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‘Beale Street,’ ‘First Man,’ ‘Mary Poppins’ Shine in Artisan Oscar Races

These crews have the right stuff in this year's below-the-line competitions.

If Beale Street Could Talk, First
Courtesy of Annapurna Pictures, Universal Pictures, and Walt Disney Pictures

As 2018 draws to a close and various critics groups and deliberating bodies measure the year in movie superlatives, a look below the line at the Academy’s crafts races reveals an art form invigorated by many of today’s most brilliant cinematic minds.

Perhaps the most fully realized visual effort is director Barry Jenkins’ follow-up to the Oscars-crashing “Moonlight”: an adaptation of James Baldwin’s “If Beale Street Could Talk.” For the task of translating 1970s Harlem to the screen, Jenkins tapped underappreciated production designer Mark Friedberg, who despite genius efforts on films like “Far From Heaven” and “Synecdoche, New York,” has never been nominated for an Oscar. “Moonlight” composer Nicholas Britell returned with intricate themes to bear, along with costume designer Caroline Eselin, who embraced a far juicier opportunity this time around. Cap it off with lush photography, once again courtesy of DP James Laxton, and this is quite an attractive package.

Aurally speaking, Jenkins’ 2016 circuit colleague Damien Chazelle and the “First Man” team dialed in one of the most incredible experiences of the year. Working from Mary H. Ellis’ production recording a post-production sound crew featuring “La La Land” collaborators Mildred Iatrou Morgan and Ai-Ling Lee partnered with Universal Studios-based mixers Frank A. Montaño (an eight-time Oscar nominee) and Jon Taylor (three-time nominee) to surround the viewer in sonic terror alongside astronaut Neil Armstrong (played by Ryan Gosling)through his early flight tests, as well as NASA’s Gemini and Apollo missions. Composer Justin Hurwitz, who won a pair of Oscars for “La La Land,” ties it all together with an intricate and graceful score that deserves to bring him a third trophy. (Linus Sandgren’s photography, by the way, merits mention for balancing the intimacy of 16mm and 35mm photography in the film’s terrestrial scenes with awe-inspiring Imax footage in the climactic moon landing sequence.)

Another stand-out across the board is Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther.” Production designer Hannah Beachler, legendary costume designer Ruth E. Carter and makeup/hair artists Joel Harlow, Camille Friend and Ken Diaz led teams that built out the world of Wakanda with vibrant detail. Rachel Morrison made history last year as the first female DP to receive an Oscar nomination (for “Mudbound”), and she could get the call again here. Meanwhile, hip-hop artist Kendrick Lamar is part of the equation, too, with the hit original song “All the Stars,” a pulsating punctuation to Ludwig Göransson’s percussive score.

Disney arrives with a second craft-heavy juggernaut in Rob Marshall’s “Mary Poppins Returns.” Three-time Oscar-winning costumer Sandy Powell seems more likely to triumph here than for “The Favourite,” while John Myhre designed a production that could earn a third Oscar for his mantle, alongside previous Marshall collaborations “Chicago” and “Memoirs of a Geisha.” And, in a music-heavy production, the sequel will of course be a strong player in both the score and song categories.

“Underappreciated production designer Mark Friedberg, despite genius efforts on films like ‘Far From Heaven’ and ‘Synecdoche, New York,’ has never been nominated for an Oscar.”

“Poppins” is an interesting visual-effects player as well, for its interplay of live-action, CG and hand-drawn elements. That race also features “Black Panther” and, to a lesser extent, “First Man.” Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One” is a major contender, while superhero entries “Aquaman” and “Avengers: Infinity War” could figure in as well.

There are plenty more sparkling craft contributions to mention: the breathtaking photography and immersive sound design of “Roma,” the nimble editing of “A Star Is Born” and “Vice,” the engaging soundscape of “A Quiet Place.”

But allow a few separate pleas for consideration.

The photography in “Mission: Impossible — Fallout,” for instance, is jaw-dropping and ropes you straight into the action. The production design of “Hereditary” adds to the creep factor and is richly inventive. The editing of “The Other Side of the Wind,” “You Were Never Really Here” and documentary “Minding the Gap” fashions compelling tapestries, while the jazzy “Gemini” score deserves a spin for voters looking to shake that category up a bit. And speaking of category-bending, let’s just add every single element of the Coen brothers’ Western “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.”

The Academy’s many branches have their work cut out for them with these and many other contenders. But the guilds will have their say on nominees first, beginning just after the new year with the cinematographers, editors and art directors on Jan. 7.