With 2017 in the rearview mirror and the formal movie awards season in full swing, I have taken some time to be reflective about the cinematic work that inspired me this past year. Posting about my reflections (and predictions!) has historically been a fun way for me to get feedback about how others have been impacted by the past year’s cinema – and I am delighted to bring my “Year in Review” to HarshLight this season. Essentially, the following article will use popular categories for understanding excellence in film as a guide for me to discuss both awards predictions and personal movie preferences from the year 2017. This breakdown will include four components for each overarching criteria: 1) The movie that I expect to win the Oscar in that category, 2) The nominated film that I think should win the Oscar in that category, 3) A movie that I think should have been nominated in the category, and 4) My pick for best movie of the year in that category (i.e., If I were a nominating Academy member, what would be on my ballot?). Each component will be accompanied with a short explanation.
Again, the purpose of sharing this review is to both inspire discussion (What did you find productive or unproductive about these movies?) and share in the joys in cinematic storytelling.
Please feel free to use the comment section below if you wish to share your thoughts and experiences about the 2017 cinematic year with us!
(As a general disclaimer, please observe that my notation of a movie as being outstanding in a particular category does not necessarily mean that I endorse all aspects of the picture. Further, I have not seen every film which I believe “will win” an award, although I have tried to familiarize myself with the majority of the Best Picture nominees.)
Will Win – The Shape of Water. Desplat’s beautiful score draws on both fantasy and drama traditions to simultaneously capture tones of danger and romance.
Should Win / Kyle’s Pick – Dunkirk. Hans Zimmer’s music incorporates an immersive soundscape hinging on the (slightly irritating, but emotively effective) tick of a stopwatch. The ticking sound brilliantly creates a false sense of chronemic consistency for the audience until the visuals begin to contradict the sound cues. Zimmer’s work functions to both structure the film and, in strategic places, disorient the audience and play with perceptions of time.
Should Have Been Nominated – The Post. While the nostalgic iteration of Williams’ Star Wars work is fun, his score for The Last Jedi does not have any groundbreaking effect. Meanwhile, Williams’ subtly dramatic approach to The Post offers a much more engrossing – and ultimately cathartic – slow burn of sound that facilitates the emotional journey of the characters.
Will Win / Should Win – Dunkirk. Christopher Nolan’s coordination with Nathan Crowley in recreating the famed WWII scene involved impressive combinations of dressing contemporary materials to appear in period, locating and refurbishing relic set pieces, and incorporating human machinations into natural environments such that they feel authentic to the audience.
Kyle’s Pick / SHBN – Split. Mara LePere-Schloop’s intimate attention to detail was fascinatingly evident in her dressing of a single home that had been decorated by 23 characters (each a personality living in a single body). She found both consistency in style and difference in the particulars of the assembly of each room in order to communicate the unique contribution of each of the antagonist’s 23 personalities. Further, each setting is colored to indicate a different tone/mood depending on the angle and light.
WW – The Shape of Water. Wolinsky, in a change of pace from editing television drama, took his experience with episodic horror/drama and used it to realize Del Torro’s vision of a 50s (somewhat operatic) pacing with occasional cutting in the vein of horror.
SW – Baby Driver. Amos and Machliss had to determine how to be in perfect sync with director Edgar Wright and veteran cinematographer Bill Pope in order to collaborate on how pictures, pacing, and music would coincide in the movie. Although the cast and crew all had a hand in the masterful and nearly unparalleled technical synchronicity of the final film product, the team cutting the movie together bore the ultimate responsibility in ensuring the flawless correspondence of each aspect of the production in the completion of the movie.
KP – Darkest Hour. There is nothing especially fancy about Bonelli’s editing of Darkest Hour, but, as with many of his other movies (e.g., Florence Foster Jenkins, The Program), Darkest Hour is cut together with efficient subtlety. Bonelli’s editing accounts for both the pacing of individual scenes and how the energy of those scenes fits into the larger scheme of pacing the overall film. Transitions between shots are so smooth that they are hardly noticeable. It is Bonelli’s eloquent “silence” in cutting Darkest Hour that has most captured my attention this year.
SHBN – Goodbye, Christopher Robin. Director Simon Curtis made an unusual decision by asking a person who has primarily worked in horror television to cut together his film drama. Victoria Boydell used her background in thriller/horror to her advantage by using fast-paced, albeit steady and clean, cuts to give a nightmarish effect to the protagonist’s flashbacks of war violence. Not only did Boydell jarringly interject flashbacks while maintaining visual clarity, but she also knew when and how to step back and hold moments for their still and quiet power. She used a plethora of strategies to engage the audience in the life of the movie’s characters and attended to these strategies with engrossing nuance.
