The Holiday watchlist, Part 6: Award heavyweights

There were 3 films that weren’t yet released in this part of the world when I did my run of movie-watching at the end of the year. I had been desperate to catch them because they feature some of my favorite directors and actors, and the 3 of them have collectively been nominated for 21 Oscars (including Best Picture). The deed is now done courtesy the extended break for Chinese New Year and it was well worth the wait!

Darkest Hour: This is the latest effort from 46-year-old British director Joe Wright, who is well known for his literary adaptations Pride & Prejudice (2005), Atonement (2007) and Anna Karenina (2012)…all of which incidentally featured his lucky charm Keira Knightely. His last effort, the expensive fantasy epic Pan was a bomb and so it’s great to see him back at what he does best, another period piece set in the real world, this one focused on Winston Churchill during the early years of the Second World War. The film has been nominated for 6 Oscars, including Best Picture, Cinematography, Costume Design, Production Design and most critically for Best Actor and Best Makeup; Gary Oldman has been transformed into Churchill and it will be very surprising if the film does not win Best Makeup. Likewise, Mr. Oldman should probably be considered a joint front-runner with Daniel Day-Lewis for the Best Actor statuette. The performances of the two British actors are a study of contrasts, dictated by the characters they play. While Day-Lewis delivers an understated performance as the repressed head of a fashion house in Phantom Thread, Oldman is all fire and bluster as the man who almost single-handed, it seems, turned the tide of the war in favour of the Allies. The filmmakers have taken liberties with some of the facts, but all such considerations seem secondary, as the viewer is held in the grip of Oldman’s powerhouse acting. The film plays like a political thriller, with Churchill racing to create an evacuation plan for British forces trapped in Dunkirk, receiving no help from the then-neutral Americans, while trying to stave off attempts by members of his own party to overthrow him. Interestingly, Chris Nolan’s Dunkirk which tells of the famous evacuation from the viewpoint of the rescuers and the rescued, is nominated for Best Picture, along with Darkest Hour. Having recently watched John Lithgow as the older, post-war Churchill in Netflix’s The Crown, there was a strong sense of familiarity with the character while watching Darkest Hour. This film beautifully brings to life one of history’s most significant (though not particularly well-liked) figures.

The Post: Like Joe Wright, Steven Spielberg is also coming off the disappointment of his last venture, the fantasy film The BFG, which had a lukewarm critical reception and lost money at the box-office, a rare occurrence for history’s most successful filmmaker. Before The BFG, his previous three films, all based on historical events, received Best Picture Nominations – War Horse, Lincoln and Bridge of Spies. Spielberg has gone back to that formula with his latest effort The Post, which tells the story of the ‘Pentagon Papers’ case in the early 70’s. The film has received 2 Oscar nominations, for Best Picture and for Best Actress (Meryl Streep’s 21st nomination!). This is the first time that Meryl Streep has worked with another of Hollywood’s biggest acting icons – Tom Hanks, or with Spielberg for that matter. Set during the most powerful days of the Nixon presidency (before Watergate), The Post is built around two themes which are relevant in today’s political and social climate – freedom of the press and equality for women. Streep plays Katherine Graham, the publisher of The Washington Post, a woman who has inherited the newspaper from her husband following his suicide, who has to deal with her own self-doubts and with being talked down to by her predominantly male stakeholders – the board of directors, investment bankers and lawyers. Hanks plays her editor-in-chief, Ben Bradlee, the man whose desire to publish a set of leaked government papers puts the newspaper on a collision path with the US government and puts Ms. Graham on a collision path with her advisors. The film falls into the category of ‘journalistic thriller’, much like All the President’s Men (1976), The Insider (1999), Zodiac (2007) and the recent award-winner Spotlight (2015), with the protagonists fighting the clock and the establishment to get their story out. It paints a romanticized picture of the glory days of newspaper journalism and I was filled with admiration for this fast-diminishing breed of professionals who had to fight the odds day after day to do their jobs. I felt that in this film, Spielberg has dialed down his melodramatic touches and I thought this was particularly evident in the final scene; following the Supreme Court hearing, as The Post’s flashier rival, The New York Times is busy courting reporters in the front of the building, Katherine Graham descends the steps from the side and doesn’t seem to realize that she is walking past dozens of women who gaze silently at her, in admiration of her courage and resolve in challenging the (male) establishment. I kept waiting to see tears or some other obvious form of recognition, but the silence and the expressions on the faces of the women was much more powerful.

The Shape of Water: Unlike Joe Wright and Steven Spielberg who have received their biggest accolades when telling stories based on real people or real events, Mexican auteur Guillermo del Toro is at his best when building worlds in which elaborate mechanical constructions co-exist with fantastical creatures. In his breakout movie Cronos (1993), an ancient clockwork mechanism is used to entomb an insect whose secretions can prolong life. His Hellboy films feature various devices which are used to control supernatural creatures. In Pacific Rim, mankind creates giant robots called “Jaegers”, to combat extra-dimensional monsters which are laying siege to our cities. And so we come to his latest film, The Shape of Water which is perhaps his most ‘human’ film. He initially conceptualized it as a sequel to 1950’s classic The Creature from the Black Lagoon, as he wondered what would have happened if the ‘Gill-man’ had been able to romantically link up with the female lead. This eventually led to the story of the relationship between a bizarre ‘fish-man’ who has been pulled out of the Amazon river by the American military and the mute cleaning lady who works at the scientific facility where they are experimenting on him. Set during the 60’s at the height of the Cold War, del Toro’s trademark machines built to contain and control the ‘fish-man’ are relegated to the background, with the focus on the memorable characters who populate this love story. Sally Hawkins plays Elisa, the young janitor whose expresses her passion and love for life with her eyes and hands. Her best friend at work is Zelda (Octavia Spencer), a sassy, no-nonsense woman with a heart of gold. Elisa lives in a room above an old movie theatre and she is close friends with the tenant next door, an ageing artist Giles (Richard Jenkins), who struggles to sell his work to advertising firms while dealing with his own loneliness and closet homosexuality. At work, there is the new head of security, Strickland (Michael Shannon), a sadistic, misogynist who takes great pleasure in strutting around, torturing the fish-man and projecting his authority in front of the scientists and cleaning ladies. In a small but pivotal role, Michael Stuhlbarg plays the lead scientist who wants to learn from the creature without harming it. And of course, there is the creature, played by Doug Jones. Just as Andy Serkis has become “Mr. Motion Capture”, Doug Jones is the go-to actor who is willing to work under layers of makeup; he played Abe Sapiens in the Hellboy films, the Faun in Pan’s Labyrinth and the alien Saru in Star Trek: Discovery. To understand why this film has received 13 Oscar nominations, you only have to watch the opening scene which is ‘pure cinema’. This is when one realizes the brilliance and vision of the director. There are many other delightful touches in the film and it’s really an extraordinary example of storytelling and characterization. It’s entirely possible that on Oscar night, it may lose out in many of the 13 categories to other nominees, but I do believe that this is a film where Guillermo del Toro has created something that is greater than the sum of its parts and I hope he will take home an Oscar for at least one of his 3 nominations – as scriptwriter, producer or director.

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