The Shape of Water
Welcome to the 5th Annual edition of “My Mom’s Oscar Picks.” We started this tradition 6 years ago, not long after the death of my father, at a time when my mother and I both found a lot of solace in going to the movies. Since that time, we both look forward to this annual tradition, and do our best to see as many of the Oscar-nominated films as we can. She has even developed her own fanbase, and had the good fortune of meeting a few of them face to face this summer when my university hosted the media studies conference, Console-ing Passions. One conference attendee actually gasped when he saw her, exclaiming “You’re Nana? I love your Oscars blog!” She was tickled.
For those who are new to this tradition, here is what I initially said about my Mom’s qualifications for this job, back in 2012:
Perhaps the best thing about my mother’s cinephilia is her pithy, honest responses to them. Her critiques generally match up with what the professional critics have to say. And she sees enough of the new releases to have a solid understanding of the contemporary cinematic landscape. She can tell when a film is being manipulative (like War Horse [2011, Steven Speilberg]) and when it is being subtle. Her one blind spot is experimentation. My mother doesn’t like films that are “too weird” or that steer too far away from conventional cinematic language. For example, she really enjoyed The Artist (2011, Michel Hazanavicius), which, with its lack of sound, can certainly be labeled as “experimental.” But she hated Tree of Life (2011, Terence Malick). We have discussed her hate for this film on several occasions. I think she is actually mad at Terence Malick for making this film and for luring her into the theater to see it.
This year we were able to conduct our Oscars picks in person, because we got together in New York City to celebrate her birthday. This conversation was recorded just after a heavy Italian dinner and several glasses of wine. So without further ado, let’s begin.
Me: Welcome back
Nana: My pleasure
You enjoy this a lot, don’t you?
Yes, I do
I’d like to start the way we usually start, by putting our cards on the table and listing all the Oscar-nominated films that we did not get to see this season. So out of the Best Picture nominees, can you tell me which films you haven’t had a chance to see?
The only films I did not see were Get Out and Phantom Thread, unfortunately.
The films I didn’t see are Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri…
[Nana makes surprised noises]
…and Darkest Hour
[Nana makes outraged noises]
…yes, because I’m tired of movies about World War II. Now with that on the table, I think we should start with the acting awards.
Before we do that, I’d like to make a comment.
Every year as I look at the pictures I’m to review—and I love doing it—I’m told it’s never as good as the year before…
Who tells you this?
Hmmm…people…out there [gestures in the air]
People? Just a vague group of people?
Yes. And they’re saying the acting is not what it was…
Where are you getting this information?
From the right wing?
No, that’s not what I’m asking…
Maybe from the left wing, because they’re into the theater? [laughs]
This is what is called a “straw man argument,” mother. It’s where you come up with an opposing argument that doesn’t exist so that you can make your point. I don’t think people are actually saying this.
Well, it’s interesting. I don’t really go to a movie unless I’ve read good reviews, like in New York Magazine, The New York Times, and Time magazine…
So you get your reviews from the liberal, lamestream media?
They are so liberal! But that’s okay, because they know their stuff.
The fake news?
Well, whatever you call it…but every year I am more impressed with the nominated films. And this year is an example of that…
I agree. I thought the films this year were very strong…
Okay, let’s start with the Best Supporting Actor categories. This year’s Best Supporting Actress nominees are:
Mary J. Blige, Mudbound
Allison Janney, I, Tonya
Lesley Manville, Phantom Thread
Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird
Octavia Spencer, The Shape of Water
And you’ve seen all of these nominees?
Who is your pick?
Without question, Allison Janney in I, Tonya was absolutely amazing. I loved Laurie Metcalf in Ladybird, but there’s no comparison…
I’m with you on that. I, too, saw every film in this category so I feel like I can speak with some authority here…
Octavia Spencer is a great actress, but I don’t think she did anything special in The Shape of Water, Laurie Metcalf did a great job of depicting the complicated relationship between a mother and her teenage daughter in Ladybird, and I also enjoyed Leslie Manville in Phantom Thread. Now, as for Mary J. Blige, you may not know this because you’re so very old, Mary J. Blige is actually a singer…
I’ll be darned!
