These are some notes on the Oscar-nominated films I have seen so far. “The Shape of Water” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” are the two big hitters that I still need to see. Please be aware of spoiler alerts in my discussion below.
-“The Darkest Hour”: Gary Oldman’s performance is really quite wonderful in this heavily character-driven film. For me, it was Kristin Scott Thomas who stole the scenes every time she briefly appeared. Her patrician beauty and elegance render Clementine Churchill as a true heroine who was behind her husband’s success. I found the film to be too detailed, however; it seemed to be more interested in giving us a military history lesson than in telling us a good story. Certainly, this film would hold more significance to British people, especially people of an earlier generation who knew the history and lived through it. But for even diehard Anglophiles like me, there was a certain “technicality” feeling that made it boring. It is not a cradle-to-grave biopic. This is something viewers should be aware of. But I felt like I wanted to know more about the man other than just the brief time in which he saved the country. Perhaps my expectations were off upon going to see this film.
-“Get Out”: (SPOILER ALERT) The social commentary about race is very well done. It touches on issues that are uncomfortable, is bold with its subject matter, and features good acting. However, I wanted to like this film more than I did. There was something about the tone that just did not come across clearly. Was it supposed to be a satirical social comedy? Horror film in the vein of a psychological, it-could-happen-here thriller like “The Stepford Wives?” Sure, there were very evident moments of humor, but I am not sure this film knew what it wanted to be. The setup was strong, building tension about something menacing going to happen to the black lead male, and discovering who the villains(s) are. But once Chris discovers that Rose and her family are leaders of a cult, the film really seems to weaken and get downright silly. It loses momentum, and doesn’t make use of all the threads it has been building up. It feels like a letdown.
-“Lady Bird”: I have long been a Greta Gerwig fan, and this directorial debut only highlights her prodigious talents. This film is warm, relatable (for many of us), specific, detailed, and very heartfelt. The emotions are very true. Nothing is sugarcoated in this coming-of-age film; the heroine (played perfectly by the talented Saoirse Ronan) is probably one of the most realistic portrayals of teenagers on film. It is also refreshingly original in that the heroine’s quest is for her education, not for a boy, money, or simplistic independence from her parents. This is the heroine who thinks and feels, wants to better her life, get to know higher culture and the big city. Laurie Metcalf is also excellent as the multi-faceted mother who is stretched too thin and trying to keep her family together. She is goodhearted, as she clearly has a social conscience (her first child is evidently adopted from Asia — kudos to Greta Gerwig for racially diverse casting), works as a nurse, and is the breadwinner in her family headed by a depressed husband. The dialogue is natural and the scenarios are real. Gerwig avoids clichés, showing us that the nuns who teach at her school are human and have a sense of humor too. This is an intimate portrait of a family with its ups and downs, which is refreshing to see on the big screen. To use the inevitable cliché, race, class, and gender intertwine beautifully and naturally in this film.
-“Phantom Thread”: (SPOILER ALERT) To my mind, this was the least enjoyable film, and ultimately, film is all about enjoyment and entertainment. I have learned a valuable lesson – beware of films that critics love, but not the audience. Despite the high reviews, I found the film to be very poorly done. Extreme closeups are aimed to create intimacy, but this is a poor substitute for good direction and dialogue. The motives of the characters are glossed over; there is not adequate time for these to develop. One cannot truly feel what drew Alma to Reynolds Woodcock. The movie plods along with a dull, cold tone. Interesting themes are raised: the death of Reynolds’s mother and her ghost, his manipulation of women, death, jealousy between sisters-in-law, the “phantom thread” and the struggles of an artist. But these are not adequately developed or connected. Excessively long scenes feel very uncomfortable, as though we are privy to watching people in real time go through their dysfunctions. These long scenes of dysfunction do not serve the story in a significant way, and feel gratuitous. We squirm when we watch them. Excellent actors are squandered in this film, and what a sad farewell for the legendary Daniel Day Lewis. Vicky Krieps gives a wonderful performance that feels fresh and new. One can hardly wonder why she would stay with him in the end. This is a prime example of a filmmaker trying to be too deep and profound and failing miserably. The main redeeming virtue of the film is that it is beautiful to look at. This has got to be the most boring movie about one of the most interesting subjects around – fashion.
-“The Post”: A disappointment from Spielberg. It is in the same vein as “Lincoln,” a film that I found rather boring because it focuses only on a specific event and the hours leading up to it. It immerses you in the action without giving you any backstory, or rather, a minimum of backstory. The film re-creates lots of specific details of the events that happened, but simply reproducing history does not a good film make. Tom Hanks is refreshingly different in his role, and the ever-excellent Meryl Streep is underutilized. The supporting cast is also top-notch. But there is something rather un-dramatic about this film, which is very odd coming from Spielberg. One might be tempted to say that serious or small events cannot make for an enjoyable film; however, this is incorrect, as a good script and director can dramatize a walk around the block. “Seinfeld” was “the show about nothing,” and “The Cosby Show” focused on domestic minutiae. But no one would ever say these shows were anything less than highly entertaining.
