Best Picture Countdown #3: The Shape of Water

“He’s a wild creature. We can’t ask him to be anything else.”Richard Jenkins as Giles, The Shape of Water (2017)

Dir: Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Sally Hawkins, Richard Jenkins, Michael Shannon, Michael Stuhlbarg, Octavia Spencer, Doug Jones
Runtime: 2hr3min
Rating: R

The Shape of Water is a fantasy/drama set in the Cold War era and centered on mute custodian Elisa (Hawkins) who establishes a romantic connection with an “Amphibian Man” (Jones) who is being kept at the facility where she works. When outside forces threaten them, Elisa concocts a plan that might save the creature from a cruel and undeserved fate, even if it means their separation.


When I walked into the theater for Guillermo del Toro’s monster romance The Shape of Water, I fully expected to be putting it at #1 by the time the credits rolled. Perhaps this film suffered from over-hype, or perhaps set my expectation meter too high, but I found The Shape of Water a bit lacking beneath the surface. It’s a visual spectacle that subverts traditional tropes, a dreamlike tale of love, loss, and finding hope in the darkness, but the glossy sheen can’t quite mask that depth isn’t quite there.

For the record, I love weird shit and have always admired del Toro’s vision, so this film is right up my alley. The story is gripping, the stunning visuals create an immersive atmosphere well-suited to the narrative, the acting is on point and the characters are distinct and memorable, the monster himself is exceptional, and everything about this film screams both horror and beauty in equal measure. This film got the most Oscar noms out of any others in the competition, and all the buzz about it is totally deserved, but it doesn’t top my personal list for a few reasons.

Overall, I perceived a lot of the character motivations to be shallow, with the exception of Michael Stuhlbarg’s character (Hofstetter) and Michael Shannon’s villain (Strickland). I expected myself to be charmed by Elisa’s romance with the Amphibian Man, and I was invested in their development, but ultimately found it to be… lackluster. To me, Elisa came across as so desperately lonely she latched onto the misunderstood creature to cure that emptiness, and the Amphibian Man just kind of went with it. The two clearly forge a genuine connection over their mutual loneliness and “outsider” status, and they learn from one another and each undergoes changes because of the other, but it didn’t click for me the way it should have. The “song and dance” number near the end of the film also did not land – it took me out of the film entirely, and only made me feel like their romance was simply Elisa projecting her fantasies onto the Amphibian Man while he was merely infatuated with eggs. The ending of the film, however, redeemed their uneven bond somewhat in my mind. I also appreciated the exploration into the side characters – especially Hofstetter and Strickland, and Giles to some degree – but I think the wide-reaching focus and other plot threads, though compelling, came to the detriment of the main story.

But there is a lot to love about this film. Alexandre Desplat’s score is gorgeous, and a perfect supplement to the narrative and the characters. I’d love Zimmer to win for his contribution to Dunkirk, but I think Desplat will be taking another Oscar home this weekend. The writing and directing is another del Toro triumph, as he masterfully weaves a haunting, yet whimsical fairy-tale where the monster is a prince and the princess is an outcast, and a vile villain threatens them with the face of an ordinary man. The cinematography, sound, and other technical and visual aspects are all contenders – so many frames/stills from this movie stick in my mind for how striking they are – and I’m personally predicting it will win Production Design. On the acting front, Jenkins is superb as Giles, providing comic relief and contributing powerfully to the heart and the emotional conflict of the film… but I actually thought Shannon should have gotten the nod over him. He was fucking terrifying – more frightening than any monster or beast of lore could be. I felt ambivalent about Octavia Spencer – she’s great, as usual, but I’m not sure it’s Best Supporting Actress worthy. Hawkins is marvelous, expressing hope and heartbreak and emoting without being able to actually vocalize Elisa’s feelings, but I’ve got one actress on my ballot slated above her in the Best Actress race. Though if her name gets announced on Oscar night, I’ll be cheering.

