05 March, 2018

1043 minutes

So here's the thing.

Back in the years where there were five Best Picture nominees, there was almost always a significant amount of overlap between the Picture nominees and the Director nominees; while it was common for one of the Picture nominees to not have a Director nomination and vice versa, usually you could rely on those awards sharing four out of the five nominations. And that overlap is why, ever since the Academy increased the number of its Picture nominees, I’ve always internally thought of the Director nominees as the “actual” Picture nominees, and the other films are the also-rans. It doesn’t always hold – Argo won Picture without a Director nomination, and this year Three Billboards seems to have a real chance to win despite Martin McDonagh not having been recognised – but for the most part it holds.

Which is why I find the Director nominees so fascinating. I’ve seen a lot of attention focused on the nature of the Director nominees – two first-time directors in Gerwig and Peele and two long-time acclaimed directors who have never before been nominated in Del Toro and Nolan, as well as PT Anderson who is one of our great artists and who has never won. But what I found exciting was the level of involvement these filmmakers had with the film. Each of those films was written by their directors – The Shape of Water was co-written by Del Toro, while the other four films’ directors have sole writing credits. (You can also add Three Billboards in here as well – while the film doesn’t have a Director nomination, Martin McDonagh was the screenwriter on that Picture nominee.) In other words, none of these films are works for hire; these are all films that are intensely personal and shaped and moulded and made by their director into a unique expression of the person they are. Which is not to criticise directors like Spielberg or Guadagnino or Wright, who found scripts that spoke to them and worked hard to make those films theirs. But these five films particular feel specific and intimate and real.

[Comments on Lady Bird, The Shape of Water, Phantom Thread, Get Out, Dunkirk, Darkest Hour, Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, The Post, and Call Me By Your Name after the jump]

In recent years, the voting for Best Picture has become somewhat unpredictable, thanks to the introduction of a preferential voting system. When assessing which film will win, you don’t just need to consider which film will have the largest number of votes initially, but which films will have more people’s second- or third-favourite. I’ve seen a lot of different analysis trying to guess the outcome, with serious analysis creating arguments for The Shape of WaterThree BillboardsGet Out, or Lady Bird. Personally, I suspect The Shape of Water might be the most popular film, but might not get those lower votes; most people probably will love it as their favourite film, or will hate it and give it a low ranking. Three Billboards will similarly have a lot of people love it and a lot of low rankings due to the (justified) backlash against the film; and Get Out could do well but does come up against the problem that it is a more pulpy horror film. Which is why I personally think Lady Bird will win.

And I think it will be a very satisfying winner, because I found myself completely enamoured with Lady Bird. In a lot of ways it’s very simple – it’s basically a coming-of-age story about a teenage girl in her final year of high school – but there’s such richness and honesty to the film that it felt unique. The film touches on the expected material of the genre – through the film she has two boyfriends, both unsuitable; her first sexual experiences are disappointing; she abandons her life-long best friend in order to hang out with the “cool kids”; she clumsily struggles with her dreams and hopes and who she wants to be as an adult – and it’s excellent in its approach to these topics. I was also surprised to see the film so willing to explore the issues of class; attending a private Catholic school, Lady Bird is always aware of the wealth of those around her, even as money issues are a constant pressure for her parents. This is not an issue that the film throws out and then forgets about; it’s a constant undercurrent running through the film, whether its Lady Bird’s jokes about being born on the wrong side of the tracks, or her fantasising over her dream house and trying to hide her real house from her cool wealthy friends, or the pressures that her going to college will put on her parents.

But the real richness of the film comes from the way it focuses largely on Lady Bird’s relationship with her mother. And I loved it. There’s really nothing more that can be said about Saoirse Ronan’s work here that hasn't already been sad; she is one of the best young actors working today, and over the past ten-plus years has really worked to carefully develop a fascinating and exciting career. Similarly, Laurie Metcalf’s emotional journey throughout the film is one of the most subtly pitch-perfect performances of the year (it’s a shame she’ll probably lose to Allison Janney’s enjoyable but less-nuanced work in I, Tonya). The two together are flawless and engaging, and their scenes are wonderfully contentious. There’s a clear love between the two that is unmistakable, but it’s hindered by their complete inability to find a way to relate. It’s particularly smart in how wrong both of them are, how both of them are basically working to damage the relationship through their stubbornness and refusal to accept each other. It’s well-known that the film is at least semi-autobiographical for writer/director Greta Gerwig, and it’s in that relationship that it most feels so. You can feel Gerwig, with nearly twenty years of perspective on her teenage years, possibly realising how much she must have frustrated and hurt her parents, even as she’s aware of the things she needed but perhaps did not get from her mother. (Admittedly, that is just my speculation, but that’s how it feels.) And that honesty affects you as a viewer; I find it hard to imagine anyone watching the film and not reflecting on their own relationship with their parents.

But with all the attention deservedly given to Laurie Metcalf, I do feel that Tracy Letts work as Lady Bird’s father Larry has been overlooked. It’s a much smaller, less showy performance – he’s just the person holding the family together whenever Lady Bird and her mother are being wilful towards each other – but it’s one that is filled with love and affection and it’s beautiful to watch. In one of his best moments, Larry has an experience of deep disappointment and then immediately encounters his son Miguel. There are a multitude of emotions Larry seems to experience in that moment – humiliation and embarrassment and frustration, but also extreme pride and joy – and his response to his son is one of the expressions of pure parental love I think I've ever seen in a movie.

Speaking of Miguel, one thing I liked about the film was its willingness to just let situations exist without feeling the need to explain anything. For instance, Lady Bird’s older brother Miguel is clearly Latin-American and unlikely to be related by birth to both parents in this very white couple. How is it that Miguel is part of this family? Who knows? Who cares? Where other films might feel a need to explain the background to this character, Gerwig is happy just to establish it as a fact; Miguel is part of the family. It’s that kind of very specific choice that makes Gerwig’s film feel so real and lived in; these characters have history and a life that existed long before the film started and that will live past the end of the film.

And speaking of that sense of history running through the film, I loved Lady Bird’s deep friendship with Julie. There’s a wonderful scene when the two are fighting, and you can see Lady Bird wielding their friendship as a weapon, taking whispered confidences and secrets and throwing them back at Julie with venom; this felt like the kind of relationship where each of them knows exactly how to best hurt the other person. As Julie, Beanie Feldstein is one of the unsung heroes of the film. Her performance is easily overlooked because she’s always playing against the force of Saoirse Ronan, but you get the sense that’s just how their relationship always is; Julie is always overshadowed by Lady Bird.

