By Johnny Papan
The Academy Awards were created to recognize excellence in the hard-working world of cinema. Embarking on its record 90th ceremony this year, the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, California will be hosting the movie industry’s brightest stars as they walk the red carpet in hopes of capturing that illustrious golden Oscar-statue. The Oscars bring attention to every aspect of film—from story to technical and creative execution—and give everyone from the director to the (usually under-recognized) sound editor a chance for well-deserved recognition.
This year features an eclectic mixture of cinematic stylings from directors, writers, actors, cinematographers and film crews from all walks of life. Hollywood blockbusters are in competition with indie-darlings, creating intrigue for those who want to know whom the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences deems the most deserving of the Oscar.
Three filmmakers are in a special spotlight this year, as their visions as both writer and director have also put each of their films in contention for best picture, each completely unique from one another. Guillermo del Toro, Greta Gerwig, and Jordan Peele have captained three of the most talked about films of the last year. It’s no surprise they’re all up for the same three Oscars: Best Picture, Best Screenplay, and Best Director. Here is a comparison of the trio.
1. Guillermo del Toro: The Shape of Water
Of the three, del Toro is the most seasoned as both a writer and director. Known for his fairy-tale like works such as, most famously: Pan’s Labyrinth, del Toro doesn’t hide his dreamy imagination with his newest effort: The Shape of Water, a love-story between an outcast woman and intelligent sea-creature.
Taking place in 1962 during the Cold War, the American government captures a mysterious humanoid sea-creature from South America, which they bring to their secret laboratory for testing. Elisa, our main character, a mute who works as a cleaner for the lab learns how to communicate with the sea creature via sign language. The two develop a bond, but a wrench is thrown in their relationship when both the American and Russian governments want the creature dead so it cannot be educated and used as a weapon.
The film is, in essence, about unconditional love. Being a mute, Elisa has always felt different than those around her because of her inability to communicate with words. The creature, however, sees Elisa for exactly what she is—free from judgement or any social stigmas. In return, Elisa (played by Sally Hawkins, nominated for Best Actress) sees the creature for exactly what it is, a pure of heart being. Aside from the sea-creature, Elisa’s two closest friends are Giles (played by Richard Jenkins, nominated for Best Supporting Actor), a gay illustrative artist, and Zelda (played by Octavia Spencer, nominated for Best Supporting Actress), her African-American co-worker. In the 60s (in which the film is set), associating yourself with people who are gay or of colour was risky, yet Elisa looks past this and her friends look past Elisa’s unchosen vocal silence. The two help Elisa in trying to save the creature, without judging their romantic bond.
As expected, The Shape of Water is visually the most cinematically avante-garde of the three films. It’s riddled with subtle but deliberate choices that convey it as much a portrait as it is a film. The movie is drenched in a very aquatic colour scheme throughout its entirety and it’s orchestral score pulls the strings to fill a heavy heart. Near the end of the second act, the film takes on a dreamy structural change when Elisa imagines herself confessing her love to the creature through song. Though the Shape of Water is riddled with colour, this scene is shot in black and white, inspired by television variety programming of the era.
- Best Picture
- Best Actress: Sally Hawkins
- Best Supporting Actor: Richard Jenkins
- Best Supporting Actress: Octavia Spencer
- Best Director: Guillermo del Toro
- Best Original Music Score: Alexandre Desplat
- Best Original Screenplay: Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor
- Best Cinematography: Dan Laustsen
- Best Film Editing: Sidney Wolinsky
- Best Costume Design: Luis Sequeira
- Best Sound Mixing: Brad Zoern, Glen Gauthier, Christian T. Cooke
- Best Production Design: Paul D. Austerberry, Shane Vieau, Jeffrey A. Melvin
- Best Sound Editing: Nathan Robitaille, Nelson Ferreira
2. Jordan Peele: Get Out
Known for his starring roles on MadTV and Key & Peele, sketch-comedy star Jordan Peele made his directorial debut with Get Out. It’s also his first venture into the horror genre, although he doesn’t shy away from a few tongue and cheek moments. Despite being his first experience in the director’s chair, the film has received an amazingly positive response for his Twilight Zone take on today’s real-world social issues of racial dynamics.
