Ranking the 2017 Best Picture Nominees
What are the odds two films about the WWII Battle of Dunkirk would top the list?
By Todd Hill
Back when I was an official, full-time film critic (remember those?), I had the privilege of screening each year’s eventual Oscar nominees for Best Picture several months before they were chosen. Consequently, the nominations were rarely surprising, but frequently disappointing, since I had also seen a number of other deserving films that failed to land a nod.
Now I have to watch the Academy Award nominees for Best Picture like most people — well, most people never get around to watching them all. I typically don’t see any of the titles until after the nominations have been announced, and many I don’t view until the top prize has been awarded.
Armchair-quarterbacking the Oscar voters has always been a tiresome affair. But there’s something to be said for ranking 2017’s Best Picture nominees strictly in terms of personal preference, which is what I’ve done below (along with just a little armchair-quarterbacking).
What if a director of superhero movies attempted something like “Saving Private Ryan?” Would “Dunkirk” be the result? Christopher Nolan, who helmed three Batman movies from 2005–12, dramatizes one of World War II’s early turning points — and a historic humiliation for Great Britain — with an obvious flair for exaggerated peril, but if that doesn’t describe the pell-mell evacuation of British troops from France’s northern coast with Hitler on their heels, I don’t know what does. It’s apparent in every frame of “Dunkirk” that this is a technical tour de force of filmmaking, and I can’t remember the last time I saw a movie this well edited. Someone said they learned more about Dunkirk from five minutes of “Darkest Hour” than the entirety of “Dunkirk.” No doubt, but that’s beside the point. Nolan’s picture is meant to be immersive and exceptionally disorienting, sensations shared by those who were part of the retreat. Mission accomplished.
Oscar nominations, 8 — Best Picture, Director (Christopher Nolan), Cinematography, Score, Production Design, Film Editing, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing. Oscar wins, 3 — Film Editing, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing.
Before history actually becomes history, it’s anything but inevitable. Winston Churchill may not have been the first choice to lead Great Britain to victory in World War II, but he was available. And once chosen, he rose to the occasion. “Darkest Hour” — oddly enough, the second of 2018’s Best Picture nominees focused on the Dunkirk evacuation — is a straight-ahead hagiography. It’s unashamedly adulatory. And while this is a genre that basically amounts to connect-the-dots filmmaking, it can also be very effective when it’s done right. Gary Oldman fully deserves the Academy Award for Best Picture he won for portraying Churchill. And while extensive makeup does much of the work here (Oldman in real life looks nothing like the British prime minister), the audience isn’t distracted by it. “Darkest Hour,” which takes its name from a Churchill speech, is suffused with a palpable dread in the face of the Nazi threat. There was even serious talk of surrender. Again, victory over the Axis was far from assured.
Oscar nominations, 6 — Best Picture, Actor (Gary Oldman), Production Design, Cinematography, Makeup and Hairstyling, Costume Design. Oscar wins, 2 — Actor, Makeup and Hairstyling.
So many people gushed about writer/director Greta Gerwig’s ability to hit it this far out of the park on her first feature that it began to seem patronizing, not just to Gerwig but to all female filmmakers as well as their gender. Women represent half our population; they would undoubtedly make all manner of marvelous movies if Hollywood would just let them. This coming-of-age story about a teenage girl in Sacramento, Calif., feels deliberately ordinary at first glance, but it’s that familiarity that makes it special. The title character, portrayed by Irish actress Saoirse Ronan, is surrounded by people — teachers, guidance counselors, her mother — who insist she isn’t particularly special, that she should lower her expectations. The mother, played by Laurie Metcalf in an Oscar-nominated performance, is too nasty for my taste; she’s essentially irredeemable, and that’s a problem. But Ronan, who was also nominated, is tremendous. She fully inhabits and makes the movie. Her character is your friend, your daughter or perhaps you at that age — a completely relatable young woman.
Oscar nominations, 5 — Best Picture, Director (Greta Gerwig), Actress (Saoirse Ronan), Supporting Actress (Laurie Metcalf), Original Screenplay (Gerwig). Oscar wins, 0.
