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Oscars cheat sheet: what to know about the wide-open Best Picture race

Here’s what makes each of this year’s nine nominees distinctive.

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Nine movies were nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars this year (out of a possible 10 that the Academy voters can nominate). They’re a remarkably eclectic group of films, ranging from star-studded historical vehicles to arthouse romances. Some, like The Post and Get Out, are socially conscious and “of the moment”; others, like Phantom Thread or Call Me by Your Name, feel like they stand outside of time. None are set in New York City or Los Angeles. Three are romances. Two are set around the 1940 Dunkirk evacuation. One is directed by a woman. One is directed by a black man.

In a year with so much variety, it’s hard to know which film will ultimately come out on top — and that’s part of the fun. Here’s what to expect from each of the Best Picture nominees, and how you can watch them.

Call Me by Your Name

Luca Guadagnino’s gorgeous Call Me by Your Name, set in 1983 in Northern Italy, adapts André Aciman’s 2007 novel about a precocious 17-year-old named Elio (Timothée Chalamet) who falls in lust and love with his father’s 24-year-old graduate student Oliver (Armie Hammer). And it’s remarkable for how it turns literature into pure cinema, all emotion and image and heady sensation.

Call Me by Your Name is less about coming out than coming of age, a movie that captures a kind of love that’s equal parts passion and torment, a kind of irrational heart fire that opens a gate onto something longer-lasting. The film is a lush, heady experience for the body, but it’s also an arousal for the soul.

(For more, read our critics roundtable on the film.)

Call Me by Your Name is currently in theatrical wide release.

Darkest Hour

Gary Oldman’s turn as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour garnered Oscar buzz practically before the movie premiered, and he’s already picked up numerous awards for his performance, including both a Golden Globe and a SAG Award. Oldman poured himself into the role, playing a jolly, idiosyncratic, sometimes conflicted version of the British prime minister.

The movie he’s in doesn’t always rise to his level. But it’s engaging, entertaining, and inspiring, which is exactly what it sets out to be. Director Joe Wright (Atonement) turns what could be a dry history lesson and a peek into the inner workings of the British government into an origin story for a historical figure who, in the minds of many, might as well be a superhero. Wright is more interested in myth-spinning than retreading history, which undercuts Darkest Hour’s final inspirational punch. But it’s still the most broadly appealing film on offer during the final months of 2017.

Darkest Hour is currently playing in theaters.

Dunkirk

Dunkirk is a true cinematic achievement from acclaimed director Christopher Nolan, who nabbed his first Best Director nomination for the film as well. It heads off conventional notions of narrative and chronology as much as possible, while leaning headfirst into everything else that makes a movie a visceral work of art aimed at the senses: the images, the sounds, the scale, the swelling vibrations of it all. You can’t smell the sea spray, but your brain may trick you into thinking you can.

Nolan’s camera pushes the edges of the screen as far as it can — you must see this movie in IMAX and on film, rather than digital, if at all possible — as Dunkirk engulfs the audience in something that feels like a lot more than a war movie. It’s a symphony for the brave and broken, and it resolves in a major key — but one with an undercurrent of sorrow, and of sober warning. Courage in the face of danger is not just for characters in movies.

(For more, read our critics roundtable on the film.)

Dunkirk is available on Amazon, iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play, and is playing in selected theaters.

Get Out

Get Out is the year’s surprising success story, and by most accepted wisdom it never should have made it into the year-end awards race. It’s a horror film, for starters, and a very funny one at that, which is two strikes against it: Neither horror nor comedy shows up in the Best Picture race very frequently. And the movie premiered in February, nearly 11 months before the Oscar nominations were announced; most films making a run at the awards premiere in the crowded fall season.

And yet it worked. Get Out (written and directed by Key & Peele’s Jordan Peele, who also picked up nominations for his direction and the film’s screenplay) isn’t about the blatantly, obviously scary kind of racism — burning crosses and lynchings and snarling hate. Instead, it’s interested in showing how the parts of racism that try to be aggressively unscary are just as horrifying, and in making us feel that horror in a visceral, bodily way. In the tradition of the best classic social thrillers, Get Out takes a topic that is often approached cerebrally — casual racism — and turns it into something you feel in your tummy. And it does it with a wicked sense of humor.

(For more, read our critics roundtable on the film.)

Get Out is playing on HBOGo, HBONow, Vudu, Amazon Video, YouTube, iTunes, and Google Play, and in selected theaters.

