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The Independent’s Oscars Highlights

The Shape of Water

Guillermo Del Toro’s infatuation with monsters and the supernatural comes to a perfect crescendo of storytelling, film style, and creativity in his beautiful and brilliant love story, The Shape of Water. The film stars Sally Hawkins as mute custodial worker Elisa, whose circuitous life of sleep, taking care of her elderly next-door neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), and cleaning at a high-tech government lab, makes her feel banal, unloved, and utterly alone. That is, until the arrival of the Amphibian Man, a tall, blue-green, scaly fish-man hybrid with human-sized guppy eyes. While the officials are absent, Elisa sneaks into the holding room of the creature, develops a relationship with it through their shared love of soft-boiled eggs and inability to vocally communicate, and inevitably falls in love with it, despite its abnormal appearance.

Del Toro treats the notion of “otherness” in an honest and simultaneously delicate fashion. Elisa is, through her inability to speak, established as an “other,” expressively different from her human counterparts. Elisa’s friend and workmate Zelda (Octavia Spencer) is rendered an “other” by nature of her own skin color in the early 1960’s. Even Giles’ repressed homosexuality ostracizes him from the society in which he lives. The Amphibious Man, who lacks speech, is mistreated because of his appearance, and is forced to suppress his feelings of love, encapsulates and embodies each humans’ differentiating characteristics. Instead of creating a pity-piece, Del Toro uses these differences as points of growth and individuality for the creature, who is rendered almost more human than some of the humans who partake in the story.

The crux of The Shape of Water is the idea that true love transcends visual appearance and communication, and should be rife with pure feeling and emotion. Hence, love is a formless entity: un-definable, non-quantifiable, shape-less. Elisa looks at the Amphibian Man and doesn’t see a monster, but rather a being who exists above conventional categorization and is capable of love, beauty, and genuine goodness. With the creature, Del Toro presents his audience with a character who is universally relatable for any group or individual who has ever felt different or not accepted, and kindly reassures them that they can be, and will be, loved no matter what. If you want to have your eyes opened and heart set aflame by extreme visual beauty, see this timeless art-piece.

Lady Bird

When we are first introduced to her, Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), who prefers to be called “Lady Bird,” is mired in a rigid Catholic School system and bombarded with the prospect of a fenced-in future; she is applying to college, but everyone believes she is destined for failure and rejection. While this scenario may seem all too familiar to a conventional movie-going audience, director Greta Gerwig demolishes and breaks through the ceiling of audience expectations to create a film chock-full of heart, soul, and most of all, individuality.

Throughout the entire film, Lady Bird seems to have the world against her. Her family cannot pay the bills, her father is severely depressed, rendered hollow after losing his job, and her judgmental mother cannot stop tearing into her at every chance she gets. She even discovers her first true love, Danny, kissing another boy in a bathroom stall. The camera’s constant haphazard, hand-held movement invites the audience to join and participate in her emotional chaos at her discovery.

Feeling dissatisfied, Lady Bird tries her hand at joining the popular group, spearheaded by the ice cold Jenna, by speaking out against teachers and vandalizing school property. Her most devious move, however, is to pretend that she lives in the “rich” part of the neighborhood, when in fact she lives by the train tracks in a middle-class home. She plasters her real identity with false and superficial signifiers of wealth both to appear acceptable to the “higher-ups” and try to outrun her reality. Lady Bird finds solace in the untrue, even though she tries to live life genuinely.

At the root of Lady Bird’s emotionality and genuineness is her dichotomous identity struggle. She refuses to join the crowd, yet she dreams so much of acceptance — from the cool kids, into an academic institution, or even with her own mother. Her confusion plays out through a smooth storytelling structure and dialogue that feels real. Lady Bird clearly establishes Gerwig as a director with a truly unique voice in an often too formulaic film industry. Lady Bird’s growth from a rebellious youth to a mature young woman is so expertly depicted in such a gentle, real, non-hyperbolic or caricaturist manner that you will not be able to leave the theater without feeling a tug at your heart. If you are looking for a film that is raw, charged, exceptional, and downright human, you will find your nest in Lady Bird.

Phantom Thread

The latest film from the acclaimed American writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson (PTA), Phantom Thread tells the story of Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), an expert dressmaker in London. Reynolds’ work consumes him; we observe his strict routine and his seeming lack of desire for genuine human connection, even with his apparent girlfriend, who cannot seem to command his attention in the slightest. Confronted by his lover at breakfast about the pair’s obvious distance, Reynolds replies that he “simply has no time for confrontations,” a line Daniel Day- Lewis exquisitely delivers.

