Evan Peter Smith
February 23, 2018
e’ve once again arrived at Oscar season, which means yet another onslaught of shameless predictions from underqualified film critics. Not to miss out on all the fun, here’s CRB Digital's compilation of this year’s Best Picture nominees, listed here in most-likely to win to least-likely to win, at least according to our reviewer. Topping the list is Steven Spielberg’s dark horse candidate The Post, but with such a diverse batch of films and no clear front-runner yet, the award is anyone’s for the taking....
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Steven Spielberg’s new drama “The Post” is an easy-going, highly-watchable tribute to journalism that seems tailor-made for the Fake News era. This is no accident; Spielberg admitted that he and his crew rushed through the production and editing in mere months, hoping to release the film at a moment when the role of journalism and its ability to hold the powerful into account would still be key in the public’s mind.
In that regard—and in many others—the film succeeds, even if it does spell out its thematic goals a bit too obviously at times.
The film tells the story of Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham (played by the always-impeccable, occasional Trump target, Meryl Streep), who finds herself as the uncertain leader of the paper after inheriting the role from her late husband. Hounded by the decision to take her family-owned paper public on the stock exchange, Graham must balance her role at the Post with her elite Washington social life, all while facing down a cavalry of men who perceive her as incompetent and unsuited for the job. Graham herself isn’t so sure she’s up to the task.
The film’s central drama begins when the New York Times gains access to the Pentagon Papers, documents proving the United States government deliberately spent years obfuscating the bleak reality of the Vietnam War. After the Times receives an injunction stopping it from publishing any more of the documents, the Post gains access to the same trove of classified material, at which point a decision must be made: should Graham not allow the Post to publish the documents, and so avoid possible jailtime and damage to the paper? Or should she take the advice of Post editor Ben Bradlee (portrayed here with charming gruff by Tom Hanks), who pushes Graham to challenge her powerful friends, defy the government, and establish the Post as an important journalistic institution?
It makes for compelling stuff, and while the film is rife with heavy-handed messages—viewers should expect a lot of speeches about the importance of truth, of standing up to the powerful, and so on—the film is so well-constructed that you likely won’t care. Spielberg is operating here in the same groove as in his two recent films, Bridge of Spies and Lincoln, which is to say: expect a lot of people talking in rooms. But it’s a testament to Spielberg’s directing that ostensibly dull moments—newspaper delivery trucks driving out of warehouses, for instance, or a bunch of sleep-deprived people standing around a desk—are presented with such excitement and tension as to resemble an espionage thriller.
Perhaps no other moment captures this kind of sly brilliance than does the film’s climax, when Graham is on the phone, about to make the decision to publish or not. What makes this scene so compelling is its lightness: rather than jumping from shot to shot in a chaotic frenzy, Spielberg holds the camera over Streep’s face for a gut-wrenching 24 seconds of complete silence (yes, I timed it) as she deliberates internally. That directorial restraint on Spielberg’s part only heightens Streep’s performance. In that 24 seconds of silence, we can see the contortions of her lips, her jaw clenching. Tears well up in her eyes. All of the consequences of her impending choice are written across her face. It is so effortless, so believable, that one almost forgets one is witnessing a performance. The uncertainty and self-doubt is palpable, which is why Graham’s decision, when it is made, holds so much weight. We understand now what was at stake.
Moments like this are a pleasure in contemporary cinema, if only because they are so rare. What we have here is a film of adults in the workplace, making adult decisions. Consequences are considered; ideas are challenged. No sex scenes, no explosions, no screaming fits. Bereft of any gimmicks or stylistic flourishes, the film can almost feel old-fashioned at times, not only because of the indoor cigarette smoking, hands clanking on typewriters, or men openly telling women they aren’t capable enough to do a good job.
Funny that ours is an age in which the Nixon era, once seen as the chaotic hallmark of institutional uncertainty, is now looked back upon with almost gleeful nostalgia. At least back then, the film seems to assert, journalism meant something, as opposed to today, when the press is viewed with perhaps as much animus as our controversial commander in chief: distrusted, dismissed. For all its attempts to make some sort of commentary on our modern condition, the Post ends on a feel-good note, implying that even if our governmental institutions crumble, a good and decent press will always be there to pick up the pieces.