Yes. When I saw her in Mudbound I didn’t even realize it was her until after it was over. And I thought she was fantastic. But, Allison Janney—playing this chain-smoking bitch who is awful but still compelling on screen—that’s a tough line to walk.
So we’re in agreement?
Now let’s talk about Best Supporting Actor. The nominees are:
Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project
Woody Harrelson, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Richard Jenkins, The Shape of Water
Christopher Plummer, All the Money in the World
Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Who is your pick?
I have seen 3 Billboards, The Shape of Water, and All the Money in the World (Christopher Plummer was great) but I choose Sam Rockwell.
Why is he your pick?
He played this angry sheriff’s deputy. He just couldn’t handle that this woman, the mother of the murdered girl, was causing all this trouble. The movie moved from one horrific scene to another, and he was just phenomenal.
Why do you pick him over the other nominated actor from the same film, Woody Harrelson?
He was superb. But I really had a problem with that nomination. He was not in the film as much as Sam Rockwell, and his role was not as striking.
I have to say, I am a little out of my depth here because I have only seen 2 out of the 5 nominated performances. With that in mind, my pick is Willem Dafoe. The Florida Project—and I’ll talk about this more later—was my favorite movie of the year. It’s a realist film, focused mostly on children who are living in precarity in Orlando. Dafoe plays the super of this apartment building where a lot of the action is set. His character is engaged in the lives of the residents of this building—they don’t pay the rent on time, they’re on probation, they’re doing illegal things like prostitution—and he’s this compassionate figure. It’s not a showy role. It’s subtle and lovely.
Let’s discuss Best Actress in a Leading Role.
The nominees are:
Meryl Streep, The Post
Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water
Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Margot Robbie, I, Tonya
Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird
Now have you seen all of these?
Who is your pick?
Well, it’s tough because this year, more than any other year that I have been doing this job for you…without pay…
…the roles for women were amazing. All of them were superb. I had to weigh between Margot Robbie, Frances McDormand, and Sally Hawkins. But in the final push, I give the Oscar to Margot Robbie. She is so drop-dead gorgeous, and they tried to make her look not as gorgeous, but that didn’t matter. Evidently, she learned to ice skate? She was amazing. This year it was tough to pick the Best Actress.
Don’t you think that’s exciting? That there were so many great roles for women?
Yes! They dominated these movies. It’s almost unfair to have to choose just one.
My pick is also Margot Robbie. Acting is such a subjective category. It’s hard to pin down what makes one performance better than another. But part of it for me was the movie itself. I loved I, Tonya. The Tony Harding scandal happened when I was in high school and it was a such defining moment. The scandal was such a big deal. I remember watching the Olympics and not knowing if Harding was even going to skate. And then she does, but she has a problem with her skate. It was so much drama!
That was insane.
It’s hard for me separate my interest in that story, from the performances of the actors portraying that story. But she was so convincing. Her character aged throughout the film, and she was convincing at all those different ages. I also thought she conveyed the ambiguity of Tonya Harding: is she innocent? Or she manipulating us all?
That’s still a question. And we didn’t like her in those days. We hated her.
Right, the media portrayed her as this villain and Nancy Kerrigan as this angelic victim. But this was such a sympathetic portrait of her…Well, look at us, in agreement again.
Now here is where we’ll disagree: Best Actor in a Leading Role:
Timothée Chalamet, Call Me by Your Name
Daniel Day-Lewis, Phantom Thread
Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out
Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour
Denzel Washington, Roman J. Israel, Esq.
You said you didn’t see Get Out or Phantom Thread, and I’m assuming you didn’t see Roman J. Israel, Esq…
I don’t think anybody saw that.
My pick, without question, without hesitation, is Gary Oldman. That film…
…and I know you don’t want to see another [World War II film], but this is different. It all takes place in the bunker…
How many more movies do we need about World War II?
Well, I agree with that. But Gary Oldman was so great…you know I never heard of Gary Oldman?
Well, Gary Oldman was Winston Churchill in this film…
So you’ve met Winston Churchill?
[ignores my question]. I read the book Clementine, which is the story of his wife, and what she dealt with…so it was amazing to see how this man had such balls. He told British Parliament he was doing this…
Can you separate the historic importance of the movie’s topic from the performance?
I can’t. Because he made it real. We’ve all read about Churchill. We all know about him. But he made it real. This film you’ve got to see.