When it comes to the array of awards The Shape of Water is nominated for, it’s more or less guaranteed to take home some hardware on the evening of March 4th. But when it comes to the ultimate prize, the esteemed Best Picture award, I’m not sure if this whimsical, monstrous dream of a tale will emerge victorious over the competition.
Oscar Nominations:
Best Director (del Toro)
Best Actress (Hawkins)
Best Supporting Actor (Jenkins)
Best Supporting Actress (Spencer)
Best Original Screenplay
Best Costume Design
Best Cinematography
Best Film Editing
Best Original Score
Best Production Design
Best Sound Mixing
Best Sound Editing
Best Film


Best Picture Countdown #4: Lady Bird

“The only thing exciting about 2002 is that it’s a palindrome.”Saorise Ronan as Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, Lady Bird (2017)

Dir: Greta Gerwig
Starring: Saorise Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges, etc.
Runtime: 1hr33min
Rating: R

Lady Bird is a coming-of-age dramedy about a California teen in her senior year of high school in early post-9/11 America. As she endures the emotional turmoils and personal explorations that come with growing up and preparing to leave the nest, Lady Bird (Ronan) also must handle a rollercoaster relationship with her mother (Metcalf).

Lady_Bird_posterOverall, this film is a delightful look into the life of a teenage girl who is unsure of who she is at a pivotal time in her life, and desperately wants to find her place in the world – she wants to leave her hometown in order to do so, though other forces might compel her to stay. There are countless notable coming-of-age films already out there and more coming every year, but Lady Bird still feels fresh and original. It’s not afraid to let the heroine fail on occasion, make mistakes, or look foolish, and doesn’t sugarcoat painful realizations, but it’s still so easy to root for Lady Bird as she deals with the trials of falling in love, making new friends/potentially losing old ones, and waiting eagerly by the mailbox for college acceptance letters. Bu the film’s high point is the relationship between Lady Bird and her mother, Marian – it will make you want to call your mom and apologize for all the bullshit you put her through in your angsty teen years, and she might have some things to atone for, too. I mean, I saw it with my mom (who has, on more than one occasion, told me to stop dragging my feet) so I got to skip a step afterward… I just had to turn to my left and say, “sorry for not sleeping through my alarm and forcing you to drive me to school so often,” when the credits rolled.

Saorise Ronan masterfully delivers a moody, angst-filled, yet charming and hopeful performance as the titular character. I was once a teen girl myself and recognized a lot of my own “strife” in Lady Bird’s struggles and triumphs, and though her antics might be seen as silly at times or her behavior as irrational, Ronan’s genuine portrayal of a girl seeking her purpose and place in the world is undeniably grounded in reality. I’d love to see her take home the Oscar for Best Actress – been rooting for her since the Atonement days – but I’m not sure she can edge out one actress in particular. Metcalf also turns in a marvelous performance as Marian, Lady Bird’s mother, and their interactions with one another are so up-and-down, yet it’s clear how much they care for one another, even as they trade hurtful insults or are mired in tense silences. I found myself agreeing with her in some moments, yet decrying her passive aggressive comments in others – her nuanced performance is perfect for this role, and a wonderful complement to Ronan’s. In the continuous take where she’s driving off after taking her daughter to the airport, her face reveals a collage of raw, genuine emotion, and the transformation is simply spectacular. I’d love to hear her name read out on Sunday night for Supporting Actress.

Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut is visually stunning, poignant, full of heart, and well-balanced in its focus, but unless the del Toro train stops rolling, it’s doubtful she’ll take home the gold. Her screenplay is sharp, witty, laden with realistic conversations (Kyle’s dialogue is so convincing it’s almost painful to hear, because anyone who grew up in that era definitely knew a Kyle or two) but in such a close race, it’s difficult to predict who will emerge victorious on March 4th. I just know that no matter the result, I won’t be disappointed, and Gerwig is a personal favorite.

Lady Bird is an undeniable success and highly deserving of the accolades it has already received and the nominations still pending, but even though its wonderful, I’m not predicting a Best Picture victory on Sunday night. Regardless, this film should be celebrated and I am excited to see more storytelling and directing from Gerwig in the future.

