Oscar Marathon 2017: Thoughts on films from "Hail, Caesar!" to "Lion"

Last Updated by Chip Chandler on
Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone star in "La La Land."
Courtesy Lionsgate

By Chip Chandler — Digital Content Producer

I continue my march through this year's 62 Oscar-nominated films, this time with an emotional bunch from Hail, Caesar! to Lion.

Hail, Caesar!: I wish this one had gotten more attention when it came out, but hopefully, like the Coen Brothers’ previous The Big Lebowski and others, it’ll gain a huge cult following. It’s a delightfully daffy celebration of the Golden Age of Hollywood, meticulously constructed with practical and digital effects, featuring a studio handler (Josh Brolin) searching for a missing leading man (George Clooney). The lean plot’s mostly an excuse for a jaunt through nearly every classic movie genre imaginable — musical (including a slyly hysterical tap number starring Channing Tatum), water musical (with Scarlett Johansson as a brassy knockoff of Esther Williams), Western (with the laconically perfect Alden Ehrenreich), sophisticated drawing-room comedy (with Ehrenreich hilariously miscast) and more. It’s simply dazzling, even if you aren’t as familiar with the films that it’s referencing. I’d hoped for a costume nomination, too, because they’re absolutely delicious. (Nominated for best production design. Seen via Amazon after Amarillo theatrical run; available now on disc and digital)

Hell or High Water: The very definition of a word-of-mouth hit, this West Texas-set neo-Western captured, better than any film I saw last year, the economic insecurities that helped drive at least a large portion of 2016’s political upheaval. Two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster, both excellent) blaze down dusty roads to rob branches of the bank that holds the note on their family farm and is choking them with onerous interest rates. Jeff Bridges, in another later-day masterwork, is the retiring Texas Ranger determined to track them down. Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay keeps every side sympathetic, especially the putative bad guys, whose motives are painfully understandable. (Nominated for best picture, supporting actor [Bridges], film editing and original screenplay. Seen at Premiere Cinemas Westgate Mall 6 after first run at Amarillo Star 14; available now on disc and digital)

Hidden Figures: As the most feel-good inspirational film in the running this year (Lion not withstanding), not to mention the biggest box-office success in the Best Picture race, this movie’s chances for taking home the big prize have been steadily increasing. Taking the Best Ensemble award at the SAGs certainly helped, though it wasn’t competing against La La Land there, and having a black-led film win after two years of #OscarsSoWhite would be great optics. I think the musical’s still going to finish on top, though, because of its months’-long momentum and because it’s a celebration of Hollywood itself. Anyway, Hidden Figures was surprisingly effective for me, not the least because it was an unknown, powerful story. Octavia Spencer, as a supervisor who teaches herself how to use one of those new computer things, is the only cast member to be recognized, and deservedly so, but I sure would have liked to see Jonelle Monae get in the mix too. (Nominated for best picture, supporting actress [Spencer] and adapted screenplay. Seen at Hollywood 16, where it’s still playing in addition to Amarillo Star 14; estimated arrival on disc/digital in April)

I Am Not Your Negro: Filmmaker Raoul Peck’s years-in-the-making documentary is built around an unpublished manuscript by author James Baldwin that explored his reaction to the assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Samuel L. Jackson, sounding nearly unrecognizable but giving one of his best-ever performances, reads Baldwin’s words as Peck cuts between ‘60s-era civil rights protests and modern-day ones at Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere. Baldwin, raging but still hopeful to find some kind of unity, rails against cultural propaganda designed to keep blacks in their place. It’s nervy and painful and one of the best films of the year. Watch for it to come to PBS’s Independent Lens next season. (Nominated for best documentary feature. Seen via press screener; now in limited theatrical release with no home release yet announced)

Jackie: Natalie Portman’s portrayal of Jacqueline Kennedy in the wake of President Kennedy’s assassination is the best reason to see this unusually structured biopic from director Pablo Larrain. It’s structured around an interview she gave Life magazine’s Theodore White (unnamed here but played by Billy Crudup) in which she is single-mindedly determined to preserve her husband’s legacy (and her own; note how she refuses to let White mention that she smokes). The focus is on her grief and how she can navigate through it in the unblinking eye of the public, and it’s undeniably effective. Mica Levi’s nominated score is unconventional, perhaps a bit too oppressive at times, while Madeline Fontaine’s costume designs specifically reference Kennedy’s own clothing (that iconic pink dress and pillbox hat) or otherwise evoke their essence and Kennedy’s influentially chic style. (Nominated for best actress [Portman], costume design and original score. Seen at Lubbock’s Alamo Drafthouse ahead of expected Feb. 17 opening at Westgate Mall 6; available Feb. 21 on digital services and March 7 on disc)

