Oscar Marathon 2018: Thoughts on films from 'Abacus' to 'Coco'
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By Chip Chandler — Digital Content Producer
For the fifth year running, I'll be attempting to see every film nominated for an Oscar and sharing my thoughts as I go. First up, everything from Abacus to Coco.
Until last year, I hadn't been successful in seeing everything before Oscar night, usually coming down to a handful of films in the last few days that I just couldn't get my hands on. By that, I mean through strictly legal methods. I make it a point to see as many films with awards potential in the theaters, and I can, and do, request press screeners from various studios and publicists, sometimes with more success than others. But I have a hang-up about watching anything on, say, a jail-broken Fire stick or any unauthorized streaming site. Artists should get paid for their work, after all.
Getting those screeners helps me see the foreign films, short documentaries and animated features that often aren't otherwise available — which, in turn, lets me give you all at least a taste of them, as well as informing my picks for the eventual winners.
Last year, one studio came through at nearly the last minute with three screeners that I was able to watch a few days before the ceremony, allowing me to see all 62 films nominated. This year, I've already scored screeners of everything I otherwise might miss so, once I catch up on a few documentaries on Netflix, the Blu-ray of Loving Vincent that I bought arrives, and Phantom Thread arrives in our theaters for the Best Picture marathons (or, hopefully, before), I'm all set to see each of the 59 films in this year's class.
So let's just jump right in!
Abacus: Small Enough to Jail: This documentary from director Steve James (Hoop Dreams) is a concise, well-executed look at, as Frontline described it when it aired on PBS, the “little-known story about the only bank prosecuted for mortgage fraud after the financial meltdown.” Like the best of James’ work (see also Life Itself, his biography of Roger Ebert), it’s intimate in scope while telling a broader story, and he has especially interesting, complicated protagonists in the Sungs. The Chinese-American family, as James convincingly argues, were thrown under the bus by a prosecutor hoping to be seen as tough on white-collar crimes while much larger financial institutions were getting off virtually scott-free. And James also quickly but strongly sketches out the history of Chinatown itself, placing the wrongs committed against the Sungs into a broader context of discrimination. Amazingly, even though James has been one of the best documentarians in the country for 20-plus years, this is his first film to be nominated for best documentary. (Nominated for best documentary feature. Seen at PBS.com after it originally aired on Panhandle PBS.)
All the Money in the World: Forever to be known as the movie Kevin Spacey was erased from (and, perhaps, for the film Michelle Williams for which was ripped off), director Ridley Scott’s gripping but somewhat uneven drama about the kidnapping of J. Paul Getty III didn’t quite perform up to expectations, landing only one nomination. That’s for acting icon Christopher Plummer, now the oldest actor ever nominated (a record he previously held for Beginners, for which he won in 2012). He stepped in as the gazillionaire J. Paul Getty after revelations about Spacey’s alleged predatory came out after the film was completed, and Scott and his cast (including Mark Wahlberg and Williams, who got less than a tiny fraction of the remuneration Wahlberg did) came back together for a quick reshoot schedule over Thanksgiving. The Getty story is interesting, but perhaps not as interesting as the behind-the-scenes mess, and Plummer’s nomination can’t help but feel a little like one final kiss-off to Spacey. Here's my original review. (Nominated for best supporting actor [Plummer]. Seen theatrically at United Artists Amarillo Star 14; digital/DVD release date not yet announced.)
Baby Driver: One of the most satisfying nominations of the year surely has to be Paul Machliss and Jonathan Amos’ recognition for their superb editing of Baby Driver. Propulsively paced and exquisitely timed to writer/director Edgar Wright’s eclectic soundtrack selections, Baby Driver simply rocks. The sound work was pretty solid, too, both overall (that’s the sound mixing category) and the effects layered in, like the sound of the crashing cars (that’s the sound editing category). Here's my original review. (Nominated for best editing, best sound editing and best sound mixing. Seen theatrically at Amarillo Star 14; available now on digital and disc.)
Beauty and the Beast: One of the biggest box-office hits of the year, this live-action remake is certainly one of the more popular nominees of the year, but I’m not surprised to see it pick up only a couple of below-the-line nominations. Costume designer Jacqueline Durran (also nominated for her work on Darkest Hour) did more than simply replicate the looks from the animated film; as this analysis shows, she did extensive research into the period. And Sarah Greenwood and Katie Spencer’s production design work for the film was certainly sumptuous and packed with amazing detail. Otherwise, the film is a bit inessential compared to its predecessor. Here's my original review. (Nominated for best costume design and best production design. Seen theatrically at Cinemark Hollywood 16; available now on digital and disc.)
The Big Sick: If this delightful romantic comedy could only score one nomination, at least voters recognized it for its screenplay, written by Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Wood based on their own, real-life courtship. It’s warm, sweet and believable and, not for nothing, contains the funniest 9/11 joke I’ve ever heard. But it should have been in the mix for Best Picture, and Holly Hunter was undoubtedly robbed of a supporting actress nomination. Here's my original review. (Nominated for best original screenplay. Seen theatrically at Hollywood 16; available now on digital and disc.)
