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Crossing Borders at the Jerusalem Film Festival

The festival program successfully raises universal questions that transcend the context in which they’re asked.

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Crossing Borders at the Jerusalem Film Festival
Photo: Jerusalem Film Festival

As the opening film of this year’s Jerusalem Film Festival, The Unorthodox establishes a context for the necessity of compromise—personal, political, and otherwise—in the pursuit of what one believes to be the greater good. The origin story of the ultra-Orthodox Shas political party in Israel, which was established in Jerusalem in 1983 and was the first to explicitly represent the interests of ethnic and religiously observant Jews, the film delineates how Ya’akov Cohen (played by Shuli Rand) created the party in defiance of ethnic prejudice inflicted upon his daughter at her school. Cohen was then unable to sustain his control of the party’s development due to his refusal to concede his idealism to the necessity of corruption and the proliferation of falsehoods, namely in the form of signatures that were necessary to fake in order for his party to be legitimized in the eyes of the state.

The Unorthodox’s tone vacillates consistently between gravitas and lightness, juxtaposing moments of complicated seriousness about the often shady political system in Israel with small human touches, such as when a pious man celebrates an election win by listening to “How Deep Is Your Love” by the Bee Gees in the privacy of his car. Riddled with in-jokes about Israeli politics and the relationships between its multiple competing factions, writer-director Eliran Malka’s film marked a brief look inward in what was otherwise a largely international festival program that promoted vibrant conversations about crossing borders and listening to voices from the other side of both metaphorical and devastatingly literal walls.

The screening of The Unorthodox broke with the festival’s tradition of almost always showcasing a foreign film during its opening-night celebration. On the night of the screening, the Sultan’s Pool amphitheater—a striking outdoor venue in the heart of Jerusalem from which you can see the lightly illuminated walls of the Old City cascading up over hills dotted by lush green gardens—was crowded not just with filmmakers, critics, and industry representatives, but also with observant Jews who came to see their community represented on screen in a very public forum.

A short promo film offering brief statements from local politicians—including Jerusalem’s mayor, Nir Barkat—preceded the screening, and the crowd grew suddenly hostile at the appearance of Miri Regev, the Israeli Culture and Sport Minister who has called for funding to Israeli filmmakers to be cut unless they allow her ministry to supervise and control the development of their projects. And the audible outrage about the power of the state of Israel to control individual freedoms, even simply via its government subsidies, was not unfamiliar to me, even after such a short time there.

I arrived in Tel Aviv only a few days before the opening of the festival late during a massive protest by more than a hundred thousand gay rights activists in the city’s Rabin Square almost immediately following the passing of what’s now known as the nation-state law, decisively exclusionary and racist legislation that further limits the already fledgling rights of the nation’s Arab minority. The law establishes Israel as the official state of the Jewish people, thus limiting the right to self-determination to Jews alone, a move that has been met with significant backlash from the international community and the overwhelming majority of the Jewish diaspora.

And while the official reason for the protest in Tel Aviv was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s vote against surrogacy rights to same-sex couples that he’d vowed to support, the passing of the nation-state law—made possible by Netenyahu’s anti-LGBT vote in a typically convoluted deal between multiple Israeli political parties—had only further emboldened the atmosphere of liberal dissent expressed by the protesters. And the context of my arrival in Jerusalem was that the law had named the city—one of the most complicated and contested in the world, violently partitioned over thousands of years and still home to a literal wall between Jewish and Muslim claims to the city’s most holy sites—as the “whole and united” capital of the Jewish state.

The film festival took place only a few short months after news broke that the United States Embassy would be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in what has been recognized as an endorsement by the Donald Trump administration of Israel’s continued occupation of Palestinian territories, and I was told that American flags were flown from countless windows in Jerusalem following the announcement, openly celebrating the collusion between America and Israel in perpetuating some of the most exclusionary politics in the world.

Meanwhile, I arrived in Jerusalem during the week leading up to the city’s Pride celebration, vibrant rainbow flags hanging high along the wide streets that I walked to attend film screenings. I’d already been told by a Jewish friend in New York that Israel engages in what’s known as “pink-washing,” the practice of appearing to openly embrace the queer community—and thus appear tolerant of difference—in order to offset attention from its government’s human rights violations in other spheres. From the rooftop of my hotel, I could see over to the other side of the wall separating the east from the west, the Palestinian territories visible from my vantage point as an endless desert expanse, so close and yet so far away. The ways in which I’d been trained in politics by what I’ve come to realize are largely Western binaries had not prepared me for the sense of ambivalence I felt as a queer American liberal in a city purportedly celebrating some of the intractable elements of my identity but to an end blatantly at odds with others.

Lukas Dhont’s Girl, a vibrantly expressionistic Belgian film which debuted earlier this year at Cannes, was one of several expressly queer titles screening at the Jerusalem Film Festival. The film is meditative character study of a 15-year-old girl named Lara who dreams of becoming a successful ballerina and who willingly puts her body through grueling, often painful manipulations toward achieving that goal. Lara is told by her teachers that she will struggle with dance because her toes and ankles have not developed in ways that are congruent with the demands of ballet, but these teachers are at the same time impressed by Lara’s tenacity and dogged work ethic, and she improves her technique and skill level despite the limitations of her body.

