By Chip Chandler — Digital Content Producer
My journey through the 2017 films nominated for Oscars continues with blockbusters, foreign films and some of the year's best dramas.
- Oscar Marathon 2018: Here we go
- Oscar Marathon 2018: Thoughts on films from 'Abacus' to 'Coco'
- Oscar Marathon 2018: Thoughts on films from 'Darkest Hour' to 'I, Tonya'
Kong: Skull Island: I wish I’d seen this agreeably dumb movie — in which a troop of soldiers and assorted hangers-on (including Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson and Brie Larson) discover a monster-infested island in the 1970s— in the theater, all the better to appreciate its nominated visuals. Here, Kong is a 100-foot-tall behemoth, closer to a Neanderthal than a pure gorilla, but still, as this informative look explains, draws some inspiration from the original 1933 film. (Nominated for best visual effects. Seen via Amazon Video after theatrical run in Amarillo; available now on digital and disc)
Lady Bird: This delightful coming-of-age film is one of the best movies nominated this year— though, sadly, it’s quite likely that it will go home empty handed on Oscar night. Writer/director Greta Gerwig crafts an intimate, spectacularly real portrait of a headstrong young girl (Saoirse Ronan), her conflict-laden relationship with her mother (Laurie Metcalf) and her eventful senior year at a California all-girls Catholic school. It’s warm, utterly relatable and frequently hilarious, packed with wise performances and so much heart. I don't see any way for it to break through in any of its five categories, though there's an outside chance Gerwig will triumph in the original screenplay category. Don't miss it when all nine best picture nominees screen in marathons from Feb. 23 to March 4 at Amarillo Star 14 and from Feb. 25 to March 4 at Hollywood 16. Here's my original review. (Nominated for best picture, best actress [Ronan], best supporting actress [Metcalf], best director [Gerwig] and best original screenplay. Seen at Cinemark Hollywood 16; available Feb. 27 for digital rental and March 6 for digital/disc purchase)
Last Men in Aleppo: Hard to watch but impossible to forget, Last Men in Aleppo tracks the efforts of Syrian men who follow the Russian bombs that are pelting their city, hoping to pull survivors out of the rubble, but more often finding body parts and mangled corpses. The dread builds every time sirens wail, knowing that these men, known as the "White Helmets," (and we) will be seeing more dead bodies — often children — pulled from the debris. The short documentary The White Helmets, nominated last year, told part of the story, but Syrian director Feras Fayyad's Last Men is more raw, more intimate — more devastating. (Nominated for best documentary feature. Aired in July as part of PBS's POV series and encores 2 a.m. March 2; seen via Netflix)
Logan: The first comic-book adaptation nominated for its script, Logan is a breakthrough superhero film in other ways too. Though I’m a fan of such movies, I’ll admit that filmmakers don’t typically take the drastic chances with these properties that are taken in Logan. Many can be this brutal, but few have been so bleak. It takes risks, though that’s easier to do when you’re actively trying to tell the end of a story, rather than another chapter in a long, interlocked tale. Here's my original review. (Nominated for best adapted screenplay. Seen at Hollywood 16; available now on digital and disc)
Loveless: Speaking of bleak, this Russian film from director Andrey Zvyagintsev (Leviathan) uses a domestic drama about the missing child of a bitterly divorcing couple as a metaphor for contemporary life in his homeland. Boris (Aleksey Rozin) and Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) absolutely despise one another. They’ve each started living separate lives— Zhenya with a rich, older businessman, Boris with a younger, pregnant girlfriend— but the prospect of actually splitting is complicated by the orthodox Christian firm where Boris works, which frowns upon divorce. So they’re stuck with one another— and, sadly, 12-year-old son Alyosha (Matvey Novikov) is stuck with them, too. At one point, following a particularly ugly fight between his parents, we see Alyosha silently screaming behind a door. If there was a more horrifying shot this year, I can’t imagine what it was. Zvyagintsev doesn’t blink in showing the absolute rot in the souls of these parents, nor does he hide his feeling that the very same rot has infected his home country. (Nominated for best foreign film. Seen via press screener; digital/disc release date unknown)
Loving Vincent: The paintings of Vincent Van Gogh are brought to life in this film, the first fully painted animated movie. The whorls of starry nights, the rippling sea of yellow flowers, the emphatic brushstrokes — it’s all there, and easily recognizable (and, even better, the film ends with side-by-side comparisons of its characters and their inspirations in Van Gogh’s work, all the better for those years removed from UIL Picture Memory). More than 100 painters contributed to Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman’s film, and technically, it really is a stunning achievement. But after you get used to the beauty, there’s really not much else to enjoy. The film— which finds a postman’s son attempting to deliver Vincent’s last letter, only to be caught up in an effort to discover why (or if) he took his own life— just feels like an excuse to visit characters inspired by Van Gogh’s work, not an organic story in and of itself. A film this gorgeous shouldn’t be this boring. (Nominated for best animated feature. Seen via Amazon Video; available now on digital and disc)
Marshall: Less a biopic than a rollicking legal thriller, director Reginald Hudlin positions Thurgood Marshall (played by Chadwick Boseman) as the central figure of an old-school Hollywood drama. It’s quietly revolutionary in a way. Marshall is sent to Connecticut by the NAACP to represent a black man (Sterling K. Brown) accused of raping a rich white woman (Kate Hudson). The judge (James Cromwell) won’t let Marshall speak in his courtroom, though, so he must use a local insurance attorney (Josh Gad) as his mouthpiece. Seems preposterous, but it actually happened. The film’s sole nomination is for “Stand Up for Something,” collaboratively written by nine-time nominee Diane Warren and Oscar-winner Common. The power balladeer and activist hip-hop star make a compelling writing team, and singer Andra Day and Common give a phenomenal performance. This could finally be Warren’s lucky year. (Nominated for best original song. Seen via Amazon Video after its theatrical run in Amarillo; available now on digital and disc)