It remains to be seen whether such a view still holds true, or is merely the stuff of movies.
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For many movie goers, their first introduction to Greta Gerwig’s charming and perfectly cast Lady Bird was in the form of commercials or news articles that touted the coming-of-age film as “one of the best reviewed films of all time,” or something along those lines.
True, reviews were good. So good, in fact, that Lady Bird managed to hold a perfect 100 percent “fresh” rating on the movie review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes, the highest rating possible (it has since slipped to a dismal 99 percent fresh, oh how the mighty fall). And even though such a score does not mean each reviewer believed the movie was perfect—a Rotten Tomatoes rating only indicates the percentage of positive reviews, rather than an average of all ratings—it is nevertheless a testament to how widely appealing, entertaining and all around lovely Lady Bird is.
The plot of this low-key indie flick is as simple as it gets. High school senior Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (played by the prodigious Saoirse Ronan) wants more out of life. It’s the early 2000s, a time of flip phones and Dave Matthews Band, when one-year anniversary posters remembering the September 11 attacks adorn the walls of classrooms. Like so many bildungsroman heroes before her, “Lady Bird”—the artsy moniker Christine adopts for herself (“It’s my given name,” she says. “I gave it to myself”)—believes that her life cannot truly begin until she leaves home. For Lady Bird, home is Sacramento, California, which first-time writer/director and Sacramento native Greta Gerwig evokes with love and care. We see the city pass by mostly through car windows: bridges and shimmering rivers, rolling vistas, thrift stores and trees, taco stands and church towers. The love Gerwig holds for Sacramento is clear with each shot. But young Lady Bird herself isn’t so keen.
“I hate California,” she complains. “I want to go where culture is!”
“Ugh, how did I raise such a snob?” her mother grieves.
That, essentially, is the driving plot behind the movie: Lady’s Birds dreams of flight. But within that broad framework, Gerwig has captured the teenage essence of what it means to be young, bold, and desperately insecure all at the same time.
There are many pleasures to be found in this film. The Catholic high school Lady Bird attends, for instance, is shown as a world filled with nuanced people all striving to find happiness, or at least to get by. A stern nun turns out to be a laid-back, fun-loving lady who appreciates a good prank at her own expense. A stoic preacher breaks down in tears, before we learn that his son died years earlier. A cool, confident guy who has everything going for him turns out to be hiding a deep part of himself from his family and friends, at great pain. These heartfelt portraits float around Lady Bird as naturally as one experiences life.
But the true heart of the film is the relationship between Lady Bird and her mother, a struggling nurse who must support her kids and her unemployed husband (played brilliantly by Laurie Metcalf). We see that life has been hard on the mother, and Lady Bird sees it too, which is why she desperately wants to be different. Lady Bird wants fame, riches, recognition. She wants the promise of a happy, buoyant life, not the threat of foreclosure and constant double shifts at the hospital. Her mother, for her part, knows how Lady Bird feels, perhaps more than Lady Bird herself even knows. When a wealthier boy comes over to the house and tells the mother that Lady Bird told him she was “from the wrong side of the tracks,” we see the flicker of pain across the mother’s face. When Lady Bird asks to be dropped off a block ahead of the school so the other students don’t see her father’s shabby car, we see the heartbreak within his caring smile.
But despite the harsh realities of family life on display here, this is not a film one leaves feeling morose. On the contrary, it is a joy. And even at the family’s most desperate moments, when voices are raised and doors are slammed, there is always that small knock on the bedroom door, a mother’s quiet voice whispering from the other side: “Sweetheart, are you okay? I love you… I want you to know that I’ll always love you.”
Lady Bird might not know much, but she knows that.
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The Shape of Water
Just a few minutes into Guillermo Del Toro’s fanciful fairy tale The Shape of Water, viewers are treated to some of the most baffling nudity I’ve ever seen in a major motion picture.
This strange scene is our introduction to the film’s main character, a mute woman named Elise, (played by British actor Sally Hawkins), who lives in a small apartment above a movie theatre. Although given the apartment’s murky lighting, damp echoes and mildew-colored wallpaper, the effect is altogether subterranean. We’re shown Elise beginning her day—and the film—by waking up, boiling some eggs, and then slithering into the bathroom, where she takes a very intimate bath.