But even as she manipulates her physical form toward a particular outward aesthetic, Lara is also in the process of beginning her transition from male to female, first with hormone therapy and ultimately with gender reassignment surgery, and this more interior transformation is revealed slowly to the viewer due mostly to Lara’s—and, by extension, actor Victor Polster’s—ability to already pass as female. She’s desperate to become something that she’s told repeatedly that she already is. But each of Lara’s attempted transformations mirror each other even as they undermine each other.

The physical exertion of Lara’s dance practice comes to be at odds with her body’s ability to respond to the hormones, and the drama of Girl lies in Lara’s increasing frustration—and, ultimately, the heartbreaking effects of her desperation—with the fact that the two identities most precious to her do not sustain the presence of the other. As she dances feverishly through both her physical and existential pain, the camera tightly framing her increasingly exhausted face as she spins and leaps as prescribed by the choreography she has been assigned, the audience, too, is trapped in the gulf between what she desires for herself and the future that’s actually available to her.

Several films programmed at the festival were overtly curious about clashes between the old and the new, the traditional and the secular, native homeland and far-flung diaspora. Perhaps most notable among these was What Will People Say, Norwegian-Pakistani filmmaker Iram Haq’s harrowing sophomore feature, which follows 16-year-old Nisha (Maria Mozhdah) as she’s forced by her father, Mirza (Adil Hussain) from her home in Norway back to her family’s native Pakistan, where she’s never been, because he believes her to have been contaminated by Western culture.

Mirza discovers Nisha in her bedroom with her Norwegian boyfriend (Isak Lie Harr)—barely kissing, barely touching—and condemns her to the much more conservative environment of his youth, falsely believing her to have had premarital sex and thus be unworthy of a respectful future marriage. As the film opens, we see Nisha successfully code-switching between her traditional Pakistani household and the more relaxed sphere that she shares with her Norwegian peers. But when the careful balance between her two worlds is dangerously tipped, the passion with which her father reacts to what he believes to be her undoing is terrifying insofar as it plainly demonstrates the inviolability—and frightening limitations—of his belief system.

In an early scene, in which Mirza essentially kidnaps Nisha and threatens her with physical violence, and even death, we’re made strikingly aware that we can’t quite comprehend the limits of what this man might do in the name of his faith, and in the name of his pride. For us, the other—in the form of a man whose value system we cannot comprehend—has become unreadable. Nisha’s father has deceived her into thinking that he has forgiven her for her transgressions while actually escorting her to the airport to enact her banishment, and her dawning recognition of her lack of agency in the situation she has found herself in is communicated through a tightly controlled shot structure that vacillates between her own increasingly forlorn facial expressions and the coldly blank stoicism of her father’s.

The space between what we hope to see and what we’re afraid might happen is a liminal one that Haq’s film travels within and never again leaves behind, and the immigrant diaspora is revealed to be automatically infused with fear, one small misstep potentially spelling doom for a family’s reputation in the fragile new social ecosystem that’s apparently incredibly vulnerable to corruption by Western temptations. And through the process of being trafficked between varying states of subjugation and containment, Nisha suffers the effects of her family’s existence in this new territory between Western freedom—the often apocryphal promise of a better life elsewhere—and the family’s responsibilities to the traditions from which it has emerged.

In a film about a very different kind of immigrant experience, the workmanlike but heartfelt This Is Home: A Refugee Story follows several Syrian refugee families as they attempt to integrate into life in the United States as part of a program designed to teach them the skills that will make them employable, and thus self-sufficient, following a probationary period funded by government subsidies. The families are largely befuddled by life in America—the adults increasingly relying on their quick-learning children for guidance, and the culturally conservative men reluctant for their wives to obtain employment, even though the family would likely not otherwise succeed—and the juxtaposition of their current circumstances with the stories they share about the destabilized world that they’ve recently fled gradually establish the boundaries of a permanent holding zone, the way forward in this new place and the way back to a ruined homeland both equally impossible to bridge.

The title of Alexandra Shiva’s documentary might as well end with a question mark. And in conversation with one another, it and other films about navigating the space between and creating new identities in a changing world begin to elucidate the elements of a genre of inquiry inherently formed by cultural clashes, largely due to globalization and regional strife, or at the very least to the rapid secularization of generations of young people being raised by traditional families in non-traditional spaces.

Before the festival began, I traveled north from Tel Aviv to Haifa with a tour guide who insisted on explaining to me and others in great detail how “the borders of Israel were created by God,” in what I recognized as a preemptive effort to curtail any hesitations anyone in our group might express about the right of the Jewish return to the holy land in the manner in which it had taken place thus far. And as he then drove me even farther north to the Israeli border with Lebanon, he elaborated further to include the idea that the regional borders that he was describing—based exclusively on passages from the Bible—seemingly excluded Lebanon from statehood even as it confirmed Israel’s own such claim, as he insisted that Lebanon was merely an extension of Syria in the way that he conceived of the region’s various boundaries.