Oscar Nominations
Best Director (Gerwig)
Best Original Screenplay (Gerwig)
Best Actress (Ronan)
Best Supporting Actress (Metcalf)
Best Film

Best Picture Countdown #5: Dunkirk

“There’s no hiding from this, son. We have a job to do.” – Mark Rylance as Mr. Dawson, Dunkirk (2017).

Dir: Chris Nolan
Starring: Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Fionn Whitehead, James D’Arcy, Harry Styles, etc.
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 1hr 47min

Dunkirk is a war film that utilizes three different perspectives (land, air, and sea) and a trio of timelines to depict the events of the Dunkirk evacuation during WWII. Over the course of the film, the three viewpoints gradually sync up and the characters collide with one another as a brave fleet of civilian boats seeks to rescue the stranded soldiers.

This film is probably higher on my list than on most, but it’s not just because I’m a Chris Nolan fangirl with a penchant for war films. I mean, as much as I admire him, I don’t think he’s going to take home the Best Director award, though I was pleased to see him get his first nod. I’m actually stunned he’s never been nominated before, but that’s a convo for another time…

Dunkirk_Film_posterOne of the film’s greatest strengths is in what it lacks: dialogue. The tension builds in conjunction with the cinematography, sound effects, and pulse-pounding music, not the words and conversations of the characters. The whine of the planes and the rat-a-tat of dogfights, the crashing of bombs on a beach, the yells of frazzled soldiers and the unnerving creak of a ship about to sink, all combine with the vivid imagery of bleak sands, the dour grey of a morning sky, the bobbing of civilian ships forging a path across the waves, and a shivering soldier stranded on floating debris. Seeing this film in IMAX was a cinematic experience unlike any I’ve seen before, and I was so engrossed the entire time I forgot to eat my candy – something I can safely say has never happened before. This film came out in wide release months ago, long before most of the other nominated films, and I can still clearly visualize several scenes because of how much of an impact they had and how brilliantly they stood out onscreen.

While the entire cast is great, Dunkirk is truly an ensemble effort; I found myself invested in each character’s journey, as a significant portion of time is spent on each of the three perspectives, giving each story the chance to unfold without feeling rushed or drawn out. The timelines weave in and out from one another, but do not come together until the very end, which forces the viewer to put some pieces together and heightens the suspense in crucial moments. And the presence of Harry Styles isn’t a major distraction.

As immersed as I was by the performances and atmosphere of this film – and the apparent historical accuracy in comparison to Darkest Hour – I doubt it will take home the ultimate award on March 4th. I’m not putting money on Nolan either, though Dunkirk might be the best example of his directing chops to date. It’s a dark horse for Best Cinematography, but I actually have another favorite in mind for that race, and though it’s my personal favorite for Original Score (as in, Zimmer’s score seriously enhanced the film, arguably more so than the others) I don’t see it taking that one home either. But, as with the BAFTAs, I think it has an excellent shot at the other technical awards, both sound mixing and sound editing, and has a good chance at film editing as well.

The events of WWII have been depicted countless times across various media and in countless films over the years, but Dunkirk still manages to present something refreshing and new. Nolan may get flak for being “pretentious” and “cerebral” with his films (the end of Interstellar comes to mind…) but in this outing, his experimentation with new narrative styles, his striving for authenticity, the intense focus on visual elements, and the reliance on generating an intense atmosphere with limited dialogue and mostly nameless characters is a cinematic triumph worth seeing on the big screen, and well-deserving of a Best Picture nomination.

Oscar Nominations
Best Director (Nolan)
Best Cinematography
Best Original Score
Best Production Design
Best Sound Mixing
Best Sound Editing
Best Film Editing 
Best Picture 

My full review of Dunkirk from July 2017 is available HERE

Best Picture Countdown #6: Phantom Thread

“I cannot start my day with a confrontation. I simply have no time for confrontations.” – Daniel Day Lewis as Reynolds Woodcock, Phantom Thread (2017)

Dir: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville
Runtime: 2hr 10min
Rating: R

A period drama set in London during the 50’s, Phantom Thread follows the turbulent relationship between fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis) and young waitress Alma (Krieps). Their romance teeters precariously between love and loathing as they struggle to adapt to and learn to understand each other’s differences and contrasting perspectives.

