My Favorite Moments in the Best Picture Nominees: 1917
So my favorite Oscars tradition, aside from getting hammered and eating Chinese food during the ceremony, is, the day before the ceremony, presenting my favorite moments in each of the Best Picture nominees. I originally started it in 2011, when I felt like there was a lot of anger over certain things that were nominated (The Artist, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, The Help), and I just wanted to take that step back and remind myself and everyone else what it’s all about — this is because we love movies. We’re just giving out awards to the movies we liked best. It’s not about the damn awards. It’s about good movies and love of the art form. And it’s something I think we need to be reminded of, which is why I now do it before every Oscar ceremony. It doesn’t matter what wins and what doesn’t, it’s all about celebrating the great movies that came out this year.
Our first nominee is 1917.
I love World War I. Not like, that it happened. I just am way more interested in it than World War II. World War II is, in a lot of ways, the more interesting war, but I’ve always been fascinated with the notion of trench warfare and have always gravitated more toward stuff that showcases that. All Quiet on the Western Front is a big book/film for me in that regard. I did a project my sophomore year of high school on the trenches and straight up made a mini scale model of one. My senior thesis in college was a World War I trenches script. Mine was more about the tunneling efforts and contained to the trenches in a lot of ways (because that’s how much I love them), but really, this is the World War I movie I’ve always wanted to see. So when they announced it, it was a really big deal for me, and honestly it’ll be one of the first things I mention whenever I talk about this movie.
4. The Production Design
I know that ‘trenches’ covered a lot of that ground, but I did want to shout out the production design as a whole here, since I think it was tremendous. The trenches are really only the first section of the movie. There’s the entire No Man’s Land sequence, with the perfectly muddy and carved up terrain. The giant shell holes they crawl into and walk around. The half-walls that exist in the middle of nowhere, with doors that you can just walk around because the rest of the house was destroyed except that one area of the wall. The bombed out towns, the barely-standing structures. Mud everywhere. It felt like World War I would have felt. I like that you never once see any real sign of civilization anywhere. There’s like one or two structures in the entire film that are still standing, and here are all these people, basically in the countryside, dug into whatever foothold they can get, just killing each other. I loved every bit of it.
Plus, one thing that I really loved noticing the second time I saw it… the British trench looks like the kind of trench you’d have seen/imagined it would look like. And then when they go over to the German side, you notice… theirs is made of concrete. They have shelves built into theirs. Their dugouts have loads of beds with box springs. They’re better equipped and their engineering is better. It subtly hints (even if you don’t necessarily realize it) — these guys we’re watching… they’re the underdogs. And you get a bit of that from the narrative, as Colin Firth basically says the Germans are in control of the war. They’ve pulled out, they’re mounting the maneuver to lure the British into the trap. The British are just trying to survive what feels like a more powerful, better-equipped enemy. So I like that part of the production design drives that home.
3. The cynicism
There’s an undercurrent of pessimism in this year’s crop of films. Even if the movie might seem like it has a happy ending, or the good guys triumph… there’s still that undercurrent of ‘well, yeah, not really’. Ford v Ferrari’s another one we’ll talk about that does this, too. The Irishman, as we know, is all about regret. Joker, I don’t think we need to explain. Parasite — I mean, the title alone tells you how cynical it is. Fucking hope is the parasite there. Hope for a better life. That might be the most pessimistic movie nominated this year. Marriage Story’s pretty cynical on the whole, even if it ends on a potentially uplifting note. Little Women definitely has a cynicism to it, even if it is more hopeful than the others. Weirdly, the only non-cynical movies are Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Jojo Rabbit, one that deals with the Manson murders and the other with the fucking Holocaust. Go figure.
Anyway, what I love about this movie is, while it’s all unfolding, most of the characters, particularly the cameos of Andrew Scott and Benedict Cumberbatch… they’ve seen behind the curtain and they know it’s all horse shit. Scott tees it up for Cumberbatch later in the film. Scott comes across as the jaded officer who’s been put in the shit too many times and is resentful of command and the ‘stupid war’. That’s the healthy dose of cynicism you see a lot in war movies and his character is almost a stock character at this point. The Cumberbatch character, however… that’s a new wrinkle that I really appreciated. Because when he shows up, there’s that moment where he doesn’t even wanna hear/listen to the information he’s getting. And you, the audience member, have seen enough movies to where you’re conditioned to think, “Oh, shit, he’s the mad general, sending his men into battle to die.” How many times have we seen that trope? But then as the scene plays out, you realize — there’s so much more going on than that.
