long careers… Roger Deakins. This is Deakins’ 14th nomination, and he has never won!! In that way I want to root for him. He is a legendary DP; and Blade Runner 2049, for all its faults and frustrations, is visually varied without ever losing the cohesive richness of its world.

Delbonnel works with a lot of shafts of light & dark in small contained rooms… with clouds smoke hanging in the air seemingly at all times. It lends Darkest Hour a lot of obfuscation and sober weight (which at times feels suffocating to me.)

So much of the look of The Shape of Water is centered around playing with water and light which gives it a unique sort of atmosphere and fantastical/ethereal fluidity. So many blues and oranges!

My easy runner-up would be Morrison who provides layers of beauty and oppressiveness to the many shades of brown in the fields and mud (no small feat!)

But Hoyte van Hoytema’s work with Nolan for Dunkirk is jaw-dropping, and made more so by the fact that Nolan still works in film and with very practical effects.

 

BEST FILM EDITING

Jonathan Amos & Paul Machliss (Baby Driver)
John Gregory (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri)
Tatiana S. Riegel (I, Tonya)
Lee Smith (Dunkirk) 
Sidney Wolinsky (The Shape of Water)

I was pretty convinced that Baby Driver would be hard to ignore for Editing, given how snappy and synced everything is in that film. And then I saw Dunkirk… Juggling three different scales of timeline in a way that made not only emotional sense, but coherent (to me, at least) sense, was a remarkable achievement on the part of Lee Smith. I love what Amos & Machliss achieved with Baby Driver, but I don’t think there’s any contest in my heart of hearts.

 

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS

Blade Runner 2049
Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2
Kong: Skull Island
Star Wars: The Last Jedi 
War for the Planet of the Apes

I have no real investment in this.

I haven’t seen War for the Planet of the Apes, but I do know its motion-capture is considered revolutionary (and it is probably the best real bet here.) … I feel like Guardians might be the weakest of the links here, but even then, if you like computer spectacle, it had that in spades. … Kong: Skull Island succeeded (somehow) in being equally ludicrous and dull; but its island monsters were well done.

The best thing Blade Runner 2049 had going for it was “the visual look of it,” but I’ll vote with my bare feels and go with Last Jedi. Because I’m sentimental sometimes. Because they maintain a delightful, charming mixture of practical effects and computer-generated ones. And because of the puffins porgs. I mean… C’MON.

 

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN

Paul D. Austerberry (The Shape of Water) 
Nathan Crowley (Dunkirk)
Dennis Gassner (Blade Runner 2049)
Sarah Greenwood
(Beauty and the Beast)
Sarah Greenwood (Darkest Hour)

Dennis Gassner’s work on Blade Runner 2049 had deliberate future-dystopian style… while Sarah Greenwood clearly has the period angle with Darkest Hour, and the Disney pageantry angle with something like Beauty and the Beast (even though I haven’t seen it).

But I adored the blend of period + fantasy cinematic wonder Austerberry brought to Shape of Water. 

 

BEST COSTUME DESIGN

Consolata Boyle (Victoria and Abdul)
Mark Bridges (Phantom Thread) 
 Jacqueline Durran (Beauty and the Beast)
 Jacqueline Durran
 (Darkest Hour)
Luis Sequeira (The Shape of Water)

Phantom Thread. Every other nominee is great (from what I’ve seen), but clothing in Phantom Thread actually plays as a vital narrative element in a way that none of the other films do. Without the costuming being what it was, that movie rather fundamentally doesn’t work.

 

BEST MAKEUP & HAIRSTYLING

Darkest Hour 
Victoria and Abdul
Wonder

It’s the only one I saw. And it was well done.

 

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE

Carter Burwell (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri)
Alexandre Desplat (The Shape of Water) 
Jonny Greenwood (Phantom Thread)
John Williams (Star Wars: The Last Jedi)

Hans Zimmer (Dunkirk)

Carter Burwell’s Three Billboards soundtrack is a highlight (and unintentionally makes the movie feel at times like Bargain Coen Bros.) … Greenwood’s score is pretty, but mostly it makes me sleepy. … And with Dunkirk, Hans Zimmer is working with a lot of slow-build / tense noises that certainly lend to the atmosphere; but it doesn’t send me zipping out to buy the soundtrack.

But I’m going with Alexandre Desplat’s fanciful, floating Shape of Water soundtrack.

 

BEST ORIGINAL SONG

“Mystery of Love,” (Call Me By Your Name) 
“Remember Me” (Coco)
“This Is Me” (The Greatest Showman)
“Mighty River,” (Mudbound)
“Stand Up for Something” (Marshall) 

“Remember Me” is a lovely song, and is definitely integral to the vibrancy of Coco; but as far as being a wow standout, I don’t feel like it’s particularly memorable in the same way that (for example) Moana songs were.

“Mighty River” is a good song, but I don’t remember it happening before end-credits; and again, I think isn’t as memorable as some of the other songs here.