WW – Blade Runner 2049. Roger Deakins is long overdue for his Oscar win and 2049 provided him a way to show off his skills in both lighting and blending natural/CGI environments.
SW/KP – Dunkirk or Mudbound. Hoyte Van Hoytema became very inventive in the shooting of Dunkirk, including adapting plane noses to carry Imax cameras into flight and lugging around those enormous cameras into the sea himself.
On the other hand, Rachel Morrison’s long-unnoticed work is also overdue for reward. For Mudbound, Morrison worked against time to meet a very tight shooting schedule. During this short amount of time (only 29 days!), she mostly shot exterior scenes while trying to work with the tumultuous weather. Given the circumstances of the shoot, Mudbound has a surprising clear visual language with symbolic tableaus and use of the weather to indicate pacing & tone. Morrison’s masterful cinematographic work undoubtedly guided the production balance environment with the intended aesthetics of the movie – overcoming obstacles that other DPs may have found insurmountable.
SHBN – Murder on the Orient Express. Although the movie was designed to be more of a fun mystery piece for entertainment than a high artistic achievement, Murder on the Orient Express features very engaging shots of otherwise static environments. Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos coordinated with the director (Kenneth Branagh) to shoot on film in order to capture the deep, mesmerizing color palette developed in production design. The movie is filmed in such a way as to attend to the details of small spaces and peaked the intrigue of the audience despite the small scope of most of the feature.
WW – Molly’s Game. Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut comes with a snappy script from the famed writer. In Molly’s Game, Sorkin probes the irrational greed of the “American Dream,” issues of moral luck, and some depravities of patriarchal power.
SW/KP – Mudbound. Williams & Rees’ script is intentionally timed to layer a post-WWII story over contemporary political issues. The writers expertly rely on the relatively small scale experiences of two families as a representation of how larger, structural whiteness was – and still is – weaponized to marginalize black bodies.
SHBN – Wonder Woman. Heinberg – and the story-writers assisting him – dug through years of comics history and found a way to tap into the spirit of a beloved character. His adaptation is an excellent rhetorical piece in that it maintains fidelity to both source materials & common conceptions of the Wonder Woman character (ethos) and explicitly uses emotions, and their behavioral consequences, as grounds for argument in the through-line of the plot (pathos/logos). Wonder Woman’s careful treatment of love-hate dialectics is sure to be of value for virtually any audience and will secure the movie’s place, at minimum, as one of the best films in its genre.
WW – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri. With echoes of Flannery O’Connor guiding his creative hand, stage-author-turned-screenwriter Martin McDonagh brings his usual flair of dark humor to Three Billboards. As per usual, though, the humor is (mostly) a tactic to draw his audience in before lunging on them with very serious, deeply human themes. His writing approach works because he finds fun in the oddity of basic human behavior and embraces it without ever losing sight of how serious the stakes of day-to-day living may be.
SW – Three Billboards… or, Get Out. (See above explanation of Three Billboards…)
Jordan Peele’s genre-defying story weaves a chilling allegory for contemporary cultural appropriation in the United States. Peele’s screenplay is especially noteworthy for multi-dimensional metaphors and careful balancing of allusion with frankness & sincerity.
KP / SHBN – The Salesman. Farhadi’s most recent in a long line of textured and observant writings is The Salesman, a story to which he also served as film director. Although all of Farhadi’s recent movies are heavily character driven, The Salesman returns to the writer-director’s analysis of marriage. Just like Willy Loman, the famed protagonist of Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” Farhadi’s most recent protagonist is forced to grapple with his pride while also determining the best way to attend to, and respect, the needs & wishes of his family. The movie ultimately explores the destructive capabilities of [male] ego in tension with domestic harmony.
WW – Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri). Rockwell’s dopey, racist Officer Dixon goes on quite the emotional journey over the course of the movie. With a great character arc to play with, Rockwell was able to flex his acting muscles in playing Dixon as sincerely (stupidly) ignorant as well as malleable and capable of change.
SW – Woody Harrelson (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri). Sam Rockwell may have had a big chunk of screen time to flesh out his character arc, but it’s the relationship between Harrelson’s Chief Willoughby and Frances McDormand’s Mildred that hold the heart of Three Billboards together. Harrelson’s chief, though stubborn and selfish in ways, also features layers of self-doubt that ultimately make him susceptible to change during his brief screen time. Although less melodramatic than some of his counterparts, Willoughby’s gravitas is present through humor and quiet strength under scowls and soft eyes.
