Phantom Thread.

Phantom Thread is a meticulous film, by turns grim and grinning, featuring a tour de force performance from Daniel Day-Lewis (his final role, if you believe that sort of thing) where he’s matched line for line by the two actresses playing against him. It’s also kind of bonkers, as the three characters move in unconventional ways, forging subtle alliances with each other only to surprise the viewer with reactions that shred the clichéd plot devices we’ve all come to expect, even from ‘smart’ films.

Day-Lewis plays the hilariously-named fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock, who makes the highest of high-end dresses for the elites of London in the 1950s, operating the House of Woodcock with his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), to whom he refers as “Old So-and-So.” When the film opens, we see the two of them at breakfast with a third woman, who is clearly in love with Reynolds but who is exasperated with him ignoring her in favor of his art. While en route to a house in the country, he stops for breakfast and is taken with the waitress who serves him, Alma (Vicky Krieps), inviting her to dinner and quickly moving to install her in his house as his muse. When he tries to run roughshod over her as he apparently has with previous women in her station, however, Alma gives as good as she gets, creating a seesawing battle of wills between the two of them, Cyril, and the ever-present spectre of Reynolds’ late, beloved mother. Alma reaches the point where, presumably, her predecessors have left the house or been steered out by Cyril, but instead takes the initiative in drastic fashion, making Reynolds depend on her while shifting both the balance of power and the audience’s perception of her as the ingenue under the thumb of the great master.

There is enough going on beneath the surface of this film to fill a joint thesis for a psychology and English literature degree. Reynolds sews ‘secrets’ into the linings of his dresses, and reveals to Alma early in the film that he keeps a lock of his mother’s hair sewn into his jacket – over his “breast.” He’s a manipulative bully to Alma, and speaks to everyone in tightly clipped tones that imply some deep repression. His fastidious nature may not be affect, but where everyone around him treats his idiosyncrasies as the mercurial nature of the great artist, Alma pierces his armor and even tells Cyril that he’s “too fussy,” which understates the matter just a bit. I can’t imagine that Woodcock’s surname was some accidental reference, nor do I think the choice of Alma (which means “soul” in three Romance languages, deriving from the Latin word almus, meaning “kind” or “nourishing”) was inadvertent. Cyril bears a man’s name that means “lord,” and she certainly rules the House of Woodcock and her brother’s life while brooking no dissent. And do we need to go into detail about the symbolism of the asparagus in one of the movie’s most pivotal scenes?

Some details in Phantom Thread don’t quite ring true on their own, and Anderson relies on the immersive nature of the world he’s created to help the viewer skate past some of those moments. Reynolds’ order at the restaurant where Alma works is hilariously long and detailed, especially since we’ve just seen him getting dressed and thus seen how slight he is, almost looking gaunt. But Anderson manages to make some of these less than credible details work because of the compelling, three-dimensional characters he’s created at the heart of the film. Would Alma truly take that diabolical step to bind Reynolds to her? Would he then make the choice he does at the end of the film when he realizes what’s happening? Is this actually love between the two of them, or some sort of mad obsession – not with each other, at least not in the traditional romantic-sexual sense, but with their pursuit of a shared ideal of life and work and a union where all boundaries between the two of them are utterly erased? (If you’ve already seen the film, check out The Cut’s excellent Q&A with a psychotherapist about the Reynolds-Alma relationship.)

Day-Lewis is superb, as he always is, infusing this perplexing, often childish character with an undeniable charisma that helps explain the way women fawn over him throughout the film. There’s no surprise here, given his body of work to date, but Manville (nominated for Best Supporting Actress) and Krieps both deliver stellar performances that allow their characters to stand against him. Either was worthy of a nomination, but Manville does a bit more with less dialogue than Krieps gets, and by the end of the film, Cyril remains the most impenetrable character. Manville likely has zero chance of a win – her competition includes Laurie Metcalf for Lady Bird and Allison Janney for I, Tonya – but I wouldn’t count Day-Lewis out completely, given that some voters may hold favorite Gary Oldman’s anti-#MeToo comments against him. Similarly, Anderson seems like an underdog in the Best Director category, but he’d be more than deserving, and only Christopher Nolan (Dunkirk) seems to have had more influence as a director on his film than Anderson did here.

As for Best Picture … I’d have a very hard time choosing among the nine nominees. The best movie I saw from 2017 remains The Florida Project, which did not receive a nomination, losing out to the blank space the Academy always leaves in the tenth slot. I’d put Phantom Thread in the top three of the nominees, along with Dunkirk and The Shape of Water, just ahead of Call Me By Your Name. Just don’t hold me to that opinion yet.

Darkest Hour.

Darkest Hour seems to have made a late push in awards season, landing a Best Picture nomination that I think would have been a total shock to reviewers back in November, as the consensus was that Gary Oldman was great as Winston Churchill but the movie itself was just fair. That might even be generous – this is kind of a bad movie around a good performance boosted by great makeup, and utterly hokey in so many spots that I’d warn anyone unfamiliar with the true history of that period away from the movie because it’ll give them the wrong idea.

