|The Oscars sort of look like robots.|
This year, however, two of my favorite movies of the last year (Get Out and The Shape of Water) were nominated for best picture. And other favorites like Blade Runner 2049, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and War for the Planet of the Apes were nominated for things like cinematography, sound editing, and visual effects.
Have nerds gone mainstream?
Nah. I still had to google Phantom Thread when I looked up the list of nominees, and there's a lot of pretentious "serious drama" type stuff. And two WWII movies, of course. (Will we never tire of WWII movies?)
This year I decided to meet the Oscars half way, and I saw a few more mainstream best picture nominees like The Post and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri as well as I, Tonya, which received a few other nominations (like Margot Robbie for lead actress). So, while I haven't seen all the Oscar nominations, I feel like I've seen enough to make a rare delve into "mainstream" films. So I offer the following: A Nerd's Guide to the Oscars!
Best Picture Nominees
Will I ever tire of singing the praises of Get Out? I doubt it. I'm even thinking of including it in a future class on horror and philosophy, particularly for its excellent portrayal of the idea of double consciousness from W. E. B. Du Bois. See my earlier reviews here and here.
The Shape of Water
As a fan of Guillermo del Toro, I was anxiously awaiting this one, but it took awhile to come to a theater near me. It was worth the wait. It might be del Toro's best film yet.
On the surface this is a movie about a cleaning lady who forms an unlikely relationship with the creature from the black lagoon in a secret 1960's lab. But like the black lagoon itself, it's much deeper than it appears. As with most of del Toro's films, there are deep themes about loneliness, sexuality, and acceptance (or lack thereof) of difference. The real monsters, of course, aren't the ones with gills. What do we owe other creatures? Can we ever truly know them? Do we know other humans? Or even ourselves? Can we make connections in spite of -- or perhaps in virtue of -- the divides between us?
The movie creates a beautiful, haunting world, which is nothing new for del Toro, but what's a particular accomplishment for The Shape of Water is how it makes you believe this world. In the hands of less competent filmmakers, the premise of a Cold War horror-romance with a B-movie monster could be downright silly, but somehow this feat of magic succeeds so flawlessly that you don't even consider how awful it could have been. Aside from del Toro's vision, a lot of the credit has to go to the excellent actors, particularly Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins, and the incomparable Doug Jones (you should also catch him on Star Trek: Discovery!).
Spoiler alert: The movie even makes me accept the death of a house cat as unfortunate but ultimately not unreasonable, which for someone who loves cats is saying something! And while we're spoiling things, yeah, she bones the creature, but you know what, that somehow makes sense, too.
A Steven Spielberg movie starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks is a mathematically precise formula for Hollywood success. Is The Post a good movie? Sure. Do I really remember watching it? I guess. There's nothing wrong with the movie. The math checks out. But at times it almost seems like everyone is just sort of going through the motions because that formula made them so certain it will succeed.
To be sure, The Post tells an important story in American history (the depth of the US government's lies about the war in Vietnam in the 60's and early 70's). The story has a lot of contemporary relevance in our Trumpian "fake news" times (although today I fear we could get reporting this thorough and explosive ... and nobody would care, or at least not enough congressional Republicans to make a difference). While this movie is in no way science fiction, I worry that the idea of caring this much about the truth is becoming more science fictional every day. Has hard journalism become a thing of science fiction? I hope not, but I fear so.
I love Tom Hanks (doesn't everybody?), but after watching The Post I watched a documentary called The Newspaperman on Ben Bradlee (the guy Hanks is playing) and I just don't see it. Bradlee was a foul-mouthed, philandering asshole (and, I suppose, a good news editor), but Tom Hanks is, well, Tom Hanks. Meryl Streep, on the other hand, gives the type of nuanced performance that makes her one of the greats. You can see her as Kay Graham struggling with authority she never expected and slowly growing into the role. As a woman asserting her authority in a male-dominated world, there's also a nice nod to contemporary issues like the #MeToo movement. I wouldn't be surprised if Streep wins an Oscar for this one.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
The title of this one sounds more like an avant garde play or your college roommate's unfinished novel. I would've called it Angry White People, because that's basically what it's about.
I still can't decide if I liked Three Billboards. It's a weird movie. But, unlike The Post, I've been thinking about Three Billboards long after I saw it (that's why this mini-review goes on so long!). The movie begins with Mildred (played fiercely by Frances McDormund), who is grieving for her murdered daughter, but also angry at the inept local sheriff's department for not solving the crime. She sells her ex-husband's truck to pay for three billboards outside of, you guessed it, Ebbing, Missouri that attempt to shame the sheriff into action. We also meet a bumbling, racist deputy (Sam Rockwell) who routinely tortures people in police custody and the sheriff (Woody Harrelson) who is supposed to be the lone sympathetic character even though he knowingly employs inept, racist deputies who routinely torture people.