My guide described his version of Israel’s involvement in the Lebanese Civil War in the 1980s following the attacks on Israel by the Palestinian Liberation Organization, a force that had taken root in southern Lebanon following the Six-Day War in 1968 and the PLO’s eventual banishment from Jordan. And as he spoke louder about these regional politics, with more and more fervor, sweating and red-faced while gesturing wildly and angrily in the direction of Lebanese territory, I felt a growing sense of despair at my lack of context for his rage, as well as my own complicity in the forces that have allowed it to fester. After all, I’d paid him for this experience with my American money.

The Israeli documentary short film The Men Behind the Wall, by Ines Moldavsky, addresses the complexity of the conflict between Israel and the people existing just outside its borders in the context of location-based dating apps. The film opens with an image of the fence between Israel and the West Bank shot from a car window while a voiceover phone conversation takes place between a Palestinian man and an Israeli woman—who we later learn is Moldavsky herself—who have recently connected on Tinder. The app is designed to match desire with proximity, allowing people to limit their dating pool to candidates who are physically nearby, and the irony that the film exploits is that Moldavsky is continually matched—through Tinder and other online dating platforms—with men in the West Bank whose bodies are separated from her own by the presence of a literal wall. Through the use of phone and in-person interviews on dates with Palestinian men, many of which discuss sexuality and desire with a liberating and surprisingly intimate frankness, Moldavsky privileges the personal behind the political, the individual faces and the private yearnings of those who are frequently reduced to a collective battle cry for independent statehood.

Many of the men discuss strategies for getting Moldavsky safely into Palestine in order for their encounters to take place. Some name specific sexual acts that they would like to perform with her. “Can you take all of me in your mouth?” asks one man, and Moldavsky insists over the phone that she can, and that she’s willing to prove it to him. One man—older, Christian—laments how we cannot choose our origin stories, cannot choose where and into what religion we’re born, perhaps responding indirectly to the conundrum he finds himself in when seeking out a potential partner in a world so meticulously mapped by conflicting political boundaries. And one of the most powerful images in the film is an extended shot of Moldavsky standing provocatively at a busy intersection in Ramallah, wearing a short red dress and holding a boom microphone above her head while men walk past her, ambling in and out of the shot, perhaps wondering what to make of her project. She wants to show us that she has in fact crossed the border herself.

This image can be read as a metaphor for the Jerusalem Film Festival in particular, as well as the role of the arts in the political sphere more generally. Moldavsky has not set out to create a blueprint for the way forward through a conflict that’s perhaps too complicated to ever be truly and satisfactorily resolved. Instead, she comes to her work in an effort to reflect that complexity back to her audience as honestly, generously, and holistically as possible, and the remarkably unflinching festival program as a whole successfully raises universal questions that transcend the context in which they’re asked.

The festival’s closing-night film, Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs, can be seen as reflective of Israel’s own internal strife about its political past, present, and future, as well as that of the people it excludes from—or deliberately undermines within—its borders. A remarkably salient and aesthetically daring stop-motion parable about the dangers of political corruption and succumbing to propaganda, the film begins with the mass deportation of dogs out of Japan to a place called Trash Island, an abandoned dump suddenly repurposed into a sprawling detainment camp. Mayor Kobayashi, the despotic leader of the dystopian city of Megasaki—who, incidentally, comes from a long line of cat lovers—passes emergency legislation in the film’s opening minutes to immediately evacuate the city of all iterations of man’s best friend.

Kobayashi cites the ubiquity of a dangerous dog flu in order to sway popular opinion in his direction—a disease which it turns out his own company has actually invented and subsequently spread—masking what is really just a general distaste for the animals and an unceasing desire to see them suffer. And the rest of the film is structured as an adventure story, as well as a showcase for Anderson’s accomplished animation techniques, in which a young boy crash-lands on the Isle of Dogs after journeying there in order to bring home his beloved pet, a devoted hound named Spots. But the emerging political theme, as student activists back in Japan uncover the truth and successfully overthrow Kobayashi’s regime, thus freeing the unfairly quarantined dogs, is that of government-sanctioned prejudice and our collective ability—and willingness—to resist.

While standing at the Lebanese border with my Israeli guide and looking through the chain-link fence separating the two desert landscapes from one another, a woman pulled up alongside me in a small, nondescript vehicle to deliver a pizza to the guards who were stationed there. The seemingly impermeable gate between the territories was suddenly opened, and an almost impossibly young man not yet in uniform dashed out to grab the pizza box and offer payment for its contents. He was flanked by his similarly youthful peer—uniformed in the traditional olive green of the Israeli Defense Force—holding an assault rifle at the ready, protecting his comrade from any possible threat that might suddenly emerge during the transaction. Probably standard protocol, probably mandated by very specific guidelines meticulously internalized and then never again questioned, but even as the guard defensively positioned his body across the newly vulnerable checkpoint, I couldn’t stop looking at the open gate. How easy it felt in that moment to just walk right through to the other side.

