Three out of three amigos have now won Oscars.

The 90th annual Academy Awards, for the film year 2017.  The nominations were announced on 23 January 2018 and the awards were held on 4 March 2018.

Best Picture:  The Shape of Water

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

Most Surprising Omission:  I, Tonya

Best Eligible Film Not Nominated:  Coco

Rank (out of 90) Among Best Picture Years:  #10

The Race:

16 September:  The Gurus have chimed in and GoldDerby has long had odds up, so I guess it’s time to get started.  The two films out in front by far at GoldDerby are Dunkirk (solid predictions of nomination, almost half predict a win) and The Post (most predict a nomination and a third predict a win).  Those are followed by The Shape of Water, Call Me By Your Name and Darkest Hour.  The Gurus have once again split things up into various groups.  Among the already released group, Dunkirk is way out in front, with Get Out coming up slowly behind (with, it doesn’t seem, a lot of support, but just without another film to get behind, which is interesting since Call Me By Your Name is 4th on that list).  On the Festival list, Darkest Hour, The Shape of Water and Downsizing are in just about a three way tie.  Among the films still unseen, The Post (listed by Gurus as The Papers) is way out in front, followed distantly by the still untitled P.T. Anderson film.  It will be interesting if this group follows through since both Christopher Nolan and Joe Wright have made Best Picture nominated films but have yet to be nominated for Best Director.

At this point, to follow the race, go here and you can follow it as I continually updated the post starting at the beginning of December and running all the way through to the Oscars, including my actual predictions, the day before the nominations were announced.  It is very long because it includes observations about every category, not just Picture.

The Results:  Those were reacted to here, but then you go back to the post linked just above and follow after the nominations through the rest of the race.

Fish man is an upgrade from egg timer.

The Shape of Water

  • Director:  Guillermo del Toro
  • Writer:  Guillermo del Toro / Vanessa Taylor
  • Producer:  Guillermo del Toro / J. Miles Dale
  • Stars:  Sally Hawkins, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon, Michael Stuhlbarg
  • Studio:  Fox Searchlight
  • Oscar Nominations: Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actress (Hawkins), Supporting Actor (Jenkins), Supporting Actress (Spencer), Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound Mixing, Production Design, Sound Editing, Costume Design
  • Oscar Points:  530
  • Length:  119 min
  • Genre:  Fantasy (Romance)
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Release Date:  1 December 2017
  • Box Office Gross:  $57.45 mil  (#48  –  2017)
  • Metacritic Rating:  87
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #3  (year)  /  #78  (nominees)  /  #26  (winners)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actress (Hawkins), Supporting Actor (Jenkins), Supporting Actress (Spencer), Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound, Art Direction, Visual Effects, Sound Editing, Costume Design
  • Nighthawk Points:  420

It is unfortunate for Guillermo del Toro that the category is called Best Original Screenplay and not Most Original Screenplay.  There’s no question that he would have been an easy winner in that one.  He’s been proving for years that his films are a visual delight and that his stories, when they are focused, are fascinating and bizarre and wonderful and you never know what you might find.

On the surface, this is a Sci-Fi or Fantasy film.  It’s the story of Elisa, a young mute woman who works at a government lab in the early 60’s when a strange creature is brought in, captured in the South American jungle.  The creature may be alien, may just be something different, but the agent in charge is determined to find out something that can be useful and he’ll use any amount of brute force that he has to.  But Elisa makes a connection to the creature and that begins a strange romance that will involve Cold War spies, a rescue attempt and an ending that is both unexpected and completely foreshadowed throughout the film.

But when you look closer, what you discover is that this film is about people who are lonely, no matter who is around, people who are trapped within themselves.  There are five main characters in the film (not counting the creature itself) and four of them live in a world in which they interact with each other but also live in complete isolation.  Elisa is a mute and can not communicate with spoken language.  Her neighbor Giles is gay in a time period where this is treated with utter disgust.  Her best friend and co-worker Zelda is black in a town that hasn’t really historically been good to blacks and has a worthless layabout husband who will betray her at a key moment.  They work with Dr. Hoffstetler, who it will turn out is actually a Soviet spy.  All of these people find a connection, not just to the creature, who is also isolated of course, but to each other.  It would be easy to read this film as a group of beaten down minorities teaming up to fight the man, the man in this case being a brutal pig of a Colonel who is determined to get something out of the creature that can be used and doesn’t care who he has to destroy to get his way.

But to read it at that level is to ignore the romance of the film.  And by that, I don’t just mean the literal romance that will arise when Elisa decides that the way to communicate with the creature is to simply reach out with a human gesture (and an egg) but the romantic atmosphere that tinges the film.  It is there in the tinge to the cinematography, it is there in the writing that evokes a particular era of the Cold War, it is there in the direction and the writing.  We feel for these people because there is something in the film that evokes our interest and because, in spite of their beaten down conditions and the limitations of the world they live in, they never seem to be without hope.

The Shape of Water is a magnificent achievement.  It earned, not only 13 Oscar nominations, but as many award nominations through all the groups as any other film in history.  It is that rare film that is decidedly offbeat and yet, in some ways, sentimental and old-fashioned.  It is magnificently acted, brilliantly directed and warmly written.  It is a triumph at every level of film-making and a reminder that the Three Amigos are not just friends but immensely talented.

Sacramento. Why did it have to be Sacramento?

Lady Bird

  • Director:  Greta Gerwig
  • Writer:  Greta Gerwig
  • Producer:  Scott Rudin / Eli Bush / Evelyn O’Neill
  • Stars:  Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracey Letts
  • Studio:  A24
  • Oscar Nominations: Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actress (Ronan), Supporting Actress (Metcalf)
  • Oscar Points:  200
  • Length:  93 min
  • Genre:  Comedy
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Release Date:  3 November 2017
  • Box Office Gross:  $48.32 mil  (#56  –  2017)
  • Metacritic Rating:  94
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #1  (year)  /  #61  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actress (Ronan), Supporting Actress (Metcalf), Editing
  • Nighthawk Points:  380

Is it because I’m a writer?  Do I remember so well the pain of my teenage years because I continue to write about characters of the same age?  Or would my memory always curse me to remember such moments?  The reason why doesn’t matter.  What matters is that I do remember it so well.  Lady Bird is not my age.  She’s graduating from high school in 2003, a good eleven years after I had some of the same arguments with my own parents that she has, when she goes through some of the same things I went through and then escaped California to the East Coast for a college experience that was far different from what I had envisioned.

And maybe it’s not just about the film itself.  Maybe it’s about Sacramento, that capital city that I loathe so much, that Lady Bird herself loathes so much yet can not escape and which comes back to her, spilling over her, filling her with her memories of what she has left and what she might still find when she should return.  What does it say about me that back in 1994 I would create a fictional town and write an entire novel about it and set it near the city where I had been dumped just a couple of weeks before?  What more does it say that when driving to Phoenix a few years later with a goal of just getting past Sacramento that my car would break down there and I would be forced to actually spend the night and part of the next day there and yet I would then take my novel about high school and move it to the same fictional town, meaning I would have to get an even better grasp on Sacramento to write the book?  It would mean that I would know what it is like to both love and hate a place that I live, the same kind of conflicted emotions I would have about Orange County, about Portland, about Boston.

Lady Bird feels like she’s not good enough.  She’s been on a trip with her mother, looking at colleges that she’s not certain that she can get into and doesn’t know if she can afford and when her mother, after a nice weekend, starts to point this out in a way I remember from my own experience, Lady Bird decides that she’s had enough and she simply leaps out of the car.  That’s the start of an amazing film in which this young woman consistently makes choices that feel right at the time but are not in her best interest.  She leaps from a car because it’s preferable to listening to her mother.  She abandons her best friend because she has a chance to fit in with cooler kids, one with money and popularity.  She lies to her new friend about what house she lives in because she’s so desperately ashamed of where she comes from.  At least the last one was one I never thought of doing, knowing I was from the middle class part of the school and never attempting to think I could pass as one of the rich kids from Villa Park.  But oh god does the rest sound familiar.  She’ll stumble her way through young love and first tries at sex and she’ll discover pain and lies and heartbreak and so much more.  She’ll try to find out who she is and she’ll run thousands of miles away only to have it wash over her in a cascade of emotions that will conclude the film.

This film is so complex in that it does so many things and does them so well.  How often do the funniest scene in any film in a year (in this case, when the coach is asked to take over the theatre and he tries to explain how the stage-blocking will go) and the most touching scene in any film in a year (in this case, a young man who is trying to express his apologies while also trying to explain how little he understands or can articulate what he is feeling) come from the same film?

I hate to compare Greta Gerwig to another female director because it feels like the fact that they are both females is irrelevant (and perhaps it is) but this film reminds me of Away from Her.  In both cases, the director was young (late 20’s for Sarah Polley, early 30’s for Gerwig), both were not new to directing but hadn’t yet really made their own film (Polley had made several short films, Gerwig co-directed a film almost a decade before) but both of them acted as writers and directors and had steady, sure voices, a good eye as a director and managed to draw forth amazing, moving performances that haunted your soul.  It’s been obvious, from the first time I saw Saoirse Ronan, in Atonement, that she is one of the most gifted actresses to ever act on film, but the performance that Gerwig gets from Laurie Metcalf is nothing short of extraordinary, as the poor mother who is working so hard for her family and just wishes that her daughter understood that.  As someone who has been that child, as someone who watches this film and understands the mother and all the suffering in her life and how she wants to convey love but finds it difficult to get it out, in the stark, realistic, yet subtly sympathetic way in which she is written (and played), I can assure her that Lady Bird will understand some day, the same way that Gerwig’s film makes it clear that she understands.

That is why mother and daughter will come round to each other.  That is why the mother will circle back around and hope desperately that she is in time to try to say something.  That is why the daughter will find herself on the phone trying to express emotions about memories that she can not fully comprehend or articulate.  Because the people that we do love, in the end, do come around.

Well at least the Oscars finally nominated Nolan for Best Director. That’s a step in the right direction.

