By Tom Dever · February 22, 2018
With the Academy Awards less than two weeks away, nine films hope to cement their legacy with what is still considered the industry’s highest honor. It’s hard to believe that only eight years ago, films like The King’s Speech and The Artist were running away with awards season’s highest prizes. That’s less an indictment of the quality of those two films as much as a stark contrast of how different choosing a Best Picture winner has become.
Selecting a recipient has become less about grading the merits of a film in a vacuum and more about the Academy taking the opportunity to say something. Look no further than last year, when the Academy opted to reward Moonlight, a low budget coming-of-age drama about homosexuality and cast almost exclusively with people of color, instead of La La Land, a well-intentioned romantic studio musical glorifying and fetishizing the film industry. Fair or not, the narrative was written: would the Academy reward its past or its future?
An overlooked part of this narrative is that films many considered to be the year’s actual pound for pound best (Arrival, Lion and Hell or High Water) didn’t receive any serious consideration. Again, merits notwithstanding, a victory for those films wouldn’t have said much beyond “this is a good movie,” which the Academy wasn’t really about in 2017.
So enter the 2018 lineup, particularly the two nominees Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri and Phantom Thread. The former being the early frontrunner that is unsurprisingly receiving some backlash from its competitors and the hoards of people rushing to see it, and the latter being quite possibly the worst statement the Academy could make with a winner in this year’s field.
By no means is that saying Phantom Thread is a bad film. Quite the opposite. Like most Paul Thomas Anderson works, it is a technical masterpiece. Everything from the performance to the cinematography to the score is perfected down to the finest detail. It’s simply enjoyable to look at for two plus hours.
And yet, I found myself wincing through large chunks of it. Telling the story of a renowned fashion designer in 1950s London’s couture movement as his life is disrupted by his professional and romantic relationship with his muse, you have a female protagonist whose singular desire is to get a man to pay attention to her.
Sure, fans of the film will cry foul and say that’s an overly-simplistic way of putting it, but every action Vicky Krieps’ Alma does from intimidating clients to cooking a surprise dinner to eventually [SPOILER] poisoning Daniel Day Lewis with mushrooms is done from a place of insecurity in seeking the attention of a temperamental obsessed male artist.
Even a few years ago, the perception of this film would be completely different. It would be easy to admire the relentless commitment Daniel Day Lewis’s Reynolds Woodcock has to his art or find humor in his fussy condescension. But after the past six months in Hollywood, it’s hard for anyone to watch and see anything more than another asshole patriarchal artiste with an inflated sense of self importance bullying the women in his life.
As for Best Picture, I’d say Phantom Thread has something less than a chance.
Enter Three Billboards!
To process the current state of the industry, imagine how such a film would have been perceived ten or fifteen years ago. The completely de-sexualized sixty-year old female foul-mouthed female protagonist spends the film patronizing a beloved sheriff, disrespecting a little person and physically attacking high school students. And she’s the good guy!
And yet, to say Three Billboards is the film that best encapsulates the “state of things” in 2018 is an understatement. In the wake of #MeToo, #TimesUp, Black Lives Matter and the 2016 Presidential Election, Martin McDonaugh’s drama/kind of a black comedy somehow resonated with the current climate in a way few films ever have.
The feeling that it is a film in the right place at the right time has certainly evoked some criticism. For a film about police brutality, black characters are weirdly absent or marginalized. McDonaugh’s version of small town America certainly feels more metaphorical than realistic. And, yes, it is unclear why Frances McDormand wears a mechanics jumpsuit even though she works at a gift shop.
I wouldn’t argue that the film is perfect, though I am admittedly a huge fan. No one can deny how appropriate a win for this film would feel at this point in time. Assuming being an undeniably great film is a pre-requisite for a Best Picture nomination, perhaps being in the “right place at the right time” is what it takes to separate from the pack. Would previous winners like Casbalanca or Mrs. Miniver have meant as much after the war was won? While this isn’t quite World War II, this a great struggle of our times, and if Three Billboards is the film that captures the time and place, even in a metaphorical sense, it deserves its win.
Tom Dever writes for The Script Lab.