I’m not going to see it.
My pick—and again, I haven’t seen 2 out of the 5 nominated performances—is Timothée Chalamet. First, it’s rare for Hollywood to tell the story of a romance between two men in a non-tragic way. Usually, when these stories are told, someone is getting AIDS, getting rejected by their family, getting rejected by society. It’s rare to see a mainstream film depict a same sex couple having a romantic summer together in the same way that heterosexual couples have been. On top of that, I found Chalamet’s performance so believable. He’s in his twenties, but he’s playing a 17-year-old, and it works. The way he moves, the way he would slink around with his sunglasses and headphones, creeping around the edges of things, lying in bed masturbating, every inch of him was an angsty teenager who is having a sexual awakening. I couldn’t take my eyes off of him. He stole the film from his co-star Armie Hammer, and everyone else.
I disagree. I did not feel any magnetic energy between them. I thought it was all so fake. I didn’t see true passion.
I agree with you on that with regard to Armie Hammer’s performance. I didn’t feel his passion for this younger boy. But Chalamet? He was practically vibrating with it. Like the scene where they kiss in his bedroom and he’s not sure where to put his hands or how to hold this man, he’s this sexually inexperienced kid. He’s just grabbing onto his body. It was so intense.
I didn’t get that at all. Look, if Gary Oldman doesn’t win this Oscar, we’re finished.
[editor’s note: she makes this threat every year]
Let’s talk about Best Picture. The nominees are:
Call Me by Your Name
The Shape of Water
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Another tough one.
Why don’t you start by telling me what your favorite movies were, then your pick for Best Picture?
It’s very tough. Let’s go through each of them. Darkest Hour? Oldman was the best. Dunkirk? Nah. Call Me By Your Name? No way. There was a lot of hype [about that film]. The only thing I liked about it was the gorgeous scenery of Italy’s countryside. Ladybird? A lot of people felt this was the best film. I thought it was an interesting film, but not the Best Picture. I didn’t see Phantom Thread. The Post was superb. 3 Billboards I loved until I saw The Shape of Water. That film is so brilliant.
I liked the creative impact of the sets. It has this young woman who was unable to speak and then this monster that they found and brought into the laboratory. Then there’s Michael Shannon’s character, who is so scary, and Octavia Spencer’s character, who grounds everyone in reality. And Sally Hawkins was so great. I mean she had such an amazing life. Every morning she’d get into the bath tub and masturbate.
Then they have sex in the bathroom!
Yes! Very cool. And then when she wound up flooding the bathroom? The whole thing becomes a love story between this monster and the woman who can’t talk. When I first read about it I thought “This is ridiculous. I’m not going to this movie.” Well, I don’t want to go into the whole thing, but by the end of the film, my friend and I were so choked up. I actually cried. I was so emotionally upset about these two who loved each other and wound up in the water. The whole thing is such a fantasy. But it was beautifully done. And that director, writer, producer? [She means Guillermo del Toro]. He really should win Best Director.
I’m with you. I loved The Shape of Water. I was totally entranced. You fall into the world del Toro creates, and he makes you believe this world exists. And one thing I didn’t think about until I heard an interview with the actor who plays the monster…
On NPR’s Fresh Air. The actor mentions that the two romantic leads never speak. I didn’t even realize that until after the film was over…
I realized that.
The both of them were very lonely people, monster and woman. She probably never thought she’d have a romantic relationship. The monster obviously didn’t.
But this is the one thing that confused me [about the movie]: this monster was chained up in the lab and beaten. But at the end of the film he’s able to heal her wounds, and his own wounds, and he had the power to take her in the water and make her breathe like a fish…
…But I don’t even care. I loved it.
Before I give my Best Picture pick, let me say what my Best Picture criteria are. For me, Best Picture is like Best in Show at the Westminster Dog Show. It’s everything: great performances, great script, beautiful or interesting direction, compelling story. And then I add in one more quality for Best Picture, which for me is a timeliness. I like to ask: why is the film being made at this moment? What is it doing for its audience?
I don’t think about that part.
