Armchair Oscars – 2017

| March 5, 2018

Best Picture

The Shape of Water (Directed by Guillermo del Toro
The Nominees: Call Me By Your Name, Darkest Hour, Dunkirk, Get Out, Lady Bird, Phantom Thread, The Post

A Ghost Story (Directed by David Lowery)
My Nominees: Beach Rats (Eliza Hittman), Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve), Call Me By Your Name (Luca Guadagnino), Coco (Lee Unkrich), Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson), Star Wars, Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (Rian Johnson), Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Martin McDonagh)

A Ghost Story (2017, David Lowery): Grief, Sorrow and Meloncholia –  Offscreen

In the years following the #oscarsswhite scandal, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences did their best to try and rectify the white-washing tradition so associated with The Oscars.  In so doing, the films nominated for the Best Picture prize were generally films that wavered back and forth between the new awareness of diversity and the same old traditional nominees: nice, respectable and generally inoffensive.

I cannot decide where to put Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water.  It would seem to lean on the side of recognizing the new diversity, possibly in addressing that passions are not born from the status quo but from the tender bond between lovers when they both want the same thing whether they be the same sex, a different race, a different culture or, I suppose in this case, a different species.  It is a story that only Guillermo del Toro could really tell: the story of a mute cleaning woman (Sally Hawkins) who works in the government facility where she meets and falls in love with an amphibious creature that was captured in the Amazon.  In a sort of hard-R retelling of E.T., the protagonist and the creature fall in love and run away together while a sadistic government agent (Michael Shannon) stays hot on their heels.

I liked a great deal of The Shape of Water, particularly because it comes from a director that never fails to challenge me.  Guillermo del Toro doesn’t make standard movies.  He takes a standard story and twists it into a refreshingly adult fairy tale – the kind that you might find in a Manga with a warning sticker on the front.  His work is individual, personal, challenging.  I never see the same thing twice from him, nor do I ever see anything similar from any other filmmaker.

And yet, from The Shape of Water I might have preferred a little more of the romantic bonding and slightly less of the hot-on-their-tails chase stuff with the villain.  For me, the end of the movie clangs a little too hard on reminders of E.T.  But, never-the-less, I appreciated the experience.  I know that I’ll never get another film this challenging or this original again.  And speaking of challenging experiences, the kind of jolt that most people got from The Shape of Water is exactly the kind of jolt that I got from my choice for Best Picture, David Lowery’s bizarre whatzit simply titled A Ghost Story.

I have always said that if you see enough movies, you will eventually find one that you imagine was made just for you.  David Lowery’s A Ghost Story feels like it was made just for me.  It’s the kind of fantasy that my brain might dredge up when I am driving and don’t feel like listening to the radio or when I’m performing a menial task. It is the kind of dreamy, stream-of-consciousness narrative that invites you to take a journey. You are involved rather than passive.

I love movies like this, movies that are illusive enough that they invite me into a game of intellectual metaphysical hopscotch.  It is the kind of experience that is so engaging that I am still playing the game three years later.  Mercifully, it is also the kind of movie that keeps me going; after thousands of movies, years after year that are vacuous, timid, indecipherable and aspire to nothing, here is a movie that reminds me that the art of the cinema is not dead.

A Ghost Story takes chances and reveals creative decisions that could, in other hands, have been a laughable disaster.  It deals with the most common and yet elusive of human experience: death, yet the spaces of the film are so sparse that the two main characters don’t even have proper names. They are a young married couple credited as ‘C’ (played by Casey Affleck) and ‘R’ (played by Rooney Mara), who buy a small house in a wayward suburb and, shortly thereafter, he dies in a car accident. Soon, he rises from the slab in the morgue draped in the white sheet with eye holes that he will wear for the rest of eternity, looking like something out of a child’s Halloween decoration.  He never says a word, only observing the slow-going tally of life happening around him.

Returning to his home, he witnesses the sometimes unhealthy grieving process of his widow who cannot see or hear him.  For him, the status remains the same, but he is forced to watch as his widow moves on, tries dating, and eventually sells the house and moves away leaving him there alone in an empty place.
Worse, he stays around long enough to watch her pick up the pieces and move on with her life. When she sells the place and moves on, he is left there in the empty space of that house . . . for the next one hundred billion years!

What happens for the rest of the film has to be seen to be believed. Often the forward motion is rational, as when he watches new owners take up residency in the home. Other times, it’s a head-scratcher as when he realizes that his small suburb is becoming an urban landscape that would be comfortable in Blade Runner.

