Couldn’t make it to Sundance this year? Never fear, as this year’s New Directors/New Films is practically a pu pu platter sampling of some of the more memorable titles you missed at Park City. And the 46th edition of Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art’s film festival opens and closes with two of the most buzzed-about titles from Sundance this past January: Geremy Jasper’s Patti Cake$, a coming-of-age dramedy about an aspiring rapper from Bayonne, New Jersey that was purchased by Fox Searchlight Pictures for just shy of $10 million, and Dustin Guy Defa’s Person to Person, a love letter to New York City by way of a seriocomic peek into the lives of a motley group of eccentrics who call the city home.
The festival’s centerpiece is Eliza Hittman’s Beach Rats, which according to Slant critic Sam C. Mac is redolent of Claire Denis’s Beau Travil for its “homoerotic display of male bodies mesmerizingly moving in concert.” But the film turned heads at Sundance for other reasons, and what you make of Hittman’s follow-up to her acclaimed debut, It Felt Like Love, may depend on just how snugly you feel the character at the center of the film fits into the narrative of a closeted youth and where you think he ends up.
Apropos for a festival devoted to visions from (mostly) nascent filmmakers, this year’s ND/NF lineup abounds in works featuring characters contemplating identity, tradition, technology, and more. Among our favorites: Jérôme Reybaud’s 4 Days in France, about a lonely gay man pouring the totality of his being into the sexual hookup; João Dumans and Affonso Uchoa’s Arabia, about how the seemingly incidental moments in a young Brazilian man’s life come to entirely define him; and Anocha Suwichakornpong’s By the Time It Gets Dark, which, per Chuck Bowen, “earnestly and ambitiously attempts to redefine cinema’s conventional grasp of consciousness.”
New Directors/New Films runs from March 15—26. For tickets click here.
4 Days in France
Finally a film about a classical music-listening, Rimbaud-reading, sweater-wearing gay man addicted to Grindr, though to be fair, writer-director Jérôme Reybaud’s 4 Days in France is about much more than just the digital sexual compulsions that afflict so many gays. This is a kind of ode to cruising writ large, to the intransitivity of cruising: looking for no object at all, but for its own sake. And there’s something endearing, if not uncanny, about the way the film evokes universal truths about erotic wandering through the extremely specific figure of the French gay man, and Parisian white and preppy gayness in particular. Queer mobility is here a luxury and a curse, enabled by an alfa Romeo, Parisian couture, and lots of free time, but beleaguered by isolation. >>
The prologue to Albüm functions as a kind of mise en abyme for the film as a whole. In a series of wordless scenes made to resemble a documentary, the entire process of artificial cow reproduction is shown in clinical detail. In its hyper-realistic depiction of this procedure, these scenes bring to mind the scene from In a Year of 13 Moons set inside a meat factory. In Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s equally unsentimental film, unvarnished footage of meat being processed serves as an ironic commentary on a transgender woman’s sex-change operation, while also contrasting the woman’s emotional sensitivity with the brutal circumstances of her life. In Albüm, the unembellished portrayal of the synthetic reproduction of cattle serves to prepare viewers for the detached, caustic, and almost anthropological view of childrearing offered by writer-director Mehmet Can Mertoğlu. >>
A carefree life on the move is steadily and exquisitely overtaken by melancholy in writer-directors João Dumans and Affonso Uchoa’s Arábia, the portrait of a meandering journey fueled by song, anecdote, and landscape that zeroes in on the pressures of contemporary Brazil almost in passing. While the film is a gently fragmented road movie first and foremost, Dumans and Uchoa are never afraid to let other influences wander in at will: off-kilter social realism, the musical, the essay film, and even the (invented) autobiography. Because what else makes up the life of an individual but all the moments they’re unable to escape? >>
