Best Picture Nominees (90th Academy Awards)
Every year the voters for the Academy Awards are tasked with selecting a single film from the previous year for designation as winner of the Best Picture award at their annual ceremony which is televised to a huge international audience. The Academy’s overall mission statement talks a lot about recognizing outstanding achievements, advancing the art form, and fostering education both inside the business and for members of the public. Do the voting members specifically consider these elements when choosing which film they want to nominate or give their top ranking to? Probably not most of the time, but it’s instructive to consider that nowhere in their mission statement does it say anything about pandering to popular sentiment. Pretty much every year I see or hear complaints about the lack of well-known films that get nominated. Just to make it clear – that’s not what the Academy Awards are for. Of course part of the fun is having a well-informed opinion and then measuring it against what this enormous group of professionals decides, and the way most of these films are squeezed into a 2-month long release window makes it almost impossible for the public to see all of the movies in question before the night of the ceremony. But that’s a discussion for a different day isn’t it?
Call Me By Your Name
I have to admit that this is a movie I like a lot better a few weeks after having seen it than I did while I was watching it. It could be that Call Me By Your Name‘s leisurely pace and two-hour plus run time when dropped into an intense period of seeing movie after movie left me an impatient filmgoer on that particular afternoon. My primary memories of the experience are that the photography of northern Italy was beautiful, Timothee Chalamet’s performance was excellent, and I really wished I’d gotten to see more of Michael Stuhlbarg. His father-son talk with Elio near the end of the film was masterfully well done, and one of the two best scenes in the film. Otherwise I found myself antsy for a more meaningful connection between the characters. The central romance was both a little boring and a little creepy. Yeah, both of those things at the same time, believe it or not. I was left wondering who thought the thirty-one year old Armie Hammer actually looked twenty-four and was a good visual match for Chalamet, who actually does resemble a real teenager. The topic wasn’t really addressed at all to my memory, so I was left feeling like this was just a story about first lust and looks a little statutory. That’s not necessarily a bad topic for a movie, but when you pair it with a truly languid presentation you leave me wondering why I’m sitting there.
Experts’ Rank: 6
My Rank: 7
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I went to go see Darkest Hour back during Christmas time when I was visiting family in Florida. I knew a cascade of Oscar-worthy films were about to be released into theaters and I needed to start seeing them as soon as possible – and I also needed a little time out of the house on my own. I was expecting a pretty standard historical drama featuring capital “A” acting, and I can’t say I was disappointed. Its primary stars, Gary Oldman and Kristen Scott Thomas delivered well-considered portraits of real life people, and I was happy to see Lily James show up in a supporting role who was used to help host the irascible main character for the audience. I’m not sure she had enough screen time to actually accomplish that task, but it’s always a pleasure to see James anyway. The photography actually featured a few unexpectedly deft moments, allowing for the sort of movement and creation of the environment and context (particularly through a pair of bookended street scenes) that is often missing from this sort of feature, and I was mildly pleased to see the members of the Academy recognize this with a nomination for Bruno Delbonnel in the Best Cinematography category. Despite these strengths, I found myself wondering if the story I was being told would have held the interest and suspense it was aiming at if I knew nothing about the history surrounding it. This looks like Oscar bait to me, and hey it’ll probably pay off for Oldman.
Experts’ Rank: 9
My Rank: 8
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The first obvious swing at a Best Picture nomination to get a wide release this year was Christopher Nolan’s intriguingly unique telling of the Dunkirk evacuation from the point of view of several different participants, which hit theaters in the United States in late July. I saw an absolutely bone-shattering presentation of the film at a local movie theater in a 70mm format and left with the definite impression that I had seen the film the way it was meant to be seen. Dunkirk had been a project Nolan was working on since the 1990s, but he waited until he’d had what he considered to be enough experience in directing large-scale sequences before he aggressively pursued getting the movie into production. He made the purposeful decision to avoid following any of the political conflicts or machinations involved in the Dunkirk event (fortuitously leaving that topic open for fellow Best Picture nominee Darkest Hour), and instead follows the events there on site on the land, sea, and air. He even managed to shoot the film in the same location where the evacuation historically occurred despite its logistical challenges in comparison to some other spots. This is not a movie with strong character development or much in the way of philosophy, but if you enjoy well-conceived visual storytelling amid a historical context, Dunkirk is a pretty satisfying bit of filmmaking.
