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Another Year, Another Binge: AMC's Best Picture Showcase 2018 Review

Another Year, Another Binge: AMC's Best Picture Showcase 2018 Review

2018 Best Picture Nominees

Since 2012, when I first discovered AMC's Best Picture Showcase, every time Oscar season rolls around I've made it a point to get to at least one, and preferably both, of these epic screenings meant to prep film fans for the Academy Awards. In case you aren't familiar with it, a quick primer: AMC rolls up all of the Best Picture Nominees and screens them back to back just before Oscar night. There are two options: the two-day, held on back to back Saturdays, or the true marathon: all of the nominees - usually in the neighborhood of nine films - shown in a row. I've often made it to both of the weekends but I've never managed - ok, let's be honest, never dared - to attempt the 24 hour screening option. Alas, 2018 was also not my year for the marathon, but I did make it to both of the two-day offerings, so I am proudly looking toward tonight's Oscars having seen all of the nominees. 

Because my life involves about as many unexpected choices as Nicholas Cage's film career, this year I found myself scouting around for AMC showcase options in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where I have been a temporary resident for the past two months. Lack of selection led me to a decidedly desultory AMC location in one of BR's omnipresent suburban strip malls, surrounded by shuttered barbeque restaurants and a Starbucks with ladders stacked against its front windows and a tantalizing "coming soon!" vibe. The outside of the theater was anything but promising; however, it seems to have had an interior upgrade recently, so comfy leather recliners with reserved seating were on offer. I had selected a seat in my preferred location: slightly to the left, and maybe a tad too close for most people.

One of the amusing things about attending the Best Picture Showcase in a revolving selection of locations for the past six years has been seeing how different theaters promote and manage the screenings. Some make a big deal out of it, with welcome announcements at kickoff, special snack bar offerings, and high-energy trivia contests in between films. Some are a little more low-key but still provide giveaway posters and a host who checks in periodically with the audience. BR's AMC took things in a different direction: they did nothing. Beyond handing out day-pass lanyards and movie guide booklets at the front entrance, there was no acknowledgement that the showcase was a special event. I've sometimes found the BPS trappings to be a touch overdone, so I was surprised to find that I kind of missed the silly hoopla.

Maybe that's why I ended up stripping down my own approach to BPS this year. I usually tweet up a storm, offering mini-reviews between films and using those as a guide to put together more extensive reflections in full-length articles for each screening. This year I skipped the tweets. Here are my thoughts on this year's Best Picture Nominees.

Day One: February 24

Films:  Phantom Thread, Lady Bird, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, The Shape of Water

Phantom Thread

I went in feeling pretty ambivalent about Day One's kickoff film. I'm not much of a Daniel Day-Lewis fan - I generally find his performances too studied, too intellectual, too mannered - and the subject matter didn't particularly appeal to me. So I was surprised by how taken I was with "Phantom Thread," the story of a famous, fussy diva of a dress designer and the woman who falls in love with him and attempts to break through his emotional walls. It's an incredibly fluid story that sets up like a disastrous romance: Reynolds (Daniel Day-Lewis) is rigidly controlled and expects others in his world to conform to his strict specifications, down to ordering new love Alma (Vicky Krieps) to remove her lipstick during their first date, and later berating her about how she butters her breakfast toast. His chosen art form, clothing design, requires careful planning, exacting measurements, and precise handling of commodities, and he treats those around him as just that: commodities. They fit into his life in the roles he has assigned them, or they are dispassionately dismissed. Alma learns to navigate Reynolds's moods enough to become his live-in lover, then begins making forays into his hidden emotional landscape. There's a fantastically charged scene between them that will be heartbreakingly familiar to anyone who's ever fallen in love with someone who rebuffs true emotional connection, and all of this plays out against the sumptuously dramatic backdrop of a mid-20th century high-end couture house, where one missed order or damaged gown can spell complete disaster. But "Phantom Thread" is much more than a costume-drama romance, and subtle and utterly unexpected third-act twist reveals a wicked wit and recasts the whole undertaking - is it a psychological study? A black comedy? All of those and more at once? I'm not sure it has a shot at Best Picture, but this one's near the top of my list for 2017.