This routine and devotion to work lays the groundwork for the film. After abandoning his girlfriend for a weekend away, Reynolds is charmed by Alma (Vicky Krieps), a waitress. Taken by her beauty, Reynolds asks Alma on a date and romance ensues. Their relationship starts naturally, with the two seemingly sharing a genuine connection. As Reynolds uses Alma more and more as a model for his work, however, Alma quickly notices that she appears to be in danger of just becoming just another burdensome girlfriend, with Reynolds’ passion for Alma appearing to evaporate. Refusing to become just another neglected flame, Alma takes matters into her own hands in an effort to prove her worth to Reynolds.

While this comes as no surprise, Daniel Day-Lewis is fantastic is his alleged final role. He commands the screen in every scene, only ever rivaled by the fantastic Vicky Krieps, who more than holds her own with Day-Lewis in the confrontational third act of the film. Day-Lewis showcases his unique ability to both serve up incredibly dramatic lines, as well as subtle looks and mannerism to great comedic effect. On that note, the film is much more humorous for the awards-caliber period piece that it is. Despite the fantastic dramatic elements of the screenplay, PTA’s writing and Daniel Day-Lewis’ acting combine to deliver laughs throughout the film, including the many reactions Reynolds gives to Alma forcing him to change his rigid lifestyle. Phantom Thread has fantastic dialogue and the plot is impeccably structured. The cinematography is beautiful, combining aesthetically pleasing frames with complex camera movements and long-takes to create a visually stunning film. Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood collaborates with Anderson for the third time, again producing a majestic score, hopefully resulting in his first Academy Award. Anderson uses it frequently throughout the film, and for good reason as it is truly an incredible score. Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the costume design of the film, which certainly adds a lot to the film as it revolves around a man obsessed with fashion. The dresses designed by Reynolds are beautiful and greatly add to the legend surrounding him. Reynolds himself is also dressed in exquisitely designed suits throughout the film.

Despite releasing the latest of all films nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, don’t be surprised if Phantom Thread wins its fair share of awards the night of the ceremony. While not many experts anticipated the film would land a lot of nominations, it seems the film has a great deal of momentum going for it now. In what is reportedly his last acting role, Daniel Day-Lewis once again shines with the aid of a characteristically amazing Paul Thomas Anderson script.

Call Me by Your Name

Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name tells the coming of age story of a seventeen-year-old boy, who discovers himself and explores his sexuality through a romance he strikes up with a graduate school student living with his family for the summer. Based on André Aciman’s novel of the same name, the film is set in a small town in Northern Italy in 1983. The audience is first introduced to Elio (Timotheé Chalamet) as he watches Oliver (Armie Hammer) enter both his house and his family for the summer. Over the course of the film, their interactions slowly but satisfyingly intensify as the pair struggles to communicate their true feelings for each other.

Going into the film, viewers may be concerned about the film being yet another prime example of an awards-oriented film that aggressively attempts to make a point, in this case about gay rights, and tell the audience how to feel. While films looking to make these points are commendable for their attempt to push forward important social issues, many times they falter if the writing is flawed, or the intended message too overt. Worries about this film coming off as forced or “showy” about its message could not be more misplaced. The romance between Elio and Oliver happens completely naturally and is portrayed in a very intimate and respectful manner. Elio experiences many adolescent trials and tribulations throughout the film, in addition to his first true love: Oliver. The sheer emotional power of the film is astonishing and overwhelming, helped by the excellent and truly award worthy performances from Chalamet and Hammer. The film not only elegantly captures the feeling of falling in love for the first time, but also succeeds in encapsulating the smaller, just as striking and embarrassing moments of adolescence in a way rarely captured in most coming of age films.

Just as the performances are magnificent, the technical aspects of this film also mightily impress. Director of Photography Sayombhu Mukdeeprom makes good use of the lush Italian scenery, capturing beautiful images which create a true sense of place. The direction is also incredible, as Guadagnino carefully frames Elio and Oliver to either emphasize the space between them or their intimate closeness in their scenes together. Guadagnino combines beautiful classical music with eighties European alternative and original music by Sufjan Stevens to create a very unique and powerful soundtrack.

By avoiding making any broad claims and instead focusing on its characters, Call Me by Your Name truly earns the title of being an important film. Expertly told, the film emotionally moved me more than any other film in recent memory. Criminally underseen, this film deserves to be seen, as it currently stands as the lowest grossing nominee for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. One of the best films of the year, Call Me by Your Name is a film that you will not soon forget.

PC: imdb; Fandango; imdb; imdb

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