It’s January! That magical time of year when the only things you can see in the theater are drivel that studios needed to bury or limited release films that are only seeing wide release because of their status as Oscar hopefuls. This week I saw three films that would qualify as the later and composed my thoughts of each below.
The Post – Rating: 8/10
I tend to approach films like this with some measure of trepidation. Its awards season release window, all-star cast, and clear-cut right versus wrong source material all made me wary of spending my two hours watching a film that had little to no chance of surprising me. Thankfully, I turned out to be wrong. Not only is The Post nowhere near as black and white as I had expected, but also showcases some pretty phenomenal filmmaking on the part of Steven Spielberg.
Where I had expected the characters to be mostly one-note, I found a surprising amount of nuance. At no point was Meryl Streep’s Kay Graham painted as a flawless leader suited perfectly to her job immediately, and worthy of mounds of admiration. Instead, her growth into a powerful figure in the newspaper business was realized quite believably, and by the end of her arc it felt entirely natural and deserved.
Similarly, Ben Bradlee, played by Tom Hanks doing his best J. Jonah Jameson impression, is imbued with subtle characteristics that make him feel flawed and real. The most satisfying thing about all of this is that the flaws and motivations of Graham and Bradlee are put at the film’s focus, and drive most of the plot. Not only does this make watching a story that the public has known about for nearly fifty years far more interesting, it also provides a through-line of thematic relevance to every element of the film.
Unsurprisingly, Spielberg takes what could have been dry source material and creates a fairly riveting story. One would think that after this many years, the director would have run out of ways to make scenes visually interesting, and yet here we are. Unfortunately, his decision to collaborate with John Williams on this film, in particular, did not pay off in quite the way I was expecting. It goes without saying that Williams is a masterful composer, and his work here is as stellar as we’ve come to expect. The issue is that long stretches of the film are un-scored, with dialogue serving as our only aural stimulant. And when the music does kick in, Williams’ signature fanfares seem out of place when set to an intern walking down a hallway with a manila envelope. The quality of the work cannot be debated, but its placement in this particular film certainly can.
Given that this is the Limited Release Films Finally Found Their Way Into a Mainstream Theater Triple Feature; I guess I should briefly discuss my thoughts on where this film sits in the Oscar race. I would be thoroughly unsurprised to see it nominated for best picture, and Streep nominated for best leading actress. That having been said, I would be thoroughly disappointed to see it win in either category. The odds of The Post taking the highest honor away from Three Billboards, Call Me by Your Name, Lady Bird, The Shape of Water or, dare I hope, Dunkirk is unlikely, but stranger things certainly have happened. In terms of the best actress award, I think that Frances McDormand, Sally Hawkins, and Saoirse Ronan all delivered superior performances in their respective films, and it would be lovely to see them rewarded. The Post is very good, maybe even great, but there are just better, less safe films on the table this year.
Call Me by Your Name – Rating: 9/10
It would be so incredibly easy to discount Call Me by Your Name, as a “gay” romance film. Many mainstream romances lack craft, and I can only assume that a great many people would judge this movie harshly based on the idea that it is about gay love. Perhaps the most refreshing thing about this film is that it is not about gay love. It’s not even about love at all. Instead, Call Me by Your Name is a film about expression. It is a film about allowing yourself to be as you are and feel as you will, even when doing so may be frightening, painful, or inconvenient.
There is no heavy-handed social commentary; there is no moment where a character turns to the camera and says “love is love.” Instead, the film is filled with little moments where each of the characters are given the opportunity to feel something, be something, or say something. They either don’t and regret it or do and then feel immense guilt or fear about it. This is a film filled with characters who are at odds with themselves, within themselves. It is in this way that the subtle message of the film emerges.
Yes, love is love. Love is something we all feel. So is fear. And pain. These are the things that make us human, and to try to repress them makes us somehow less human. Director Luca Guadagnino wastes no time differentiating between gay love and straight love because he has no intention of contrasting anybody’s emotions. That is not the point of the film any more than the point is to fetishize gay sex or convince anybody to change their beliefs. Call Me by Your Name is a very somber, yet ultimately hopeful plea to the world to just allow each person to feel authentically. If that weren’t enough, it’s also brilliantly well shot, acted, and composed.
While the above merits may potentially be more interpretive than objective, it is hard to contest the enormity of talent on display here, both in front of and behind the camera. Luca Guadagnino has directed before, but this is the first of his films I have seen, though now I fully intend to watch more. Occasionally echoing the work Abbas Kiarostami, each frame is so well composed that it could easily be seen in a museum and nobody would bat an eye. The way the colors of the landscapes play off of the costumes is mesmerizing. The way Guadagnino shoots food makes it look more delicious than anything you’ve ever seen, and the way he shows the environment makes you want to crawl through the screen and be there yourself. If there had been no plot whatsoever, I would have been entirely content to follow these characters around their villa in Northern Italy doing just about anything.
On the acting front, I have few if any complaints. Armie Hammer delivers the best performance of his career, and Timothee Chalamet was brilliant. Of the two, Chalamet proves to be the clear victor; delivering a bracingly honest performance that will be hard to forget, particularly during the film’s final moments.