The Jerusalem Film Festival ran from July 26—August 5.

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Documentary Short

Bet against a message of hope and you may find yourself losing an Oscar pool.

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Learning to Skate in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)
Photo: Grain Media

Our track record here is spotty, but we’re on a roll, having correctly guessed the winner three years in a row. Just as every film up for the documentary feature prize grapples with the nature of freedom in a world gripped by war, every one nominated for best documentary short concerns the aftermath of trauma. And this category’s history tells us that academy members are quite keen on a certain angle on the process of coping with trauma, which is implicit even in the titles of the films that won here but whose chances we underestimated, such as Mighty Times: The Children’s March and A Note of Triumph.

There isn’t a single dud in this bunch, but a few feel only half-formed. Smriti Mundhra and Sami Khan’s St. Louis Superman, which earned MTV its first Oscar nod, concerns Ferguson activist and battle rapper Bruce Franks Jr. and his efforts to pass a bill recognizing youth violence as a public health crisis after being sworn into the Missouri House of Representatives. A powerful sequence set during a rap battle gives us a complete picture of how the trauma of his younger brother’s death—and, simply, living while black—has come to shape Franks’s politics, but if the short successfully attests to his accomplishments against all odds, it remains conspicuously tight-lipped about his home life and has a final title credits sequence tell us about his future in government that we wished it had actually processed on screen.

John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson’s gripping Life Overtakes Me, the only short in this category with Netflix’s muscle behind it, feels as if it could benefit from simply reporting on a relatively unknown matter: the dissociative condition known as resignation syndrome, a response to the trauma of refugee limbo that has been predominantly observed in children from the Balkans now living in Sweden with their families. The filmmakers vigilantly depict the day-to-day routines of parents struggling to feed their comatose children and keep their limbs as lithe as possible. But the short doesn’t offer enough context about the struggles that brought these families to Sweden and, like St. Louis Superman, it has one read a little too much between the lines, sometimes literally so, as information relating to the asylum process and evolving opinions about resignation syndrome is largely conveyed via on-screen text.

Yi Seung-jun and Gary Byung-seok Kam’s In the Absence plays out like a ghost story, and it’s much less withholding than both St. Louis Superman and Life Overtakes Me. Concerning the 2014 MV Sewol ferry disaster in South Korea, this hauntingly cool-headed short doesn’t lack for astonishing footage of the incident, some of it pulled from the phones of those who were aboard the ship; the shots of the protests that followed the incident, as well as the talking-head interviews from the families of the deceased, are no less harrowing. The filmmakers are ferocious in their condemnation of the various failures of communication that led to the deaths of hundreds aboard the ship, and one deserved target of their contempt is South Korea’s former president, Park Geun-hye. Still, if we have any reservations about our favorite short in this category, it’s over the way it risks leaving some with the impression that the Sewol disaster was largely responsible for the disgraced politico’s downfall.

Now, for those who couldn’t read between the lines of this post’s first paragraph: Bet against a message of hope, as we did in the past when we didn’t rally behind Music by Prudence and Strangers No More, and you may find yourself losing an Oscar pool. As such, In the Absence faces stiff competition from Laura Nix and Colette Sandstedt’s touching but somewhat featherweight Walk Run Cha-Cha, about a young man and woman who, 40 years after being separated during the Vietnam War, and especially Carol Dysinger and Elena Andreicheva’s Learning to Skate in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl), which, spite of its cloying score, chronicles a resistance in a language that will be impossible for most to resist.

Learning to Skate in a Warzone tells the story of a school in Kabul that teaches young girls to skateboard and, by extension, take on the patriarchy. “I don’t want to grow up so I can skate forever,” one girl says at one point. Hopeful words, yes, but we can see their melancholic roots. The filmmakers may not have bombard us with images of violence, but you don’t walk away from this short without understanding the risk of simply seeing that girl’s face speaking those words, in a country where so many girls are destined to become prisoners in their own homes, and are more prone than boys to be the victims of terrorism.

Will Win: Learning to Skate in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)

Could Win: In the Absence

Should Win: In the Absence

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Live Action Short

It never hurts to let this academy feel as though they’re just liberal enough.

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Brotherhood
Photo: Cinétéléfilms

If last year’s slate in this category reflected, as Ed pointed out, children in peril as the “fetish du jour” for the academy’s shorts committee, the trend certainly didn’t carry over into this year, with only one nominated film dealing with such subject matter. That said, it’s characteristic of this particular category’s history in that it’s among the most galling, sermonizing screeds nominated for any Academy Award this year.

Unlike such previously slated diatribes as That Wasn’t Me or One Day, however, Bryan Buckley’s Saria is explicitly a recreation of a real-life tragedy, a 2017 fire that killed 41 girls in a Guatemalan orphanage, potentially sparked by one of the girls in an act of political protest against their gorgonesque caretakers. That the entire episode touches on just about everything wrong with the world today means it can’t be fully counted out. But it’d be a lot easier to get in the filmmakers’ corner if it didn’t so strongly feel as though they turned the slow-crawling death toll into a bizarre sort of victory lap in the final credits reel. And Oscar voters haven’t been too tacit lately about their aversion of tough messages being shoved down their throats.

