I. Our Best Picture Contenders
Let’s start with the nine Best Picture nominees. If you asked me to predict the leading contenders months ago, I wouldn’t have anticipated a standoff between The Shape of Water and Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri. But though neither is #1 on my ballot, both movies, in their own way, are representative of the 2017 movie landscape.
First, The Shape of Water, which melds homages to Old Hollywood with today’s technology, starring a creature from the CGI lagoon who holds his own as Sally Hawkins’ love interest. Not an easy feat! That some (like me) find the movie unoriginal shows just how common digital characters feel these days, from War of the Planet of the Apes to Snoke and Maz Kanata in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Del Toro’s little-kid joy bringing his little monsters to life can be infectious, and I will plan to revisit the movie long after Oscar season ends, to see if I surrender more the second time.
Maybe Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, as divisive a movie we’ve seen this year (OK, The Last Jedi, too!), deserves to be the champion. Though far from the “best,” it’s become an imperfect reflection of, and conduit for, the messiness of America today, from how it’s fed into our heightened outrage culture to the real billboards erected to demand politicians’ attention. There are highs, like Frances McDormand’s lacerating vengeance, and then there’s all that uneasy topicality forced upon us, as if Martin McDonagh read an American newspaper once and thought, “A comic police brutality back story will make this feel relevant!” Many have criticized Sam Rockwell’s arc as a dumb-witted racist cop with a change of heart, but that criticism supposes the movie wants to say something moral at all. I don’t think McDonagh intends that; overall, his body of work is profoundly nihilistic, and Rockwell’s ending, as a “redeemed” white male figure of authority, could be read as a commentary of how these men always fall upward.
If any contender shocks us, I’d bet my money on Get Out. Three Billboards may have gained traction (somewhat misplaced) from the #MeToo movement, but Jordan Peele’s horror movie has created its own zeitgeist. The Sunken Place and Daniel Kaluuya’s tear-streaked face are part of our pop culture language now. My February take played up the fact that it was good, howling fun. But it’s one of those movies you can see people talking about for years to come. As Peele himself has noted, white people raving to their friends about Get Out has become its own meta-critique.
II. The Performances We Didn’t Expect
There are the ones that surprise you–like Vicky Krieps, completely new to me, who holds her own against Daniel Day-Lewis in Phantom Thread with her softer but equally unyielding manner. There’s the thrill of watching movie stars show their range, from Nicole Kidman and Colin Farrell in movies worlds apart (The Beguiled and The Killing of a Sacred Deer) to Willem Dafoe in The Florida Project.
Sometimes an actor gets to expand on what we’ve seen of them before, like Laurie Metcalf in Lady Bird. Her work is familiar, especially in television comedy, but she found new colors by playing Marion, a woman who wears her disappointment on her sleeve. Or the raw power of Cynthia Nixon’s Emily Dickinson in A Quiet Passion, where her honesty is bracing, it can be hard to watch.
Cheers also to actors at the beginning of a (hopefully long) career. Timothée Chalamet tearing up in Call Me By Your Name. Gal Gadot running through No Man’s Land in Wonder Woman. Will 7-year-old Brooklynn Prince (The Florida Project) ever find another showcase like this? Will the phenomenon that is Tiffany Haddish really make a movie with Paul Thomas Anderson? If she’s ready, I’m ready!
III. What You Won’t See at the Oscars
I started enjoying franchise movies again this year. After Christopher Nolan’s Batman, everyone went dark and gritty; after The Avengers, everything decided they need a cinematic universe, too. But there are new strains of life, which the Oscars recognized with a screenplay nom for Logan. That apocalyptic Western began a year-long arc through Wonder Woman and Star Wars: The Last Jedi, culminating in 2018’s Black Panther. Diana and T’Challa are breaking down the doors, highlighting the stories of communities who felt underrepresented before. We’re on Episode VIII, and finally the Star Wars universe feels balanced between male and female protagonists. It’s too reductive to blame the backlash solely on a more feminist direction; most people I know who disliked The Last Jedi are female.
You’ll see a few woman directors in the feature-length categories:
-Greta Gerwig, nominated for Director and Original Screenplay, Lady Bird
-Dee Rees, co-nominated for Adapted Screenplay, Mudbound
-Agnès Varda, co-nominated for Documentary, Faces Places
But you won’t see Patti Jenkins (Wonder Woman), Sofia Coppola (The Beguiled), Kathryn Bigelow (Detroit), Valerie Faris (co-director, Battle of the Sexes), Angelina Jolie (First They Killed My Father), Angela Robinson (Professor Marston & the Wonder Woman), Lynne Ramsay (You Were Never Really Here), or the many other women taking their turn in the director’s chair.
And 2018 isn’t moving the needle far enough. Still, I’m encouraged that major studios are starting to trust women with big projects, especially Disney (which now controls Marvel, Star Wars, and most of your soul). Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time and Anna Boden’s Captain Marvel have the potential to make real money, and their success may help push that dream forward just a little more.
In short, 2017 was all over the place, and the Oscars will be, too. Don’t expect that to change anytime soon.