In case you’ve been living in a cave, it’s awards season, a time when films are rewarded for being excellent or at least because they tick some subjective boxes about what counts as ‘quality’. Some film fans proclaim their absolutely knowledge of what should be rewarded, but I prefer to discuss the nominees without the assumption of superiority, although I certainly have my own views. I’ve written previously about radical and conservative choices of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. This year’s Best Picture nominees are a varied bunch, including typical and not so typical Oscar bait. Two topics that AMPAS loves are World War II and twentieth century American history (which obviously overlap). Darkest Hour and Dunkirk are both concerned with World War II, making them interesting companion pieces if rather obvious award choices. The same is true of The Post, which recounts a battle over freedom of the press. In previous years, the Best Picture gong would most likely go to one of these three, but times are a-changing.
Recent Oscar years have been less predictable and more radical, with mainstream genre fare and provocative subject matter getting a look in. The most radical entries in this year’s race are Get Out, a horror film about American racial politics, and The Shape of Water, a fantasy film mixed with Cold War tensions. Mixed in with these are two coming of age tales, Call Me By Your Name and Lady Bird. Each of these has a distinct selling point: Lady Bird is about American girlhood, a rare enough topic in cinema let alone Oscar hopefuls; Call Me By Your Name is a love story between two men, suggesting that Moonlight’s surprise win last year may have been trailblazing.
Personally, I am torn over what I would like to win. Dunkirk was my favourite film last year, but it is such a safe choice I want something more radical to be named Best Picture. In the current climate of the Me Too and Time’s Up campaigns, fine films honouring women warrant attention. Lady Bird would be a remarkable winner, but not having seen it yet I cannot comment on its quality. Pleasing though it is to see a film about racial tensions, and indeed a horror film, up for Best Picture, Get Out failed to wow me. The Shape of Water is an exquisite piece of work that tells a story of alienation largely filtered through the figure of a woman, whose sexuality and independence are foregrounded without overemphasis. For these reasons, as well as its supernatural elements, I would like The Shape of Water to pick up Best Picture.
However, there are two more nominees. Phantom Thread’s presence is hard to understand politically – the film is historical which the Academy often likes, but its focus is on a rather abrasive relationship. Perhaps, shock horror, its nomination is simply because a majority of the Academy membership simply think Phantom Thread is a very well made film. This view could carry it to Best Picture, but I doubt it because, after its success at the Golden Globes and BAFTAs, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri appears to be the lead contender to walk away with Best Picture.
Three Billboards is a somewhat typical contender, as it is a story about ‘America’. However, it is a far from rose-tinted portrait of modern America, as grief, resentment, racism, domestic abuse and terminal illness all jockey for position of primary misery. But, as is so often the case with award magnets, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a film of its time. Some pundits argue that a key element to the election of Donald Trump was his regular reference to the ‘forgotten’ people of America. Whether Mr Trump’s concerns are genuine or not, his rhetoric in favour of these supposed ‘forgotten’ people was certainly prominent, and such people are the focus of Three Billboards. With its focus upon blue collar people, largely neglected by advances in technology and infrastructure, living in communities fractured by class and racial tensions, Three Billboards is very much a film about America at its current moment (despite being a largely British production). Furthermore, the film resonates with current debates over gender relations in the film industry and beyond, with Frances McDormand’s Mildred an inspiring and unconventional protagonist. For its insightful and unflinching, yet heartfelt and never mean-spirited capturing of the zeitgeist, it is my prediction that the Oscar for Best Picture will go to Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the most singular filmmakers working in cinema today. From the melancholy of Magnolia to the ferocity of There Will Be Blood and the density of The Master, Anderson fuses image and sound in a unique and uncompromising fashion that is distinct and unmistakable. Phantom Thread is as unquestionably Anderson as his other films, with exquisite attention sewn into every detail. From the period detail of cars and interior mise-en-scene to the extraordinary costumes designed by protagonist Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), to the intimately extended character studies of Reynolds, his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) and the new lady in their life, Alma (Vicky Krieps), Anderson draws the viewer completely into this world, often to an uncomfortable degree. Reynolds’ expectation of complete adherence to his wishes leads to some squirm-inducing sequences, most overtly when the sounds of breakfast escalate to a cacophonous assault. Yet Alma’s commitment to her relationship with Reynolds combined with her measure of him ensures that she holds her own no matter what he says or does. It may seem reductive to describe Phantom Thread as a romantic drama, but in its entirety it weaves the tale of a relationship that is unlike those normally seen in film. It is perhaps this refusal of narrative convention, combined with the sublime level of immersive details, that ensures Phantom Thread is never less than completely compelling and utterly absorbing, threading its way through the viewer’s consciousness to create a lasting and elaborate tapestry.
