Was it just a year ago that we were discussing the merits of Lion, Hell or High Water, Arrival, Manchester by the Sea, La La Land and Fences? I crammed in a boat-load of movies between November and February last winter and was genuinely impressed with the lot. Prior years weren’t too shabby either, with 2015 bringing us Spotlight, Bridge of Spies and The Big Short, and the preceding year offering Birdman, Grand Budapest Hotel and Boyhood. In short, well-done movies – some of them groundbreaking – with interesting approaches, compelling characters, and important topics.
Not so this year. I’ve seen eight out of the nine nominees for Best Picture this Oscar season, and only one of them rises to the level that one should expect from Academy Awards nominees.
Recognizing that I don’t see more than a few dozen films a year, here are my favorites for 2017:
All the Money in the World
Sadly, only one made it in: the incomparable Get Out, a smart, creepy, important, entertaining and well-executed movie. It would be a contender for the top prize any given year, but when compared to the other seven entries that I’ve seen, it’s the only one that actually should win. Which means it probably won’t.
Wind River never stood a chance since it was released by the Weinstein Company in the midst of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual abuse scandal, and Ridley Scott’s reshooting of Kevin Spacey’s scenes in All the Money in the World apparently wasn’t enough to sway voters (perhaps the salary controversy surrounding Mark Wahlberg and Michelle Williams was a factor?) Why I, Tonya wasn’t included as a nominee is perplexing, as it was a consistently entertaining story with sharp, snappy dialogue and a lead character who achieved the difficult feat of being both unlikable and sympathetic.
Unfortunately, when compared to those four films, most of this year’s nominees fall far short, at best likable morsels and at worst laborious and flawed.
The Darkest Hour was a great performance surrounded by a poor script with unnecessary scenes and characters and a plot that lacked a compelling arc. I liken it to The King’s Speech, except there isn’t one monumental speech but three, deflating whatever emotion the final speech was supposed to elicit.
Better was the film Dunkirk, though this too was flawed with a dearth of urgency despite the obvious importance of the subject matter. I kept waiting to see an aerial shot of hundreds of boats approaching the shores of France, but was instead led to believe that a dozen vessels rescued over a quarter of a million soldiers. A missed opportunity.
Similarly, Spielberg’s The Post lacked the suspense and exigency that the real-life drama encompassed. Coined a political thriller, it contained the politics but not the thrill. Worse, at no time during the film did I believe that it was taking place in the 1970s. Instead, it looked like a movie made by present-day actors dressed in 1970s garb. Why this is the case I can’t entirely say, except that the movie looked too clean, lacking the grit and sweat that other films – Argo comes to mind – have managed to capture. When one considers how good a newspaper drama can be – Spotlight, All the President’s Men – The Post is a disappointment.
My wife, son and I all saw The Shape of Water on Christmas morning, and to a man, we thought it was among the stupidest films we’d ever seen. I’ve talked to others who’ve really enjoyed it, and it certainly has received numerous critical accolades, so perhaps there’s something seriously flawed not with the movie but with the Heinz family! Or, perhaps we simply couldn’t accept what was – in essence – a schlocky 1950s monster movie in Oscar-buzz clothing.
Call Me By Your Name benefitted from an excellent ending (I wish Michael Stuhlbarg had been nominated), but suffered from a first half that was coy and plodding. (By the way, Stuhlbarg acted in not one, not two, but three Best Picture nominees this year. Not bad!)
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri began as such an irreverent and funny film with completely unbelievable characters that it was impossible for me to switch gears when the film expected me to take later scenes seriously. In short, it was disjointed, though again, I’ve talked to some people who really liked it.
And then there’s Lady Bird, an enjoyable coming-of-age story with good performances, but it covers way too much territory and has some oddly extraneous scenes (Father Leviatch’s illness, for example). I can accept this as an Ocscar nominee as long as it isn’t seriously considered.
Does Paul Thomas Anderon’s Phantom Thread rise to the level of legitimate Oscar contender? I don’t know. It’s the one nominated film that I haven’t seen. I loved Anderson’s Magnolia and really disliked There Will Be Blood and The Master, so it could go either way.
But in the meantime, I will be pulling hard for Jordan Peele and Get Out. Throw an Oscar in for actor Daniel Kaluuya and I’ll be a happy man (though one could hardly be upset to see Oldman take the prize).
Here’s hoping 2018 births a better batch of films.