“Dunkirk” might seem to rate top contender attention with its epic proportions and eight Oscar nominations. Despite a bold filmmaking vision for dramatizing a huge event in World War II, director Christopher Nolan buried the lead focus.
Hundreds of civilian boats were called into service to save hundreds of thousands of British soldiers pinned against the sea by German forces. The hundreds-of-civilian-boats drama felt reduced, essentially, to one civilian-boat example. Granted, that was the best mini-story inside the film. The hundreds-of-thousands-of-trapped-soldiers story felt divvied up into insufficient dynamic tension.
Rather than point you to the high and wide praise that “Dunkirk” received, turn to another Best Picture nominee “Darkest Hour.” It dramatizes the challenge and substance of Dunkirk better in twenty minutes than the film “Dunkirk” does in its two hours.
That said, “Darkest Hour” is about Winston Churchill, Winston Churchill, Winston Churchill. The film is solidly constructed as a Best Actor vehicle that spills over into Best Picture nomination territory. Britain’s World War II crisis churns its gravitas and personality through Winston Churchill, and not incidentally through his wife. Clementine Churchill was an indispensable confidante and counterweight, well conveyed in “Darkest Hour.”
As with “Darkest Hour,” “The Post” is a Best Picture nominee with no Best Director nomination. It is a fair declaration that an average Steven Spielberg film is still better than most films.
“The Post” isn’t a special Spielberg film. Nonetheless, it depicts the handling of the Pentagon Papers, a keystone moment at The Washington Post, and one might say a keystone moment for journalism in the United States. (The Post’s coverage of Watergate unfolded about a year later.)
For kickers, “The Post” reflects thought-provokingly not only on the politics of lying to the American people (admittedly more sophisticated in some administrations), but also on how women are regarded in the workplace. Pretty good for an average Spielberg rendering.
“The Shape of Water” is a formula romance: a naive, curious girl meets an unsuitable boy. The formal infrastructure stacks against true love. The girl has an outlier friend and an insider friend who are there for her. You know what happens with true love in a formula film, even when there is a formidable bad guy in the way.
Formula movie-making frequently delivers dependable silver screen magic. In “The Shape of Water” the girl is a mute and the boy is a sea creature. Both labels are telling and woefully insufficient.
The two fated lovers offer a fresh movie-world presence – individually and as a couple. The dilemmas are uniquely steeped. The movie’s villain sports a focused meanness laced with traces of sad vulnerability. The tone that Guillermo del Toro puts into this cinematic story and gets from his actors is fantastic (both meanings of fantastic: extraordinarily good and fanciful).
Besides the special qualities experienced in the film, del Toro won Best Director from the Directors Guild of America. This plants a very high statistical marker that Guillermo del Toro and “The Shape of Water” are the Best Director and Best Picture Oscars winners.
Then there’s the small statistical matter of Martin McDonagh not receiving a Best Director Oscar nomination. Since 1933, Best Picture Gold has gone to only two films when its director isn’t even nominated (“Argo” in 2012; “Driving Miss Daisy” in 1989).
"Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” with its seven Oscar nominations, may be the hottest contender for Best Picture, but “The Shape of Water,” with its 13 noms, will win. More to point, del Toro fully realized a more imaginative, challenging vision than McDonagh (although McDonagh deserved the Best Director nomination “taken from him” by Christopher Nolan).
“Three Billboards,” with its edgy small-town yarn, may bump “The Shape of Water” off the original screenplay Oscar, but those edgy qualities line up a bit too conveniently. The bold, effective choices, scene by scene, don’t play as masterfully fluid as del Toro does with the whole of “The Shape of Water.” Also, some of the over-the-top supporting characters and situations in “Three Billboards” seem a wee much for a film aiming for such a real feel.
Only one of the nominated Best Pictures – also without a nomination for its director – feels a bit thin to be a top Oscars contender. That’s somewhat unfair. “Call Me by Your Name” is an intentionally modest cinematic approach to an intentionally untortured coming-of-age affair.
Its strength might be considered its weakness. It’s such a mature little story. Not mature as in graphic. Not like saying that coming-of-age gay needs to be labeled mature content.
It’s just that this seventeen-year-old almost seems too grown up. He’s intelligent, accomplished, manages his growth and vitality well. He even handles his entrance into the realm of sexuality and love with a mature proportion of angst. Not incidentally, the teen’s lover seems like a decently pedigreed version of beautiful people. The girlfriend is enlightened, the well-off parents are enlightened. It’s beautiful Italian countryside.
“Call Me by Your Name” is a fine motion picture that avoids all of the mistakes that a movie of this kind might have made. It’s actually nomination-worthy on a list with nine Best Picture slots, but as an Oscar contender, there’s an aroma of minimal challenge in its filmmaking vision.
The darling of the Oscar nominees, “Lady Bird” is a more mainstream coming-of-age film. It might be called an early frontrunner, but the feel of bestness, has faded a bit, as if the word “ordinary” applies.
Director/writer Greta Gerwig has made a fresh film from start to finish without tossing away familiar teenage themes. However autobiographical “Lady Bird’s” life is, it feels genuine and personal and reflective of an unlikely star quality Gerwig seems to be carving for herself.
“What if this is the best version” of me, says Lady Bird when her mother encourages her. Lady Bird is trying to be real, trying not to be a phony, trying to be herself, whatever that is. She’s trying to find her way with her unpopular best friend, with a rich and popular new friend, and with boys.
The most curious and stylized of the Best Picture nominees, not surprisingly, comes from director/writer Paul Thomas Anderson (“Boogie Nights,” “Magnolia,” “There Will Be Blood”). “Phantom Thread” sows a strange kind of triad between an exacting dress designer, his sister who keeps him functional, and his eventual wife who keeps vitality running through his constricted soul.
“Phantom Thread” is quite ambitious in a small-film way. Its biggest roadblock – and perhaps this is indicative of its excellence – is that it’s somehow difficult to come out of a viewing saying “I like this movie.” Kudos, yes; Oscars, no.
If there’s a dark horse on the Best Picture / Best Director lists, it’s “Get Out” and its first-time director Jordan Peele. Peele is Black, which may not be a thing to mention except he’s written a horror story about a Black guy in an increasingly uncomfortable visit to his White girlfriend’s family estate. Peele liked the idea of a first-ever horror film fueled by racial tension, and he walks the fence masterfully between all too real and an eerie, weird contrivance.
Peele (of Key and Peele comedy fame) has succeeded well enough to earn “First Film” awards from the Director’s Guild and the New York film critics. It’s a long shot that Peele’s clever, substantive genre-bender could top Guillermo del Toro’s fanciful triumph, but it’s worth it to mention that so much Best Picture buzz is going to a horror film and a fantasy film (that isn’t “Lord of the Rings”).