By Kate Pehrson and Liv Tollefson
Welcome to the Next Ten Words Academy Awards Predictions for 2018. In a four part series, longtime Twin Cities movie writers and enthusiasts Kate Pehrson and Liv Tollefson will look at the four major Academy Award Categories: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Actress. Today we offer Part 4, Best Picture. The 2018 Academy Nominees for Best Picture are ‘Call Me By Your Name,’ ‘The Darkest Hour,’ ‘The Shape of Water,’ ‘Dunkirk,’ ‘Phantom Thread,’ ‘Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri,’ ‘Get Out,’ ‘The Post,’ and ‘Lady Bird’
This year, when we think about the current social issues in our headlines, the moments in a film when we perceive racial tension, violence, sexual abuse, or issues of inequality are highlighted. The movie viewer finds themselves asking questions like: how does trust get broken? When is being paranoid justifiable? What does love for others look like? Who has privilege and why? How do we show love for our country? Who determines justice? Who gets to define true love? What effect does violence have? These questions are but a few of the questions of our time, and the kinds of questions that great art asks and explores. This year’s batch of films covers monsters real and imagined, obsessive love, romantic love and patriotic love, personal and civic duty, horror, romance and war. But throughout these nine films, we see master filmmakers – new and old – using the format of cinema to engage us in the conversations of our age.
Before we get to our thoughts on the individual movies themselves, a little bit on the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The winner for Best Picture is determined by the preferential ballot voting system, which was re-instituted in 2009, the year the Academy expanded the best picture field from 5 nominees, to allowing 10. With this method, if one nominee gets more than 50% of the first-place votes, it wins. However, since that’s not likely, the film with the fewest first-place vote is eliminated, with its ballots reapportioned to the second-place choice, and so on until one film reaches at least 50% of the votes, plus 1.
The membership was expanded to 7,258 members in the last couple years, a membership purposefully more diverse and international, and it remains to be seen how that influences this year’s Best Picture Award. Additionally, no one is out from under the shadow of a year of sexual assault allegations that sent the industry reeling. Though the Academy has done their best to keep out any controversial issues or figures out of this year’s ceremony, the reality is that recent events will have been on the minds of voters. As far as audiences are concerned, issues of diversity and sexual assault give us another lens through which we view films. It causes us to take a look at how we combine – or separate – the artist from the art.
And in the end, it all comes down to the movies the Academy members actually saw and loved.
WHO WILL WIN?
THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI
The story of a mother’s grief and anger in the aftermath of her daughter’s rape and murder, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is an intensely human story set in the heart of America. Deeply, darkly funny, the movie rests on an impeccable screenplay by Martin McDonaugh. The words are precise and deliberate, and it is this tight script that allowed the actors – specifically Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell – to play their impressive, full range. The movie begins with cleverness and wit, and then opens us up to something deeply human. Just when we find ourselves comfortable being a little uncomfortable, or when we’re satisfied that we know who and what we are seeing on the screen, something unexpected and profound happens.
Thanks to cinematographer Bob Davis, who captures the feel and scenery of this small town of Ebbing, with it’s main street, small hills, roadside bars and shops, and gentle landscape, it all feels deeply American. The cast is exceptional, with the main characters inhabiting quirky, but authentic, honest residents of this small town in the heartland. The storyline takes place in the aftermath of a parental nightmare, the kind of thing that can rip communities apart – and has.
The main character, Mildred Hays, is a dysfunctional adult in a world of dysfunctional adults. After suffering through so much, she could choose to retreat, but instead chooses to keep engaging. Those around her seem to be doing the same – they are flawed but never static – they keep evolving step by slow, painful step. There are no easy answers in grief nor in the wake of violence. For those who live through such unspeakable things, it seems as though time stops and nothing else should ever matter to anyone again. But of course, life goes on.
In the end, we’re left wondering. Nothing is wrapped up in a tidy bow, not all problems are solved, and relationships remain strained and tentative, and there are no heroes. But life so rarely gives us easy closure. Life isn’t tidy.
WHO MIGHT WIN?
THE SHAPE OF WATER
A guarded cement fortress. Secret military experiments. Foreign agents.
Ambition. Violence. Hubris.
