If I Were an Academy Member: David Mumpower
By David Mumpower
February 28, 2018

Why didn't we get the big screen?

I’m one of those shameless optimists who sees the good in almost everything. Whenever critics assail a year in cinema as lackluster, I’m generally first in line to say, “You must not have seen…” Well, my upbeat nature met its match in 2017, which had one of the least exciting top 10s in recent memory. I admired a lot more movies than I felt enthusiastic about them, and films #6 and #5 on this list exemplify this issue.

With regards to the Best Picture nominees, I evaluate four of these selections as somewhere between very good and masterpieces. Films #6-#8 here are all among the top 40% of the movies I watched over the past calendar, which isn’t bad but certainly isn’t great. As for #9, well, I’m about to break a few hearts with my opinion on this one. And some of those hearts are from staff members of BOP, several of whom ardently supported it in this year’s Calvins. Sorry, dear friends. Sometimes, we hurt those that we love.

9) Call Me by Your Name

I didn’t watch Call Me by Your Name inasmuch as I endured it. The first time that I checked the time was eight minutes into the film (!). I figured it had been at least half an hour by that point. This film is precisely the sort of excessive, indulgent fare that gives indie cinema a bad name. And I have to be honest that I was creeped out by the ages of the two romantic leads in the film. It doesn’t help that I know that Chalamet was 17 when he was cast. Even at 21 during filming, he looks 25 years younger than Hammer, who is only nine years older.

An Archer quote kept running through my head the whole time. “Did the unspeakable happen to your slender, hairless, adolescent body?” I’m legitimately glad that Call Me by Your Name triggered lots of positive reactions among people I love. For me, it was at least 40 minutes too long and one splendid father/son conversation away from being one of the worst 10 films of the year. Out of 270 critics on Rotten Tomatoes, 258 disagree with me. I’m clearly the outlier here.

8) Lady Bird

Apparently, I don’t like films about boys falling in love, and I don’t like movies about girls falling in love. I’d say that I must not like romantic movies, but anyone who knows me would have a spit-take at that, as my Hallmark movie obsession is well established. My problem with Lady Bird is eerily similar to the one from Call Me by Your Name. I couldn’t relate to anyone. Maybe I just don’t like Chalamet, who is the common denominator in both films.

Whatever the explanation, I appreciated the gentility of Lad Bird. I also think of it as the most self-flagellating piece that I’ve seen since Shopgirl. Greta Gerwig has regrets about how she dealt with the maturation process, and she’s way too hard on this semi-autobiographical version of herself. When I watch it, I see a lovely young woman and a touchingly protective mother. It’s quite sweet, but it’s also stubbornly female-skewing. As a boy, I felt like I was on the outside looking in.

7) The Shape of Water

I guess I’m more of a Splash kind of guy. I’m certainly a Richard Jenkins kind of guy, and quite like Sally Hawkins, too. This is her bravest performance, and she deserves all the kudos that she’s received. With The Shape of Water, the goal is to sweep the viewer away with an unusual romance that feels otherworldly and magical. I…couldn’t get past the thought that it’s Creature from the Black Lagoon Gets Laid, which is a porno, not an awards contender.

6) Dunkirk

I’ve never been on the Christopher Nolan bandwagon as much as some folks. I thought Batman Begins was the best movie in his Dark Knight trilogy, I found Memento and The Prestige highly overrated, and I (like many others) regret the influence he had over the DC Cinematic Universe. I do, however, love Interstellar and (especially) Inception and know that he’s capable of making movies on a level few artists in the history of the industry may reach. He’s like the best parts of Steven Spielberg and M. Night Shyamalan when everything goes right.

With Dunkirk, most people would say that everything went right. It’s an experiential film that’s lacking in narrative. For lots of movie-goers, that’s great. Alas, I’m a writer, and I care about story. Dunkirk’s fictional recounting of one of the most important days in modern civilization doesn’t work for me on the level that I’d like. I appreciate all of the performances and understand what Nolan wanted to accomplish here. I just wasn’t enthusiastic about the end result.

5) Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

This film is the most challenging to evaluate. I ranked it 17th out of 103 movies I watched, but I can’t honestly say that I love it. In fact, I’d rank it third out of director Martin McDonagh’s most recent three films. That’s hardly an insult, as I loved Seven Psychopaths and would place In Bruges on the shortlist for best (and most important) film of the 21st century.

Three Bilboards lacks that kind of (ultraviolent) magic. The characters are bleak, and I say that immediately after praising two movies featuring career assassin protagonists. The grim nature of this title feels against the grain for McDonagh, which is likely what drew him to it. I loved Frances McDormand’s performance (what else is new?) and also appreciated the work done by Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson. Unfortunately, the characters never truly resonated with me, and I found the ex-husband/father shamefully one-note. This is a good but imperfect film that I don’t really care if I ever watch again. And I’m someone who views great films 10+ times to learn the nuances and special touches.

4) Get Out

Get Out sits only one spot higher on my rankings than Three Billboards, but it’s a substantially smarter, more detailed film. My wife and I loved Key & Peele, but Jordan Peele still surprised us both with this exceptional genre mash-up. Get Out is part horror film, part comedy, part thriller, and fully formed social commentary. In that way, it’s the modern successor to the earliest works of George Romero. Peele has something to say about why certain Caucasians feel inadequate among African-Americans, and he punctuates his point in a truly imaginative way. Get Out is one of the most creative films of the year, no small feat for something that’s a basic “run away before they kill you!” horror flick.

3) Darkest Hour

Is Darkest Hour a wonderful movie or a sublime performance that carries an otherwise derivative feature? I go back and forth on this, albeit with one caveat. The script written by Anthony McCarten is brilliant, doling out key parcels of boring parliamentary information in easily consumed bites. He deserves almost as much credit as Gary Oldman for his work. Otherwise, Darkest Hour is an odd one to deconstruct. I liked Lily James very much in it, and I know that Ben Mendelsohn and Kristin Scott Thomas did all that they could to aid Oldman. I just don’t remember much about their work or really anything else from the movie that’s truly special save for Oldman and a wonderful scene on the London Underground.

2) Phantom Thread

Only two of the movies nominated for Best Picture are ones that I view as worthy of such praise. Phantom Thread is the first of them. I joked early in the film that Paul Thomas Anderson is going through his Merchant Ivory phase, although James Ivory doesn’t have the same world creation ability that Anderson does. The London that he introduces in Phantom Thread is a place where no one would want to live, yet it’s wholly engrossing to watch.
The movie hinges on the relationship between Reynolds and Alma, the city’s greatest dressmaker and a waitress he meets and eventually seduces. The catch is that Reynolds is a “my way or the highway” kind of guy, while Alma isn’t willing to change everything about herself to please a man. Her pride and self-worth impress Reynolds even as he resents them. The two engage in a prolonged power struggle with a truly stunning resolution. It’s a challenging story that isn’t for everyone, but save for Get Out, I’ve thought about Phantom Thread more than everything else on this list in combination. It lingers, and that’s a strong sign of greatness.

1) The Post

The press is under constant attack today by elements who want to manipulate the public into believing lies. That’s a fact, and while facts seem incontrovertible, some folks would prefer to believe untruths. The Post is as timely as possible on the subject, as it relays the way that history has repeated itself. During the Nixon era, the press was also under duress to overlook wrongdoings in the West Wing.

The Post recounts the madness of the situation and the shameless pressure applied by those in power to prevent accurate information from becoming public knowledge. Steven Spielberg is in his element in telling this story, which is much tighter and less indulgent than his work in Lincoln. And a film fronted by Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks with Spielberg as the director is a slam dunk to be great.

The star power isn’t wasted, either, as a wonderful script and a kinetic pace have a dizzying effect. I lost count of the number of scenes that transpired in rapid fire fashion, but it was enough to make Michael Bay tip his cap. The Post has plenty to say, and I was captivated by every word. It’s clearly my favorite of the Best Picture nominees, and only Phantom Thread is even close to this level of quality.