Now, don’t get me wrong—there are easy symbolic justifications for why Del Toro decided to introduce Elise in the buff. It presents her as a creature, a curious animal in her quiet depths, which will parallel another curious, slimy creature the film introduces later on. And to have Elise seeking sexual pleasure on her own obviously indicates that she is a lonely person, someone seeking connection. That Elise is mute and cannot easily communicate (metaphor alert!) also surely has something to do with her isolation.
But I can’t help but wonder, given the clichéd, Disney-esque movie that follows, why Del Toro opted to strip Elise down to the skin, when he could have revealed just as much about her character by simply having her gaze longingly out a window?
The answer, of course, is obvious: this film is meant to be taken seriously. And as everyone knows, graphic nudity is serious. Never mind that the plot, themes, and characterization of the film are so formulaic, so childish, that I could give away the entire story without ruining a thing.
In fact, allow me to do just that:
The film begins with a lonely mute orphan girl (the aforementioned Elise) who works in a secret government facility, sweeping floors. She wants love and connection, but can’t find it. One day a mysterious swamp monster is brought into the facility. Bad men do bad things to the monster, torturing it. Why? It doesn’t matter. (The unsatisfying answer the film gives is that studying the monster might help the Americans get to space before the Soviets—it isn’t explained any further). But it turns out the monster is nice. Like the mute girl, he is lonely too. They fall in love. (Technically, she gives the monster an egg, he eats the egg, they listen to some music together, and one scene later she is fiendishly proclaiming “I love him! He sees me for who I am!” with forceful sign language). So the lonely mute girl helps misunderstood monster escape from facility. There’s a quick interspecies sex scene back at her house (underwhelming). Bad people chase after the monster. Bad people lose, die. Monster and girl live happily ever after. Moral of the story: we should be more accepting of people.
That’s the whole movie in a nutshell, but even that summary fails to convey how cartoonish the bad guys are (all Soviets straight out of Die Hard, but in 1960s suits), or how often cheesy lines gets tossed around with reckless abandon, or how formulaic everything proceeds. And yet at the same time, the movie frequently indulges in over-the-top violence and nudity. It’s strangely disorienting. You feel comforted by the fairy tale Disney love story, but then you’re treated to some violent sex. You want the good guys to escape the bad guys, but then the bad guys are gunned-down in a hail of bullets, brains exploding, blood splattering everywhere. It’s as if the film doesn’t know what it wants to be.
Of course, judging by all the praise being heaped upon The Shape of Water, I assume many audiences found these failings to be the very aspects which they most enjoyed. Does the film follow basically the exact same plotline as Free Willy, or The Iron Giant, or Beauty and the Beast, or The Little Mermaid, or countless other cookie-cutter movies you’ve seen before? Yes, yes, yes. But the film is well-shot and visually ornate—Del Toro is, after all, a skilled director, despite his indulgences—and the cast does a good job of bringing a dull script to life. Perhaps, then, the dashes of nudity and violence only serve to heighten the film’s value to many people, like new seasoning on a familiar meal—which is ultimately not a bad thing. Just don’t expect me to call The Shape of Water anything other than what it is: a kid’s movie, just with more blood, flesh, and gills.
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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Anyone familiar with the work of playwright turned writer/director Martin McDonagh, whose previous films include cult favorite In Bruges and the criminally overlooked Seven Psychopaths, knows that the cheeky Irishman has a penchant for violence, rollicking dialogue and characters painfully burdened by the weight of their own contradictions. His most recent film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, is perhaps the finest crystallization of his preoccupations yet.
Even still, the film’s gritty, messy subject matter—the aftermath of a young woman’s rape and murder in a rural Missouri town—is occasionally at odds with the perfection of its narrative structure. You want to feel the muddy chaos of the world McDonagh has brought to life, but you’re somewhat distracted by the film’s precise and comical craftsmanship. Simple scenes of dialogue—say, between a rural cop and a backwoods woman in mud-stained overalls—turn into a volley of hilarious and cutting dialogue, each line more perfectly timed than the last. It’s great stuff, but it’s sometimes a little too great. (Coming from someone who spent five years as a reporter in Appalachia, I can assure you that no cop I’ve ever met has made an Oscar Wilde reference).