Dunkirk

  • Director:  Christopher Nolan
  • Writer:  Christoper Nolan
  • Producer:  Emma Thomas / Christopher Nolan
  • Stars:  Fionn Whitehead, Harry Styles, Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy
  • Studio:  Warner Bros
  • Oscar Nominations: Picture, Director, Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound Mixing, Production Design, Sound Editing
  • Oscar Points:  295
  • Length:  106 min
  • Genre:  War (World War II)
  • MPAA Rating:  PG-13
  • Release Date:  21 July 2017
  • Box Office Gross:  $188.04 mil  (#14  –  2017)
  • Metacritic Rating:  94
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #2  (year)  /  #64  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Supporting Actor (Rylance), Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound, Art Direction, Visual Effects, Sound Editing
  • Nighthawk Points:  415

“This is how we’ll win.  Not by fighting what we hate.  By saving what we love.”  That line, you may recognize as not being from Dunkirk, but from The Last Jedi.  Yet, it sums up perfectly what Dunkirk is all about.  Saving Private Ryan was the film about how we won the war, about fighting what we hated.  Dunkirk is about how the war wasn’t lost before we ever got that chance.  In those amazing moments, of the mobilization of a fleet of civilian ships to sail across the Channel and bring the boys back home, it was about saving what we loved.  Had we not done that, there never would have been a chance for a D-Day.

The different philosophies behind what’s going on (and different stages of the war) aren’t the only things that are comparable between the two films.  Ryan starts with a half hour as intense and terrifying as anything put on screen, but after that (and with our star alive, of course), it settles in with a plot.  The concept behind the film, trying to rescue one man in the midst of all the mess, was an interesting idea but the plot bogs things down at times.  Dunkirk has three different storylines that are kind of moving forward in synchronicity with each other but there really isn’t a plot, per se.  It also doesn’t give us a star who will hover over the film with star power, instead giving us several great character actors doing their part for their country.  There is a lead, ostensibly, in the film, but it’s Fionn Whitehead, who is just starting out and isn’t a star.  What’s more, we are not following a plot but rather his numerous attempts to escape from the beach at Dunkirk before he dies.  He continually makes it off the beach but he keeps not making it far, first getting on a destroyer (after being booted off) which is sunk, then in a trawler, waiting for high tide, but it sinks because of bullet holes from Germans doing target practice, then on another destroyer but that is also sunk.  It would almost be tragically funny if the tragedy weren’t so overwhelming.  He just wants to live.  It is all anyone on that beach wants, from the other soldier with him who bring forth a wounded soldier to the destroyer in the hope it will get them off the beach, to the young French soldier who pretends to be English so he won’t be left behind, to the Colonel (played so very well by Kenneth Branagh) who won’t leave until all the men are evacuated (and in the end, will stay behind for the French).

But Dunkirk is not just the story of this one solider or any one soldier.  That kind of story had already been told in a few minutes in Joe Wright’s amazing shot in Atonement (ironically, since Wright would make Darkest Hour this year, the film about the story that made Dunkirk possible).  It is about what happened when a country mobilized all at once.  We have the pilots, the very few going against the most powerful air force in the world (the U.S. at this point, in spite of a population more than England and Germany combined didn’t even have a separate Air Force branch of the service at this time), trying to buy enough time that the soldiers can get off the beach.  We meet two of those pilots, one of whom is shot down and ends up on the same boat as some of the other men in the story while the other keeps flying, no matter the odds, no matter how little gas and time he has left and who in the end is standing on the beach with his plane in flames because he is willing to be thrown in a prisoner-of-war camp but by god he’s not going to let the Germans have his plane.  Tom Hardy plays that pilot and in spite of an LAFC award and an Oscar this might be the best acting he has yet done on film.  There is also one of the great stories of war, a story that gives hope to the world when everything seems so dark, different from the Christmas Armistice in 1914, but no less heart-warming.  To remember that when the call went out that the boys were stranded on the beaches, that an entire country woke up and set sail.  That these men, no matter that they were fishermen, weekend boaters, the well-to-do, the poor, whatever they may be, they were English and those were their boys on the beach and they were going to get them.  When Cillian Murphy (reminding us, as he so often does, that at least Christopher Nolan realizes what a fantastic actor he is and if only other directors could realize that) plays an officer who is rescued by one such boat and realizes he’s headed to Dunkirk, he fights against it.  But Mark Rylance, who spent so long without almost anyone realizing what a great actor he is, knows that there is no escaping this, that this is something that has to be done.  Somehow, Rylance, just two years removed from an Oscar, didn’t receive a single Oscar nomination in spite of a magnificent performance.

Lots of directors go through film school and seem to come out, ready to begin as feature film directors with strong debuts but Christopher Nolan was something else.  He emerged as a feature director at age 28, it would seem, almost fully formed.  His first film, Following, showed a smooth eye for the camera and a magnificent sense of editing.  By his second, he had already made a masterpiece (Memento) and while it earned him his first Oscar nomination for writing, it seemed only a matter of time before he would earn one (and win one) for directing.  In 2009, I ranked him at #22 all-time after only six films and he has followed those up with Inception, The Dark Knight Rises, Interstellar and now Dunkirk, all of them magnificent films.  He has, like David Lean and Steven Spielberg, brought a master’s eye to all the crafts involved in the making of film and yet still managed to get magnificent work from actors, never losing their performances among the crafts.  And unlike Lean or Spielberg, he also writes his films, helping to shape them through the entire process.  In the end, Nolan will be looked upon as one of the greatest directors that the medium has ever produced and the Academy will look at themselves as foolish for waiting until his 10th film before finally nominating him for Best Director.