Admittedly at times the comedy feels a little broad to be convincing – the film opens with Lady Bird jumping from a moving car to get away from her infuriating mother yet somehow she only has a broken arm, or there’s a moment where they bring in a football coach to take the drama club and he blocks the scene as though it were a football play without engaging with the content of the play. And there was one point in the film – a moment where Lady Bird asks her mother “Do you like me” and her mother awkwardly evades the question by talking about how much she loves Lady Bird – that disappointed me as it was the one moment where the film felt like it was obvious in spelling out its core idea underlying their conflict. But for the most part it’s a beautiful and rich film filled with subtle and thoughtful observations.

I particularly appreciated how frequently the film is willing to undercut expectations; so many times the film seems to be setting up one cliché or another, but then manages to move in an unexpected direction. Nor does it cynically exploit the emotional response of the audience; there’s a scene late in the film which had me moved close to tears, but where most films would drag such scenes how to elicit every tear possible, this film instead took the barest minimum time to establish the key information required and the emotional impact it would have but then stepped back, acknowledging the moment as an intimate and private moment between Lady Bird and her parents. Ultimately, the film is close to perfect, rarely putting a foot wrong. What makes Lady Bird so effective is that, for all the coming of age films we’ve seen, this feels different. The considered examination of the relationship between this teenage girl and her mother seems unique; it’s something I don’t believe I’ve ever seen before. I really can’t recommend this film enough.

As I suggested earlier, I think the most popular film (even if not the actual winner) might be Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water. I’ve heard people suggest that the film is better than Pan’s Labyrinth; I’m not sure I’d go quite that far (Pan is an incredible film, and one of the best of the 2000s), but it’s certainly del Toro’s best since then, and almost certainly his best chance for the Director award from the Academy.

The film focuses on Elisa, a mute woman working as a cleaner in a government facility, who falls in love with the fish-man creature who is the subject of the facility’s research work, and who becomes determined to help the creature escape with her co-worker Zelda and her neighbour Giles. It’s a film about people who are pushed aside, people who are “the other”. In a 1950s world in which the straight white male is king, this is a film that is intensely focused on the experiences of a woman living with a disability, a black woman, and a gay man. And it’s also about a fish man, who probably counts as “other” also. And it’s about these people searching for love and meaning in a world that doesn’t notice them.

Del Toro has always had a fascination for creatures of all kind, he’s talked about the beauty of monsters, and he’s talked about The Shape of Water as being The Creature from the Black Lagoon if the creature actually got the girl. Now, going into a film with that premise, you might expect something sweet and gentle, but not too uncomfortable. After all, a film with this subject matter is hardly going to push its concept to its furthest extreme for fear of isolating the audience. But del Toro isn’t interested in taking it easy on the audience, and he’s completely sincere about fully exploring that emotional space. So while the film is lushly romantic, it’s not the simple chaste romance I had expected. When we’re introduced to Sally Hawkins’ character, we’re introduced to her while she pleasures herself in the bathtub; this is not some sweet innocent figure, but a mature adult with specifically sexual needs. And when she meets the creature, it’s not just a meeting of two souls who find commonality in each other; there is an unambiguous erotic desire between the two that the film does explore and finds beauty in. Admittedly, the moment where their relationship is consummated may be logistically improbable, but you really don’t care because the film has the emotional substance to carry the moment.

And at the same time, the film deliberately tries to make this relationship uncomfortable for us. It would be easier for us to accept this relationship if the fish-creature acted as though he were a man that happened to be in the body of this creature. But del Toro doesn’t do that; this is an actual animal with the impulses of an animal that are not bound by accepted human behaviour. So there are some shocking moments in the film (that I have no doubt would put off many viewers) where the creature acts as an animal, but we are expected to still look at this creature and be swept up in this central loving relationship. And it works, simply because of the richness and delicacy of the performances of Doug Jones and Sally Hawkins; they commit themselves absolutely to the realism and intensity of their love for each other.

But as with much of del Toro’s work, the film dances between wildly varying tones. So yes, it is intensely romantic, but at the same time, it is frequently horrific, in particular with some stomach-churning body horror moments. Indeed, I literally looked away from the screen in one moment where a character is dragged along the ground by a hole in their cheek. (Del Toro seems to have a thing about cheeks; one of the most memorable moments in Pan’s Labyrinth also features an act of extreme violence to someone’s cheek.) There’s a recurring element through the film where one character has a finger that is slowly decaying and rotting, repulsing everyone else. And then there are the many moments where the creature acts less as a romantic love interest and more as “the monster” in a monster movie. And what happens is that, as the film moves between the romance and the horror, they interact and play these tones off each other. So the love story is intensified and becomes more urgent because of the horror, while the horror feels more shocking because it seems so at odds with the beauty of the film’s romantic tone.

People have been talking about Sally Hawkins’ work for months, and deservedly so. For a start, when we look at the creature, we see something that we would expect to see in a Universal monster movie, so she needs to convince us that when she looks at the creature she sees something beautiful and sweet and lovable. We need to believe that she is completely in love with this being, as incredible as it may seem. And she has to do that without the use of her voice. And she sells it. You want to inspire the kind of look of love that she has when she’s thinking about him.

But as great as Sally Hawkins is, and as deserved as her nomination is, one thing I am disappointed by is how little attention is being given to Doug Jones’s work as the fish creature. Jones is almost certainly the best creature performer working; a beautifully demonstrative physical actor with an innate understanding of how to create a subtle and tender performance below piles of obscuring latex. The sad thing is that people will look at Gary Oldman’s work in Darkest Hour and be so wowed by the transformative makeup that they’ll effectively give an award just for that, but then they’ll just dismiss the truly exquisite performance given by someone like Doug Jones as “just a monster”. This is a performance. We get his pain and suffering at being experimented on, we get the cautious and tentative movement towards trusting this young woman who shares her boiled eggs with him, we get his marvel at discovering the world outside his laboratory, we get the joy of true love. There’s even a beautiful moment where Jones is called on to dance, and there’s rapture in this moment that is one of the best things I’ve seen this past year.

