Oscar Marathon 2018: Thoughts on films from 'Roman J. Israel, Esq.' to 'Wonder'

Last Updated by Chip Chandler on
Frances McDormand stars in "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri"
Courtesy Fox Searchlight

By Chip Chandler — Digital Content Producer

Check out my thoughts on the final batch of feature films nominated for Oscars, including some of the top (and contentious) nominees.



Roman J. Israel, Esq.: I found this movie so terribly disappointing. Even Denzel Washington at his best couldn’t have saved it the way writer/director Dan Gilroy (the far superior Nightcrawler) put the whole thing together — and, sadly, Washington isn’t quite at his best here. He’s a little at sea as a vaguely autistic attorney who can’t seem to leave the 1970s (either in fashion or in activism) behind as he’s forced to leave the law libraries and interact with the real world. I don’t necessarily begrudge Washington the nomination, which makes him the most-nominated black actor in Oscar history with eight nods, because while he has been better, there are few still who can top him. It was kind of a weak year for actors, so if voters were looking to lean into the fight for more diversity, it’s an understandable pick. (Nominated for best actor [Washington]. Seen at Premiere Cinemas Westgate Mall 6; available now on disc and digital)

The Shape of Water: What an astonishing film, from top to bottom. Director Guillermo del Toro’s adult fairy tale is a plea for acceptance, a paean to love and friendship, a metaphorical dissection of our current political environment, a love letter to the art of filmmaking itself — and a thrillingly beautiful movie, to boot. Consider how meticulously planned the film is down to the color scheme, as del Toro explains in this video: Blues in her apartment, clueing us to the way she finds herself at home underwater. Reds in the movie theater, signifying life and love. Green in the laboratory, a nod towards futurism. Then add in the acting: Sally Hawkins, exuding kindness and determination without saying a word; Doug Jones, also mute yet thoroughly expressive as the Amphibian Man; Richard Jenkins and Octavia Spencer, making their supporting roles absolutely critical in every way. Just a delight, all the way around. Here's my original review. (Nominated for best picture, best actress [Hawkins], best supporting actress [Spencer], best supporting actor [Jenkins], best cinematography, best costume design, best director [del Toro], best editing, best original score, best production design, best sound editing, best sound mixing and best original screenplay. Seen at Alamo Drafthouse in Lubbock before limited Amarillo theatrical run; back for several showings at both multiplexes for Oscar marathons through March 4 and available Feb. 27 digitally and March 13 on disc)

The Square: Writer/director Ruben Östlund’s art-world satire feels like The Office’s Michael Scott is put in charge of an art museum. I’m not saying Christian (the wonderfully named Claes Bang) is as moronic as Michael, but he’s similarly single-minded, and Östlund’s camera is just as delighted to capture him in awkward humiliation as those unnamed “documentarians.” Maybe a better comparison is Larry David — or, rather, “Larry David” — on Curb Your Enthusiasm. Christian says he’s promoting a conceptual art piece that demands equality, but he’s a classist, smug, horny, immature jerk who doesn’t care a whit about anyone around him. The film was too long, and yet its ideas aren’t quite fleshed out enough. I’ll give it this, though: The gala dinner scene is a masterpiece of cringe theater. (Nominated for best foreign film. Seen via press screener; available now on disc and digital)

Star Wars: The Last Jedi: Once we get beyond the garbage sexist and racist attacks and the stupid fanboy entitlement that greeted this latest chapter in the war in the stars, I hope we’ll all acknowledge it’s the best film in the franchise since The Empire Strikes Back. I mean, just for the Holdo Maneuver alone, which masterfully combines all of this film's Oscar-nominated efforts into one killer sequence. Director Rian Johnson is respectful of what came before, but not hidebound by tradition, turning the “chosen one” mythology on its head to great effect. Here's my original review. (Nominated for best original score, best sound editing, best sound mixing and best visual effects. Seen at United Artists Amarillo Star 14 and Cinemark Hollywood 16; available March 13 digitally and March 27 on disc)

