90th Academy Awards – Best Picture Nominees

My thoughts on the nominees for Best Picture at the 90th Academy Awards, tomorrow I’ll share my picks and predictions for the other awards.

Call Me By Your Name
I wasn’t enthusiastic about seeing this, I thought the trailer was tedious and the name ridiculous. But there was nothing else on and it’s getting a lot of award nominations, so I gave it a try. It was insufferable. I was bored, annoyed and irritated by hokey writing and cheesy direction. The characters never talked like normal people, the development of the relationship never felt natural and it was so slow I was begging it to be over. The film makers made a critical error when they didn’t spell out the age difference, they did eventually indicate that Elio was 17, but Oliver’s age was never given (apparnetly he’s 24 in the book) and Armie Hammer is 29 and looks considerably older, so I wasn’t sure how creeped out I was supposed to be. The acting was good though, even if they were delivering a nonsensical script.

Darkest Hour
This is a film of a performance. Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill is nothing short of miraculous. The physical transformation is key to it, I don’t believe that anyone but his closest friends would have recognised Oldman beneath the prosthetics and makeup. However this isn’t just an impersonation, because Oldman also delivers depth to the character. I’m sure the physical transformation helped him find the character, and mimicking the intonation and phrasing helped the voice; but it is the realisation of complex, contradictory and fully rounded person that is gaining him the awards. I don’t think the film around the performance really rises to the same level. The rest of the characters are sorely under-developed, with people either for, or against our hero; heroes and villains. The narrative itself indicates just how precarious events were, and just how easily Churchill could have been wrong; but the emotional presentation manipulates you to villainise the critics anyway. While the period sets and costumes were very impressive, much of the direction was unremarkable, bordering on twee at times, and there were some clunking scenes and lines in the script. Really this is a 10/10 performance in a 7/10 film.

Dunkirk
I had a couple of problems. First – I didn’t understand the structure of the film until near the end. I’ve had a couple of people suggest that I’m an idiot, but a similar number of people have agreed that it’s confusing. Once you know that the there are three stories woven together but that each is covering a different period, it makes sense. But without that knowledge, I was distracted by the fact it was dark in one scene and light in the next; everything seemed to be happening too fast in one of the stories and that meant it lost some emotional impact (it’s not an incredibly bad day, it’s an absolutely horrific week). The second problem was that I couldn’t keep track of the young soldiers, I think that was intentional, after all these are just a small representation of the thousands of men there, they are just faces to some of the numbers. But it did mean, in a practical way, I couldn’t keep track of some of the action and connect bits up.
Everything else about the film however is incredible. Literally breath-taking, I can’t remember the last time I jumped or gasped so much in the cinema. It’s an immersive and intimate experience that shows up in your heart rate. Every actor gave it their all, but also showed restraint – there are very few moments of big emotion, for the most part everyone is just too tired and resigned for that. It’s a superb piece of film making.

I, Tonya
The early months of the year are always a mixture of optimism and slog for film watching. The wave of award nominated films make for some real jems, but also some dull pretentiousness. I seem to have had a bit of a role with films that I’m told are Good, Important and Worthy, and that I have found underwhelming and frankly a bit dull. Thank heavens for I, Tonya. Finally I got to watch a film that I found both impressive and thoroughly entertaining. I knew the headlines of the story of Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, but none of the details or the backstory. A mark of the success of the film is that by the time it came to the ‘incident’ I had sort of forgotten about it. The background is absolutely fascinating and that, and the quality of performances would probably have been enough to make this a good film. But it’s the construction of the film with interviews to camera that really make it stand out. I laughed out loud throughout the film from the humour, the ridiculousness of the situations and occasionally the horribleness of the characters. Despite the number of award nominated films I’ve watched in recent months, I can’t think of one I’ve been so happy to have seen.

Ladybird
I’m kicking myself because this is the only film that I haven’t managed to see. It doesn’t actually seem to have got a very wide release in the UK, neither my local Cineworld or Odeon are showing it which is a real shame, particularly as it has only been on release a week and it’s been snowing pretty much the whole time limiting my desire to travel. I am looking forward to seeing it, the trailer had a nice balance of humour and drama, and also looked quirky and stylish without being irritating.

Phantom Thread
I was uninspired by the trailer, but my favourite film reviewers both vouched for it – Mark Kermode has a tendency to like rather pretentious twaddle, but Simon Mayo is usually more reliable for knowing what ‘normal’ people actually like to watch. So given they both gave it an enthusiastic review for being both meaningful AND enjoyable I gave it a try. They let me down.
Firstly it committed the cardinal sin of being boring, I continually wanted to look at a watch I wasn’t wearing to see how much longer I’d have to endure, and while it wasn’t quite bad enough that I would have given up on it, I certainly was wishing for it to be over faster than it was. There were brief moments of wit, but they were too small and too dispersed to give any real enjoyment. I didn’t quite get a handle on the characters, I never felt like they had a strong enough core to define them. I didn’t really know whether they liked each other, let alone loved one another. The style of it was vaguely interesting, and some of the ideas too, but neither was well enough developed to really make that the centrepiece of the film. I was utterly underwhelmed.