A young black photographer named Andre (played by Daniel Kaluuya, nominated for Best Actor) has been invited to meet the parents of his white girlfriend Rose (played by Allison Williams). At first, Andre is hesitant about meeting Rose’s parents. He fears they may pass judgement or discomfort about his race. Rose convinces Andre that her parents aren’t racist and will treat him as part of the family. Although welcomed at first, Andre soon finds himself in a sinister predicament after a hypnotic therapy session with Rose’s mother, Missy (played by Catherine Keener).
Thematically, the film is a strong social commentary on racial tensions. Jordan Peele makes this obvious. There are constant references to the white-black social dynamic, touching on things such as slavery, slurs, and putting on a “face” while thinking something completely different. It’s also interesting to note how the other black people who lived with Rose’s parents as workers behaved more like “white people,” as if Peele is saying black people needed to be more white in order to be accepted and get work.
Get Out puts a major focus on tension throughout the film, using tight shots and brooding music to add intensity when it’s needed. Everything from meeting the parents, to being hypnotized, to the strange altercations that happened between Andre and the white-folk he meets in the film. On a stylistic level, Peele doesn’t get overly fancy, only opting for trippy sequences when Andre visits the “sunken place.” As mentioned earlier, Get Out felt like a feature-length modern day episode of the Twilight Zone.
- Best Picture
- Best Actor: Daniel Kaluuya
- Best Director: Jordan Peele
- Best Original Screenplay: Jordan Peele
3. Greta Gerwig: Lady Bird
Lady Bird is the indie darling of this group. Like Jordan Peele, this is Greta Gerwig’s first time in the director’s chair. On screen, it’s the most realistic of the three films in it’s complete capture of the teenage experience.
The film opens with Christine (played by Saoirse Ronan, nominated for Best Actress), who prefers to go by her self-given name “Lady Bird” and her mother Marion (played by Laurie Metcalf, nominated for Best Supporting Actress) waking up in bed together and having a drive through their hometown of Sacramento, California. The two have a loving and supporting relationship yet have clear differences in values causing them to bicker in a classic mother-daughter format. The film takes us on Lady Bird’s journey through her angsty teens while she and her mother develop an understanding of each other over time.
Lady Bird (almost) explores two themes. On the surface, what I think makes Lady Bird so appealing is its ability to hit home with it’s audience. It fully encapsulates the teenage experience in just a little over 90 minutes. Lady Bird experiences everything from family issues to finding your first love to having your heart broken and finding someone new. Lady Bird cuts class, tries to make herself look “cool” in front of the popular kids, neglects her best friend to hang with a new crowd. I would be very surprised if there was someone out there who didn’t connect with at least one of Lady Bird’s experiences in the film.
On a deeper level, the film is about the parent-child dynamic and trying to find an understanding of each other, especially when the child is starting to blossom into their own person. Lady Bird feels Marion doesn’t like who she is, while Marion feels Lady Bird doesn’t appreciate the efforts she and Lady Bird’s father Larry (played by Tracy Letts,) make to keep the young one happy. When you add the situations of the family struggling financially and Lady Bird’s want to go to an art school in New York, there is another layer of complications.
Lady Bird takes a simple, realistic approach in comparison to the other two films on this list. It puts a hyper-focus on character dynamics and relationships as opposed to visual sequences. At most, it’s a little quirky at times. Regardless, it’s perfect just the way it is.
- Best Picture
- Best Actress: Saoirse Ronan
- Best Supporting Actress: Laurie Metcalf
- Best Director: Greta Gerwig
- Best Original Screenplay: Greta Gerwig
What makes each of these films so great are the stories as well as our connection to the characters and their situations. The addition of visual dynamics is always a fun watch and adds to the overall artistry of the film, but as explored with Lady Bird, sometimes the stripped-back, realistic approach helps us deeper connect to the characters.
A massive kudos to each filmmaker for conceptualizing their ideas, writing their stories, and being the captains of their creative projects. Double kudos to Greta Gerwig and Jordan Peele for achieving what they did with their directorial debuts. And we can’t leave Guillermo del Toro hanging considering the scope of the Shape of Water, which is the most nominated film of the entire Oscars.
Enjoy your Oscars-parties, it’s gonna be a good one!
InFocus blogger Johnny Papan is a Canadian writer and filmmaker from Surrey, British Columbia. You can find him at www.johnnypapan.ml