That makes 5 Spielberg films nominated for Best Picture and 9 Streep nominations since the last Tom Hanks Oscar nomination.

The Post

  • Director:  Steven Spielberg
  • Writer:  Liz Hannah / Josh Singer
  • Producer:  Steven Spielberg / Amy Pascal / Kristie Macosko Krieger
  • Stars:  Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Bob Odenkirk
  • Studio:  20th Century-Fox
  • Oscar Nominations: Picture, Actress (Streep)
  • Oscar Points:  85
  • Length:  115 min
  • Genre:  Drama (Historical)
  • MPAA Rating:  PG-13
  • Release Date:  22 December 2017
  • Box Office Gross:  $80.39 mil  (#39  –  2017)
  • Metacritic Rating:  83
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #4  (year)  /  #145  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actor (Hanks), Actress (Streep), Editing
  • Nighthawk Points:  230

I thought, as a joke, while the film was on, that it was the prequel to All the President’s Men.  Then the film even made that notion explicit by ending with those fateful moments when the security guard at the Watergate found that duct tape.  But really, while the films share a location and one main character, they are very different stories that seem similar on the surface but are about very different things.  All the President’s Men is a story about good journalism, about what can happens when reporters do an excellent job and are able to get to the truth.  The Post is about having the right to report in the first place.  The former film came out at a time when journalists were being lionized for the work that they did.  The later has come out at a time when journalists are constantly being attacked and undermined.

The Post, like Darkest Hour, is an old-fashioned type of film.  It tells a straight forward story of a historical time when things mattered a lot and it manages to resonate with today’s events.  It has a smart, literate script that keeps us riveted without letting us lose ourselves in who the characters are or what is going on.  It takes an individual moment in history and makes it universal in its applications.

Do I have to write that The Post has magnificent technical aspects, from its crisp to editing to first-rate cinematography and sound (especially when in the newsroom) to its fantastic score?  Or should I just say that it’s directed by Steven Spielberg and you could have assumed that anyway?  In that case, do I even have to mention that the score is composed by John Williams?

What The Post comes down to is two personalities and they are played by two of the biggest names in Hollywood and that right there becomes interesting.  The first is Katharine Graham, played by Meryl Streep, in a performance that would earn her a 21st Oscar nomination.  Released at a time when women’s rights are a massive issue (a nice add-on to the importance of the press), Streep plays Graham as a woman who has been shielded most of her life but now has to make important decisions and stand by those decisions, and even more importantly, get people to listen to and respect those decisions.  As her newspaper goes up for a public offering, she is faced with a decision about whether to publish The Pentagon Papers and have a face down with the Nixon government about the right to publish in the first place.  Everyone expects Streep to be great and what’s also great is that this role is different than most of the rest of her roles.  We don’t expect someone played by Streep, especially a woman who was so famous, to be so tentative but we watch her grow through the course of the film (a film which is extremely accurate; while the film is ostensibly an original screenplay a considerably portion of the events and even dialogue in the film can be read in Graham’s memoir) and learn to be her own woman.  Facing off against her is Tom Hanks.  Hanks was once the Oscar golden boy, with back-to-back Best Actor wins and five total nominations.  Yet, since 2000, the Academy has been off him and I have been more and more impressed.  His Oscar nominated work is good but in some ways I actually prefer his performances in films like Road to Perdition, Saving Mr. Banks, Bridge of Spies and here, which I rank up with Road to Perdition as one of his very best performances.  His Ben Bradlee is different and yet the same as Jason Robards’ Oscar winning performance as Bradlee.  He has to face his own difficult choices (and reminders that perhaps he wasn’t as tough on JFK as he should have been).  He believes, with all his heart and soul, in the power and duty of the press and that, of course, is what makes this movie so timely and so different from All the President’s Men.  In that film, it was never a question of what they could publish but rather what they could learn.  Without the events in this film, establishing, as it had been written in the First Amendment, that the Press has a freedom.  But, as Bradlee points out, they also have a duty and there are things that the public has a right to know.

All of the messages of the film, however, wouldn’t matter if it weren’t so well made, so thrilling and so entertaining.  Perhaps part of what is so refreshing is not just having two American treasures standing side by side to fight for the power of the press but to think about how Streep has so often been great in her career but has rarely worked with great directors and it’s nice to have a film that is as good as her performance, something that has been lacking far too often.

Since it was released four months later, does that makes this the prequel to Dunkirk?

Darkest Hour

  • Director:  Joe Wright
  • Writer:  Anthony McCarten
  • Producer:  Tim Bevan / Eric Fellner / Lisa Bruce / Anthony McCarten / Douglas Urbanski
  • Stars:  Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Stephen Dillane
  • Studio:  Focus Features
  • Oscar Nominations: Picture, Actor (Oldman), Cinematography, Production Design, Costume Design, Makeup
  • Oscar Points:  200
  • Length:  125 min
  • Genre:  Drama (Historical)
  • MPAA Rating:  PG-13
  • Release Date:  22 November 2017
  • Box Office Gross:  $55.55 mil  (#51  –  2017)
  • Metacritic Rating:  75
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #6  (year)  /  #198  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Actor (Oldman), Supporting Actress (Scott Thomas), Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Costume Design, Makeup
  • Nighthawk Points:  210

This film, in a sense, was released too late.  Well, clearly not too late to get in on the Oscar action, as it peaked at just the right time, actually bringing in more money than most of the Best Picture contenders in the weeks before the nominations and its haul of nominations at the BAFTAs most likely helped.  But it really should have been released before Dunkirk.  Because if Dunkirk is the story of how Britain didn’t lose the war, this is the background to how that was ever able to happen.  This is the moment where even the pacifist in me, the one who thinks that most of human history is a waste of lives in the pursuit of folly says this is where the line had to be drawn.  It was time to fight and one man knew that more than any other and he made his stand.  History has been unkind to Winston Churchill on other matters but on this one, he was right.

