Graduation.

As a kid, I was always fascinated by maps, and especially by certain countries or parts of the world. Eastern Europe was one of those areas; the countries there all seemed more “foreign” because they were still behind the Iron Curtain (I’m old). Most of the people there speak Slavic languages that just sounded more different to my young ears, often written in different alphabets. Then you have Hungary, a country of non-Slavic people with a history and language unrelated to anyone else in Europe outside of Finland and Estonia (the latter of which wasn’t independent until I was in college), and its own complicated history of independence and subjugation. You had Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, two made-up countries resulting from international meddling and post-war treaties; neither exists any more, with Yugoslavia, at the time appearing to be the most moderate of Communist countries because its dictator, Tito, led the “non-aligned movement” of countries that declined to take sides in the Cold War. Yugoslavia comprised at least a dozen different ethnolinguistic groups, now split into seven independent countries, two of which have majority Muslim populations, two others of which speak the same language but use different alphabets for it and thus both claim they’re speaking something different. Czechoslovakia has been split into two countries, although there’s a historical third (Moravia) that appears to be gone for good. The Soviet Union itself subsumed at least nine independent countries in eastern Europe and the Caucasus, plus some short-lived entities like the Mountainous Republic of the Northern Caucasus.

And then there was Romania, another oddball in the region, the only language east of Italy where the primary language is from the Romance branch of the Indo-European language family; Romanian has evolved a more complex, Slavic-influenced grammar due to its geographic and political isolation from other Romance languages, but if you’re fluent in any of the latter you can probably gather the gist of written Romanian. Moldova, an independent country on Romania’s border, also has Romanian as its primary language, but they call it Moldovan and insist that it’s a distinct tongue. (To say nothing of the Gagauz.) Transylvania, which is totally a real place, is now part of Romania. They were briefly one of the Axis-allied nations in World War II, along with Hungary and Bulgaria, the latter of which had a real knack for picking the wrong side in world wars. The country featured the most dramatic and violent shift to democracy, executing its dictator and his equally corrupt wife on live television, and at one point appeared to have a nascent software industry that might lead to rapid economic development.

That didn’t happen, and if you wanted to know just how Romanians view their country right now, Christian Mungiu’s latest film, Graduation, paints a grim portrait where corruption is so woven into the societal fabric that nothing would function without it. Mungiu won the Palme d’Or and earned an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language film for 2007’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, and was named co-winner of the Best Director Prize at Cannes in 2016 for this movie, which Romania did not choose for its annual submission to AMPAS. (His 2012 film, Beyond the Hills, was Romania’s submission that year and made the shortlist but not the final five.)

Graduation, which is streaming on Netflix, tells a small story to explain the big theme of the rot that institutionalized corruption has caused in Romanian society. Romeo Aldea is a successful doctor in a modest city in western Romania who returned from somewhere abroad with his wife in the hopes that Romania was developing into a modern society. Their daughter, Maria, is about to take a critical test to secure her scholarship to Cambridge University in England, but the morning before the exam, she’s attacked by a would-be rapist, injuring her arm (so she can’t write easily) and traumatizing her. Romeo, who was busy with his mistress when he received the call that Maria had been hurt, decides to play the system, moving a patient up the list for a liver transplant in exchange for having his daughter’s exam graded favorably enough to retain the scholarship.

Romeo is an unpleasant fellow who would probably bristle at such criticisms; he’s even praised at one point in the film for his spotless reputation and refusal to take bribes from patients in the past. He clearly thinks he’s doing what must be done for Maria, given that this is how Romania works and that other parents wouldn’t hesitate to call in favors or pay bribes to help their kids – especially to get their kids out of the dead-end cycle the film tells us is trapping everyday Romanians in a lower-class, hopeless life. A western education at a premium university is a ticket out, and even though Maria seems to be waffling in the wake of the attack and her commitment to her shiftless boyfriend Marius, Romeo commits himself to this path, convinced he’s doing the right thing even as the situation starts to worsen around him.

The entire movie seems to take place on cloudy days in a city where every color is some shade of gray and the dominant architectural aesthetic might charitably be described as communist chic. There’s construction, but to no apparent end, and the chaos of it creates the opportunity for Maria’s attacker. A minor subplot involves Romeo’s mistress’s young son, who has a disability and may do better in a specialized public school that has no openings because they’re all reserved for siblings of current students – or for those who have paid their way in. Another thread revolves around Romeo’s affair and how his wife reacts not to the infidelity itself, which she already knew about, but to Maria’s discovery of it. Romeo still seems unfazed by the changing attitudes of everyone around him, including his daughter’s own disdain for his attempts to use the system to benefit her, because he’s so thoroughly convinced of his own correctness. And while it’s easy to condemn him from the other side of the screen, what parent among us wouldn’t bend or break a rule to help our children?