The story takes place in May of 1940, as British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, the champion of the appeasement policy that handed the Sudetenland to Adolf Hitler because dictators are always satisfied with modest gains, loses a vote of no confidence in Parliament and resigns his position, creating a vacuum that is filled by the adipose, sodden Winston Churchill, a choice that seems to satisfy nobody. The King is terrified of Churchill’s unpredictable mouth, while members of Churchill’s own party doubt him based on his own history of questionable policy choices. Churchill takes the reins just as Belgium is about to fall, as is France’s Maginot line, which leads to the events that begin the far superior film Dunkirk. Over the course of Darkest Hour, Churchill must decide whether to negotiate terms with the Nazis or to resolve to fight, knowing that the Germans would likely attempt to invade Britain, all while dealing with duplicity from within his own party, including a very British coup attempt by Lord Halifax.

You know how it ends – Churchill declines to negotiate, arguing that Hitler would never adhere to any terms; he orders the civilian effort to evacuate the British troops trapped at Dunkirk, which succeeds beyond any expectations; and the Germans begin the bombing of London known as the Blitz. It was a decisive point in the war, and given Hitler’s decisions to wipe his ass with other treaties and agreements he’d made with the Allies, the right one in hindsight. What we get here, though, isn’t true or even particularly fair to anyone, including Churchill, whom Oldman portrays as addled enough by liquor that you could wring him out. The process involved in getting to this decision may have been ad hoc, as portrayed in the film, but the climactic scene, set in a subway car, is a complete fabrication, dripping with British jingoism and seasoned with a heavy dose of political correctness as well. It’s as subtle as a children’s story, and less reliable too.

Oldman is very good as Churchill, and truly unrecognizable under the prosthetics, makeup, and accent – he disappears into the role in a literal sense, as well as a figurative one. Oldman is a very talented actor whose work I’ve long admired, including his turn as the iconic George Smiley in 2011’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and, of course, his creation of an iconic film character in his role as Sirius Black. Here, though, it’s hard to separate the impression from the performance; he’s so busy doing the voice, the walk, the bug-out eyes that I found myself questioning whether the praise heaped upon him was more a function of how much he looks and sounds like the modern impression of Churchill. (If you can’t picture any of this, think “drunk Alfred Hitchcock” and you’re about 90% of the way there.)

The generally incredible cast here is otherwise wasted on silly or trivial roles. Kristin Scott-Thomas plays Churchill’s too-perfect wife and seems to be here primarily to look old and humanize the Prime Minister. Lily James plays a real person who was Churchill’s assistant, but didn’t take that job until well after the events of the movie, and seems to be here primarily to look cute and give the audience some cheap emotional moments. (There’s a shot of her walking that begins at her shoes and works up to her face that came off as leering; there’s absolutely no reason to show her in that light unless the intention was to remind viewers that, hey, Lily James is an attractive woman.) Samuel West, who was excellent in the TV mini-series Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell*, is one-note as Anthony Eden, Churchill’s Secretary of War. The one supporting performance that stood out in a positive light was Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI; if you don’t know Mendelsohn’s name, you might know his face; he played the worst of the various sociopaths in 2010’s Animal Kingdom and has made a career of playing villains, but here gives ol’ Bertie a bit of humanity and providing one of the film’s accurate subplots, the growth in the King’s relationship with Churchill from mutual distrust to a sort of professional friendship, some needed credibility.

(King George VI was known for having a speech impediment, and Mendelsohn does his best to reproduce it. Lord Halifax couldn’t pronounce the letter ‘r,’ and Stephen Dillane incorporates that into his speech as the character, while also seeming to pronounce everything from somewhere two feet behind his face. And Oldman is also doing an impression for the entire movie. The end result, while perhaps true to the characters’ actual speech, is that I had a devil of a time understanding everybody; it’s one time where less accuracy might have made for a better film.)

I’ve seen eight of the nine Best Picture nominees, and this is easily the worst movie; the fact that this got a nomination, and the Academy left one spot open, while The Florida Project was not nominated is absolutely galling. If you want some rah-rah history, and don’t mind being taken for a ride along the way, Darkest Hour is superficially entertaining. It’s just not very good history, and once you leave the theater, the ecstasy of the film’s resolution will fade all too quickly.

* One of the trailers before the film was for the upcoming movie, 7 Days in Entebbe, retelling the famous 1976 Israeli military operation in Uganda, where IDF commandos rescued over 100 hostages who’d been taken by pro-Palestinian terrorists and German idiots. Shimon Peres is portrayed in the film by Eddie Marsan, who played Mr. Norrell in the above-mentioned mini-series. Trailers can be very misleading, but this at least made me want to see the film, as everything except the choice of music looked spectacular.

The Post.

The Post is about Some Very Important Things, and the writers, Liz Hannah and John Singer, really want you to know that This is All Very Important, and they hope you leave the theater understanding the Importance of all of this Important Stuff. While it has its entertaining moments and two excellent performances, The Post hits you over the head with its heavyhanded delivery so often that I left my seat with a mild concussion.

This is the story of the Pentagon Papers, told from the perspective of Katharine Graham, Ben Bradlee, and the reporters on the Washington Post who picked up the story after the New York Times was hit with a federal injunction. The Papers comprised 47 volumes and 7000 pages, the result of a lengthy study undertaken by a task force set up by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in 1967 to evaluate the state of the U.S. war effort in Vietnam. Among other notable findings, the task force concluded that the war was unwinnable, and that the continued effort in southeastern Asia was more about saving American face than fighting communism. One of the men who worked on the papers, Daniel Ellsburg, leaked them to the Times and later to the Post, because he believed the war was unjust and that multiple Administrations had lied to the American people.

