I’m not sure if any of these recommendations here qualify as surprising, but more important, I chose to leave out other, showy, works out of this slate because, well you know, ME.
THE BIG SICK Directed by Michael Showalter
A huge hit at its premiere at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, this loosely autobiographical account of SILICON VALLEY star Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily V. Gordon’s courtship bears all the hallmarks of a Judd Apatow film, and why not? Apatow himself served as a producer, and director Michael Showalter comes from the same extended Apatow universe though he cut his directorial teeth in cable television. Taking the reins of a knowing script co-written by Nanjiani and Gordon, Showalter’s assured hand informs a story that, while a comedy, undertakes many narrative twists and turns. Points off for the film’s comprehensive marginalization of Desi women (boo, hiss, Kumail!), but kudos for an otherwise engaging, endearing everyman story inspired by a couple that we might actually know in real life.
DUNKIRK Directed by Christopher Nolan
Granted, director Christopher Nolan probably should have received Academy Award props a long time ago, for THE DARK KNIGHT. However, the nearly decade-long wait has been worth it. Propelled by a risky three-part story arc that ratchets up the pervading sense of tension throughout, this tautly-edited 110-minute roman-a-clef convincingly disproves the notion that important Oscar®-worthy films cannot be told in less than two hours. Yeah, yeah, former One Direction singer Harry Styles turns up here as just one of over 300,000 British infantrymen desperately trying to get back home, but he and the cast are uniformly good — astounding, since the written script itself probably contains less than 40 pages of actual dialogue.
GET OUT Directed by Jordan Peele
On holiday from his day job as one half of the comedy duo Key and Peele, Jordan Peele’s directorial debut has been one of the most talked-about films of the current Academy Awards season. Coming on the heels of trade articles expressing doubts that the Next Big African American Oscar® Hopeful was in the offing, GET OUT not only turned the notions of race on its head — it insured that issues of race and class would stay in the conversation of awards consideration for a long, long time. As funny and thought-provoking this nominal horror story may be, I’ll always remember that ending, as Chris’ bestie, TSA agent Rod, saves the day with the key line, “The TS muthah-fucking A will always have your back!” Indeed.
GIRLS TRIP Directed by Malcolm D. Lee
It was inevitable that an African American director named Lee was bound to earn their first Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. In this case, it’s NOT Spike — instead, it’s his cousin Malcolm, whose gloriously raunchy mid-summer road movie exhibited superhuman legs in staying in theatres and keeping the cash registers ca-chinging well into the fall. I selected this movie as one of my nominees as a wake-up call to the Academy and accept the fact that screwball comedies possess just as much award-worthy moxie as boilerplate political period pieces or stuffy British dramas. I know, I do have a couple of those among my picks, but when you have four vanguard American actresses given free rein to just. go. OFF., you HAVE to recognize that level of brilliance. And so, I do…
LADY BIRD Directed by Greta Gerwig
Something a bit more substantial than that previous flavor-of-the-moment JUNO (2007), actress-turned-director Greta Gerwig drops an engaging period coming-of-age movie that for better or for worse paints a decidedly ambivalent portrait of post-911-era Sacramento, CA. As a non-practising Catholic, I identified closely with the minute hypocrisies of parochial school education, and I couldn’t have had a better steward to chaperone me though this minefield of reminiscences than Irish actress Saoirse Ronan, whose turn as Christine McPherson, the film’s titular character, embodies the aspirations and self-doubts of being seventeen, being unsure of one’s sexuality, and most certainly being suffocated by an overbearing parent (the terrific Laurie Metcalf).
mother! Directed by Darren Aronofsky
This hot mess of a psychological suspense thriller — think “Dante’s Inferno” meets CRIMSON PEAK — has had a polarizing effect on many of my colleagues and fellow movie watchers. Some people adore its progressively apocalyptic vision, but many more derided it as possibly the worst stories that director Darren Aronofsky has committed to film. Me — well, I had a different take. A proto-feminist interpretation of The New Testament, our Virgin Mary (played simmering to roiling boil by Jennifer Lawrence) is hemmed in by temptations and distractions in the form of hubby Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, and an especially wicked Michelle Pfeiffer, resulting in what can only be described as a brassy, diabolical version of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel paintings. There is a religious theme going on here with my Oscar® recommendations. I know it…
MUDBOUND Directed by Dee Rees
I am always leery of stories that insist on looking at themes of race relations and racism through an historical lens, as if the power of the here-and-now is too overwhelming for Academy members (See: WHOSE STREETS, one of my picks for Best Feature Documentary). While Dee Rees’ MUDBOUND is a story buffered from the white-hot realities of the present by nearly seventy-five years, its portrayal of small-town racism burns with an identification that rings true to today. Weaving back and forth between two families — one white, the other black — in post WWII Mississippi, MUDBOUND may be a “small” story. Yet it is in its own ways epic, filled with stellar performances, not to mention a story that succeeds in speaking to our present-day realities (See: THE POST, below).
PHANTOM THREAD Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Paul Thomas Anderson’s second collaboration with uber-actor Daniel Day Lewis (THERE WILL BE BLOOD, not milkshakes, yo) is as different as night and day. A somewhat stiff and manneristic dark comedy set in 1950s-era London, this story of a master tailor and his paramour is nothing like the muscular works that distinguish the bulk of Anderson’s oeuvre — certainly not BOOGIE NIGHTS, not even PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE or MAGNOLIA. By playing it medium-cool and allowing actors Lewis and Vicky Krieps to fully inhabit their characters, the viewer gets a sumptuous reimagining of UPSTAIRS DOWNSTAIRS, with a dash of PROJECT RUNWAY. Ouch, why did I do that?!? A Merchant/Ivory wannabe, but not without its considerable merits.
THE POST Directed by Steven Spielberg
The inevitable comparisons to Alan J. Pakula’s ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976) are inescapable — the intimation that THE POST is merely a prologue to the 1972 Watergate Scandal is telegraphed at the conclusion of the movie. Yet Stephen Spielberg’s telling of the struggle to break the news of The Pentagon Papers — a thriller that may suffer unfair comparison to previous Oscar® winner SPOTLIGHT (geeze, has it REALLY been only two years ago?) — hinges on two titanic personalities: indomitable Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep) and hard-boiled news editor Benjamin Bradlee (Tom Hanks). Spielberg takes pains to foreground Graham’s dilemma whether to run with the story or cave to White House pressure not to run, and in Streep he has the actress who can deliver the goods.
THE SHAPE OF WATER Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Nominally a Cold War-era horror/thriller, Guillermo del Toro’s elegantly dystopian take on the city of Baltimore, MD provides the backdrop for a most unusual love story — one told in ways that is lamentably missing in past efforts that uses Charm City as a backdrop (Alfred Hitchcock’s MARNIE and John Waters’ PINK FLAMINGOS, set in nearby Phoenix, MD.). While dialing down some of del Toro’s more fanciful visuals, THE SHAPE OF WATER succeeds on the strength of its characters — Sally Hawkins as Elisa the cleaning lady; Michael Shannon as a sinister G-Man; Octavia Spencer as Elisa’s co-worker and confidante Zelda; Richard Jenkins as effete adman and neighbor Giles; and a special shout-out to Doug Jones as The Amphibian Man. Magical, ethereal, while being mindful not to sweep away the grime that exists at its edges, THE SHAPE OF WATER hits all the buttons for me.
NEXT: Best Actor