The rest of the actors all do well with the material they are given, although there’s possibly less subtlety in their material than is given to our leads. But I did really love Richard Jenkins’ work in particular as Elisa’s gay neighbour, Giles. Jenkins is one of those always-reliable character actors who I’m always excited to see; here, his meek resignation to a life of loneliness and heartache is tragic and moving, and the committed and loving friendship between Giles and Elisa is beautiful. Jenkins and Hawkins seem to get real joy working off each other; in particular, my favourite moment of the film comes when Elisa, trying to communicate with Giles through sign language but frustrated that he’s not really listening to her, angrily demands that he speak her words aloud. So often when we’re in an argument you don’t hear what the other person is actually saying, and the exchange of point of view that comes with actually having to express the other person’s words you’re forced to actually hear what they’re saying.

If I have an issue with the film, it’s with the very end. I’m reluctant to say too much, but I did feel that it seemed to suggest a change in the central relationship so that it wasn’t about two souls connecting despite their differences, and that it sought instead to offer a reason for that connection. I did feel that was a misstep; part of the joy of the film is this mystery of these two finding each other despite everything, and the explanation that seems to be offered is a little too obvious for me. Still, it’s a quibble in an otherwise charming and magical film, one I look forward to revisiting.

The film I’m happiest to see nominated is Phantom Thread, the bizarre story of a 1950s fashion designer, Reynolds Woodcock, who meets a timid and quiet young waitress named Alma and is instantly fascinated by her. He invites her to live with him as both his muse and his lover, but after a while he grows tired of her, and so she decides to take measures to prevent herself from being discarded as all of Reynolds’ previous muses have been. And so the film turns into this strange power struggle between these two characters trying to achieve dominance in the relationship.

After I’d seen the film, I went to the BBFC’s website (which always has very detailed descriptions about content of concern in a film) to check the details for Phantom Thread. Primarily I wanted to check my memory: am I right in thinking there was no sex in that film? At all? Indeed I was right – the closest the BBFC listing comes is noting that, in one scene, “a woman's nipples are visible through her slip while she is measured for a dress.” I’ve never walked out of a film being uncertain about whether it had a sex scene or not, but Paul Thomas Anderson does something in this film that I don’t understand; he somehow infuses it with such an air of intense eroticism that it feels as though we must have had such a moment, even though it’s not there. If anything, Reynolds Woodcock seems most aroused when he’s putting clothes on women rather than taking them off, and yet there’s an overpowering desire and intimacy fuelling the drama that fills the film.

I’d consciously decided not to kno anything about the film in advance; I’d avoided the trailers, the reviews; if a podcast even mentioned the film title I would skip ahead. After all, it’s a Paul Thomas Anderson film, so I know I’m going to see it. The one thing I knew about the film was a description I had heard someone make months ago, before the trailer even came out, long before anyone had ever seen it. This comment suggested the film was “an art-house version of Fifty Shades of Grey”. In all the most obvious ways, it’s entirely misleading (like I said, there is no sex in the film at all), and yet at the same time it’s weirdly apt – there’s an element of almost sadomasochism in the central relationship that is so bizarre and uncomfortable that you can imagine the Fifty Shades characters blanching at how extreme it becomes.

The performances in this film are incredible. Daniel Day-Lewis announced that he was retiring while filming Phantom Thread, (he learned how to make dresses while preparing for the role, and according to some reports I’ve seen he’s planning to move to making clothing full-time,) and if indeed this is the final performance we’ll ever get from the man then at least he’s gone out on a great note. His Reynolds is an uncomfortable person to be around; there’s a precision in his voice, in his behaviour, in his mannerisms, but it’s a burdened damaged precision, as though he’s trying to hold himself together by force of will. And there’s a stubborn refusal to change; in one moment there’s a discussion about the concept of chic, which Reynolds doesn’t really understand. Reynolds really is a man out of his time; he has a very clear understanding about what he considers to be beautiful, and his clothing genuinely is striking, but its flowery excess feels increasingly out of place in a world that will come to prefer an elegance of simplicity.

I’ve never seen Vicky Krieps before, but she is extraordinary here as Reynolds' lover Alma; there’s a blank passivity to her performance that somehow escalates the emotional turmoil the character displays. She’s called on to sell a particular turn that her character takes, and the fact that it feels natural and believable is all down to her performance. What’s particularly surprising is that the character’s motivation is often unclear – we can see she’s alone in a foreign country in her pre-Reynolds life, and so it’s entirely possible that her relationship with Reynolds is driven less by a genuine affection and love for the man (who does at times treat her very poorly) and more out of a desire to keep a lifestyle that she might otherwise be forced to give up. And yet her character somehow always remains sympathetic, despite how mercenary she is in some of her actions.

I was also pleased to see Lesley Manville nominated for her work as Reynold’s ever-present sister; the careful understanding she has with her brother and the care she takes to control his environment for him is a delight to watch, even if it’s not the obvious showy performance that often tends to be noticed.

And I was fascinated by how effective the film was in getting you into the mind-set of the characters – the film unmistakably fetishizes the dressmaking process, and there’s a wonderful sense of tactility that it brings to the experience; as you examine the fabrics close up you can almost feel what it would be like to touch it, how it feels against your skin, and how the texture of one piece differs from the next. It was so effective that I started noticing the other ordinary clothing that people were wearing, thinking how that blouse would have a rougher feel than the one she was wearing earlier. As someone whose sole sense of the feel of clothing is wearing a new suncap to the cricket and noticing how uncomfortable it is against my forehead, to be so aware of the differences in fabric feel was a very new experience for me.

Paul Thomas Anderson is a filmmaker I’ve long loved. Admittedly I do feel like I may be the only person who doesn’t fully love There Will Be Blood (I admire and like the film, but there’s something about the tone of the film that doesn’t allow me to fully embrace it), but beyond that, his work is just uniformly incredible. After a promising start with Hard Eight, the man gave us Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love, The Master, and Inherent Vice. That is an incredible career of films that I adore. And yet I genuinely think Phantom Thread may be the best film he’s ever given us. I’m thrilled that this is a film that exists; I’m excited to grapple with it and delve into its riches. This is a great, beautiful, and wonderful work of cinema.

