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 Handmaiden.

A psychological and erotic thriller built around a classic con story, the South Korean film The Handmaiden made a number of critics’ top ten lists for 2016, but wasn’t even submitted by the Korean Film Council for consideration for the 2016 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film even after the film was generally praised on release at Cannes that year. Directed by Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, Thirst), The Handmaiden manages to combine a double-cross story worthy of Hitchcock, a drawing-room mystery worthy of Charlotte Heyer, and erotica worthy of Cinemax into a single, stunningly shot film that still manages to compel even as Park’s train wobbles off the tracks in its final third. It’s free on amazon prime and can be rented via iTunes.

Adapted from the novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, The Handmaiden is told in three parts, beginning with the story of Sook-hee, a peasant thief who is recruited by the con artist “Count” Fujiwara to become handmaiden to a wealthy heiress and convince the ingenue to marry the fake count so he can then dump her in an insane asylum and make off with her money. Sook-hee agrees after negotiating a better cut of the proceeds for herself, only to fall in love with her mark, Hideko, and lose her commitment to the con. No one’s motives are truly clear here, and Lady Hideko’s uncle isn’t merely the reclusive rare book collector he appears to be; once the first part of the con is revealed, the narrative shifts back to the beginning and shows much of the same material with missing details restored. Everything you see in part one has a purpose, even if it takes most of the film to discover it.

The con drives the plot, but the power of The Handmaiden resides in the scenery and the lead performances. The film is gorgeously shot, from the uncle’s mansion to the Japanese gardens even to the night scenes among the trees, with Park manipulating light and dark or introducing bursts of color to enact quick shifts in tone. There are very obvious parallels to Hitchcock’s Rebecca, and there are scenes in the gardens on the estate where you’d expect to see the girl from Fragonard’s The Swing swaying to and fro.

Kim Tae-ri, making her feature film debut as Sook-hee, nails the urchin’s mixture of overconfidence and naivete, while Ha Jung-woo is perfect as the suave, unctuously charming con man Fujiwara. (The two are both in the upcoming South Korean drama 1987, about the student protests that year that brought down South Korea’s military regime.) Kim Min-hee won several awards for her portrayal of Hideko, perhaps the most thankless role of the three because so much of the script requires her to act numb, although the character gains complexity once the depravity of her uncle becomes apparent in part two; her role just seems less demanding, other than the makeup and hair she’s required to wear while Hideko delivers readings of the books in her uncle’s collection.

The film would almost certainly have received an NC-17 rating here for the two sex scenes between Sook-hee and Hideko, which some critics have tabbed “soft porn” but which would probably escape remark if they involved a hetero pairing. If there’s something objectionable here, it’s the scenes’ length, or some of the dialogue, perhaps badly translated, from Sook-hee that I think was supposed to show that she’s just as naive as Hideko. (Waters herself defended the scenes, saying the women are appropriating a very male pornographic tradition and that queer audiences welcomed them.) Establishing the attraction between the two women as genuine is critical for the credibility of the overall story, and while the second scene is probably too long by half, skipping them entirely would have left the film worse off. The movie’s conclusion, however, brings the off-screen violence from implication to reality with a needlessly grisly torture scene that would have survived just as well without showing us any severed fingers; I haven’t read the novel but I believe that scene was Park’s invention.

I doubt any film would have topped The Salesman for the Best Foreign Language Oscar, given the political circumstances around the latter’s nomination, but I would rank The Handmaiden above the four other nominees. You can argue it’s pornographic, but I think those scenes are both transgressive and true to the original author’s intent; the violence is far more disturbing and less essential to the plot. And the plot is reason enough to watch the film – it’s an old con done up in a new way, with double dealing and secret schemes, by actors who fully inhabit the devious characters they’re portraying. It’s easily among my top ten movies of last year.