Experts’ Rank: 5
My Rank: 5
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Jordan Peele’s psychological horror film about racial paranoia, and identity gentrification Get Out popped up in what is usually the wasteland of February last year, made a splash, and has managed to stay on people’s minds in the intervening year in a way that most Oscars prognosticators would typically deem close to impossible. The slow burn plot, carefully placed hints, and sharply conceived shot composition, paired with its unique point of view (although I have heard people call it an updated sort of Stepford Wives, which isn’t entirely unfair) do combine to make it a truly memorable movie experience. It also doesn’t hurt that Peele has the benefit of some excellent performances by Daniel Kaluuya, Bradley Whitford, and Betty Gabriel in particular. This is, without a doubt, one of the movies of 2017 that is a must-watch to pull together film with the cultural landscape. All that being said, Peele does break the spell a bit at times with comedic segments that seem like they’re from a different movie altogether and the story’s endgame really isn’t different enough from what the audience has every reason to suspect within the context of the movie as seen so far to qualify it as surprising at all. To my taste, either the reveal should have been more surprising or presented with more subtlety. Get Out could have been even more effective if it was shorter by about five minutes, trimming some of the comedy and making the endgame less explicit for the audience.
Experts’ Rank: 3
My Rank: 6
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If you’re looking for an upset in this category, Lady Bird just might be made to order. Greta Gerwig’s quirky little personal drama about the relationship between an idiosyncratic teen and her over-critical mother checks a lot of the boxes for what’s required for a Best Picture winner. Hear me out. First of all, let’s consider the other nominations the movie secured from the individual branches of the Academy. While the correlation between Best Director and Best Picture isn’t what it used to be, it’s still pretty unusual for a film to take home Best Picture without being at least nominated for Best Director, which Lady Bird is, unlike one of the other favorites, Three Billboards… Another big indicator category is Best Screenplay, and Greta Gerwig’s script is one of three that is duking it out at the top of the Original Screenplay category. If she comes out on top, it could be a consolation prize…or it could mean that the voters like this movie even more than they’ve let on. Now consider the last two Best Picture winners, Spotlight and Moonlight. Both are smaller movies with an emphasis on story and acting that came in as underdogs to flashier films the night of the awards. Both won a screenplay award and had two nominations in the acting categories. With the new preferential ballot, it’s also notable that nobody disliked these movies, so they were able to pick up second and third round votes as other movies fell away in the tallying process. Lady Bird could do the same. It doesn’t hurt that Greta Gerwig was first known to the members of the Academy as an actress, either. They love heaping awards on actors who step into other roles (see Kevin Costner, Mel Gibson, and Ben Affleck). I have complicated feelings about Lady Bird, but I won’t at all be surprised if it is a movie I go back to in future years at a higher level than these other nominees. If Lady Bird wins Original Screenplay and Laurie Metcalf upsets Allison Janney everyone’s antennae should go way up. Of course a lot of this applies to Get Out too, so…
Experts’ Rank: 4
My Rank: 1
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The morning that the Oscar nominations were announced, one of the bigger surprises was the inclusion of nominations for Phantom Thread under not just Best Actor and Costume Design, which were expected, but also in Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actress, and Best Score. As of this writing, I haven’t seen Allison’s break down of the Costume Design category, but it’s easy to imagine Phantom Thread grabbing the win there and then sitting back and simply enjoying being mentioned five more times over the course of the broadcast. Which is nothing to turn up your nose at, is it? While I seriously doubt that Phantom Thread is the kind of movie that can win a large mainstream audience based on repeated showings on cable like A Christmas Story and Shawshank Redemption have done, it should get a boost from the awards notoriety it receives once it becomes available for rental and streaming. If you haven’t seen the film yet, I’m going to stay relatively spoiler-free while telling you that this movie takes one of the strangest turns I’ve ever seen, and yet still remains true to its characters. The story literally changes from one thing to a completely different thing with very little notice. See, Get Out, this is the way a twist is done.