With the clacking of a typewriter, Darkest Hour echoes Atonement, Joe Wright’s earlier (and more impressive) foray into World War II drama. The bravura moment of that film was an extraordinary long take of the British troops trapped at Dunkirk, the focus of Christopher Nolan’s award botherer. Darkest Hour presents the time of Dunkirk from another perspective – that of Parliament in May 1940 as Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) takes the office of British Prime Minister while Euorpe collapses before the Third Reich. Winston faces multiple challenges as he tries to wrangle survival for the troops and also protect his own position. Oldman is superb, unrecognisable in remarkable makeup yet never appearing to be a man in makeup. From his voice that wanders from quavering to strident (more varied than Brian Cox’s equally powerful turn), Oldman brilliantly portrays a career politician who understands the game of Westminster and only plays it his way. As a character study the film is effective and compelling, and Wright uses some thrilling cinematic effects such as long takes that travel around the House of Commons and overhead shots that range from Winston working furiously in bed as well as beleaguered British soldiers in Calais. At other times, however, the drama feels overdetermined, such as the machinations of Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) and Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) as well as a sequence on the London Underground when Winston performs a mini-referendum on relations with Germany. This speaking to the people raises the interesting question of how to view the film through the lens of Brexit. There may be a temptation to adopt Darkest Hour for nationalistic propaganda, its depiction of a time when Britain stood against Europe calling for Britain to stand against the EU in these uncertain times. Equally, one can see Darkest Hour as a call for unity across borders in a time of division and mistrust, a point emphasised by Winston’s rallying of MPs even as the War Cabinet plots against him. For all its flaws, Darkest Hour still offers much food for debate, be that Parliamentary or otherwise.
Martin McDonagh’s third feature is touching, moving, darkly humorous and deeply tragic. This seemingly contradictory concoction is expressed through a beautifully measured and exquisitely designed portrait of small town America. Ebbing, Missouri is a town where everyone knows everyone and the major advertising agency, police station and popular bar are within walking distance of each other. Yet it is also a deeply troubled and fractured town. These fractures are foreshadowed in the opening shots, where DOP Ben Davis captures the dilapidated titular billboards, the frame sliced with the supporting struts much as the town is sliced through with mistrust and resentment. For the most part, the direction follows this unobtrusive approach, until a long take expresses the eruption of previously contained violence. This violence is key to its perpetrator, who like all the characters is superbly realised both by McDonagh’s merciless yet tender script, and an array of mighty performances from the entire cast. From incidental figures such as the pretty but oblivious Penelope (Samara Weaving) to supporting characters like James (Peter Dinklage) who cynically embraces the label of ‘town midget’, to the three leads of Mildred (Frances McDormand), Police Chief William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), all the people in this tale are rounded, engaging and brilliantly flawed figures. Mistakes are made, judgements held and everyone is wracked with anger, pain and loss. Yet there is also compassion, care and love, both between characters and for the film’s world as a whole. For all its harshness and tragedy, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a wonderfully human story, offering emotional peaks and troughs as well as a subtle socio-political commentary as it gives voice to a largely neglected part of America.