What is so amazing about this story is that Lowery doesn’t want to shore it up in one place. He keeps going long after one might expect, so at a certain point we’re not sure where the movie is going and at one point, not even sure what is happening.

When I saw A Ghost Story at The Sidewalk Film Festival in 2017, I remember experiencing a kind of euphoria, the kind of inward momentum that a great film can give you.  The great films are those that you don’t simply watch, you stand just inside the screen, experiencing the action around you.  You lean forward, waiting to see where the journey will take you.  You don’t always understand it but it meets with your intellect and invites you to ask questions, interpret the concept of an eternal afterlife and what that may entail.  It’s the best kind of movie: one that you take home with you in the deepest recesses of your mind.

Best Actor

Gary Oldman (Darkest Hour)
The Nominees: Timothée Chalamet (Call Me By Your Name), Daniel Day-Lewis (Phantom Thread), Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out), Denzel Washington (Roman J. Israel, Esq), 

Harry Dean Stanton (Lucky)
My Nominees: Timothée Chalamet (Call Me By Your Name), Daniel Day-Lewis (Phantom Thread), Harris Dickenson (Beach Rats), Doug Jones (The Shape of Water), Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out)

Lucky (film 2017) - Wikipedia

ary Oldman has always been one of the screen’s great chameleons, an actor who can seemingly play anything and has done so in the skin of Sid Vicious, Beethoven, Lee Harvey Oswald, Herman Mankiewicz, Mason Verger, Count Dracula, Commissioner Gordon, Sirius Black and even Pontius Pilate.  But of all of those roles, it seemed kind of fitting that the actor’s branch of the Academy would choose to reward him for one of the safest roles of his career.

To have won the Oscar for playing Winston Churchill in Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour was not exactly a challenge for those voting in his favor.  The Academy likes actors who tackle biographical parts that are safe and uncomplicated; Mahatma Gandhi, Truman Capote, Abraham Lincoln, Stephen Hawking, Freddy Mercury, etc..  

My issue with Gary Oldman’s performance says nothing about his work, which is exemplary.  It’s how it is presented.  To play the portly Prime Minister, Oldman is buried under so much heavy make-up that I have trouble getting through it (visually) to get to the performance.  This seems odd to say, but he doesn’t look like Winston Churchill so much as Gary Oldman made up to look like Winston Churchill.  I never feel like I am looking at the real thing.  Match this with John Lithgow on the Netflix series “The Crown” in which he plays Churchill with no make-up and we’re asked to let the performance convince us that we’re in the room with him.  That suspension of disbelief seems to work much better than all of the technical craft (all due respect to the make-up artists).  Lithgow’s performance is much more challenging largely because it doesn’t use make-up.

I didn’t need to be convinced of anything when it came to my favorite performance of the year.  Harry Dean Stanton was one of the most reliable actors for more than sixty years, bearing a craggy face that had more lines than a geographic map and shadows that hid a great deal of . . . what? Passion? Regret? Heartbreak? Loneliness? Bitterness?  Stanton had a tight face but you’d be hard-pressed to ever guess what real emotions lay behind it.  His weather-beaten complexion was like a sad old country song.

Many film lovers can debate on what his best performance might have been, but I think it was the title role in John Carroll Lynch’s dramedy Lucky which, by the time of its release, ended up being his farewell performance.  Few actors ever get a swan song this beautiful.

In a movie so rich, so open and so uncomplicated, he plays a man known only as Lucky (no one is sure about his real name).  The nickname doesn’t seem to be so much a moniker as a description.  He’s a lonely old coot living out in the desert of Piru, California who has lived a lonely life of nine decades, survived World War II by enlisting in the Navy and serving as a cook, and somehow surviving despite subsisting on a steady diet of coffee and cigarettes.  

The aura of the man is established by director Lynch in a brilliant opening shot of a 100-year-old tortoise named President Roosevelt, slowly loping his way across the desert sand.  His ancient wrinkles and loafing gate are then juxtaposed with that of 90-year-old Lucky, himself wrinkled and with a loafing gate.  He is a man of strict routine.  He wakes up, has a cigarette, performs his ablutions, does yoga, gets dressed, walks down to the local diner and works the crossword puzzle while having his coffee.

And yet, Lucky is a man of much more layers than we might imagine.  Our first few minutes with the man give the impression of a feisty old coot who might seem to have a problem with everything and everyone, but slowly we get to know him, and we get to see that he is a human being with feelings, with pain, with deep philosophy, and with a lifetime of regret.

