Film News: Why “The Shape Of Water” deserved Best Picture

by Will Carsh | Staff Writer

This week, the Academy hosted its annual award show. There were a few surprises and upsets along the way- Gary Oldman grabbing a (deserved) best actor win was probably the most controversial due to domestic abuse accusations- but all in all, the show went along smoothly leading up to the most coveted award of all, Best Picture. Nine films were nominated, each of them bearing something unique. “Get Out”, Jordan Peele’s debut feature, is notable for being the first horror film in quite some time to find its way into the ceremony. “Dunkirk” is notable for its organization of narrative. “Lady Bird” is a coming-of-age film. “Three Billboards…” is a comedy. And the list goes on. Every film was qualified to win, and the Academy did a good job of picking a variety of nominees.

Which left many viewers- myself included- surprised that Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” ended up taking home the gold. Having only received nominations back in 2007 for “Pan’s Labyrinth,” del Toro’s return to the awards show left him winning both Best Director and Best Picture for ‘The Shape of Water.” It’s exciting to see a well-revered director getting his due, but it’s also exciting because of just what kind of movie ultimately brought home these awards.

Make no mistake: “The Shape of Water” is not necessarily a perfect film. About a month ago, I wrote in length about all of its issues and oddities, but I still also left with an overall positive impression. There’s no denying that del Toro was deserving of the Best Director title- the film’s visuals are a sight to behold. He’s always been able to work a shot, and maybe more so than any other film in his body of work, “The Shape of Water” puts this on full display. The film was clearly a visual passion project for del Toro, and it’s fantastic to see all the hard work he put into making the film feel so organic and alive did not go unnoticed as it often has in the past. Yes, plenty of other films could have just as easily taken the award, but for del Toro, it’s a long deserved one.

In terms of the film’s big Best Picture win, however, there’s one factor that makes its victory so exciting: it’s a really, really bizarre movie. Yes, its message about acceptance and inclusion is timely- and very much welcome- but from an artistic and storytelling standpoint, the fact that the film won is an indication that the Academy is starting to acknowledge a wider variety of films that run in contrast with the films that often win. The academy tends to favor dramas, whether they be historical or not. A quick look at some recent winners- “The King’s Speech,” “The Artist,” “Argo,” “12 Years a Slave,” “Birdman,” “Spotlight,” and “Moonlight”- show us a pattern of very similar films receiving award attention, with a notable exception of the strange “Birdman.”

Each one of these films was, of course, completely deserving of the title. I do not mean to try and strip them of their significance by pointing out their similarity. But the reality is, most of the films featured here, and more so when one looks even farther back, are either historical dramas or a drama of some variation. And yes, “The Shape of Water” is most definitely a romantic drama. It is, however, more so than that a dark fantasy film that borders on arthouse at times.

Ben Croll of Indiewire described the film as a “powerful vision of a creative master feeling totally, joyously free” in his review of the film, and to me, this is why del Toro’s win is so significant: it is farmore odd and imaginative than films that the academy usually recognizes, let alone gives the win to. It is in many ways comparable to 2016’s “Mad Max: Fury Road” receiving a nomination for Best Picture. In a world where I was fully expecting a movie like “The Darkest Hour” or “Dunkirk”- both of which are excellent films in their own right- to win based off of what the academy typically tends to recognize, I was left fairly amused at their decision to give such a personal and artistic film the show’s most coveted award. While the film is a fairly familiar romantic story, it’s also a very unique and constantly risky one, featuring an interspecies romance and a story that manages to not quite go the way that you’re expecting it to go. While it may be conventional in some ways, in even more ways, it’s not really like any other movie that I’ve seen before.

It seems like the Academy is starting to branch out and give the spotlight to new kinds of films. While this isn’t necessarily the most momentous win in the show’s history, it’s nice to see an artistically unique dark fantasy film take home the award. Here’s to hoping that in the future, we see more genres snag the prize. I’d love to see “Black Panther” take home some trophies next year…