Sign of the times: Artistic fantasy drama The Shape of Water wins Best Picture Oscar

It’s true.

The reigning Academy Award winner for Best Picture and 13-time Oscar nominee features a scene of inter-species sex between a mute woman and a fish-man-god.

That’s cinema in the modern era, a changing of the guard that began last year with the surprising upset win by gay coming-of-age story “Moonlight” that continues through genre films like “The Shape of Water,” “Get Out” and most recently with “Black Panther.”

Fifteen years ago, traditional historic dramas like Steven Spielberg’s “The Post” or Joe Wright’s “Darkest Hour” with an Academy Award-winning performance from Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill would be frontrunners, winning Oscars hand over fist.

Honors ran the gambit at Sunday evening’s ceremony, a testament to just how deep and diverse the quality of movies being made is today. Nine of 2017’s best features earned a Best Picture nomination, with seven of the nine taking home Academy Awards Sunday night.

In fact, the year’s best film — Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird” — has zero Oscars.

Cinema is remarkably good at the top right now.

Take for example, “The Shape of Water,” an admittedly weird, highly stylized genre film about a janitor who falls in love with what is essentially “The Creature from the Black Lagoon.” Conceptually, this shouldn’t be quality cinema.

Upon closer inspection on the big screen, Oscar-winning director Guillermo del Toro’s fantastical, dark, melancholy monster movie elevates beyond genre expectations to transforms the hearts and minds of cynical moviegoers with an unexpected, deeply personal adventure that will captivate audiences willing to give it a chance.

“The Shape of Water” is presented in broad brushstrokes painted by a master filmmaker whose 25-plus career in movies have led to this moment, as if every lesson, note or idea del Toro has had for a quarter-century culminated in a two-hour spectacle that has to be seen to be believed.

Blessed with an Oscar-winning score from Alexandre Desplat, del Toro’s visionary film floats on air as viewers fall in love with Eliza (Academy Award nominee Sally Hawkins), a woman hiding in plain sight struggling to find her voice and clinging to those few who hear it.

“The Shape of Water” is a celebration of the outsiders – from the handicapped to closeted homosexuals to overlooked minorities – told in mythical fairy tales set in the American 1960s, as if Hans Christian Andersen lived during the Cold War.

It’s a mistake to passively watch “The Shape of Water,” opting to wait until del Toro’s cinematic opus is available for rental or streaming. For its technical merits alone, “The Shape of Water” to be seen on the big screen where viewers can be completely engulfed by the film’s magical sights and sounds.

“The Shape of Water” is not for everyone.

Some audiences will leave aghast at the social and/or moral implications the film espouses; others will find themselves unable to relate to the film’s moderate pacing and stylized storytelling.

That’s okay. Those viewers need to see movies like “The Shape of Water” in theaters even if they hate it for the rest of their lives.

If you can allow yourself to be transported inside del Toro’s mind as he intends, “The Shape of Water” is a rare cinematic experience that might only come along once every decade or so.

Conversations sparked from interesting, engaging cinema seen with friends, family or complete strangers are the lifeblood of a worthwhile moviegoing experience, one you’re not going to get watching a two-hour film on a laptop, 32-inch flat screen television or cell phone.

2017 was a year of inspirational, controversial, imaginative films that inspire dialogue movies 20 or 30 years simply didn’t do.

As a representative of everything visionary, diverse and artistic that made last year perhaps the best collection of movies top to bottom this decade, “The Shape of Water” stands as a pinnacle of a changing world in cinema.

Films about mothers and daughters, or young men exploring their sexual identity, or what race means in America are being made at the highest level now. It’s a trend unlikely to change anytime soon.

And yes, the “fish-sex movie” is that good. Welcome to a new age.

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