This film starts in Vietnam, with a war scene and a scene on a plane where Ellsberg tells McNamara and President Johnson that the war isn’t progressing, after which we’re whisked into the world of the newspaper, where we learn that the Washington Post is about to sell shares to the public for the first time. Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) owns the company in the wake of her husband’s suicide. (Philip Graham did kill himself, but it was in 1963; the film implies that his death was much more recent.) Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), the editor in chief, is less interested in the business than in turning the paper into an important, national voice on the news. When the paper gets scooped by the Times with the publication of the first of the Pentagon Papers, Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk), an assistant editor, tracks down the Times‘ source, gets the Papers, and the film finally kicks into gear in a sequence that lands the group in court and leads to a lot of white men mansplaining to Graham why she shouldn’t do any of this.

Graham was a hero of her time for making a difficult decision that incurred substantial risk to her person, including the loss of her company and possibly her freedom. We tend to take Streep’s acting prowess – and the inevitability of her receiving a Best Actress nomination, which she did for The Post, her 21st Oscar nod – for granted, but she is superb as Graham, a woman who senses the need to be a strong leader, yet faces internal doubts about her ability and external pressure from the old white men who constitute her board and advisors, led by Bradley Whitford at his most annoying (by design). The story of how a woman altered the course of an industry and possibly a country is, by itself, sufficient fodder for an entire film, but The Post seems to downplay it in stages, only to have it surge back to the surface at the end, including in an artificial scene near the end where she exits the courthouse and walks through a gauntlet of admiring women.

Odenkirk is the real revelation in the film, giving Bagdikian the perfect blend of nervous energy and dogged seriousness required for the reporter who breaks the story and almost can’t believe his own good fortune. I’ve seen little of Odenkirk’s work before but primarily knew of him as a comedian; here he seems like a seasoned character actor, completely credible as the determined, world-weary reporter who gets the scoop on gut instinct and some very old-fashioned hard work. I would have given him a Best Supporting Actor nomination over Woody Harrelson, easily, because The Post doesn’t work unless the actor in this role does his job.

Hanks, on the other hand, feels too much like he’s giving us an impersonation of Bradlee than a performance. There’s a clenched-teeth affect to his speech, and the way he’s written, he’s the too-perfect boss for a reporter, valuing the story over all else, without even desultory regard for the legal and financial consequences of losing the lawsuit over publishing the Papers.

The Post entertains, and on some superficial level, it educates, but this was written as an Important film for the masses, one that lays on a thick layer of simple lessons rather than challenging the audience in any way. To compensate for what might seem like the slow pacing of reporting out a story, the film has numerous jarring edits that almost cut characters off mid-sentence, and some of the tonal shifts between the hunt for the Papers and Graham dealing with men who think she’s a silly little woman are just as incongruent. The movie wants you to feel something, and I did – if you want to be proud to be an American, the First Amendment is about as good a reason as you’ll find, and the publication of the Papers and court case that followed were very much about the role of a free press in enforcing accountability of the highest officials in the federal government. Everything is just a bit too pat, too tidy to do that subject or Katherine Graham sufficient justice.

I still have The Darkest Hour to review and then need to see The Phantom Thread, at which point I’ll have all 9 Best Picture nominees and can at least start a discussion of how to rank them.

Call Me By Your Name.

Call Me By Your Name has been consistently lauded since the Toronto film festival in September as one of the best films of 2017, powered by a great lead performance from Timothee Chalamet and a gorgeous setting in northern Italy. It is a very different sort of film from anything to which you might compare it, and while it suffers at the top from languid pacing, the script delivers a powerhouse speech at the end that ties everything together in a way that gives the story its deeper meaning.

Adapted from a 2007 novel by Egyptian/Italian writer André Aciman (who has a brief cameo in the film as a flamboyantly gay friend of the main family), Call Me By Your Name tells the story of a summer romance between two young men, Elio (Chalamet) and Oliver (Armie Hammer), when the latter comes to stay at the northern Italian summer house of Elio’s family. Set in 1983, Elio’s father (Michael Stuhlbarg, looking very much like Good Will Hunting-era Robin Williams) is an archaeology professor who invites graduate students to stay with him each summer and help him with filing and other administrative tasks. Elio is dating a beautiful local girl, Marzia (Esther Garrel), but it becomes clear quite early that he’s attracted to Oliver, who seems more interested in chasing local women until Elio implies his feelings to Oliver while the two are running an errand in town. The romance between them blossoms late in the summer, and Oliver in particular seems aware of its ephemeral nature, especially in an era where homosexuality was still decades away from mainstream acceptance. Eventually, Oliver must return home to the United States, and Elio is left to cope with his grief and his new understanding of who he is.

The beginning of the film is … well, it’s romantic and unhurried if you like it, I suppose, but about 20 minutes into the movie, I was seriously questioning my commitment. The pacing is slow to the point of soporific. It isn’t just that so little happens, but that James Ivory’s script takes too much time setting the scene, which director Luca Guadagnino is more than happy to oblige by giving us beautiful shots of the country house, the pools, the river, the unnamed town, and so on. If you clipped the first half of Call Me By Your Name, you could turn it into a very compelling video for the Lombardy board of tourism.

The inflection point for the script comes when Elio hints to Oliver that he’s gay and attracted to his friend, to which Oliver’s immediate response is that they can’t discuss or act on these feelings, which he obviously reciprocates. Then the real story begins, including Elio’s awkward attempts to make Oliver jealous, in a stop-and-start pattern before they finally begin their clandestine affair. (Or what they think is clandestine; Elio’s parents are both highly educated, intelligent people, and there’s never any indication that they’re ignorant of what’s happening.)