Experts’ Rank: 7
My Rank: 4
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Right here is where I may just anger some people. Perhaps some of the wrong people if I ever had thoughts about working in Hollywood. Of the nine Best Picture nominees for this year The Post‘s spot at the bottom of my rankings is hardly a close call. The last thing I expect when I go to see a movie directed by Steven Spielberg is something slipshod in its execution, but crap if that’s not what I got. The lead performances of Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks are certainly up to snuff and Bob Odenkirk has a couple of nicely delivered moments. The script and concept of the film are reasonably strong and the movie clearly is timely. So what’s the big problem, you ask? Well, it comes down to something very very basic. Unless a film is purposefully breaking the fourth wall and letting the audience in on the fact that it knows it’s a movie and so do we, there really shouldn’t be any moment in which we are reminded of that fact. We shouldn’t see the seams in the edits. We shouldn’t be under the impression that the camera is hitting its marks rather than naturally showing us the story in the most effective way. We absolutely shouldn’t feel like we can tell that the actors on screen are still revving up into the scene after hearing “action” or standing there waiting to hear “cut.” But these are exactly the impressions I was left with while I was watching The Post. These are problems I rarely see in cheap television shows or straight to streaming low-budget movies, and yet here they were in a Spielberg production. Can we just pretend that I, Tonya or The Florida Project got this nomination instead?
Experts’ Rank: 8
My Rank: 9
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The Shape of Water
The Academy’s penchant for spreading the wealth around in recent years may hurt The Shape of Water in the Best Picture category, with Guillermo del Toro looking like the odds-on favorite to take Best Director. For a short time it looked like it was in the lead, with wins at the Venice Film Festival, the Critic’s Choice Awards, and with both the Producers’ and Directors’ Guild Awards. Then a trend started to appear – while director del Toro kept on winning every directing award there was, including at BAFTA and The Golden Globes, the film started coming in behind Three Billboards… Perhaps enthusiasm for the film as a whole has blunted despite continued enthusiasm for honoring del Toro due to a not-too-subtle whisper campaign claiming that the movie is simply a mish-mash of established styles and that its climax was lifted whole cloth from the ending of the eighties mermaid movie Splash (for my part, I simply felt like this plot moment had been telegraphed pretty obviously very early in the movie, so its reveal was a bit of an anti-climax). Even blunter is a civil suit that has been brought by the estate of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paul Zindel claiming that the movie’s plot about a maid forming a bond with an aquatic creature and then attempting to free it from the research facility where it is being held was stolen from his play “Let Me Hear You Whisper.” Del Toro denies the allegation, saying he had never heard of the play before writing his script and claiming he had the spark for it as a boy when he first saw Creature From the Black Lagoon and sympathized with the creature, wishing he could have escaped with the movie’s bathing beauty. Even if I ignore these concerns, I’m left with the creeping feeling that this beautifully rendered film comes up short in its resolution, never quite delivering the magic there that the rest of the project promised.
Experts’ Rank: 2
My Rank: 2
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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
The front-runner for Best Picture currently appears to be Martin McDonagh’s no-holds-barred comic drama about a conflict between the mother of a murdered girl and the town’s police department who she thinks has given up on the case. This is despite McDonagh being left off the Best Director nominees list, a fact that does not traditionally bode well for the movie’s Best Picture aspirations. The film has its weaknesses, especially with a plot point that doesn’t need half the screen time it receives in order to do the job it’s intended to and plays as almost dishonestly manipulative of the audience. But I’ll contend that Three Billboards… was one of the few nominated films this year that kept me fully engaged and invested from start to finish. That really shouldn’t be something a person has to say when we’re talking about a short list of what are supposed to be the very best films of the year, is it? I think one of the things that I reacted to in the movie that some other people are uncomfortable with is its refusal to call any one of its very flawed characters beyond redemption. While I agree that’s a discussion worth having and I’m willing to listen to a variety of opinions on the matter, I’m not certain that the film confidently comes down on one side of that argument. But it sure as heck starts the conversation.
Experts’ Rank: 1
My Rank: 3
How many of this year’s Best Picture nominees have you seen? Do you have a favorite? Vote for it here and then explain your reasoning in the comments section. Personally, I had a much easier time selecting my bottom few than I did my top few. I wish one of these movies was leaping off the screen at me begging to be crowned, but the frustrating fact is that there are at least three movies released this year that I liked better than any of these.
Posted on March 1, 2018, in Awards, Movies, Oscars, poll, reviews and tagged Call Me by Your Name, Darkest Hour, Dunkirk, Get Out, Lady Bird, Phantom Thread, The Post, The Shape of Water, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing. Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.