I’d never really cared too much about Jordan Peele before, largely because I never really connected to Key and Peele, the comedy show he made with Keegan-Michael Key. I’d liked the two of them when I’d seen them working simply as actors, but anytime they were the driving creative force behind a project, whether it be Key and Peele or their movie Keanu it just never worked for me. Which was why I was so surprised by how much I really liked Get Out, the new horror film written and directed by Jordan Peele.

(A quick word about categorisation: A lot of people have described it as a horror-comedy – and indeed the film was nominated in the Golden Globes as a comedy – but that’s a description I would resist. I can understand the temptation, as Peele does have a comedy background, and the film is very funny at times. But to me the phrase “horror-comedy” tends to mean a film in which the horror and comedy are intermixed to a greater degree – think of Evil Dead II, where Ash’s hand is possessed and tries to kill him. Get Out doesn’t do that; instead it takes its horror very seriously (even if it uses its horror for satirical purposes), and uses its comedic moments – which are mostly provided by one side character in particular – to ease the tension, in the same way that any other dramatic movie will use comedy in order to allow the audience to breathe. In other words, this is absolutely a horror film, and it really does lessen the impact of the film to in any way classify it as a comedy.)

The film centres on Chris, a young black man who is in a relationship with a white woman called Rose. He’s invited to go down to her family’s estate for the weekend, which he does against the best advice of his best friend. Once there he finds himself the centre of attention for this community of white people, who are weirdly almost too eager to let him know how cool they are with him being black and how not-racist they are – as Rose’s father points out, he would have voted for Obama a third time if it had been allowed – and there are very good reasons why they rely on black servants. And Rose’s mother is entirely justified in hypnotising Chris to help him quit smoking. Everything is fine, everything is okay, there’s no cause for alarm.

I loved the very specific choice that the film makes in its exploration of its themes. When you hear that premise of a horror film about a black man visiting his white girlfriend’s family, you imagine a very specific scenario, you imagine a typical redneck Klan family. This is not that. This is a good, intelligent, liberal family, who take pride in their open and accepting attitudes, and who use it as a way of shielding their intentions. These are people who may profess not to be racist, but for whom a person is ultimately defined by their skin colour, who might think people from another race or another culture are fine as long as they fit into their precisely measured world of acceptability, and who consciously or unconsciously look to use people with "differences" for their own purposes. I’ve heard stories about good white liberals going to a film expecting to see a film about how terrible racists are, and then being shocked and uncomfortable to realise that they themselves were the villains of this film. And that is smart, because it doesn’t let the viewer off. If the film’s villain is some two-dimensional Klansman, it’s easy to dismiss that, say “I’m not that”. This film hits closer to home, it should make everyone uncomfortable. You can’t help but wonder, am I like the Armitages? I hope not; I don’t think so; and then you stop and you think, not just about the things you say, but the things you think, the things you might never express aloud, and you think, my gosh, I really am the bad guy. Am I?

The performances in here are almost uniformly exceptional. Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford as the parents, our main figures of suspicion and threat, give incredibly fun performances, with a sinister self-satisfied edge to their performance. Keener in particular gives a strange softness to her character that set me on edge. It’s always a delight to see Stephen Root, and he’s having delirious fun as a blind art dealer who greatly admires Chris’s artistic ability. Allison Williams is called on to walk a delicate tightrope; we can never be sure about her role in the film’s events, whether she’s aware of her family’s activities or whether she’s oblivious to them, and I was impressed by how well she manages to walk that line of sweet and sinister throughout the film. There’s also the sheer delight that is Lil Rel Howery as TSA officer Rod Williams; in addition to being the voice of the audience yelling at Chris to leave this place, he’s also called on to carry much of the comedic load of the film and he is just a revelation – his recurring obsession that they’re making people into sex slaves is one of the funniest pieces of business I’ve seen all year.

But the real highlight of the film is Daniel Kaluuya’s star performance. As Chris, Kaluuya has to carry some real acting weight. He has to lie to himself, tell himself that everything is okay, and we need to see him lying to himself. He has to be uncomfortable, but accepting of that discomfort since that’s just what he expects this experience to be like. He needs to be constantly on edge, constantly questioning, but accepting of what he’s told because his imaginings are too absurd to be true. Above all, he has to trust these people, but not seem naïve for doing so despite all of the warning signals he’s given. In the film’s best-known moment, he’s even called on to give a performance while his character is literally paralysed and unable to move a muscle, and his absolute haunted terror in that moment casts a spell over the entire film. There's a reason why almost every article about the movie uses a photo of that moment as an illustration.)

It might seem unusual that a film like this would be directed by someone with such a comedy background, but the more you think about it the more it makes sense. They might seem like opposite ends of the spectrum, but they’re both at their core about eliciting an instinctive response. Assessing the success of a dramatic work can be difficult, as there’s a lot of variation in the specific emotional response that you may or may not get from the audience, but it’s a lot more black-and-white to determine if a comedy or horror are successful; with comedy, you either find it funny or you don’t, and with horror, you either find it scary or you don’t.

Horror has always been used as a vehicle for exploring the issues of the day, and what has been fascinating is reading commentary on this film from black commentators who are able to talk about how real the experiences presented in this film really are. When you make a horror film, the audience is expecting bad things to happen, and so every interaction is tinged with extra meaning and expectation of bad things to come. I’ve never had that experience of being black in a room of white people with a feeling of being judged for my skin colour, but the way the film uses the threat inherent in being a horror film to communicate that experience is extremely effective.

One of my favourite podcasters, Tyler Smith of Battleship Pretension, was recently talking about Get Out as an example of the way a message movie really should work. This is a film that is big and angry and wants to rage against a society that made its existence necessary. But it’s also a film that understands that you need to make your argument heard, and to do that you need to make a film that people will want to see. And so Get Out is first and foremost interested in being a piece of entertainment. It’s not interested in yelling at its audience. It wants to take them on a journey, make them laugh a bit, make them scream a lot, and then it plants a seed that leaves you reflecting on the experience you’ve just had.

Until I went to see the Christopher Nolan movie, I knew literally nothing about the story of Dunkirk. Literally nothing. I’d heard the name, but had always thought it was the location of a battle until I made such a statement in a conversation at work and was corrected. So I approached the film extremely curious. What kind of war film can this be if it’s not about a battle?

