In one version of our American story, we are still a united people. We’re not really bad, any of us. We’re caught up in a kind of tribal warfare we don’t understand. We aren’t really racists — some of us have just been raised that way. Forgiveness matters. The worst things will always exist. The only thing we can change is our reaction to those things.
In that America, Three Billboards of Ebbing, Missouri becomes the zeitgeist movie of the moment. Anchored by a ferocious, uncompromising Frances McDormand, whose Mildred is the living embodiment of the famous Stephen King line (and one I relate to daily), “sometimes being a bitch is all a woman has to hold onto.” Her husband evacuated her like a pile of swept up dust and replaced her with an empty-headed 19-year-old whose ovaries vibrate with fertility. Her daughter, who mostly hated her anyway, took off one day after a fight where unretractable things were said, and while out was raped and murdered and left for dead. Mildred, like each of us, is waking up to a country ruled by a fame whore whose only concern is how he can expand his brand and win his petty battles. Winning is all that matters. Win, even if it means exploiting the worst America has to offer. Win, because losing is for losers. The America that elected Trump to office wants the America that was promised to them: the right to pursue their own happiness no matter the cost or consequence to anyone else. Buy it, eat it, toss it. Fill up the oceans with garbage. Buy a new iPhone or SUV. Have a mansion with a 60-inch flatscreen in every room if you feel like. Drill it, consume it, destroy it, because that’s our American right. McDormand’s Mildred doesn’t care about any of that. She pretty much hates the world and everything and everyone in it. She would be numb to it all — except that what happened to her daughter is so painful in a way few things are. Sure, we can pretend that nothing matters because the world sucks, but a child’s murder? That changes you. Even Mildred is undone by it.
Three Billboards is a movie for people who feel for Mildred and perhaps feel akin to her. It’s a movie for people who believe we can find a way to reach out to Trump’s America because, deep down, we’re all still just people looking out for one another. Remember that story last year about how the Trump supporters and the Hillary supporters came together to help a woman find her dog? That is the undercurrent of Three Billboards, even more than its message about violence against women. And boy is it fun to watch her raise hell in Shit Town.
In another America, the women are rising up, angry and forceful about the harassment of women and the way women have been prevented from accessing the top of the ladder success. Call it blowback from watching Hillary Clinton get destroyed from all sides last year, from the Right and the Left, while a guy who boasts that he can do anything to women just because he’s famous got elected. Whatever the #MeToo movement has become (most of it is positive, though there’s an element that borders on mass hysteria), there is no question that the idea of a woman winning Best Director for only the second time in Oscar’s 90 year history seems to be some sort of offshoot of that. That’s if the flurry of op-eds about the Golden Globes are to be believed. There is only one woman in the race, and that’s Greta Gerwig whose Lady Bird has charmed audiences from Telluride to Sacramento. Dee Rees is in the mix too, but neither the film critics nor journalists seem to be pushing her the way they are Gerwig, perhaps because they can read tea leaves and see Lady Bird actually has a real shot at the prize.
Mudbound, which has now earned two SAG noms and two Globe noms, is still trying to wrestle free from the ongoing but futile debate with film critics about the old way of watching movies versus the new way. It’s not a war they will win, and we’re waiting to see where the Academy eventually sits with it. On the surface, Lady Bird is a film that is hard to make a case for in terms of winning — except for the indisputable fact that people really love it. They really love it. Some no doubt feel like it reflects their own childhood heading into adulthood: making mistakes, not knowing the right path to pursue, but wanting out of town at all costs. We can compare Gerwig’s surrogate character played by Saoirse Ronan with, say, George Bailey played by Jimmy Stewart — a guy who, like Lady Bird, wanted nothing but to shake the dust of his crummy town off his feet and see the world. But Bailey knew he couldn’t leave. He did the grown-up noble thing and stayed for reasons bigger than chasing his own happiness. By contrast, Lady Bird has no reason to stay chained to her hometown. She isn’t tasked with saving the old Building and Loan, so she takes flight to in fact see the world. In the America that would award Lady Bird as Best Picture, women really are in the midst of a revolution — they’re making strides to change things for themselves, embarking on a quest that leaves the old world behind.
The America where Get Out takes Best Picture has decided to finally award a black director rather than just for Best Picture, which happened with 12 Years a Slave and Moonlight. On those Oscar nights, Best Director instead went to Alfonso Cuaron for Gravity and Damien Chazelle (the first American-born director to win since 2012) for La La Land, respectively. If Peele were to win on March 4th, he would be the first African American in 90 years to claim the prize. Get Out is a film about racism told from the perspective of someone forced to dwell in the absurd parallel realm that exists alongside a lily white reality. It suggests that racism is always lurking in America, no matter which side of the political spectrum a person pretends to align. Much of the Left is in a constant state of self-shame these days, where being woke means a daily ritual of saying the right thing, doing the right thing, taking the right side — and if we don’t, we shame ourselves or others for not being woke enough.
