Oscar Marathon 2017: Thoughts on films from 'Allied' to 'Hacksaw Ridge'
By Chip Chandler — Digital Content Producer
As I continue my efforts to see all 62 films nominated for an Oscar for 2016, here are thoughts on the first dozen or so — from Allied to Hacksaw Ridge.
Eagle-eyed observers will note that a few films are missing. I'll write about shorts Blind Vaysha, Borrowed Time and Ennemis Interieurs in one post dedicated to animated and live-action shorts, and the documentary Fire at Sea is one that is still eluding me.
Allied: I wasn’t wild about this World War II drama, though it’s an effective enough (if too long) drama about husband-and-wife spies (Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard) and his fears that she’s being unfaithful — to their allies, not their marriage. Putting aside the positives and negatives of the film as a whole, though, let’s consider what it was nominated for: the glamorous costume designs of Joanna Johnston (her second nod after Lincoln). Director Robert Zemeckis took great inspiration from Hollywood classics like Casablanca for this film, and Johnston’s work truly brings that to the forefront. Her gowns for Cotillard are spectacular, but so too is the character’s everyday wear. The glamour abates when the characters return to London, but there’s nice, thematic thought on view throughout. (Original review) (Nominated for best costume design. Seen theatrically at Premiere Cinemas Westgate Mall 6; available Feb. 14 digitally and Feb. 28 on disc)
Arrival: This, unexpectedly, is one of my favorites of the nine films nominated for Best Picture. Unexpectedly, because cerebral sci-fi isn’t always my cup of tea and because director Denis Villenueve’s previous work (Sicario, Prisoners) hasn’t been completely satisfying to me. But he knocks it out of the park with this film, imagining what might happen when we try to communicate with a wildly different alien race when it lands on Earth. It speaks to the dangers posed by isolationism, a more timely message than Villenueve might have expected when he made it. The way the film plays with time and memory is masterful, and Amy Adams gives one of her best-ever performances. Unless it picks up a technical award or two, it’s likely to walk away empty-handed on Oscar night, though. (Original review; Top Films of 2016) (Nominated for best picture, cinematography, director, film editing, production design, sound editing, sound mixing, adapted screenplay. Seen theatrically at United Artists Amarillo Star 14; available now digitally and Feb. 14 on disc)
Captain Fantastic: I had some issues with this film, mostly in that I wasn’t quite sure it was hard enough on its central character, a father who raises his tribe of children off the grid. But I had no issues at all with Viggo Mortensen’s performance as the dad: He’s quite stellar. So’s the whole cast, too. In fact, this may be due for a rewatch soon. (Original review) (Nominated for best actor [Mortensen]. Seen via press screener ahead of run at Westgate Mall 6; available now digitally and on disc)
Deepwater Horizon: One of director Peter Berg’s two docudramas in 2016 (see also: Patriots Day), this one depicts the 2010 explosion on the titular oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. The story was fairly predictable (not because I knew the story, but because the character beats were pretty standard) but also fairly effective, especially the work done by Gina Rodriguez and Kurt Russell. But it’s no surprise to me that the film’s nominated in a pair of technical categories — that work was, across the board, quite good. Special-effects artists did particularly good work in creating the CGI fire that consumed the rig. (Nominated for best sound editing and visual effects. Seen theatrically at Amarillo Star 14; available now digitally and on disc)
Doctor Strange: Even with its baseline standard origin story plot, this is one of the best films yet to come out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Most of the credit goes to the highly imaginative visual effects work, which does an amazing job capturing the trippy visuals for which the comic-book source material (particularly Steve Ditko’s classic work) is known for. Maybe there’s just a touch too much inspiration from Inception, but it’s really killer work overall. (Original review) (Nominated for best visual effects. Seen theatrically at Amarillo Star 14; still screening at Westgate Mall 6 and available Feb. 14 digitally and Feb. 28 on disc)
Elle: One of the few major nominees not to screen here (yet) this cycle, this French drama opens with a shocker — a violent rape committed against its lead character, played by first-time nominee and all-around amazing French actress Isabelle Huppert. She’s Michelle, the head of a video game company and, as we learn, the daughter of a notorious French serial killer. Despite the attack, she’s no one’s victim (in her mind, at least), and she goes on with her life without reporting the crime or even confiding about it in a friend. Huppert is fascinatingly chilly and chic — totally magnetic even when we’re repelled by her character’s behavior. The film’s directed by Paul Verhoeven (Starship Troopers, Showgirls), so you expect a certain level of pulpiness and provocation going in. It might be a little much — the film is extremely hard to like — but there’s no doubting the power of Huppert’s performance. (Nominated for best actress [Huppert]. Seen via press screener; available March 14 on disc)