We sense that perhaps Lucky hasn’t given a lot of thought to his own morality, but there is a moment when it clicks for him.  Standing in his kitchen, staring at the clock on the coffee pot, he passes out.  Why? No one is really sure.  His doctor (Ed Begley, Jr., wonderful cameo) is flummoxed by how he could possibly have lived this long without contracting lung cancer or even joint pain.  He diagnoses his good health to “a combination of genetic good luck, and you’re one tough son of a bitch.”  But something that the doctor says clicks with Lucky.  “The body’s gonna break down at some point.  As far as I know, nobody’s lived forever.  It’s gonna happen to all of us.”  Despite his capacity for cheating death, he remains an atheist and, during a trip to the local bar, admits that he is sure that death is the end of the story.  Lights out.  Closed curtain.  Endless void.

What is so special about Lucky is that he is one of life’s anomalies, like the Marfa lights or the origins of Stonehenge.  He’s there, he’s always been there, but no one can say where he came from or how long he’s going to be there.  And Harry Dean Stanton is the perfect actor to embody this man.  He himself was always an actor that no one could figure out.  He’s so good, but you wouldn’t know it just by looking at him.  He wasn’t particularly good-looking; he wasn’t easily fit into a character role and yet he could embody a film without rhyme or reason.  He was just simply there, always there and we were lucky to have him.

Best Actress

Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri)
The Nominees: Sally Hawkins (The Shape of Water), Margot Robbie (I, Tonya), Saoirse Ronan (Lady Bird), Meryl Streep (The Post),  

Florence Pugh (Lady Macbeth)
My Nominees: Jessica Chastain (Molly’s Game), Vicki Krieps (Phantom Thread), Melanie Lynsky (I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore), Danielle McDonald (Patty Cake$), Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), Margot Robbie (I Tonya), Emma Stone (Battle of the Sexes), Daniela Vega (A Fantastic Woman)

LADY MACBETH - Behind The Lens Online

The five Best Actress nominees for two-thousand-seventeen showed only a small bit of the wider birth of marvelous work done by lead actresses during the year.  And yet, I feel that the best work got left out of the competition – you’ll notice only two of the Academy’s nominees are among my own.

Make no mistake, I was happy that the Academy gave dear Frances McDormand her second Oscar, this time for her work as Mildrid Hayes, a grieving mother-lion who goes to great lengths to get the local sheriff’s department off their butts to solve her daughter’s murder, in Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.  What is special about her performance is that she shows not only the outward outrage of injustice but the emotional turmoil of a woman who has lost her child.  However, looking back on it, I must admit that I appreciate the performance more than the actual movie which, structurally speaking, is kind of a mess.

I was kind of alone in my middling reaction to Three Billboards, but I felt just as much solitude in my rave affection for Lady Macbeth which I thought was one of the best films of the year, and its leading lady Florence Pugh who gave the year’s best performance.

Pugh is one of the best actors working right now.  She is young – at the time 21 – but unlike her contemporaries, seems to take roles that challenge her, a wide birth of roles that show off the best of what she can do.  Lady Macbeth was only her second feature but what would follow would be stellar work in MalevolentFighting With My FamilyMidsommarBlack Widow and her brilliant Oscar-nominated performance as Amy March in Greta Gerwig’s Little WomenLady Macbeth shows how brilliant an actress that she was right out of the starting gate.  

That title, by the way, is a little misleading.  Lady Macbeth is not based on Shakespeare’s tragedy, but instead on the 1865 Russian novella “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District” by Nikolai Leskov, directed by theater director William Oldroyd and adapted here by first-time screenwriter Alice Birch.  Although it has little to do with The Bard’s work, we can see some similarities – the machinations of a woman who pulls men by the strings and leads them to their doom.

The film takes place at a joyless, colorless estate in Northumberland, England circa 1865 where we meet Katherine Lester (Pugh) on the day that she is to be married.  At 17, she is being forced into a marriage to an older man, Alexander (Paul Hilton) whose father Boris (Christopher Fairbank) purchased her – purchased her – along with a plot of land.  She is repeatedly reminded that her position in this household is to essentially be a broodmare, a means by which this family can yield an heir.

That may not happen anytime soon.  Paul seems to have some odd anxieties.  On her wedding night, he orders to her to strip naked and then crawls into bed and turns off the lights leaving his new bride standing naked in the middle of the room.  Nothing is said of this, nor is the next night when he, again, orders her to strip naked and then masturbates on the other side of the room.