Lady Bird

I reviewed "Lady Bird" after a viewing at the 2017 Middleburg Film Festival, and I was pretty enthusiastic about it at the time. Upon second viewing it's still solid, but I might knock it back from three and a half to three stars, and I'm not sure it stands up as a Best Picture nominee. This is one of those cases where the sum of the parts may be greater than the whole: the performances are uniformly excellent, with Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf as standouts, and the directing by first-timer Greta Gerwig is effortlessly effective, but as a story it's almost too meandering and breezy. What was more apparent the second time around is just how remarkable Ms. Ronan is in the role of a prickly high school senior who resists her mother's disappointingly realistic visions for her future and fights to follow her dream of an east coast college education. I picked out so many moments - from the subtle shift in voice when Lady Bird bravely pushes herself to talk to her new crush for the first time, to the heartbreak she spills out to her mother in the car after a romantic disaster - that the young actress calibrates perfectly, without any hint of artifice or strain. She's a frontrunner for an acting award here for sure.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

I'll cut to the chase: "Three Billboards" is my top choice this year. I can't say much about it that hasn't already been said (including by BPBS's Matthew Passantino, who came back from the Toronto Film Festival raving about it), but I'll say this: it's all about the acting. From Frances McDormand's nominated role as Mildred Hayes, an edgy, grief-laden loose cannon of a mother demanding justice for her murdered daughter, to Woody Harrelson's noble but justifiably distracted small-town sheriff, and Sam Rockwell as his drunkard deputy whose emotional damage ends up scarring everyone around him, "Three Billboards" is a powerhouse collection of actors at the top of their game. The secondary roles here are also filled out by strong performers - John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage, Clarke Peters, Lucas Hedges, Zeljko Ivanek - so every frame is like an acting masterclass. Watch for McDormand and Hawkes facing off against each other as divorced parents with a ton of unhealed wounds, Dinklage's would-be suitor calling Mildred out on her bitter assumptions, and Peters cleaning up as the proverbial and literal new sheriff in town. "Three Billboards" is gritty, dark, startlingly violent, surprisingly funny, and potentially redemptive; it's a fantastic entry from director Martin McDonagh, and my favorite nominee this year.

The Shape of Water

Terrible confession time: I didn't love "The Shape of Water." I spent some time during and after the screening pondering why, and here's what I've realized: I adore Guillermo del Toro for his passionate commitment to film, and I could listen to him talk about filmmaking, film history, and film theory for hours, but I don't really connect to his work onscreen. I appreciate his willingness to take risks because I think it opens doors for other potentially genre-bending filmmakers, but I don't enjoy his films the way I expect to. They are always visually dazzling, but I find the emotional core a bit underdeveloped. That was the case with "The Shape of Water" - I was very taken with the idea that something so unconventional had not only made it to screen but was also an Academy Award nominee, but I wasn't swept away by it as I had expected to be. This story of a mute woman (Sally Hawkins) falling in love with an otherworldly sea creature (Doug Jones) is a fanciful and lovely tale, but not one I'll feel compelled to revisit. I'm conflicted: I adore Doug Jones, a talented performer who takes on incredibly challenging roles and contributes to his projects with a seemingly endless reservoir of cheerful goodwill. On the other hand, I avoid Michael Shannon whenever possible; he always seems to be out of sync with other actors in a scene, and I find him overly grim under the best of circumstances. Sometimes you just have a gut reaction to a film, and my gut wasn't buying this one. Love that the Academy took a risk on it, but not my choice for film of the year.

Day Two: March 3

Films: Dunkirk, Darkest Hour, Call Me By Your Name, The Post, Get Out


Another honest moment: "Dunkirk" kicked off Day Two of the showcase, and I wasn't there. I thought long and hard about letting myself off the hook on this one, and although I'd given it a strong review I just didn't want to sit through a second viewing of director Christopher Nolan's time-skewed telling of the evacuation of British troops from the shores of battle-scarred France by a fleet of civilian watercraft during World War II. This was another one where I appreciated the craftsmanship and dedication that went into the product, but I didn't connect with it. However, a lot of viewers did, and this combination of classic epic with indie filmmaker twist may be enough to put it over the top as "Best Picture." Still, it doesn't get my vote.