Extremis: This 24-minute documentary — a fly-on-the-wall look at the Intensive Care Unit at Highland Hospital in Oakland, Calif. — is brutal to watch but an instructive examination of end-of-life issues. Through the eyes of Dr. Jessica Zitter, a palliative care specialist, we’re right there as families make the devastatingly difficult decision whether to remove loved ones from life support. The film’s brevity doesn’t less its impact, and hopefully, watching it might lead to some tough but necessary conversations with loved ones. (Nominated for best short documentary. Seen on Netflix)
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: As the kickoff to a planned five-film prequel series in the Harry Potter universe, this fantasy is fun enough. On its own, though, it’s fairly disappointing -- a bit hollow and utterly unfinished. And, to be honest, the production design and costumes don’t have the impact that I expected. Like I said, fun, but my inner Harry Potter fanboy wanted more. (Original review) (Nominated for best costume design and production design. Seen theatrically at Amarillo Star 14; available March 7 digitally and March 28 on disc)
Fences: What a joy to finally be exposed to the work of late playwright August Wilson! His work, which examines the life of ordinary black Americans over the course of the 20th century, isn't easy to stage here, thanks to the paucity of black actors, and since only one previous work (The Piano Lesson in 1995) has been filmed, the power of his words blew me away when I saw Fences around Christmastime. (Up next on my to-do list: Watch the recently encored episode of PBS's American Masters about Wilson.) Denzel Washington and Viola Davis starred in a 2010 Broadway revival of this work, and Wilson adapted the script into a screenplay before his death in 2005. Washington — who'll produce adaptations of the nine other plays in Wilson's Pittsburgh cycle for HBO — does outstanding work as the lead character, Troy Maxson, and ably moves the story from stage to screen as its director. Davis, too, gives an impassioned performance as Troy's long-suffering wife — the kind of work that makes her a shoo-in for the Oscar, even with a touch of category fraud in placing her in the supporting category (Davis won a leading actress Tony for the same role). (Top Films of 2016) (Nominated for best picture, actor [Washington], supporting actress [Davis] and adapted screenplay. Seen theatrically at Cinemark Hollywood 16 and still screening [as of this posting] at Amarillo Star 14; no home release date announced)
Florence Foster Jenkins: Another late-summer delight from Meryl Streep, here starring as a real-life arts supporter and socialite whose wealth accorded her opportunities to sing that her talent could never secure. A bit delusional, but utterly sincere in her love of the arts, Jenkins is no joke, and Streep is fully aware of that. It's another in a line of great performances by Streep though, surely, her record 20th nomination for an Oscar was helped along at least a bit by her barnburning speech at the Golden Globes, right in the middle of Oscar voting. (Nominated for best actress [Streep] and costume design. Seen on Blu-ray after its Amarillo theatrical engagement; available now digitally and on disc)
4.1 Miles: One of several films nominated this cycle that deals with the ongoing migrant crisis in Europe, this film by journalist and filmmaker Daphne Matziaraki brings us an intimate look at the struggle faced by Syrians fleeing war in their homeland. In vivid detail, Matziaraki presents the heroic work of coast guard captain Kyriakos Papadopoulos in rescuing Syrians trying to float from the coast of Turkey to the island of Lesbos. They come by the boatload — a sobering reminder of the human cost of war and the need to help one's neighbor, and the difficulty thereof. (Nominated for best short documentary; seen at NYTimes.com)
Hacksaw Ridge: In director Mel Gibson's successful bid to return to Hollywood's good graces, Andrew Garfield stars as Desmond Doss, a real-life pacifist who saved 75 men in a hellish World War II battle without ever carrying or firing a gun. As usual, Gibson's examination of the cost of violence is presented in a grueling manner, but the final battle scene is undeniably effective. For my taste, Garfield's superior acting work last year was in Silence, though. (Original review) (Nominated for best picture, director [Gibson], actor [Garfield], film editing, sound editing and sound mixing. Seen theatrically at Amarillo Star 14, where it’s still screening as of this posting; available Feb. 7 digitally and Feb. 21 on disc)
Up next: Hell or High Water, Jackie, La La Land and more
Previously: What the Oscars mean to me