Reel Dad: Oscar’s lessons for 2018

Wow. What an Oscar night.

And what a year at the movies it honored.

Before we close the books on the Academy Awards for 2018, let’s take a look at what we learned from the films that won. And the moments we may never forget.

Imagine what a movie can be. With The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro reminds us of the visual potential of film to tell a story that words, alone, cannot express. By choosing for his lead character to be mute — a janitorial worker beautifully portrayed by Sally Hawkins — del Toro lets us know that images will matter in his movie more than words. So it’s no surprise that, of the elements that contribute to this film, the spoken words may be the least essential. It’s what we see that matters. And what del Toro dares to imagine.

Reimagine chapters we know. With Dunkirk and Darkest Hour, the moviemakers in charge look at events taught in school — the early days of World War II when British soldiers are trapped on the coast of France — through the distinct eyes of leaders, soldiers and citizens. The results amaze. With Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan creates a new visual language for a movie about war, less dependent on long speeches and standard confrontations; in Darkest Hour, Gary Oldman reaches beyond the impact of makeup to reveal a leader’s soul. Thanks to these films, we will never look at these moments in history the same way as we learn, again, about bravery and truth.

Reach beyond the plot to tell the story. With Get Out, Jordan Peele dares to reinvent the genre of the horror movie to tell a story as current as today’s news. In a world trying to reconcile the relations between races, Peele uses a type of movie as old as the movies — the psychological horror thriller — to express his fears about what our world may be becoming. And because the elements of the film are so true to the genre it celebrates — from the stares from people to the power of a mysterious teacup — Peele gives himself the freedom to reach beyond the plot to make us think about the world we inhabit. Years from now, this will be the movie remembered from 2017.

Make the movie about more than the movie. With Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Martin McDonagh accomplishes more than capturing an effective story on screen. He enables voices to be heard. And he makes a movie that represents more than what happens in a theater. While some may disagree with those voices, and what they say, the movie makes it impossible to overlook the power of their messages. And, in Best Actress Frances McDormand, the writer/director finds the ideal channel for his rage. The actress makes us believe every layer of her grief, confusion and anger.

When in doubt, cast reliable women who can act. In a year filled with important narratives, an overlooked story may be the quality of the performances from the veteran female actors honored by the Academy. What a collection. Oscar winners Frances McDormand and Allison Janney. Nominees Meryl Streep, Laurie Metcalf, Leslie Manville, Sally Hawkins, and Octavia Spencer. These are not one-shot performers we’ll never hear from again. Year after year they deliver powerful portrayals that enrich the movies they make. And how incredible to get to see them all within the span of 12 months.

Remember, the 14th time can be the charm. For Roger Deakins, Oscar night may have become a darkened experience, given that he had been nominated 13 times and watched other people win 13 times. But, finally, he got his moment on Sunday evening, and Blade Runner 2049 was the right film for his first Oscar win. How appropriate for a man who has envisioned so many worlds for so many years, in so many films, to be honored for a movie that imagines a world we have yet to experience. Congratulations, Mr. Deakins. Well done.

What Films Did Oscar Forget?

As we bask in the memories of Oscar night, we should remember some films that the Academy overlooked. Check online streaming, on demand and DVD rentals for these films that should not disappear.

Personal Shopper

Complex thrillers about real people can face an uphill journey with the Academy. And, in Personal Shopper, we don’t always know what actually happens. The film is filled with so many twists and turns — some real, some fake — that we aren’t totally certain, as it concludes, what has happened and what has been imagined. But we don’t care. We are spooked, entertained, and we have experienced a star turn from Kristen Stewart who proves, with each performance, how much more she brings to the screen than her Twilight appearances would suggest. As she helps us see what could happen through this personal shopper’s eyes, she helps us believe in what this lady may face. And that gives us a great roller coaster ride at the movies.

Detroit

How the Academy could overlook this meaningful film reconfirms what a competitive year we experienced. We can learn from history. Movies help when they explore issues or moments with might otherwise forget. Detroit may not be an easy film to watch but it’s an essential film to experience. Especially now. It opens our eyes to what we may not see and fills our hearts with what we should feel. From its first moments — one evening as riots begin — we know Detroit will be serious about its issues. As a director, Kathryn Bigelow does not shoot violence scenes from an artistic view. Rather she restages what history teaches in painstaking detail for multiple cameras to capture. This approach puts us in the middle of horrifying events, surrounded by anger, unable to escape the intensity. We are there in Detroit in 1967. And we can’t get away.

Wind River

Sadly, this film about a man’s search for truth never caught on despite a galvanizing performance from Jeremy Renner. As a filmmaker, Taylor Sheridan writes movies about people and places searching for reasons to move forward. In Sicario he creates an FBI agent who must confront her illusions to address the challenges of drug traffic between the U.S. and Mexico. In Hell or High Water the screenwriter introduces a lawman nearing retirement who wants one more chance to make sense of people who steal and kill. And, in Wind River, Sheridan writes and directs a powerful tale of a man who tries to connect the dots when a young woman is murdered on a Native American reservation in a remote part of Wyoming. With each film, Sheridan takes what some would consider a conventional plot, fills the story with well-developed characters, and uses those characters to bring issues to life. Hopefully, soon, Oscar will notice.

Battle of the Sexes.

Battle of the Sexes

How can an Oscar winner live up to expectations after winning an Academy Award? Emma Stone — in her first film after La La Land — shines with a meticulous portrayal of Billie Jean King in the 1970s. Screenwriter Simon Beaufoy has more on his mind than opening a time capsule; he chooses to open the door into King’s private closet as she battles her feelings about women. As King, Stone is a revelation, reaching deeper into the character’s inner demons than, as an actress, she has journeyed before. This is not the same lady who delighted and danced her way to Oscar. Playing any living person is tricky; the balance of respect and truth can toss many a well-intentioned performance. Stone embraces this challenge, never letting the surface suggest the core, never relying on visual tricks to reveal truth. The performance is commanding and authentic. And Stone makes the tennis moves work, too.

Wonderstruck

When we are children, we learn how to trust by stretching our boundaries, testing ourselves as we seek adventure. This film tells two stories. One, in striking black-and-white, uses the conventions of silent film (precise camera movement, wall-to-wall music) to follow a young, deaf girl in the 1920s who longs to escape her palatial, but unhappy, family home in New Jersey. In alternating sequences, the film jumps ahead 50 years to the tough urban jungle of 1970s Manhattan. Suffering hearing loss resulting from a home accident, a young boy searches the city to find the father he has never met. A director less comfortable with nuance might toss too many clues to how these situations could ultimately resolve and connect. But Todd Haynes is too savvy to descend into the obvious. Instead he takes his time to carefully develop each narrative and explore every character to let the story naturally progress. He focuses on what will make each moment authentic to the story and meaningful to the audience. And it works. Beautifully.

Because it’s so easy to access a large cinema library, no movie has to ever disappear. That’s good news for any of us who want to savor what the Academy could not honor. Enjoy.