It’s Oscar season!
And I made a personal bet to watch all 9 Oscar-nominated Best Picture nominees before the live broadcast. This year’s nominees are an impressive roster of diverse movies that will make the 2018 Oscars feel exciting and unpredictable. So, without further ado, here’s what I thought of 2018 Best Picture Oscar nominees. (Some minor spoilers ahead!)
Call Me by Your Name
Call Me by Your Name is a lush, vibrant film that follows the romance between seventeen-year-old Elio, played by Timothée Chalamet, and graduate student Oliver, played Armie Hammer. Set in northern Italy, Call Me by Your Name is a warm, vibrant gay romance about the experience of falling in love for the first time. The film explores male sexuality as a teenager, and examines how that interacts with gay sexuality. Timothée Chalamet gives an emotionally raw performance, while Armine Hammer is charismatic in his role. The movie is unafraid to tackle sexuality explicitly – there is a particularly memorable scene with a peach that encapsulates all of the angst and embarrassment of teenage male sexuality. There are other memorable scenes such as the heart-breaking and compassionate speech that Mark Stuhlbarg (who plays Elio’s father) gives, as well as the end credits which are emotionally devastating (7/10).
I was dreading to watch Darkest Hour. I went in with very low expectations because Darkest Hour looked like a standard historical biopic. Don’t get me wrong – Darkest Hour is most certainly a standard historical biopic – but it’s not terrible. The most interesting focal point for the movie is the political drama – the mystification of certain historical events that now seem pre-determined. The overhanging legacy of former prime minister Neville Chamberlin and Lord Halifax pursuing peace talks with Germany even in Churchill’s War Ministry seemed rational and highly likely given the overwhelming likelihood of the entire destruction of the British army at Dunkirk. Gary Oldman gives a convincing performance – he yells a lot in the film, and I suppose that’s good enough for an Oscar (6.5/10).
Christopher Nolan’s latest film, Dunkirk, about the namesake evacuation during WWII, is a searing and visceral film. Narratively unconventional, Dunkirk features minimal dialogue and is told from three perspectives corresponding to land, sea and air. The audience feel emotionally detached from the characters, partly because the characters barely speak, partly because they all look the same. As a result, the characters aren’t driving the plot; the plot is driving the characters. Not only that, one of the more interesting cinematic formal experimentations in Dunkirk is how all three temporally varying storylines intersect and interact with each other, illuminating and recasting each storyline differently. One example is the character arc of Cillian Murphy from heroic leader to a worn-down shell of a man. The intensity of Dunkirk can mainly be attributed to this crazy auditory illusion known as Shepard tone, where the increasing ratcheting of tension parallels the infinite instrumental crescendo (9/10).
I watched Get Out in a packed theater. You could feel the energy in the room. All I knew about Get Out was what I saw from a trailer – a horror mixed with social commentary – directed by Jordan Peele, no less! Consequently, I went into the movie more or less blind. Get Out was one of – if not the best – moviegoing experience I have ever had. In more ways than one, Get Out is a perfect movie. Subversive, hilarious and unnerving, Get Out speaks to the cultural zeitgeist of the United States in 2018. Get Out is genre destabilizing; I’m shocked how Jordan Peele pulls off this careful balancing act of comedy, horror thriller and social commentary. Lil Rey Howrey (who plays the TSA agent), steals every scene he is in. Not only that, Jordan Peele masterfully plays with the audience. You expect one ending, but you get an emotionally satisfying and down-right hilarious other (9.5/10).
Lady Bird is the directorial debut from writer-director Greta Gerwig. Lady Bird is an unpretentious, coming-of-age film about Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, who desperately wants to escape Sacramento to the cultural center of New York. Lady Bird is a fresh, bold movie from a new female voice in Hollywood. Lady Bird is very, very funny. The humor mostly comes from the honesty with which Saoirse Ronan (who plays Lady Bird) tackles boyfriends, high school and family. Is Lady Bird a good movie? Yes. Is it one of the best movie of all time deserving of 100% on Rotten Tomatoes from top critics? I’m not sure. Don’t expect to be blown away by this movie. If you moderate your expectations for Lady Bird as a charming, unassuming slice of life movie, you’ll have a great time (7/10).
Phantom Thread is the latest film from Paul Thomas Anderson, who delivers a character study about a relationship between a cantankerous English fashion designer, Reynolds Woodcock, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, and his model-turned-love-interest Alma, played by Vicky Krieps. Not too much happens in terms of plot in Phantom Thread, but the movie examines the uneasy power dynamic that begins to take shape between Mr. Woodcock and Alma. What begins as sensual eroticism slowly devolves into a sadistic, dysfunctional relationship. Bolstered by a haunting film score and gorgeous costume design, Phantom Thread moves in a dignified and stately manner, but has a foreboding undercurrent of manic discomfort, along with zany and uncomfortable humor that percolates throughout the film. One of the things that stuck me was the film’s preoccupation with food – I have not seen a poached egg so lovingly shot, or mushrooms in butter so decadently cooked. Although a little over-bloated in terms of movie run time, the character resolution is satisfying enough that one can forgive that (7.5/10).
The Post is Steven Spielberg’s latest Oscar bait film. Although I went in with low expectations, I was pleasantly surprised by The Post. It was interesting to learn about how the Washington Post was a “local” newspaper under financial distress, competing against the behemoth of New York Times for the Pentagon Papers. Meryl Streep gives a commanding, grounded performance as Katherine Graham, the head of the Washington Post. Tom Hanks is Tom Hanks, and no one is better than playing Tom Hanks than Tom Hanks is. The Post is a very “Hollywood” movie – polished, sleek, and competently made. There are slight contrived plot moments for suspense – why can’t the Washington Post wait for few more days before publishing about the Pentagon Papers? But the Post was overall suspenseful and thrilling (8/10).
The Shape of Water
Set in Cold War 1960’s United States, Guillermo del Toro’s Shape of Water develops an unexpected romance between a mute janitor and an amphibian monster. This is a visually stunning film with immaculate cinematography in the terms of lighting and color palate. Equal parts sci-fi and romance, Shape of Water is strung together with a heist and a musical. Sally Hawkins tackles a challenging role, but gives an emotionally raw performance through non-verbal communication. Michael Shannon, as always, gives a menacing performance as the main villain. Although it drags in the third act, where the film loses momentum and struggles how to end, Shape of Water is an unusual, but delightful film (7/10).
Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri
Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri is the latest film from the playwright-turned-director Martin McDonagh. Three Billboards is a beautiful, dark and an emotionally moving film. Reminiscent of Martin McDonagh’s first full-length directorial debut of In Bruges, Three Billboards has all the dramatic moments of a well-written, beautifully staged play in cinematic form. Frances McDormand is a formidable presence in the film, while Sam Rockwell has a surprising redemptive character arc. McDonagh’s wry sense of humor percolates throughout the film, while the narrative logic of violence and retribution is satisfying from a story-telling perspective. Deep, dark and contemplative, Three Billboards has emotional staying power (8.5/10).
Some final remarks:
I would love for Get Out to win! Although it’s more likely than ever for a movie like Get Out to win nowadays, it probably won’t happen. Along those lines, Lady Bird or Call Me by Your Name would be awesome winners as well. I would be personally happy if Three Billboards, or Dunkirk won, although it looks like that The Shape of Water will take home the Oscar. (Spoiler Alert: It did.)