Stuhlbarg’s performance for much of the film feels a bit too familiar as he does the socially awkward, highly intelligent professor act, but as the script approaches its end, his character emerges as a more complex, thoughtful, compassionate person than you might have had any reason to expect. The talk he gives to comfort Elio after Oliver has left Italy is beautiful and concise, accentuated by Stuhlbarg’s note-perfect delivery. Chalamet is outstanding as the conflicted, teenaged Elio, the most important and demanding role in the film, but he’s not matched by Hammer, who – in addition to sounding almost exactly like Jon Hamm – never quite fills out the role of Oliver, seeming more dismissive than aloof early in the film, then coming off as patronizing to Elio in moments where they’re supposed to be at their most intimate.

Call Me By Your Name has also received some unwanted and unwarranted attention for the nature of the central romance, which occurs between two men aged 24 and 17. The legal argument, that the age of consent in Italy is 14, never held much water for me, and reading about the film I thought how I might feel if my daughter were 17 and I had a 24-year-old houseguest strike up a romance with her. (Answer: Not great, Bob.) The script answers the question in two ways, however, by making it clear that the relationship is in no way predatory, but also because of the time and place in which the story occurs. Life as a gay man in 1983, even before the scourge of HIV, included few guarantees of happiness, so for Elio and Oliver to fail to seize the day when this one chance for a transcendent romance arrives would be its own tragedy. That point was still unclear to me until Stuhlbarg’s soliloquy, which rounded out the story without sermonizing.

The score features some lovely selections of classical songs for the piano – I particularly loved the use of “Une barque sur l’ocean,” a piece by Maurice Ravel – but the intrusion of the vocals from Sufjan Stevens’ contributions during the film itself was unfortunate, as was the decision to boost the volume of his first song, a reworking of “Futile Devices” from his The Age of Adz. The film makes much better use of one of Stevens’ new songs, “Visions of Gideon,” which plays over the final scene along with the credits and adds to the haunting melancholy of the film’s conclusion. (Also, the Psychedelic Furs’ “Love My Way,” a favorite of mine from the new wave era, plays a small role in the plot.)

All of the predictions I’ve seen so far have Call Me By Your Name snagging a Best Picture nomination, with nods also for Guadagnino (Best Director), Chalamet (Best Actor), and one of Hammer or Stuhlbarg (Best Supporting Actor). I wouldn’t be surprised to see nominations as well for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Cinematography, although perhaps I’m misplacing credit due to the Italian countryside. Garrel isn’t in the film enough to merit a nod for Best Supporting Actress, but I thought she was superb in a limited role. The soundtrack is ineligible for Best Original Score, unfortunately. I have no vote on the Oscars, of course, but Chalamet is the only candidate I’ve listed for whom I might vote … and I haven’t seen Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour.

The Shape of Water.

The Shape of Water is hands-down the best love story between a woman and a fish-man that you will ever see – and, I would hope, the only one. But despite a trailer that makes it look like a Cold War thriller and a romance at the heart of the plot, Guillermo del Toro’s masterful new film is also a profound meditation on the essential loneliness of mankind.

Eliza Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a mute but hearing cleaning lady working at a secret military facility and laboratory in Baltimore in the late 1950s, along with Zelda (Octavia Spencer), who rarely stops talking but also serves as an interpreter for Eliza’s sign language. One day, the women learn that the lab is now home to “the Asset,” a humanoid sea creature, capable of breathing both in and out of the water, kept in chains and tortured by the security agent Strickland (Michael Shannon). Eliza, fascinated by the creature, begins to eat her lunch in the lab where it’s held, and forges a relationship with the Asset through gestures and shared hard-boiled eggs. Strickland has convinced his military superiors to vivisect the Asset, then kill it, while the scientist Hofstatter (Michael Stuhlbarg) sees that it is intelligent and capable of communication, arguing that it should be kept alive and studied humanely. Eliza, already hoping to rescue the Asset from Strickland’s cruel treatment, learns of the plan and hatches an escape plan with the help of her painter neighbor (Richard Jenkins).

The trailer for The Shape of Water emphasizes the chase for the Asset once Eliza has sprung it from captivity, but that takes up, at most, the last 15 minutes of the film; about 3/4 of its running time is dedicated to the budding relationship between her and the fish, first friendship and then romance. The film requires you to suspend your disbelief in many ways, but the emotional connection between the two characters is convincing: Eliza is entirely alone in the world, abandoned as a baby and raised in an orphanage, with only her neighbor and Zelda as any kind of friends at all; the Asset may be the only creature of his type, and is certainly alone now that he’s been stolen from his home in South America.

But it’s not merely those two who are alone in this film, even if they exist at the script’s emotional core. Her painter neighbor is a closeted gay man in an era when coming out was not a viable option; he’s lost his job due to his drinking, lives alone with several cats, and says to Eliza at one point that he’d starve if she didn’t show up to encourage him to eat. (He also knows sign language.) Zelda is married to a useless husband, complaining daily to Eliza how he doesn’t appreciate or help her.