-“I, Tonya”: As enjoyable and over-the-top as you would want it to be. A well-crafted, well-scripted, well-acted, and well-executed film on numerous fronts. Margot Robbie gives a strong, highly visceral and physical performance as the notorious Tonya Harding. Robbie’s physicality as an actor is especially visible here, not just in her skating, but also in her use of her whole body to create the character. The film does a good job between portraying the trajectory of the heroine, which is full of humor, and incidents of dark, dark tragedy and violence. All of the cast is superb, and Allison Janney deserves her Oscar nomination along with Margot Robbie. The interview, confessional style works very well here, though the occasional moments of breaking the fourth wall during scenes are distracting and silly. Tonya is the ultimate anti-heroine, and yet we are engaged right from the beginning with her struggle. The emotions are heightened but real. This film is an excellent example about how to portray a hero’s quest, full of singular drive.
-“All the Money in the World”: (SPOILER ALERT) Kudos to Christopher Plummer for saving the day once Kevin Spacey was cut out of the film. It is hard to imagine anybody else other than Plummer playing the roleof J. Paul Getty, for he commands such presence on the screen, with tremendous charisma and gravitas. This is an edge-of-your-seat thriller that hooks you in from the beginning – will John Paul Getty III be rescued from the kidnappers? Christopher Plummer captures the greedy grandfather with such nuance and warmth that it makes his cruelty all the more appealing. The talented Michelle Williams, always an actress who truly knows her craft, is not at her best here, for she does not seem urgent enough in her pursuit to find her son. Though she masters an upper class East Coast accent, her face sometimes lacks expression. French actor Romain Duris gives an excellent performance as a kidnapper with a human side; were he not French, he could be nominated as a Best Supporting Actor. Watching Plummer’s character arc move from unyielding, dogmatic billionaire to conceding grandfather who will pay the ransom is truly a pleasure. This is altogether an enjoyable film, and a good example of how to dramatize historical events to make a good viewing experience.
Oscar snubs that were wrong: (SPOILER ALERTS)
-“The Disaster Artist”: James Franco’s recent accusations of sexual harassment probably had something to do with it). “The Disaster Artist” was good old-fashioned Hollywood entertainment. Literally Hollywood, for it draws on the most fundamental of movie themes, being a star. It is rare to find a movie these days that is high quality and made well, but also simply pure pleasure to watch. It is based on a true story, about the life of Tommy Wiseau, a larger-than-life character a writer could not invent! The disparity between the artist’s sense of self and his peers’ awareness of reality is what creates a palpable tension that is also hilarious. It is also a true underdog story, for Wiseau has attained cult status. James Franco brings them to life in a most entertaining way, and his brother Dave is excellent as the straight man without whom this film would not work well.
-“The Big Sick”: Though nominated for “Best Screenplay,” it should have been nominated for the strong acting and direction as well. Not only the leads, but also the supporting actors of Ray Romano and Holly Hunter as Emily’s parents, were noteworthy. It is a warm, personal film that feels real and not manipulative. Emily’s illness does not come across as melodrama, but rather, a life tragedy that anyone can encounter. The only general fault of the movie is its two-dimensional portrayal of the Pakistani women who are offered to Kumail as potential brides. Numerous articles have been written on this subject, and I do agree with the assertion that this is a pattern of South Asian men fetishizing white women. However, this is indeed a true story, and one with a happy ending. It is also very exciting to see a South Asian being nominated for an Oscar!
-“Victoria and Abdul”: Nominated only for costume design, this film featured strong acting, and a lovely story based on history. A platonic love story feels original in this day and age of everything being graphic. We also get to see the human side of the formidable Queen Victoria, and this film covers what was truly a taboo.
-“The Viceroy’s House”: Sadly this film was not nominated, and it is a shame. Perhaps some of it has to do with America’s lack of knowledge of Indian history and India’s independence from Britain as well as the partition. Gloriously epic in its scope and scale, the movie illustrates historical events both through the political and the personal. Filmmaker Gurinder Chadha draws upon her own family history in this film which was sadly overlooked.
Sometimes the whole Oscars process feels like a high school popularity contest; so many wonderful films don’t even get nominated, and it’s often the big-named, big-budgeted ones that sweep the awards. Certain films don’t make the cut, and I don’t understand why.
This is where we should also talk about diversity. There is no question we need more racial diversity, but we also need more diversity in terms of subject matter. That is why it is very heartwarming to see films like “Lady Bird” and “The Big Sick” being considered, because they are unique and specific. And those are two qualities that make for excellent art.