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Sometimes a particular film highlights what you love in cinema. In the case of the latest film in our journey through ten films that Vincent Views as significant, I saw it knowing its rather twisty reputation, but completely underestimated just how involving and compelling it would be. I rented the film on VHS (remember those?) and started watching it leaning back in my chair. Within ten minutes I was leaning forwards with my elbows on my knees, completely riveted by what I was watching. I did not change my position until the credits rolled. This film cemented thrillers as my favourite genre, and is something of the gold standard when it comes to viewing thrillers.
Listing significant films inevitably means that they be memorable. Perhaps ironically, Memento is a deeply memorable film, mainly for its complex structure but also for its weighty themes, interwoven beautifully with the elements of neo-noir and modern tragedy. Repeat viewings as well as teaching placed this film within my top ten of all time, as each time I encounter the film I find something new and every discussion about it opens intriguing avenues. It was, perhaps as it was for many, my first exposure to Christopher Nolan, a filmmaker whose work continues to enthral and fascinate me. But while the extraordinary vision of Interstellar, the genre defining and then redefining Dark Knight trilogy and the intricate spectacle of Inception all have their time and place, Memento is perhaps Nolan’s finest work. It is a brilliant latticework of a film that merges form and content with crystalline precision, tells a deeply affecting story of a hopelessly flawed protagonist, and asks philosophical questions about morality, memory, identity and choice.
DISCLAIMER: I have not seen any of the nominees in the categories of Foreign Language Film, Documentary Feature, Documentary Short Subject, Animated Short, Live Action Short Film, so I have no view on them.
When it comes to the Oscars, one can pick what is likely to win, and what one would like to win (or, according to the more arrogant out there, what should win). On the first point, the easy answer is what has won so far. If a film has won awards at the Golden Globes and the BAFTAs, not to mention various critical awards and those of the various filmmaking guilds of America, it is likely to pick up Best Picture at the Oscars. This is not a hard and fast rule, but it is a tendency.
As previously mentioned, I predict that Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri will pick up Best Picture. What I would vote for, were I a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, is a different matter. Of the nine nominees, I was most impressed by Dunkirk, but World War II films are such clichéd Best Picture winners that I would not vote for it. In a year when focus is on gender relations in the film industry, I want to support a film that has something positive to say about women, and is also something outside the generic norm. Lady Bird and The Shape of Water fulfil those criteria, and the latter is also a fantasy film, extremely rare in these circles. Therefore, in my fantasy AMPAS vote, I would pick The Shape of Water.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (predicted winner)
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a surprising lead contender for Best Picture because Martin McDonagh is not nominated for Achievement in Directing. If he were, I would predict a victory, but as he is not, I have the same dilemma. Much as I love Christopher Nolan, he has opted for a safe award genre with his World War II thriller. As impressively directed as Dunkirk is, I want to see him garner awards for science fiction films like Inception and Interstellar. Therefore, I champion another of my favourite directors, Guillermo Del Toro. Handily, I suspect he will actually walk away with the award anyway, which will make me happy.
Paul Thomas Anderson, Phantom Thread
Guillermo Del Toro, The Shape of Water (predicted and preferred winner)
Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird
Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk
Jordan Peele, Get Out
I have not seen any of these, but I would be flabbergasted if Coco did not bring Pixar another award.
The Boss Baby, Tom McGrath, Ramsey Ann Naito
The Breadwinner, Nora Twomey, Anthony Leo
Coco, Lee Unkrich, Darla K. Anderson (predicted winner)
Ferdinand, Carlos Saldanha
Loving Vincent, Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman, Sean Bobbitt, Ivan Mactaggart, Hugh Welchman
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 absolute certainty 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 it seems like a fairly safe film that offers no particular challenge. 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 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.
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 Europe 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.
From its opening extended take of soldiers walking through deserted streets, Dunkirk arrests attention and maintains a tight grip throughout its running time. It is by turns a gripping, moving and eerie experience, more an existential thriller than a war film. It eschews prolonged battle sequences yet the fear of attack by land, sea and air is constant, while aerial dogfights make abrupt intrusions into the visual assembly. Its story progresses through the attempted evacuation of British troops from the French coastal town in 1940, but presents its three plot strands across different time frames – land for a week, sea for a day, air for an hour – simultaneously rather than sequentially. It draws on silent cinema with a great trust in visual storytelling, combined with an intense soundtrack that blends Hans Zimmer’s relentless score with a sometimes suggestive and other times crashing sound mix. It is light on characterisation and dialogue, which combined with its primarily visual storytelling results in a somewhat impressionistic experience. It is in several ways a departure for writer-director Christopher Nolan, being his first foray into historical dramatization while also foregoing a central character such as Bruce Wayne or Dominic Cobb, since its three narrative strands follow a range of figures caught up in the evacuation. On the other hand, Nolan is very much on home turf thematically, as his familiar tropes are present including a layered narrative and an explicit engagement with the cinematic manipulation of time. The intercutting of the three stories echoes the multiple levels of Inception and Memento, as well as the nested narratives of The Prestige and the time-jumping of Interstellar. Nolan and editor Lee Smith cut between these strands, and this discontinuity demonstrates Nolan’s ongoing exploration of trauma and the associated fracturing of the mind.