In a world of fake news and government threatening the free press, comes a film about real news and government threatening the fake news. Thus, announces imaginary gravelly voiced trailer man, emerges The Post, Steven Spielberg’s urgent and gripping thriller about the challenges faced by the Washington Post in 1971 over the Pentagon Papers. This extraordinary collection of documents recounted decades of deceitful activity by the US government, and the film skilfully takes the viewer through the drama that ranges from the newsroom to the White House to the homes of Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and owner Kay Graham (Meryl Streep). Spielberg opts for a mobile approach, long tracking shots mirroring the flow of news, especially through the office of the Post where typewriters clack, phones slam and noise never drops below that of a major hubbub. Within this, Bradlee is a constant source of bluster, Hanks delivering a barnstorming performance that would be intimidating and annoying were it not so heartfelt and passionate. Equally passionate but more reserved is Streep’s Graham, her calm contrasting brilliantly with Bradlee’s bombast. Graham’s is the arc of The Post, and the film smartly never overplays this feminist subtext. Minor characters often dismiss Graham because of her gender but rather than emphasising those attitudes, Spielberg concentrates on Graham, placing her narratively and visually at the centre of the drama. She often appears literally and figuratively surrounded by men, all trying to persuade her before she makes her own, carefully considered decision. In one moment after making such a decision, Graham walks through a crowd where women’s faces appear prominently, the film again expressing the significance of woman’s voice without labouring the point. The more malevolent voice of the state, here represented by Richard Nixon whose administration took the Post as well as the New York Times to court over the Pentagon Papers, appears in long shot and behind windows, the President isolated and barking orders even while alternative voices challenge him. This is a key message of The Post – all voices must be heard and neither the state nor powerful individuals can silence them. The contemporary relevance of The Post is obvious, but its strength as a piece of cinema means it is also likely to serve as a long-term reminder of the importance and power of the press.
Ridley Scott does hollow decadence like no one else. From Blade Runner to Gladiator to Prometheus, Scott crafts opulent environments that surround empty, powerful men. All The Money In The World creates this world around the real events of 1973, when J. Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer) was kidnapped for ransom from his grandfather, the wealthiest man in the history of the world. Paul Getty is played by Christopher Plummer (no relation to Charlie), who replaced Kevin Spacey at very short notice, Scott reshooting and re-editing all of Getty’s scenes in ten days. The film’s greatest achievement is that the joins do not show, as Plummer fits snugly into the role of Getty, oozing charisma and greed in equal measure. Scott and DOP Dariusz Wolski create evocative locations, often with dim yet stark lighting, both in Italy and England, the opulence echoing Scott’s earlier film Hannibal. The curiously un-unified narrative strands are reminiscent of American Gangster, which cut between career criminal and honest cop in a Goodfellas meets Serpico sort of way. Here, we cut between Paul’s imprisonment, flashbacks to Getty’s history of wealth accumulation, and the emotional heart of the film, Gail Getty (Michelle Williams) as she attempts to get the ransom money from her ex-father-in-law, talks to the kidnappers with the help of the Italian police and negotiates/struggles against Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg), a fixer for Getty himself. This aspect of the film works less well, because Fletcher’s role is underwritten and unclear. What is more interesting although largely left unexplored is the relationship between Paul and one of his kidnappers, Cinquanta (Romain Duris). Their scenes have a tantalising suggestion of Stockholm Syndrome and indicate the criminal infrastructure of Italy, but we only get this in passing. A further compelling yet frustrating dimension of the film Getty’s retreat into his wealth, as he describes himself as ‘vulnerable’ and holds onto his money like a bulldog. The film does not take a didactic stance on the impossibility of buying happiness, but rather displays an elevated and somewhat incomprehensible state. Getty understands finance in a way that the non-wealthy perhaps cannot, and he serves as an intriguing enigma at the centre of this compelling exploration of hollow decadence.
A little late, it’s time to re-pile stuff in front of the Christmas decorations, resume speculation about summer holidays before realising way too late that the prices have risen, and to reflect on the previous year in film. As always, there was far more I wanted to see than I was able to due to time and money constraints, with my total of 2017 releases (in the UK) coming to a grand total of 51. Even working from such a small sample, however, 2017 was a brilliant movie year, in terms of the sheer range in quality that helped me appreciate afresh just how much is out there. From Oscar upsets to Marvelous blockbusters, long-mooted sequels to alluring animation, 2017 offered much and delivered more than it disappointed. Of the 51 releases I saw, these are my top twelve, in musical form:
On the twelfth day of Christmas
The movies gave to me
Eleven Hidden Figures
Ten runs with Logan
Nine men in Moonlight
Eight Blade Runners
Seven pregnant mothers!
Manchester By The Six
Five Red Turtles
Four Wonder Women
Two Detroit riots
And escape from the beach at Dunkirk.
And now, with review tweets and full access to my archive, here are Vincent’s Views of 2017 in full.
A ruthlessly efficient, relentlessly tense, mercilessly immersive triptych on trauma, time and terror.
