The Shape of Water

Back after a bit of a break, this is the 90th post I have done on winners of the Best Picture Oscar. Only five more to go.

The Shape of Water won the 2017 Best Picture Oscar, and three others: Best Director (Guillermo del Toro), Best Original Score and Best Production Design. Four Oscars is a relatively low total haul for a Best Picture winner, but no other film did better that year. The other contenders for Best Picture were Get Out, which I have seen and which won the SFWA Ray Bradbury Award, and Call Me by Your Name, Darkest Hour, Dunkirk, Lady Bird, Phantom Thread, The Post and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. To my surprise, The Shape of Water came only fifth out of six in that year’s Hugos; I voted for it myself, though I also enjoyed Wonder Woman, which won.

The only films I have seen from 2017 are the Hugo finalists, which I ranked as follows from top to bottom: The Shape of Water, Wonder Woman, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Get Out, Blade Runner 2049 and Thor: Ragnarok. IMDB users rank The Shape of Water 9th and 16th of the year’s films on the two rankings, which is not super high but is better on aggregate than any Oscar winner since No Country for Old Men, a decade previously. Blade Runner 2049 is top of one ranking, and Logan on the other. Other films ahead of The Shape of Water on both metrics are Get Out, It, John Wick: Chapter 2 and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

Here’s a trailer.

No actors had previously appeared in any Oscar-winning film, or in Doctor Who. (A lot of them are Canadian.) Doug Jones, here the amphibian creature, was also the main non-human in Pan’s Labyrinth, which won the Hugo and Nebula. (We know him also as Captain Saru in Star Trek: Discovery.)

Shout out also to Octavia Spencer, who was in the previous year’s Hidden Figures and got Oscar nominations for both performance, the first African-American actress to do so in consecutive years.

Set in Baltimore in 1962, this is about a humanoid amphibian captured by the US military and brought to a research centre in Baltimore for experimentation. One of the janitors, a mute woman played by Sally Hawkins, falls in love with him and engineers his escape, facilitated by her friend and colleague Zelda (Octavia Spencer), her gay artist landlord (Richard Jenkins) and a disenchanted Russian spy (Michael Stuhlberg). The baddies are the US military personified in the head of the base (Michael Shannon). In the end the amphibian man rescues Elisa, his saviour, from apparent death and she becomes like him and, we are told, they live happily ever after.

I found myself in a surprising debate on Facebook the other day as to whether The Shape of Water is science fiction or fantasy. I must say I had automatically assumed that it is science fiction. A non-human race, albeit from Earth and therefore not alien, getting mixed up with government-funded scientific research – it seemed to me an exact parallel with the Silurians and Sea Devils from Doctor Who, and nobody calls them anything other than science fiction. (Indeed in New Who it turns out that Silurians can have sex with humans too, or at least the females of each species can.)

But I see that the film is generally classified as fantasy, including by the makers, and I suppose the creature’s paranormal healing abilities, and the parallels with the non-human creatures of mythology, establish a case for that reading as well. It’s a live issue for me at the moment as we decide which books are and aren’t science fiction for the Arthur C. Clarke Award.

Anyway. I loved it. I wrote briefly in 2018:

I really liked the detailed paranoid portrayal of the world of 1962, the navigation of race, gender and disability, and the core question of what makes us human at the end of the day. It looks and sounds fantastic.

I will add to that that the acting and direction are also fantastic. There is a great contrast between the explicit but not at all erotic sex between base commander Strickland and his wife, and the erotic but not at all explicit sex between Elisa and the creature. And the music is memorable while also not being at all intrusive.

I’m putting this in the top 20% of my Oscar film rankings, just below Midnight Cowboy and above A Man for All Seasons.

Incidentally, my 3x great-grandfather‘s uncle, Richard Key Heath, had an office on the docks at Baltimore (specifically at the corner of Cheapside, now the intersection of Light Street and Pratt Street). However, The Shape of Water was entirely filmed in Canada and the docks here are not the Baltimore docks of the script but at Hamilton, Ontario.

