Movies shape us as a culture. Americans have flocked to theaters since the 20s to immerse themselves in other worlds, other lives, and other stories. The first Academy Awards were in 1928 and the 90th ones will be this weekend. Here are my thoughts on some of the contenders:
“The Shape of Water”
“The Shape of Water” was the first movie I saw this season, and it did not disappoint. Guillermo del Toro won the Golden Globe for Best Directing, and it was well-deserved. This movie is stunning. Both visually and emotionally, it dares to be bold while retaining a soft, almost childlike sense of innocence and wonder.
The film follows Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a young, mute woman who lives above a movie theater and works as a janitor at a top-secret scientific facility. It’s the early 1960’s, and Elisa’s always lived just outside the housewife-and-Jello normalcy she can only seem to peer into though her television.
So imagine her surprise at finding love with an imprisoned sea monster.
This film is just the right amount of weird. It’s just unsettling enough to keep one on their feet, but it’s never off-putting. Its blue-green color scheme is only sickening when Elisa’s lover (nameless, but credited simply as ‘Amphibian Man’) is trapped by the government facility. When Elisa and her lover are together, the colors melt into a water-logged daydream, sun streaking through in rays of hope for their love.
To say that the character of Elisa communicates through Sign Language is an understatement. Hawkins is as expressive as she is nuanced, maintaining an air about her that strikes one as absolutely real. Despite the muteness and the sea monster lover — or perhaps because of them — Elisa is sometimes the most “real” person in the room. She loves unconditionally and innocently. She fights to protect that love. And in contrast to the dark, alien themes of the lab and those who run it, her love is unselfish and pure.
The cherry on top of this compelling story is Alexandre Desplat’s intoxicatingly romantic score. It captures the creepiness of the lab without the camp of many a monster movie, and allows itself the soaring strings we’ve come to expect with a typical love story. Only this isn’t a typical love story, which is why this amazing score ties everything together so well; it makes us believe, if just for a fleeting second, that it is.
Saoirse Ronan is an awards-show darling this season, and within good reason. In her element with a down-to-earth script, she shines in “Ladybird”. Her performance makes this film. She effortlessly takes on an American accent to portray a spunky teenage girl in a wealthy Sacramento suburb, dealing with both her strained relationship with her mother and the financial burden that is on the family. Her greatest dream is to leave the suburb (and her mother) to attend a liberal arts college on the East Coast.
The good in this movie (besides Ronan) is its reality. The unchecked energy of a girl named Christine but goes by “Ladybird” (“Is that your given name?” “I gave it to myself. It’s given to me by me.”) is something that most people can relate to. And, since the script is so realistic, a lot of things hit close to home. Every teenage drama, every argument with your mother, and every single ounce of spritely angst is written vibrantly in dialogue that very well might’ve been recorded from the halls of any home here in SCV.
The bad of this movie, however, is that it loses itself in its astounding photorealism. We don’t know if it’s a movie about a daughter’s relationship with her mother, or how financial status can impact a teenager growing up, or the effects of one’s high school experience onto the rest of their life. “Ladybird” could be the story of any teenage girl. But the story of any teenage girl isn’t necessarily interesting or important. It doesn’t have a clear ending and beginning. It’s not a movie.
If this movie didn’t have Saoirse Ronan, it wouldn’t have anything. It’s the way that Ronan makes Ladybird so distinct yet so universal that charms audience members, especially mothers and daughters, so well. Even though “Ladybird” is a teenage coming-of-age film, it doesn’t pander. It feels like your senior year.
Ten minutes into Downsizing, you’ll inevitably find yourself asking, “Wait, what?” Twenty minutes in, you’re wondering what you’d look like without eyebrows. Thirty minutes in, you’re checking your phone or shifting in your seat. By the end, you’re mad you’ve wasted seventeen dollars on a movie ticket, not to mention two hours of your life.
The trailer for the movie depicts a comedy about your average Joe taking advantage of a new scientific discovery in order to shrink down and experience more of what life has to offer. However, the trailer only includes scenes from the first half hour or so of the film. We are left with no information about the Vietnamese refugee with one leg, the impoverished ghetto outside of the downsized community (which origins are never explained throughout the course of the movie), or the “Oh no! It’s the end of the world!” plot. This film is exhausting to watch. Even when it makes relative sense, the storyline feels unfinished and uncomfortable. If “The Shape of Water” displays how just the right amount of creepy weirdness can work, then “Downsizing” is the other edge of that sword.