With the exception of a few strange story beats and a frustrating lack of communication between the two lovers that made the onset of the romance feel somewhat sudden, Call Me by Your Name is exquisite. Sharing more characteristics with a great European drama, it feels almost insultingly reductive to call it a romance. Not only is it the best film on this list, but it’s one of the best films of the year. I fully expect to see it in numerous categories at the Oscars, including best picture, best actor, best supporting actor and best adapted screenplay. There is some potential that it could in win any or all of the above categories, but the competition is stiff. I certainly wouldn’t complain if it took home any of these awards, but it would also be nice to see Luca Guadagnino recognized with a nomination for direction, although a win is unlikely.
Lady Bird – Rating: 7.5/10
There was an enormous amount of discussion surrounding Lady Bird after it became the highest rated film of all time on Rotten Tomatoes and subsequently lost that distinction to a now-reviled critic who didn’t think it was worthy of such praise. I can now safely say that Lady Bird deserved its share of positive reviews, as it was quite good. That having been said, the whole story also illustrates the fact that people just don’t understand what Rotten Tomatoes is at all.
Rotten Tomatoes does nothing more than display the percentage of qualifying critics who give a film a “positive” rating. Positive could be a 2.5/4 or a 6/10 or whatever the critic says the score represents. Going into Lady Bird with this understanding, it makes perfect sense that so many people gave the film positive ratings; it is a very well constructed, acted, and directed movie. That having been said, it is not the greatest film of all time, and precisely nobody on the production team or at Rotten Tomatoes ever claimed it to be such.
The most significant issue with Lady Bird is something akin to the inverse of the problem faced by Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love. Both are attempts by very talented filmmakers to make stereotypically artless genres (coming of age teen dramas and romantic comedies, respectively) into more interesting films. Anderson approached this challenge by shooting Punch Drunk Love like an artistic drama and making the moment-to-moment experience enjoyable but failed to give the story any real depth beyond that. Gerwig, on the other hand, imbued Lady Bird with an enormous amount of depth and heart but failed to make the moment to moment particularly enjoyable.
That’s not to say that Lady Bird is unpleasant to watch, or that it’s a bad movie in any sense. I would actually consider it to be a superior film to Punch Drunk Love in most ways. I just found that watching a teenager be moody and angsty was somehow off-putting after seventy minutes. Furthermore, I consistently find it irritating when filmmakers feel the need to insert high school tropes into their movies to remind audiences that the high school aged characters are, in fact, in high school. Remember how the inept gym teacher would be forced to direct plays? It’s so funny! Remember prom? So nostalgic! Remember wild drinking parties? So rebellious! It’s all so expected in films like this, and I would have greatly enjoyed seeing Gerwig take a less conventional approach.
If there’s one thing that Lady Bird does excel at, it is the act of disguising a more artful film as a mainstream teen drama. Characters struggle with their sexuality, with depression, with familial relationships and with their place in life. All of this is presented in such a refreshingly honest way that it’s hard not to want the makers of Hollywood films to learn from what Greta Gerwig has done here. This all culminates in a wonderful and perfectly executed final sequence that wears its heart on its sleeve and makes up for an enormous number of the film’s shortcomings.
At the end of the day, I feel very conflicted about Lady Bird. While there’s no denying that it is a good movie, bolstered by solid direction and mostly stellar acting, I can already feel most everything about it (with the exception of the aforementioned ending) beginning to fade from my mind. Even so, I believe that it is a strong contender for a best picture nomination, as well as nominations for Greta Gerwig and Saoirse Ronan in their respective categories.
While I would far rather see an independent film like Lady Bird take home the best picture award than something like The Post, I suspect that it is unlikely actually to win. Furthermore, while Greta Gerwig should certainly be nominated for best director, it will be difficult to overcome the incredible work done by Guillermo Del Toro, Christopher Nolan, Martin McDonagh, or Denis Villeneuve (should he score the richly deserved nomination). And unfortunately, in the shadow of Frances McDormand, Saoirse Ronan stands precisely no chance of nabbing a win for best actress.
For what it’s worth, though, all three of these films are really quite excellent. It is remarkably refreshing to go to the theater three times in a row and walk out each time mostly satisfied. That happens only very rarely. If nothing else, it goes to show that even if a film is obviously Oscar-bait (cough cough The Post cough), there’s usually enough craft or originality to make it an immensely more fulfilling experience than just about anything that comes out in the summertime. Or January. January is awful.
Now that the nominations have been announced, for the sake of posterity, here is a list of the nominations that each of these three Limited Release Films That Finally Found Their Way Into a Mainstream Theater Films received:
The Post: Best Picture and Best Actress
Call Me By Your Name: Best Actor (Timothée Chalamet), Adapted Screenplay (James Ivory), and Best Original Song (“Mystery of Love” by Sufjan Stevens)
Lady Bird: Best Picture, Best Director (Greta Gerwig), Best Actress (Saoirse Ronan), Original Screenplay (Greta Gerwig), and Best Supporting Actress (Laurie Metcalf)
Will any of these films take home an Oscar or two? Or three? Or five? We’ll have to wait and see to find out…