Who doesn’t love a good ranking listicle? We at The Sidebar sure do! However, in order to put our own spin on things, avoid splitting hairs, and set a template for future rankings delivered with a conclusive sense of personal appreciation, we’ll be using a tiered system. With that clarification out of the way, let’s get to the nine 2018 Best Picture Oscar Nominees!
Bad (D, F)
N/A: with some notable exceptions, Best Picture nominees are typically not poorly made films.
Fine (C-, C, C+)
The Post: Steven Spielberg directs an aptly timed movie about freedom-loving journalists challenging the policies of a paranoid, highly polarizing Republican President. The biggest issue with the film is that it’s not able to inject much drama into a known outcome. Washington Post owner Meryl Streep and chief editor Tom Hanks agonize over whether or not to publish the Pentagon Papers concerning the United States’ involvement in Vietnam; such a publication could land them in prison. For those of you who didn’t pay attention in class, they do publish and they aren’t jailed. There’s not much to this movie beyond that. Streep turns in an excellent performance and I personally thought Hanks affected the growl of a grizzled senior newspaperman pretty well. The whole film feels one-sided — Spielberg’s insertion of the Watergate break-in as a coda didn’t help. The only thing worse than watching known events play out is being told what to think of them.
Good (B-, B)
Darkest Hour: Gary Oldman turns in a “give me an Oscar” performance as Winston Churchill in a film that chronicles his early tenure as Prime Minister facing the wrath of the Nazis. This film faces the same obstacle as The Post (we know England isn’t annihilated by German troops) but the drama is handled significantly better. Churchill isn’t depicted as the beloved-by-everyone politician we know him as now. He’s overly strict with his staff, he lies to the public, he’s a bit of a dick. The film’s antagonists have the understandable motive of preventing England joining Poland, Austria, France and others under Hitler’s boot heel. They’re aware that peace with Hitler might not work but, they argue, isn’t it worth it to try? The end result manages to wring some interest out of a story we already know.
Get Out: Jordan Peele gives us a strong first feature as both writer and director. A socially conscious horror film is a difficult balancing act to pull off in terms of how seriously it takes itself, but Peele deftly manages the tone. His script provides the perfect dash of comic relief and great development for its protagonist (Daniel Kaluuya, in a head turning performance). Peele’s direction is equally sturdy, adding a layer of menace to every awkward interaction between houseguest Kaluuya and his white, Obama-supporting hosts. The ironically terrifying arrival of a police car at the story’s gory climax is the pinnacle of brilliant show-don’t-tell filmmaking.
The Shape of Water: The core concept of this film (a woman falling in love with a fish creature) seems determined to put off traditionalists. If that doesn’t do it the tasteful nudity during their sex scene sure will. Don’t worry, the film explains the anatomical mechanics of maritime lovemaking. People who aren’t thrown by this, and you shouldn’t be, will find this movie charming. True to form, director Guillermo del Torro doesn’t skimp on the visual effects. The creature looks superb and the copious underwater shots are quite striking. Michael Shannon is perfectly cast (again) as the monster-hating, minority-hating, woman-hating US government official tasked with learning the creature’s origin and motives. To me, though, this one tried a little too hard to earn its indie-darling street cred. Mute protagonist Sally Hawkins and bashfully gay neighbor Richard Jenkins live above a classically regal movie theater and spend their time watching/ recreating their favorite tap-dancing numbers from early black and white flicks before Sally meets the creature. Just by typing that sentence I won indie-trope bingo.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: Speaking of good-but-not-great movies getting all the awards circuit attention, there’s Martin McDonagh’s latest effort. There’s a lot to like about this piece. Francis McDormand has a great turn as child-burying divorcee who’s mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. McDonagh’s pitch black humor is here, and about halfway through the film characters start making unexpected and interesting decisions in response to the plot’s various threads. There’s a welcome ambiguity to the characters themselves and how we’re supposed to think of them as events unfold. Having said that it’s clear that McDonagh started with hot-button issues (racism, rape, police brutality) and worked hard to jam them all into one story. His characters also have a similarly quirky manner of talking, clinically known as ‘Tarantino syndrome’. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed this film; I’m just not convinced it deserves the 5,000 awards and nominations it’s received.