Now that we’re up to the 90th Oscar winner, I’m going to split my ranking of previous winners by thirds. These are my bottom 30, with those from the last ten years in red:

90) Platoon (Oscar for 1986)
89) The Great Ziegfeld (1936)
88) Cimarron (1930-31)
87) Cavalcade (1932-33)
86) Wings (1927-28)
85) The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
84) All the King’s Men (1949)
83) Argo (2012)
82) Forrest Gump (1994)
81) Patton (1970)
80) Braveheart (1995)
79) American Beauty (1999)
78) The Artist (2011)
77) No Country for Old Men (2007)
76) A Beautiful Mind (2001)
75) Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
74) The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)
73) Crash (2005)
72) Tom Jones (1963)
71) Gone with the Wind (1939)
70) The Departed (2006)
69) The Hurt Locker (2008)
68) Ordinary People (1980)
67) Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
66) Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)
65) Birdman (2014)
64) Annie Hall (1977)
63) Going My Way (1944)
62) The French Connection (1971)
61) My Fair Lady (1964)

And the middle 30:

60) Gladiator (2000)
59) How Green Was My Valley (1941)
58) Mrs. Miniver (1942)
57) On The Waterfront (1954)
56) The Godfather, Part II (1974)
55) In the Heat of the Night (1967)
54) Grand Hotel (1931-32)
53) The Life of Emile Zola (1937)
52) Marty (1955)
51) The Deer Hunter (1978)
50) Rocky (1976)
49) Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
48) The Last Emperor (1987)
47) Titanic (1997)
46) Out of Africa (1985)
45) Dances With Wolves (1990)
44) Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
43) Gigi (1958)
42) Slumdog Millionaire (2007)
41) It Happened One Night (1934)
40) You Can’t Take It with You (1938)
39) The Lost Weekend (1945)
38) Hamlet (1948)
37) From Here to Eternity (1953)
36) Around the World in Eighty Days (1956)
35) Ben-Hur (1959)
34) The English Patient (1996)
33) Chicago (2002)
32) Spotlight (2015)
31) The Sting (1973)

And my personal top 30 of the first 90:

30) The Godfather (1972)
29) Unforgiven (1992)
28) 12 Years a Slave (2013)
27) Oliver! (1968)
26) The Apartment (1960)
25) All About Eve (1950)
24) The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
23) Amadeus (1984)
22) Moonlight (2016)
21) Gandhi (1982)
20) West Side Story (1961)
19) A Man for All Seasons (1966)
18) The Shape of Water (2017)
17) Midnight Cowboy (1969)
16) Terms of Endearment (1983)
15) Shakespeare in Love (1998)
14) Rain Man (1988)
13) The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
12) One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
11) The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
10) Million Dollar Baby (2004)
9) The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
8) All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30)
7) Rebecca (1940)
6) Schindler’s List (1993)
5) Chariots of Fire (1981)
4) An American in Paris (1951)
3) The King’s Speech (2010)
2) The Sound of Music (1965)
1) Casablanca (1943)

A somewhat polarising decade for me, with half of the winners in my top third, but four out of ten in my bottom third.

Slumdog Millionaire is the only one of the most recent ten based on a novel. The King’s Speech, Argo and 12 Years a Slave are all based on published biographies or autobiographies. The other seven were original material for the screen, though The Hurt Locker and Spotlight drew to a lesser or greater extent on historical events.

Only six and a half of the most recent ten were set in the United States of America, in .a variety of places: Hollywood (The Artist), Washington and Hollywood (Argo), mostly Louisiana (12 Years a Slave), New York (Birdman), Boston (Spotlight), mostly Miami (Moonlight), and Baltimore (The Shape of Water). The others are set in Mumbai, India (Slumdog Millionaire), somewhere in Iraq (The Hurt Locker), Tehran, Iran (Argo again) and London, England (The King’s Speech) – so two and a half in Asia, and one in Europe.

One of these last ten was set in the 19th century (12 Years a Slave), two mostly in the 1930s (The King’s Speech and The Artist), one in the 1960s (The Shape of Water), one in the 1970s (Argo), one stretching from the 1990s to the present day (Moonlight), two in the recent past (Spotlight and The Hurt Locker) and two in the present day (Slumdog Millionaire and Birdman). I’ll do a tally of historical periods when I get to the end of the whole exercise.

Next up is Green Book.

Winners of the Oscar for Best Picture

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in 80 Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008) | The Hurt Locker (2009)
2010s: The King’s Speech (2010) | The Artist (2011) | Argo (2012) | 12 Years a Slave (2013) | Birdman (2014) | Spotlight (2015) | Moonlight (2016) | The Shape of Water (2017) | Green Book (2018) | Parasite (2019)
2020s: Nomadland (2020) | CODA (2021) | Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022)

One thought on “The Shape of Water

  1. Doug Jones is one of the few people I can recognise by his elbows. I have heard only good things about Logan (I am still semi-banned from watching it, in case I cry so hard I desiccate), and I really did not like Blade Runner 2049. Ragnarok is stupid fun, not as good as people say but still stupid fun.

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