This criticism is not made in any attempt to diminish the film’s value—for it truly is a fantastic, warm-hearted movie—but only because I believe it sheds light on some of the harsher criticism the film has faced in recent weeks.
The film’s title is a reference to three billboards that are placed on a back-country road by Mildred Hayes (played by Frances McDormand at her very best) whose daughter Angela was raped and murdered seven months prior. The billboards read, respectively: “RAPED WHILE DYING,” “AND STILL NO ARRESTS?” “HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?” The last billboard specifically references the police chief, a good man (played by Woody Harrelson) who also happens to be dying of terminal pancreatic cancer. Other characters—including a racist cop (Sam Rockwell), and a romantic dwarf (Game of Throne’s Peter Dinklage)—hover around the central drama, playing out their own stories of failure and redemption.
And it’s here that critics seem to be getting hungup about the film, specifically with regard to Rockwell’s very racist cop, who drops the n-word with abandon and has a history of beating up young black men. McDonagh’s decision to nevertheless present the officer as a nuanced human being, with a capacity for joy, love, tenderness and charity, despite his many personal failings, seems to be a step too far for some of the film’s more ardent critics—indeed, a few have even likened it to a tacit endorsement of the character’s horrific actions, as if revealing personal contradictions were akin to wiping the slate of his soul clean.
I do not fall into this camp, for the simple reason that I have seen McDonagh’s previous films, and I know that no character he has ever written is entirely good or entirely bad. The same is true for Three Billboards. At the outset of the film, for example, McDonagh wants us to feel sympathy for Mildred Hayes, whose daughter was brutally raped and murdered, but he then strings us along as she frequently behaves with horrendous disregard for others, or is just plain mean. And yet we still cry when she breaks down in pain over her grief. We judge, we feel distaste, and then we relate. Such is the obligation McDonagh seems to set for himself: to make every character sympathetic, if only because he presents their rationalizations and fears so clearly that we can’t help but understand.
Redemption is not easy, the film seems to say. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.
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Easily the most divisive film of the year, Get Out has its fair share of celebrants and detractors, although that’s to be expected from a movie that is first and foremost about race—or more aptly, about racism.
The blowback is perhaps best exemplified by a review of the film in National Review, whose blaring headline called Get Out a “trite, get-white movie.” And yes, by now it should come as no surprise that most of the white people in the film… well, they don’t come out looking very good. But that’s to be expected from a movie that centers around a young black man’s experience as an outsider, an unwelcome guest into a world not his own.
To draw a comparison to history, when the great director William Wyler was about to go into production on the classic anti-Nazi war film Mrs. Miniver, he faced objection from studio head Louis B. Mayer, who found Wyler’s treatment of Germans in the film problematic. The film tells the story of a simple British family living through the daily struggles World War II. One morning, the titular Mrs. Kay Miniver finds a wounded German sleeping in the family garden. The German is quickly revealed to be an evil Nazi caricature, holding Miniver at gunpoint and aggressively proclaiming the Third Reich’s inevitable dominance over the word, which Mayer found troubling. “We don’t hate anybody,” he told Wyler. But Wyler did not budge. If he had ten or twenty German characters in the film, he told Mayer, then of course some of them would be good and decent people. But because there was only one German in the film, Wyler was going to make him as evil as he could, because he needed to make a point. (Some weeks later, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and Mayer promptly changed his tune, telling Wyler, “Yes, go ahead as you will”). Such an argument, I believe, could also be made to justify the decisions of director Jordan Peele and his treatment of white people in Get Out. Yes, of course Peele could have made some of the white characters in the film good and decent people, which would have satisfied some of the film’s harsher critics. But that would have taken time, disrupting the pacing of the film, and moreover, Peele is clearly using the white characters here to make a point. They are not meant to be representative of white people in general (Peele himself has a white mother, and grew up in a white household, so I doubt he is harboring any “get-whitey” motives here), but merely the worst qualities of racism embodied, just as Wyler was attacking the embodiment of Nazism. Peele only has one white household to work with. Because this is first and foremost a horror movie, he’s going to make them as sinister as possible.
