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Copernicus says THE SHAPE OF WATER is Guillermo de Toro's masterpiece.

I've met Guillermo del Toro a few times over the years.  I don't think there's a sweeter, more passionate guy in the business.  I've seen him stay after screenings and chat with fans for hours.  And I've seen him give extended intros to movies or Q&As that were a wonderful blend of stand up comedy, film history, and him just pouring out his soul and passion for cinema.  

That's a long way of saying that I always go to his films wanting to like them.  I'm rooting for the guy who populates his films with blood, monsters, and character actors to succeed in a world of homogenized blockbusters.  Having said that, I don't often connect with his movies.  I appreciate them as art, but I just have an entirely different sensibility.

But THE SHAPE OF WATER, I love wholly, completely, and without reservation.  It is not just the best film I've seen at TIFF this year, it is easily the best film of 2017 so far.  It is Guillermo del Toro's masterpiece.  It is as if he his entire career has been leading up to this.  He's been refining his craft for decades, and now he's broken through to a new level.  This is a new kind of heroin -- pure, unadulterated Guillermo del Toro, in a way we've never seen it before.

Maybe the best way to describe THE SHAPE OF WATER is if Guillermo del Toro made AMELIE, and set it in a secret government lab investigating water monsters in 1962.  There are shades of Jeunet all over the place — primarily it is expressed in finding the fantastic in the seemingly mundane, but it is bolstered by the saturated colors, quirky characters, and a hyper-stylized world. 

The setting is a secret government facility in the early days of the space race.  Michael Shannon plays Strickland, the head of a government lab who has captured a humanoid water monster played by Doug Jones.  The US is experimenting on him to see if his hybrid gill/lung breathing will be of any advantage in the space race.  The Russians have a spy in place, and are interested too.  After having to clean up an accident, the two janitors, Eliza (Sally Hawkins), who is mute, and her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer), start to catch on to what a strange place this is.  Eliza forms a bond with the creature in the times when the government agents are out of the room.  At home, she lives above a theater with Giles (Richard Jenkins), a balding, under confident, but sweet older man.  As the torture of the creature increases some of the players are forced to make decisions, but that's all I'll say about the plot.

Joseph Campbell used to say that we like people not in spite of their imperfections, but because of them.  Guillermo del Toro has clearly taken that to heart.  Each of the characters here is flawed in some way.  They may be self conscious about their looks, or have a disability.  And almost always, they're lonely.  A lesser screenwriter would have had each character's arc involve fixing their flaws.  But del Toro asks us to love them for who they are.  He uses their so-called flaws to reveal their humanity and we love them all the more for it.  

Partly that's writing, and direction, of course.  But a huge part is acting.  The cast here is wonderful.  They ground the fantasy, and just ooze the essential nature of the characters they play.  I mean, Octavia Spencer has played both “the help” and a manager at NASA —  could you imagine better casting?   And Richard Jenkins is basically playing the inverse of his role in THE CABIN IN THE WOODS.  Michael Shannon may be my favorite actor working today.  And of course Doug Jones is a master of brining del Toro’s creatures to life.  This is dream casting, without regard to star power, and it is perfect. 

As the director pointed out after the film, a big part of the secret here is tone.  A film like this is all about atmosphere and emotion.  If you go too far towards comedy, you lose it.  Go too far towards drama and you lose it.  The sets, costume design, props, makeup, score, and even the color palate of the film all have to work together like a symphony to keep you suspended in just the right state of mind.  Del Toro has always excelled at creating heightened realities, but this time he's succeeded like he never has before with balance.  This is his funniest and most charming film, which goes a long way towards balancing out the darkness and violence.  

Perhaps the most incredible thing is that he's done all this without pulling any punches.  Some things happen in the film that would cause a studio executive to shit their pants.  A few times I thought, wow, I just can't believe he kept that in.  He took a big swing, and knocked it out of the park.  

Here's the thing -- it is very hard to describe the film in words, because the magic here is the deluge of emotion it elicits.  There is an overarching emotion that is achieved through build up of the plot, but there are also dozens of tinier amazing character moments.

I'm absolutely thrilled that I got to see the film in the grand Elgin Theater in downtown Toronto.  It is huge, old, and ornate — a picture-perfect theater.  In the movie, two characters live above the theater and there are beautiful pans up from a movie, through the floor, and right into their lives.  It was truly incredible to watch the movie it the very place it was filmed.  

After the screening, the film got a long and heartfelt standing ovation.  As the audience wiped away tears, I heard many exclaim how it was hands down the best film they've seen at the fest.  {It won the highest award at Venice just prior}.  One audience member melted everyone's heart with her statement that the film gave her hope that her autistic son could find love one day.  Octavia Spencer, in particular, was so moved that she had to take a moment to compose herself before recounting that her own brother was deaf, and shared some personal feelings about growing up with him.  

The bottom line is that this is just a magical film.  It casts a spell on you.  Everything about it is firing on all cylinders, and it is one for the ages.

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