Fox Searchlight / Universal / 20th Century Fox
There is little question that 2017 was one of the most contentious years for politics in recent history with so many issues on the table, it’s hard to think that none of them might have a direct impact on the Academy Awards next month.
Between the new President, the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, and the continued call for diversity both behind and in front of the camera, the films that deal either directly or indirectly with these issues have already been connecting with film critics and moviegoers alike. We’ll have to wait until March 4 to see if the same is true with Oscar voters, but until then, here’s a look at the nine Best Picture nominees and a few other films that could benefit from the world being more “woke” than in previous years.
There’s been a lot of talk about the 1,000 new members to the Academy that hopefully will offer more diversity in the voting even if the actual nominations were still mostly what was expected
Still, in no particular order, let’s look at the nine Best Picture nominees and a couple others.
Jordan Peele isn’t the first African-American filmmaker to have a movie in the Oscar race as Barry Jenkins and Steve McQueen have gone far with the Best Picture winners Moonlight and 12 Years a Slave. Peele may be the first African-American first-time filmmaker to be at the Oscars with a horror/thriller like Get Out, which is also one of the biggest commercial hits in the Oscar race. (Sure, it grossed $13 million less domestically than Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, but it also only cost a reported $4.5 million, which allowed it to get into the Indie Spirit Awards despite being released and marketed by Universal Pictures.) What makes Get Out so important in this year’s race is not who is behind the camera or a genre which has always had a hard time at the Oscars, but the social commentary Peele makes with the film. There have been plenty of films about racism and prejudice over the course of American history, but Get Out puts a major twist on it by having the film’s Oscar-nominated star Daniel Kaluuya put in a situation where he’s surrounded by white people who only want him for his body. If for some reason you haven’t seen Get Out yet, I’m not going to spoil Peele’s twist on The Stepford Wives, but it’s one that has connected with so many viewers because it tackles an important social issue in a unique and oddly entertaining way.
The Shape of Water
The desire for happy endings in a year when things just seem to be getting worse and worse on a daily basis might have contributed to Guillermo del Toro’s sci-fi fantasy romance scoring 13 Oscar nominations, beyond the fact that it’s just a wonderful and beautifully-made movie. Like the rest of us normal humans, Oscar voters are as susceptible for a need to be entertained and left feeling happy when they go to the movies and The Shape of Water offers much-needed escapism while still dealing with social issues. Hopefully you’ve seen it so it won’t be spoiled that the movie’s Cold War setting plays a large part in the story, and with all the talk on the news about America’s relationship with Russia and other foreign powers, that aspect of the story is really connecting as well. Beyond that, there also should be a great deal of support for a popular Mexican filmmaker at a time when Mexican-Americans are being threatened with extradition and the danger of being placed behind a wall. Even more in the years that del Toro’s colleagues Alejandro Innaritu and Alfonso Cuaron won their Best Director Oscars, it feels that certain Presidents need to be reminded of the talent coming out of Mexico.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri
Martin McDonagh’s third film is an intense cross of dark comedy and drama involving Frances McDormand as a mother wanting to get answers and revenge on the men who raped and killed her teen daughter. Although it was written and filmed in early 2016 and premiered early in September, the connections the film makes to the #MeToo and #TimesUp movement with McDormand making a stand against the guilty parties, including the town’s police department, has helped the movie connect with many moviegoers. On the other side of things, the racism displayed by Sam Rockwell’s police deputy has created a negative discourse within the African-American community that could theoretically hurt McDonagh’s film even as it has grossed $40 million and is likely to win a number of Oscars. The strength of McDonagh and Rockwell’s roles in the film should certainly help them in their respective Oscar roles, but also McDonagh’s screenplay in its commentary on modern-day America under a certain President. And again, this was written before there even was a chance of 45 being elected to office!