But how did we ever even get to that point?  How did Britain find itself with Churchill, a man known for his love of drink and remembered (somewhat unfairly) for the disaster at Gallipoli as the head of the government?  It was a confluence of events.  First, there was Neville Chamberlain who continued, to the end, to believe that he had done the right thing in trying to avoid war, to not have the destruction of a generation like had occurred in the trenches in the Great War.  Chamberlain is played with great dignity and umbrage by Ronald Pickup (you might remember him as the lecherous one in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) who doesn’t want to have a war and doesn’t want Churchill in charge because he knows that Churchill will definitely take up the fight against Hitler.  There is Lord Halifax, played by Stephen Dillane in a role that he sinks into so perfectly that I didn’t even realize who it was (his inability to pick the right moment and the right movement should have reminded me of his solid years of performances as Stannis on Game of Thrones).  Halifax is a key player because he doesn’t want to be Prime Minister but is determined to have a say in how things go and like Chamberlain, believes that all out war is a mistake.  The two men, who have been proven wrong by history, seem to think that they can continue to hold back Hitler with appeasement in spite of the last few years staring them in the face.  The king (played very well by Ben Mendolsohn, who continues to prove that he’s been under-appreciated for far too long) doesn’t want Churchill.  But in the end, he’s the only man that can get the necessary approval to take over.  Then he just has to hold on to power, get the British forces off the continent and not allow the appeasers to undermine everything by seeking overtures through Italy.

In some ways, this film is reminiscent of Lincoln.  We have a critical moment in history and in both cases, a peaceful solution is sought by those who want the war to end.  But in both cases, one man’s indomitable personality overrides all.  For Lincoln, he needed the end of slavery to be passed before he could seek peace with the South or there never would be a real end to slavery.  For Churchill, he has to get the men out of Dunkirk before the army is destroyed while also delaying a peaceful solution with Germany because he knows that Hitler won’t hold to that peace and he can’t afford to have the army destroyed because he will need them in the years ahead.  Both films work so well because the two actors sink completely into their roles.  Gary Oldman has long been an under-appreciated actor, providing memorable and wonderful supporting performances in the Harry Potter and Batman films while also giving magnificent performances like Tinker Tailor (which finally earned him an Oscar nomination).  He is long past the days when he was in the Tommy Lee Jones / John Malkovich school of being just on the edge of great performances or completely hamming it up.  His performance here is subsumed into the character (helped out by the fantastic makeup job on him).

This film counts down that fateful month of May as Churchill steps into power and tries to keep his army from being destroyed.  We see his interactions with his new secretary, who gives him a glimpse of what the rest of the country is thinking (the major scene where he interacts with people on the Tube is well played and leads into the real speech that he gave to the Outer Cabinet but the actual Tube scene is fictional) and with his wife (played very well by Kristin Scott Thomas).  The film is well shot and crisply edited.  The direction is solid from Joe Wright, who, ironically, directed one of the most impressive single-shot scenes in film history with his Dunkirk scene in Atonement.  This is the kind of film that used to get made and it still does in some ways with films like The King’s Speech and Lincoln, historical films about big moments in history and important men and what they do with it.

Retire? Are you insane? You are only one Nighthawk nomination away from passing Jack Nicholson and moving into 1st all-time.

Phantom Thread

  • Director:  Paul Thomas Anderson
  • Writer:  Paul Thomas Anderson
  • Producer:  Paul Thomas Anderson / JoAnne Sellar / Megan Ellison / Daniel Lupi
  • Stars:  Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Kriebs, Lesley Manville
  • Studio:  Focus Features
  • Oscar Nominations: Picture, Director, Actor (Day-Lewis), Supporting Actress (Manville), Original Score, Costume Design
  • Oscar Points:  215
  • Length:  130 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Release Date:  25 December 2017
  • Box Office Gross:  $20.16 mil  (#105  –  2017)
  • Metacritic Rating:  90
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #8  (year)  /  #211  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Director, Actor (Day-Lewis), Supporting Actress (Manville), Cinematography, Original Score, Art Direction, Costume Design
  • Nighthawk Points:  210

I will present a spoiler warning here as I attempt to write about a film that I was anxious to see and walked away not quite knowing how I felt.  When I got home after a very long and frustrating day (that had nothing to do with the film even though I spent $18.50 on my ticket because it was being shown in 70mm, but I was okay with that because it meant it looked amazing on the big screen and I also got a free old-fashioned booklet about the film’s costumes, the same kind of book that they used to give out to roadshow films in the 60’s and where I got the Dr. Zhivago booklet that used to be my mother’s), I went in to Veronica and told her, that no matter how things might ever get, she was not to poison me with a mushroom so that she could nurse me back to health and have that help repair our relationship.