Jim: The James Foley Story: This documentary, about the American combat-zone journalist who was beheaded by ISIS after two years in captivity, is a powerful work and worthy tribute to its subject. Its sole nomination, for the end-credit song “The Empty Chair” by J. Ralph and Sting, seems like a consolation prize, really. But maybe I’m just bitter that “Drive It Like You Stole It” from Sing Street didn’t make the cut. (Nominated for best original song [“The Empty Chair”]; seen on HBO)

Joe's Violin: A 91-year-old Holocaust survivor donates the violin he bought shortly after being freed from his concentration camp to an instrument drive, then meets the 12-year-old Bronx schoolgirl who was picked by her school to receive the instrument. It’s powerfully effective, especially when Joe Feingold meets young Brianna Perez, but I wish we’d gotten to know the young girl a little better. (Nominated for best documentary short. Seen on The New Yorker's website.)

The Jungle Book: Director Jon Favreau’s live-action remake of the Disney animated favorite represents a huge step forward in realistic CGI work — one that I wish I’d seen on the big screen instead of the small, where the seams show just a little bit. It’s amazingly impressive work, though, with young Neel Sethi’s Mowgli completely and continuously surrounded by one giant visual effect. It’s the prohibitive favorite in its category. (Nominated for best visual effects. Seen on Netflix after Amarillo theatrical run; available on disc and digital)

Kubo and the Two Strings: It’s nice to see Laika’s latest stop-motion animated film break out of the animated category to land a nod for visual effects (the first such film to be nominated since The Nightmare Before Christmas), but it might have been a nicer achievement for one of Laika’s better films. Though gorgeous and generally well-crafted, Kubo didn’t sing for me like the company’s other films. I admired its commitment to melancholy, but wish that the Japanese story was told by Japanese voice actors. (Nominated for best animated feature and visual effects. Seen via Amazon after Amarillo theatrical run; available now on disc and digital)

La La Land: What more is there to say about this spectacularly entertaining, refreshingly bittersweet musical from writer-director Damien Chazelle? Check out my review for my initial thoughts on it. As the Oscar campaign winds on, it’s still the prohibitive favorite for winning Best Picture and, likely, the most Oscars of the night. (It’ll lose out for best actor — Ryan Gosling isn’t even in the conversation, really — and it’ll at least defeat itself in original song — probably with “City of Stars” beating out the superior “Audition.”) But Emma Stone’s sensational performance is a shoo-in, as is the film itself. Probably. (See Hidden Figures, above.) (Nominated for best picture, actor [Gosling], actress [Stone], cinematography, costume design, director, film editing, original score, original song [“Audition (The Fools Who Dream)”], original song [“City of Stars”], production design, sound editing, sound mixing, original screenplay. Seen at Amarillo Star 14, where it’s still playing in addition to Hollywood 16; estimated arrival on disc/digital in April)

Life, Animated: This affecting documentary tells the story of Owen Suskind, son of journalist Ron Suskind, who developed autism as a young child and became totally uncommunicative until he found a way to express himself again through his beloved classic Disney films. Its an emotional experience as we see Owen step out on his own as an independent adult, but as moving and heartfelt as the film is, it feels a little lighter than some of the top-notch docs that were overlooked. Still, it’s highly recommended. (Nominated for best documentary feature. Seen via Netflix; available on disc and digital)

Lion: One of the most emotionally charged films in a year packed with them, this drama, based on a true story, charts a young Indian boy’s heartbreaking journey after getting lost in a big city, eventually finding him adopted by an Australian couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham) and moved to a foreign country. As a young man (played by Dev Patel), he uses Google Earth to track down his home and mother. It’s gorgeously told and surprisingly complex, earning every single tear it pulls from you. I wish young Sunny Pawar, who plays Saroo as a kid, had been nominated, too, though; it’s definitely time for the return of the younger actor category. (Nominated for best picture, supporting actor [Patel], supporting actress [Kidman], cinematography, original score and adapted screenplay. Seen at Westgate Mall 6, where it’s still playing; estimated arrival on disc/digital in April)

Up next: The LobsterManchester by the SeaMoanaMoonlight and more



Chip Chandler is a digital content producer for Panhandle PBS. He can be contacted at Chip.Chandler@actx.edu, at @chipchandler1 on Twitter and on Facebook.

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