Into a culture awash in purity and snark comes Guillermo del Toro’s vibrant, sensual, abundant imagination. Watching pop culture try to parse The Shape of Water is like watching someone like Donald Trump try to use chopsticks: he can’t figure them out so he abandons them for the nearest fork. The most they can muster is “it’s strange” or “she fucks a fish?” The magical realism that profoundly reshaped American cinema at the hands of Alfonso Cuaron, Alejandro G. Inarritu, and now Guillermo del Toro is immeasurable, at least not for a decade or so when looking back at the time when there were so many reasons to stay home. Yet these directors, in their own ways, have brought vitality back to theaters with movies that were so good no one wanted to wait until they hit streaming. Of the Three Amigos, del Toro has now gone the deepest and most personal with The Shape of Water. Though there is always that aspect of American life, or a broad consensus, that will be left scratching their heads over something they can’t quite define, to trust in the artist to take you somewhere you weren’t expecting to go is much of the reason we have art at all.
The Shape of Water is unequivocally about prejudice and oppression. It is just that del Toro uses an imagined creature to bring the message home. Some can go with it, others have trouble with it, even if it was something del Toro himself imagined as a child: what if she actually fell in love with and had sex with that creature? Our minds go there, we can’t help it. We just don’t want to admit our minds go there. America is still so very puritanical about sex. Children are raised being branded from birth. Almost every big budget movie or animated film has sprung from some other place. Our choices are narrowed continually every year: we’re down to a handful of fast food chains up and down the highway. Our up-and-coming generations have been conditioned to respond only to that which is familiar to them. The Shape of Water cracks open a portal to the magnificent, alive world of a prolific artist’s imagination. That is something.
American movies were never the same after the 1970s and they will never be the same after the “Three Amigos.” The last of them to get full Academy recognition is del Toro, whose Shape of Water has already won him the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, at the Golden Globes, and at the Critics Choice. That puts del Toro at the top when it comes to who might win the DGA this weekend.
If del Toro has an immediate challenger, it would have to be Christopher Nolan, who has been nominated four times now by the DGA: Memento, The Dark Knight, Inception, and now Dunkirk. Perplexingly, only Dunkirk earned him his first Oscar nomination for Best Director. Dunkirk is a towering achievement — a horror film in its own right, bringing us right into the thick of one of the most difficult battles in World War II. Cornered by Hitler’s armies and bombarded by the Luftwaffe, the mission was to rescue some 300,000 Allied soldiers trapped on the beach. Had they all been killed, it’s hard to imagine how England, or the rest of the world, would have managed the wherewithal to defeat Hitler. Telling many different stories simultaneously, Dunkirk is one of the grandest and most impressive works of cinema anyone has ever pulled off — to make a movie that expansive and epic seem like it was happening in real time. Every time we leave one story and movie to the next, the sense of despair and panic becomes more and more palpable. No one would ever know what the stakes were at the evacuation of Dunkirk unless they’d been there. Nolan’s film is the closest thing to having even the slightest idea what that must have been like. No director working in the high tech effects world has managed to define his own school of filmmaking as well as Nolan has. No one makes movies like he does. Dunkirk is breathtaking, ambitious, and unforgettable.
There is a chance Nolan could pull off the upset, but 14,000 or so people in the DGA have to decide that he is better than all four of the other nominees.
I look forward to the day when directors as talented and ambitious as Jordan Peele are regarded simply as great directors, and not necessarily singled out because of how rare it is for black directors to earn recognition with the DGA. One day that will be the case, but we’re not there yet. It is still an extraordinary thing to see a movie like Get Out, which defies the genre that confines it (like Peele defies the categorization he finds himself in), do so well in an Oscar race that mostly rewards stories of white male heroes doing the heavy lifting. Probably no film has made a greater cultural impact this year than Get Out has. No film feels as urgent and as current. It’s been a while since a new director has caused such a stir, earning $175 million off a $4 million budget. There isn’t anyone out there who isn’t excited about Jordan Peele. We do have to talk about race and history, even if we’ll be leaving them behind one day. No black director has ever won either at the DGA (Peele makes history there being nominated twice, in the same year to boot) or the Oscars, even though recently two films directed by black directors have won Best Picture. Get Out is surely a director’s movie because, as you can see, it is a film that could almost be watched with no dialogue whatsoever. Why? Because what thrums beneath the surface, what the movie is about is all that isn’t said, not what is being said. Peele has made a masterpiece of subtext, of tension, of irrational fear. As brutally violent as the film gets by the end, the wind up is the more terrifying part. Somehow he has made a film that uniquely addresses one group of people but manages to also tell a universal story at the same time.