The confusion of these nightly oddities are coupled with long hours of boredom during the day.  Boris angrily reminds her that her place is to simply remain behind closed doors, read her prayer book and await her husband’s righteous mounting.  She is not allowed to go outside or to do much of anything else.  She is not allowed to express herself or have an emotion of any kind.  On her wedding night, Paul asks if she’s cold and she remarks, “I’m thick-skinned,” which is something that will be useful in more ways than one.

Boris isn’t at all sympathetic.  He is a mean, bitter old snort with the table manners of a rutting pig and an almost childish possessiveness.  He regards her as property that will be seen and not heard, to perform her wifely function and do nothing else.  The house is, basically, a stable meant to keep his son’s broodmare tied down.  Paul, meanwhile, is not much better.  His one major scene comes later in the film when he lobs insults at his new bride in a monologue that suggests that his manners were all born from his father.

Day after day, Katherine stays within the confines of this bland domicile, seated on the couch, nodding off and expected to nothing.  The only sympathetic witness to these long hours of nothingness comes from the maid, named Anna (Noami Ackie, wonderful too).

One day Boris and Paul leave the house for a few days on business.  For a young woman that they expect to stay seated and obey orders, this is a colossally bad idea.  Their absence opens up something in Katherine that we sensed from the beginning, a restless spirit that needs to find an outlet.  She defies her orders by drinking Boris’ wine, roaming the moors, visiting the stables and eventually sharing her bed with a hunky stableman named Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis).

This relationship is not exactly a well-guarded secret.  The information gets back to town and eventually to Boris and to Paul.  Boris returns home but Paul is late in arriving.  The inflation of wild abandon that now exists in Katherine is visited upon her father-in-law.  He returns, berates her for embarrassing the family with the affair and – again – reminds her of her place.  When he strikes her for speaking her mind, she responds by poisoning his tea.  He is buried but she is not suspected of killing him.

A week later, Paul returns apparently unaware that she is responsible for his father’s death.  He too berates her for her treachery and he savagely beats Sebastian, not perhaps, for being his wife’s lover but largely for helping himself to his property.  Katherine responds by cracking him on the head with his own walking stick, killing him.

The situation grows even worse.  The murder of Boris frightens poor Anna into muteness.  Katherine and Sebastian bury Alexander’s body in the woods and kill his horse (a difficult scene to watch).  Then a woman named Agnes (Golda Rosheuvel) comes by the house claiming that a little boy named Teddy (Anton Palmer) is the product of an affair between Alexander and her daughter.  Katherine embraces Teddy and agrees to give shelter to Agnes and Teddy despite the objections of Sebastian.

Problem upon problem.  The outside world intrudes upon the liberating walls of the world that Katherine is literally willing to kill to build for herself and her devastated lover.  The the end, body upon body has piled up including Teddy, Sebastian is taken away and Katherine is left in the house alone.

If it weren’t so horrifying, Lady Macbeth might sound like a bleak comedy of murders.  The plot might sound ridiculous if Katherine’s circumstances weren’t such a prison sentence.  Once left alone, she broadens her own scope, wandering out in to the wuthering landscape and finding herself at the whim of chance.  From the very moment that we meet her at her wedding, she’s always looking for a way out of this mess.  Standing before the village priest, a veil pulled over her face, she looks around the room seeming to size it up for an escape.  We aren’t privy to how she was bought by Boris, we don’t need to know.  This arrangement of chattel property and confinement is no more or less insane than the murders that Katherine is willing to commit in order to be free of it all.

Neither is the treatment of minorities here.  Anna is closer to Katherine than anyone else, but she too is treated like livestock – the first time that m’lady ventures out to the stables, she finds the staff weighing Anna like a pig.  Sebastian himself, guilty of this inhumanity, is mixed-race.  When Teddy is brought to the premises, his face is covered by thick muck, he is definitely not white.

There is a stark inhumanity to “lower classes” or “underclasses” and that leads most abundantly to Katherine herself.  Bound to be the fixture of the house, seated on the couch in the sitting room without a voice, without a thought, without the ability to move or to express, she is again live stock, but if anyone had bothered to look closely, they might have seen that something else was stirring.  She may look young and frail, but beneath it all beats the heart of a lion.

The core of the film is Pugh’s performance.  She has a very expressive face and here we can see the tiger that lurks beneath her heavy dressings, a wilder abandon matched more by the winds on the outer hills than in the stuffy confines of her bed chamber where she is required to remain.  Once given an inch, she takes a leg.  She’s no fool and she’s no delicate flower.  It’s hard to agree with what she does to earn her freedom, but it is a price that we understand is matched by the insanity of what is required of her.

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About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
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