If all that existed were mainstream movies, then 2017 was a terrible year for cinema. Fortunately, there were many great movies with exceptional humour, plot, characters and visuals that graced the big screen. Unfortunately, they have all remained under the radar. Christian Tesfaye sheds some light.
It is unfortunate, in a way, that the Oscars have taken on a life of their own. Year after year, what was supposed to be cinema’s biggest night is coloured by elements that should have remained in the periphery, as far as the event is concerned.
Last year, it was the La La Land-Moonlight mix-up. The year before that, it was the notorious Oscars So White debacle. And this year’s ceremony, which will be held today on March 4, 2018, is bound to be shadowed by the Harvey Weinstein catastrophe.
It is not that any of these phenomena do not deserve attention. It is only that the Oscars were meant to be a celebration of cinema’s best and brightest. It should be less about what is popular, or even contemporary, and more about what is excellent, however obscure it may be in the public domain.
This is critical because 2017 had not seemed to be a great year for cinema – at least as far as mainstream Hollywood offerings are concerned. It is the perfect occasion to show to the public at large that many brilliant films have, in fact, come to the fore but have remained under the radar.
The best picture category of the Oscars is a great place to start. Only two of the nine nominated films were able to reach the number one spot at the American box office – Get Out and Dunkirk. But both are the least exciting of the bunch.
The former was far better than I expected. I admired how it turns stereotyping on its head and presents most audiences as closeted bigots. But the film was a thriller that was too comfortable with its commercial appeal and preferred a climax that was mediocre.
Dunkirk, directed by Christopher Nolan, was a good movie but it did not have a punch. It is too calm and ordinary, albeit with impressive cinematic techniques to boot. I thought that the Darkest Hour, also set in the Second World War, was better. A biography of Winston Churchill’s first months as Prime Minister, it was a wonderfully shot movie with an uplifting ending.
The Shape of Water was set decades after the respective time settings of the above two movies, in a world where eerie creatures exist. Similar to Call Me by Your Name, it is an exploration of sexuality, but also cruelty and humour. The film is a favourite to win, as is its director, Guillermo del Toro, in his respective category of best director. I found it a delightful movie full of mouth-watering photography. It was the sort of film I would not have minded watching with the sound turned off.
And Lady Bird was a movie I would watch with the picture turned off. Not that it had terrible cinematography. It had fantastic dialogues and an excellent plot. It is rare to find a film, set in high school no less, that is as original – evading the usual clichés.
Steven Spielberg’s The Post was good, like most of this titan filmmaker’s works, but it was not as forceful a film. I felt the same way about Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, another film that is a favourite to win the best picture, which, granted, has the most exciting protagonist – played effervescently by Frances McDormand.
By far the best film amongst the best picture nominees is Phantom Thread, not surprising perhaps since Paul Thomas Anderson, who exists on another dimension of cinematic mastery, was behind the camera. His latest release is an ode to passion, curiosity and obsession.
Tracing the love-hate relationship between a British couture and his muse, it is a perfect film in every sense of the word. From cinematography to acting, the film is a revelation and deserves to win every Oscar it is nominated for, and more. Alas, movies that are not crowd-pleasers never win.
Unlike last year, the best-animated feature section was less exciting. Coco was the only good movie. The others, such as Baby Boss, do not even deserve commentary. And Loving Vincent, a visually bold film that was made entirely through oil paintings, had too dull a plot.
The documentary section was better, however. I found Strong Island, a film that can be seen to encapsulate the Black Lives Matter movement, a little too self-centred. But Icarus, a film about doping in the athletics world and the Russian government’s place in it, was a knock-out.
It still was not as impressive as Last Men in Aleppo, though. It does not take much for a film to make the war in Aleppo touching, but the documentary was overwhelming in its own right. It sheds light on the question of why some residents of the city decided to stay amidst the death and devastation.
The foreign films category has more brilliant films to offer. I was hugely disappointed in most of the movies that were nominated last year. The 90th Oscars makes up for it with the likes of Loveless, On Body and Soul, A Fantastic Woman, The Insult and The Square.
My favourite amongst the bunch was the Swedish comedy, The Square. Few films address the contradictions and hypocrisies of liberalism better than this film. It features some of the wriest scenes in all of cinema.
There was much less humour in the other films. On Body and Soul, from Hungary, was as baffling as it was delightful. The Spanish A Fantastic Woman delves deep into systematic societal bias against those that are different, while the Russian Loveless is the sort of unapologetic drama about a child’s disappearance that ends as cruelly as it begins.
If there is anything one could learn from these films, it is that the Europeans are far more adroit than the Americans at handling adult themes. They use less dialogue but can produce far more substance.
As always, there are snubs. Many of these movies are good, but many other great films were not included. One such film was Okja, by the South Koran maestro Bong Joon-ho, who gave us the likes of Snowpiercer, The Host and Memories of Murder. It is not a perfect film, but it is playful and exceptionally touching. There is enough creativity and humour in it to make one an animal lover and an admirer of the movies in one stroke.
Another snub was the Killing of a Sacred Deer by Yorgos Lanthimos, the man behind 2015’s The Lobster. Perhaps the latter was a better film, but Killing was just as weird and excruciating to watch as Lanthimos’ previous work. It is a family drama of sorts that mocks the ideals of suburban life as being normal solely because they circumvent the abnormal. The family in Killing, with Colin Farrell as the patriarch, was one middle-class household that encounters the abnormal, resulting unconscionable consequences.
Last but not least was The Florida Project. The film has indeed gotten an Oscar nod, in the category of best supporting actor for Willem Dafoe, but it deserved a best picture nomination. Its ending could have been better, but it was such a fresh and atmospheric film that it is unforgettable. The acting, especially by the seven-year-old Brooklynn Prince, was shatteringly brilliant and the film’s warm photography is a throwback to older minimalist movies.
The same goes for I, Tonya. The film has been recognised for the performances of the actors and its editing. But it also had great camera work. Add to this great editing and tasteful voiceover, and the film was akin to a striking musical composition. the best biographical movie I have seen all year.
If there is one thing that 89 years of the Oscars have taught us, it is that the winners are rarely immortalised by the ultimate judge of the arts: time. The best picture award will probably go to either The Shape of Water or Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – some predict Get Out will surprisingly come out on top, but I doubt it. These films, however, are just the tip of the iceberg for audiences that have dug just a little deeper into what cinema has had to offer last year.
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