Oscar Marathon 2017: Thoughts on films from 'The Lobster' to 'The Salesman'
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Kyle Chandler and Casey Affleck star in "Manchester by the Sea."
Courtesy Lionsgate

By Chip Chandler — Digital Content Producer

My march through all 62 Oscar-nominated films continues with thoughts on everything from The Lobster to The Salesman, with Rogue OneManchester and Moonlight in between.

The Lobster: Now, here’s one nominee that truly lives up to its category, because there was almost nothing as original last year as Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthimis Filippou’s screenplay for The Lobster. Directed by Lanthimos (the Greek writer-director behind Dogtooth), the film is set in a dystopian near-future, where single people have 45 days to pair off or they get transformed into the animal of their choice and tossed out into the wild. A band of rebels sticking up for singletons’ rights are hunted down in the forest surrounding the resort at which the transformations take place. Incredibly imaginative and impeccably performed by the likes of Colin Farrell, John C. Reilly, Ben Whishaw and Rachel Weisz, the film landed among my picks for the best of 2016. (Nominated for best original screenplay. Seen via Amazon; available digitally and on disc)

Loving: Director Jeff Nichols avoids overblown drama and courtroom hysterics in his penetratingly quiet take on the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving, whose interracial marriage broke the law in Virginia and became the basis of a historic Supreme Court decision. Perhaps Nichols’ wise restraint is why the film never gained traction in the year-end awards race despite his accomplished direction and solid script, not to mention the fine work turned in by Joel Edgerton. Thankfully, Ruth Negga was recognized (in something of a surprise) for her role as Mildred, whose quiet but insistent defiance helped change the world. This, too, made my best-of-2016 list. (Nominated for best actress [Negga]. Seen at Lubbock’s Premiere Cinemas + IMAX; available now digitally and on disc)

A Man Called Ove: A grumpy old man comedy that was frankly better than I expected, this adaptation of a popular Swedish novel digs a little deeper into the title character’s grumpiness and avoids a lot of mawkish pitfalls in depicting his bonding with an Iranian neighbor woman. It’s certainly among the lighter nominees in this year’s crop of foreign films, which ordinarily wouldn’t bode well for its chances. But an embittered old man with fly-away hair learning to love and appreciate a hijab-wearing, brown-skinned woman could appeal to a number of voters this year. It’s also nominated for makeup and hairstyling, which, OK, why not? They did age lead actor Rolf Lassgård a bit, but it wasn’t particularly outstanding work. (Nominated for best foreign language film and makeup/hairstyling. Seen via press screener before theatrical run at Premiere Cinemas Westgate Mall 6; available now digitally and on disc)

Manchester by the Sea: Before the La La Land juggernaut swept in, this film (one of my favorites from 2016) from writer/director Kenneth Lonergan was a major frontrunner for the top prize. The two films make for an interesting compare-and-contrast exercise, too: While La La Land was far more melancholy than the technicolor ads would lead you to believe, Manchester is a lot more funny than you’d expect from a film about crushing grief and how it wrecks lives. No, really: Lonergan’s genius lies in crafting achingly believable characters, and whether they’re using humor as a coping measure or a deflection, the Manchester characters are wicked funny. Resurfaced details about sexual harassment lawsuits filed against Casey Affleck several years ago have dimmed his chances somewhat, but there’s no denying this is his best work yet. Virtual newcomer (and a strikingly young nominee at age 20) Lucas Hedges is a good match as Affleck’s nephew, understandably reluctant to let his uncle see the depths of his grief. And as Affleck’s ex-wife, Michelle Williams blows everyone out of the water in just a couple of brief scenes. Had Viola Davis (perhaps correctly) campaigned in the lead actress race, the supporting actress trophy would have been Williams’ to lose. (Nominated for best picture, actor [Affleck], supporting actor [Hedges], supporting actress [Williams], director and original screenplay. Seen via press screener before theatrical run at Amarillo Star 14; will screen Feb. 23 and 25 at Hollywood 16, available now digitally and on disc Feb. 21)

Moana: Disney’s renaissance continues with this charmer about a Polynesian chieftain’s daughter who defies tradition and her father by setting sail to rescue her people. The title character is one of Disney’s best female character creations, and the animation work is stellar. This film could be the one that wins Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda the EGOT at a record-breaking young age, after having won Grammys and Tonys for Hamilton and In the Heights, and an Emmy for his songwriting work on the 2013 Tony Awards. (Nominated for best animated feature and original song [“How Far I’ll Go”]. Seen theatrically at Hollywood 16; available Feb. 21 digitally and March 7 on disc)

