In a year in which cinema increasingly proved to be a refuge from a world spinning off its axis, 2017 has saved the best performances by an actor and actress in leading roles for last. Sally Hawkins and Gary Oldman in The Shape of Water and Darkest Hour respectively, raised the proverbial bar, roused any deadened spirits and reminded audiences how magical movies can be. Both Hawkins and Oldman are tremendous and are sure bets to be long-overdue Oscar winners. Their films couldn't be more different—one is grounded in world history, the other floats in a daydream—yet both tap into the mysteries of the human soul.
Anyone whose heart hasn't already been melted by Sally Hawkins hasn't seen her performances in Happy-Go-Lucky, Blue Jasmine or Maudie. Without uttering a peep in The Shape of Water, Hawkins fills the screen (and viewers' hearts) with endless delight and says volumes with her soulful eyes. She plays Elisa, a mute janitor working the late shift in a top-secret government laboratory in 1960s Baltimore, and her work routine is mundane—until she meets a mysterious water-breathing creature the U.S. government has dubbed "the asset." This creature is being held captive by a government agent (Michael Shannon) who wants to harvest the merman's body for research. When Elisa recruits a motley crew of friends (Octavia Spencer and Richard Jenkins) to help rescue the creature, a heart-stopping chase ensues. The Shape of Water is an all-too-rare adult fairy tale, with traces of Beauty and the Beast, Creature from the Black Lagoon and even E.T. in its DNA—but leave the kids at home. While the sex scenes are never over the top, there are a lot of them. A lot.
It's also important to note The Shape of Water isn't mere fantasy. A masterwork from writer/director Guillermo del Toro, the film also highlights our current political climate and the alt-right obsession with marginalizing people and ridding America of individuals it deems unwanted. Following the premiere at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival, del Toro confirmed the character of Elisa represents people who are readily dismissed.
"These are people who have been considered to be invisible by people of authority," he said.
A different kind of moral authority—one in the hands of intelligent, compassionate people—is also at the heart of Darkest Hour, which is set in 1940, when Britain is on the brink of disaster in the early days of World War II. As shown in Dunkirk, which this summer brilliantly chronicled the real-world drama, German troops had pinned British soldiers against the English Channel and were threatening them with annihilation. It would be up to the newly-appointed British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to decide how to survive the possible onslaught, rally his nation's citizens to the cause and push back against a Parliament that wanted him out. In many ways, Darkest Hour is classic movie-making. In the hands of director Joe Wright, it has all the elements of a time-honored saga. It has tension at every turn, spectacular set pieces and the sparkling dialogue an epic requires. Darkest Hour also has Gary Oldman, whose performance as Churchill elevates the film to soaring heights. Initially, I was hesitant to embrace yet another Churchill biopic, particularly in the shadow of The Crown, the Netflix original series featuring John Lithgow in his Emmy-award winning portrayal of the British Prime Minister; the 2016 big-screen release of Churchill that showcased a wonderful performance from Brian Cox, and, again, the blockbuster Dunkirk. However, Darkest Hour crackles. There are spectacular supporting performances from Kristin Scott Thomas, Ben Mendelsohn and Lily James, and Oldman has never been better; He is a sure-bet Best Actor Oscar contender. For any thinking theater-goer, Darkest Hour is required viewing, and with our own nation void of statesmanship of late it should also be a wake-up call to what a true leader looks, sounds and acts like.