The desire to support women filmmakers and women’s stories makes Greta Gerwig’s (sort of) directorial debut one that’s hard to ignore, especially because it’s such a woman-friendly coming-of-age story featuring two fantastic performances by Sienna Miller in the lead and Laurie Metcalf as her mother. Many women and men are connecting with the journey of the title character to try to be more than her domestic situation in Sacramento will allow her which mirrors the current running narrative in the country Lady Bird is also a really enjoyable movie with an upbeat tone that isn’t always present in Oscar Best Picture nominees and probably less this year than in years past. Like The Shape of Water, having that definitive happy ending has helped the movie become one of A24’s top-grossing hits, and it could be a spoiler in many categories including supporting actress and original screenplay because so many people like it.
Sony Pictures Classics
Call Me By Your Name
On the surface, Luca Guadagnino’s movie based on André Aciman’s novel (adapted by the Oscar-nominated James Ivory) might seem like a simple enough boy-meets-slightly-older-man coming-of-age romance, but it explores two men’s coming-out in a way we haven’t seen often in film… except maybe last year’s winner Moonlight. It kind of sucks to think that the lack of support for the film might be due to it dealing with LBGTQ issues so soon after Moonlight and there being some sort of malais towards supporting a second movie of that ilk in a row, but the lack of nominations for Armie Hammer and Michael Stuhlberg seem to point to just that. Hopefully, it will at least win a screenplay nomination, but this movie needs to be as much in the conversation now as Brokeback Mountain was over a decade ago.
Christopher Nolan’s war movie might not have as much of an impact with American Oscar voters, but certainly, British and European ones will not only remember hearing about this inspirational story in school, but possibly see connections to the hopeless situation England seems have got itself caught up in with last year’s Brexit vote.
Even more than Dunkirk, the Joe Wright-directed drama starring Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill has direct parallels to the current political climate both in the U.S. and U.K., and though it didn’t get the critical support one might expect – I’ll have more on that soon – but anyone who watches the movie will see those parallels.
20th Century Fox
Again, another movie that’s a direct response to the current political climate, particularly the President’s ongoing war against journalism, and this is particularly timely if you draw parallels between the Pentagon Papers and the current Russian investigation and the impact it and recently released memos might have. Meryl Streep’s amazing performance as the owner and publisher of The Washington Post, as it faces a major crisis in deciding whether to publish the top-secret leaked CIA study that might take down those currently in government who have kept the Vietnam War going on under false pretenses.
While the popular movie about Tonya Harding didn’t get a Best Picture, Director or Screenplay nomination, its two acting nominations show support at least in the acting chapter, plus it received an editing nomination. Harding’s abuse at the hands of her mother (played by Allison Janney, currently the supporting actress frontrunner) and husband (Sebastian Stan) is something that deals directly with the #TimesUp narrative of women tired of their abusers and harassers. Margot Robbie’s performance that swings from comedic to deeply emotional is something that’s helped the movie one of distributor Neon’s biggest hits to date.
Again, Dee Rees’ movie wasn’t nominated for Best Picture but it’s received support from the Academy writers and cinematographers who made Rachel Morrison the first woman cinematographer nominated in that male-dominated category. Based on Hillary Jordan’s 2008 novel, the film’s exploration of race relations might be just as important as Jordan Peele’s Get Out, although the movie didn’t connect with enough Oscar voters to get into the Best Picture race.
Sony Pictures Classics
A Fantastic Woman
I recently wrote about Sebastián Lelio’s incredible Chilean drama starring Daniela Vega as a trans woman who deals with added prejudice and hatred from the family of her long-time lover after he dies. Hopefully it will win the Oscar foreign language category merely on its merits as a film, but it certainly won’t hurt that LGBTQ stories are very much of interest to Oscar voters looking for diversity in storytelling. Of course, Ruben Östlund’s The Square might be seen as just as timely in telling a rather offbeat story within a modern-day Swedish setting to which Americans can still mostly relate.
It’s definitely going to be an interesting year for the Oscars which are now just a month away – how time flies – and there’s almost guaranteed to be a few surprises in the mix, although it’s going to be hard not to view the winners through the socio-political lens of everything that was happening in America and the world in 2017.
Edward Douglas | East Coast Editor