Lady Bird

Lady Bird also garnered a Best Director and Best Screenplay nomination for Greta Gerwig, and it’s richly deserved. My pick for the year’s best movie is this coming-of-age film starring the great Saoirse Ronan as Christine — or “Lady Bird,” as she’s re-christened herself — and it’s as funny, smart, and filled with yearning as its heroine. And at its center is a very authentic-feeling relationship between Lady Bird and her mother (Laurie Metcalf), equal parts spiky and affectionate. (Both Ronan and Metcalf are also nominated for their performances.)

Gerwig made the film as an act of love, not just toward her hometown of Sacramento but also toward girlhood, and toward the feeling of always being on the outside of wherever real life is happening. Lady Bird is the rare movie that manages to be affectionate, entertaining, hilarious, witty, and confident, and it becomes even better on repeat viewings.

(For more, read our critics roundtable on the film.)

Lady Bird is playing in theaters nationwide.

Phantom Thread

Phantom Thread is the biggest wild card in the Best Picture stack, a carefully drawn, tightly wound film that parcels itself out so slowly that the movie almost demands you see it a second time. It’s a pas de trois set to an Oscar-nominated Jonny Greenwood score, a delicate dance for three in which there’s no clearly dominant player and the relationships between the members of the trio are constantly renegotiated. That’s familiar territory for director Paul Thomas Anderson — Phantom Thread shares a great deal of DNA with his 2012 film The Master.

But this time, he’s set his ballet of manners and power struggles in postwar London, in a house of high fashion ruled by the finicky, improbably named genius Reynolds Woodcock (played by Daniel Day-Lewis in the role he says will be his last). Woodcock’s no-nonsense sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) runs his business, and then into their home comes a girl named Alma (Vicky Krieps), who becomes Woodcock’s muse, model, lover, and — depending on how you look at it — either his downfall or his savior.

The result is just the kind of twisted love story that Anderson excels at, and as near a distillation of the filmmaker’s obsessions as one can imagine: Phantom Thread explores power, unorthodox love, and how the weaving together of ego, psychology, and physicality can make us act, at times, against our own self-interest.

Phantom Thread is playing in theaters nationwide.

The Post

It took about nine months for Steven Spielberg to make The Post, from the moment he read the first draft of the script in the early months of 2017 to the first advance screenings in November. That’s an absurdly short period of time for any movie to be made, let alone one of this size. That sense of urgency serves the film well.

The Post, about the choice that Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) made in tandem with editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) to publish the Pentagon Papers, is a humdinger of a historical journalism tale. And it manages to be about many things — women and power, competition, friendship, and most of all the First Amendment — while also being a rollicking, enjoyable time at the movies.

If Hollywood is going to make “now more than ever” movies, this is the way to do it: with a marvelous cast, pitch-perfect design, and a story that feels like the work of latter-day Frank Capra. The Post is an act of goodwill and faith in American institutions, but it’s also aware of how fragile those institutions are, how dependent on their participants they are for their survival, and how much is at stake when press freedom is threatened.

(For more, read our critics roundtable on the film.)

The Post is playing in theaters nationwide.

The Shape of Water

The Shape of Water, set in Cold War-era Baltimore, is a watery, bittersweet romance that’s rich, moving, and loaded with meaning. Starring Sally Hawkins (nominated for her role in the film) as a mute night janitor who falls in love with a creature brought to the facility she cleans for “experimentation,” it’s a story about prejudice and coming to love those who are “the other.”

This is a fairy tale for adults, and there’s a good reason: Young children aren’t born with prejudice; they have to learn it, and they learn from watching their elders treating those who are different like they are less-than. What The Shape of Water has to teach, however subtly, is much needed in a prejudiced world. It paints borders rooted deep in the American soul — between countries, races, abilities, and desires — with compassion and gentleness.

The Shape of Water is playing in theaters nationwide.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

In September, Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri won the prestigious People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival — considered a strong predictor for a good performance during Oscar season. Since then, it’s garnered controversy from critics, frequently for the way it handles race. But it’s picked up awards throughout the season, including four Golden Globes. And while the Globes don’t predict the Oscars, the film’s strong showing certainly makes it a contender.

The film bears a strong resemblance to a Flannery O’Connor story in its dark and even startling humor and scathing, grace-filled take on human nature, even though it differs in some key ways. The movie stars Frances McDormand as a bereaved mother in small-town Missouri who has finally had it with the unfairness of a world full of ineffective justice systems, racists, hypocrites, and men who do bad things and get away with them. With Oscar-nominated performances from McDormand and co-stars Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson, it’s often funny and frequently poignant, even when it falters.

(For more, read our critics roundtable on the film.)

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is playing in theaters nationwide.


Check out what our critics roundtable had to say about all nine Best Picture nominees:

Call Me By Your Name | Darkest Hour | Dunkirk | Get Out | Lady Bird | Phantom Thread | The Post | The Shape of Water | Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri