The annual Academy Awards season shines a spotlight on artistically high-minded movies that might otherwise be overlooked by the masses in a blockbuster-driven world.
But every year, there’s at least one nominee among the eight or nine films up for Best Picture that leaves viewers utterly baffled about what Oscar voters were thinking.
This year’s Oscar for Most Pretentious Twaddle goes to the latest bizarro epic by Paul Thomas Anderson, the Daniel Day-Lewis showcase “Phantom Thread.” In fact, it seems the movie’s entire reason for existence is to give the actor a fourth Oscar on his way to his recently announced retirement.
Now, Day-Lewis has made some undeniably great movies in his career, but this ain’t one of them. In fact, the much-derided “Star Wars” prequel “The Phantom Menace” was more enjoyable than this, and that movie foisted Jar Jar Binks on the planet.
The master thespian plays a hopelessly snotty fashion designer named Reynolds Woodcock, which is a name that is literally impossible to take seriously or avoid laughing at anytime it’s mentioned. If you doubt me, then take note of the 2007 Billy Bob Thornton masterpiece “Mr. Woodcock,” which rooted its entire comedic sensibilities in that name as its title.
Woodcock (I almost feel dirty just mentioning it) is the king of 1950s-era British fashion designers, overseeing a mansion-based workplace filled with seemingly dozens of women in matching dresses who quiver with concern over every stitch he commands. He has an unhealthy fixation on his dead mother, having sewn a lock of her hair into the lining of his favorite jacket, but his relationship with his sister is even creepier.
She’s an old biddy named Cyril (Lesley Manville), who spends the entire movie overseeing the women on staff with a rigid scowl and a stiff upper lip. Neither Reynolds nor Cyril (their names alone made me want to slap both of them) has ever been married, as Cyril has become a hopeless spinster while Reynolds is a bachelor who has Cyril kick an endless succession of girlfriends out of the house when they no longer inspire him.
The film opens with his most substantive conquest, Alma (Vicky Krieps), telling an unseen figure about how she gave Reynolds what he wanted: every aspect of her very existence. It then jumps back in time to their not-so-cute meeting, in which she’s a waitress at a restaurant near his country home, who delivers him a breakfast so fastidiously ordered that one might safely assume Reynolds is deeply ensconced in the autistic spectrum.
Reynolds clearly has mesmerizing abilities with the ladies, because he instantly scores a dinner date with Alma, and soon they’re racing through the countryside en route to his mansion so that he can seduce her by letting her try on one of his finest dresses and then measuring every last inch of her body. Amazingly, she barely seems to mind when he tells her she has no breasts, and that’s when viewers know that this is true love.
Soon she’s living a life of leisure, meaning Alma doesn’t seem to do a damn thing but whine the rest of the movie. Reynolds, meanwhile, is obsessed with making the perfect dress for a royal client, and is so fixated that he can’t be bothered to do anything fun or attentive to Alma’s needs.
Things come to a head between the unhappy couple on New Year’s Eve, when Alma accepts the invitation of a handsome young doctor to attend a party after Reynolds tells her he’s “not feeling dancey.” He regrets his decision and races to find her in what one hopes might be a powerfully romantic moment akin to Billy Crystal racing through the streets of New York for his midnight kiss in “When Harry Met Sally.”
Yet the movie again dashes viewers’ hopes by having the two just stare at each other in anger at the most ridiculous rich-people party ever committed to celluloid. And that’s when things get really weird and ugly between them, as Alma starts studying books on which mushrooms are edible and which ones are poisonous.
This might seem like excitement is afoot, but trust me, it’s not. I saw the movie at 11:25 a.m. on Tuesday and so I had the odd experience of having an entire Arclight theater to myself, but a friend who saw it with a packed East Coast audience over the weekend confirmed that everyone erupted into gales of laughter even though this movie quite literally is branded as a romantic drama.
Writer-director Anderson delivered four modern classics near the start of his career with “Boogie Nights,” “Magnolia,” “Punch Drunk Love” and “There Will Be Blood.” However, between this and his bloated pseudo-biography of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard in “The Master,” it’s clear that his talent has dwindled as his ego has grown.
Between a score that features incessantly twinkly piano music which makes viewers feel like they’re trapped in an elevator, and Day-Lewis’ constant preening, “Phantom Thread” is utterly insufferable. Day-Lewis may be an emperor among actors, but here he is wearing no clothes.
“PHANTOM THREAD”: D
Stars: Margot Robbie, Allison Janney, Sebastian Stan
Length: 121 minutes
Directed by: Craig Gillespie
This darkly comic biopic of disgraced US Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding explores both funny and harrowingly sad aspects of her childhood into adulthood, with Janney providing a wicked turn as Tonya’s abusive and foul-mouthed mother. A powerhouse movie that is turning into a huge sleeper hit and a force to be reckoned with at the Oscars. Grade: A
THE SHAPE OF WATER
Stars: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer, Doug Jones
Length: 130 minutes
Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Guillermo del Toro’s latest epic fantasy leads the Oscar race with 13 well-deserved nominations. Sally Hawkins delivers a uniquely silent performance as a meek mute woman who works as a janitor in an early-1960s government facility and falls for the mysterious creature that scientists are studying and about to kill. Achingly romantic, beautifully shot, and downright exciting, this is as close to perfect as movies get. Grade: B
Stars: Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson
Length: 104 minutes
Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra
After two years in apparent hiding, Liam Neeson is back doing what he does best: kicking ass in January movies that start the year off with a bang. His fourth collaboration with Serra continues the winning streak of “Unknown,” “Non-Stop” and “Run All Night” by adding Hitchcockian twists and atmospherics to the tale of a man asked to find a mysterious passenger on his commuter train for $100,000.
Stars: Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep
Length: 115 minutes
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
The story behind the decision by the Washington Post to print the infamous Pentagon Papers, a free-press battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court, is recounted in occasionally rousing but often boring fashion in a movie that feels like homework more than entertainment. Grade: B
THE LAST SHOWMAN
Stars: Hugh Jackman, MIchelle Williams,
Length: 105 minutes
Directed by: Michael Gracey
Hugh Jackman uses his considerable charisma as he sings, dances and gives a terrific performance as legendary showman P.T. Barnum. The composers of “La La Land” deliver an impressive score blending hip hop and classical to create vibrant songs that drive a richly entertaining story. Efron and Williams are outstanding as well in the year’s best musical. Grade: A