I wonder sometimes about Paul Thomas Anderson.  Are all the people in his life a complete mess?  Are they a massive pain in the ass?  Because if so, that would help to explain characters like Frank T.J. Mackey, Daniel Plainview, Freddie Quell and Reynolds Woodcock.  There is something broken in these men.  But there’s something interesting in them as well.  Or is it just the way that Anderson directs and the performances he gets because they are amazing.  You don’t want to meet these people but you don’t mind watching them for a couple of hours because they are fascinating in the same way that they are repulsive.

Reynolds is a fashion designer.  He’s an amazing designer who is desired by the rich, the famous and even the royalty of the world.  The clothes he makes are, of course, the product of costume designer Mark Bridges (the book of the costumes is really wonderful) and they richly deserve all the acclaim they are getting.  But Woodcock is difficult.  He can’t deal with the morning if other people are making noise and he feels the need to escape from relationships long before they even get stale, as soon as they start to simmer down.  He can’t even bear to have someone doing something wrong with an outfit he has designed and when one of his very rich patrons passes out drunk in a dress he designed at her own wedding reception, he demands the dress back and pulls it off her unconscious body himself.

This scene is also where things get interesting.  We have watched Reynolds bring on a new lover (and assistant as well) by the name of Alma.  She seems at first to be swept away by him but it becomes increasingly clear that she will not submit her will to his and to his equally strong-willed sister (who does subsume her will to his in a magnificent performance that balances the two from Lesley Manville that deserved its Oscar nomination).  When she comes along and helps him with the dress, he is besotted.  But when she wants to live her own version of a romance, complete with making him dinner, he revolts.  Then comes the poison.

So, what to make of this film?  It is brilliantly directed, has another fantastic Jonny Greenwood score is magnificently photographed and looks absolutely amazing every step of the way (especially when viewed in glorious 70mm).  It is well written (winning two critics awards) but in a year with so many fantastic original scripts it doesn’t make the cut for the Top 5 for either myself or the Oscars.  It has a performance from Daniel Day-Lewis that may be his last (and if so, he goes out on top but he’s always on top for me) and another one from Lesley Manville that finally has earned her some recognition outside of Britain and helps throw a deserved spotlight on Vicky Krieps (how did Lily James who doesn’t resemble Streep in any way get cast as a young Streep in the new Mamma Mia when Krieps looks so much like Streep in The French Lieutenant’s Woman?).  But the relationship is so dysfunctional, the ending is so enigmatic, I can’t really be certain how I feel about the film and how high I should rank it.  It sits here for the moment, but at some later point, when I have had a chance to think about a lot more (and it deserves thought), it may very well end up moving up the list.

Well I would have voted for a third Obama term and I don’t have a daughter but I hope I would have enough sense not to say that to ingratiate myself with my daughter’s black boyfriend.

Get Out

  • Director:  Jordan Peele
  • Writer:  Jordan Peele
  • Producer:  Jordan Peele / Sean McKittrick / Jason Blum / Edward H. Hamm Jr
  • Stars:  Daniel Kaluuya / Allison Williams / Catherine Keener / Bradley Whitford
  • Studio:  Universal
  • Oscar Nominations: Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actor (Kaluuya)
  • Oscar Points:  50
  • Length:  103 min
  • Genre:  Horror
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Release Date:  24 February 2017
  • Box Office Gross:  $176.04 mil  (#15  –  2017)
  • Metacritic Rating:  84
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #11  (year)  /  #227  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Actor (Kaluuya)
  • Nighthawk Points:  35

I have Get Out as a **** film but not in the higher reaches of **** and not as one of my five best films of the year while others chose it as the best film of the year.  Have I fallen into the trap of what I think about it because I’m white?  Or even deeper because I’m a white, almost middle-aged intellectual, the very subject that this film is a vicious satire of?  After all, like the tagline says, “Just because you’re invited doesn’t mean you’re welcome.”

I wasn’t sure what to think of Get Out at first.  I skipped it in the theater and hadn’t necessarily planned to see it at all until the awards began.  It was the directorial debut of Jordan Peele, who is a good comedian but I had skipped Keanu, his movie with his comedic partner Key and nothing about this film had screamed out to me.  Indeed, no one even seemed to be certain what exactly it was.  I heard rumors it was a Comedy but had also seen it described as a Horror film or maybe it was a Suspense film.  Even before I saw it, the Globes had nominated it as a Comedy and when I saw it (within days of that), I couldn’t really understand that.  Yes, there were moments of Comedy and there was an overall satirical bite to the film, a very dark, thoughtful satirical bite, but that still, to my mind, didn’t make it a Comedy.  Or again, is the problem that I’m not getting enough of the satire because I’m its target?