A harrowing, immersive, unflinching portrait of prejudice, brutality, societal tension and being the wrong colour in the wrong place at the wrong time.
An exquisite, sumptuous, erotic portrayal of an intriguing, labyrinthine tale.
A dynamic, inventive, witty and diverse superhero adventure of duty, will, evil and love.
A beautiful, haunting folk tale of survival, solitude and transcendence.
A beautifully composed, exquisitely painful, warm, witty and moving portrait of family, grief and community.
An exquisitely unhinged, utterly delirious, relentlessly deranged, headlong charge into unmitigated chaos.
A spellbinding, suffusive, mind expanding exploration of identity, humanity and mediation.
A haunting, soulful, beautiful, exquisitely balanced exploration of identity, sexuality and belonging.
A brutal, melancholic and intimately violent portrayal of running from and living with your past.
An enlightening, compelling and inspiring story of mathematics, race, technology and history.
A colourful, eclectic, highly Antipodean adventure of friendship, memory and powers old and new.
A crisp, clockwork lattice of motives, suspects, histories and ethics, engineered into a probing investigation of morality and balance.
A whipsmart high school action comedy of superpowered growing pains.
A beautifully composed, exquisitely restrained portrait of devastating disruption.
A wonderfully wacky and dizzily dazzling space opera of wit, warmth, adventure, family and reconciliation.
A subtle, enveloping, achingly sad tale of grief, isolation and the experience of time.
An overlong but still thrilling multi-stranded space chase of divination, intuition, legends, legacies and lightsabres.
A thrilling ride through the wild side that reminds us of our place in nature.
A ripe, sumptuous Gothic romance of obsession, ambiguity and multiple planes.
An atmospheric and genuinely scary tale of fear(s), friendship, nostalgia and growing pains.
A gleefully absurd, riotously funny, thrillingly immersive action adventure of nostalgia, identity, growing pains and working together.
A ripe, grisly period murder mystery of roles both social and theatrical.
A overly portentous but visceral and at times orgiastically violent film of faith and courage under fire.
A vibrant, colourful medley of nostalgia and dreams both lost and won.
A coldly beautiful, brilliantly realised and unrelentingly grim epic of grief, revenge, cruelty and compassion.
An atmospheric, muscular and very cold thriller of borderlands both geographical and societal.
A gripping, twisting and enthralling journey through corridors of power and landscapes of laws, ethics and conscience.
An achingly 80s, super slick and stylistically bravura period spy thriller of crunchy action, double-crossing and neon.
A compelling if inconsistent collation of coherence and chaos within community.
A somewhat unbalanced yet stylish, witty and punchy super smackdown of power, fear, courage and the strength of unity.
A gripping, thrilling and disturbing horror of racial attitudes and oppression.
A visceral, enthralling exploration of mind, body and the cinematic space.
A slick, funky heist thriller with musical flow albeit an imbalance of grit and sentiment.
A gorgeous, moving drama of family and class, and the most compelling film you may ever see about golf.
A twisting, gripping and gritty espionage thriller that just avoids collapsing under its own contrivance.
A cine-literate, thrilling and suitably grisly space body horror.
A grand, visceral and sometimes witty monster movie with plenty of bang if lacking in awe.
A beautifully transnational, intense yet never melodramatic portrayal of youth, sexuality and awakenings.
A baggy, overly referential and yet surprisingly funny buddy comedy of sun, sand and silliness.
A sometimes moving but ultimately uneven Holocaust drama of compassion and cruelty towards our own and other species.
A handsomely mounted if somewhat repetitive home front political drama.
A sometimes sweeping if rather disjointed musical fantasy romance.
A somewhat stage-bound domestic drama of family and racial tensions, elevated by powerhouse performances.
A visually arresting if narratively cumbersome sci-fi thriller of memory, identity and technology.
An over-determined, clumsily directed and ultimately anemic cosmopolitan drama of loss.
A handsome but hollow period gangster film.
A gory, sumptuous but overly panicked sci-fi horror of ambition and hubris.
An underwhelming, painfully obvious franchise set-up that suffers from being literally too dark.
A limp, lifeless, messy squandering of great potential.
- The Snowman
A ham-fisted and mechanically clichéd thriller that is more creaky than creepy.