Moonlight: My favorite film of the year, bar none, this tender, knowing film feels so incredibly personal and heartwarmingly universal at the same time. Chiron (played by three equally talented actors at various ages) is growing up gay and black at a time and in a neighborhood when those were often seen as contradictory and impossible to bridge. With rare grace and heart, writer-director Barry Jenkins (working from an unproduced play by Tarell Alvin McCraney), his stunning cinematographer James Laxton and his cast (including Mahershala Ali as Chiron’s unlikely and loving mentor, Naomie Harris as his struggling mother, Andre Holland as a vitally important man in Chiron’s adult life, and more) bring us deep inside Chiron’s head and heart. Along the way, we get a brilliant dissection of the toxicity of masculinity, but Jenkins’ brilliance is in making such mesmerizing, intimate art instead of an ordinary message film. (Nominated for best picture, supporting actor [Ali], supporting actress [Harris], cinematography, director, film editing, original score and adapted screenplay. Seen theatrically at Lubbock’s Premiere Cinemas + IMAX before brief Amarillo theatrical run; will screen Feb. 20 and 24 at Hollywood 16, available now digitally and on disc Feb. 28)

My Life as a Zucchini: This stop-motion animated film is a real joy. It focuses on a quiet young boy who, after losing his alcoholic mother in an unexpected accident, is moved to an orphanage, where he struggles at first to fit in with his fellow misfits. Nicknamed “Courgette” (French for “zucchini”), the boy and his soon-to-be friends do an awful lot of growing up over the course of the short film — though, given the rough lives they’ve already lived, they’ve done a lot of growing up already. The story is adapted from a French novel by Celine Sciamma, whose own films (Girlhood, at least, which I saw a year or so ago) are wonderfully realized and observant in their examination of children’s passage into young adulthood. (Nominated for best animated feature. Seen via press screener; no home release date announced)

Nocturnal Animals: Director/fashion designer Tom Ford’s sophomore film proved extraordinarily divisive, from its opening images of nude, obese women in a video art installation to its final, revelatory moments. Personally, I found it a thrilling, occasionally frustrating film — not entirely successful, but a fascinating watch, nonetheless. It features another in a long line of ignored performances by Jake Gyllenhaal (how has he only been Oscar-nominated one time?), but the Academy didn’t goof in nominating Michael Shannon, who finds new notes to play in his role as a grizzled sheriff. (Nominated for best supporting actor [Shannon]. Seen theatrically at Amarillo Star 14; available now digitally and Feb. 21 on disc)

OJ: Made in America: This eight-hour documentary is a milestone achievement, whether you agree it should qualify for an Oscar or not. (It got a qualifying theatrical run, but most folks saw it as intended — as a documentary miniseries under ESPN’s 30 for 30 banner.) I don’t know that I care one way or the other; I just know that filmmaker Ezra Edelman’s achievement is a towering one. The O.J. Simpson case and all of its usual signifiers (the Bronco chase, Kato, Judge Ito, Marcia Clark) are all explored, naturally, but Edelman uses Simpson’s unique position in American society as a prism to explore racial relations, crime and punishment. (Nominated for best documentary feature. Seen on ABC and ESPN; available on espn.com/watchespn, Hulu and other digital platforms)

Passengers: So yeah, I still don’t like the central conceit of this film any better than when I saw it last month, but I can’t argue too strenuously against its nominations. Thomas Newman (American Beauty, The Shawshank Redemption) has been tapped 14 times without an Oscar win to show for it; his work here is, as usual, quite good. And the design team that created the interstellar ark in which Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence are trapped did such great work that I struggled at times to see why Pratt was so miserable. (Nominated for best original score and production design. Seen theatrically at Amarillo Star 14; no home release date announced)

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story: The first standalone film in the Star Wars saga — and one of the best. It’s the most war-like of the series — in that instead of clones or masked troopers doing most of the fighting and dying, it’s characters we quickly come to care about — and it does a better job than anything in the series of at least touching on the moral implications of war. Its technical nominations are well deserved, if a little expected (making those blasters sound right is apparently an automatic nomination). (Nominated for best sound mixing and visual effects. Seen theatrically at Hollywood 16; no home release date announced)

The Salesman: Director Asghar Farhadi’s latest, a gut-wrenching family drama that shifts successfully into a revenge thriller, isn’t his best (that’s A Separation), but it’s still phenomenal work. Shahab Hosseini and Taraneh Alidoosti star as married couple Emad and Rana, two actors in Tehran who are starring together in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Playing Willy and Linda Loman would be stressful enough, but Emad and Rana have bigger problems to deal with: They’ve recently been forced out of their apartment after a construction accident, and Rana is attacked in their new apartment, apparently by someone who thought she was the previous resident, a woman of ill repute. Farhadi knows well the strictures of Iranian society (showing, for instance, how the acting troupe has to work around cultural expectations to stage Miller’s work), but his message of how civility can wash away under a wave of fear and hostility is universal. (Nominated for best foreign language film. Seen via press screener; still in limited theatrical release, with no home release date announced.)

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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.