The Shape of Water
Nobody of a right mind questions the consensus that Guillermo del Toro is a gifted filmmaker. The Academy got it right when it awarded the Oscar for Best Picture to “The Shape of Water.” More than any of the other nominated films, the picture achieves everything its director set out to accomplish. It’s fully realized in every respect. It’s also a bit of a slog. Del Toro essentially updated “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” for today’s politically correct times, which I guess someone had to do. The lead (human) character is a mute (Sally Hawkins), a supporting character is homosexual and the creature is for all intents and purposes a misunderstood, abused, green immigrant. Del Toro still has fun with the picture; virtually every object in the movie is some shade of pea green. The director gets a great, villainous performance out of Michael Shannon, who deserved the Best Supporting Actor nomination that went instead to Richard Jenkins. And what could be daffier than a sex scene with a woman and a large fish?
Oscar nominations, 13 — Best Picture, Director (Guillermo del Toro), Actress (Sally Hawkins), Supporting Actor (Richard Jenkins), Supporting Actress (Octavia Spencer), Original Screenplay (del Toro and Vanessa Taylor), Cinematography, Production Design, Film Editing, Costume Design, Score, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing. Oscar wins, 4 — Best Picture, Director, Production Design, Score.
Just once I’d like to see a movie about journalism that didn’t get all sanctimonious about the vital role a free press has to play in a free society. Yes, I get it — journalism faces genuine threats from a paranoid White House and the epidemic of fake news on social media, although I would argue that a decade-long economic tsunami has already done considerably more damage. Steven Spielberg’s film, about The Washington Post’s publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, ultimately falters under the weight of its sanctimony and limps to an ending. But credit Spielberg, and a top-notch cast, for rendering “The Post” more entertaining than it has any right to be. Of course, with Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks as your leads, playing Post publisher Katharine Graham and editor Ben Bradlee, a director really has no excuse for going wrong. A case can be made that the publication of the Pentagon Papers was bigger at the time than it is today, but Spielberg gets a buzz out of newspaper journalism at its height, and shares it with us.
Oscar nominations, 2 — Best Picture, Actress (Meryl Streep). Oscar wins, 0.
Call Me By Your Name
It was a distinct pleasure to watch filmmaker James Ivory, 89 at the time, finally receive his first Oscar, for Best Adapted Screenplay on this project, after decades of crafting high-quality motion pictures with producer Ismail Merchant and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Oscars aren’t always awarded for a recipient’s best work. “Call Me My Your Name” is a minor effort, probably most notable for what it says about today, when a gay romance doesn’t even raise eyebrows. We’ve come a long way since “Brokeback Mountain,” 2005’s “gay cowboy” movie. Of course, it’s also possible this film went unremarked — and unseen — because it’s so steadfastly unremarkable. My lasting impressions are of multiple quiet scenes shot at dusk accompanied by birdsong. I wish I wasn’t troubled by the age difference in the central relationship, acted out by Armie Hammer and Timothee Chalamet, which would come across as creepy were it an older man and a teenage girl, at least now. I wish films could be appreciated without the noise of the outside world filtering in.
Oscar nominations, 4 — Best Picture, Actor (Timothee Chalamet), Adapted Screenplay, Original Song. Oscar wins, 1 — Adapted Screenplay.
Horror films don’t typically get much attention from the Academy Awards. The titles are genre product made on the cheap, programmed to deliver chills and thrills at predictable points, and everyone goes home happy. “Get Out,” however, pushes buttons, and had the good fortune to have the Trump administration as its real-world backdrop to help with the pushing. The film’s timeliness, more than anything, was responsible for the movie’s four Oscar nominations, with writer/director Jordan Peele winning for Best Original Screenplay. And that’s fine. A flick about a young black man with a white girlfriend happening on a modern-day plantation in the suburbs, heavily influenced by “The Stepford Wives,” was a great premise for a horror film in 2017. As time passes, “Get Out,” I fear, is going to be remembered as a gimmick flick, if it’s remembered at all. Attention was immediately given to Peele as a filmmaker to watch, particularly for what he would do next, which turned out to be 2019’s “Us,” a high-toned slasher film, and a typical sophomore effort.
Oscar nominations, 4 — Best Picture, Director (Jordan Peele), Actor (Daniel Kaluuya), Original Screenplay (Peele). Oscar wins, 1 — Original Screenplay.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
“And the Oscar for angriest movie of the year goes to ….” The righteous fury that rises out of the ashes of injustice, or in this case justice denied, is palpable in “Three Billboards.” The awkward title refers to the only avenue the mother of a daughter left raped and burned to death feels she has left to find the girl’s killer, calling attention to the local police chief’s inability to solve the crime on three billboards. As the mother, Frances McDormand radiates rage, but there’s more than enough negative energy to go around in this movie, courtesy of a police officer, played by Sam Rockwell, who is racist for no good reason. The movie feels a lot like 2004’s “Crash;” both feature scripts of tortured construction that are forced to work hard to make belabored points. McDormand won an Oscar for playing a variation of a character she’s visited before, although Rockwell is terrific (he also won an Academy Award). The movie ultimately ends peacefully, with these two characters finally pausing to take a breath. Note to Hollywood: Not everyone in America’s heartland is small-minded.