The film centers around a young black photographer named Chris Washington (played with quiet reserve by Daniel Kaluuya) who is going home with his white girlfriend for the first time to meet her family. As he arrives, the pleasant hospitality of the all-American white household begins to morph into something more unsettling, and Chris starts to wonder why he is here in the first place. I’ll give no more away, because the real pleasures of the film are in experiencing the discomfort and fear from Chris’ perspective, as we face a growing sense of doom that is both truly scary and strangely exciting.
I use that word—perspective—because I cannot mention the blowback against Get Out without recalling a similar level of criticism that was heaped upon another exceptional film of recent years, American Sniper. Let’s be honest with ourselves: much of the criticism being leveled against Get Out is from people of a more conservative perspective, just as the most ardent detractors of American Sniper were those who skewed liberal. The arguments against each film, however, are rooted in the same logic. From the conservative view, it can be argued that Get Out stereotypes all white people as evil. From the liberal view, it can be equally argued that American Sniper stereotypes all Iraqis and Muslims as evil. But I find both arguments flawed, because at no point did either film strive to make objective claims. Rather, they were merely presenting a situation from a fixed perspective. For the black man who encounters horrific racism, he develops a certain perspective. For the soldier who encounters horrific barbarism, he too develops a perspective. And for audiences to demand that a filmmaker add in niceties simply to appease their own idealistic sense of how the world should work is, to my mind, childish. Art is meant to reflect life, and sometimes life is cruel. Would it have made some white audiences happier if a few of the white characters in Get Out ended up being nice and caring? Yes, probably. But would it have made for a better movie? No, most certainty not.
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Christopher Nolan’s latest epic begins in silence. Leaflets cascade from the sky, raining down upon a quiet alley, on which a few soldiers listlessly stand. They reach up to pluck the paper as it falls. WE SURROUND YOU, the paper reads. The screen goes black and a simple title card reads: “The enemy have driven the British and French armies to the sea. Trapped at Dunkirk, they await their fate. Hoping for deliverance. For a miracle.” And soon we hear the roar of enemy planes overhead; gunfire, violence, blood and chaos shatters the silence. The battle has begun. The film will now remain at this volume for its entirety.
Such is the problem with Dunkirk. For a film that is so beautifully shot, the scale of the battle so grandiose, the direction of master Christopher Nolan so precise, it is also bafflingly dull, with little in the way of characters on which to hinge the spectacle, so that what we are left with is essentially a two-and-a-half hour battle sequence, that and nothing more.
Still, this is very much a Christopher Nolan film, the director behind such fantastic crowd-pleasers as The Dark Knight, Interstellar, and The Prestige, which means audiences would be right to expect some cinematic wizardry. What Nolan offers in this film by way of inventiveness is a chopped-up structure. We follow the battle sequence from three perspectives—land, sea, and air—each of which spans a different amount of time—a week on land, a day at sea, and an hour in the air. The structure can be confusing at first, but eventually these three perspectives begin to overlap in creative ways. A fighter pilot in the air, for instance, spots a capsized boat down in the sea below, a boat we recognize. When the perspective shifts back to those at sea, the boat has yet to capsize, and we are left wondering how it will happen. In such a way Nolan weaves a tapestry of experience to form a cohesive whole, but much of the architecture is lost upon first viewing, as we are far too distracted by the non-stop battery of bullets, roaring engines, and screams.
Despite the noise (audibly sensitive viewers in theatres would be advised to bring ear plugs) Dunkirk could just as easily have been a silent film, for there is almost no dialogue, or at least none worth recalling. This is purposeful: Nolan reportedly did not want the film to get “bogged down in the politics of situation,” and as a result we see no backstory as to how the battle arose, no backroom talks between generals, no Winston Churchill smoking a cigar, no wives and children at home. It could even be argued that there are no characters in the film at all, for most of the soldiers are difficult to distinguish from one another (boy-band heartthrob Harry Styles makes an appearance, though mud-stained and unrecognizable), and we have no notion of any motivations or histories beyond each character’s desperate attempts at survival.
