The race for this year’s Best Picture Oscar is uniquely unpredictable – at least five films have a plausible path to victory, far more than we usually see by this point in the season. The race for this year’s Best Picture Oscar is also unique in that, if you throw in I Tonya, the race provides an exquisite decade-by-decade historiography of Anglo-American culture since the 1940s. It’s not enough for these films to merely be set in their time; they’re also very much about their times.
Two of this year’s nine BP nominees, Dunkirk and Darkest Hour, are two sides of the same story, or even more, if you ask Christopher Nolan’s very active online fanbase. What were the odds we’d have two Best Picture-nominated films shining a light on the same 78-year-old event? Maybe something like the odds that Britain would have given, around the time of Neville Chamberlain’s Munich agreement with Hitler, of plunging into another World War. Exactly nobody in the U.K. wanted the mostly calamitous, occasionally inspiring events of May and June 1940 to define the 1940s, but they did, oh how they did. The movies end the same way, with Churchill’s words casting their painful, proud shadow over the rest of the decade (and in some ways the century): “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”
Moving forward a decade, the Best Picture group remains in a recovering England, with another indomitable Brit who favo(u)rs his breakfast just so. While Darkest Hour and Dunkirk could do little but marvel at their male leads’ masculinity and willingness for sacrifice, it’s now the 1950s, and so Phantom Thread can both show the decade’s love for masculinity and deconstruct it somewhat. Phantom Thread reminds us of that decade’s obsession (at least in the press) with fashion and royalty, and also takes us behind the silk curtain, with a (form-)fitting twist that reminds us that behind every successful man…is more than just a woman.
The Shape of Water sometimes feels like it’s trying to wrap all of the 1960s into one movie: a paranoid, repressive, Russian-countering government; a black woman situating herself in an era of civil rights protests; a closeted gay man failing at Mad Men-like advertising; a misunderstood creature (feature); and of course, a woman as silent as the silent spring, desperate to be seen, heard, understood. It’s set in maybe 1963 or 1964, just as the ’60s was becoming The Sixties, and it demonstrates that at a certain point America could no longer keep itself from taking the plunge.
The Post, almost entirely set in June 1971, is partly about the events of the 1950s and 1960s, but it establishes the 1970s as the time America will say “What were we thinking then, anyway?” The Post suggests that we will want the media to do the reckoning, and indeed goes so far as to finish the movie with a seemingly unrelated burglary at the Watergate hotel. Are there modern echoes? Sure, but perhaps not the ones director Steven Spielberg intended. When I see Streep/Graham and Hanks/Bradlee agreeing that, despite our previous chummy relationship with power, we can’t allow this sort of thing anymore, I think less of the 45th President and more of the nascent #metoo movement.
Fast forward ten more years, hop across the ocean to Italy, and welcome to the 1980s, a time that was, for LGBTQ people…not that much better than the one seen in The Shape of Water, no matter how many Psychedelic Furs songs you dance to. Sure, Call Me By Your Name is set in a time of white privilege, before anyone was calling it that, but when you’re 17 and have to remain closeted even while in “liberated” Europe, turns out you don’t feel so privileged. Call Me By Your Name is one of those heartbreak stories, but the part that lingered most with me, and the reason I suspect the filmmakers maintained the source novel’s period setting, was the father’s tender speech at the end, proof that even in a time of repression, there were life-sustaining moments of enlightenment.
And now a slight cheat, looking at a film that probably just missed the Best Picture lineup. As with The Post, I, Tonya is happy to consider the effects of earlier decades (savor the mullets and mullet music!), but the heart of the action in I, Tonya is in the 1990s, or as Tonya Harding says, “It’s what you all came for, folks!” And as with most of the Best Picture lineup, this movie isn’t just in its decade, it’s about how that decade became that decade. I, Tonya is about how the America of The Post became tabloid-centered and rabidly obsessed with chewing up and spitting out ordinary people. In a sneaky-good way, it’s also about what the hell happened to America’s working class around this time, transitioning from a 40-year career at a reliable employer (like the lab in The Shape of Water) to a life defined by a brief moment of fame followed by itinerant jobby jobs.
One wouldn’t expect a Best Picture nominee to be set in, and crystallize, the 2000s, but that’s why this Oscar year is special. Molly’s Game is…I mean, Disaster Artist is…kidding! The titular lead of Lady Bird tells us early on that she wishes she could live through something, and the tension that establishes turns out to be endearing. Lady Bird is like the best movie John Hughes never made, or perhaps (because of its rigid adherence to a school-year calendar) Harry Potter in the non-magical exurbs, but for me it was about writer-director Greta Gerwig’s journey from 2000s mumblecore (where she established herself) to normcore, showing us how hard it was to be normal even before social media.
Finally, we arrive at our current decade, and our final two Best Picture nominees are two of the three frontrunners to win the thing, and like the third, The Shape of Water, they’re both coming apart at the seams with social relevance. If one of them is closer to The Shape of trying to fit the whole decade into a movie, it’s probably Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which is at least elliptically about police brutality, rape, female revenge, violence, racism and white ignorance, and perhaps the flattening/democratizing of popular discourse as represented by the billboards (they’re like social media that way). And it’s funny! Or is it? Sometimes it feels like it’s trying to essay the tone of, uh, all the decade’s movies, with results that you will find either brilliant or huh? Whatever happens on Oscar night, the 2010s will likely be remembered for a Trump-assisted diminishment of American power, and so you have to give this movie credit for inventing a place called Ebbing.
But my personal favorite film of 2017 is this little essay’s final Best Picture nominee, Get Out, and it’s about an aspect of the 2010s that’s a little less obvious. When they asked writer-director Jordan Peele to explain the Sunken Place, he said it was partly about black incarceration (also known as modern slavery), but also about the way we talk about race in the Obama era – as though that discussion is paralyzed or stunted or effaced. When Peele wrote an old white man saying he “would have voted for Obama a third time if” he could, Peele had every reason to think that Hillary Clinton would be effectively serving Obama’s third term, but it turns out America wanted people of color in a far more sunken place, and so Peele wound up dropping what many are calling the first great film of the Trump Era. Peele still deserves mad credit for setting the film not in the South but in the (amorphous) North, and thus Get Out retains its critique of smug liberals, but when we look back on the 2010s, we will now remember so many Sunken Places. We will remember Get Out. And I hope we remember how it Got Oscar.