And then there’s Strickland, the most problematic character in the movie. Shannon’s performance is excellent, as you’d expect, but Strickland is as one-dimensional a villain as you’ll find. He sees the Asset as an abomination, not an intelligent creature, citing Scripture as it suits his beliefs. He’s racist, sexist, and elitist. He develops a spontaneous sexual obsession with Eliza (because she’s mute) and harasses her, while also treating his wife as a prop and his children as if they were barely there. And there’s no attempt to explain his selfish, misanthropic behavior – he is just what he is. This is not a good man making a difficult decision for God and country, or a complex individual faced with a black swan dilemma; he’s a horrible person in every way, which makes him as dull as the serial killer in a horror movie.

The remainder of the film, however, is superb, not least in how del Toro asks you to suspend that disbelief and then runs with the license you’ve given him. There is much that would be ridiculous if you thought about it, but the fabulist script builds the world so quickly and convincingly that very little of what comes after seems out of place. (I had one quibble: why was Hofstatter the only scientist around the Asset? You’d think there’d be a mob of biologists, anthropologists, and so on trying to study it.) The score mixes sounds you might find in French romance films with some more art-house tracks, and even has a fantasy musical number near the end that, again, asks you to just roll with it.

Hawkins should be nominated for all of the awards for Best Actress, and while the competition is stiff this year (Frances McDormand for Three Billboards is also worthy, and you know Meryl Streep will get her annual nod), she might be my pick to win right now. Her role requires her to express everything through expression and gesture, and the character herself grows from this mousy, childlike woman counting out her life in hard-boiled eggs (and other morning routines) to a woman capable of plotting a heist and risking her life for her lover. She’s utterly convincing at both stages of her character’s development. It’s a tour de force performance, with the higher level of difficulty that voters often tend to favor.

Jenkins and Spencer have both earned Golden Globe nominations for their Supporting roles, and Shannon would also be worthy of a nod, although his character’s stock nature might hurt him. This also seems like a lock to earn nods for Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, and Score, at the very least, and if the fish counts, for Costume Design too. I still have three (or more) major Best Picture contenders left to see, but of the 25 films I’ve seen so far this year, The Shape of Water would only be behind The Florida Project on my own rankins.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges has become something of a cult film since its 2008 release, earning critical acclaim and a few awards but faring modestly at the box office at the time, instead growing in popularity and stature in the intervening nine years. He’s now back in the critical spotlight for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, another dark comedy, but where In Bruges felt like a farce, or even a slapstick sendup of crime films, Three Billboards weaves its comedy into a far more serious tapestry of grief, violence, and trauma, succeeding in fits and starts but deriving too much of its humor from easy targets.

Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) decides to rent three disused billboards on a seldom-used road near her house to draw attention to the unsolved rape and murder of her daughter, Angela, seven months previously. The billboards name Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and ask him why there have been no arrests, and by naming the chief Mildred sets off the volatile, dimwitted police officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), who still lives with his crone mother and decides to avenge his boss – who is something of a father figure to him – first by petty methods and eventually by violent ones. (Dixon has also previously been in trouble for abusing a black suspect in custody, although he’s still on the force.) Willoughby, meanwhile, is dying of pancreatic cancer, which makes him a sympathetic figure in the town and further turns many of them against Mildred for putting up the billboards.

The plot twists substantially from there, although there isn’t much more to say without spoiling the rest of the film; it is fair, however, to say that the rape and murder of Angela Hayes becomes less relevant to the story as it progresses, so that when it returns to the surface near the conclusion of the film, it appears as much for the maturation of one character as it does for the plot itself. The script meanders as if written by Richard Linklater’s evil counterpart from a mirror universe, highlighting the various eccentric and generally miserable residents of Ebbing, including Mildred’s abusive ex-husband (John Hawkes), his 19-year-old dingbat girlfriend Penelope (Samara Weaving), their depressed and grieving son Robbie (Lucas Hedges), and James (Peter Dinklage), a little person with an evident crush on Mildred. They’re just about all a mess in one way or another, understandably so in many cases, but the billboards set off an expanding tree of ramifications that end up altering the lives of many of the people in the town in largely unexpected ways.

The humor in Three Billboards is pretty spot-on, at least in terms of generating laughs; it’s more overtly funny than In Bruges, certainly, with many laugh-out-loud lines that are perfectly delivered. Dinklage gets the best of them all, sticking a perfect landing on a three-word zinger at Penelope’s expense. But that’s sort of the problem: Nearly all of the gags, spoken or sight, are aimed at the two idiots, Dixon and Penelope, or the little person, James. The actors are all game, and Rockwell has already earned plaudits for his performance as Dixon, taking the character through the movie’s most complete story arc from screw-up to a unique method of redemption, but after a while the jokes about stupid people start to feel very cheap.

The serious side of the script appears at first blush to be a crime story – this girl was murdered, her mother wants justice, and she’ll stop at nothing to get it – but by the second hour it has become a slice-of-life story covering myriad characters, with a noticeable downshift in pace so the individual personae get more time to develop. It reminded me of an interview I saw with Tom Petty for his Into the Great Wide Open album where he voiced his admiration for the lyrics of Bob Dylan, noting how Dylan would often drop the listener into the middle of a story rather than start a song’s lyrics with the setup or introduction. (I wish I knew where I saw this, or even how accurate my memory of it is, but I have always associated it with the video for “Learning to Fly.”) McDonagh’s script does this extremely well: The crime is past, and we hear about it only after the billboards are up. We get very little introduction to any character up front, although we learn relevant details as we go along. And we don’t get much of a resolution at the end, either. The movie is set off by extraordinary events, and driven by them, but the people remain ordinary and the effects almost mundane.

