All four of these Best Picture Nominees are worthy of your time and investment. Here’s Why:
THE POST directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks confirms the essential role of the press to insure a healthy democracy and honesty in government. It’s an important slice of history. If you happened to see the recent Ken Burns/ Lynn Novik VIETNAM documentary on PBS this fall, you’ll appreciate THE POST even more. THE POST relays how the Washington Post struggled with the ethics of printing The Pentagon Papers –US classified reports documenting the futility of the Vietnam war. The papers revealed how a succession of American Presidents (Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon) sacrificed TRUTH to perpetuate an “American Myth” — INVINCIBILITY! The TRUTH: Cold War fears prompted administrations to reject stalwart military advice to end the war and prevent the violent death of millions. The film centers on Kay Graham (Streep), the first ever female major newspaper publisher, and the plethora of ethical and legal considerations she must wade through as Ben Bradlee (Hanks) demands publication. Streep inhabits her role with the usual aplomb and, this time around, Tom Hanks cultivates outward quirks and idiosyncrasies that brings his performance closer to an outright impersonation. Not his usual style. It works.
There’s a high degree of cohesive interplay among the supporting cast that creates an aura of “in-the-moment” authenticity—all to Director Spielberg’s credit. Standouts: Bruce Greenwood as Robert McNamara (whose friendship with Kay Graham causes her considerable angst), Matthew Rhys as Daniel Ellsberg and Bob Odenkirk as reporter Ben Bagdikian. The film’s pace is slow; the script is familiarly linear. The result is a more comfortable movie-going experience despite the high-pitch stress THE POST depicts. The movie is almost contemplative–but not quite. Its message is irrefutably vital: The Courage to speak (and print) the Truth makes life worth living. The Truth will set you free.
THE SHAPE OF WATER is a grand, spectacular adult fairy-tale, a riff on Beauty and the Beast that insists on the audiences’ transformation rather than that of the characters who are perfect as they are. Well, almost. Beauty’s arc includes a sexual awakening along with developments in courage. In this venture, director and writer Guillermo del Toro (with co-writer Vanessa Tyler) melds fantasy with more traditional Hollywood suspense seamlessly with dream-like impressionism in sharp contrasts with metallic laboratories with the burgeoning technologies of the 1950’s. His movie deserves a wide audience from high schoolers on up for the plot not only depicts Love’s triumph but exposes the many false ideals and vanities of American manhood that continue to confound and confuse every generation. Actress Sally Hawkins is intrinsically believable and enchanting as the mute Beauty. The “Beast” is strikingly portrayed by Doug Jones with an assist from CGI and inspired costume designer Luis Sequera along with an army of terrific makeup artists. Their collaborative Amphibian Man creation is more appealing and less freaky than del Toro’s PAN’S LABYRINTH creature. I found it most engaging. Once again actor Michael Shannon is a standout as the villain while Richard Jenkins and Octavia Spencer offer sensitive portrayals of the milk of human kindness. Michael Stuhlbarg as a scientist and (spoiler alert) spy with an ethical backbone offers another informed, convincing performance. The music by Alexandre Desplat richly enhances the proceedings with a fitting appropriation of “You’ll Never Know” (music by Harry Warren, lyrics by Mack Gordon, 1943) at significant plot points. Opera diva Renée Fleming uses her pop alto voice for a lovely version of that plaintive Oscar winning hit during the closing credits. A wonderful, all-around entertainment.
LADY BIRD might just be the most enjoyable coming-of-age, mother-teenage daughter, old school-new school conflict to hit the screen in quite some time. Captivating performances by the fast becoming Irish (and now American) Living Treasure Saoirse Ronan as the teen and Laurie Metcalf as the Mom and fine supporting cast make this “little picture” a major one. With a clever, funny script and adept direction by Greta Gerwig, the movie is a gem. Gerwig elicits first-rate performances from the entire cast, especially Lucas Hedges (a boyfriend), Lois Smith (Sister Principal) and Beanie Feldstein (the girlfriend). The “feel” of the film is impressive in the way each of the character’s respective flaws are as much humbling for the audience as they are dramatically engaging. And, in a surprising change from the usual Hollywood wisecracking, LADY BIRD offers an honest and overall positive depiction of a contemporary Catholic school. Hurrah! Best of all, LADY BIRD is more than just a story of growing older and wiser, but an incisive exposé of conflicted social mores and the perils these present to moral development, personal authenticity and integrity in relationships from family to the wider world.
CALL ME BY YOUR NAME offers another kind of coming-of-age story with a central emphasis on sexual awakening, in this case with same-sex attraction, albeit with bisexual undertones. Tomothée Chalamet is excellent as Elio Perlman, a seventeen-year-old whose fascination with an exceedingly handsome thirty-something research assistant (solidly and sensitively played by Armie Hammer) is fraught with age appropriate confusion and elation, awkwardness and excitement. Director Luca Guadagnino offers a stylized romantic view of the relationship highlighted by stunning views of summers in the Italian countryside and earthly delights of teens and young adults swimming in lakes and rivers.
This love story occurs in the context of a highly educated Jewish Italian American family residing in Italy as Elio’s father (once again, a formidable presence and well-crafted performance by Michael Stuhlbarg) pursues and catalogs artifacts of ancient Roman Art. Mom is played by international actress Amira Casar with strength and grace. The three that make up the Perlman family are true contemporary Renaissance figures, exceedingly well-read, fluent in multiple languages (Italian, French, German and English), dignified, warm, welcoming and hospitable to special friends ranging from foreign academics and local neighbors.
An only child, Elio is in some ways more mature than others his age and it is easy to see how his emergence into manhood would include an attraction to an older man even if that man weren’t as Adonis-like as Mr. Hammer is in appearance. Still, one would think a sexual attraction on the part of a mature teen would emerge from mentor/ mentee relationship, with mutual likes and dislikes established, common visions and life goals. But the characters, at least initially, have little in common except their masculinity and their connection to Elio’s parents. Still, Elio’s youth accounts for a great deal here. What is not clear, however, is what makes Elio attractive to the older Oliver? Was it Elio’s infatuation with Oliver that elicits comparable sexual response in Oliver? Perhaps, but the script does not clarify the relationship enough beyond the sensual dimensions, nor does it explore in any detail the realities of a grown man initiating a minor into gay sex, although Oliver does express some misgivings at the onset. Overall, the story presents Elio as ready and willing, and primarily the initiator –more the cat than the mouse, but the ethical question remains. I left the film asking, “is this a story of a genuine first love or more a sentimental episode of sexual attraction and exploration?” Professor Perlman’s words to his son, Elio, near the conclusion of the film offer some insights as to the importance of self-acceptance and the value and beauty of intimacies in friendships, but the moral dimensions of each character’s actions are left for the audience to decide. These questions, by the way, apply to Elio’s heterosexual encounters with an adventurous neighbor and would ask the same serious questions if the story concerned an adult woman with a not-yet-eighteen teenage boy.
Adults introducing teens into sex, no matter the sexual orientation, no matter who initiates the invitation, who evokes the desire or the foreplay, is rife with psychological, emotional and spiritual consequences. Considering contemporary issues Kevin Spacey’s scandal, for example, or the tragically long-standing cases of priests’ abuse of teenagers, I hope my reflections here offer some food for thought and that the film engenders wide-ranging public discussion.
Read my review of another Oscar contender: GET OUT!