KP/SHBN – Ben Mendelsohn (Darkest Hour); or, Sterling K. Brown (Marshall). Both Mendelsohn and Brown accomplish a great deal in a short amount of screen time.
As George VI, Mendelsohn takes care to maintain the prim and proper physicality of the king while letting his emotional mask slip in specific places to reveal George’s doubts.
As Joseph Spell, Brown holds the crux of the movie’s argument in his hands as a man accused of attempted murder. There are many twists and turns for Brown’s character, who – as a black man charged with harming a rich white woman in the 1940s – is sometimes hurt and sometimes helped by revealing aspects of his side of the story to his peers. Brown took special care to only play the emotional dimensions of Spell that were absolutely necessary in each scene – keeping the audience guessing about the truth of the case and Spell’s role in the strange events of the narrative.
WW – Allison Janney (I, Tonya). Janney’s LaVonna Harding is played as ruthless, but Janney also gives just enough reason for sympathy that LaVonna feels more multi-layered than the standard perfectionist bully/coach that we’ve come to love in movies about craft obsession.
SW/KP – Mary J. Blige (Mudbound). Florence Jackson is a playful, savvy, and sympathetic character. Blige embodies Florence with a restrained energy that is always crackling just beneath the surface, no matter what social role Florence is forced to play in her circumstances. Florence has some of the most crucial and intense stakes to her choices as any other character in the movies this past year. Often playing multiple (sometimes conflicting) objectives simultaneously with little more than her eyes and facial expressions to communicate the complexities of her scenes, Blige gives one of the best performances in 2017.
SHBN – Rooney Mara (A Ghost Story). At the top of A Ghost Story, Mara’s character, M, sits and sobs while eating pie for almost ten minutes after a funeral. Ten minutes is an enormous amount of screen time – an amount of time that tends to pass very slowly in typical cinematic experience. Mara uses the time to go on a full blown emotional journey regarding her processing of grief. M’s short path through an instance of suffering sets the thematic and emotional beat for the rest of the movie, which serves a rumination on the nature of pain.
WW/SW/KP – Gary Oldman (Darkest Hour). “Overdue” with the Academy would be an understatement for Oldman. He has, surprisingly, only been once been nominated for an Oscar. Rather than winning on some guilt-trip, though, Oldman will undoubtedly take home the gold for Darkest Hour because he delivers a fascinating view of Winston Churchill as a flawed, but courageous man. Unlike some other historical glimpses into Churchill’s life, Darkest Hour does not hide the fact that Churchill was a bully who was sometimes thoughtless and disloyal. He held some political positions that perhaps we wish he had not. Still, he did something great: he realized that bullies don’t back down without someone standing up to them. In this case, the bully was Adolf Hitler. Churchill’s disgust with Hitler may have been out of self-preservation, but it was thoughtfully weaponized none-the-less. Oldman held to the many aspects of Churchill’s life, both good and bad, in a performance that informs us of how Churchill’s nature culminated in a powerful historical moment.
SHBN – James McAvoy (Split). Kevin Wendell Crumb is the birth name assigned to the body that is represented by James McAvoy in Split; but, Kevin isn’t the person living in that body. Even though it would be obviously difficult to play several characters in the same movie, McAvoy’s impressiveness is rooted in how well and how distinctly he transitions between persons. Although we “only” get to see McAvoy play roughly seven of the twenty-three personalities that are said to inhabit his one body in the movie, those seven are enough for McAvoy to show his acting chops by flawlessly distinguishing his portrayals of many characters ranging in age, gender, and health.
WW/SW – Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri). As Mildred, McDormand conveys a myriad of powerful emotions that are often carefully hidden by the character’s prickly exterior. Although she experiences pain, guilt, and doubt, Mildred also finds extreme focus for her anger in doing whatever is necessary to avenge her raped and murdered daughter. On her journey, Mildred forces virtually everyone in her community to confront their own prejudices.
KP/SHBN – Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman). Gadot found herself in a very tricky situation with playing Diana in Wonder Woman: to portray a character both uninformed about a context and simultaneously savvy within the context. Diana is convincingly curious & wise when she explores “the world of men” for the first time without also seeming naïve (as with many other women in the superhero genre). Gadot and her collaborators (e.g., director Patty Jenkins) succeed, at least my opinion, in avoiding many of the damaging archetypes of women (e.g., damsel-in-distress, sacrificial-means-to-end) that are so often woven into action stories. Unfortunately, the superhero genre is usually one of the key perpetuators of such stereotypes. Perhaps more importantly, though: Gadot built a fascinating character in her own right. Diana navigates the uncertain motivations of the people around her, strategizes how to overcome monstrous evil (the literal personification of hate), and completes a sublimely executed character arc that facilitates the revelation of the movie’s major argument. Gadot’s performance is complex, building one of the most interesting characters of 2017.