The Oscar race needs more movies like this one, needs films that burst onto the scene organically, not because they were tailor made for it. Get Out perfectly illustrates the power of cinema to reach so many people at once, and the power of art to persuade. If you look, you will see. If you listen, you will hear. Peele will no doubt win one DGA this year for first-time director. He might even win two.
Martin McDonagh has never written about perfect people, nor inspirational stories — he writes from the perspective of scratching the surface of normalcy to get at what festers underneath. He wrote one of, if not the, year’s most interesting characters with Mildred — an angry. bitter woman whose husband beat her for years and whose daughter was abducted, raped, and murdered. “Raped while dying.” There is nothing funny about that. There is nothing funny about human beings because we are more horrible and evil than any other living thing on the planet. We’re only funny because we’re so absurd and lacking in self-awareness. We are ridiculous. There are a few directors who beautifully capture that ridiculousness. The Coen brothers are one, Martin McDonagh is another. For the movie’s faults, especially one that has divided people on its merits, there is no denying how entertaining these characters are to watch. Mostly, though, it’s Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell doing what actors do best: elevating the material. McDonagh gave them the freedom to do that, while piecing together his American fable about the misfits, fumbling towards some kind of redemption in a life and a culture that mostly forbids it. Our strident need for every aspect of art to obey our societal commands for perfection is going to eventually make art into pretty little lies. When art loses its power to tell the truth, it loses its power. Still, McDonagh is the long shot here, unless we’re talking about Ron Howard or Ben Affleck or Steven Spielberg territory.
“Well she was an American girl, raised on promises. She couldn’t help thinking that there was a little more life somewhere else. After all, it was a great big world with lots of places to run to.” Not many people have ever made a movie about an ordinary American girl raised on promises, but Greta Gerwig did. She made one about a teenager growing up in a country that promises a lot but delivers very little. Though she seems to like Justin Timberlake and Dave Matthews better than Tom Petty, her character is straight out of one his best songs. Most young women growing up today will have no idea that women don’t really get movies like this anymore. We used to. At some point the trend turned women in movies almost exclusively into objects of desire, affection, and motherly support, but really they are subjects unto themselves, imperfect though they be, with the problems of life facing them down. Lady Bird doesn’t have much to complain about except that she doesn’t really know what to do with herself and her restless energy. She just wants to go as far away as she can as soon as she can. She won’t really stop until someone stops her. It’s unusual to see a movie like this because most of the time the only thing people seem interested in about teenage girls are their sexuality: who are they doing it with? Here is the rare film that offers up something else, a different way of telling that story of a girl — a person — coming of age. Next weekend Greta Gerwig joins a very short list of women ever up for the DGA prize. She is in the esteemed company of Lina Wertmuller, Randa Haines, Barbra Streisand, Valerie Faris, Kathryn Bigelow, Sofia Coppola, and Jane Campion.
Probably no single person this year has gotten more publicity or a bigger push in hopes of righting the wrongs of an industry all too focused on by men. Men do the watching so women must always be the watched. It’s harder for them to break through and be the watchers. Even though we are, of course we are. Gerwig has co-directed and co-written and written but this is her first singular effort as writer/director launching the Gerwig oeuvre in her own right, out from Noah Baumbach. The critics, the film industry, men and women all seem to be pushing Lady Bird along, holding it like an egg and protecting it as the future of the species, not to be destroyed under any circumstances. The story of Lady Bird and the Oscar race is not yet told but it seems clear that the movie has touched many this year. Gerwig is sprung perhaps from the Wes Anderson school, alongside Baumbach, Mike Mills, Miranda July. Or she’s sprung from the John Hughes school of angsty teens. Or the Woody Allen school of quirky comedy. Or maybe she’s started her own school. Either way, it’s always a welcome change to have a woman earn a nomination because they are so very rare.
The DGA is one of the most important stops on the road to Oscar, along with the BAFTA and the WGA. Now you can take our poll and tell us which one you think will win this weekend: