Seven professors from the Liberal Arts faculty and the Director of the Writing Center offer insight on which Oscar nominated films they think will (or won't) win. From Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri to Darkest Hour, read these faculty members' perspectives on some of the biggest movies of the past year.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: Redemptive Acts
Elizabeth Bookser Barkley, Ph.D.
Professor of English
“It’s gritty,” a friend warned me when I told her I planned to see this movie. I was going because I love Frances McDormand, who plays Mildred Hayes, a mother out to find her daughter’s murderer. I wasn’t prepared for the anger seething through the film. The billboards announce a violent back story: “Raped while dying.” “Still no arrests.” “How come, Chief Willoughby?” There are no flashbacks to show us the daughter’s violent death, but the violence piles up, as we meet a deputy who delights in beating local African Americans and throwing the billboard salesman out the window. Mildred’s rage peaks as she hurls bombs into the police station. My friend of the “gritty” warning told me she had not liked the movie because “it didn’t hang together.” For me it did.
Several reviewers have noted the townspeople’s resemblance to Flannery O’Connor’s “grotesque” or “freakish” southern characters. Her stories are sometimes violent or shocking, but at the heart is her belief that every person can be redeemed. “There is something in us,” she writes, “as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored.” There are plenty of outrageous acts of ordinary “fallen” people in this film, but, despite the ugliness, there are glimpses of forgiveness and redemption. By the film’s end, I was more uplifted than outraged or offended. “The redemptive act” had the last word.
Lady Bird: All the Feels
Kate Lassiter, PhD
Associate Professor of Religious & Pastoral Studies
Nominated in five categories—Best Picture, Actress, Supporting Actress, Director, and Original Screenplay—the film is charming, heartbreaking, smart, and funny. Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan), the central character Christine’s self-given name, is a senior enrolled in her Sacramento, California, Catholic high school in 2002. Called a “coming-of-age comedy” by The Guardian and a “love letter to Catholic schools” by The Washington Post, Director and Writer Greta Gerwig’s screenplay showcases the emotional labor and longing of stepping into adulthood. Lady Bird wants to go to a college on the East Coast; she falls in love with the school’s musical theater star, Danny, and then Kyle, the seemingly over-read, too cool kid who is in a band; she and her best friend, Julie, play together and squabble together. However, the real contribution of Gerwig’s film is the intense and honest portrayal of Lady Bird’s passionate but conflictual relationship with her mother, Marion. Like her daughter, Marion is also coming-of-age, and wants to both protect her daughter as well as give her freedom to become her best self.
Lady Bird stole my heart. She also stole my high school look, with her gray, pleated uniform skirt, floor-sweeping pink prom gown, and choker necklaces. I think the Academy forgot two critical categories if my memories of Bishop Ireton High School are illustrative, at all: Makeup and Hair, and Costume Design.
Director and Writer Greta Gerwig
Stars Saoirse Ronan, Odeya Rush, Kathryn Newton, Timothée Chalamet, Laurie Metcalf
Darkest Hour: Big Smoke
Jeffrey Hillard, M.F.A.
Professor of English
I was amazed at Winston Churchill's ability to chain-smoke cigars. I've known a few cigarette chain- smokers, but never such a heavy cigar smoker as the Churchill portrayed by actor Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour. I kept counting those stogies and lost count. Churchill had a bottomless stash. He also had an impressive stash of scotch whisky (and brandy). Churchill was also one of the most profound political leaders in the 20th century. He gets much credit for saving England from the Nazis in World War II. To his colleagues in Parliament, his passionate politics were a rambling mix of odd astuteness butting up against recklessness. Churchill’s wisdom was not entirely recognizable until Germany’s defeat.
Oldman brilliantly consumes the character of Churchill in a performance reminiscent of Daniel Day-Lewis’ portrayal of Abraham Lincoln in 2012's Academy Award-winning Lincoln. As Churchill focuses on his surprise succession to Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister of England in 1940, the movie shifts between his struggles in Parliament and with King George VI, and his growing despair toward Nazi Germany's probable takeover of Western Europe. As we know, England and its allies beat Hitler. Darkest Hour is a character study, and it’s a decent bet that Oldman wins an Academy for Best Actor. He already won a Golden Globe. Unforgettable is Oldman's manipulation of an emotional, bawdy, needy, and stubborn-to-the-point-of-rebellious Churchill. I can't aspire to know British politics in 1940. But, I enjoyed a quarreling Parliament. While Churchill clung to his principles and cigars, the British political machinery squirmed thinking about Hitler closing in. Churchill never wavered. Darkest Hour elevates Churchill's steely resolve so that we see an austere intensity of decision-making rarely captured on the big screen. The movie is more than Gary Oldman's tribute to Churchill. When the smoke clears for film historians, we'll see that this was Gary Oldman's own penultimate film, his unmistakable command performance.