Darkest Hour

Watching Gary Oldman give the performance of his career in "Darkest Hour" led me to the conclusion that this year's Oscar race is really less about cohesively strong films, and more about films that stand out for their strong performances and thus are buoyed into the Best Picture category. Mr. Oldman's performance is the beating heart of this historical retelling of Winston Churchill's role in turning around the British strategy against Hitler as German troops crushed central Europe and encroached on France, intent on parlaying victory there into an invasion of Britain. The veteran actor virtually vanishes into the role of the Prime Minister, nimbly avoiding the temptation to overplay Churchill's famously verbose outbursts and thus providing a realistic portrait rather than a potential caricature. There's a scene on the London Underground when Churchill, who's never been on public transportation, makes a point to connect with his people and read their mood before his major strategic address to Parliament - it's sweet and unexpected and further humanizes this larger-than-life figure, and the payoff is nicely underplayed. Other elements of the film inevitably fade against Mr. Oldman's performance, though it's beautifully shot with occasionally clever flourishes, particularly when we see related outside elements in quick montage rather than dwelling solely on Churchill during his speeches, and an old-fashioned calendar flip and ominously tolling bells that effectively convey the oppressive passage of time as important matters of military strategy are being decided. Perhaps the strongest male performance of the year, but not an overall winner for Best Picture.

Call Me By Your Name

This is a tough one to write about. The summary is simple: teenager falls in love with visiting grad student during a drowsy summer in France. The fact that the teenager and the grad student are both male might label it as a gay love story, but "Call Me By Your Name" is so much more universal than that. The film handles the concepts of first love, unrequited passion, forbidden connection, youthful longing, temptation, and soul connection with an aching honesty, and it's beautifully acted, not only by Timothee Chalamet, rightfully nominated as Best Actor, and Armie Hammer, perhaps overlooked as a Best Supporting Actor nominee, but also by Michael Stuhlbarg, whose closing monologue should be printed out and carried as a panacea by anyone fighting to come to terms with a broken heart and choosing how to live with the shattering shards of memories of a lost love. "Call Me By Your Name" is sensual and sensitive, it's gorgeously photographed and surprisingly subtle: there's a lot that goes unsaid as the two lovers fall for each other and find a way to connect during their summer together, and I keep coming back to how wise this film is about love and pain and desire and choices and reality. I'm not sure how it will fare in the final race, but this one is a close second choice for me as Best Picture of the year.

The Post

Do you remember what I said a few paragraphs ago about films that make it into the Best Picture pool on the strength of their performances but not much else stands out? I'd put "The Post" in that category next to "Darkest Hour." Here it's Meryl Streep's performance as Kay Graham, the publisher of the Washington Post, the capital's newspaper at the time that secrets were starting to come out in the early 70s about the Vietnam War, that stands out while other elements of the film fade into the background. Faced with a choice about whether to publish classified government material about the war, Graham must weigh the potential impact on the paper's investors, its employees, and on the nation itself. It's a compelling story, though it pales in comparison to the similarly themed "Spotlight," the Best Picture winner from 2015 that told the story of the Boston Globe's investigation of the church's knowledge of pedophile priests. Tom Hanks co-stars as Post editor Ben Bradlee, but it's a subdued performance and more of a supporting role next to Ms. Streep. "The Post" tells an important story effectively, and there are some other strong performances here, including Bob Odenkirk as Ben Bagdikian and Bruce Greenwood as Robert McNamara, but in the end it's a bit of a beige undertaking overall. Solid viewing, but not a contender for Best Picture.

Get Out

I was really excited about "Get Out" when I initially reviewed it, and subsequent viewings have reinforced my great impressions of this smart, incisive hybrid: it's a horror movie that continues the fine tradition of couching social commentary in sudden scares and cathartic laughs. Director Jordan Peele parlays the sharp eye and strong writing skills he honed as part of the comedy duo Key and Peele into this story of Chris, a young black man who's about to be introduced to his white girlfriend's family for the first time at a weekend getaway to their country home. Social awkwardness ensues and it's funny then puzzling then creepy then terrifying. It's tough to figure out where this one will land in the Best Picture race, as horror is a traditionally overlooked genre when it comes to Oscar wins. But Mr. Peele is a strong contender for Best Director, and I'd love to see him walk away with the gold tonight.

Alright, those are my thoughts on the Best Picture nominations from 2017. As I usually say at the end of these articles, on to the Oscars!

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