It’s that time of year again. I’ve spent the past two Saturdays sitting in a dark theater for almost twelve hours, watching the nine films nominated for Best Picture at the 2018 Academy Awards. I’ll have more thoughts on this year’s nominees later (I plan to write a longer retrospective on the race after the ceremony, and also, I am very tired), but the following is my snap judgment about how they stack up to one another.
But first, a couple of caveats.
To begin with, it is really tough to rank these this year. They are very different films, with wildly different goals. This is true of any year, but seems especially true for this slate. How does one compare Phantom Thread to Lady Bird? The Shape of Water to The Post? The only films that are readily comparable are Dunkirk and Darkest Hour, and even they approach similar subject matter in such vastly different ways that it’s hard to know where to begin.
Also, and more importantly, I don’t have a really strong favorite yet. Last year it was far and away Moonlight, a modern masterpiece that isn’t likely to be equaled anytime soon (that Moonlight also won the big prize is slightly miraculous). However, the slate is overall stronger this year than last, with fewer clunkers and more movies that work all the way through, rather than in just their first half (looking at you, Lion) or second (oh hai, Hacksaw Ridge). So, I essentially have a list of seven movies that I overall liked quite a bit, but fewer than last year that I outright loved. Which makes them hard to rank.
Finally, I should mention that I saw three movies for the second time in the past two weeks: Dunkirk, Get Out, and Phantom Thread. I liked all three much better the second time around. That leads me to suspect that making a snap judgment at midnight after a twelve-hour day at the theater is probably not the best idea for these particular movies.
But of course, I’m doing it anyway. So here’s the list:
- Call Me By Your Name
- The Shape of Water
- Phantom Thread
- Get Out
- Lady Bird
- The Post
- Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
- Darkest Hour
The first seven are all quite close, and there’s even quite a lot to admire about Three Billboards (there’s also quite a lot that doesn’t work, and Sam Rockwell, who is usually the unsung hero of every movie he’s in, is borderline miscast here). Darkest Hour though didn’t work for me at all, and I am usually a sucker for “uplifting biopic.” Not sure what went wrong here, but I mostly just found it kind of claustrophobic and unpleasant.
The Post, by contrast, was zippy, entertaining, and featured great performances — so everything you’d expect of late-career Steven Spielberg. Not a masterpiece, by any means, but fun.
Lady Bird was an affecting portrait of a particular time and place, with great, nuanced turns by Saorsie Ronan and Laurie Metcalf. It’s also very funny. This is one that I think will be especially improved on rewatch.
Dunkirk is an absolute assault on the senses. I was really affected by it, and found myself easily connecting to the characters. I was very impressed by Nolan’s ability to draw characters with clear motivation and conflicts with minimal dialogue. I don’t think this one would work half as well on the small screen, so I’m glad I got to see it again in the theater.
Get Out is funny and scary and incredibly smart. I noticed so many subtle touches the second time through, and was even more impressed by Daniel Kaluuya’s performance. Super excited to see whatever Jordan Peele’s next project is.
Phantom Thread caught me by surprise. PT Anderson is very hit-or-miss to me, and I haven’t loved any movie of his since There Will be Blood. Here, the subtle touches of the twisted romance between the lead characters held me utterly captivated, especially the second time through, where I was able to catch a lot of the nuances. I was particularly impressed by his camerawork, and he would, in fact, be my personal choice to win Best Director (of the nominees, anyway).
The Shape of Water is a beautiful film, as long as you can get past the fish sex. Guillermo del Toro’s love for the outcasts and the monsters makes for a moving cinematic experience like none other this year. It’s very close to my favorite of the nominees.
But for some reason, I found myself completely enraptured by Call Me By Your Name. Of course, that’s by design: it’s a beautiful Italian idyll, one that allows the complicated courtship between Oliver and Elio to play out amid perfect beauty. It traps you in this idyllic state, right up to the moment that it pulls back and you realize: in truth, this is a film about the beauty of broken things. As I said, it’s hard to choose a favorite from this group; but also, it’s not so difficult. Call Me By Your Name has not one, but two, perfect moments of cinematic grace. And they come right at the end. Take it away, Mr. Perlman:
“How you live your life is your business, just remember … our hearts and our bodies are given to us only once. And before you know it, your heart’s worn out, and, as for your body, there comes a point when no one looks at it, much less wants to come near it. Right now, there’s sorrow, pain. Don’t kill it, and with it the joy you’ve felt.”