The Florida Project
At age seven, Brooklynn Prince could’ve been the youngest person ever nominated for an Oscar. She is the lead in The Florida Project (Moonee), a movie that feels like you shouldn’t be watching it, but like the rambunctious seven-year-old it stars, rages energetically on.
The feeling that this story is something you shouldn’t be watching begins when one of three six-year-olds’ first lines are “Go home, you ratchet bitch!” With this shock, we’re ushered into a world — and rather, a childhood — that is likely very different than our own. The story follows six-year-old Moonee and her friends, who are all raised in motels just outside of Disney World. The conditions the kids live in are only faintly removed from downright homelessness, but they of course have no way of acknowledging this because it’s all they’ve ever known. The mothers, especially Halley, mother of Moonee, are always questionable. Do they really love their children? Are they really fit to be mothers? Can those two things be separate of each other, or are they inherently linked? The Florida Project isn’t preachy. It isn’t “gritty”. It’s just real.
A lot of different factors play into the realism of this film. It’s filmed on 35mm, which while still adding an effective grain, is nothing too revolutionary for Sean Baker, whose previous film (Tangerine) was filmed entirely on iPhone 5s. Bria Vinaite (who plays Halley) was cast from her Instagram page and had very little acting experience. Many of the lines between her and the children are improvised, or otherwise generated naturally because of the relationship between a young woman and a child. The film does not follow a quite linear or normal plot structure, instead taking cues from slice-of-life narratives.
By the end of the film, you feel as though you’ve had a glimpse into a world where you definitely didn’t belong. Moments of intimacy, terror, hope, joy and fear all affect the audience just as strongly as they do Moonee.
Call Me By Your Name
Let’s begin this by stating that John Adams’ Hallelujah Junction is one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written. It, mixed concoxingly with Sufjan Stevens’ synthy-smoothness, creates a soft, sparkling musical backdrop for a story that’s very much a daydream: It’s sweet and it’s vague. It’s warm in all the places it needs to be. It loses itself and forgets itself and finds itself again. You wake up. You always do.
Call Me by Your Name is at its heart, a romance. From the beginning, Oliver and Elio seem destined to be together. Nobody falls into anybody’s arms right away, but the relationship plays out gradually, so it feels real. There’s awkward flirting. There’s slightly less awkward flirting. But all of it is wrapped up in Elio’s innocence, softening its edges.
The most important thing to note is that the only conflict in the relationship is the relationship. The fact that they’re gay is not a conflict. The fact that there’s an obvious age difference is not a conflict. The only conflict is that we don’t know how committed to the relationship Oliver is. We, like Elio, desperately want them to stay together. We, like Elio, fall in love with the idea of the two of them in their summer peach-grove paradise.
A lot of factors play into the daydream feeling of the film. For one, we are at a summer home in Italy. The cinematography really stands out here. There’s a certain softness to the shots that immerses us not only in Italy but also in all of the youthful joy and energy of summer. The film overall is this summer’s energy: its slow softness, its nerves, its play, its wonder, and eventually its end.
The Big Sick
Let’s preface this by discussing how long the promotional mailer for this movie was: Three pages. Three. Pages.
The Big Sick wasn’t bad. I mean, I watched all of it. But it also wasn’t good. Just like any romantic comedy, it was a solid “eh”.
Zoe Kazan is entirely adorable and charming as Emily, and Holly Hunter and Ray Romano are okay as her parents. Emily was probably my favorite character, and she must’ve had a total screen time of about fifteen minutes.
I, personally, was excited to see this because the starring couple was one that reflected my parents: white and indian. The trailers made it out to be about the cultural differences that could cause conflict in a relationship like this, and I know from experience that this is comedy gold. So, why didn’t the comedy come from there?
Representation is extremely important, as is commentary on cultural norms. Not only is this important to widening the American canon of types of characters that we see on screen, moving it closer to representing the types of people living in America, but it also allows for a greater relatability within what once may have been a niche audience — look at the success of “Black Panther”. The major flaw of the Big Sick is that it largely shies away from commenting on social and cultural norms outside of a niche audience. Plot points revolve around Kumali (Kumali Nanjiani) refusing his parents’ push for an arranged marriage, as well as their soft “disowning” of him when he tells them that he’s in love with a white girl, but these are not the major conflicts of the movie, nor or they anything outside of what we’ve already seen.
The Big Sick played it safe. And there’s nothing wrong with playing it safe, but there just could’ve been so much more to this movie. Potential for a commentary on culture and family was watered down to fit the mould of your classic all-American romcom.
And it wasn’t bad. But it’s not the champion of social commentary that it claims to be in its three pages of promotional material.