In May 1940, the Allied forces were on the verge of losing World War II, with most of the troops in France pinned down on the beach at Dunkirk, trapped by the German forces that surround them, and without the capability to transport the men out of France and over the Channel to home. And so a call went out for every boat possible to sail across from England to help carry the men back home.

In a weird way, the approach Nolan takes to Dunkirk could almost be described as experimental. He adopts a structure for the film where the film tells three stories simultaneously – the story of the troops on the beach, of a civilian boat crossing the Channel to help with the evacuation, and of a Spitfire pilot fighting the German planes above the beach. What’s unexpected is that each of those stories is told on a different timescale – the troops on the beach cover one week, the boats one day, and the plane one hour – and the timescales merge together into one great piece. In some ways it’s almost like the way time ran at different speeds in Inception, except in the context of a real-world war film rather than a strange science-fiction dream heist movie. But it’s an approach that weirdly makes sense. After all, the troops were on the beach for a week, but it doesn’t take a week to sail across the Channel, and good luck for the pilot who tried to fly a Spitfire for a whole day, let alone a week. But at the same time, you don’t want a situation where you spend the whole film on the beach, and then suddenly have these boats arrive out of nowhere, or unexpectedly focusing intently on this one plane that has previously barely been in the film. So to avoid that, most films would allow the speed of events on the beach to dictate the film’s timeframe, and occasionally cut to boat owner Dawson as he goes about his business or to pilot Farrier as he flies on various missions, so that they are well-established by the time they actually become important to the story. But you don’t want that, because that’s a lot of screen time wasted just to justify bringing in these characters at the eleventh hour. Instead, the shifting timeframes allows Nolan the flexibility to focus his film on the actual story he wanted to tell, never stepping away from his focus on Dunkirk, while being able to time the beats in each individual story to that he can ensure that each reaches its climax at the perfect point so that the movie as a whole can hit its climax. It’s very carefully, masterfully constructed, and while the film is unlikely to take any of the big awards, if it takes Best Editing it will be well deserved.

The film is also experiential in a way that few war films I’ve seen really are. For a start, we’re only ever on the beach, sailing to the beach, or flying over the beach. This is not a film where we’re given any background to events; we never cut away to general or politicians debating the best tactics for achieving their goals. Instead we just spend time with the actual people whose lives will be shaped by being at Dunkirk, experiencing what they experience, and because they don’t have a broader context for the war we don’t get a broader context. But in addition, the film is remarkable in the way it communicates what it is like to be in that situation. There’s a sequence where the civilian boat rescues a shell-shocked soldier, and the absolute horror he feels when he learns they’re sailing back to Dunkirk is palpable. And we believe that response, because we were on the ship when it was sinking and we felt that terror of feeling like we were going to drown. We were in that beached boat hiding from the German bullets punching holes all around. And there was never any reprieve, because if whenever we left the beach, we were only ever cutting to a damaged plane being flown by a pilot with no idea how much fuel he has left, or a woefully unprepared boat sailing into a warzone. This film reaches a level of experiential intensity and realism that I don’t think I’ve ever encountered before in a movie. Indeed I was relieved to find the film ending after only 100 minutes; Nolan’s films tend to be longer than most, but the tension in this film was so high and so sustained that had it been as long as his regular films either the accumulated tension would be simply unbearable or he would have had to do something to ease the tension and lessen the film’s ultimate impact.

Nolan makes a particularly interesting choice to keep much of the film dialogue free. It’s entirely possible this was partly driven by practical considerations – about three-quarters of the film was shot in IMAX format, and the IMAX cameras are famously noisy, but if no-one says anything, then there’s no dialogue to redub later. But it does feel like it was a choice driven primarily from creative choices. We’ve all seen war films where the soldiers hunker down and talk about the life they’ve left behind, and it never fails to give the audience a chance to pause and recover ourselves for the next onslaught, and Nolan has no interest in allowing us to do that. Admittedly it does limit your connection to the characters themselves – while you can at least keep track of those prominent characters played by recognisable actors, most of the soldiers on the beach in particular blur together and are largely indistinguishable from each other. But too much time spent on dialogue to introduce any nuance or characterisation to individual soldiers feels as though it will take away from the overwhelming experience of the movie as a whole. And that’s a trade-off I’m okay with. I can get interesting and realistic characters in a multitude of films; Dunkirk seems interested in giving me a different experience, and one that is utterly unique.

One thing I particularly appreciated about the movie was how much the film relied on practical effects. While it’s by no means devoid of CG effects, there was a conscious choice to minimise CG where possible. So they had thousands of extras, over fifty ships, actual WWII planes flying overhead, explosions happening around the beach and in the water. I’m convinced this focus on actually recreating the events on the actual beach, rather than just taking the easier route of filming a largely empty beach and dropping a few thousand people or a dozen ships to fill the screen, is one of the key factors that leads to the sense of genuine realism of the film and the experience it inflicts on the audience.

And all this extreme, intense experience is wrapped up in this incredible story. I’d heard the phrase “Dunkirk spirit” before, but never really understood what it meant, but after seeing this film it’s very clear what significance that idea holds. This is a story of the heights of heroism and the lows of cowardice, which is true of all war films, but the specific story being told means it comes at that idea from a completely different direction. For the soldiers who would ordinarily be the heroes of most films, it’s just a story about survival; they’re not taking on the Germans, they’re in full retreat and just trying to last. The heroism instead is by ordinary civilians who have the choice to stand back and not engage, but who instead step forward willing to sacrifice their own lives in order to accomplish something extraordinary. And in its remarkable filmmaking Dunkirk allows us to experience everything that is incredible and awe-inspiring about that event.

Rather interestingly, Dunkirk is not the only Picture nominee to deal with those events; if you were disappointed by Dunkirk’s lack of behind-the-scenes exploration of the evacuation, Joe Wright’s film Darkest Hour is focused on the political machinations taking place at the same time, and the evacuation is a notable subplot in the film. The movie focuses on Winston Churchill in May 1940, his first month as Prime Minister, when he had to decide whether to follow the prompting of his fellow party members and push for peace with Hitler, or stand and continue to fight.