Among other nominees with seemingly very little chance at winning, Delphine Girard’s A Sister gave us major déjà vu, and not only from its narrative echoes of recent short Oscar winners The Phone Call and Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1. A well-made exercise in escalating alarm in miniature, this Belgian thriller centers around an emergency operator (Veerle Baetens) who quickly and professionally ascertains the coded cry for help from a caller (Selma Alaoui) being held hostage in the car of a dangerously irrational man (Guillaume Duhesme). Confidently but abstractly directed, the film joins a very long line of Eurocentric thrillers about domestic violence nominated in this category, including Miracle Fish, Just Before Losing Everything, Everything Will Be Okay, and DeKalb Elementary. And if these sorts of films always seem to get nominated, they also never win.

So what does? At this point, this category has a long-ish history of rewarding candidates that are either the only English-language nominee, the most hipster-friendly ironic in nature, or both (Stutterer and Curfew, to name two examples of having those bases covered). This year that sets up a battle between Yves Piat’s Nefta Football Club and Marshall Curry’s The Neighbor’s Window. The former has all the makings of a winner for most of its running time. In it, a pair of brothers (Eltayef Dhaoui and Mohamed Ali Ayari) in Tunisia find a drug mule—an actual mule, that is—wandering around because the pink headphones his handlers (Lyès Salem and Hichem Mesbah) placed on him are playing not Adele’s “Someone Like You,” which would cue the trained animal to return home, but Cheik Hadel. One of the two boys recognizes the mule’s stash for what it is, but the other one presumes it’s laundry detergent, rubbing enough on his tongue that he really should spend the rest of the short tripping balls. The EC Comics-reminiscent twist ensures that the short is never less than glibly cavalier toward geopolitical readings but also comes off like a damp squib compared to the declarative setup.

Similarly anecdotal, The Neighbor’s Window is a schematic empathy fable in Rear Window drag about a ennui-ridden, middle-aged mother (Maria Dizzia) of three captivated by the twentysomething couple (Juliana Canfield and Bret Lada) living in the building across the way. While the short’s milieu offers every opportunity to lean right into the brand of snarky irony that this category favors—the woman’s voyeurism is kicked off when she and her husband (Greg Keller) spy on the younger couple fucking in full view of the rest of the neighborhood—the film remains almost doggedly like a “we all want what we cannot have” teleplay updated for Gen Xers. Still, in that it validates the struggles of the world’s haves, it’s very much in play.

But we’re tempting fate and picking Meryam Joobeur’s Brotherhood as the spoiler. It centers around a Tunisian patriarch (Mohamed Grayaâ) whose oldest son (Malek Mechergui) comes back after years spent in Syria, with a new wife (Salha Nasraoui) whose face-hiding niqāb all but confirms the father’s suspicion that the son has been recruited by ISIS. It’s a minor miracle that the film doesn’t come off as one big finger wag, in part because it comes at the whole “world is going to hell in a handbasket” angle by highlighting mankind’s universal failure to communicate. Equally miraculous is that its shock finale doesn’t resonate as a hectoring “gotcha,” but instead as a proper outgrowth of its reactionary main character’s failure to live up to his own, presumably, liberal identification. Post-Green Book, it never hurts to let this academy feel as though, unlike Brotherhood’s doomed father, they’re just liberal enough.

Will Win: Brotherhood

Could Win: The Neighbor’s Window

Should Win: Brotherhood

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Animated Short

Another year, another reminder to take our prediction in this category with a grain of salt.

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Memorable
Photo: Vivement Lundi

Another year, another reminder to take our prediction in this category with a grain of salt. Since 2002, when we first started predicting the Oscar winners, we’ve guessed correctly in this category only eight times, and five of those were in the aughts, when one or more Disney shorts consistently lost to considerably more outré productions. It was a long dry spell for the studio between For the Birds taking the prize in 2002 and Paperman doing so in 2012. Disney now perseveres more times than not, which is why we’re given pause by the fact that, even though this is only the third time since 2002 that the studio doesn’t have a film in the lineup, two nominees here could be described as “Disney-adjacent.”

One of those, Matthew A. Cherry and Karen Rupert Toliver’s charming and poignant Hair Love, had us busting out the hashtags (#OscarsSoWhite, #EverythingIsSoWhite, #WhiteWhiteWhiteIsTheColorOfOurCarpet), wondering if the guilt that AMPAS has about its diversity problems may be a victory-securing source of momentum. That Issa Rae, who saltily congratulated the men in the best director category when she announced this year’s Oscar nominees alongside John Cho, provides the voice for this short about a black father who learns to style his daughter’s hair in the absence of the girl’s mother feels as if it can only help.