The Disaster Artist
Unexpected and certainly unprecedented, The Disaster Artist is mercilessly funny. Anyone who’s seen The Room (universally known as “the worst movie ever made”) will recognize James Franco’s impersonation of Tommy Wiseau as uncanny.
Tommy Wiseau defies description. In real life, the man still attends screenings of “The Room”, and was even invited onto the stage of the Golden Globes when “The Disaster Artist” won.
While not quite a mockumentary or a the-making-of, the Disaster Artist follows Wiseau’s journey from the perspective of Greg (Dave Franco), his friend and artistic collaborator. Taking the movie from the perspective of Greg, largely the straight-man to the wild character of Wiseau, is brilliant. The two Franco brothers have this hilarious yet heartfelt chemistry wherein the characters of Greg and Tommy can bounce off of each other with endless energy.
What makes The Disaster Artist so great is that it’s funny, and that’s because Tommy Wiseau is undoubtedly weird, but by the end of it, we still feel connected to him. We have absolutely no background on Tommy, and we know his movie is downright awful, but we want the people to like it. We want him to be happy. It would have been very easy for the joke of the movie to be Wiseau’s weirdness and nothing else. Instead, the dynamic between Wiseau and Greg produces a really heartfelt, human narrative about friendship and perseverance.
As someone who did not live through the Tonya Harding scandal, I have to say that it was incredibly entertaining to watch this with someone who did. This is something I’d recommend.
The soundtrack to this movie is entirely fun. Capturing Tonya’s “I don’t care what you think” spirit, it bounces around 80’s radio hits at a fast and sometimes the slightest bit odd pace.
Aside from this fun soundtrack and a few creative shots, the movie as a whole is not that stunning. Most audience members already know what will happen over the course of the plot, and the movie is aware of this, so instead of building up a story of suspense, you get a movie about a broken family. Abusive mother, abusive husband, and worldwide pressure. You get a more hopeful telling — a less victimizing telling — of a story known around the world.
The strength of this movie is the recreation of interviews with all people involved in the scandal. The recreations are uncanny. Margot Robbie embodies the attitude of Tonya Harding well, but the overwhelming movie-star-ness of Margot Robbie does distract. There is a level of separation due to the whole thing constantly moving between ideas about realism. At times it teeters on an uncanny-valley realism, at times it captures characters as if we were watching the real event, and at times it feel completely absurdly fictitious. As a whole, it’s an interesting story told in a plethora of unmatching tones.
Unremarkable, but extremely well done, the only real point “The Post” makes is that it’s a good movie.
Watergate is inherently an interesting topic to cover, and there’s a very real tension upon entering the newsroom of the Washington Post. You know what happens, so you want to know how they’ll go about it. But putting a perfectly talented cast into a perfectly interesting story produces something a little too perfect to really mean anything.
When one finds themselves watching a scene between Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, the only appropriate emotion is awe. In fact, the entire film evokes this emotion, but nothing more than it. As an audience member, you’re a little dazed at the dynamism of the thing, a little intrigued at the commentary (though it is slight), and little bored.
The slight commentary mostly has to do Kay Graham (Meryl Streep). She owned the Washington Post during Watergate and had a hard time being taken seriously both as a businesswoman and a publisher because she was a woman. Her character in the movie is intriguing, but I genuinely don’t know if that’s because the character is intriguing and because Meryl Streep is literal magic. I personally sympathize with the character a lot because her arc revolves around a gender-disparity-related imposter syndrome. It’s not subtle — it’s a tad overblown — but this isn’t an art film. It’s blockbuster. It’s Spielberg.
What really would’ve saved this movie for me would’ve been some sort of commentary. Again, the only real commentary was on Graham and it felt out of place and awkward at times. It would’ve made so much sense to mention the right of the public to call out government officials, or the rights of the press, or the importance of good journalism, but instead we just get to see Watergate happen. Perhaps these themes were meant to be implied, but it felt as though there were no theme at all.
Then again, it’s got Meryl Streep.
So, there are my movie reviews for the year. Oscar-worthiness aside, films are art. They are created to capture the human (or amphibian man) spirit. They are made to communicate a message by way of lives that we’re allowed to live, and emotions which we allow to project onto screens and onto ourselves. If just for a moment, we become entrenched in someone else’s story — or perhaps our story; perhaps something universal. I think it’s wonderful that humans take two and a half hours of their lives every so often just to feel something created in someone else’s mind, and just to experience someone else’s life. As artists, we have a responsibility to make sure that those lives — those stories — mean something.