Darkest Hour is probably the most obviously “Oscar bait” movie nominated this year; it’s a premium historical drama very much anchored by Gary Oldman’s performance as Churchill. I’d been a bit wary about the performance going in – I’d earlier heard a clip of the film on a podcast and it sounded completely overdone – but looking at the performance as a whole, with visuals rather than just audio, the performance works. But it seems like the type of performance that will win the Oscar but shouldn’t – it’s a situation where you feel most of his performance is done by the makeup, which completely transforms Oldman until he is unrecognisable, while he himself is just called on to do an impersonation of one of the most easily impression-able figures of last century. It feels like you’re watching Churchill, to be sure, but it never really feels like a performance that gets below the character’s surface level.

One thing I’ve always been puzzled by is the fact that, having just led England to victory in World War II, Churchill then lost the election the same year the war ended. Although the film deals with the start of his term as PM and not its end, the film does quite well in explaining this fact. It essentially suggests that Churchill was perhaps not a great leader in ordinary times – at various points in the film we’re given a litany of his various political and strategic failings – but that he was the right man to lead the nation at that one time.

Indeed, one of the things I found most enjoyable about the movie was its portrait of the degree to which Churchill had to fight tensions within his own party, with people who were waiting for him to fail. Chamberlain was reluctant to resign, having been pressured to go largely by a lack of confidence in him by the opposition at a time when the Prime Minister really needed broad support across the House, although he still retained a lot of influence in his own party. Churchill was therefore the unpopular candidate who was nevertheless sufficiently politically acceptable to fill the seat until the opportunity to take a better candidate would present itself, and much of the drama is driven by these tensions. I was impressed with how effective the film was in exploring the way these behind-the-scenes political manoeuvring can dictate the public political sphere.

As someone who has a particular passion for the parliamentary process, it was a real delight when the movie opened on a stunning recreation of the Westminster House of Representatives circa 1940. It’s absolutely stunning, filled with dark atmospheric shadows, and the (admittedly limited) time the movie spent watching the House operating was wonderful. (There’s also an entertaining video of the House singing along to "Hey Jude" between takes, which is fun to watch.)

The biggest problem with the film comes in a moment in the climax of the film. Having notably established that Churchill had never taken public transport in his life, on his way to deliver one of his career-defining speeches, Churchill impulsively jumps out of his car, goes to the Underground, asks for directions to how to get to Westminster, then gets on the train and spends his ride talking to people about how they feel about the war. Firstly, and this is picky, but it took me out of the film when they established that Churchill was only one stop away from the Westminster station but he’s able to have an extended discussion during the time to travel that one stop; as an experienced train commuter (albeit in Wellington rather than London) while I was watching the film I thought the time seemed much too long, a fact that was borne out by similar criticism I seen from people with actual experience of the London Underground. It was particularly annoying because the solution was so easy; have him be three stops away rather than one.

But the bigger criticism of that moment is just that the scene plays as false; I didn’t believe that the Prime Minister, going to a major speech, would take the train for the first time ever just to talk to people. I’ve read articles with the screenwriter who admits that it didn’t happen but argues that it could have happened, that Churchill was known to vanish and be found wandering around talking to people and asking their opinions. And that’s great to know. But the execution here means the moment feels untrue, unconvincing, which meant that it didn't work. All they needed to do was establish that this is something he does, have an earlier scene where no-one can find him and he’s out wandering the markets, and suddenly the train scene works better because it’s part of established behaviour. But as it is, as a stand-alone sequence, it was so unsuccessful that when I left the film the only thing I could think about was how much I hated that scene. 

Darkest Hour is for the most part a perfectly entertaining film, but it's definitely a film that feels out of place when compared to the quality of much of the rest of the field. It does feel as though every element of the film was designed specifically to increase the chances of winning an Oscar. It will probably achieve its goal, if only because the Academy has always liked to recognise big performances with lots of transformative makeup rather than having to consider the more subtle nuances that come with giving a more complex and interesting acting performance.

Another film that’s likely to take several acting awards is Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri. I went into the film uncertain what to expect; I’d heard some rapturous reviews coming out of film festivals, I’d enjoyed some of Martin McDonagh’s prior work, and the trailer made me laugh out loud, but then the backlash struck, with some critics I really respect and trust really disliking the film. In the end, I think it falls somewhere in the middle.

Frances McDormand stars as Mildred, a mother whose daughter was raped and murdered seven months earlier. Angry at the lack of progress in finding her daughter’s killer, she rents three billboards to post questions about the police’s lack of action. While the billboards specifically name Woody Harrelson’s chief of police, her anger tends to be targeted towards one police officer in particular, played by Sam Rockwell, who has been accused of apparently torturing a black man while in custody.

There’s a lot to like, even love, about the film. The dialogue in the film is probably the film’s greatest strength, particularly in its use of profanity. Mildred in particular is an angry character, justifiably so, and her dialogue is often a constant stream of profanity that feels like an explosion of rage that she can’t express any other way. At the same time McDonagh is an extremely witty writer, and in particular he has a talent for a rhythmic and creative use of relentless profanity that reminds you of the best work of Armando Ianucci, Which means that the way he uses profanity to heighten the dialogue has an effect of making it extremely funny. Which is fascinating, because I can’t understand how it works; how do you take a serious character, make their dialogue genuinely laugh-out-loud funny, without undercutting the seriousness of the emotions driving that dialogue? And yet that's what he does. 

But there are also issues. For a start, McDonagh seems to have wanted to put so many more issues into the film than it has space for. The most glaring example is the issue of race. I’ve actually heard interviews with McDonagh where he talked about wanting to talk about racist attitudes in the police. So we hear people talking about how Sam Rockwell’s character tortured a black man in custody, Mildred gives an interview in which she talks about the police being too busy torturing black folks to catch her daughter’s killer, and in one scene where Mildred calls Rockwell a “n***** torturer” she is corrected by Rockwell that the phrase is “person-of-colour torturer” in the exact way that makes clear he has had to be told not to use the N-word. But we never see the supposed torture of the black person, we barely have any black characters of any substance, and when we do see the supposed racist police officer violently assaulting someone it’s a white person he’s attacking – he even states as he does it that he’s not torturing this person because he’s a racist, it’s because he’s an asshole who hates everyone. All of which means this theme McDonagh wanted to address is actively undercut by the film he’s made. The disappointing thing is that, with a couple more drafts, the film could be effective in discussing these issues, but as it is its interest seems half-hearted, as though it’s leaping onto the Black Lives Matter bandwagon without adequately integrating the idea into the film.