Set up. Build. Conflict. Action. Climax. Denouement.
Director Guillermo del Toro knows the tropes and techniques of a good fairytale like the back of his massive hand, and in his care, The Shape of Water proves that it is times just like these that make fairytales more important than ever. From the opening moments of this film, we are invited into a strange, but beautiful world of water, outsiders, and love. The main character, Elisa, makes her home in this world, but she never feels complete in it until she meets a creature. Both voiceless, they communicate through gesture, music, and eventually, touch.
Time is against them, which takes on various forms, from calendar, to a scheduled surgery, to the minutes this sea creature can literally be out of water. The real monsters in this tale are conformity, the illusion of political and military power, and a man who reads books on how to succeed. A narrator provides the prologue and epilogue, and we begin, and end, surrounded by the clear, blue, amniotic sea from which we all emerged. The cast is marvelous, with the Del Toro go-to monster and completely underrated Doug Jones as the creature and stand-out Best Actress nomination by Sally Hawkins.
With cinematography by Dan Lausten, who collaborated with del Toro previously in the gothic tale Crimson Peak, and dreamy music by Alexandre Desplat, The Shape of Water is its own place and time. Period costuming and sets and sweet moments of nostalgia, invite us back to enjoy a trip back to a simpler time. A time when we had the opportunity to paint, read, window shop, listen to a record, go out for pie, or maybe catch a monster movie matinee. Sitting at a table across from her love, Elisa begins to float into a romantic black-and-white dream sequence of dance and song, imagining a life together with her love. Gliding across the stage, in a singing and dancing duet with her creature, shows us the power of fantasy – we can do anything in our dreams.
An beautiful tale, the power and talent in of The Shape of Water cannot be denied, but it may just be a bit too offbeat for the “big” win.
WHAT ABOUT THE OTHERS?
Bubbling up in the Best Picture conversation over the past few days, Get Out is a contender that might surprise us in Sunday’s ceremony. With its fresh and gripping commentary on race, that takes on some of the subtle, problematic issues of liberal, white America, this is a movie about NOW.
The essence of Get Out is that we have a problem with cultural appropriation, and that we are often stunningly blind to white privilege and entitlement. Colonization destroyed cultures, but what happens when we take appropriation to it’s horrifying endpoint? It could go something like this. I like Hip Hop. I like your Hip Hop. I envy your talent. I want your talent. I’m taking your talent. I’m taking you. I’m going to be you. You don’t exist anymore except as me. There is a literal nightmare in the basement of this house, and the folks upstairs have built themselves up only because of the people of color they’re standing on.
Get Out takes us on a journey right along with the main character, going from sweetness and deference, to trepidation and awkwardness, to paranoia and fear, and finally to anger, rage and violent revolt. The bold visual choices, outstanding cast, original screenplay, important content, and fresh take on the horror genre made Get Out a critic and audience favorite, and gives it a fighting chance to win.
Lady Bird is a charming and original look at coming-of-age and the concept of home. A debut directorial effort from Greta Gerwig, this film received 5 Academy Award nominations, and each one is well-deserved.
Gerwig’s original screenplay gives us vivid characters, expertly cast. Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf are a sparkling sparring pair, and the supporting cast are the lucky recipients of some of the best “small” roles on screen this year. In the age of the epic saga or multi-character universe, this type of movie is becoming increasingly rare. A look at the concept of home, we see that home only comes into focus as it’s receding in our rearview mirror. Lady Bird explores the eternal cycle of parenting and letting go, and the inevitable awkward steps and missteps into adulthood.
Gerwig does a fantastic job of lobbing us right back into teenage-dom: a world of best friends, popular girls, mysterious boys, too-good-to-be-true boys, and homecoming dress drama. With a pitch-perfect pairing of songs that reflect the time period and mood, even the subtle costuming choices were spot-on. The moments that juxtapose a teenage viewpoint with an adult’s, are poignant and make for beautiful, light humor. Priests and nuns and moms can’t possibly be real humans, right?