Even still, Dunkirk remains a remarkable achievement, even if one’s enjoyment of the film depends heavily on a penchant for well-choreographed battle sequences. It may be a divergence from Nolan’s typical fare, but the passion behind the project is evident, and the film’s ending note—a rescued soldier reading from Winston Churchill’s famous speech to the House of Commons (“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields…”)—expands the scope of the struggle we have just spent more than two hours enduring. This is how the war was won, Nolan seems to say. It was not one story but many, a million and more voiceless individuals who experienced the chaos as it was—random, indifferent to the individual, cruel in its deathly implications—who nevertheless survived. Survived, and then dusted themselves off to go back and fight some more.
* * *
Call Me By Your Name
The critical darling of the year, Call Me By Your Name is two hours of people looking off in the distance, shrugging, walking around, riding bikes in silence, drinking water, sleeping, sitting in chairs, eating, and then about thirty minutes of gay sex scenes, all underscored by repetitive piano music. If that sounds up your alley, great. But everyone else might do well to bring a large cup of Starbucks with them into the theatre, because they’ll certainly need it during this snooze-fest disguised as art.
With every lingering shot and painfully dull scene, Call Me By Your Name is practically begging to be written about in a college-level film studies essay. No doubt such an essay would mention the film’s languid pacing, its supple beauty, its sensuous direction, its sultry poetry, its ripe imagery—basically anything that has to do with heat and fruit, because apparently symbolism is more important these days than telling a good story. But arthouse pandering aside, what most struck me during this mind-numbing slog of a movie was how obvious it all was. One character is an archeologist who studies ancient Greek sculpture of the male form, so of course we are treated to shots of these muscular sculptures juxtaposed with identical shots of our two male lovers. Another character eats a soft-boiled egg for breakfast, so of course his finger massages the yolk out suggestively, at which point juices burst forth while his eyes meet his lover’s gaze across the table. Another character literally has sex with a peach, and his lover then takes a bite out of said peach. Is that even symbolism? I don’t know anymore. I’ll leave that to the film studies students.
Watching Call Me By Your Name is like reading a particularly banal New Yorker short story, one that falls into every cliché of what serious art is meant to be. Scenes begin and end with seemingly no point. Resolution? Please. Plot progression? Get out of town. Characters ride their bikes around, the camera pans over to some clouds, some grass, some trees, and then all of a sudden it’s nighttime, and we’re treated to some shots of the sky, some more grass, some dark trees, a character asleep in bed, and then it’s breakfast again, over and over—piano music rising up and down in the background like someone’s head nodding as they try desperately to stay awake. Does the film mirror the languid nature of real life? Yes, surely. But does it entertain, intrigue or even warrant attention? Not at all.
Of course, much fuss has been made over the subject matter of the film—the slow-building love story between a teenage boy (Timothee Chalamet) and the older male guest (Armie Hammer) staying at his parents’ Italian summer home—but even a portrayal of gay love as authentic and restrained as we find in Call Me By Your Name isn’t all that interesting anymore. Such a film would have been a revelation even half a decade ago, but in these gender fluid days, when gay love has been normalized and we’ve already moved on to the more blurred lines of sexual identity, a tale like this is practically prudish—peach-copulating aside, of course.
* * *
The key scene in director Joe Wright’s newest drama Darkest Hour takes place in a cramped train car in the London Underground. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (played by a makeup drenched Gary Oldman in a career-defining performance) has decided to use the underground on his commute to Westminster, where a crucial decision awaits him. Should he give in to Nazi pressure and seek a surrender for better terms? Or should he push to fight? Churchill asks the group of stunned passengers on the train car as to their thoughts. They answer him without hesitation: fight. Fight always. Fight to the end. “Fight with broomsticks, if we must,” booms one woman. “Never give up!” echoes a little girl from the back.
The poignancy of the scene is obvious for those familiar with Churchill’s “We shall fight on the beaches!” speech, a defiant screed against surrender to the Nazis that served to unite the government in favor of a continued war effort, and which also serves as Darkest Hour’s climax. That certain phrases spoken by those passengers on the train car seem to echo in Churchill’s later speech is no accident, for the film often draws a connection between the stiff statecraft operating behind the scenes and the quiet will of the people, with no one other than Churchill capable of crossing between these two worlds. The logic of Darkest Hour therefore requires Churchill to make this literal descent into the underground world of the common man, before he can rise into the vaulted ceilings of history. Churchill is nothing without the people, the film reminds us, and we feel inclined to nod along in agreement.