Phantom_Thread.pngThis is a slow-burning film and I found myself theorizing about it and connecting all the dots for a long time afterward. There are so many pieces to put together, different scraps of cloth that must be interwoven to complete the full garment, that the film almost comes across like a mystery or a thriller as well as a drama. It’s a film that makes the viewer think; to wrack their brain and try to understand the character motivations, the inner-workings of their psyche, and the root of their emotions. Most of the film I was expecting DDL’s character to end up being a serial killer, or there was going to be an incest twist, or something a little more macabre. Fortunately, neither happen, and the film brilliantly subverts expectations and keeps the viewer invested through subtleties in character traits, dialogue, and visual cues. However, at the “big reveal” near the end of this film, my mother and I turned to one another and simultaneously said, “What the *bleep*?” Not in a confused way, however – the ending does make sense – it just comes across as kind of left-fieldish at first, so the film might not land with viewers who seek a more conventional movie experience. It’s an artsy, cerebral film, which not everyone will enjoy.

Phantom Thread isn’t so much a standard movie as it is an exploration into the complexity human relationships, as the two leads come together and fall apart in a strange, whimsical dance of ever-shifting emotion carried by the lead actors, Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps. Their chemistry – in all aspects of their passion for each other, whether it be positive or negative – is palpable, and their tumultuous bond is like the dresses Reynold’s envisions, slowly crafted into form, then torn apart before being stitched back together with some alterations. Watching their relationship unfold is mesmerizing, and their ups and downs are often difficult to watch and equally as difficult to predict.

DDL is one of those actors who can really do no wrong, so his nomination for Best Actor comes as no surprise – but as far as this performance goes in comparison to the competition, I’m not predicting a win for this celebrated actor’s alleged last outing. I was actually more compelled by Krieps performance as Alma, as she wove a more mysterious and difficult to decipher portrayal of her character, which gave the ending more of an impact for me. Also stellar is Manville as Cyril, Reynolds’ sister, whose cool, calculating demeanor and crisply savage dialogue sends chills through the screen and up the spine, and was powerful enough to earn her a Supporting Actress nod. However, I have never wanted to flick someone in the forehead more than DDL in this film, which is a testament to just how stellar his performance is. He takes finicky to a whole new level. Definitely forehead-flick worthy. Though the way Alma eats made my skin crawl, and I wanted to launch myself through the screen and slap the spoon out of her hand.

Visually, Phantom Thread is breathtaking. I’d put money on it taking home the Costume Design award, and wouldn’t be opposed to it taking home Best Original Score or Supporting Actress. Anderson has proven himself a visionary and exemplary director many times already (There Will Be Blood, anyone? I still think of DDL every time I drink a milkshake) but I think the competition might be too fierce this time around for him to take the gold for Best Director, though his eye and vision is part of what makes this film so fucking chic.

It’s bizarre, beautiful, and I will never look at mushrooms the same way again. However, as far as the Best Pictures race goes, I’m not predicting Phantom Thread to take the top spot. But in such a stacked category, that does not diminish just how brilliant this film is.

Oscar Nominations:
Best Picture
Best Actor (DDL)
Best Supporting Actress (Manville)
Best Director (Anderson)
Best Original Score (Greenwood)
Best Costume Design 

Best Picture Countdown #7: Get Out

“I mean, I told you not to go in that house…”Lil Rel Howery as Rod Williams, Get Out (2017)

Dir: Jordan Peele
Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford, Catherine Keener
Runtime: 1hr43min
Rating: R

Get Out follows black photographer Chris Washington (Kaluuya) as he goes on a weekend trip to meet the family of his white girlfriend, Rose (Williams). But as he spends time with her family and their affluent, somewhat bizarre friends, Chris discovers that this visit might involve more than he bargained for.

