Each month, the Indie Prof reviews a current film in the theater and second film or series available on DVD or instant-streaming service. Follow “Indie Prof” on Facebook for updates about film events and more reviews.
Hollywood certainly has its issues. They are well-documented and well-known, and hopefully those practices will change. Still, it is, and has always been, a powerful agent for social commentary and social change. This year’s nominees show us the best of Hollywood at a time when we should all be screaming for change in the industry. More than one thing can be true, and both are true of Hollywood. The Oscars on March 4th, 2018 will display both the best side and the worst side of Hollywood. Here are the nominees for Best Picture, and a sample of the better side.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Every film starts out as a blank sheet of paper. The screenplay fills those pages and the movie begins to take shape, and that is where we start with this gem from writer/director Martin McDonagh. The screenplay is brilliant (it should win the Oscar), the acting is superb (Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell are favorites in their respective categories), the direction is masterful, and the entire production is first-class. The story: a woman, grieving after the death of her daughter, rents three billboards to ask why the local police have not found the perpetrator. It causes a furor and sets off a chain reaction of events that takes us down surprising and interesting roads. If you can see only one film, this should be it.
The Shape of Water
Magic realism is a wonderful genre of film (and literature) that includes random magical, expressionistic events in an otherwise realistic narrative. Think of the literature of Gabriel García Márquez. It’s roots in Latin American literature have informed the filmmaking of Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, and his style shines in a film that is beautiful, magical, unnerving, and powerful. The story of a mute woman who works in a top-secret government lab in 1962 Baltimore and befriends the magical swamp-creature imprisoned therein speaks to abhorrent attitudes toward race, gender, and marginalized peoples of all kinds. The direction of del Toro shines here, and I see him accepting the Best Director award—the third straight for “The Three Amigos,” as the trio of del Toro, Alfonso Cuarón, and Alejandro González Iñárritu are called. If you can only see two films from this bunch, this should be your second.
A smart, well-written, well-directed, and well-acted film about a young girl coming of age in Sacramento. Director Greta Gerwig and Saoirse Ronan in the titular lead are a formidable duo. It may be overwritten at times (suffering what I call the “Juno complex” where teens do not speak like teens), but it is so laser-sharp in its focus and crackling in its tone that the rest is forgiven. Lady Bird is a strong, independent, and refreshing young woman who takes the world as she wishes. It is uncomfortable at times, but it hits home in all the right places.
This is one screwed-up movie, and how refreshing it is! I am talking about story when I say it is “screwed up,” but the film is expertly made, acted, and executed. It is also ridiculously timely with up-front
social commentary that would be hilarious if not so terrifyingly pertinent. The story about young black males lured to a strange town where their bodies are “stolen” recalls such sci-fi classics as The Stepford Wives and Invasion of The Body Snatchers, but it places events in the context of a current society that has thrown off its façade of racial equality in favor of uglier sentiments. Just the fact that this “horror” film is included in the category speaks not only to the quality and integrity of the film, but also to the sad state of our world.
You always know what you’ll get with a Steven Spielberg film: solid directing, solid storytelling, excellent acting from A-list performers, social commentary, and an all-around top-notch production down to every detail in every frame of film. The Post is no different. It tells the story of The Washington Post’s Katherine Graham, the first female owner of a major American newspaper. While the film itself deals with whether or not the newspaper should print the Pentagon papers in the early 70s, the film sparkles when it deals with the sexism and patriarchal world of America during that period. Still, true to Spielberg’s mastery, the film is also a fascinating thriller at points when the procedural drama takes over. Overall, it’s an important film, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, but you can probably wait until it hits VOD. (First, however, you must see at least two of these nominees on the big screen. That is your homework.)
This is the very definition of visual-driven cinema: the cinematography is rich, not just in the technical sense but even more importantly, in its thematic intensity. That cinematography drives the story, which to summarize neatly, is the rescue of British soldiers at Dunkirk in May 1940. We see the events from land, sea, and air, and the cinematography is brilliant in all areas. Short on dialogue and melodrama, this film sutures you into the unrelenting action and keeps you there. It is an ensemble cast with minimal storylines, but the directing, cinematography, editing, music, and setting make this film indelibly engaging. See this one on the big screen if you can.
A companion piece to Dunkirk, it tells the same story from the other side the channel, as the English political machine endeavors to save the soldiers. The film is a curious case in that it “suffers” from a magnificent performance: Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in a sure Oscar-worthy performance. The film itself is quite engaging, and when Oldman is not eating the screen, it is quite dynamic and stylized. But it always comes back around to Oldman, and the overall production takes a back seat to the performance. That is not a bad thing. It is something to see, especially if you love watching actors.
Call Me By Your Name
This may be the opposite of Dunkirk; the focus here is on character and story with very little interference from the visuals. It is no less brilliant or stirring. The setting is early 80s northern Italy where the brilliant/precocious/introspective 17-year-old son (Timothée Chalamet) of an American Archaeology Professor (Michael Stuhlbarg) and his wife (an exquisite Amira Casar) falls in love with a 24-year-old grad student (Armie Hammer) who comes to live with them for the summer. Chalamet is a revelation, and the rest of the cast is equally wonderful. There is too much subtext in this film to mention, but prominent subjects include religion, same-sex relationships, coming-of-age, intellectualism, diversity, and family dynamics. It also has one of the best father-son talks I have ever seen in the cinema. As a father myself, it not only brought tears to my eyes, but it made me proud to see such a wonderful portrayal.
What a curious film. The first three-fourths are a tight character study of an odd-couple in post-WWII London: a dressmaker to the wealthy (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his less-refined partner (Vicky Krieps). The last quarter turns into a bizarre mix of Hitchcock and David Cronenberg. To be sure, any Daniel Day-Lewis performance is worthy of our attention, and when you add in mercurial director P.T. Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia), you have a first-rate production with phenomenal performances. You will leave the theater thinking, and in today’s world, I count that as a victory.
Most films are still playing at area theaters such as the Sie Film Center and the Landmark Theaters. Some are on VOD.
My Oscar picks:
Best Picture: Three Billboards
Best Director: Guillermo del Toro
Best Actress: Frances McDormand
Best Actor: Gary Oldman
Vincent Piturro, Ph.D., is an associate professor of Cinema Studies at Metropolitan State University of Denver. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.