Molly’s Game: Oscar-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin made his directorial debut with this true story of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), a former athlete who started running extraordinarily high-stakes poker games, eventually catching the attention of the FBI. Like most of Sorkin’s work, it’s fascinated by extremely talented people in unusual fields, but for once, the central character is a strong woman. At least until the end, when Sorkin can’t resist a monologue where all of Molly’s woes are mansplained by her father. It doesn’t ruin the film completely, but it so easily could have been cut. Chastain sparkles throughout, though, and was surely close to scoring her own nod for the film. Here's my original review. (Nominated for best adapted screenplay. Seen at Hollywood 16; available April 10 on disc, but no digital date yet announced)
Mudbound: Diva Mary J. Blige scored a one-two punch with this searing drama, earning a nomination for the song “Mighty River” (with Raphael Saadiq and Taura Stinson) and a supporting-actress nod for her performance as matriarch Florence Jackson. The Jackson family are poor tenant-farmers working on land owned by Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) and his wife (Carey Mulligan), and the family’s lives are irrevocably, tragically intertwined in this story of life in post-WWII Mississippi. Director Dee Rees (whose nomination for adapted screenplay is a first for a black woman) does brilliant work in adapting Hilary Jordan’s sprawling novel, and cinematographer Rachel Jordan’s stunning camerawork also scored her the first-ever nomination for a female director of photography. (Nominated for best supporting actress [Blige], best cinematography, best adapted screenplay and best original song. Seen via Netflix)
On Body and Soul: This Hungarian drama from director Ildikó Enyedi is surely one of the oddest films nominated this cycle. Endre (Géza Morcsányi) is an introverted older man with a crippled arm who's got an office job at a slaughterhouse. Maria (Alexandra Borbély) is a new arrival at the company, and boy, is she weird. For one, she’s apparently never listened to music. For another, she reenacts moments from her day with salt-and-pepper shakers. During an investigation into who stole a bovine mating aid (really), Endre and Maria learn from a company-assigned therapist that they’ve been sharing the same dream of deers in the snowy woods. (HIPPA rules don't apply in Hungary, clearly.) As an exploration of bitterly lonely lives, it’s interesting, though the characters themselves are neither particularly believable or sympathetic (especially Maria). As a film that feints toward the heartbroken whimsy of something like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, it’s a misfire. (Nominated for best foreign film. Seen via Netflix)
Phantom Thread: The latest from director Paul Thomas Anderson is considerably more tightly structured than most of his work and a good deal more plot heavy, with twists and feints feel atypical for him. It's an interesting stretch for him, but it's not quite, to me, as successful as some of his more sprawling works. That said, it's still a fairly magnificent film, anchored by a phenomenal performance by Daniel Day-Lewis (his last, he says) as Reynolds Woodcock, a fashion designer in 1950s London. He dresses an enviable roster of European dignitaries and British upper-crust at his home and atelier, which he shares with his sister Cyril (Leslie Manville). A confirmed bachelor (not in the gay sense), he apparently brings in a series of young women to serve as his lover and muse, until he tires of them and has Cyril show them the door. After one such breakup, he goes on a solo vacation and meets Alma (Vicky Krieps), a slightly awkward but beautiful young waitress. Soon enough, she has moved in — but unlike the other muses in Reynolds' past, she finds ways of subverting his wishes in ways that infuriate and intrigue him. She's presented in a purposefully vague manner, but I do wish her motivations or history were more clear. Packed with sensual delights (including a jazzy score by Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood) and surprising humor, Phantom Thread is an intriguing take on the tyrannical male auteur; whether you have the stomach for another self-absorbed genius who (mostly) gets his way is certainly something to consider in these #MeToo times. (Nominated for best picture, best actor [Day-Lewis], best supporting actress [Manville], best costume design, best director [Anderson] and best original score. Seen at United Artists Amarillo Star 14, where it remains through Thursday before returning to both Amarillo Star 14 and Cinemark Hollywood 16 during Oscar marathon week; available March 27 digitally and April 10 on disc)
The Post: This marks the first time that Meryl Streep, now on her 21st Oscar nod (breaking her own record again), has been nominated as best actress in a film that’s also nominated for best picture since 1985’s Out of Africa. That’s less a slight against Streep’s taste in roles than it is an indictment of the fact that Oscar voters typically gravitate more toward male-centric films for the biggest prize. Think about how Carol was nominated for six Oscars without a best picture nomination. I’m hoping that the push for a more diverse body of Oscar voters will at long last curtail this. Something seems to have worked this year: As someone who has carefully charted the arrival of Oscar-nominated films in Amarillo for at least the past 15 years, this was the first year that I can remember when I saw all of the films with best actress nominees before those with best actors. Anyway, Streep is marvelous in Steven Spielberg’s of-the-moment look back on the Pentagon Papers drama, seen through the filter of Katharine Graham (Streep) coming into her own as the publisher of the Washington Post. (Nominated for best picture and best actress [Streep]. Seen at Hollywood 16; no digital/disc release date announced yet, but estimated for April)