Rockwell is outstanding in his role, as is McDormand in hers, and they have the two most interesting and well-rounded characters in the film. Dinklage has virtually nothing to do, but at least gives his character a little humanity while he’s generally the butt of various jokes. The revelation for me was Harrelson, an actor whose work has never done much for me in the past, but here he takes a character the viewer is predisposed to dislike – after all, Mildred has all but told us he’s a lazy cop uninterested in finding her daughter’s murderer – and makes him complete and sympathetic for reasons beyond his terminal illness. There’s also a character named “Red Welby,” played by Caleb Landry Jones, interesting for two reasons: It can’t be a coincidence that McDonagh named two characters Willoughby and Welby, and Jones may very well end up in three films nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture between this one, The Florida Project, and Get Out.

Three Billboards does turn violent a few times, as is McDonagh’s wont, but not to the extent of In Bruges, nor does it take that film’s tack of using violence for humor. There’s much in this film that is funny, but there’s a clear separation in the script between the laughs and the serious material, so the latter can pose some interesting questions to its audience – most prominently the role of closure in our lives when we are faced with trauma. Mildred doesn’t get it, and she can’t move on with her life. Three Billboards gives that closure to some characters but not others, and then lets us watch the results on everyone in its purview.

EDIT: One last point I forgot to mention – Ebbing, Missouri, is a fictional town. I doubt McDonagh picked that name at random either, and wondered if he was using the word “ebbing,” referring to the movement of the tide back out to sea, as a metaphor for the lives of some of the older characters in the film, or just noting that there is an ebb and flow in every life.

Lady Bird.

Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, Lady Bird, has been in the news this week as it set a record on Rotten Tomatoes for the most positive (“fresh”) reviews received without a single negative (“rotten”) one, 184 such reviews and counting. It’s a coming-of-age story, incredibly well-acted throughout, with a number of truly hilarious moments in it, enough that I’d join the chorus (if my review counted) of positive reviews … but the movie has its flaws too, particularly in the way the adult characters are written, as if Gerwig, who also wrote the script, put her primary efforts in the teenagers at the heart of the film.

Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) is Christine McPherson, who has chosen “Lady Bird” as her nickname and repeatedly crosses out or corrects Christine whenever it’s used to refer to her, a high school senior in Sacramento who comes from “the wrong side of the tracks,” a family of four living in a somewhat run-down house and dealing with the economic insecurity of many Americans in the lower and lower middle classes. Her father’s company keeps laying people off; her mother is working double shifts as a psychiatric nurse; her brother and his wife live in the house as well, both working grocery store jobs despite their college degrees. Lady Bird yearns to break free of the social and financial constraints of her life, to go to college in the Northeast, to experience more than her small* town can give her, so she embarks on a number of small misadventures while also secretly applying to prestigious east coast schools. (*Small is her perception; the Sacramento MSA has 2.5 million people, and the scene near the end where a college student from the east coast has never heard of it is rather ridiculous.)

Ronan is marvelous in the title role, and I would be shocked if she weren’t nominated for Best Actress at the Oscars and just about every other awards ceremony for this year. The script gives her the best material by a wide margin, including the quick emotional shifts of adolescence, and Ronan manages to inhabit this volatile world completely. Lady Bird chafes under any restraints, whether it’s her Catholic high school, the social boundaries of teenaged life, or her domineering mother. Ronan manages to inform her character with the optimism that is part of Lady Bird’s nature and allows her to succeed in spite of all of these obstacles without turning the part into a saccharine caricature.

Her mother, played by Laurie Metcalf, is really problematic – and not because the character isn’t realistic. She’s controlling, narcissistic, overly critical, manipulative, even vindictive. She also reveals in a line that appears to be a throwaway that her own mother was “an abusive alcoholic.” She herself is clearly a victim of trauma, and tries to control her environment – including her daughter – as an ineffective coping mechanism. She obsesses over clothes being put away, over Lady Bird using a second towel after her shower, over her grammar or spelling in a handwritten note, over anything that threatens the precise calibration of her life. The writing and the performance are strong and consistent enough that it’s then hard to accept moments near the very end of the film where she tries to show her love for her daughter; they seem to come from a totally different character. Metcalf delivers the best performance of all of the actors playing adults in the film, but I found Tracy Letts, playing Lady Bird’s father, more compelling because his character doesn’t have the improbable personality split of the mother.

The adults, though, are the film’s biggest problem. Lady Bird has the Dawson’s Creek habit of reversing the kids and the grown-ups: The teenagers are the ones who have it all figured out and the adults are the ones still screwing things up or just generally not understanding. It’s truer of the side characters, but it doesn’t do the central character any favors to have her appear more insightful than every adult she encounters. The kids receive the best dialogue and the more accurate worldview – other than Kyle, one of the boys Lady Bird dates, who is busy fighting the battle of who could care less – and in many cases, like Lady Bird, her best friend Juliet, or Danny, another boy she dates, they’re truly three-dimensional and believable, to the point where you could build new stories around any of them (although Juliet does fall into the Fat Best Friend cliché).

The movie soars on the performance and writing of its lead, enough to overcome some of the more hackneyed elements of her environment, and I think that’s why it managed to set that Rotten Tomatoes record – even if you identify the flaws in the script, the core of the movie is so good that it more than mitigates the negatives. Watching this precocious but naïve character navigate her last year of high school and deal with an emotionally abusive mother while stretching for an unlikely escape across the country is more than enough to make Lady Bird worth recommending. I may just be outside the consensus that this is among the year’s very best films.

Get Out.

Get Out (amazoniTunes) remains one of the top-reviewed movies of the year seven months after its initial release, despite multiple factors working against it: It’s a horror film, it was released in a dead spot in the calendar, and it was written and directed by an African-American man. The film has been a critical and commercial success, and is now the highest-grossing movie with an African-American director, along with a hilarious 99% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. (And even that might be misleading; one of the two “negative” reviews is a 3/5 rating from a non-professional critic, while the other is noted gadfly Armand White.)

I’ve said several times here that I avoid most entries in the horror genre, almost entirely out of a dislike of graphic violence. The modern trend of “torture porn” and body horror may have its audience – sociopaths and prospective serial killers, I ssume – but I am not of it. The handful of horror movies I’ve seen and liked have been psychological or gothic horror films; I often cite The Others as one of my favorites, because it’s creepy as hell, wonderfully acted, and free of violence.

Get Out does have some blood and a not insignificant body count, but it is very much a psychological horror movie, and even takes pains to keep the worst of the violence off-screen. The horror within the movie preys on our fear of mortality, our questions about identity, and racial guilt and animus, but not outright violence. There are unoriginal elements within the film, and one horror-movie cliché so pervasive I caught it despite limited experience with the genre, but the script as a whole is tight, unified, and clever, tackling subtle racism with a story that starts out equally subtle before it explodes into a paranoid and utterly bonkers physical manifestation of the problem.

Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) and Rose Armitage (Alison Williams) have been dating four months and are about to head to her family’s estate so he can meet her parents. He expresses reservations because she hasn’t told her parents that her boyfriend is black, but she assures him that they’re progressive, open-minded people who would have voted for Obama for a third term if they could have (a phrase her father, played by Bradley Whitford, repeats almost verbatim). When they do arrive there, Chris notices that the family employs a few black servants who speak and move with a strangely flat affect, while Rose’s mother (Catherine Keener) appears hellbent on hypnotizing Chris to cure him of his smoking habit. She later manages to do this, seemingly without his knowledge, in the middle of his first night there.

When the family hosts a big garden party the next day, the various older white guests make all manner of peculiar, racial (but not always overtly racist) comments towards Chris, while the one black guest, a young man named Logan who arrives with a much older white woman, is ‘off’ the way the servants are, and completely loses his composure when Chris takes his picture, as the flash triggers a total change in his demeanor and he attacks Chris while growling at him “get out!” Chris sends the picture to his friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery), who is a combination of Smart Brother and Conspiracy Brother, and Rod informs him that Logan is actually Andre, who had gone missing from their neighborhood six months earlier. After that, the movie largely confirms that everything that looked amiss is very much so, and then some, with a quick transition from psychological suspense to outright horror that works because the story is so tightly written up to that point.

The script works as a straight story, with a few jump scares along the way, but succeeds more by taking the stereotype of the “post-racial” white progressive and turning it inside out, using metaphor to expose such people as fakes or flakes – people who don’t really believe what they spout, or who simply fail to back up what they say when real action is required. Rod is the most dependable person in Chris’s life, and is essential to Chris’ hopes of escape at the end of the film, while one by one the “nice” white people Chris has met end up betraying him. You could even take Peele’s example of Logan/Andre as a warning about assimilation, about losing one’s identity and culture in an effort to fit into “American” culture and society by conforming to white norms and standards.

The remainder of this review contains possible spoilers.

The escape sequence of Get Out is taut and surprisingly focused on Chris’s psychological state, and has him relying on his mental skills at least as much as his physical to try to get himself out of the house. The one cliché I mentioned earlier appears here – the person who was pretty definitely dead suddenly appearing, not dead, and at full strength, despite (in this case) suffering a rather traumatic head injury – as if Peele needed one more person for Chris to fight before he could get out of the building. That same scene ends with an off-screen death that recalled Chris Partlow’s murder of Bug’s father near the end of The Wire season 4, but with all of the violence here left off screen, whereas the HBO series made the killing more visible and graphic. Even when Chris does one of the dumb things that the protagonists in horror films do, a choice involving Georgina, it’s at least well-founded in his character’s history and further explained through flashbacks at the moment of the decision (which turns out to be the wrong one, of course).

The core conceit of the film also struck me as a direct allusion to (or lift from) Being John Malkovich, which made the casting of Keener, who earned a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her work in the earlier film. BJM is more of a clever idea than a fully-realized film, like a short story that couldn’t bear the weight of two hours of plot, while Get Out turns the story over and makes the Malkovich analogue the center of the film, while actually finishing the story off properly. So while the central gimmick is not original, Peele manages to do in his first produced script to what Charlie Kaufman (who wrote BJM) didn’t do until his third, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which won Kaufman the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. The idea at the heart of Get Out may not have been Peele’s, but he turned it into a complete work with a clear resolution.

Peele has also spoken since the film was released about alternate endings he’d considered, one of which he filmed and most of which were darker than the one we get on screen, but I’ll stand up for the script as it was actually filmed. The film asks whether black Americans can depend on whites at all to help them achieve or move towards equality, and answers it with an unequivocal ‘no.’ The ending we get at least implies that black Americans can reach those goals, but only by helping themselves, and doing so in rather heroic fashion, relying on their wits more than they do the stereotyped physical qualities that the Armitages and their ilk ascribe to African-Americans.

