Beyond the omnipresent blockbusters like Star Wars: The Last Jedi — mostly deserving of the love it’s been getting — year’s end always brings a rush of movie titles competing for recognition on the numerous awards nominations and critics’ lists. Many have yet to open outside a few major metropolitan markets. I won’t say more except that worth watching for are: Molly’s Game, I, Tonya, The Post, All the Money in the World, Phantom Thread; less so Downsizing and The Greatest Showman. What follows is my take on two other highly recommended releases, both unusual love stories.
I somehow missed Italian director Luca Guadagnino’s justly acclaimed Call Me By Your Name when it premiered at the Sundance festival almost a year ago. Adapted by Guadagnino, James Ivory and Walter Fasano from André Aciman’s eponymous 2007 novel, the idyllic summer setting is “somewhere in northern Italy,” Lombardy, to be more precise, at the villa shared by a multilingual American Jewish family, Professor Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg), whose interest is classical Greco-Roman archeology and culture, his French wife, Annella (Amira Casar), and bright, musical 17-year-old son Elio (Timothée Chalamet). Every summer the professor hosts for six weeks one of his graduate research assistants, and so arrives the confident 24-year-old Oliver (Armie Hammer), who is also Jewish. He is settled in a room across from Elio, sharing a bathroom.
At first Elio finds Oliver to be somewhat arrogant and offhand. Elio plays it cool and spends time with Marzia (Esther Garrel), a girl his own age he has known since childhood. At the same time, as the guys go shirtless in the heat and cool off by swimming, the reedy hollow-chested Elio can’t help notice Oliver’s attractive masculine physique — of the kind celebrated in classical Greek sculpture, the professor might add. In these luminous and sensual surroundings, slowly and subtly Elio is drawn to Oliver. Something is stirring in him he cannot resist, or distract through a sexual flirtation with Marzia. The desire only grows stronger, even as he knows it can’t last once Oliver leaves. There are awkward moments in this kind of mutual seduction and a parting that is such sweet sorrow, the pain of which is eased by some wise words from an understanding father.
The performances by the two leads are exceptional. Chalamet, who was the boy in Interstellar, has grown up into an actor capable of rare emotional nuance. (He plays the boyfriend in Lady Bird and also has a small part in the forthcoming Hostiles.) Hammer brings just the right touch to his role. Stuhlbarg’s character mostly stays out of the way but delivers the masterful scene of a father speaking to his heartbroken son when it counts most. Visually captivating, with a poignant musical score, this entrancing empathetic movie is among the year’s best.
Writer-director Guillermo del Toro loves monsters and it’s a human one that’s really to be feared in The Shape of Water (http://www.foxsearchlight.com/theshapeofwater/). The setting is September 1962 in damp, dreary Baltimore (Toronto locations, actually) where a mute orphaned woman, Eliza Esposito (Sally Hawkins), works as a lowly cleaner in a secretive subterranean Cold War facility alongside a supportive and talkative co-worker, Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Eliza lives over a movie theatre called the Orpheum that’s playing The Song of Ruth, a quiet existence limited to solitary pleasures, except for a friendship with another gentle, solitary soul in a neighbouring apartment. Giles (Richard Jenkins) is a middle-aged struggling graphic artist, a closeted gay man who wears a toupee and is used to rejection.
One day a sinister government agent, Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), brings in a “sensitive asset,” a scaly amphibian man-creature — taken from the Amazon where it was revered as a god — held captive in a briny tank. When Richard tangles with the monster, losing several fingers, Elisa and Zelda are called to clean up the mess. But Elisa isn’t repulsed. Instead she is drawn to it, as if sensing another wounded, trapped spirit, feeding it boiled eggs and finding a way to communicate. Meanwhile the laboratory’s head scientist, Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg again), is actually a Russian-speaking Soviet spy.
Matters come to a head when both sides order the creature to be destroyed — the sadistic Strickland wants a vivisection performed and Hoffstetler’s handlers want to prevent the Americans from learning anything. Eliza, helped by Giles, Zelda and Hoffstetler, pulls off a daring rescue, keeping the creature in her bathtub. Indeed she finds love with it until release becomes possible. In a fantastical black-and-white sequence, she even finds a voice. And in the depths, there is a mystical watershed moment to come.
Interviewed by Filmmaker magazine at the Venice film festival, Del Toro explained the title’s genesis: “Water is the strongest element there is, because it has no shape. It takes the shape you need. It’s soft and malleable, but it can cut through rock. And exactly the same thing can be said about love. Love has no shape. It takes the shape or the entity of the person that you put it in. I very much wanted to show the story of a love that seems to be between two creatures that are completely opposite of one another.”
This may be a fairy tale, the bookends of which are narrated by Giles, but with some sexual and violent content, including a bloody, rain-soaked climax, it is an adult one. That caution aside, blessed with evocative dreamlike cinematography and virtuoso performances, The Shape of Water stands as another of the year’s best movies.
*As a footnote, the amphibian-man monster is realized by Del Toro regular Doug Jones, coincidentally the namesake of Alabama’s newest senator, who defeated the monstrous far-right Republican candidate Roy Moore a few weeks ago. You might say the better man prevailed in both cases.