Ultimately, Lady Bird is a small movie with big heart. It could so easily tip into cliché, be silly or over-dramatic, but it doesn’t. It is fresh, funny, real, and relatable. Sometimes difficult to watch, because we fear the inevitable outcome of an emotional teenage choice, we realize that is ever the way of the parent. Children don’t like to heed warnings, and we have to let them walk their own path.
Although not likely to take home the Best Picture award, our hope is that this gem of a film doesn’t go home entirely empty-handed Sunday night.
Unique, deliberate, dark, and romantic, Phantom Thread explores the relationship between artist and muse. Meticulously directed and filmed by Paul Thomas Anderson, the movie is a psychological dance between the two main characters exploring the boundaries and hidden desires of each other.
As usual, Daniel Day-Lewis’ commitment to the role is total, Leslie Manville holds her own as the icy, protective sister, and Vicky Krieps is a lovely foil to the main character, unpredictably steely and formidable in her own fresh and feminine way.
Unable to secure the director of photography that he wanted, Anderson ended up shooting this film himself. With a setting in the posher districts of London in the 50s, the costumes are modest, but beautifully tailored and cut. The fabrics are rich, sumptuous and tasteful. Nothing is shocking, everything is á propos. This is a world of the upper class, the elite and wealthy, and for the most part, “well-born”.
Phantom Thread explores the ideas of love, dedication and relationships. Reynolds Woodcock is surrounded by women: seamstresses, his models, his adoring public, his sister-protector, his lover-muse, and his dead mother-saint. These women are rarely allowed to be human to him, instead they are little more than the forms upon which he builds his fabric art. This life is made possible by those who are devoted to him, who protect him from any upset. It is Alma who forces Woodcock to see that she is more than her measurements, and that he must be made vulnerable to remain vital.
An elegant, dignified film, the overall slower pace and strange romantic tale may not have connected with mainstream Academy members.
CALL ME BY YOUR NAME
Directed by the Italian Luca Guadagnino, Call Me By Your Name is a rich, sensual coming-of-age story, a romance between a boy on the verge of adulthood, and a man just on the other side of adolescence.
With a gorgeous Italian setting, warm and tender cinematography, and an easy, gentle chemistry between characters, this movie has all the elements that tend to grab Oscar attention. Which it has done, by garnering 4 nominations this year. The legendary James Ivory, 89, is the oldest person ever to be nominated for best adapted screenplay. Conversely, Timothée Chalamet, 22, is the youngest man in 80 years to receive a best actor nod.
There is an Italian comfort food called Olio e Aglio, spaghetti served with garlic sautéed in olive oil. A combination as natural as summer, the names of the main characters in this movie, Oliver and Elio, play upon this theme. These are two people who want to be together, who go together naturally, but it is not to be. Even though this is essentially a homosexual romance, the tender story is universal, and defies easy labels of sexuality. There are so many moments we recognize, and it is the journey of brief encounters over time, with small hesitant moves toward each other that finally bring us – and them – to each other. Eventually, the only thing is to either do something, or never do anything. The deeply painful bittersweet of this time in our lives cannot be sustained, but of course, we remember everything.
As with Lady Bird, this is a story of the acutely painful road to adulthood, where risk is inherent, and failure and heartbreak almost inevitable. Call Me by Your Name is a lovely, gorgeous film, and we have to say that this was our personal, favorite film of the year. It may not win the big award, but it definitely won our hearts.
A film about a man around whom millions rallied during WWII, Darkest Hour shows us just the tiniest glimpse into a particular, limited time period. The few weeks covered in the screenplay by Anthony McCarten focus on the man, Winston Churchill, as he desperately tries to build support to defend Britain against a war he is sure is on the doorstep. Quite literally, the fate of Churchill and of Britain hangs in the balance. Dogged by depression, and often lonely, Winston Churchill nevertheless held a position of great power. The weight of any of his decisions was heavy and the consequences and impact of them would be felt by millions around the world.
Kate was lucky enough to see this film at a film festival last October, and was blown away by Gary Oldman’s performance. She was also struck by the use of visual tricks and settings to highlight Churchill’s loneliness and isolation. One shot shows him alone in an elevator, one single bulb illuminating the car as it rises in an otherwise unlit shaft. In another shot, he is sitting, alone on a sofa in a room of elegant but crowded furniture, covered in bedsheets, all lit by a single overhead light.