Cumberbatch, after he calls off the attack, basically says — “Yeah, so everything that just happened in this movie… everything your friend died for, everything you almost died for… it’s all for nothing. Because in like four days they’re gonna have us go over again, and all the people you saved will end up dying. There’s no hope here.” And you realize… he only got there to stop the second wave. The first wave went up. He ran through the first wave. So people did die. All he did was stop more people from dying. TODAY. And you realize that the reason Cumberbatch didn’t want to listen to him when he showed up is because a guy like this has probably showed up three of the last four attacks. And he’s at the point where he’s just like, “Look, the only way this ends is if we fight. So just fucking let us go fight. Maybe we win, maybe we all die.” And that’s what his initial reaction was about.
But still, the notion that everything we just watched is just one tiny moment that means everything to the main character but absolutely nothing in the grand scheme of this way, the fact that more people are going to die and there won’t be that letter to stop them from doing it… it’s a really interesting undercurrent to the film and one I’m liking more and more each time I go back to watch it.
2. Roger fucking Deakins
Remember when we couldn’t beg the Academy to give Deakins an Oscar? Look at him now, just flexing on all of us. The work here does feel like a culmination of a lot of the things I’ve seen in his work over the past couple of years. The third act of Skyfall is basically that night sequence. It’s just fucking orange. Plus, you’ve seen it a lot lately… he’s gotten into this habit in things (I saw it a lot in the films he’s done with Denis Villeneuve) of going, “I’ve got this scene set in the dark. How little light can I possibly use in this scene?” I’m thinking that scene of Benicio in the car after the tunnel sequence. Or even that opening scene in Blade Runner with Ryan Gosling and Bautista. Deakins is the kind of guy who will put one light in a scene and somehow it’ll be perfect. And also, that night sequence, leading to the river, had to remind you of the night chase in No Country for Old Men, where Josh Brolin is running from the trucks and the dogs. It’s also one of the most stunning pieces of cinematography you’ll ever see, that sequence. That sequence is literally built around letting Deakins showing off.
It feels like Deakins brought all that stuff together for one grand showcase of his brilliance. And I love that. He’s the best cinematographer there is, fucking show off. I’m hesitant to get too much more about it, because —
1. The Single Take
It’s the hardest thing to ignore about the movie. They made a war movie designed to look like it’s shot in a single take. They’re not militant about it, and while they disguise their cuts well, you still can tell where a lot of them are. And there’s the distinct cut in the middle of the movie when they get into night. But it still feels like a continuous journey, which, rather than Birdman, which felt more like a gimmick (which admittedly they pulled off really well), here the choice feels like it came organically out of the story they were telling. So it worked for me. And it allows the tension to mount. I’ll say that at times, it feels like a video game level, and certain sequences almost have that sweeping camera motion almost like we’re watching Jumanji and they went into a new level of the game. But honestly, it’s just such a brilliant way to tell the story and really keeps the tension up. Even if you’re not necessarily noticing that they don’t cut, you feel it.
It’s great how they also try to make it as realistic as possible, keeping the enemies at a minimum. The first real threat is the thought of No Man’s Land (since you know never to go there, even if they were assured no one was on the other side) and the threat of expectation. Then there’s the trip wire and the collapse of the bunker. Then there’s the plane and the pilot. Then there’s mud. Then the sniper… he finds little pockets of tension to really build, to the point where there’s never really a big ‘war’ sequence. The ending has the big sequence, but he’s running perpendicular to that, and we never really see the enemy in that whole thing. The men are going off to fight, but we’re focused on our guy. So I guess what I’m saying is that the single take heading is basically my way of saying the most impressive part of the film was its structure and how Mendes chose to tell his story. But since this is always gonna be known as the ‘one take war film’, it’s all pretty much the same thing and we’re all coming back to the same way of praising it.
I would also like to say, because it happened purely by accident (well, except for most of this last sentence), this post has exactly 1917 words in it.
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