This Sunday we’ll engage in yet another bout of entertainment industry self-lauding. We’ll watch as the rich and famous strut their stuff down the Hollywood red carpet, extolling their excellence to each other early and often, as we sit on our couches in pajamas, wondering perhaps what we might be wearing if ever we were invited to the ceremonies or practicing our acceptance speech, should our name ever be called on Oscar night.
As insufferable as industry awards nights can be, the Oscars tend to carry a bit more weight in relative value. That is to say, good, better or best (and unlike their music industry counterpart), most Oscar nominees tend to, at the bare minimum, possess some value intrinsic to the betterment of movies at large.
This year is no different.
2018’s slate of best picture nominees include such award fodder as a Christopher Nolan war epic, yet another stunning Daniel Day-Lewis/Paul Thomas Anderson collaboration and a Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep historical poltico-bio. Not to be outdone by the Hollywood machine, the excellent dark horses Get Out and Call Me by Your Name are also up for the most prestigious of Oscars.
However, there are two movies that stand above the rest, two movies which might both win a best picture Oscar if they weren’t made in the same year, two movies that blend masterful storytelling and evocative cinematography, two movies by which I would rate any other made this year.
These are my two favorites in the 2018 class of best picture nominees.
But seeing as only one can win, here is my case against Lady Bird:
A few weeks ago, my wife and I exited the theater on a cloud after seeing Lady Bird. We were ebullient on our drive home as we reminisced about the era reflected in Greta Gerwig’s masterwork, telling stories of our own heartbreaks, confusions and comings-of-age at the beginning of the twenty-first century. We were, after all, just a year or two older than the movie’s main characters. We had, after all, lived very similar lives to them less than two decades ago.
A perfect snapshot of life as a teenager around the turn of the century, Lady Bird was a funny, sad, honest and a very real portrayal of the confusion that comes with young adulthood. The soundtrack was almost perfect. The wardrobes were spot on. Even the vernacular was oddly specific to that era.
All of which left me to wonder, while Lady Bird was a near perfect rendering of what it meant to be a kid of the late-nineties/early-aughts, how effective this movie could be on people who weren’t young adults in that era.
Telling the story of a teenager evolving into young adulthood is timeless, no doubt, but the perfection in the recreation of its time acts almost as a detriment to Lady Bird. In that sense, it is eerily reminiscent of one of film history’s most immutable coming-of-age masterpieces, Dazed and Confused. And just as Dazed and Confused must hold a different sense of meaning for people who graduated high school in the mid-70s, so must Lady Bird for people of my generation.
It was almost perfect for me. But was it almost perfect for everyone else? Did my father ingest the nostalgia via the same veins we were? Were my glasses a rose-colored tint of yore?
On our drive home, we also discussed of the current state of moviemaking, of the mega-blockbuster and the umpteenth Marvel flick that’ll no doubt be taking over box offices this summer, and how perhaps Lady Bird has the dearth of real-to-life stories on the silver screen to thank for our seeing it as such a breathtaking work of art.
Other than Noah Baumbach’s superb Meyerowitz Stories, there doesn’t seem to be much of a market for a simple yet universal story about human relationships in 2018 and maybe the latter benefits from being the best of a dying breed.
And as I told you there were two films which I thought rose above the rest, here is my case for The Shape of Water:
We left Chapel Hill’s little arthouse theater and drove the ten minutes to our home in absolute silence. My wife and I remained in a sense of almost stunned disbelief, trying to wrap our heads around the last two or so hours, trying to fully digest the amalgam of sublime storytelling, beautifully written and portrayed characters, stunning visuals and the sense of action that Guillermo del Toro had congealed in The Shape of Water.
Reactions which were quite the opposite after leaving Lady Bird.
If Lady Bird was authentic almost to a fault, The Shape of Water was fantastical in a sense that revealed the truest of human emotions. That is to say that it is through magic and hyperreality that we often most envisage our own condition.
In that sense, The Shape of Water is the next logical link of a chain of stories that at surface level, appear as far from ourselves as possible, but upon closer examination reveal things about us on a universal level. The need for home, the need for acceptance, the need for ambition and, often most importantly, the need for love.
To say that The Shape of Water stands in this sense alongside films like The Wizard of Oz, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, the Star Wars trilogy, and E.T. would hardly register as an understatement.
But the crux of the magic in this film, what makes it so almost impossibly unique is how it did all of that while stripping away the convention that is at the core of almost any story ever told: that the main characters needed to speak to each other.
That physical beauty, the sense of pantomime and the lightness with which the characters move and interact, the idea that physical touch is as important a mode of communication as we possess, and the closeness between the characters such physicality creates are what elevate The Shape of Water from really great to near-perfect.
To create something magical that is somehow believable, something real out of something otherworldly is a Herculean feat and one that is becoming more and more rare in the halls of Hollywood. That del Toro created such a work with heart, soul and panache in spades, one that will live on alongside its forebearers, is what makes The Shape of Water this year’s best picture.
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