With period costuming, a solid supporting cast, and a light-handed but skilled direction of historical events, Director Joe Wright has created an entertaining, educational and illuminating movie. Based on historical fact but interspersed with storytelling liberties (a group of British citizens traveling on the Underground play a crucial role in a fictional scene), Darkest Hour is a fine film, but unlikely to bring home a Best Picture statue.
For those of us who have not experienced it, when we speak of war, it is often in terms of statistics, numbers, geography, history, or politics. We may know where a war is taking place, how many are fighting, what some of the reasons are, and who’s on what side, but the reality of battle is hard to imagine. In Dunkirk, writer/director Christopher Nolan attempts to give us an idea. In a visually stunning, emotionally compelling film, using the sights and sounds of battle, Nolan attempts to recreate the constant stress of unrelenting combat and the endless anxiety of waiting.
As in his previous films, Nolan is playing with perception. Dunkirk is about a group of individuals perceiving one reality – a historical event that occurred at one place in time. Weaving multiple storylines and timelines into one film, the story is told from three perspectives: The Mole, where soldiers on the beach await evacuation; The Sea, where civilian boats are crossing the channel; and The Air, following a small group of RAF pilots. Thus, Nolan takes his viewers on a labyrinthine journey through a small, but critical event in World War II.
Though there is a stellar cast of individuals with roles in this film – Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Tom Hardy – there is no one standout star. Instead, like the various storylines, it is the individuals weaving together that give us a full picture, only realized when we make it to the end of the maze. Hans Zimmer, a longtime collaborator with Nolan, provides the perfect score to help guide us on the journey.
With the earliest release date of these films, and the highest box-office gross of all the nominated in this category, it can be argued that this film is more “typical” Oscar fare, having earned eight nominations. A wartime tale grippingly told through the unique lens of Christopher Nolan’s puzzlemaster of a mind, it may be unlikely to rise above its competitors with more current relevance.
With a timely subject, experienced director, and a compellingly strong cast, The Post relates the events surrounding the publication of The Pentagon Papers, leaked to the press in 1971. A study of official – but top-secret – government policy regarding US interference and objectives in Vietnam, when the Pentagon Papers were published on the front page of the New York Times, it sent the Nixon White House into a fury. The ensuing injunction against the newspapers caused a battle between that reached the Supreme Court.
The Post focuses on the story from inside The Washington Post, a privately-held newspaper, run by Kay Graham, who inherited the job when her husband committed suicide. On the brink of selling the newspaper, Kay must decide if she will let her editor, Ben Bradlee, go against an injuncture and publish the documents. The summer of 1971 holds many parallels to our current time, when the press and the president seem to be at war, and concerns of overreach, ethics and Constitutional interpretation are paramount.
Stephen Spielberg delivers a solid film, as one would expect from this blockbuster mogul. The facts and events are told in an honest, focused way, with drama and intrigue and some humor. The time is captured with on-point period costuming, and props. And for those of us who remember it, the sight of vintage typewriters clacking in a smoky newsroom, square glasses worn by short-sleeve shirted journalists, the clunk of typeset placing the headlines, and the hum of giant newspaper printing presses kicking into gear was great. Classic Spielberg. However, Spielberg’s passion for the topic never quite fully translates to the screen – the story is almost too literal and lacks the dramatic tension that makes us quite connect to the events on screen.
With Tom Hanks playing the legendary maverick editor Ben Bradlee, and a solid lineup of supporting cast, (including the comic minds of Bob Odenkirk and David Cross), there could have been some keen interplay amongst the characters. But sadly, this was entirely lacking, and the onscreen characters seemed dull, and flat and perhaps a bit too earnest.
The only other nomination for The Post is for Meryl Streep, well-deserved for her portrayal of Post publisher and D.C. insider, Kay Graham. Though a solid film, the lack of a screenplay or direction nomination is telling, and we are fairly certain that the producers of The Post will go home without a statue this year.
Kate Pehrson and Liv Tollefson have been writing Academy Awards predictions together for five years and have been watching movies together for much longer than that. Kate’s musings can be found on Twitter at @K8Pehrson, while Liv is @broadwaybabee. Both may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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