So, Get Out, do you know the premise? A black guy is dating a white girl, she brings him home to meet her family, and shenanigans ensue, and not the kind of shenanigans you’re expecting. I thought it was very clever. Horror films are all about showing us what we’re afraid of, what we try to repress. And in that regard, it was an excellent horror film. But part of me still has trouble thinking of a horror film as a Best Picture winner. And I realize that is a ridiculous bias for someone who studies film for a living to have. But I can’t quite see it as Best Picture.
Ladybird is not my pick because it wasn’t a “big” or “grand” enough for Best Picture. Phantom Thread was a beautiful film but for me, the final moments really threw me for a loop. It rattled me so much that I didn’t really process it as I was watching it. I feel like I need to see it again, knowing what I know.
But my pick for Best Picture, believe it or not, is The Post.
That’s not gonna win.
I know. Let me tell you why it’s my pick…
[rolls eyes] Because of what’s happening today…
Now why do you say it with that tone?
Because I don’t think that should be why you pick a film for Best Picture. You should pick THE BEST PICTURE! The Shape of Water was the best film released this year!
Can you just back off and let me explain? First of all, the cast of The Post was amazing: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, Bradley Whitford, Carrie Coon, David Cross, absurd cast!
The second thing I loved about this film was its subject. I knew very little about the Pentagon Papers going on, and so it was fascinating to hear about this chapter in American history. What I also liked about this movie—and here is where you were rolling your eyes at me—is this question the film asks: what is the role of the media? What is their duty, where is their allegiance? Is it to protect national security or is it to report on the news in the most honest and complete way that they can?
Absolutely. I agree.
The Post made this concept so clear, at a time when many Americans have forgotten the role of the fourth estate.
And how she [Kay Graham] made that decision to publish. A woman did that! She told all those guys with the white hair “I own the paper, I’ll make the decision”
And when I left the theater, I felt inspired and hopeful about the ability of journalism to speak truth to power. I know you don’t feel as pessimistic about the world right now as I do, but this movie made me feel like there might still be something left in this country that will keep us together as a country: the truth and the facts…
There were so many great movies this year, but the one that hit every button for me was The Post. I know it won’t win…
Well, it may. Because it’s a very liberal group that votes [she means the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences]…
It is! [The Academy] may feel what you feel…
Wait, wait, wait…so you’re telling me that a movie about exposing a government conspiracy and revealing the truth about a highly controversial war to the American people is a “liberal” value. Isn’t that an American value?
I think that’s all very nice and I think what you’ve said is true, but I’m talking about the best picture…
Right, but you also just described my pick as “liberal”…
Well, it’s going to be pushed in that category because right now it’s all about real news versus fake news and all the bullcrap…
It’s not bullcrap. It’s incredibly important! The only way the average American knows about what is happening in the world is through the news. Are you flying to Syria to see for yourself what’s happening there? No, you rely on journalists for that.
You know what a similar thing is? I loved Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour, but I would never give that Best Picture because we all know that story.
But the story of the Pentagon Papers is not as well-known as the events of World War II…
Oh, everyone knows about that! Unless you were born…right now. The film that shows the creativity of today, of thinking over the top, is The Shape of Water. Who ever in their head to think up a movie about a monster in a tank, a woman who can’t speak…
Look, my second choice is The Shape of Water. But I’ve got to go with my gut and my gut says The Post was the best film of 2017.
You know what my second choice is? Three Billboards. You haven’t seen it.
I haven’t, but I wish I had, because I would love to argue with you about it, because everyone I’ve talked to about it has said it was complete garbage.
OH MY GOD! Film people?!
Yes. And you know a movie has to be about more than good acting performances. You’ve been doing this job long enough to know that.
So, that about wraps it up. Is there anything else you want the people to know?
If my picks don’t win, we’re gonna have a problem doing this next year.
Really? Because because you say that every year, and every year you come back.
Well, last year [my Best Actor pick] Leonardo won. So I came back. This year Gary Oldman better win.
So you are willing to state, on the record, that if Gary Oldman doesn’t win Best Actor, you will not be doing this next year?
Exactly. So my fans better put pressure on…
Okay, well thank you so much for doing this.
And happy 75th birthday!
What?! How dare…[angry sputters, I turn off the mic]
So, Nana-fans, what do you think of our picks for 2018? And are you in any way concerned that Nana will quit if Gary Oldman doesn’t win Best Actor? Share your thoughts below.