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Jeff Simon's guide to the 4 Oscar-nominated films playing at North Park

It's one of the oldest complaints about the Oscars: "What are these movies? I never heard of them.I certainly never saw them." It's gotten worse in the last couple of decades when so much of Hollywood's biggest and most expensive hoo-ha has been supplanted on Oscar night by smaller, less-expensive independent films.

A serious answer to the complaint is here beginning this weekend, courtesy of the North Park Theatre which has made it explicit in case anyone has trouble getting the point. They're calling what they're doing their "Oscar Showcase" and showing four films that stand a decent chance of winning gold statuettes on Oscar night, March 4.

They're telling you, in effect: "three of these films are where some smart money is and the fourth, 'Loving Vincent', is a strong candidate in the Animated Feature Category." The other three films are Guillermo Del Toro's "The Shape of Water," Martin McDonagh's "Three Billboards Outside Hibbing Missouri" and Greta Gerwig's "Lady Bird." All will be shown at the North Park until Feb. 15.

At the same time, at the Dipson Eastern Hills Mall, you can now see the Oscar-nominated short films for this year.

At the North Park, anyone who cares can do an awful lot of Oscar-cramming under one roof about the major topics of movie discussion. The four films in the North Park's program:

* "The Shape of Water": Guillermo Del Toro, one of the great Mexican filmmakers Hollywood and the Oscars have fallen in love with, made a film whose most conspicuous virtue is love of movies. Hollywood loves that (see "Singing in the Rain," and "La La Land" last year which almost won and "The Artist" which did win in its year). In this case, the old movie Del Toro loves so overtly is Jack Arnold's 1950's sci-fi classic "The Creature from the Black Lagoon" in which a rubber-suited "gill man" fell so in love up river with leggy beauty Julie Adams that in the film's greatest scene, he performed an underwater ballet of amour in answer to her swimming above him on the river's surface.

We follow a mute cleaning woman at a secret government laboratory (Sally Hawkins) as she falls in love with a captive "mer-man" and gets her friends (Octavia Spender and Richard Jenkins) to help liberate him.

The Backlash: You would think such a personal tribute to a beloved Hollywood B-classic would be unanimously praised for originality and depth of feeling. Not entirely so. The Internet has been aflame with accusations of plagiarism against Del Toro. The family of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paul Zindel ("The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-In-The-Moon Marigolds") believes that the film copied Zindel's play "Let Me Hear You Whisper." Many more see similarities to a Dutch short film by Marc S. Nollkamper called "The Space Between Us." The Netherlands Film Academy, which produced the short, is content that Del Toro hadn't seen it when he made his film. Del Toro denies knowing of Zindel's play. A likely smash Oscar night in any event.

Woody Harrelson and Frances McDormand star in "Three Billboards: outside Ebbing Missouri."

* "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri": A huge contender in at least four categories--especially Frances McDormand as Best Actress--Martin McDonagh's film is about the fearsome small-town mother of rape/murder victim who is trying to seek justice while the local sheriff's department is mired in stasis. Woody Harrelson plays the hapless but sympathetic sheriff and soul of the movie. Sam Rockwell is winning awards for his portrayal of a racist, brutal deputy. With rather stunning flippancy, the film tells us how much he likes to torture the small-town jail's black prisoners.

Just as stunningly but in another way, "Three Billboards" is that rare film which cannot, from scene to scene, be predicted in its plot. Its message, in a dark way, is one of redemption glimpsed through its fury and dark humor.

The Backlash: What the sheriff, in the era of "Black Lives Matter" says about his deputy's brand of law and order is that if you "got rid of every cop with vaguely racist leanings, you'd have three cops left and all of them would hate the fags." The film's roughneck, Tarantinesque humor about American ugliness and stupidity remains a subject of much lament and scorn in some places, particularly from black writers. An unlikely casualty of any backlash will be Best Actress nominee McDormand who, in a hugely female-centric year, will be actress to beat on Oscar night.

Saoirse Ronan, left, and Laurie Metcalf star in “Lady Bird.” (Merie Wallace, A24)

* "Lady Bird": The most lovable Oscar candidate of the year, by far. Greta Gerwig's film is a teen coming-of-age drama that has two unassailable virtues: it is brilliantly acted by terrific actress Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf as her mother)and directed by hugely sympathetic actress Gerwig, making her directorial debut. It is, nevertheless, Gerwig's script that has the film's greatest chance. The good news of the film is that even one of the oldest and most exploitative plots in the world--teen coming-of-age--can still be done with freshness and joy if it's also done with truth, compassion and wit. The University at Buffalo's professor Stephen McKinley Henderson has a small but delicious role as the young heroine's somewhat startled high school drama teacher.

Thousands of oil paintings, like this one of actor Robert Gulaczyk as Vincent Van Gough, were created for the animated feature film "Loving Vincent."

* "Loving Vincent": The film, by Dorate Kubiela and Hugh Welchman, will have a notably tough time wresting an Oscar away from Disney's juggernaut "Coco" but, through its way of animating the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh, it left most critics hugely impressed and often flabbergasted. Animated Feature is a category where the origins of the Academy Awards in Hollywood Big Studio Money probably can't be denied, even though some room always needs to be made for the artistry of those who are, temporarily, outside the Hollywood world of Big Money (until they, like, say Tim Burton, join it with much fanfare).

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