WW – Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water). A long-time audience favorite, Guillermo del Toro has made many beloved, even Oscar nominated, films without being recognized for his work as a director. During this award season, del Toro brings his usual cultural critique through the lens of contemporary fairy tale. Perhaps his special timeliness this year will be enough to bring home the statuette.
SW/KP – Christopher Nolan (Dunkirk); or Any of the Nominees… I could hardly be more pleased with this year’s director lineup for the Academy Awards. However, if I really had to choose, I would select Nolan. Online readers who have seen much of my writer will be familiar with my admiration of Nolan. He, like del Toro, is an audience favorite who has gone long unrecognized by the Academy. This year, Nolan has achieved a particular feat in bringing his own unique voice to mainstream cinema by using an historical event as a mechanism by which to experiment with how humans experience time. Time is the most important factor in narrative – the major tool of the filmmaker – because narrative is simply a way of organizing and understanding time. Nolan realizes, and portrays in Dunkirk, that people experience time in different ways depending on their circumstance. Similarly, people experience time in formal stories very differently depending on the construction of the narrative. Nolan explores the factors that structure our experience of time through the eyes of both soldiers and civilians in one of the most significant events in the history of Western civilization.
SHBN – Patty Jenkins (Wonder Woman). From the standpoint of simply being a superhero fan, I think Jenkins accomplished a great feat by making a movie about DC characters that is fun, interesting, and altogether worth watching. More significantly, Jenkins made an excellent movie in its own right and regardless of genre. With high emotional stakes, cultural critique, and outstanding technical design & execution in virtually every production category, Patty Jenkins is the captain who led the MVP production team of the year. Wonder Woman is frankly, in my opinion, the best movie of year.
WW – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri. The combination of McDonagh’s smart script about the messiness of life with a powerful acting ensemble will likely charm Academy voters enough to receive the top prize. Choosing this movie as Best Picture would surely communicate a broad resonance with the timely themes of the movie… What is one to do with their anger toward injustice in a society brimming with so much hatred? McDonagh doesn’t offer clear-cut answers, but he does examine some possibilities…
SW – Dunkirk. Nolan’s continued moves toward making “pure cinema” are beautifully realized in Dunkirk with a truly immersive experience that emphasizes the visual language of film. Even though many of the best picture nominees this year have relevant themes, the movies that complicate our understanding of the times such that we are reflexive about our role in the world are the standouts. In Dunkirk, Nolan splinters his visual narrative so that it reveals experience more than it makes a single, cohesive argument. In so doing, the Dunkirk production team assembled a film concrete enough to have a discernable through-line but abstract & iconic enough to let audiences fill their own experiences into the imagery. The brilliant tableaus inspire reflections on / reactions to feelings of hopeless, dread, and hate before clenching the movie with a wave of hope. Perhaps this effect will seem overly abstract or cliché to some, but the construction of Dunkirk’s narrative guides the experience in a way that felt unique. There is enough room for interpretation in the movie for it to feel extremely personal if the audience is willing to be swept away and immersed in the process.
SHBN – Wonder Woman. Virtually every culture has a myth to explain to the existence of good and evil. With Wonder Woman, Patty Jenkins and team tapped into multiple mythologies (albeit with a Western focus) to develop an explanation of good and evil in terms of their major expressions: love and hate. Jenkins uses the superhero genre to personify forces of love and hate such that the movie may offer meta-commentary on how those forces impact a wide array of contemporary issues. The protagonist, Diana, goes on a journey that excavates several complicated and uncomfortable questions for the audience: What if hate exists aside from a single, malevolent, scapegoat of evil? If love is a tool to combat hate, in what forms may it be effectively weaponized? What is the role of choice in loving or hateful actions; and, if we are implicated in hate and/or oppression, what do we do from there..? Wonder Woman accesses what I believe is the greatest potential for its genre: to use fantastic means to create problem-posing situations for the audience. Jenkins’ pop artifact is cathartic in the abstract, but leaves enough unresolved to potential inspire reflexivity.
KP – Having already read my reasons for admiring these movies, it almost goes without saying that my top choices for 2017 are WONDER WOMAN and DUNKIRK. Each is a cinematic accomplishment on multiple levels. Each interprets history while also informing audiences of why their historical information is important in our present moment.
Keep following HarshLight’s main page for full profiles of award nominees!