This year has been surprisingly inclusive in certain traditionally stodgy Oscar categories. White men are in the minority for best director by 2:31, which is great! And genre movies have also done surprisingly well. For Best Picture we get horror and science fiction/fantasy representing, with Get Out and The Shape of Water. If we expand our reach, Logan shows up in Best Adapted Screenplay. Sure, Bladerunner 2049 has a handful of nominations, but they’re all technical categories, which is de rigueur. To give genre acknowledgement in more major categories, like Picture and Writing, is a big deal.
The Shape of Water (deserves Best Director)
While the reception of both these genre nominees has been very positive, there has been some polarization on the side of genre fans. Some of the criticism has been regarding its somewhat thin depictions of the minority supporting characters, other criticism has been due to the mute main character being portrayed by a hearing and speaking actress. I came away liking this movie, but not loving it. The individual pieces are wonderful. I thought all the acting was great, Doug Jones is astounding as the amphibian-man, and I actually didn’t hate Michael Shannon, possibly for the first time. But when everything came together I felt like there was something still missing. I’m relatively sure that it’s a tonal issue.
The movie has a fairy tale feel to it, somewhat more so than del Toro’s other big hits,and the film brings to mind Pan’s Labyrinth. Both are set in a concrete historical period (the Francoist period for Pan, and the US Cold War for Shape of Water) and incorporate otherworldly creatures that upset the power-balance that the men of their time would normally have over the lead female character. But there’s a lightness in The Shape of Water that undercuts the stakes. Racism and homophobia are wielded, not societal obstructions to the affected characters, but as villainous indicators. Del Toro also loves to leave the end of his films with some question of reality vs. desire, letting a last-minute happy ending rest almost as much on the audience as with the film-maker. That trend alone puts a strain on the realities of his films, though not always an unwelcome one. In this case, though, it feels like yet another concession made against the world that the rest of the film has made. There are just a few too many simplifications for the entire movie to work for me. The pieces are grand, but the end result is a bit soft.
It’s worth a quick note that some of the things that weaken the movie still reinforce how amazing a director del Toro is. The fact that The Shape of Water accidentally posits a version of a 1950s USA where racism is an exemplifier of villainy and not part of the fabric of contemporary culture shows how deep his hands are in the world-building. If del Toro gets best director I would be happy.
Get Out (deserves Best Picture)
This movie also had a polarizing reception, though nearly universal acclaim. Rather than fracturing along genre fan lines, Get Out tended to split more along racial lines, for obvious reasons. I’ve had people tell me that they thought it was just a by-the-numbers horror film, and I’ve also had people tell me that, even now, they haven’t gotten around to watching it. Which is a huge mistake. For the movies I’ve seen so far, Get Out and Lady Bird are my two personal top picks for best picture. But a horror film? you ask. For best picture?
Listen, horror as a basic term has a function, and that function is to instill fear. But horror as a genre has a higher calling. The best horror, regardless of the medium, works on a few levels. It uses the format of horror to instill fear, but only as a means to an end. The second level is the metaphor. Level one engages the audience and puts them in a heightened emotional state. The next level takes that emotional response and focuses it on something strange and different.
In effect, horror is a first-person genre. You, the audience, will feel things, but then the movie will reorient the fictional world so that the feelings are attached to something different. The best horror does this, and that’s part of what can make it so divisive. The Babadook is a great example of this. On one level the movie is simply about a woman and her son trying to deal with a monster that lives in the shadows. But once that paranoia, fear, and helplessness are established, those emotions are then aimed at the isolation of single-parenthood, the fear of regretting being a mother, and the struggle with lifelong depression. All those negative emotions that started with the monster go on to make the audience feel what the protagonist feels. Similarly, It Follows is ostensibly about running from a slow, but unstoppable, killing machine. But once the audience is taken in, that paranoia and creeping fear are worked around the subtext of sex, social disconnect, and adolescent anxiety.
Get Out does all of this at a time when this country needs it. Yes, the first layer of the movie brings about paranoia, as well as a strange and disconnected sense of alienation. The deeper level twists it up so the audience experiences Chris’ annoyed-but-can’t-quite-put-your-finger-on -it felling of micro-aggressions while in the midst of supposed allies. This escalates to extreme isolation when not part of an in-group, pervasive danger in affluent areas, and an emerging but reasonable paranoia. If open to it, this movie has the potential to let white people feel just a taste of what black people can go through on a daily basis. And the responses ranging from mild cognitive dissonance to visceral rejection among some people shows that it can touch a nerve that they might not want touched. Does this movie deserve best picture? Yes. But I would also nominate it for a Pulitzer.
While not nominated for the biggest of prizes, Logan has been nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay. The fact that a superhero movie has broken out of the standard technical categories (like sound design/editing, or technical effects) and into one of the creative categories is kind of amazing. The movie wasn’t perfect, but was the biggest game-changer in the world of cinematic comic book adaptations in recent years. While Deadpool was a breakout hit, it turned up things that had already been in comic movies to 11. Logan seems like it came out of some weird little island rather than the main evolutionary chain of superhero movies. I loved Deadpool, but there’s a safety in humor that isn’t present in sincerity. In a way, Logan took a similar risk to The Shape of Water, making a movie that focused more on depth of character than strength of story. For that alone, it deserves the nomination.
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