I found a lot of the casual racism and violence to be a bit much, like the audience was supposed to be shocked/amused while I just cringed. But my main problem is that the torture and illegal detention of African Americans by police is literally a joke in the movie, and there is little if any indication that this is particularly problematized. This is a movie about the white characters, who apparently don't care much about that. The African American characters are left to the side and only thinly developed. We hear little about their perspectives on what the movie playfully(?) refers to a "person of color torturing." I could see a case that the movie is trying to make a statement with this, but it didn't come through for me.
Three Billboards is the creation of British writer/director Martin McDonagh. The film isn't science fiction, of course, but I wonder if a British person's view of what middle America is like is something close to it. It's not that I'm doubting that there are plenty of racist police officers in America, but even as an American I had to wonder if McDonagh's portray of rural America was feeding into my own skewed vision of things from inside my liberal, urban bubble. But how would I know that? What does art owe the truth? Is it more important to tell an interesting story or raise questions worth pondering?
The biggest philosophical question in the film is the question of anger. All of the main characters are angry, usually debilitatingly so. Mildred's anger is so deep that even the (overused) archetype of the grieving mother isn't quite sympathetic in this case. The only person to successfully deal with their anger is the sheriff, but -- spoiler alert! -- even he comes to a self-inflicted violent end, albeit one that makes sense in the narrative.
Oddly, the people who ought to be most angry -- the town's African American citizens -- seem hardly perturbed at all by the whole situation.
Anger not only destroys the white characters, it destroys those around them. It's an acid that eats away their own humanity and seeps into others. The deputy terrorizes everybody in town on account of his anger. But this anger is shown to come from a place of deep pain and fear, often brought about by the anger and violence inflicted by others (the deputy's mother, Mildred's ex-husband, etc.).
I'm not sure if anger is always bad, as some Buddhists and Stoics have argued. There is perhaps a place for righteous indignation as a spark to action. And I'm not going to tell a parent with a murdered child not to be angry. That itself seems an act of cruelty. But nonetheless I suspect anger is often bad, especially if it can't be channeled constructively. It often makes us less human, less humane. As Yoda says, anger leads to hate, which leads to suffering.
If the whole fiasco of the 2016 US election has taught us anything, it's that there are a lot of angry white people in America, a lot more than naïve people like me thought. Understanding angry white people is vital for the safety and sanity of our nation, but I'm not quite sure Three Billboards helps us deal with this anger as much as it seems to be telling us it is.
That's it for the best picture nominees for me. I considered seeing Dunkirk to see what Christopher Nolan is up to, but realistic war movies are often too much for me emotionally (I think I'm still recovering from Saving Private Ryan). Besides, it apparently wasn't so realistic in its erasure of Indian and African soldiers. Likewise, I'm sure Gary Oldman is amazing in Darkest Hour, but I just couldn't do it. I never got around to seeing the others. I was too busy watching Black Panther, which was awesome, and I'll probably be too busy watching Annihilation in the near future.
Nominees for Other Stuff
You can see what I thought about science fiction and fantasy movies nominated for other things in my post "2017 Movies: The Good, the Bad, and the Mediocre." There I discussed Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Blade Runner 2049, Logan, War for the Planet of the Apes, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, and Kong: Skull Island (I even briefly mentioned The Disaster Artist, because Tommy Wiseau must be some kind of extraterrestrial).
I also saw two other mainstream movies nominated for other things: I, Tonya and The Big Sick. I went into I, Tonya expecting an amusing treatment of a weird bit of American Olympic history, but it ended up being an artistic and frank treatment of class and celebrity in American society (I also forgot just how bizarre the whole affair really was). Margot Robbie and Allison Janney are nominated for lead and supporting actress respectively, each well deserved.
The Big Sick is comedian Kumail Nanjiani's first film (he's nominated for original screenplay, but faces some stiff competition from Jordan Peele for Get Out, among others). The Big Sick is the unlikely story of how Nanjiani met his wife (writer Emily Gordon, and co-author of the screenplay), which makes for an interesting story about love, immigration, religion, culture clashes, etc. It's also pretty funny (I wanted to see it because I'm a fan of Nanjiani's comedy and roles in shows like Silicon Valley, Portlandia, and The X-Files). Nanjiani faced some criticism for his portrayal of South Asian women in the film, which seems justified to me. Writer Amil Niazi suggests a good way to solve this problem: support more women of color in creating their own movies.
On that note, I'm really excited for Ava Duvernay's upcoming adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time!
So... how will it all pan out? Will the nerds reign supreme at this year's Oscars? We'll find out on Sunday, March 4!