Teaser_poster_for_2017_film_Get_OutJordan Peele impresses in his directorial debut – some shots and sequences in this film are downright Kubrickian in atmosphere and scope, especially the basement scenes. I felt tense just watching the interactions of the characters and the various uncomfortable and downright creepy situations. The screenplay is also unique and features an original plot with fresh twists; this doesn’t feel like a story that’s been told a thousand times, a pitfall that plagues so many films in the same genre. It features realistic horrors with a surreal twist, amplifying genuine situations through a horror-based lens, thus keeping the film grounded and making it feel real. Obviously, the film also contains a relevant and timely social commentary that feels both refreshing and necessary, especially for a film of this genre. It also is the type of film that keeps the viewer guessing; I kept trying to figure out how all the visual hints (deer antlers, anyone?) and the little cues in the dialogue were going to lead up to some kind of big reveal, and was not disappointed in the least as the plot fell into place.

The acting is great all around, but especially Kaluuya as Chris. The hypnotism scenes in particular, where he displays genuine terror and helplessness, make the stakes feel brutally intense. Overall, Kaluuya portrays the everyday sort of protagonist that is easy to root for and relate to, as he is refreshingly capable and reasonable – not the type of horror film character who makes stupid decisions and more or less deserves to be chainsawed in the face or whatever. I definitely wanted him to GET OUT, one might say – but, though his stellar performance earned an Oscar nod, I don’t think he’ll be able to edge out the competition. Allison Williams also turns in an excellent performance, and Lil Rel Howery, playing the most likable TSA agent of all time, supplies enough laughs to weave levity into the plot.

Admittedly, I’m not a horror person, so I likely wouldn’t have seen this film if it hadn’t been nominated for Best Picture. Keep your Jasons and your Michael Myerses and your Freddies away from me. But Get Out is horror done right, and done well – though if you seek out horror movies for outlandish scenarios, absurd monsters, and escapism, this isn’t the film for you. I did find myself wishing this film were a bit longer, with more layers to the characters and the story, and deeper exploration into the history of the Armitage family – but simultaneously, I think the lighter exposition is a strength, as it would be all too easy for the film to go overboard with the explanations and make the plot drag. The screenplay is a triumph; Get Out feels like an elongated Twilight Zone episode, with enough subtly terrifying moments and jarring twists that force the viewer to think through and analyze each instance of discomfort and fear.

I wouldn’t mind seeing Peele take home the gold for his screenplay or his directing, but the competition is going to be fierce, and the same goes for all the other awards this film is up for. But even if it doesn’t emerge victorious on March 4th, Get Out was a well-deserved success for all involved, and I look forward to seeing future projects from Kaluuya and Peele.

Oscar Nominations
Best Director (Peele)
Best Original Screenplay (Peele)
Best Actor (Kaluuya)
Best Picture 

Best Picture Countdown #8: Darkest Hour

“Nations which go down fighting rise again, and those that surrender tamely are finished.” – Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill, Darkest Hour (2017)

Dir. Joe Wright
Starring: Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Stephen Dillane, Ben Mendelsohn, etc.
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 2hr 5min

Darkest Hour is an exploration into the life of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (Oldman) during the tension-filled and controversial first few weeks of his tenure, as he takes office with the threat of Germany and the Axis Powers staring down Britain’s thought-impenetrable shores. As World War II rages on, Churchill faces opposition within his own country and outside of it.

dhYou cannot talk about how great this film is without first mentioning Gary Oldman’s performance as the notable British icon. He is the pounding heart of this film, providing the right amount of bluster, confidence, vulnerability, and cantankerousness, delivering Churchill’s famous speeches – most notably, his “Never surrender!” one – with aplomb. There are moments where his outbursts make you laugh, some where you shake your head in disbelief, and others where you might feel the urge to nod sagely in agreement. For his transformation, I’m fully expecting Gary Oldman to win Best Actor – and, truthfully, he 1000% deserves it. I’m stunned he hasn’t won an Oscar before – the man’s a chameleon and immensely talented. But, I’ll admit… he’s not my favorite to win; I’ve got one name ranked above him, though the race is very close. But if his name is read out on Oscar night, I’ll still be clapping ardently from my couch.

