Oscar Marathon 2017: Thoughts on films from 'Silence' to 'Zootopia'
By Chip Chandler — Digital Content Producer
My march through the 62 films nominated for Oscars draws close to a successful end with these thoughts about films from Silence to Zootopia, with a few others that I watched since beginning this a couple of weeks ago.
I can officially announce that I will see every nominated film this cycle — a first for me, and quite a fun little achievement. Screeners for a trio of films that won't screen here before Sunday's ceremony — Land of Mine, The Red Turtle and Toni Erdmann — were provided by Sony Pictures Classics. Plus, I rented the newly available documentary Fire at Sea, and I'll continue watching the live-action and animated shorts through screeners provided by Shorts HD, which compiles the shorts marathons that will open here Friday; I'll review all 10 of those later this week.
But here's the thing: I may have seen all 62, but devoted film buffs here in Amarillo could have seen 54 of them in Amarillo without my press connections. All but eight films in this cycle screened here or were available online or on disc before Sunday's awards: Elle, I Am Not Your Negro, Land of Mine, My Life As a Zucchini, The Red Turtle, The Salesman, Toni Erdmann and Watani: My Homeland. That includes the 10 shorts coming Friday and quick in-and-out runs for films like Silence (see below), or Netflix exclusive like 13th, Extremis and The White Helmets. (Really devoted buffs could have traveled to Lubbock to see Elle and I Am Not Your Negro, or as far as Abilene, Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Oklahoma City to see all but Zucchini, Salesman and Watani.)
That speaks not only to the rapidly growing digital world and the ever-shortening window between theatrical release and home availability, but also to the slow but steady increase in the number of prestige films that screen here.
I'll make my official predictions in all 26 categories by Friday, in time to (hopefully) help you fill out your own Oscar ballot.
Until then, here are my thoughts on some remarkable films:
Silence: Martin Scorsese’s deeply felt, gorgeously shot adaptation of Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 novel made only the briefest of appearances in Amarillo (no more than six screenings, by my reckoning). It’s a shame that it got crowded out in the end-of-the-year rush, because even for a person who’s not of the spiritual bent, I found it to be an astonishingly beautiful, thoughtful work. Andrew Garfield stars as a 17th-century Portuguese monk who travels to feudal Japan with cohort Adam Driver to find their missing mentor (Liam Neeson). There, they find a ruling class violently opposed to the spread of Catholicism and Christianity and must wrestle with exactly what their faith means to them. Garfield’s performance here is superior to his nominated turn in Hacksaw Ridge, and the film’s sole nod is for the work of cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, whose camerawork is sublime. (Nominated for best cinematography. Seen theatrically at United Artists Amarillo Star 14; a home release has not yet been announced.)
Star Trek Beyond: The third installment in the rebooted franchise is, for my money, the most purely entertaining one of them all — just a nice, fun spectacle that does great service to Gene Roddenberry’s original vision. It also, for the first time in too long, introduced a slew of new alien races, designed by Oscar-winner Joel Harlow, who won in 2009 for Star Trek and is the favorite to win again this year. (Nominated for best makeup/hairstyling. Seen on Blu-ray after Amarillo theatrical engagement; available now digitally and on disc.)
Suicide Squad: Bar none, the worst film I screened in this year’s marathon — though, really, is that any surprise? DC Comics’ floundering development of its cinematic universe has been blighted from the start, thanks to their insistence on (and inability to) follow the template set by Christopher Nolan with his moody Dark Knight trilogy. Suicide Squad was supposed to be the one that broke that mold, that introduced humor into the dark, dark world of Batman v. Superman and Man of Steel. Well, there’s some humor, at least, but the film was structured so poorly and plotted so carelessly that it ultimately didn’t matter. The film is a sour, noisy mess. The makeup work in creating such villains as Killer Croc, El Diablo and The Enchantress is fairly solid, though. (Nominated for best makeup/hairstyling. Seen on Vudu after Amarillo theatrical engagement; available now digitally and on disc.)
Sully: Let me tell you: Seeing this film a month or so before I landed at and took off from LaGuardia Airport myself was not exactly the best idea. Fortunately, no pigeons hit our planes. The work of the sound editors who helped director Clint Eastwood recreate Chesley “Sully” Sullenberg’s emergency landing for this concise, economical retelling was outstanding, though. The film itself was mostly successful, with Tom Hanks giving a typically nuanced, thoughtful performance as the title character. (Nominated for best sound editing. Seen theatrically at Amarillo Star 14; available now digitally and on disc.)
Tanna: Australia’s entry in the foreign-film race is this drama set on the island of Tanna in the Vanuatu archipelago, inspired by tribal folklore of members from opposing tribes who fall in love and defy their leaders. Filmmakers Martin Butler and Bentley Dean asked tribe members, most (if not all) of whom who’d never seen a film, to act out a contemporary retelling of the story — to magnificent effect, I might add. It’s a beautiful film with distinct Romeo and Juliet undertones, but it feels completely respectful of the tribes and their traditions, even as they begin falling away in the 21st century. (Nominated for best foreign language film. Seen via press screener; available now digitally and March 7 on disc)
13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi: Michael Bay takes a break from fiddling with transforming robots to tackle a more heated topic: What happened at the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012. As is Bay’s wont, it’s an action-packed, mostly nuance-free film that lionizes exactly who you’d expect it would. Not my cup of tea, but the sound work does put you right in the middle of battle. (Nominated for best sound mixing. Seen on Amazon Prime after Amarillo theatrical engagement; available now digitally and on disc.)
13th: Director Ava DuVernay’s eye-opening documentary makes a strong case that slavery wasn’t totally done away with by the 13th Amendment. Instead, mass incarceration still does the work of subjugating vast swaths of African-Americans, mostly men. The documentary is a sweeping, truly galvanizing indictment of a racist power structure, and it again shows that DuVernay (Selma) is a visionary filmmaker. I ranked it among my top films of 2016. (Nominated for best documentary feature. Seen on Netflix.)
Toni Erdmann: There’s always a film (or, often, more than one) in each Oscar cycle that I admire more than I appreciate. This cycle, it’s this German comedy (using the awkward Office-style of humor) about the fraught relationship between a father and daughter, and also about the new world economy and how it tramples over the lower class. And also about the ongoing struggle women have in a male-dominated workspace. It’s about a lot, in other words, and writer-director Maren Ade luxuriates in the film’s lengthy runtime to ruminate over all of it. In the film, Ines (Sandra Hüller) is appalled when her father, Winfried (Peter Simonischek) shows up for a visit at her office in Budapest shortly after her lousy visit home to see him in Germany. Winfried’s the kind who never knows when to stop joking around, and Ines’ horror is multiplied when he starts showing up as his bewigged, be-dentured alter-ego, Toni Erdmann. Toni insinuates himself into Ines’ work life in appalling ways, though I suppose we can see it all comes from a sense of love and overprotectiveness. And really, no matter how embarrassing her father is, it’s nothing compared to the slights she’s expected to put up with on a daily basis simply by virtue of being a woman in a male-dominated world. But Ade probably could have used a tighter hand when editing the nearly three-hour film and still made her point. (Nominated for best foreign language film. Seen via press screener; now screening in limited release and due April 11 on disc.)
Trolls: This was one of the films I was least looking forward to watching this Oscar cycle, but to be honest, it was pretty unobjectionable. I particularly liked the animation, which has a crafty look — clothing that looks handmade in felt, and other scrapbooky touches. The story is absolutely nothing new, but the message of loving one’s self and finding success by working as a team certainly doesn’t hurt anyone. Is it as deep as something like Inside Out or any of this year’s animated feature nominees? Not a chance. I mean, one character farts glitter. (Nominated for best original song [“Can’t Stop the Feeling”]. Seen at Westgate Mall 6; available now digitally and on disc.)
20th Century Women: This spectacular film, writer-director Mike Mills’ follow-up to his equally heartfelt and affecting Beginners, pays homage to three powerful women in Mills’ own life — his mother (played her by the superb Annette Bening), a photographer boarder (Greta Gerwig, equally effective) and a neighbor girl (Elle Fanning, never better). All three work together to help raise young Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) in late 1970s Southern California. In my review before its two-week Amarillo run, I noted the film’s “nuanced, naturalistic” storytelling style and bemoaned the overlooking of Bening in the best actress race. (Nominated for best original screenplay. Seen via press screener before theatrical run at Westgate Mall 6; available March 28 on disc)
Watani: My Homeland: German director Marcel Mettelsiefen (who directed Syria: Children on the Frontline and Children on the Frontline: The Escape for PBS) spent three years following a Syrian family from war-ravaged Aleppo to a new home in Germany for this 40-minute punch in the gut. We first meet the family as the bombs are falling, then catch up with them again a year later, after the father is kidnapped by ISIS and they are the only ones left in their neighborhood. Watching a 7-year-old girl calmly explain the difference between the sound of airborne missiles and mortar from tanks is chilling. And it’s heartbreaking to hear the mother, after their forced migration begins, say she sometimes envy the dead “because they’ve finally found somewhere to settle down.” An extraordinarily timely film, the documentary (like several others this cycle) puts a human face on the refugee crisis. (Nominated for best short documentary. Seen via press screener; no home release date announced.)