So maybe enough of trying to figure the film out.  Maybe I can just look at the film itself.  To me, the film had really three key things going for it and those were the three things, aside from the film itself, that were nominated (actually, there’s a fourth thing as well).  For a comedian who was taking his first stab at directing, it was clear that Jordan Peele not only had a keen idea of what he wanted to do, but how he wanted to do it.  This film, in the way it builds towards suspense, keeps us ready for those tense moments that never happen and then make us jump when something does happen would make Hitchcock proud.  Even in those early moments of the film, which seem, for a long time, to be completely unconnected to the rest of the film only for it to circle back around to that, there is a palpable element of suspense in almost all of the scenes.  All of that comes down to Peele and both his writing and his direction.  When a comedic actor and writer goes in a completely different direction you often wonder if you have to take it with a grain of salt but there’s nothing like that here.  Peele knows exactly what he’s doing.

That also brings me to the fourth element that I alluded to above.  The other category that on nomination morning I was expecting to see Get Out earn a nomination in was the editing.  This film is crisply and superbly edited.  It doesn’t make my Top 5 for the year because this is a year of fantastic editing.  But the editing helps hold the film together, not only in the ways it moves between more amusing moments and more serious moments, perfectly developing the tension but also in the key moments in the chair when things start to unfold for the audience.

But, more than anything else, what holds the film together is the performance of Daniel Kaluuya.  The film earned an Ensemble nomination at SAG but to me, it was really Kaluuya that carries the film.  None of the other actors are bad, but there’s nothing about their performances that really stand out for me.  But Kaluuya moves through, from the nice guy to the slightly paranoid guy to the man who has been overwhelmed by things that are out of his control.  When that spoon starts rattling and he starts sinking, he is earning his Oscar nomination right there.

Get Out never fully won me over, I think perhaps, because the basic premise of the movie is so bizarre and seems hard to fit in with so many other parts of the film that are such a deft social commentary on the world we live in.  But it’s a clear indication that Jordan Peele’s next film will definitely be worth watching, no matter what kind of film it is.  And Daniel Kaluuya?  Well, he’s got a supporting role in a film that’s slaughtering everything else at the box office as I write this, so I think he’s gonna do just fine.

I’m fairly certain that Eliot’s question had nothing to do with that peach.

Call Me By Your Name

  • Director:  Luca Guadagnino
  • Writer:  James Ivory  (based on the novel by André Aciman)
  • Producer:  Luca Guadagnino / Peter Spears / Emilie Georges / Marco Morabito
  • Stars:  Timothee Chalemet, Armie Hammer, Michael Stuhlbarg
  • Studio:  Sony Pictures Classics
  • Oscar Nominations: Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Chalemet), Original Song (“Mystery of Love”)
  • Oscar Points:  175
  • Length:  132 min
  • Genre:  Drama (Romance)
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Release Date:  24 November 2017
  • Box Office Gross:  $16.90 mil  (#112  –  2017)
  • Metacritic Rating:  93
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #12  (year)  /  #250  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Chalemet), Supporting Actor (Hammer)
  • Nighthawk Points:  145

Two people discuss music.  The older one wants the young one to reproduce on piano what the younger one had been playing on guitar outside.  The young one keeps altering it, though, with comments like “I just played it the way Liszt would have played if he altered Bach’s version”  Do they flirt in this offhand manner because they are sharing an intellectual lifestyle, the older as a graduate student, apparently in archaeology, though perhaps art history, though also knowledgeable enough in etymology to correct the professor who is also the father of the younger, who is a gifted musician?  Is it perhaps because they are both males and while this is Italy, they are both still Americans and it is still only 1983?  Or is it because Oliver, the older one, is in his mid 20’s while Elio, the younger, is still only 17?

Whatever the reasons might be for their reticent flirting, for their hidden gestures, for the passion that they try, unsuccessfully, to hide from others, they are unable to subsume it back under their skins.  Oliver seems to know what he wants from the minute he arrives but Elio doesn’t realize that.  Oliver does, knowing himself, and tries to push away what he knows he shouldn’t have.  He’s very clear about that in the conversation that finally brings their passions to the surface.  He knows himself and knows that he can not control what he feels and will not be able to do what is right if Elio keeps trying to draw him closer.  What is right is left to the individual viewer.

Or perhaps there is nothing wrong about this at all.  Elio’s father, it will turn out, has known about this from at least early on.  He had his own passionate relationship when he was about Elio’s age and he regrets not having done more to keep it alive.  The circumstances of his father’s history are left vague.  He simply understands that his son has found someone, someone who inspires him, who cares for him, who helps to complete him.  He does not seem to object to any of the things that could easily be objected to and in fact encourages it.  Is it because he is an archaeologist (or possibly an art historian) and the era that he studies was when older men often adopted younger man as their lovers and students?  We never know, at least within the course of the film.

What we do get is a well-written and well-acted romance.  Elio acts very much like a seventeen year old who wants to be older, who tries to act older, but is still very much seventeen.  He has a girlfriend at the start of the film and if he pushes her aside to pursue Oliver it leaves open as to whether it’s because Oliver is male or because he is older or because he is a big, good-looking specimen of humanity.  Oliver himself is written very much in character for a man who knows what he wants and knows that sometimes what he wants he shouldn’t have.  He delivers news to Elio at the end of the film that could be a choice Oliver makes to make his life easier given the circumstances or really could be what he wants.

All of these things are left open to question because the three key performances in the film, of Timothee Chalemet as Elio, of Armie Hammer as Oliver and of Michael Stuhlbarg as Elio’s father are so good and so multi-dimensional that it doesn’t just leave us with black and white answers when the questions are more subtle than that.  There is more to the film than I have mentioned as well, with some gorgeous cinematography taking in the Italian countryside and two beautiful Sufjan Stevens songs that come in at just the right points and sweep you away.  But the heart of the film is in the writing (from James Ivory, who, ironically, rarely wrote his own films when he was still directing) and the acting.