Strong Island: A powerful portrait of a family devastated by a preventable tragedy, Strong Island is an intensely personal film by trans African-American documentarian Yance Ford (the first out trans filmmaker ever nominated for an Oscar) about the death of his brother in 1992. Even more than two decades removed from the tragedy, the pain clearly still impacts the surviving Ford family members. William Ford Jr. was slain by a 19-year-old white man who worked at a (possibly sketchy) auto body shop on Long Island, and yet an all-white grand jury decided that a crime had not been committed. Yance Ford, a former producer for PBS’s POV, explores the catastrophic incident with clear eyes — often in extreme close-up interviews that don’t let the audience blink. The nearly unspoken parallel narrative is Yance Ford’s transition and how his queer identity informed his relationship with his brother — subtle yet deeply profound. (Nominated for best documentary feature. Seen via Netflix)

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: The first time I saw this film, I was quite taken with the acting and with writer/director Martin McDonagh’s typically blunt, blackly comic dialogue. And yet, the movie nagged at me like none other this Oscar cycle, like none other in 2017 as a whole. There’s the righteous, all-consuming anger of Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand, blisteringly good in a role written for her), who refuses to accept that the rapist and murderer who killed her daughter might get away with the crime. But then there’s also Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a racist cop whose torture of a black suspect — whom we notably never meet — is hand-waved away by an otherwise good man, Sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), and who we’re supposed to, at least in part, invest in as the story goes along. I believe people can change, but they have to face their mistakes, and Dixon is never truly forced to do so. But McDonagh sets him along the path to redemption — he’s not completely redeemed, it’s important to note — and I just couldn’t go down that road with him. It’s just not earned. Here's my original review. (Nominated for best picture, best actress [McDormand], best supporting actor [Harrelson], best supporting actor [Rockwell], best original score and best original screenplay. Seen at Hollywood 16 and Amarillo Star 14; back for several showings at both multiplexes for Oscar marathons through March 4 and available Feb. 27 on disc and digital)

Victoria & Abdul: Charming but ultimately unbalanced and disposable, Victoria and Abdul is most notable for allowing Judi Dench another crack at playing Queen Victoria, whom she previously played in Mrs. Brown and scored her first Oscar nomination. History didn’t repeat itself here, though Dench was a black-sheep candidate all along. Nominations for hair and makeup and for costumes were extraordinarily predictable, and costume designer Consolata Boyle does strong work both with the stuffy denizens of Victoria’s court and with the Indian costumes of Abdul and his family. Here's my original review. (Nominated for best makeup and hairstyling, and best costume design. Seen at Hollywood 16; available now on disc and digital)

War for the Planet of the Apes: What will it take for the masterful Apes franchise to win an Oscar? Nominated for only one sole award for its likely final chapter (the final installment of Cesar’s story, at least), War was an enthralling, intelligent take on a summer blockbuster (like Logan quite honestly). And the effects that bring Cesar and his compatriots to life is simply breathtaking. It’s past time to recognize that. Here's my original review. (Nominated for best visual effects. Seen at Hollywood 16; available now on disc and digital)

Wonder: One of approximately 381 films with “Wonder” in its title in 2017 (see also Wonder Woman, Wonderstruck, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, Wonder Wheel), this is the one that made you sob the loudest. It’s the story of a precious young boy (Room’s Jacob Tremblay) born with severe facial deformities who starts attending public school with his peers for the first time and encounters both friendship and hardship. Based on an extraordinarily popular tween novel by R.J. Palacio, Wonder is strikingly kind and heartwarming, and the makeup work required to give Tremblay realistic deformities as August is quite accomplished, indeed. (Nominated for best makeup and hairstyling. Seen at Amarillo Star 14; available now on disc and digital)


Up next: Thoughts on the 15 live-action, animated and documentary short films, many of which will be screening March 2 to 4 at Cinemark Hollywood 16.


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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