After hearing multiple warnings about the nature of the end of the film, I thought Get Out chose the high road in presenting a horror-film sequence with more emphasis on what’s happening in Chris’s head than what’s happening to all the bodies, including his, and I enjoyed the movie far more than I expected. The film is also boosted by some strong performances, especially Kaluuya (born in England, but nailing the American accent), Williams, Keener, and especially Howery, whose role is largely comic but absolutely fills up the screen whenever he appears and delivers by far the movie’s funniest line near its end.

I imagine, given the critical acclaim for the film and the criticism of the 2014 and 2015 Oscar nominee slates for the lack of persons of color among major nominees, that this film will be the rare horror movie to find itself with an Academy Award nomination, perhaps for Best Original Screenplay, and likely a Best Original Score nod for Michael Abels. As far as I can tell, The Exorcist is the only straight horror movie to earn a Best Picture nod – even Rosemary’s Baby didn’t get one – so there’s an outside chance we’ll see some history made if Get Out does the same. It would be an incredible outcome for a movie that had so many factors working against it before its release.

Dunkirk.

Dunkirk, directed by Christopher Nolan (Inception, Memento) and starring every good-looking British man under the age of 40, tells a fictionalized story of the evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk, France, in 1940, after German forces routed the combined allied troops and pinned them in on a small section of France’s northwest coast. Ordinary British citizens sailed their small vessels, including fishing boats and other pleasure craft, across the English channel and rescued an entire army – over 800 such boats evacuating over 330,000 troops. It would seem an impossible tale had it not actually happened.

Nolan’s script contains very little dialogue – I’m hard-pressed to recall a live-action film with less – and lets the tripartite story drive the film, with intertwined narratives focused on land (the evacuating soldiers, especially one who’s late to the beach and trying any which way to get out), sea (a father and son plus the son’s friend, sailing across the Channel to try to aid the rescue), and air (three Spitfire pilots battling the Germans). The connections seem tenuous at first, but the narratives all collide as the film progresses and their separate timelines begin to converge with the arrival of the small boats at the mole (causeway) at Dunkirk beach.

The script thus gives us little about most of the characters, and many are left unnamed within the film itself. One pilot is only seen with his mask on until his final scene near the end of the film. Kenneth Branagh, a favorite actor of mine who isn’t afraid to chew a little scenery when given the chance, is marvelously understated throughout as Commander Bolton. Oscar winner and Shakespearean actor Mark Rylance plays the civilian sailor Mr. Dawson with similar restraint, the embodiment of British stiff-upper-lip-ness in repeated crises as they sail toward France. Harry Styles – yes, Harry Freaking Styles – is one of the few young soldiers to stand out in spite of the paucity of dialogue, even overshadowing Fionn Whitehead, another acting neophyte who plays the fleeing soldier in the “land” narrative.

The script may be subtle, but the film isn’t; watching this in a theater was an extremely loud and incredibly close experience, with perspective shifts and wobbly camera shots that immerse the viewer in the action, often to an uncomfortable extent. (If you’re claustrophobic and/or have a fear of drowning, you might give this film a miss.) War movies often break the tension by shifting to planning scenes, away from the action, where old men in brass buttons plan the deaths of thousands by moving miniatures on a tabletop map, but Dunkirk never leaves the corridor from England, which we only see from Mr. Dawson’s boat, across to France, moving us from sky to sea to land and back but never pulling us far from soldiers in peril.

Nolan skirts some dangerous lines in the script, giving us Chekhov’s gun in the form of airplane fuel tanks, but writing his way out of obvious endings in two of the three main strands. He doesn’t shy away from the brutality of the conflict, with German aircraft bombing beach and ships even though these are retreating forces with little to no ability to defend themselves, yet there’s a clear effort here to keep the blood offscreen – one assumes because that would detract from the story Nolan is trying to tell and appeal to the baser instincts of those in the audience who mistakenly wandered into the theater while looking for the next Saw installment. The body count is high, even if they’re mostly redshirts, but the horror here has to come from the actors’ expressions and the constant sense of confinement, in ships’ holds, in a tiny airplane cockpit, or even on a wide-open beach that is a perfect shooting gallery for German dive-bombers. The one slight misstep, the thread that leads the ending’s one real nod to sentiment, essentially sacrifices a side character for the plot value of his death, but it’s the only time Nolan submits to that impulse and it at least has the good grace to stay out of the way of the remainder of the plot.

There’s an organic nature to the script that ultimately takes Dunkirk from good movie to great, as Nolan thinks more like a novelist than a screenwriter here. Knowing the history of the evacuation, Nolan creates sets of circumstances for each character or group, and then sees how they react to the stresses under which he places them. We get three pilots who have three differing reactions to disasters in the air. We see a wide variety of soldiers reduced to scrapping for places on ships, refusing to rescue others, or threatening to turn a soldier over to the enemy to make room on a boat. Mr. Dawson and his crew are tested repeatedly, and he becomes the stoic heart of the film, standing in for the hundreds upon hundreds of British men of all ages who risked their own lives to bring the boys home.

It’s early to forecast honors for any film, but I will throw out there right now that I think Dunkirk has to be the favorite for that SAG “best ensemble cast” award, or whatever it’s called, given in lieu of a proper “best picture” honor. Also, I was sure I saw an uncredited Una Stubbs – that’s Mrs. Hudson from Sherlock – on one of the boats, but IMDB tells me it’s an actress named Kim Hartman. But there is an uncredited appearance via voice only that I won’t spoil beyond saying every film is better for having this actor say a few words in it.