Ebbing, Missouri. Come for the racism. Stay for the brutal violence.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

  • Director:  Martin McDonagh
  • Writer:  Martin McDonagh
  • Producer:  Martin McDonagh / Graham Broadbent / Peter Czernin
  • Stars:  Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson
  • Studio: Fox Searchlight
  • Oscar Nominations: Picture, Original Screenplay, Actress (McDormand), Supporting Actor (Rockwell), Supporting Actor (Harrelson), Editing, Original Score
  • Oscar Points:  300
  • Length:  115 min
  • Genre:  Comedy (Black)
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Release Date:  10 November 2017
  • Box Office Gross:  $52.04 mil  (#52  –  2017)
  • Metacritic Rating:  88
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #46  (year)  /  #384  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Actress (McDormand), Supporting Actor (Harrelson)
  • Nighthawk Points:  65

Anger wells up.  It overrides everything.  There’s nothing reason can do to stop it.  It isn’t just Mildred Hayes that this is happening to, but everyone in the small town of Ebbing, Missouri.  Or at least everyone who manages to make an appearance in this film which is admittedly, not a whole lot.

Mildred is full of anger at the town police chief because the rape and murder of her daughter haven’t yet been solved.  She is full of anger at the world for putting her in this kind of position.  She is full of anger at herself for saying horrible things to her daughter on her way out the door that fateful night.  But her daughter was full of anger (we get flashback scenes) as is her son, her ex-husband, the police chief himself and the main deputy that we see, whose anger has to be balanced against his racism and his idiocy.

Through the first half, aside from the deputy’s idiotic actions and statements, what we mostly get is Mildred, played with a fierce passion by Frances McDormand and the chief, played by Woody Harrelson in one of his best performances.  The best scene in the film is the one in which the chief, who is dying, is trying to waste Mildred’s time and then he suddenly coughs up blood on her.  His reaction, her reaction, there are both human reactions to what is in front of them and it humanizes them and the film for just a minute.  It’s not to last.  If the film continued the anger, it might have bleak and hard to take, but it would have been something.  But instead, we get more of this best scene, but in ways that are unbelievable and it’s after the film takes a hard turn.

This film is a serious drama, one about what happens when a system fails someone.  Some crimes just don’t get solved and Mildred refuses to believe that, insisting, unreasonably, that everyone in the country should give DNA evidence until they find her daughter’s killer.  But then the chief exits the story and that’s when things go to hell.  It’s not that the film can’t survive without Harrelson’s performance but that the way he exits and all the subsequent actions completely undermine everything that had already come before.

Everyone in this film is pretty nasty to deal with and it turns out the chief, in deciding how to go out is part of that.  He does it in such a way that one can only blame Mildred.  He was the one humanizing aspect of the film and not only is he gone from the second half of the film but his actions mean that things will only get nastier.  And yet, at the same time, writer-director Martin McDonagh decides to turn the film towards comedy.  We get a bizarre date scene where an important bit of information is passed on with such subtlety that you almost miss it.  We get a racist, idiot who decides to redeem himself (more on that below) but it turns out that it’s all just a false start.  The character he thinks might be involved in the murder turns out not to be, although if that’s really the case then why the hell was he threatening Mildred?  We get an ending with two characters coming together without the requisite time and logic for that to happen.  We get a scene in a hospital where a character reaches out with some humanity but it’s unbelievable at that time that that character would ever bring himself to do that.  If everything in the first half of the film was overwhelmed by anger, everything in the second half falls apart the second you apply any logic to it.

Which brings me to the main problem with this film.  Three years ago, I wrote about how Whiplash, a strong film, fell apart because of a plot hole at the end of the film that was so overwhelming that I couldn’t go with it.  That’s nothing compared to what happens here.  In a key scene, the deputy gives a severe beating to a man.  As a result, he gets fired.  He gives this beating in front of the man who is replacing the chief.  It’s implied that the deputy, who is well known as a racist, is fired for those views because the new chief is black.  It could be because of the beating.  But there is no way, absolutely no way, that the deputy would not be in jail.  In front of several witnesses, including the new police chief, he severely beat a man (and assaulted a woman).  He would be in jail for the rest of the film, without question and then you can’t have the rest of the tidy climax (or lack of one) and conclusion that McDonagh wants to build up to.  The film completely lost me at that point.  Some films can overcome their lack of logic (and one commenter on my Whiplash review said that he was so swept up in that film that he was able to overcome the plot-hole at the end).  But, while I have seen people talk about the racism (true) and how this particular character seems to be redeemed (I agree, though McDonagh tries to claim in interviews that he isn’t).  But I haven’t personally seen any other pieces that focus on this completely ludicrous twist the story takes.

This is, quite frankly, an unpleasant film.  It has a magnificent performance from McDormand and a very good one from Harrelson.  It is well filmed and has good music.  But the writing is so completely absurd that, unless people want to see this as a condemnation of the current state of America, I can not, for the life of me, understand what people think made it worth the awards it was winning.