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The Oscar Race Shapes Up!

December 2, 2017


It’s the most wonderful time of the year for serious film fans. December brings us an avalanche of awards contenders. I’ve already reviewed such hopefuls as Lady Bird, The Florida Project, Wind RiverDownsizing, Hostiles and Mudbound, and now I’ve seen three more would-be nominees. The first, and best, is The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro’s uncategorizably wonderful mash-up of The Creature from the Black Lagoon and E.T. with classic Hollywood romances, musicals and silent films.

It’s a love letter to cinema — and to great character actors, starting with Sally Hawkins, who tops even her Oscar-worthy turn in this year’s under-seen biopic Maudie with an almost wordless tour de force as a mute cleaning woman at a top-secret government lab in 1962 who gets caught up in a very fishy love story. The cast overflows with great talents at the top of their games: Boardwalk Empire vets Michael Shannon and Michael Stuhlbarg, the always-marvelous Richard Jenkins, Oscar winner Octavia Spencer as a very different kind of “help” and the versatile Nick Searcy (he can play everything from a commanding general here to a kindly pastor in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri — more on that later).

The less you know about The Shape of Water going in, the better, so I won’t spoil any of its delightful surprises. Just remember the name Doug Jones and don’t be surprised if he turns up as a dark horse — er, fish — come Oscar time.

Almost as great is the aforementioned Three Billboards, a major creative rebound for playwright-turned-filmmaker Martin McDonagh after his dazzling feature debut In Bruges and the sophomore slump of Seven Psychopaths. Frances McDormand is Fargo good as a Midwestern mother hell-bent on finding her daughter’s murderer. Did I mention it’s a (very dark) comedy? Sam Rockwell has deservedly earned kudos for his supporting turn as a racist cop who shows surprising shades of humanity, and Woody Harrelson is equally fine as a police chief hiding a secret not very well.

This is another film that spills over with indelible performances. The ensemble also encompasses three gifted alums of HBO dramas: Game of Thrones‘ Peter Dinklage, Deadwood‘s John Hawkes and The Wire‘s Clarke Peters. Misguided as she may be, McDormand’s anti-heroine seems to be a character both red and blue states can get behind, which is saying something in this time of divisiveness.

The title character is Roman J. Israel, Esq. is similarly flawed and fascinating. I just wish he were in a better movie. Washington can almost never be counted out of the Best Actor race, and his portrait of a radical lawyer suddenly seduced to trade in his morality for money is masterfully subtle. But writer-director Dan Gilroy stumbles in his follow-up to his dazzling 2014 debut Nightcrawler. The story seems stuck between a conventional Hollywood legal drama and a more experimental character study and ultimately doesn’t succeed as either.

The rest of the film’s characters are underdeveloped, and the actors — Colin Farrell as a slick rainmaker, Carmen Ejogo as an idealistic activist — never get below the surface. On paper, Roman J. Israel, Esq. should’ve made a strong case for itself on Oscar night, but on screen, it raises too many objections not to be overruled.

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