The film emphasises trauma with Cillian Murphy’s shell-shocked Shivering Soldier, who contrasts with Tom Hardy’s unflappable RAF pilot Farrier, while stoicism informs the older generation both civilian – Mark Rylance’s Mr Dawson – and military – Kenneth Branagh’s Commander Bolton, as well as the younger generation in Dawson’s crew and Fionn Whitehead’s young Tommy on the beach who would be a wide-eyed innocent if his eyes did not hint at what he has seen. This is a recurring feature throughout Dunkirk, as director of photography Hoyte Van Hoytema captures close ups of faces and eyes as well as subjective angles and oppressive lighting to convey the imprisonment of the stranded soldiers, also by Nolan’s decision to concentrate the film on the empty stretch of the beaches as well as the pitiless expanse of the sea. For some, this could be alienating as viewers may want a wealth of character detail in order to engage with the drama. But the film’s sparseness is also a great strength as the film creates an immersive and absorbing world that the viewer can themselves inhabit and fear. The ‘enemy’ is only seen in silhouette, which makes them all the more menacing, especially when bullets from unseen sources pepper the soldiers and, in a sense, the viewer themselves. All reactions to film are subjective, and Dunkirk emphasises the subjectivity of experience. Experience is central to the film, the experience of the characters parallel to that of the viewer. As a film, Dunkirk is an intricate and electrifying lattice of image and sound. As an experience, it is ruthlessly efficient and mercilessly tense, a sublime immersion in trauma, time and terror.
Regulars at this blog (if there are any) may recall that some years ago I started posting about my favourite film directors. I posted about three of them – Steven Spielberg, James Cameron and Christopher Nolan – and then I got caught up in reviewing every new release I saw. But I thought it time to get back to my top ten, with the caveat that to credit the director as being solely responsible for any film is to utterly misunderstand the filmmaking process. So here we go…
For me, Michael Mann is probably the single most important filmmaker I have ever encountered. It was in early 1996 that I first saw Heat (1996), a film that had a profound effect on me and set me on the course of becoming a film scholar and critic. I had seen The Last of the Mohicans (1992) beforehand, but Heat was my major introduction to Mann’s work. Subsequently I sought out The Last of the Mohicans again and made sure to see The Insider (1999) when it came out. Then I gathered the video tapes (and later DVDs) of Thief (1981), Manhunter (1986), The Keep (1983), The Jericho Mile (1979)and L. A. Takedown (1989). When Ali (2001) came out I made the effort to see it, by which time I had decided that I would do a PhD in film studies focused on Michael Mann (as you do). Collateral (2004) and Miami Vice (2006) were released while I was researching my doctorate, and in the week of my graduation, Public Enemies (2009) came to British cinemas, before very briefly in 2015, Blackhat. I saw them all, think about them at length, and have written and published at least something about all of them.
Due to my research, I have a very particular view of Mann that may not communicate well to others, but here goes. Mann is a holistic filmmaker whose work demonstrates precise interaction of the various cinematic elements. Working as writer and director on most of his films, Mann has spoken in interviews of the ‘harmonics’ in his work, and indeed the various elements are harmonised to an extraordinary degree. Script, performance, cinematography, production design, editing, sound, music – all resonate in a very specific and distinct way across Mann’s oeuvre. These harmonics are what create the relentlessly lyrical movement in The Last of the Mohicans, the sleek and almost ephemeral stream of Collateral, Miami Vice and Blackhat as well as the distorted mental and physical worlds of Manhunter, the state and industrial containments in The Jericho Mile and Thief, the confusing disjointedness of Ali and Public Enemies and the expressionism of The Keep.
From within this extraordinary oeuvre, what really stands out as Mann’s best film, and what is the best introduction to his work? All will be revealed in my next post…
There is a widely held misconception that BVS: DOJ is about an epic physical showdown. It isn’t. What the title refers to, and what the film portrays over its sometimes ponderous running time, is an ideological debate between saviour and vigilante. Perhaps surprisingly for a filmmaker best known for bombastic action set pieces, Zack Snyder grapples valiantly with this political debate, resulting in a film where the most interesting sequences are those that feature actual debates. A brooding, melancholic and traumatised Batman/Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) debates with reluctant but loyal Alfred (Jeremy Irons); an idealistic yet doubtful Superman/Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) debates with Lois Lane (Amy Adams), Martha Kent (Diane Lane) and Perry White (Laurence Fishburne); senator Finch (Holly Hunter) debates with fellow politicians as well as twitchy billionaire Alexander Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg). Meanwhile, the mysterious Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) seems to have more answers than everyone else, yet raises questions herself. In-between the debates are immense set pieces, many shot in Snyder’s trademark slo-mo that recalls 300 and Sucker Punch (other references to Snyder’s back catalogue also appear). DOP Larry Fong lenses the film in gloomy shades, especially the ruin of Wayne Manor and the urban wastelands in which our ‘heroes’ battle. At times, the grand portentousness does overwhelm the drama, the wit of Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer’s script hamstrung by Snyder’s lumpen pacing. Yet while the film lacks the lean muscularity of Christopher Nolan‘s Dark Knight trilogy or even the more focused bombast of Man of Steel, it does make a strong contribution to the fundamental questions of superhero cinema – what does it mean to be a hero and what does it mean to be super? Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice may not be the zippiest superhero film, but it is one of the more thoughtful.