At the same time, each day since the Oscar nominations were announced last week seems to bring one of those dreaded articles in which some anonymous academy member is asked about their picks ahead of deadline, and Michael Musto’s recent chat with one such voter has us convinced more than ever that guilt isn’t the average academy member’s chief motivator. Besides, Hair Love faces stiff competition from another Disney-ish, hit-‘em-in-the-feels candidate, Kitbull, which concerns the unlikely kinship that forms between a cat and a dog. It certainly tugged at our heartstrings, and in spite of the short’s bug-eyed cat at times alternately, and distractingly, reminding us of a mouse and an inkblot.

Perhaps inevitably, we found ourselves drawn to the more outré nominees. Siqi Song’s beautifully textured Sister doesn’t lack for memorable images, but my favorite is the one where the brother at the center of the short pulls on his giant baby sister’s outie-cum-Silly-String-umbilical-cord until the child shrinks down to size. This is an at once idiosyncratic and somber meditation on China’s one-child policy, but it left one of us wondering, in the wake of Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang’s One Child Nation being snubbed this year by the academy, if it would resonate with enough voters, and two of us certain that a sizeable portion of the academy’s more liberal members would take more than just the “I had fingerprints four weeks after conception” bit as something akin to a big pro-life billboard.

Remember this old Sesame Street bit? Eric sure did while watching Daughter, a striking rumination about the emotional distance between a father and daughter. Daria Kashcheeva’s expressionistic use of stop motion is haunting, even if the short, amid so much abstraction, doesn’t always evoke believable people. More approachable is Memorable, where the very nature of what can be believed and remembered is the governing principle. All the way until its stunning finale, Bruno Collet and Jean-François Le Corre’s confluence of styles (there are shades here of the “psychorealism” that won Chris Landreth an Oscar in 2005 for Ryan) is in profound conversation with the idea of dementia as a destructuring agent. We’re no strangers to wrongly betting on our favorite short persevering on Oscar night, but Disney consistently loses in years where it has more than one film gunning for this award, so we’re betting that the two Disney-ish shorts will split the vote and pave the way for a Memorable victory.

Will Win: Memorable

Could Win: Hair Love

Should Win: Memorable

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Sound Editing

It’s not difficult to rationalize picking the same film to win both sound editing and sound mixing.

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Ford v. Ferrari
Photo: 20th Century Fox

The movement to merge the two Oscar categories for sound into just one is finally picking up some steam after an academy subcommittee favored consolidation in December, but we regret to inform you that the exceptionally rational decision hasn’t yet been ratified, and thus won’t spare us one more year of double-feature kvetching. While the nominating members of the sound branch might know the exact difference between sound mixing and sound editing, and while compulsory Oscar blogging has forced us to know the exact difference as well, numerous academy members clearly don’t.

Case in point: Last year they awarded Bohemian Rhapsody its expected award in sound mixing, where musicals always have an advantage, but also an upset win in sound editing. Unless voters metabolized Singer’s violent blitzkrieg of a film and simply misremembered hearing explosions throughout, that’s not the vote of an informed electorate.

From our perspective as prognosticators, though, it’s not difficult to rationalize picking the same film to win both awards, especially in the absence of a musical. While there have been plenty of years we’ve carbon-copied our predicted winner in both categories only to see them split (even three ways, as in 2012, when Les Misérables took sound mixing, and Skyfall and Zero Dark Thirty tied for sound editing), getting one prediction right is better than getting none at all, especially in a year like this where, to judge from both slates, sound equals fury.

One thing’s fairly certain: You can probably go ahead and count out Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. The new trilogy failed to add any more Oscar wins to the franchise, and, in fact, a Star Wars film has never won a competitive award for sound editing. Episodes seven and eight lost to, respectively, a chase movie and a war movie, and this year’s top two contenders here are arguably the exact same pairing. While 1917 is still considered by many to be a frontrunner for best picture, we’re pretty sure the onslaught of vintage motors roaring for the climactic quarter-hour of Ford v. Ferrari will get voters right in the dad spot.

Will Win: Ford v. Ferrari

Could Win: 1917

Should Win: Ford v. Ferrari

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Animated Feature

Forky rules.

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Toy Story 4
Photo: Walt Disney Studios

Completist-prone Oscar prognosticators were dealt a merciful hand last week when the Oscar nominations were announced and Frozen II didn’t show up in this category. But the winning hand belongs to Toy Story 4, which likely lost the Golden Globe to Missing Link as a result of a vote split between the two Disney properties. Sentiment to reward the American-based production studio Laika is brewing, and the fitfully droll Missing Link will, like Kubo and the Two Strings before it, probably find favor at the BAFTAs, but Laika’s latest and most expensive production to date dramatically bombed at the box office. And while no one will be weighing between the film and I Lost My Body, a singularly and actively morose and creepy film that won’t appeal to the academy at large, this category’s short history tells us that the Mouse House is only vulnerable to the biggest money makers. Also, Forky rules.

Will Win: Toy Story 4

Could Win: Missing Link

Should Win: I Lost My Body

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Supporting Actor

Pitt winning here will seem like the stars are lining up given what went down when he was first nominated in 1995.