Conveniently, Darkest Hour arrived in theatres the same year as Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, and the two films serve as pieces of the same puzzle, different perspectives on the same story, and even end with the same speech. But while Dunkirk was boldly singular, perhaps to its detriment, Darkest Hour is standard fair, a consistently adequate and thoroughly enjoyable film, if a bit formulaic. You will find no real surprises here, but that’s just fine. The meal is familiar but delicious. Churchill’s words—“we shall never surrender!”—still rouse us. And in these modern times of moral uncertainty, sometimes a good pump-up speech is just what we need.
* * *
Phantom Thread is a film of spoons clinking against tea cups, forks and knives tapping on plates, the scrape of chairs scooting out, and many sighs. It is a dramatic film in which the drama is acted out through raised eyebrows and sarcastic comments, slurped tea and perhaps a loud swallow of coffee. This is fitting—no pun intended—for a film that takes place in the snobbish world of high fashion, specifically the fashion scene of London in the 1950s, where disdain is often so couched in decorum that you might miss it.
But those who are entering this film with thoughts of writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s previous work—which includes such classic films as Boogie Nights, Magnolia, There Will Be Blood, and The Master—will likely be disappointed by the degree to which Anderson has pared down his technique. What made his prior films so wonderful was the way by which Anderson created deeply believable characters as snapshots of a wider world—films like Boogie Nights, which used a collective of comically tragic individuals to open the door on the strange and sad world of pornography in 1970s California. But Phantom Thread offers no such glance into the wider world of London fashion. We are instead cooped up in a single house for the majority of the film, a claustrophobic environment, where most of the conflict takes place at the morning breakfast nook, acted out in small gestures. The precision and the subtlety of Anderson’s directing here is remarkable. Drama emerges when one character butters her toast too loudly, for example. Another character responds with a bitter sip of tea, a swift turning of a notebook page. A third character glances away, ashamed of the disturbance. No one other than Anderson could make such small gestures contain such multitudes of expression. Yes, this is a beautiful film.
It is also boring. Exceedingly boring. Groaningly boring. So very boring it might just break your heart.
Speaking as a die-hard fan of Anderson’s work, I so wanted to like Phantom Thread. I had been waiting for the film with excitement for more than a year, after word first broke that Daniel Day-Lewis and Anderson, who had previously worked together in There Will Be Blood, would be teaming up again. Throw in a score from Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, also a frequent Anderson collaborator, and you have a recipe for success. But unfortunately, as I left Phantom Thread, I had to admit to myself the harsh truth: that movie stunk.
The story follows renowned fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock, a belligerent artist played by Daniel Day-Lewis (supposedly in his last role, but we shall see), who meets a young waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps) and promptly brings her into his home. We then follow the path of their relationship, a see-saw of dominance and submission, back and forth, back and forth. Woodcock is grumpy, but Alma is nice and fun; more importantly, she also happens to be self-assured enough to know what she wants. This makes her a unique creature for Woodcock. Whereas his past girlfriends bemoaned his stern tendencies, unsuccessfully attempting to massage kindness from him, Alma takes a different tact. She openly confronts him, calling him a grumpy baby, intruding on his sacred routines, because she thinks he could be living a happier, better life, and she will show him how.
The relationship is shown with tenderness and humor, and at least in this regard, Anderson is successful. Indeed, to my mind, no other contemporary filmmaker loves his characters as much as Anderson does. Even when they are stupid, arrogant, vain, cruel, or downright hopeless, there is a warm sympathy in the way he portrays them. But this focus on small interpersonal conflict has grown more and more prominent in Anderson’s films as he’s matured, to the determinant of his film’s additional furnishings. When the outside world is stripped away, all we are left with is a banal chamber drama, people talking ceaselessly in a locked room. No matter how deep the emotions may be for these isolated characters, the film itself still feels shallow—like a dress with no one in it.
* * *
Most Likely to Win:
3.The Shape of Water
4.Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
7.Call Me By Your Name
4.Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
7.The Shape of Water
8.Call Me By Your Name
9. Phantom Thread