Three films stood out for me in 2017: Sean Baker’s “The Florida Project,” Martin McDonagh’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” and Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird.” Unfortunately, “The Florida Project” has not been nominated for Best Picture, but the other two have. So let’s start there, right at the top.
Oscar for Best Picture
This is essentially a three-film race, as we must include Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water.” Why? Because it won the corresponding Golden Globe award, as well as several others. Let me begin by stating that I liked “The Shape of Water.” It’s on my Top Ten list for 2017 films. But I don’t think it rose to the level of “Three Billboards” and “Lady Bird.” While it’s the most mainstream picture del Toro has ever made, “The Shape of Water” is admittedly strange, as it involves a friendship between a mute cleaning lady at an aerospace research center and an underwater sea creature brought in for scientific study.
My problem is the very ending doesn’t play fair with the reality established by del Toro and co-screenwriter Vanessa Taylor. The ending would not have happened, if we accept everything that’s come before it. Furthermore, other than to use the civil rights movement as an historical backdrop, I’m not sure I fully understand the decision to set “The Shape of Water” in the early 1960s. Still, based on previous awards and insider buzz, I’m guessing the academy will bestow its top award to this film.
Of the nominated pictures, my choice is “Three Billboards,” a comically dark Coenesque yarn about a woman who uses three billboards to indict the local police chief for not solving the rape/murder of her daughter a year prior. It’s not a particularly happy set-up (and Oscar tends to prefer uplifting fare), but parts of it are funny, the acting (top to bottom) is to die for, and McDonagh’s screenplay is adept at keeping the focus on the primary story while fleshing out even the minor characters.
Oscar for Best Director
Oddly enough, McDonagh is not nominated for Best Director. That typically body-checks his film from winning Best Picture – although splits have occurred in the recent past. I believe the academy will select del Toro here, although there’s an outside chance of Greta Gerwig for “Lady Bird.” Why? Because the academy loves actors and actresses who subsequently turn to directing. To wit, Robert Redford has never won an acting Oscar; but he has for directing.
Gerwig would be my choice in this category. She took a premise (teen girl filled with angst and uncertainty about her future struggles through her senior year under the heavy hand of her loving but stern mother) that sounds like fodder for a television movie of the week and turns it into a brilliant examination of teen apprehension and mother/daughter relationships. It’s a fabulous directorial debut, and easily the best film about teens since “Juno.”
Oscar for Best Actress
Most years, the Best Picture and Best Director nominations are for those films which feature outstanding acting by males. Not so this year. 2017 may very well be known as the Year of the Actress. The lead actresses in the three films we’ve just discussed are the favorites this year. I’d have to say Sally Hawkins (as the mute cleaning lady in “The Shape of Water”) is the favorite this year, with Frances McDormand (the disgruntled mother in “Three Billboards”) a close second. Saoirse Ronan (the anxious high school senior in “Lady Bird”) is still young, and given the quality of the early work in her career (Remember “Brooklyn” a couple years ago?), is very likely to be nominated again – and soon.
While I personally believe Ronan’s performance is the best of those nominated, I’m also painfully aware that British actress Sally Hawkins gave the best performance of any actor or actress this year – but for “Maudie,” not for “The Shape of Water.” While she is stellar in “Water,” she’s always stellar. Although not a household name, Hawkins ranks with Amy Adams as our most consistently great actress of the past decade or so. In “Maudie,” she played severely arthritic Canadian folk artist Maud Lewis without resorting to a mannered or maudlin depiction.
But the academy didn’t see fit to nominate her for that film. Instead we have her almost-as-inspiring mute cleaning lady in “The Shape of Water.” My guess is she’ll win – if not because this particular performance was the best of her career, but because at this point in her career, she deserves it. McDormand won this award 21 years ago for “Fargo,” and she’s actually more focused and confident in “Three Billboards.” But I feel like this year is Hawkins’ turn. (Of course, I’ve been saying that about Amy Adams for years, and she still hasn’t won.)
I must take this opportunity to express my dismay that little six-year-old Brooklynn Kimberly Prince isn’t nominated for literally carrying what I consider to be the year’s best picture – “The Florida Project.” Add to that the fact that Jacob Tremblay wasn’t nominated two years ago for “Room” leads me to believe they don’t know what to do with child actors whose performances rival those of established stars.
Oscar for Best Actor
This is the easiest call of the year. Veteran British actor Gary Oldman walks away with this one for his heartfelt and beaming turn as Winston Churchill in Joe Wright’s “Darkest Hour.” The picture itself won’t win anything. Its plot is predictable, and the screenplay drags a little in the middle. But Oldman’s performance is spot-on. He’s my choice, and (for once) the academy will agree with me.