The Post
It’s somewhat astonishing that Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg have never worked together before, and when you add on an excellent supporting cast and an interesting, and topical, historical event you’re on to a winning formula. I would suggest that the film doesn’t really do much more than put those ingredients together and let it go, there’s not much in the way of embellishment or decoration to it, but then good ingredients do speak for themselves. Everyone is on solid form and the whole thing trips along nicely, just about keeping me understanding a story and background that I knew almost nothing about. I don’t think there’s anything particularly remarkable about the film, but when it brings so many greats together, it can’t help but be something a little bit special.

The Shape of Water
I’d been looking forward to this film. I’ve enjoyed many of Guillermo del Toro’s films and been impressed by the style and blending of fairy tale and horror. For the first half hour or so of the film I tried to immerse myself in the beautiful look of it, the quirky characters and the unusual pacing of the dialogue with chatty characters balanced by the silence of the lead characters, who still managed to say a lot even if they weren’t speaking. But after a while I realised that I was trying to immerse myself in it, and trying to enjoy it, rather than actually being immersed or enjoying it. It felt like it was trying to force feelings that weren’t there. After I realised that, the rest of the film became a little bit of a slog. When the dream sequence started my brother and I looked at each other and just rolled our eyes. I was actually very glad it was over when it eventually trudged to a halt.
There’s something bugging me about the whole film. At its heart it’s a basic monster movie, I know a lot of people have related it to Beauty and the Beast, but for me it was more King Kong. I don’t know at what point it was decided to try and make it ‘more’ than ‘just’ a monster movie, but I think that was a real mistake. Monster movies, or science fiction, or horror already have all the scope to say more than just “the monster needs to escape”, there is always subtext and metaphor, but they don’t have to make a song and dance about it. Yes, they can form a connection without speaking, we get it, we don’t need long drawn out scenes to make the point. You can still get all that power without sacrificing pacing, action, comedy or character. And you can certainly integrate those things without having to have each scene and character fulfill one aspect. For the amount of talent, money, and runtime that this film has, it actually had less impact than something like Hellboy, or Pan’s Labyrinth. Fundamentally – I was bored. Also the constant sound of trickling water left me quite distracted by my need to go to the bathroom.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
A film which is hard to really describe, and I find hard to decide whether I liked it or not. I think for me it fell a little too much in between a lot of different posts, but I know that is the very thing that has worked for a lot of people. I laughed, cried, gasped and flinched in all the right places; and each with a depth and enthusiasm that isn’t often found in films; but somehow the combination left me cold. The elements of farce driven by the underlying tragedy is certainly deftly delivered by cast and crew. However there seemed to be a lot of unanswered questions and unexplained character steps that didn’t really sit right with me. At the start characters were hated and excused and I didn’t understand why, and then by the end there seemed to be forgiveness and redemption that likewise didn’t seem explained. I didn’t understand (and still don’t) why a town would be so angry at the mother of a murdered girl, why the town wouldn’t be scared at the idea of a rapist, why they wouldn’t be questioning the sheriff more. I didn’t understand why such a ‘nice’ sheriff would do a bad job liaising with a murder victim’s relatives, or why he would do nothing about a staff member who was clearly completely out of control. I think to me this is a film where all the individual scenes were excellent, but bringing them all together and understanding the underlying context of the characters and the community around them, just made no sense at all.

What I think should winI’ve found this a rather disappointing year for best picture nominees to be honest. I thought Call Me By Your Name and Phantom Thread were actively bad; Three Billboards and Shape of Water were flawed, and Darkest Hour was clunky. The Post was a solidly entertaining film which i would happily recommend as a good film to watch, but not as remarkable as the names behind it might have inspired and not really Best Picture material. I haven’t seen Ladybird which is massively annoying me as I come to write this. So I’m left with Dunkirk and I, Tonya. What a bizarre choice to have to make. While I really, really enjoyed I, Tonya, and actually found Dunkirk a little confusing on first watch, I think I have to go for Dunkirk in the end. It’s the far greater achievement in terms of filming the un-filmable and deserves the accolade.

What will win
I think it’s down to Three Billboards or The Shape of Water really and I’m not sure which way it would go. Would the Academy give it to a ‘monster movie’ or is it actually time that people are looking beyond the simple labels. I think Three Billboards will be recognised in the acting categories, and that might be where the emphasis is. So, I think The Shape of Water will win.

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