Being a writer, it won't surprise you that for me story comes first.
Character should build story, or story should rely on character--really the same thing--but when story fails, for me the movie can become very tedious. Pity my wife Sarah, who has to hear me sighing and folding my arms when the story goes belly-up and the fish starts to stink.*
I can forgive a threadbare story like Mad Max: Fury Road if it makes sense and characters behave the way they do for a reasons, even if that reason is not immediately clear. If they are evil because you need a villain, that is just lazy writing. If they fall in love because you need a romance, ditto. I love fairy tales and cartoons, but even their characters have motivations. The wolf is hungry. The witch is insulted in Sleeping Beauty. The coyote has a gadget fetish and his holistic doctor said road runner gizzards will cure his impotence.
Okay, one of those is contrived, but you get the point. Poor Wile E. would've been a nicer coyote if he'd been born after Yohimbine was prescribed for erectile dysfunction.
My favorite script of the year was Get Out. Horror and comedy get shafted because they look easy to people who haven't tried them. Comedy seems natural, when it takes more work and practice than other forms. Good horror is very tough to pull off. Jordan Peele managed both masterfully in his script, and I am very glad he won for best original screenplay. I would've gone as far as voting for it for best picture, and if it had been released later in the year, it may have had a better shot. It was a phenomenon, and seeing it in theaters was a great experience. Roger Ebert used to say a great film has three great scenes and no bad ones, and Get Out has at least three.
There are characters who seem over the top or bizarre, but every single one of them gets explained, quickly and brilliantly, once we know what's going on. The film bears repeat viewing, and every time I watch it I catch more little touches, subtle choices that all drive the story and make sense within it.
Two films that I really, really, really wanted to like more were Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and The Shape of Water. I'll start with Martin McDonagh's film about a mother grieving for her daughter's brutal murder and anger over the authorities' inability to catch the killer. It's a good premise, but falls apart almost immediately because of little failures in verisimilitude. I like McDonagh a lot, I loved In Bruges and enjoyed Seven Psychopaths. I think his brother John Michael's The Guard and Calvary are better, but I like both McDonagh brothers. They bring fresh stories to film. Billboards just needed a better edit or rewrite.
The victim is given short shrift. Instead of "Sad Dad" or "Sad Cop" as Christa Faust calls these "dead girl avenger" stories, we get "Sad Mom" and that's not that much of an improvement. The story starts late. If you have five grand laying around, hire your own investigator or coroner instead of buying billboards. And how do three decrepit billboards in the middle of nowhere cost five grand to rent? There are some great performances in the movie. McDormand, Rockwell, Harrelson are all great. There are great scenes. Some criticized Rockwell's redemption. He tortured a black suspect, and he's in general an asshole. I liked the portrayal, they explain his behavior. His redemption begins with aciton and he is not forgiven. No one pats him on the back. His method of obtaining suspect DNA is rather melodramatic and out of character, though. We never hear from his victims.
We never really get a feel of why the investigation went nowhere. So, great scenes: Rockwell and his mom. McDormand, a few. Harrelson's letter to her. His letter to Rockwell is a bad one. I love Peter Dinklage but didn't see the point of making fun of his size and treating him like a joke. And McDormand's co-worker who does jail time for her cheerfully with the cop who abuses black people, and then disappears... how did that get past edits? That could have been a great scene, with her and Rockwell in the jail. Maybe that would have spurred his redemption, instead of catching fire. The worst scene was when the abusive husband grabs McDormand and the son robotically pulls a kitchen knife to protect his mom was comically bad. And I say this as someone who has literally pulled a knife on a drunken boyfriend as a child. Try making it part of someone's character instead of a plot point or a shortcut. How does McDormand go from putting up with that man's violence to firebombing a police station? Does not compute.
Anyhow, it had a lot of good going for it, but it wasn't great. By a director who has made great movies, like In Bruges. Which brings us to the other great director who went to bat with a script that needed rewrites, but won anyway.
Guillermo del Toro should've won a Oscar for Pan's Labyrinth. I can see why so many people love The Shape of Water, it's about lonely people, it pays reverence to old Hollywood style, it has a wonderful cast who play their undeveloped characters to the hilt. Really, did Octavia Spencer have to be a cleaning woman? Is that the only role we'll ever see her in?
Michael Shannon's character is ripped straight from his role in "Boardwalk Empire" without any subtlety, and his portrayal of Zod in Man of Steel was less a comic-book villain that this guy. His character supposedly went to the Amazon alone and brought back the fish god by himself, and just likes torturing him with a cattle prod and expecting him to learn English. I get the references. The scientists never notice that the fish man heals overnight, they just want him so the Russians can't get him, and these stories were lazy in the '80s.
Sally Hawkins and Richard Jenkins are wonderful lonely people and I can see why they want to protect the strange outsider. I want to protect him, too! But eating eggs isn't really enough. There are touching scenes later, but I must've missed the scene where she sees him and isn't terrified. The great scenes are the flooded apartment, and Jenkins had promise. I'm glad the pie guy didn't beat him up, but he's not the only gay man in a big city, he wouldn't be as lonely as we saw him. (Watch A Single Man or any number of movies...) It's a movie I really wanted to like. The caper aspects were, but the odd Russian spy subplot could have been completely excised and the time used for character development, which was sorely needed. Instead we get Michael Shannon humping his wife and covering her mouth--an obvious hint that he is going to abuse our mute heroine--but that goes nowhere. And thankfully. He was evil enough without throwing in a rape scene. His abuse of the women at work was believable for the time.
Sally Hawkins is an incredible actor and she really shines in the movie, but she couldn't save it for me. It felt like the plot revolved around having the scene of them swimming in the flooded apartment and having sex, as if sex cured loneliness. And there were no stakes. What if the fishman's blood could cure cancer. and they had him hooked up to a torturous machine? Freeing him would be the ethical thing to do, but the "bad guys" wouldn't be quite so cartoonish. Not saying that would be an instant improvement, but it would give the villain a motivation beyond "I like my new Cadillac."
So yeah, I yucked on a lot of peoples' yum here. If you like the movie, I don't think you are wrong. I just wanted to say why it didn't work for me, and why Get Out did. Even Three Billboards, while it had holes, was never predictable. It was compelling. I knew what would happen in The Shape of Water, there were zero surprises. It was beautiful at times and joyful in others. I liked the very end, but didn't enjoy the ride we took to get there.
*Hell yes that was intentional