On Body and Soul.

On Body and Soul (Testről és lélekről) is one of the five nominees for this year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, the tenth time a Hungarian submission has made the final cut since they began submitting films in 1965. A film that alternates shockingly brutal imagery with a lyrical, otherworldly story about two of the shyest people you could imagine, the movie is a starmaking performance for actress Alexandra Borbély, who won the Best European Actress award in 2017 for her work here. It’s exclusively available on Netflix.

Borbély plays Maria, the new health inspector at a Hungarian cattle slaughterhouse, replacing the unseen Bori, who left early for maternity leave and appears by implication to have been a fairly lenient inspector. Maria is shy, lacks the ability to read social cues, and often seems emotionless to the workers at the facility, who make halfhearted attempts to connect with her. The factory’s CFO, Endre (Géza Morcsányi, a playwright in his first film role), is also shy and awkward, a well-meaning man who has lost the use of his left arm and keeps most of his colleagues at arm’s length. We realize before they do that the two of them are sharing the same dreams night after night, where each is a deer in a snowy forest, a fact that only becomes apparent to them when a theft at the factory leads to psychiatric interviews with all of the possible culprits. The discovery changes both of them, driving Maria to try to figure out how to relate to another person, while Endre rediscovers the sense of empathy he seems to have lost through years of disappointment.

Director/writer Ildikó Enyedi is unafraid to jar the audience with images of cattle being chained, killed, and bled, although many of these images have parallels to the strange journey of Maria and Endre, especially Maria. She has many aspects of a person with Asperger’s Syndrome or who is somewhere on the autism spectrum, although her condition is never named; these facets of her personality include extreme organization and cleanliness, which makes her perfect for her job … as long as she doesn’t have to interact with other people. Borbély, who had some TV experience and just three or four previous film roles, is marvelous in every way in this role, giving Maria both the affect-less expressions and intonations of a person who can’t read social cues or sense emotions in others, as well as the innocence, trepidation, and wonder of a child seeing or experiencing things for the first time. The role requires her to walk a tight rope to avoid Rain Man-like caricature without giving Maria too much emotion or sensibility, as if a relationship could ‘cure’ her. Even when the story hits its dramatic climax near the end, Borbély does not veer outside the character’s boundaries, reacting at one point in a matter-of-fact way to something awful that it became a darkly humorous moment instead.

Enyedi’s script offers a meditation on loneliness, especially for people who were, perhaps, not made for this world, like Maria, or who have grown tired of its letdowns, like Endre. Even with this utterly improbable link between them, the two find it difficult to communicate with or understand each other, and that disconnect threatens to leave them lonelier than they were before they discovered their shared experience. The script does lose steam a little in the final quarter of the film, because the setup is so strong – two people with no apparent connection are simultaneously dreaming the same dream, in an otherwise rational world where such a thing should be impossible. Resolving that story in an interesting way, other than simply having Maria fall into Endre’s arms, is difficult, and Enyedi gets it about halfway right. The big twist is also a bit predictable, and yet honest at the same time, because one character’s reaction to pull away from the other is understandable in the context of the film. I thought this would end up happening, but I also couldn’t tell you a more realistic resolution, either.

On Body and Soul won the Golden Bear award at the Berlin International Film Festival, as did Spirited Away, A Separation, and the 2016 documentary Fire at Sea; like A Separation, it also took the Grand prize at the Sydney Film Festival, so in theory it should have a reasonable chance at the Oscar. Instead, the betting site GoldDerby gives it the worst odds of the five nominees, with A Fantastic Woman considered the favorite – although neither that nor Loveless has played anywhere but New York or Los Angeles so far. Having seen four of the five Best Actress nominees, however, I will say Borbély more than deserved a nomination – it’s not unheard of, with Isabelle Huppert getting a nod for the French-language film Elle just last year – and I’d vote for her over both Meryl Streep and Saoirse Ronan.

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.

Stick to baseball, 12/30/17.

Since my last links post, I’ve written three Insider pieces, on Colorado signing Wade Davis, Cleveland signing Yonder Alonso, and San Francisco trading for Evan Longoria.

On the board game front, I reviewed Photosynthesis for Paste, and ranked my top ten board games of 2017 for them too. Over at Vulture I did another Best of 2017 list, looking at the best light game, heavy game, board game app, expansion, and more.

The Wall Street Journal asked me to contribute to their annual “Who Read What” series, where 50 avid readers provide one or two books that really stood out for them in the preceding year. I was specifically asked to name one work of fiction and one of non-fiction, and chose The Erstwhile and Betaball.