But the film does that all the time. McDonagh decides he’s angry with the Catholic church for all the child sex abuse scandals – which is an entirely reasonable position to take – but it doesn’t fit in this film, so he has to force it into the film in an entirely artificial way, introducing a local priest for a single scene for Mildred to yell at. The problem is, if Mildred is raging at the world because of her situation, she has the audience’s sympathy; if she’s raging over the generally evil state of the world, then she’s just an angry figure who is using her daughter’s death to justify her behaviour, and that is much less sympathetic. A similarly poorly considered plot element arises when the film decides to have a main character commit suicide; this should be a big deal, but it seems to have happened largely for the personal development of another character – development that could have happened in another way that didn’t involve killing a character I was invested in. There is so much that happens in the film just because, and it feels lazy.

And then there are the points where McDonagh simply doesn’t seem to have thought about the implications of how scenes play together. Witness, for instance, the character of Penelope, the 19-year-old girlfriend of Mildred’s ex-husband Charlie. In her every scene, Penelope is played for laughs; she’s sweet, naïve, a little bit stupid, but in her few scenes the character is genuinely likeable and I cared about her. But she is also in a relationship with a man who is seriously abusive – in his first scene Charlie literally grabs Mildred by the throat – and after that moment it’s hard to be comfortable with the film treating Penelope as light comic relief; I might find it easier to laugh at her naiveté if I wasn’t thinking about how that naiveté had led her into a life-threatening position.

Or there’s the fact that everyone seems to simply indulge characters for their actions, with little thought to the real-life consequences for such action. Mildred goes around assaulting people, whether it’s violently kicking teenagers between their legs or drilling holes in people’s fingernails, and yet seems to only attract a minor telling off, as though “We know you’re going through something, so we’ll just look the other way as you work through it by attacking anyone you want.” And by the end someone is literally thrown through a first-floor window to fall several metres onto the concrete below, while someone else throws Molotov cocktails into a building causing horrific burns to the person in that building, and yet the worst consequence faced by anyone for these crimes seems to be, not that they go to prison, but that someone loses their job.

And then there’s just something about the story structure that didn’t work for me. In particular, there’s a weird lag in the third act that completely threw me. The Molotov cocktail scene felt to me like the film had reached its climax, and it was now nearing its end. Except that the film just carried on and on after it. Some of that material was necessary for the place that the film ultimately arrived at (you need a lot of Sam Rockwell’s scenes, for instance, for the character’s development), but a lot of it also felt largely unnecessary. There’s an entire subplot of Mildred reluctantly going on a date with Peter Dinklage that is introduced very late and that feels as though it contributes very little; I’m a fan of Dinklage, but he does deserve better than this. (I’m also uncomfortable to have Mildred be so openly disdainful of Dinklage, who has never been anything less than sweet and kind; the fact that he’s a little person adds an extra dimension to their relationship, and I’m not sure if we’re supposed to believe that is a factor in her attitude or not.)

The frustrating thing is that there is so much more to say about the film. I have so many problems with the film that I haven’t had a chance to express yet. And yet it’s a genuinely enjoyable film. The experience of watching the film is great; I laughed big belly laughs throughout the film, and was fully entertained throughout. There are wonderful performances; I don’t begrudge any of the awards given to the actors. But the issues with the film, the things that continue to nag and bother me about the film, come down to a script that seems more focused on finding the funniest line of dialogue than in the actual structure of the story and that only ever half-heartedly engages with the ideas McDonagh wanted to discuss. The problem is that Three Billboards feels as though it has a chance of winning Best Picture, and I hope it doesn’t. The film is too proud of itself while taking too many shortcuts to really justify that type of acclaim.

There was a joke in this year’s Golden Globes where host Seth Myers mentioned the film The Post, and someone with a handful of awards immediately came running in and had to be sent off being told it was “too early for that”. Indeed it was much too early for that — The Post won no Golden Globes at all — and having seen the film, the joke seems rather baffling; the notion that this is some kind of presumptive winner that would sweep all categories makes very little sense to me. Don’t get me wrong, the film is a likeable and solid piece of cinema, but it’s little more than that, and for me it hasn’t had the lingering impact that many of the other nominees have had.

The film looks at the decision of the Washington Post, especially paper owner Katharine Graham and editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee, to publish the Pentagon Papers exposing government deception over Vietnam in the aftermath of legal action taken against the New York Times for publishing the same material.

The film inevitably needs to be compared to Spotlight, the Oscar-winning film about the Boston Globe’s investigation into abuse in the Catholic Church. (It’s a comparison that is particularly relevant when you realise Josh Singer co-wrote both films.) And it’s a comparison where The Post falls short. Spotlight did a phenomenal job in making the actual work of reporting feel vital and exciting, most notably in a brilliant montage of people circling names in directories or rummaging through old newspaper reports to piece together information; in other words, the film used cinematic techniques to communicate the experience and excitement of making these discoveries. The Post doesn’t really succeed in the same way; it’s all scenes of lots of poorly-defined people in the one room reading, occasionally reading out some sentence or asking “Has anyone got the second page of this document?” We can see how excited the reporters are, but it didn’t have that same sense of communicating what this experience is like.

Possibly part of the problem is that, even as I was watching the film, I found myself wondering “Why are you telling THIS story?” I had initially assumed it would have been the Post that broke the story of the Pentagon Papers, and was shocked when the New York Times started publishing the material. The first part of the film has Bradlee and his team far behind the story, trying to catch up to where the Times is already at. In the end, they really only become important because they make the decision to pick things up when the Times is legally barred from printing any more of the documents. Which was a good and important decision on the part of the Post, but I still wonder “Why this story?” Sure, there’s some drama in presenting the decision to publish as one that could bring down the paper, but it doesn’t feel that big a decision; by the time they did that, it was already clearly a story of huge public interest. Much more dramatic, I thought, would be a film about the New York Times being confronted with this mass of material, not knowing what they had, not even knowing if they can rely on their source, and discovering this massive story and having to debate in a vacuum whether or not it’s even in the public interest to release this information; that would certainly be a more dramatic film.