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Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood
Photo: Columbia Pictures

We didn’t predict Anthony Hopkins to get nominated here, thinking that the Golden Globes’s enthusiasm for The Two Popes was a fluke. We were wrong, and he ended up becoming the elder statesman in an acting lineup that contains, on average, by far the oldest nominees. The person we predicted to get in instead, Marriage Story’s Alan Alda, is a year older than Hopkins, so we certainly weren’t betting the farm on any male ingénues.

On the other hand, it sure feels like spry 56-year-old Brad Pitt, who opened his acceptance speech at last night’s SAG Awards with a joke about having a Tinder profile, had this award in the bag the moment his Marlboro Man-ish handyman hopped atop his buddy’s roof to fix the antenna in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, whipping off his shirt to reveal a tawny, fully-abbed torso that scarcely seems to have aged in the nearly 30 years since he seduced the country in Thelma & Louise. He, as Leonardo DiCaprio’s co-lead, has a lot more to do throughout than just doff tees, but the “I’m still here” virility of that moment embodies the entire film’s love letter to old-guard masculinity in Tinseltown.

Not that anyone’s reading too deeply into it, not when there’s good old-fashioned awards numerology to fall back on. Within minutes of the nominations being announced, Oscar Twitter jumped on the fact that the best supporting actor slate this year is composed of acting winners from 1990 (Joe Pesci), 1991 (Anthony Hopkins), 1992 (Al Pacino), and 1993 and 1994 (Tom Hanks). Fewer pointed out that Pitt was also a nominee in 1995 for 12 Monkeys, losing out to the now-canceled Kevin Spacey. Which makes it seem all the more poetically like the stars are lining up when Pitt wins for a film whose finale proposes a rousing bit of alternate, corrective history in which the “good” guys obliterate the “bad” ones.

Will Win: Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Could Win: Joe Pesci, The Irishman

Should Win: Tom Hanks, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Documentary Feature

Every film nominated in this category grapples with the nature of freedom in a world gripped by war and shaped by technology.

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For Sama
Photo: PBS

Few Oscar categories are bigger snub magnets than this one. And while the failure of Apollo 11 to secure a nomination this year was indeed surprising, it was not as telling as the omission of The Biggest Little Farm, a handsomely, if conspicuously, sculpted “pop” documentary that’s very much in the academy’s wheelhouse. It was almost as if the committee responsible for selecting the nominees here was sending a message by embracing, at a time of increased global instability, five documentaries that looked only outward: not at mankind’s possibilities, but at the ways in which we’ve become our own worst enemy.

When discussing the potential winner in this category, Eric and I were pulled in two different directions. “Doc will go American Factory and, by extension, the Obamas, right?” Eric asked. “Honeyland notched an Oscar record by being the first documentary to also be nominated for international feature. That has to mean something?” I asked. Which is to say that he and I, no strangers to this Oscar-predicting process, were sacrificing ourselves to rigamarole, forgetting that, at the end of the day, academy members vote with their hearts above all else.

Every film nominated in this category grapples with the nature of freedom in a world gripped by war and shaped by technology. American Factory specifically takes the closing of a Chinese-owned factory in Ohio as a jumping-off point for a study of the wiles of global capitalism, and it’s every bit as smart as you might expect from a film produced by the Obamas. A more sobering reminder of how the global order of the world has been cataclysmically disrupted in the last four years is another Netflix documentary, The Edge of Democracy, about Brazil’s own national(ist) sickness. It’s a harrowing lament, but it offers the viewer no sense of escape.

Which isn’t to say that the The Cave and especially For Sama, both filmed in Syria and in the midst of war there, are escapist. The two most viscerally powerful documentaries in the category confront us with the chaos of imperial domination. Both films center the female experience of war, but For Sama does so more shrewdly, positing itself not just as a chronicle of war, but an act of remembrance. In a film that doesn’t lack for gut-wrenching images of the dead, one particularly stands out: of a child, after being pulled from its wounded mother’s womb via C section in the wake of a bombing, being brought back to life. Combined with the scenes depicting the citizens of war-torn Aleppo finding humor in the midst of conflict, the film attests not only to the perseverance of the Syrian people, but to the possibility that the country might still be brought back from the edge of oblivion.

Will Win: For Sama

Could Win: The Cave

Should Win: For Sama

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Makeup and Hairstyling

There doesn’t seem to be much standing in the way of the triumph of the red, white, and blue neo-Juggalo.

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Joker
Photo: Warner Bros.

We couldn’t really say it any better than Odie Henderson, who recently scoffed: “Who wins the Costume Design Oscar for Joker? The Goodwill? Who wins the Makeup Oscar for Joker? A blind Mary Kay consultant?” While we think the Academy will stop short of awarding the motley threads of Todd Phillips’s risible throwback machine in the costume category, the fact that they were nominated at all over, say, the imaginatively garish ‘70s finery that Ruth Carter created for Dolemite Is My Name indicates a level of affection for Joker that no one who doesn’t use the word “snowflake” on a daily basis seems prepared for.

