Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Popcorn Culture: Best Picture Contenders, Vol. 2

I did it! For the first time in my life, I've actually seen every film nominated for Best Picture in a particular year! Am I glad it was this year? Probably not, but at least I can feel accomplished. Here are my mini-reviews for the final two bricks in that wall.

Phantom Thread
Year: 2017
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Cast: Vicky Krieps, Daniel Day-Lewis, Lesley Manville 
Run Time: 2 hours 10 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

A meticulous and demanding couture designer meets and seduces a young woman, who becomes his muse and eventually enters a battle of manners and wills in the power struggle between him, her, and his spinster sister.

Phantom Thread is a hard movie to review, because it's so impeccably structured and designed that it's impossible to ignore the skill and craft that went into its creation. But it's at least a little difficult to find a foothold and manifest an active interest in the proceedings, which are appropriately chilly and at arm's length. 

There's hardly a fault in the visual world that Paul Thomas Anderson, costume designer Mark Bridges (who has worked with PTA since his debut, but more importantly worked on Dollman vs. Demonic Toys and Waxwork II: Lost in Time) and production designer Mark Tildesley (who worked on 28 Days Later... and aren't you glad you're reading my commentary, because nobody else would be telling you these important things) have created, which is pristine and precise from top to bottom.

The fun of this movie comes when you place the three actors into this toy box and send them spinning into one another. At first their interactions are as stiff and formal as the scenery, but as they settle into their roles, it quickly becomes clear that this is the ensemble of the year. I don't have a lot of respect for Daniel Day-Lewis' ostentatious style of preparing for a role, but he does do a good job, although he is conspicuously the weakest link in this trio. Krieps is doing tremendously subtle work here that quietly, almost imperceptibly builds toward an incredibly bold set of actions in the final act that you wouldn't have thought her capable of just 90 minutes before. And Manville is incredibly frightening as a woman whose stiff, prim confidence can weather any storm. With these two in the room, Day-Lewis just looks like a child play-acting that he's fancy.

I really did warm to this movie but he third act, but there's no avoiding the fact that at times it's quite dull, progressing from stiff scene to stiff scene at the pace of an arthritic snail. It's probably the artiest art film on the slate, and that just isn't really what gets my engine revved. But if you like angry, horny, twisted comedies of manners, it's worth it to stick around.

Rating: 6/10

Darkest Hour
Year: 2017
Director: Joe Wright
Cast: Gary Oldman, Lily James, Kristin Scott Thomas
Run Time: 2 hours 5 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

Winston Churchill must find the strength to lead England into what seems like an unwinnable war against the Nazis, after he is voted prime minister by a parliament that has no real faith in him.

Darkest Hour has reputation already for being the most flagrantly terrible of the year's Oscar slate, but for my money no film is as actively anti-entertaining as The Post, so this film is safe from my wrath. Unfortunately, it has nothing to offer other than not sucking so hard your fillings dislodge from your teeth. It's the most aggressively average bit of Awards bait in a year full of projects that - good or bad - are all at least unique in some way.

Like all performances the Academy loves to reward, Gary Oldman does nothing to push the craft forward other than drowning himself in prosthetics and shouting as loud as he possibly can without having his fake jowls wobble right off his face. His portrayal of Winston Churchill is a screeching caricature, constantly winking at the history buffs in the audience while conspicuously failing to craft an actual human character.

We're meant to take his abuse of the other characters in the movie as a charming symptom of his passion and eccentric individualism. At least Phantom Thread had the decency to know how twisted its control-freak character was, we're supposed to root for this blowhard. And in the process of this extravagant yelling, every other character is shoved against the wall and flattened to one dimension at best as they act out a grab bag of real life scenarios, including - mysteriously - the decision to evacuate the troops at Dunkirk, which is just a grim reminder that you could have been watching Dunkirk instead of this movie.

The best thing I can say about Darkest Hour is that it's at least shot well. Joe Wright and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (who shot the sumptuously gorgeous Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince as well as Amélie and Inside Llewyn Davis) have a way of isolating Churchill inside the frame that isn't the least bit subtle, but is far more emotionally satisfying than any scrap of dialogue, for stimulating the audience using visual beauty rather than desperate wheezing.

Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 874


  1. "Like all performances the Academy loves to reward, Gary Oldman does nothing to push the craft forward other than drowning himself in prosthetics and shouting as loud as he possibly can without having his fake jowls wobble right off his face."

    I laughed on the bus when I read that.

    Gratz on getting through all nine BP contenders. I'm pretty sure I won't, and Darkest Hour is at the bottom of the list. (Next is Lady Bird, which I know is supposed to be good, and which I know you like, too, but "written and directed by Greta Getwig" is just such a bad sign.)

    I think I have seen everything else, though? Unless I missed something else boring and British?

    How would you rank them, B? Excluding what I haven't seen, for me it goes: 1. Dunkirk, 2. The Post (I know, I know), 3. Get Out, 4. Three Billboards, 5. Shape of water, 6. Call Me By Your Name. Phantom Thread could theoretically go anywhere, I have no idea what to expect from PTA anymore except it'll be cold and airless and obscurantist AF.

    1. And yes, I forgot I hadn't seen Phantom Thread, oddly, since I literally just read your thoughts on it. I'm blocking PTA from my mind, clearly.

    2. Well, I'm glad I could make you laugh! That's basically the only goal in my life at this point.

      Here's my official ranking, keeping in mind that the only one I pretty much loved was Lady Bird.

      1)Lady Bird
      2)Get Out
      4)The Shape of Water
      5) Call Me By Your Name
      6) Phantom Thread
      7)Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri
      8) Darkest Hour
      9) The Post (I know, I know)