As always, feel free to sign up for my email newsletter, which costs you nothing and won’t clog your inbox; I’ve only sent three total in the last two months, so if anything, I should probably be sending more. And, of course, thanks to everyone who bought Smart Baseball for themselves or as a Christmas gift.

And now, the links…

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.

Logan Lucky.

Stephen Soderbergh’s retirement didn’t last very long, which is rather fortunate given how great Logan Lucky (now out on iTunes and amazon), the first film he’d directed since 2013’s Behind the Candelabra, turned out. A funny heist film filled with great dialogue and memorable characters, Logan Lucky deserved a much better fate at the box office than it received, and does a better job of channeling the vibe of his version of Ocean’s Eleven than that film’s sequel did. (I never even bothered with Thirteen.)

Channing Tatum, who was so good in a limited role in last year’s Hail Caesar, stars as Jimmy Logan, who works at a mine in West Virginia but loses his job just after the movie starts. Jimmy has a daughter, Sadie, who lives with her now remarried mother Bobbie Jo (a very gaunt Katie Holmes) but may move out of state to follow Bobbie Jo’s wealthy husband to his new job. Jimmy hatches a plan to rob the Charlotte Speedway, which apparently is right over the mine – I haven’t figured out the geography on this one either, other than that the mine must be several times longer than the Large Hadron Collider – in an elaborate scheme involving his one-armed brother, Clyde (Adam Driver); the Logans’ younger sister, hairstylist Mellie (Riley Keough); a currently in-car-cer-rate-ted explosives expert named, of course, Joe Bang (Daniel Craig); Joe’s two idiot brothers; and a few assists from other assorted friends and family members.

The plot itself is sort of wonderfully ridiculous, the kind of perfect crime that could never be that perfect in the physical universe but comes off almost charming in its Rube Goldberg sort of perfection. It’s the dialogue and the performances, especially those of Tatum and Craig, that really carry the film off. Craig is an absolute riot in the role, not quite mad bomber, but definitely a bomber and also a bit mad, smart (especially compared to his two idiot brothers, played by the sons of Brendan Gleeson and Dennis Quaid), and sometimes amusingly self-effacing. Tatum brings the charm, as he always does, but he gives Jimmy a strong resolve and belief that the plan will work, even when obstacles arise or the people around him try to convince him that it won’t. He’s somewhat used to people assuming he’s an idiot, even though he’s not one, and he seems to just play the role that’s expected of him so that one day he can take advantage of everyone’s ignorance. Dwight Yoakam excels as the fatuous prison warden who repeatedly denies that there’s anything wrong at his facility; Hilary Swank is a bit over the top as the FBI agent assigned to the case, although I thought her near-monotone delivery quickly established her character as the one person the Logan boys might have to worry about.

Not all the performances are so great, however. Driver’s attempt to do some sort of backwoods accent is distractingly bad, not least because he speaks … so … slowly … that you want to push him from the back so he gets to the end of his sentence sooner. (It’s also a bit hard to see how he and Tatum could ever come from the same gene pool.) And Seth McFarlane appears as the obnoxious (duh), unnecessarily British entrepreneur Max Chilblain, whose every word is just as painful as his surname implies, and who is wearing a dark wig of Jheri curls because I have no idea why I’m even talking about this guy. Casting him was a terrible decision and he ruins every scene he’s in.

Soderbergh and the pseudonymous writer Rebecca Blunt (likely Soderbergh’s wife, Jules Asner) keeps the pace moving between action and dialogue, never lingering too long on a scene, never worrying about establishing a Big Moment*, and infusing everything with humor. Just about every scene involving Joe Bang is funny, as are several of the scenes during and while the Logans break Bang out of prison (only to plan to return him to the facility before the day is out in a scheme within the scheme). There’s some humor at the Bang brothers’ – yeah, I know – expense, as well as a bit of a “that’s not funny, but I’m still laughing” moment involving Clyde’s prosthetic arm.

*Okay, the pageant scene near the end of the movie is probably too sentimental by half; I gave it a pass because it ties back to the scene that opens the film, and because Jimmy’s daughter is the primary reason he concocts this plan in the first place.

Logan Lucky died on the vine in theaters, despite glowing reviews and plenty of big names in the cast; it may just have been released at the wrong time, as late July is not a big movie-going time of year and this wasn’t an action flick or a blockbuster. It moves like very few movies I watched this year moved, and manages to fulfill its mission without gratuitous sex or violence, either. I suspect it’ll end up on my top 10 for 2017, or at least very close to it, whenever I end up compiling one.