This film features brilliant performances – not just from Oldman, but the supporting cast as well – and is compelling from start to finish. It’s a visual treat with memorable dialogue and a score that has been unjustly underrated all awards season. I would have ranked this film above the other WWII-centered film nominated for Best Picture, but in reading up on both films since my initial viewings, Darkest Hour lost the edge for the historical inaccuracies. I understand the need for artistic liberties in historical films because no one can take history and transplant it directly onto the screen in 100% truth, but it’s a case-by-case basis; Imitation Game is one example of a movie that I soured on after reading up on the actual events, but I don’t mind the fictions in Saving Private Ryan one bit. Again, this is ALL personal preference. Playing with real events is tough, and Darkest Hour largely does a great job of showing both positives and negatives of such a critical time in history and it presents a mostly balanced narrative, but when the fiction outweighs history – the subway scene in this film is entirely fictional, for example – then my personal admiration starts to wane. If you’re interested in reading more on the fact vs. the fiction of this film, check out this article from the Slate: HERE!

That said, this is a gorgeous film to look at. I’m actually pulling for it to win the close race for Best Cinematography. There is a scene in this film where Churchill is alone in an elevator, surrounding by empty space, and it might be the most brilliant and symbolic sequence I’ve seen all year. Absolutely phenomenal. It’s an underdog in that contest, but I’d love to see Bruno Delbonnel take it. As far as the other awards go, Darkest Hour is a shoo-in for Makeup and Hairstyling, and rightfully so, considering Oldman’s physical transformation. His performance wouldn’t have been the same without that team turning him into Churchill. When it comes to Costume and Production Design, however, I doubt Darkest Hour will rise above the competition.

Though this film is not likely to take home the gold for Best Picture, Darkest Hour might be Oldman’s finest. If you’re a fan of war films, it’s worth seeing just for his performance and the cinematography alone.

Oscar Nominations
Best Actor (Oldman)
Best Cinematography
Best Production Design
Best Costume Design
Best Makeup and Hairstyling
Best Picture

For my full review of Darkest Hour from earlier this year, click HERE.

Best Picture Countdown #9: The Post

If we don’t hold them accountable, who will?” – Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee, The Post (2017)

Based on the true story of the controversial revelation and handling of the confidential Pentagon Papers, which detail the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War, Steven Spielberg’s 2017 film The Post follows Washington Post heiress Katharine Graham as she grapples with the decision of whether or not to put her paper in the line of fire for the sake of journalistic integrity and truth, or preserve her friendships and relationships with those entwined with the Nixon administration.

On a surface level, political thriller The Post checks all the boxes. You’ve got Tom Hanks. You’ve got Meryl Streep. You’ve got Steven Spielberg. You’ve got John Williams. You’ve got early 70’s fashion. You’ve got a relevant message that rings true in today’s controversy-mired and volatile political system. And yet, even with such a stacked team of people working behind it, The Post is simply fine. It’s a thriller, but not an edge-of-your seat, suspense-laden thriller.

The_Post_(film).pngBut that’s not to say it is undeserving of the nominations and awards it has garnered thus far, or that because it checks off all those boxes, it automatically gets award nods. I found myself invested by the plot of this film, especially knowing that it is rooted in true events of American history. There was a lot about the history of this era that I was unaware of, as American History classes in high schools today tend to shy away from events that might skew perceptions of our government. Each member of the cast delivers capable, if not career best performances; Streep, Hanks, and Bob Odenkirk in particular nail their roles. For her role as Katharine Graham, Streep is also nominated for Best Actress, and though she certainly deserves recognition – her emotional turmoil and struggle to assert her leadership is convincing and, at times, heartbreaking – I think a couple of other names in the Best Actress category turned in stronger performances this year.

Overall, The Post is a film worth watching and is one of the most socially and politically poignant films to come along in recent years, but in the race for Best Picture, it falls a little shy of the competition. Of all the nominees, I’d rank The Post the least likely to take home the gold on March 4th, but it’s still a solid entry and one of the top films of 2017.

Oscar Nominations:
Best Picture
Best Actress (Streep)