What’s that all about? It’s probably about having our guiding force, our North Star Barack Obama leave office and seeing his legacy usurped by a con-artist whose rise depended on overt hatred of his predecessor by an oppositional force. The vacuum created by Obama’s vacancy has left us spinning out of control because the Left seems to have no real leadership right now. Bizarrely, the Bernie Sanders “revolution” revolves primarily around white folks (almost all the states where Bernie beat Hillary in the primaries are, incredibly, 90-97% white), and to watch that movement rise up alongside Trump’s revolution has been surreal to many of us. We feel deep shame every day that this is our country. We can’t punish Trump, nor his supporters — they seem to be gleeful, impenetrable, reveling in their “deplorable” label. So we punish ourselves any way we can. Get Out is the perfect film for that — it is a literal smack down for supposedly well-meaning whites who believe they are “not racist,” but of course anyone on the Left who is white feels that internal battle too. Are we racists? We might be. Was that racist, what I just said? It might be. Get Out is about that paranoia, to be sure, but it also scratches that itch we all feel because deep down we all feel some sort of gnawing guilt and shame.
Like Lady Bird and Three Billboards, Get Out is also a brilliantly-made film. It is unlike anything else released this year and its esteem grows daily. That’s unusual for a film that came out so early in the year and has already made all of the money it’s going to make. But its appearance among the top ten of Cahiers du Cinema and Sight & Sound proves that it has carved out a permanent piece in the canon of the greatest films ever made. Its early release has given its legacy time to simmer and gel, and it has come out all the better for it. It resonates with the here and now. Are some people offended by it? Probably. Anyone who has never grappled internally with that epigenetic and endemic racism probably still feels defensive at the idea that race ever comes into play. It is always there, stuck within us and between us because how could it not be? Get Out turns that tension into a horror film.
Another film that brings so much of all of these elements together is Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water. A film about the mythical American “greatness” that Trump and Steve Bannon envision for us all must necessarily be set in the years before the civil and women’s rights movements, where god is made in the image of a white man. The Shape of Water stands out because of its commitment to that which still makes us gloriously human: love, sex, the cinema, conversation. No other film has brought me to life the way this one did because there is only so much pain and anger a person can endure. We long for the better parts of ourselves to prevail, because what other option do we have? Del Toro’s magical world connects its main character’s wordless, invisible existence with her sensuality, and likens it to water — the shape of water, which has no shape, which takes on the shape of whatever seeks to contain it. It is probably a hard sell for people looking for realism at a time like this. One must abandon that realism to believe that a sea creature and a woman could find love with each other. But of course, anyone who grew up on monster movies of the 1950s, like Guillermo Del Toro did, will have no problem with that. I don’t know what kind of America awards a vivid, original work of art like this one. But it’s a pretty cool America that would.
We don’t want to go back to the world Michael Shannon wants to preserve in The Shape of Water. But, like it or not, we’re headed in that direction. Sometimes it seems like only art can hold onto us and not let go, no matter how hard it gets. A win for this film is a win for art. Imperfect, essential, awash in accidental beauty.
Are we Call Me By Your Name? Are we able to let go of what nags at the fringes every day and remember that kind of innocence? Abandoned love, stolen wet kisses, a body awakened? Or are we The Florida Project — a world made of the juxtaposition of rampant undeniable capitalism that leaves poor families to fend for themselves, to hitchhike to the outskirts of Anaheim to light candles on cupcakes and watch the fireworks for free? The votes are so far telling us that these stories — as vital and memorable and visceral and wonderful as they are — aren’t at the center of things.
Finally, there is a more traditional America we could all embrace, and that’s the one that would award The Post or Dunkirk for Best Picture because both are about the brand of heroism we all know so well. It hearkens back to times when good and evil were clear cut. In Dunkirk, Winston Churchill was fighting to resist nothing short of a fascist takeover of the world by Hitler. In The Post, it was journalism versus the Nixon administration. How interesting, isn’t it, that our greatest fears about Trump are embodied in those two reflections of times in our history when we felt the ground beneath our feet shifting, when it was one force of good versus a powerful evil. Both are David vs. Goliath stories. Both show us our better selves, the selves who know not from guilt and shame of being part of the the “white establishment,” but exactly the opposite. Watching these films, we have a moment to feel good about ourselves and our history because we were on the right side of it.
Right now, the critics and the industry do not have their ducks in a row to define who they are by what they choose as the Best Picture of the year. The choices they make for posterity will say so much about 2017, the first year of the Trump administration — a snapshot of society’s concerns at a time when nothing makes sense. Everything we count on feels like its falling apart, even something as sturdy and permanent as democracy itself.
When we figure out who we are, or who we want to be, or who we need to be — we will know what film will win Best Picture.