Superior (B+, A-)
Call Me by Your Name: Traditionalists ruffled by The Shape of Water will find their preferences ignored completely by this subtle, complex romance. Oscar-worthy Timothée Chalamet plays a young man who develops a crush on his father’s summer research assistant (Armie Hammer). The blooming romance between the two has several layers of nuance. Chalamet’s teenage Elio struggles to figure out his sexual preferences and romance in general. Hammer’s Oliver bears his sexuality with no small degree of shame; he’s stuck in the middle of that, his desire for Elio, and his worry that the boy will grow up to be as unhappy as he is. All of this is blissfully free of melodrama and shot masterfully by cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom. The Italian countryside offers up no small amount of idyllic scenery and Mukdeeprom takes full advantage, his naturalistic lighting perfectly echoing the film’s subtle thematic layers. His lack of an Oscar nomination is this year’s biggest snub.
Dunkirk: The best way to make historical drama compelling is to focus on unimportant fictional characters that may or may not live. Such is the case in Christopher Nolan’s latest picture. We know (either from textbooks or Darkest Hour) that the stranded English army is successfully rescued from the sword of Nazi-Damocles, but it’s entirely possible that Tom Hardy, Harry Styles, Fionn Whitehead, or any of the other ensemble cast members are killed. The tension is wound as tight as the ever-present ticking watch in Hans Zimmer’s score, and the spectacular technical execution never gives the audience much time to relax. The characters function more as personified ideas than as developed human beings, allowing the film to explore different possible responses to imminent doom. Selfishness or altruism? Pessimism or optimism? Ultimately settling on the positive choices, the film leaves its Britons right where they started: backs to the wall, facing down a merciless enemy, hoping to be rescued. It’s pensive final shot is profound in its simplicity.
Lady Bird: Coming of age stories are usually not my cup of tea, but since writer/director Greta Gerwig nails it perfectly, it’s impossible to withhold admiration. Saoirse Ronan’s self-named titular character goes through romances, hobbies, friendships and bouts of self-doubt in her last year of high school. The beauty here is in the authenticity. The awkwardness is genuine, the experiences are nigh-universal, and nothing feels overwrought. The result is total empathy. If we didn’t have the difficult relationship Lady Bird has with her mother (a phenomenal Laurie Metcalf), we knew someone who did. We may not have gotten high with friends and made far too many microwave pizzas at 4 A.M., but we probably had a similar enough experience. Everybody who went to high school has a memory of that too-cool type of tool who had a dog-eared copy of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States on him at all times. Gerwig’s Oscar worthy script gives us universally relatable characters and events that develop honestly, resolve naturally and exist truly. Eat your heart out, John Hughes.
Masterpiece (A, A+)
Phantom Thread: Paul Thomas Anderson’s second-best film is the best Oscar nominee by an easy margin. Topping his best, There Will Be Blood, one of the best movies of the 21st century, is a very tall order but Anderson comes close here. Daniel Day-Lewis re-teams with the director/screenwriter as Reynolds Woodcock, a manic genius fashion designer who courts an apparently simple waitress (Vicky Krieps). The developing, tumultuous power dynamic between the two is fascinating, more so under the veneer of civility that is 1950’s upscale London. Anderson’s script is a masterclass in subtly; every ‘please’, every pregnant pause hides something (or several somethings) deeper. Performances are stellar across the board; I’m compelled to specifically mention Lesley Manville’s performance as Woodcock’s sister Cyril, lest it be forgotten amid the top-notch turns by the film’s leads. Jonny Greenwood’s classical, chaotic brilliant score deserves ovation and Oscar gold. Anderson’s ability to turn out gems is aided in no small part by his eye for talent on both sides of the camera. He may not be the best director alive just yet (Scorsese holds that title currently) but Paul Thomas Anderson’s consistent excellence is untouched by the majority of artists in his or any field.