In past years, the Oscars seemed like a sure thing. The movie taking place in Hollywood, about Hollywood would always have an edge, such as “La La Land” or “Argo.” But last year’s envelope snaffu proved the ninety-year-old award show still had the potential to surprise. Perhaps that mentality is what makes this year’s ceremony that much more unsure; going into the show, there is no clear frontrunner for several key awards. This can only help the show, not hinder it.
The most crucial award of the night is Best Picture. It has always been the cornerstone of the hours-long trek through self-congratulatory presentations and writing. This year, there are a few strong, great films among a sea of OK-to-mediocre ones. Unfortunately, the latter has occupied more space in voters’ minds this time. “The Shape of Water” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” are the two battling out the top award, with Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” being a distant third.
Having seen all the movies nominated, “Dunkirk” is the stronger and most exciting of those three favorites. “The Shape of Water” has a good heart with a unique atmosphere, but the central romance fell flat for me. “Three Billboards” is a disaster of misplaced assumptions and tones which crash together as half-hearted political commentary. The performances in “Three Billboards” are stronger than the writing and filmmaking, and I’ve an idea that they will be heavily honored.
Best Actor will be a lifetime achievement award for Gary Oldman, mostly for good reason. His portrayal of Winston Churchill is borderline schlocky, but it’s the kind of full-steam commitment the Oscars love. His performance simply cannot not be matched to that of Timothée Chalamet in “Call Me By Your Name.” He is revelatory in that film, a young actor bringing honesty to a character enraptured by love in a very specific time. There’s also Daniel-Day Lewis in “Phantom Thread,” whose acting is subdued but chameleon-like as Day-Lewis is wont to do in any given film. Last but not least is Daniel Kaluuya in “Get Out,” the audience favorite and easily the movie people saw most out of all the nominees.
Maybe Oldman needs recognition, but this is an Oscar tradition of which I’m frankly tiring. It’s en vogue to give veteran actors an Oscar for a subpar performance just to praise their career. Oldman, like DiCaprio before him, has this award locked away.
Best Actress appears to be swaying in Frances McDormand’s direction. Her portrayal of an angry, ruthless mother defending her daughter after her brutal rape and death deserves praise. It’s a really honest, powerful turn that rises above the misguided writing she’s given. Sally Hawkins as a mute janitor who falls in love with an amphibian creature in “The Shape of Water” is equally as captivating. They both deliver great performances that rise above the movies themselves. However, the one true, defining performance comes from Margot Robbie in “I, Tonya.” Tonya Harding is a person society didn’t know it needed to consider reconsidering, but here we are. Robbie’s portrayal of the former superstar figure skater and first woman to land a triple axel is nuanced and sad. It’s as deftly written as the entire movie, and is one of those performances that truly elevate the movie into something exceptional.
As always, there are movies I believe were snubbed, or those nominated that have no chance of getting ample love this year. Chief among those is Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Phantom Thread,” which I am shocked even got as many nominations as it did. It’s the second-best film of last year in my eyes. Beautifully and delicately told, the movie is one of Anderson’s best in a career of great movies.
If you just see one movie that got nominated this year, let it be “The Florida Project.” The film netted a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Willem Dafoe (who’s sure to lose to Sam Rockwell), but deserved so much more. It’s as honest and emotionally arresting as any film I saw last year. The story it tells, of young children living in poverty beneath the shadow of Disney World, is heart-wrenching, funny and full of touching and profoundly sad moments. It’s a stream-of-consciousness yarn on poverty and the relationship between innocence and desperation which is the most complete vision offered from 2017. It’s a masterpiece.
Oscars will come and go. The question of their relevance has been amplified in the past few years, and with dropping viewership numbers, maybe this is a discussion worth having. The Oscars are a fun, albeit self-serving awards show dedicated to not-so-subtle marketing and the mercy of its voting members every year. That fact will never change. If you love movies, you owe it to yourself not to take stock in these awards, but treat them as an annual bout of entertainment. View them as a jumping-off point for watching movies, a past-time full of more delight than any awards show can offer.