While, to us, Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker looks like nothing so much as Marge after sitting still for a makeup gun, as Homer put it best, “Women will like what I tell them to like.” From his lips to the Academy’s ears (and face). And given this category’s expansion didn’t add more multicolored prosthetic creations along the lines of Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, but instead more invisible character augmentation along the lines of Judy and Bombshell, there doesn’t seem to be much standing in the way of the triumph of the red, white, and blue neo-Juggalo.

Will Win: Joker

Could Win: Judy

Should Win: Maleficent: Mistress of Evil

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: International Feature Film

Parasite is a pervasive presence in the news cycle, and at just the right time.

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Parasite
Photo: Neon

Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite is a pervasive presence in the news cycle, and at just the right time. As I write this latest prediction for Slant’s rolling Oscar coverage, the top article on the front page of Rotten Tomatoes is a ranking, by Tomatometer, of the nine films nominated for best picture this year. Number one? Parasite. Immediately next to that article is a callout to readers to vote for their favorite film of 2019 that uses Song Kang-ho’s face from Parasite’s poster as the featured image. Regarding that poster, in simply placing black bars over the actors’ faces, it succinctly, eerily, perfectly underlines the film’s obsession with social strata. And you don’t need to look far beyond the aggregate site to land on some article praising the perfectly lit and designed architectural purgatory that is the film’s main setting.

Perfect. That’s a funny word. There are no objectively measurable criteria for perfection, but given how many times I’ve heard Bong’s film described as being “perfect” since it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Palme d’Or, you’d think that there were. Still, the impulse to use it to describe this particular film, so balanced and attuned to the ties that both bind and separate us, evident in everything from the dimensions of Bong’s aesthetic, to his actors’ faces, to their words, makes a certain kind of sense. Quick, can you name the other four films nominated in this category? How apt if you can’t, as this is a film profoundly obsessed with the subterfuge that can be weaponized during class warfare. Or awards campaigns.

Will Win: Parasite

Could Win: Pain and Glory

Should Win: Parasite

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Original Score

John Williams is in no danger of winning, but a case could be made for any of the other four.

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Joker
Photo: Warner Bros.

That one of the five films nominated for original score this year is not a best picture nominee nor had any shot at being one almost makes this category an outlier among this year’s Oscar races, which seem otherwise fixated on frontrunners. John Williams already had the record-setting strength of 51 previous nominations leading into this week’s announcement, so his nod for the third Star Wars installment, or sixth, or ninth, or…does The Mandalorian count? Anyway, suffice it to say that the only thing that could’ve been more knee-jerk than to select nominations solely from among this year’s best picture probables would be to rubber stamp Williams uploading yet more variations on intellectual property.

Williams is in no danger of winning, but a case could be made for any of the other four. Alexandre Desplat already has two wins here, both in the last six years, but Little Women is finally picking up momentum at just the right time. His richly romantic cues, which are practically wall to wall throughout the film, come on like a crushed-velvet dust jacket, binding Greta Gerwig’s shifting timeline together in a way that makes just about everyone who isn’t Sasha Stone want to clutch the entire thing to their bosoms.

Arguably, another film that’s still reaching its crest stage is 1917, and unlike Desplat, composer Thomas Newman is still waiting for his first win, and now holding the category’s longest losing streak. It can’t be said that Newman doesn’t pull out all the stops, piecing together a work that feels inspired by both Hans Zimmer’s pulsating Dunkirk score and Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” most memorably used in Oliver Stone’s Platoon. And yet, we’re kind of with Bilge Ebiri, who after the nominations were announced, tweeted, “You didn’t give it to DUNKIRK, you’re not allowed to give it to 1917. Sorry, we’re very strict on this matter.”

Not to say that we expect 1917 to roll snake eyes on its 10 nominations. Only that any nominations for the film related to things that Dunkirk already did better two years ago are a tough sell, despite the draw of Newman’s increasingly amplified Oscar backstory. That’s presuming that the narrative doesn’t wind up over-shadowed by the sidebar-friendly cousin’s duel between Thomas and his cousin, Randy Newman, whose jaunty, Terms of Endearment-esque Marriage Story score appears to have as many detractors as it has fans.

Until the nominations were announced, we admit to assuming that Hildur Guðnadóttir’s Golden Globe win for Todd Phillips’s Joker was going to go down the same way as Justin Hurwitz’s did a year ago: with an Oscar snub. We reasoned that Guðnadóttir, who also perked ears up and won an Emmy last year for her work on HBO’s Chernobyl, was still too fresh a talent for the more cliquey AMPAS musicians’ branch. But now that she’s there, Globe in hand and attached to the film that, by the numbers, the academy loved best this year, she offers even conscience-wracked voters the chance to hand a feature-length 4chan fantasy a guilt-free win by also awarding one of the film’s few female nominees.

Will Win: Hildur Guðnadóttir, Joker

Could Win: Thomas Newman, 1917

Should Win: Alexandre Desplat, Little Women

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