Again I must point out a glaring omission. Where is the nomination for the late character actor Harry Dean Stanton, whose work in his last film – John Carroll Lynch’s indie “Lucky” – was among the best of his long, distinguished career?
Oscar for Best Supporting Actor
Much as it was last year, this one’s a real race. Since last fall, I’ve thought veteran actor Willem Dafoe would be a shoo-in for his turn as the demanding but sympathetic motel manager in “The Florida Project” – a film about single mothers and their children forced to rent motel rooms while working low-paying odd jobs, because they cannot afford apartments. It’s Dafoe’s meatiest role in years, and since he’s the only identifiable star in the picture, I believe he still probably stands the best chance of winning. I also believe he deserves to win. So chalk up another agreement between the academy and me.
However, as the Oscar season has progressed I now believe this race is a toss-up between Dafoe and another veteran character actor – Sam Rockwell, for his racist but earnest sheriff deputy character in “Three Billboards.” The fact that Woody Harrelson has also been nominated for “Three Billboards” leads me to believe one of them will win. Since Rockwell has the meatier role here, it could be him. If the two actors cancel out one another, the award is Dafoe’s.
There’s also an extreme outside chance this Oscar could possibly go to Richard Jenkins for playing Sally Hawkins’ closeted gay next-door neighbor in “The Shape of Water.” Again, he’s been around awhile, he’s never given a subpar performance, and he is good here. But I believe a better choice from “Water” would have been Michael Shannon as the deliciously evil colonel who intends to harvest the underwater creature’s organs for space exploration. It’s the best performance ever for one of our consistently brilliant character actors.
And yes, this category begs yet another glaring omission? Where on earth is Ethan Hawke, for Sally Hawkins’ earthy, manipulative husband in “Maudie?”
Oscar for Supporting Actress
Allison Janney would seem to be the runaway favorite for playing figure skater Tonya Harding abusive and bitter mother in “I, Tonya.” My problem with Janney is that this is a static performance. She’s bad at the beginning; she’s bad in the middle; and she’s bad at the end. The character never moves off square one. There’s no character arc. But it’s a flashy, showy performance, and the academy likes that, even though there is a much better choice available.
If I had a vote, my hands-down choice would be Laurie Metcalf as Saoirse Ronan’s strict but loving mother in “Lady Bird.” While Ronan shines, her performance alone would not be enough to carry this film. Her character’s ying requires a corresponding yang. Metcalf provides this yang in spades. It’s the best performance of her career.
They’ll likely award Best Original Screenplay to Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor for “The Shape of Water” – for all the above-mentioned reasons. I’d take Martin McDonagh for “Three Billboards” – the most original of all screenplays of the year. This one comes out of left field, and always keeps the action one step ahead of the audience. A close second for Greta Gerwig’s well-written and well-conceived “Lady Bird.”
For Best Adapted Screenplay, my easy choice is Aaron Sorkin’s lightning-fast dialogue in “Molly’s Game” – a tragically under-nominated film about for Olympic downhill skier Molly Bloom and her rise to the top of the underground poker world. It’s a rags-to-riches-to-rags story that is reminiscent of some of Martin Scorsese’s best work. While the screenplay is the star here, Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba should have been nominated for acting Oscars, and the film should have garnered a Best Picture nod.
There’s a fair chance the academy will agree with me, given the splendid dialogue. But my money is on the well-awarded James Ivory for “Call Me by Your Name.” It’s a strong film, but not in the same league as “Molly’s Game.” The fact that “Call Me” takes seriously its gay love story may be enough for an Oscar.
Best Foreign Language Film
Unlike in the past two years, the actual best foreign-language film is among the year’s nominations. That picture is Ziad Douein’s “The Insult” – an eye-opening expose of the racial tensions faced by Palestinians in Lebanon (and presumably other Arab nations). It’s my choice, and I believe it’s so strong the academy can’t help but agree.
So there you have it. In what should be a big night for “Three Billboards” and “Lady Bird,” I’m predicting a big night for “The Shape of Water.” But the one thing I can tell you for certain is that Gary Oldman will win Best Actor.
What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear your preferences and predictions. Feel free to respond in the “Contact Us” field, or Facebook me under Andrew Ray.
Andy Ray’s reviews also appear on http://youarecurrent.com/category/nightandday/film-reviews/
and he serves as the radio film critic for http://indyboomer.com/radio/