Get Out: Cultural Hypnotism
Elizabeth Taryn Mason, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of English
I must confess that my mom, who will be 75 years old in May, told me to see this movie. I begin with this confession, because it is evidence that Jordan Peele’s film Get Out defies every convention of the horror genre. The film deftly balances suspense and mystery with a dash of paranoia and a good lot of cultural criticism and I watched the film marveling over the fact that my mother loved this movie. The film begins as Rose (played by Allison Williams) watches while her boyfriend Chris (played by Daniel Kaluuya) packs a bag to accompany her home to meet her parents for the first time. As he packs, Chris asks Rose whether or not her parents know that he is black. She admits that they don’t, tells Chris that race doesn’t matter to her parents, says her father will be proud to tell him that he would’ve voted for Barack Obama for a third term if he’d had the chance. I’m paraphrasing here, but you get the idea that this conversation sets the stage for, perhaps, an awkward introduction.
I don’t want to give too much away. Much of what works in this film, works because a viewer doesn’t know what’s coming next. I’ll just say this: what makes this film brilliant is the way that it toys with the viewer, makes a viewer wonder if Chris detects a hint of genuine racial friction or whether he’s simply imagining things that aren’t there. The genius in the film is how even the film’s title works on myriad levels. A guest at a family party seems to attack Chris and tells him to “Get Out.” It feels a bit like rejection, like Chris is being told he doesn’t belong with the other party guests, but it also resonates like a warning for Chris to save himself. Rose’s mother (played by Catherine Keener) is a hypnotist and in one scene, she hypnotizes Chris. Ostensibly, she is helping him quit smoking, but, once he’s under, she digs deep and puts him in a space that she calls the “sunken place”; it’s depicted as a space-like ripple in the universe, where Chris can neither move nor speak. This underscores a feeling that we get early in the film. On their way to Rose’s parents’ estate, Rose hits a deer. When a police officer comes to help, he somewhat aggressively asks Chris for his license even though he wasn’t driving. Rose intervenes, argues with the cop, while Chris is acquiescent. He cannot speak or move the way that Rose can. It’s a razor sharp commentary on the ways in which some cultural norms are hypnotic, followed by rote motor rather than any kind of specific agency. The effect is stunning, haunting, more than a little bit unnerving, just like the sensation Chris feels after being hypnotized: Rose’s mom is literally in his head. Get Out is the one movie that I’ve seen that I simply cannot get out of my head.
Darkest Hour: Never Give In
Peter Robinson, Ph.D.
Professor of History
Winston Churchill was certain that history would be kind to him for, as he said, “I propose to write that history myself.” Old Winnie had no part in writing Darkest Hour, but he nevertheless would be pleased with this worshipful slice of history about England’s iconic prime minister during the earliest days of World War II. As for me, while I do not think it Best Picture material, I liked the movie a lot.
Its considerable entertainment value aside, perhaps the film’s greatest service is in reminding us that nothing about history is preordained. Be the endings happy or horrific, history hinges on actions played out in real time through the strengths and weaknesses of fallible human beings. While we know the outcome from the start, that England survived and emerged victorious from the war in large part because of the “blood, toil, tears, and sweat” inspired by Churchill’s leadership, in May 1940 no one else did. Churchill was considered no lion heart then, but rather a delusional drunkard who could not see that England had no choice but to negotiate peace with the diabolically powerful Nazi Germany. It was only after false starts and some very dark hours indeed, that Churchill was able to mobilize himself and the nation to fight on and “never give in” (words with which the Mount after Lauren Hill can especially identify).
One more thing: given his last name, you might not think it a big stretch for boyish-looking Gary Oldman to fill Churchill’s jowls (though Oldman now is only seven years younger than Churchill was at the war’s start), but his performance is magnificent. Churchill was so close to a caricature in real life that it’s hard not to play him as a cartoon, but Oldman has found the nuance beneath the makeup.
