The Most 'Timely' Movie of the Year

Between the Lines

Every movie awards season makes me acutely aware of time passing. This time around, for example, it’s hard to believe that it has been a year since the “La La Land”-“Moonlight” mishap, which itself seemed like a moment out of a movie. Awards season also makes me acutely aware of the specific time. The year that just passed has to have meant something, and every movie claims to best fit that meaning.

For me, part of the fun of following awards season is getting to judge how believable the movies’ claims are. That is why, even without seeing all the frontrunners, I can develop favorites. But this year, it has been hard to distinguish between the movies based on their media campaigns. Perhaps because so many movements in 2017 have given voice to populations traditionally overlooked in American society, multiple movies are laying claim to the “moment” without stretching disbelief.

“Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri,” about a mother trying to get justice for her daughter, has been called a “timely portrait of outrage.” “Get Out,” a horror-comedy about a black man discovering the disturbing secret of his white girlfriend’s family, is lauded for being “thrilling, terrifying, and timely.” But it is not just the movies set in the present day that are making statements about the moment. “The Post” is a historical drama about the Washington Post’s decision to publish the Pentagon Papers in 1971, but it “could not be more timely.” Similarly, “The Shape of Water,” a Cold War-era love story between a mute janitor and an amphibious fish god, doubles as a “timely parable about pushing back against authoritarianism.”

I can see why we appreciate movies being “timely” in the context of awards shows. Presumably the movies that get nominated for the big awards are already widely accepted as being good, so it can be hard to choose a winner. If what goes on inside the theater cannot truly separate the best movies from the rest, then maybe what goes on outside the theater will. With that understanding, timeliness can be used as a justification for designating a winner. A movie means more to viewers if it touches on issues that apply to the outside world and makes them think critically after the two hours they spend watching it.

But another definition of “timely” is “opportune.” This definition reduces the significance attached to “timely” as a label, because movies take so much time to make. Hitting the cultural zeitgeist at the time of a film’s release is more a stroke of luck than the culmination of successful planning. Therefore, such a film’s creators should not be celebrated as intensely for potentially unintentional acts. In a speech celebrating “Three Billboards’” win at the British Academy Film Awards, for example, its producer admitted that the movie “seems more timely now than we could ever have imagined.” Of course, the filmmakers will happily reap the rewards of their good fortune as if they had championed the movie all along because they knew it would eventually tap into the female rage and empowerment of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements.

Instead, making a movie that doesn’t seem to have any appeal should be worth celebrating more than something that is obviously “timely.” It is easy to make a movie like “The Post,” which was able to accelerate its entire development so that it could capitalize on a time when the media is under fire in this country. But it is hard to convince executives that a movie like “The Shape of Water,” with its unorthodox main characters and storyline, should exist. So instead of vying to be the representative of the moment like all the other films are doing, I think “The Shape of Water” should be marketing its untimeliness as an advantage in this awards season. When would people ever demand a romantic, sexual, love story between a woman and a fish man? This movie disregarded the popular desires of our time, or any time, and yet it is good enough to force people to pay attention.

Having made it to the end of this year’s awards season, I am reminded, as I am every year, that “timeliness” does not have a long shelf life. The value of being “timely” seems to end abruptly on the night of the Academy Awards. The next morning, all the recognized movies, even the winners, must move on to a new competition in which there will be no eager spectators and no trophy—the quest to become “timeless.”

Michelle I. Gao ’21, a Crimson editorial editor, lives in Weld Hall. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.


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