Three Billboards, Darkest Hour Among Standout Oscar Nominees

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2017 standout movies
Francis McDermott in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

When I’m not birding, I see about a 90 films a year both on the big screen and on DVD. As a fan of art house films I have little interest in English language commercial films. American made films too often suffer from the “happy ending syndrome.” I want to see films that are works of art, that have something to say about the human condition. To my surprise some of the years more notable films were English language with something to say.

The Best

This year, I found two vastly different films each worthy of a Best Picture Oscar. Both films show the human condition under extreme circumstances. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, an American film, I believe will win Best Picture. It should bring Frances McDormand a well deserved Oscar for her performance as a divorced middle-aged woman struggling with the murder of her daughter. McDormand plays a plain woman whose pain is met only by her calmness, dignity and unyielding will to see the murderer caught. It’s the best English language film I’ve seen from last year and ditto McDormand as the Best Actress.

Kenneth Branagh in Dunkirk

The Brits

In Darkest Hour, Gary Oldman doesn’t simply portray Winston Churchill, but brings the legendary 20th century British prime minister to life. There’s a famous black and white Life Magazine cover photo of a truculent Churchill that came to symbolize the man and the legend. During a few scenes in Darkest Hour, I thought that I saw that photographic persona morph into real life in Oldman’s performance. He wasn’t just playing Churchill; he was Churchill. Give the man the Oscar now.

The film focuses on the earliest days of Churchill’s being in office as Prime Minister. Rather than portraying the legend, Oldman portrays the man complete with his doubts. His critics in both parties are disparaging of Churchill, yet for all his doubts and with the deck stacked against him, the man is decisive. The film is shot in darkened interiors or war rooms and during evening bombings that heighten the darkness of Britons darkest hour. The cast is full of wonderful British character actors.

This reviewer cannot but make an analogy to 1940 when only Britain stood between the survival of western democracy and now when America’s democratic institutions and the normative ways of governing are under attack. In this sense a man of the last century offers inspiration to us now.

Dunkirk, starring Kenneth Branagh was made for the wide-angle screen. This film gets inside the actual lines and lives of soldiers waiting to be evacuated on Dunkirk’s beaches by an armada of small citizen-owned craft and large naval vessels. This evacuation has been the stuff of misty-eyed legend where one of the film’s trailers says, “When 400,000 men couldn’t get home, home came for them.” Director Christopher Nolan’s film puts the audience on the beach with those soldiers who seem so unbelievably young.

Their Finest, a film whose title is a play on two sets of words “their finest hour” used by Churchill in an address to the House of Commons in June 1940 and the title of a book called Their Finest Hour and a Half. It follows the professional and personal life of a British secretary played by Gemma Artenton plucked from the pool to work as a scriptwriter on women’s dialogue in wartime British propaganda films. The sense of time and place is wonderful, and veteran British actor Bill Nighy steals more than a few scenes. This film’s a sleeper that stole my heart and, I suspect, lots of others.

The Big Sick was more than just another romantic comedy.

Not To Be Overlooked

Maudie stars Sally Hawkins as Canadian folk artist Maude Lewis, an eccentric person with a childhood disease and arthritis who couldn’t take care of herself and Ethan Hawke a socially isolated rough-around-the-edges fish peddler. She becomes his live in house keeper in a tiny early 20th century isolated Nova Scotia house and finally his wife. He is a difficult pill to swallow at least once hitting her. As these two outliers open up to each other their suppressed humanity blossoms like one of Maude’s paintings. This warm tale effects the audiences in various emotional ways as a good film can. It is worth the price of admission to see the two stars in ways you probably haven’t seen them before.

Each time that I saw the trailer for The Big Sick I felt no reason to see this romantic-comedy. Then I saw it. Not only was it funny, but offered an opportunity to have an informed discussion about immigrants in America in the 21st century. Kumail Nanjiani is a real life Pakistani-American comic who plays himself falling for Zoe Kazan, a graduate student who becomes seriously ill. The script was written by Nanjiani and his wife Emily Gordon, played by Kazan, about their actual courtship. Holly Hunter and Ray Romano play her mother and father. Some of the scenes with Nanjiani and Romano are deliciously funny.

Michael Givant teaches a film course at the Institute for Learning in Retirement at Farmingdale State College and at the Longboat Key Education Center in Longboat Key, FL. He also writes Plainview-Old Bethpage Herald‘s Bird’s Eye View column.


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