Timothée Chalamet in Call Me by Your Name: Keep your eye on this one
Drew Shannon, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of English
Every so often, I see a film where an unknown actor appears on the screen and I am riveted. They have “it,” whatever “it” is at that particular moment. Such an actor is Timothée Chalamet, nominated for Best Actor at the tender age of twenty-two for his beautifully honest performance in Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name, an adaptation of André Aciman’s coming-of-age novel set in the Italian countryside in the 1980s. Chalamet plays Elio, the precocious seventeen-year-old son of an American academic whose dissertating graduate student Oliver (Armie Hammer) comes to stay with the family for the summer. What develops between the two men unfolds in slow, exquisite, blissfully romantic, languidly-paced scenes, punctuated by the hum of cicadas and the sounds of splashing water in the pool. Chalamet’s performance is the core of the film: rarely off screen, he fully inhabits the role of Elio, down to the awkwardness of his limbs, the looseness of his gait, the alternation between painful earnestness and snarky teen ambivalence. The swooning and angst of being a teenager has rarely been captured on screen with such authenticity, and with so little artifice. Chalamet, who also appears in this year’s Lady Bird and Hostiles, is a talent to watch: apparently fearless, he seems able to do just about anything. It’s unlikely that Chalamet will take home the Oscar. Given his age, the Academy will most likely decide that the nomination is enough and give the award to Gary Oldman, a non-winning multiple-nominee who’s played everyone from Sid Vicious to Dracula to (currently, in Darkest Hour) Winston Churchill. But watch Call Me by Your Name’s heartbreaking final shot and tell me Chalamet doesn’t deserve the award for that moment alone.
Coco: The Power of Lesser Music
Michael Sontag, Ph.D.
Dean, School of Arts & Humanities
Music is the driving force behind Disney/Pixar’s Coco, but the soundtrack itself falls flat. Best Song nominee “Remember Me” is key to the plot and provides touching moments in the film, but the song itself is a schmaltzy and uninspired show tune. The kids are on my side. Songwriters Lopez and Anderson-Lopez’s “Let It Go” was inescapable for any parent following the release of Frozen, but I have yet to hear a single chorus of their “Remember Me” sung in my household. The animators seem aware, portraying Ernesto de la Cruz delivering the song with a wink and a nod amidst the gaudiest spectacle Disney/Pixar could summon. If you like the style of “Remember Me” check out the works of Infante, Negrete, or Jiménez for better songs and performances.
Perhaps the disappointing soundtrack is part of the message: even mediocre music brings color and joy to life; it creates circles of friends; it connects people within and across cultures and generations; it is a way to prove and to express oneself; it is a safe outlet for adolescent rebellion and a transcendent means of communication for moments when words fail.
The Shape of Water: Brilliant and Beautiful
Karl Zuelke, Ph.D.
Director, The Writing Center
I was stunned by how beautiful The Shape of Water is. It has a several brilliant performances, including Sally Hawkins as the non-speaking custodian in a Cold War-era research facility who makes friends with (and becomes the lover of) an aquatic humanoid creature. Three performances have been nominated for Academy Awards. Doug Jones, does a remarkable job as the creature himself, aided by special effects that make his eyes so wonderfully compelling. The story is a take on some classic fairy tale motifs and classic monster movies (especially The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and Beauty and the Beast). But more than the story or performances, it's the cinematography and production design that I can't shake. These elements of the movie have garnered Academy Award nominations as well. This movie is gorgeous. I always love a well-designed period film anyway, and this one captures the ambience of a big city in the 1960s as well as any I’ve ever seen, but it in a way that doesn’t neglect the fantastical elements of the story. The contrast between the flashing neon and nighttime traffic of the city streets, and the rich, dark woodwork of the main character’s apartment somehow makes the stark blue-green tiles of the research facility, with all its blinking early-60s tech, seem imbued with a strange mystery. A work of art can sometimes help focus our attention back on things we've taken for granted or forgotten, in this case the visual richness of a big city in 1962, the beauty of rain and clear water, but especially in this case that subdued bluish green color which saturates a couple of the film's locales. The color I’m talking about isn’t the “teal” we see nowadays. It’s more somber, grayer, and in the 50s and into the 60s, it was everywhere. They called it “aqua.” You'll never see that muted blue-green the same way again. I loved this movie. Look for it to be a big winner at this year’s awards.