Oscar nominations, 6 — Best Picture, Actress (Frances McDormand), Supporting Actor (Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell), Original Screenplay (Martin McDonagh), Score, Film Editing. Oscar wins, 2 — Actress, Supporting Actor (Rockwell).
Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights” (1997) is one of my favorite films, and for years I’ve championed his “There Will Be Blood” (2007) to skeptics who contend it’s just too darn weird to appreciate. They have a point. I threw up my hands at Anderson’s frustrating “The Master” (2012), and “Phantom Thread” may be his most unlikable movie yet. As a fashion couturier in mid-20th century London, Daniel Day-Lewis delivers yet another impressive performance, but the character is excessively nasty, along with everyone else in the film. What begins as a romance of sorts, with Day-Lewis’ Reynolds Woodcock falling in love with and eventually marrying his muse, descends into a curiously masochistic head trip involving poisonous mushrooms. Sure, the film is drop-dead gorgeous to look at, and I suppose there’s an irony to be found in beautiful objects being created by such ugly people. Nowhere is it written that all motion pictures must leave us feeling warm and fuzzy, but, well, no wonder Day-Lewis has since retired from acting.
Oscar nominations, 6 — Best Picture, Director (Paul Thomas Anderson), Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis), Supporting Actress (Lesley Manville), Score, Costume Design. Oscar wins, 1 — Costume Design.
For further consideration
I remain convinced that the Academy for Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would be better served by going back to a maximum of five nominees for its top prize — a tradition abandoned in 2009 for better TV ratings that have never materialized — but the 2017 slate didn’t necessarily feel padded.
Were it up to me, “Call Me By Your Name” would not be among the year’s Best Picture nominees, simply because I don’t really see any compelling reasons to put it there. And as mentioned above, I found major flaws in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” significant enough to disqualify the film from this honor.
Whether I particularly cared for them or not, I would keep 2017’s seven other nominees where they are; they are each among the year’s best films and the Academy did well by singling them out for Best Picture consideration.
“The Florida Project” should be here too, because representation matters. So far Sean Baker (“Tangerine,” 2015) has not been the most conventional of filmmakers, and maybe — hopefully — he stays that way. He managed to attract a movie star this time out (Willem Dafoe) to tell a story about people on the fringe, inhabiting a somewhat seedy motel just beyond the reach of the touristy confines of central Florida. And in a stroke of something like genius, he hit upon the idea of using children — accessible, charming, delightful — as his way of showing us a sketchy world many of us may prefer to ignore.
About this project
Some people vow to visit every continent on the planet, others to read everything Shakespeare (allegedly) wrote. I’ve never had much interest in doing either, but I am committed to seeing every motion picture ever nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, back to the very first ones in 1927–28 (specifically, I’m talking about films nominated for Outstanding Picture, Outstanding Production, Outstanding Motion Picture, Best Motion Picture and Best Picture; I’m not sure why the Academy has seen fit to change the name of the award so frequently).
I don’t for one moment presume to operate under the assumption that the Best Picture nominees over time consistently represent the best that American filmmakers have had to offer, which is why with each slate of nominees I also briefly consider the consensus critical picks for the best movies of that year(s). Yes, there’s a lot of overlap, but not as much as there should be.
So, why am I taking the time to watch and then write about so many (563 following the 2019 Academy Awards) often sub-par movies? As anyone with just a passing knowledge of the Oscars knows, the voters often get it wrong, which isn’t so much fascinating as it is frustrating. The Oscars, however, have always mattered to the film industry, and matter still (the annual awards telecast, not so much). Each year’s Best Picture nominees help to paint a picture of how Hollywood saw itself at that time, they provide us with glimpses at trends in movie history that could be gone for good.
Most of all, they supply context. Think this year’s slate of nominees was the best ever? The worst? I can virtually guarantee you that’s not the case. No, really. You’d be surprised.
Todd Hill is a former journalist with 30 years of experience, much of it in film criticism, who misses neither journalism nor the film beat.