The White Helmets: Another film set in Aleppo, this one follows members of the Syrian Civil Defense, the folks who sweep in after a bombing to rescue survivors from the craggy remains of buildings. Their bravery is inspiring, and the footage captured by director Orlando von Einsiedel’s crew is nothing short of extraordinary. (Nominated for best short documentary. Seen on Netflix.)
Zootopia: Another of my favorite films of 2016, this Disney winner took a prescient look at the dangers of authoritarianism and pitting segments of a country’s population against one another. Only it’s done with cute animals, so maybe the message didn’t sink through to everyone. (Nominated for best animated feature. Seen theatrically at Amarillo Star 14; available on digital and disc.)
And, to round up the films I hadn’t seen before writing previous entries:
Fire at Sea: Director Gianfranco Rosi's documentary is about the thousands of refugees and migrants streaming into Europe, fleeing nightmares so profound that risking their lives crossing the Mediterranean in leaky, overcrowded boats is a better option. It's also about the ordinary lives of the residents of Lampedusa, an island south of Sicily that's only about 70 kilometers from the African coast, where boys make slingshots and grandmothers call in to request Italian standards on the radio and doctors treat lazy eyes. It's a considerably bifurcated treatment that, at first, is off-putting. The boy doesn't have any major encounters with the refugees. The grandmother whispers a prayer when she hears of the deaths of dozens of migrants, then goes right back to cooking. The doctor, though, also treats malnourished pregnant refugees and mourns over those who didn't survive the trip. Meanwhile, an African man half-cries, half-sings about fleeing ISIS killers: "The mountains could not hide us, the people could not hide us, so we went to the sea." A Syrian man literally cries tears of blood. It feels like two movies, and I think that's the point Rosi is making: The horrific trauma undergone by the refugees is an aberration against nature, against the mundane, calm rhythm of ordinary life. Once you realize that the two halves purposefully cannot be reconciled, it's a highly moral argument, ultimately, and a highly effective one. (Nominated for best documentary feature. Seen via iTunes; available on disc March 21)
Land of Mine: This Danish drama takes an interesting angle on the typical World War II story. It’s set after the conflict has ended, amid a group of German POWs forced to clear up landmines buried along a Danish beach. Yes, these are prisoners, the film tells us, but are they really deserving of near-certain death in doing this work? After all, they’re barely out of childhood, conscripted into battle to fight for a cause they may or may not have believed in. There’s tension, sure, but not necessarily because of the looming explosions; you do know that when one prisoner starts talking about all the fun he’s going to have when he gets back home, that he’s not long for this world. Instead, most of the drama comes from wondering if Danish Sgt. Rasmussen (Roland Møller) will begin to see his prisoners as human beings and treat them as such. (Nominated for best foreign language film. Seen via press screener; now in limited theatrical release with no home date yet announced.)
The Red Turtle: This nearly dialogue-free animated film from Studio Ghibli is a minimalist delight. There’s probably (I mean, definitely) a metaphor involved about treating our planet better, but honestly, it works so beautifully as a fable that you can let the parable sink in slowly instead of trying to parse it out. In the film, a man washes up on a deserted island. He tries several times to escape, but a big red turtle blocks his way every time. He attacks and kills the turtle, which then transforms overnight into a woman, whom he marries and has a child with. Like I said, it’s a fable. They fall in love because they recognize that they share a bond as their world’s inhabitants, learning to overlook any initial enmity. It’s really a beautiful message and truly a ravishing film. (Nominated for best animated feature. Seen via press screener; now in limited theatrical release with no home date yet announced.)
Up next: Live-action and animated shorts