The thing is, it’s well known that the film has really only come together this year. Spielberg apparently read the script about a week after Trump’s inauguration, when everyone was debating “fake news”, and the film is very clearly a response to current events; you have the news media publishing stories the president doesn’t like, so the president uses every mechanism at his disposal to silence the story, whether by using legal means in the case of Nixon, or by just trying to discredit them in Trump’s case. And if you view it from that point of view, the decision to focus on the Post makes more sense; the team at the Times were all men, but the Post had Katherine Graham as a key figure and, especially given the current climate and the allegations that were made about Trump during the election, making a film centred on a woman becomes a political decision. But that decision means you risk telling the least dramatic version of this story, sacrificing the long-term life of the film for a short-term purpose. It also hampers the film because Graham is largely irrelevant through much of the film; her plotline tends to be more focused on her social events and her company’s IPO than the actual news story her paper is trying to publish. But they needed to keep Graham around in the story because (a) she’s played by Meryl Streep, so she needs things to do, and (b) she needs to be an ongoing presence in the film so that she doesn’t feel like she came out of nowhere when she says “Print the story.” (It also doesn’t help that I didn’t really care for Streep here; in a film filled with excellent performances, I felt I could see her thinking through her acting choices at every moment of the story.)

I really enjoyed the way the film looked at the conflicted relationships that can develop between politicians and the media. In one scene, former Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara tells his long-time friend Katherine Graham about the Times’ upcoming coverage while he’s a guest at a dinner party held by her. In another moment, Ben Bradlee remembers his friendship with JFK, and discusses how he met with Jackie Kennedy so soon after the assassination that she was literally still wearing the blood-stained dress. The media is supposed to hold the government to account for its actions, and yet the people who make the decisions about what is and is not news are so entwined in their personal relationships with the people they should be covering that they’re in effect compromised and don’t have the distance needed to effectively scrutinise these people.

I loved the way the film delighted in the physical process of printing the paper in the days before computers. You watch them preparing the articles one letter at a time, checking it, there’s melted metal and massive machines, it feels hot and grimy and exhausting, and as you watch it you realise how insane it is that they went through all this entire process from scratch every single day to produce something that would be thrown away at the end of the day. It’s an incredible process to watch; while it must be so much easier to put together a paper today in the age of computers, it feels less wonderful, less miraculous somehow.

I liked the way they dealt with Nixon. He’s obviously an essential figure hovering over the entire story, but he’s not an active participant in the actual events portrayed, and movie attempts to incorporate such a recognisable and larger-than-life figure can often feel distracting and distancing. The film’s solution – to only ever view the man from a distance while hearing the actual tapes that Nixon made of his conversations – is rather elegant, and reminded me of the way the film Good Night And Good Luck only used the actual interview footage of McCarthy. Less successful was the way the film tried to bring the Nixon downfall into the film. After a perfect ending to this story, with Bradlee and Graham walking through the room of printing press, the film cut to the break-in at the Watergate Hotel, then cut to credits. It just felt clumsy; yes, the Post was central to breaking the Watergate story – Woodward and Bernstein were Post reporters, and Bradlee himself was a major character in All the President’s Men – but the break-in was a year later, and really had nothing to do with the story being told in this film. It’s just an awkward way of introducing the material. If you’re watching the film and don’t have the background knowledge of how Nixon’s presidency came to an end, the scene is meaningless to you because there’s no context to explain what this break-in means. And if you do know how Nixon’s career came to an end, his recurring appearances throughout the film and the constant discussions about cover-ups are enough to remind you of that fact; you don’t need to see torches in the Watergate Hotel to remember that Nixon’s career ended in scandal.

Ultimately, it’s not a bad film; it’s Spielberg, and as long as he has decent material he will deliver a strong entertaining film. It’s just kind of forgettable.

Perhaps it was all the build-up to Call Me By Your Name that meant the film didn’t work for me. People had been raving about the film ever since Sundance in January 2017, so by the time I got around to watching it in early 2018, I’d heard a year of constant praise for this film. And the resulting film was… okay, fine, pleasant, but not anything that stayed with me.

The film focuses on Elio, the 17-year-old son of an American academic living in the Italian countryside. Elio has a sweet Italian girlfriend who he doesn’t seem especially passionate about, largely because he’s slowly becoming attracted to Oliver, the 24-year-old graduate student assisting his father. Over the summer the relationship between the two young men develops from being somewhat antagonistic into a tentative but reluctant affection and ultimately into an intensely romantic one.

The film put me off right from the start, with the credits playing over a John Adams piece that I just could not stand and just found intrusive. The film doesn’t have an original score, instead making use of existing music, but they use several John Adams pieces throughout the film until it feels as though those pieces become the film’s most overriding musical identity, and it set me on edge every time.

But beyond that musical choice, I didn’t really find much to react to at all. It was pleasant to watch, it had solid performances and some nicely played scenes (there was one particularly enjoyable playful moment where Elio teases Oliver by making changes to a piece of Bach that Oliver wants to hear, and Michael Stuhlbarg steals the film with a spectacular late scene where he talks with Elio about the relationship), but it never engaged me. Based on its reputation I was expecting some great work of cinema, but instead it felt good but slight. This extends to the film’s best known scenes: I’d heard so many people talking about the “Love My Way” dance scene that it was disappointing to finally see it and find myself asking “Is that it?” The scene that gives the film its title feels contrived and written, and I wasn’t sure if it was intended to be quite as narcissistic as it came across. The film’s other most famous scene, the peach scene, at least doesn’t have that effect (I can at least understand people talking about that moment), and it has a distinctively gooey tactile element to the moment that is quite effective, but at the same time it’s hard to take the scene too seriously when it’s really little more than a slightly less absurd version of American Pie’s pie scene.

If there’s anything that I did find myself thinking about with the film, it’s the cinematography, which is just beautiful. It helps that Sayombhu Mukdeeprom is shooting some absolutely stunning scenery, but the rich lush tones he achieves gives the film a sense of a warm and sweet nostalgia. It doesn’t feel as though we’re watching the film’s events as they happened, but that we’re watching the idealised remembrances of Elio looking back at a time and place where everything was perfect and wonderful and carefree. The look of the movie is perfectly evocative, and is probably the part of the film that comes to mind when I’m reminded of the film.

But ultimately, it didn’t really do much for me. I watched the film only a few weeks ago, but it’s already largely gone from my thoughts; the only reason I’m still thinking about it is because I’m trying (and failing) to think of things to say about it for this post.

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