Blade Runner 2049: Denis Villeneuve followed up his sensational Arrival by taking on the daunting task of a 35-years-later sequel to 1982's seminal sci-fi classic Blade Runner. As with the original, it didn't necessarily catch on with audiences in the theaters, but I think its influence will be felt in years to come (though, surely, not as much as the original's has). Villeneuve's pace was deliberate and he took the story in some unexpected directions, which might not have been to all audience's tastes. But I think the praise for the film's technical accomplishments has been fairly universal — a testament to which is the fact that it's the film with the most Oscar nominations that didn't get a Best Picture nod. The visual effects are stunning, and the production design improves upon the original. But here's the real story: Cinematographer Roger Deakins has now been nominated 14 times for an Oscar without one single win. Hopefully, that'll change this year. Here's my original review. (Nominated for best cinematography, best visual effects, best sound editing, best sound mixing and best production design. Seen theatrically at Hollywood 16; available now on digital and disc)
The Boss Baby: There’s always one, you know. Always one nominee that I actively dread watching during this marathon. Thankfully, The Boss Baby was nowhere near as dreadful as Fifty Shades of Gray or Suicide Squad. It was perfectly mediocre, in fact, and I even laughed a few times. Plus, the aesthetics (mostly the ‘50s atomic look) were pretty. The story, inspired by a 36-page children’s book, obviously suffered from being stretched out to feature length, and outside of Alec Baldwin’s work as the title character, the voiceover work was pretty uninspired. There was a rule change in this category after last year that many prognosticators feared would result in more recognizable, box-office hits being nominated over lesser-seen but more creatively successful indie and foreign animated films; this nomination could be evidence that they were right. (Nominated for best animated feature. Seen on Netflix after theatrical run; available now on digital and disc)
The Breadwinner: Fortunately, not all lower-profile animated films were overlooked this year. This drama from Cartoon Saloon (which also produced the darling Oscar-nominated films The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea) is based on a bestselling young-adult novel about an Afghani girl, Parvana, who disguises herself as a boy so she can work outside the home and provide for her family following her father's unjust imprisonment by Taliban forces. Parvana and her father, Nurullah, share a love for stories, incorporated into this film via strikingly gorgeous cutout animation. Occasionally harrowing, the film doesn't blink from showing the misogynistic terrors of life under fundamentalist rule, making this better suited for teens and adults — and a nice reminder that animated films don't have to cater to the youngest audiences (I'm looking at you, Boss Baby). It'll come to U.S. audiences via GKIDS, the independent distributor of foreign and independent animation, who had a slew of films in contention for a nomination. I've seen Mary and the Witch's Flower already and hope to see a few more and write about them shortly. (Nominated for best animated feature. Seen via screener; available March 6 on digital and disc)
Call Me by Your Name: Sumptuous, heartbreaking and life-affirming, Call Me By Your Name was the 2017 film I most responded to, without a doubt. I've seen it three times at this point, and I get swept away every time, while also noticing new details. Director Luca Guadagnino work is sensual — not in the sexy way, though this film is extraordinarily hot, but in the way it engages all of the audience's senses. His actors — Timothée Chalamet as Elio, Armie Hammer as Oliver and Michael Stuhlbarg as Elio's father, primarily — do transcendent work. How Hammer and Stuhlbarg were overlooked for nominations is quite beyond me. Ideally, this will win longtime filmmaker James Ivory (best known for the Merchant/Ivory films like The Remains of the Day) his first Oscar; and at 89, he, along with eight-days-older Agnès Varda, writer-director of the documentary Faces Places, are now the oldest competitive Oscar nominees ever. At the other end of the spectrum is Chalamet who, at age 22, is the third-youngest nominee for best actor and the youngest since Mickey Rooney in 1939. (As this Vox article points out, his age is pretty typical for best actress nominees, an odd double standard.) Here's my original review. (Nominated for best picture, best actor [Chalamet], best adapted screenplay and best original song. Seen via screener, then theatrically at Amarillo Star 14, where it’s still screening; available Feb. 27 digitally and March 13 on disc)
Coco: Pixar's latest, the probable favorite for the animated feature Oscar, isn't narratively all that different from most Pixar film that follow the hero's journey through the unknown. And though it doesn't quite hit the heights of Inside Out, Coco is still rather delightful — certainly in a visual sense, thanks to the animators' celebration of and respect for the Mexican traditions the film revolves around. Likewise, the song "Remember Me" should be a shoo-in for best original song; it was woven perfectly into the narrative, and I can't imagine there being one dry eye when Miguel and Coco sang it at the end. Here's my original review. (Nominated for best animated feature and best original song. Seen theatrically at Hollywood 16; available Feb. 13 digitally and Feb. 27 on disc)