“This is Me” is in the better half (?) of songs from the immensely immensely flawed, yet delightfully cornball The Greatest Showman. (Of whose faults, follies, and delights I could write an entire separate critique piece.) It’s fine. But personally? I get just about every other song stuck in my head more often… I.E. “Million Dreams,” “The Other Side,” “Never Enough,” “From Now On,” and “Rewrite the Stars.” I think we should all acknowledge that the nominated song from this movie probably SHOULD’VE BEEN “Rewrite the Stars,” (would Efron and Zendaya perform it on a trapeze?!?! I would die.) Or, though it’s admittedly not a stand-out, I would have accepted “The Other Side” simply so we all could witness a mildly-homoerotic song-and-dance performance between Efron and Hugh Jackman. But  c’elest vie… “This is Me” is supposed to be a fist-pumping, own-your-pride, outsiders-running-the-show anthem, written by award-winning Dear Evan Hansen/La La Land songsters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.

I’m going with Sufjan Stevens’ “Mystery of Love.” Part of the overall impact of Call Me By Your Name lies in its assembled soundtrack (a new favorite, btw.) And the gauzy and wistful “Mystery of Love” weaves neatly into the fabric. It’s basically the sound of dreamy romantic summers.

 

BEST SOUND EDITING

Baby Driver
Blade Runner 2049
Dunkirk 
The Shape of Water
Star Wars: The Last Jedi

I’m splitting the Editing and Mixing vote. Dunkirk‘s hyper specific collection of sounds added a lot to it as film and the mood it was creating.

 

BEST SOUND MIXING

Baby Driver 
Blade Runner 2049
Dunkirk
The Shape of Water
Star Wars: The Last Jedi

The way every sound in Baby Driver (music, cars, words) syncs and drives (ha) is a masterpiece. I don’t think any other film tried or accomplished as much as it did.

 

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM

A Fantastic Woman, Chile
The Insult, 
Lebanon
Loveless,
Russia
On Body and Soul,
Hungary
The Square, 
Sweden 

The Square is the only one I’ve been able to see, so this is by default. (I would’ve loved to catch A Fantastic Woman before tonight.) It’s a strong film, if a bit overpoweringly absurdist    meandery at times. My spouse commented that it seemed like more of a series of connected vignettes meant to gel into a meaning than one arc of story. For my part, my big wish was that it narrow its focus a little sharper on one or two points it wanted to make, as opposed to  what felt like striking outward at commentary on about five or six different points when all is said and done. But it did generate thoughtful conversation afterwards; and if that was the biggest purpose, then it succeeded.

 

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE

The Boss Baby
The Breadwinner 
Coco
Ferdinand
Loving Vincent

So no Lego Batman Movie… but oh sure let’s nominate The Boss Baby???  Whatever.

Since I don’t have children, and thus no avenue by which I happen to see animated films I wouldn’t otherwise seek out, I haven’t seen The Boss Baby nor Ferdinand. (Of course, animated films can be a wonderful medium of art that goes beyond mere children’s films; my only point is that in real-life practice it means those I do see usually have to pass through a slimmer filter to get to me.)

As far as Coco? It was good. I have no real complaints about it. It was enjoyable, amusing, vibrant and thoughtful, and tugged at the heartstrings all while working from a specific viewpoint. All great. At the same time… this is a formula Pixar has nailed down. Most Pixar movies have all of that in some combination. That’s not totally a bad thing. Reliability is good. And I loved the movie. But (and maybe this is cynical of me, I dunno) there are times when stuff like this feels like it’s being calculated in a lab to be As Pleasing As Possible For This Moment.

Loving Vincent is gorgeously and uniquely realized. It was hand-painted by over a 100 artists, both meticulously recreating Van Gogh’s works and telling the rest of the story as if he’d drawn or painted it. It takes place after the artist’s death, with a young man (himself a Van Gogh subject) visiting many of the other real-life subjects of his works, piecing together the final weeks of Van Gogh’s life. What starts as curiosity becomes more and more an intriguing investigation over whether or not Van Gogh’s death was truly an act of suicide, or murder. If that sounds ridiculous, here’s a fun fact: there is an actual basis for this “murdered” theory, and if you have time to dig into it, it can be some pretty amazing reading.

The Breadwinner is excellence. For one, the artwork is remarkable, particularly in regards to Parvana’s story-telling sequences. And two? Parvana’s world is one in the heart of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan; and ho boy does the film not  fuck around with the struggles inherent in that setting. It is breathlessly honest, and does not minimize or coddle or gloss over the dark and brutal elements as though they do not exist. Instead it addresses overwhelming circumstances head-on, and finds its comfort in how the small things (like stories) can sustain you.

 


From here on out I haven’t seen anything. Documentaries and shorts are always my weakness in a given year… So I’m not voting. But these are the categories:

 

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
Faces Places 
Icarus
Last Men in Aleppo
Strong Island

 

BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT SUBJECT

Edith + Eddie 
Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405
Heroin(e)
Knife Skills
Traffic Stop

 

BEST LIVE ACTION SHORT

DeKalb Elementary
The Eleven O’Clock
My Nephew Emmett
The Silent Child
Watu Wrote / All of Us

 

BEST ANIMATED SHORT

Dear Basketball
Garden Party
Lou
Negative Space
Revolting Rhymes

 

That’s it until next year.