If conventional narrative cinema grammar has trained us to understand scenes taking place prior to the broadcasting of a film’s title as build-up to the story proper, a whetting of the palette for the more significant events to come, then how do we negotiate the import of Ji-hyeon’s (Woo Ji-hyeon) tale, remarkably slight as it seems? This is just one of the gentle perplexities of Autumn, Autumn, a deft realist miniature that operates as both a record of everyday spaces and a document of the emotionally charged, albeit ephemeral, human dramas that pass through them. When the film abandons Ji-hyeon after its delayed title card to resume a different narrative thread, it becomes apparent that director Jang Woo-jin’s conception of storytelling isn’t linear but delicately cubist, and rooted less by human agency than by a fixed time and place. >>
With Beach Rats, writer-director Eliza Hittman continues to chronicle roughly the same type of burgeoning teenage sexuality she captured so frankly and unsentimentally in her debut feature, 2014’s It Felt Like Love. What’s deflating about this film is its generally more familiar approach to its subject. It Felt Like Love benefitted from its bold portrayal of the female gaze, as Hittman was less interested in character study than the theoretical idea of a character, someone who simulates sexual desire for the sake of maintaining a social expectation. Beach Rats, though, falls much less excitingly into the stereotypical narrative of a closeted gay youth. >>
Chloé Robichaud’s Boundaries rather formally advertises the unique personalities of its main characters—Danielle (Macha Grenon), Emily (Emily VanCamp), and Félixe (Nathalie Doummar)—via three successive shots as they stare directly into the camera. Subsequently, Robichaud continues to gently attest to how these women manifest the uniqueness of who they are through situations, big and small, that threaten to crush their will. The snippets of the women’s daily lives that illustrate their respective backgrounds suggest how their experiences have shaped their personal and professional lives, and through this Robichaud creates an honest and frequently moving study of the challenges women face while juggling these separate lives. That Boundaries features jarring and experimental shifts in tone, making for what appears on the surface to be a disjointed construction and pace, only reflects the untidy side of life that the three women find themselves in. >>
By the Time It Gets Dark
Anocha Suwichakornpong’s By the Time It Gets Dark is obsessed by prismatic motifs, in which images are embedded within other images. One of the film’s first shots is of a window in a country home, composed of opaque panes that block out a view to the outside, except for a square in the top left that’s missing a pane, affording one a glimpse of a lovely tree. In this context, the tree suggests a hidden world, barely in sight, obscured by human-forged bric-a-brac. Later, a filmmaker observes to her interview subject that their reflections in the TV are beautiful, commenting on another prism. Mushrooms are a recurring symbol in this film as well—and what’s their nature? They’re industrious fungi, which grow and tunnel through a variety of surfaces, and some kinds are known for their hallucinogenic properties, which suggest yet another expansion of worlds within worlds via altered consciousness. >>
Contemporary tropes of luxury and ancient rituals coexist throughout The Challenge, Yuri Ancarani’s documentary about the art of falconry. Here the organic and the frivolously material aren’t oppositions or rivals, but partners in a spectacle for men’s eyes only. The centuries-old practice of falconry involves very expensive birds (a falcon can sell for up to $24,000 in televised auctions) and is partaken by unspeakably wealthy Qatari sheikhs, who are prone to bringing their pet cheetahs for rides in their Lamborghinis, zipping across the desert in their gold-plated motorcycles, and filling their private jets with falcons strapped with mini cameras. >>
An unearthly neon glow emanates from the Phnom Penh street lights at night in Diamond Island. A similar luminosity was glimpsed throughout Wong Kar-wai’s depiction of Hong Kong nightlife in Chungking Express and Fallen Angels, though director and co-writer Davy Chou’s aesthetic touch is less jazzily impulsive than Wong’s, more Tsai Ming-liang-like in its surface sobriety. Still, there’s a near-surreal quality to Diamond Island’s images—lensed by cinematographer Thomas Favel—that infuses the film with a woozily intoxicating dreaminess that grips the audience’s attention, even when Chou’s loose coming-of-age narrative goes in fairly predictable directions. >>
The Dreamed Path
With seven features already to her credit, Angela Schanelec can’t exactly be designated a “new” talent, but her latest, The Dreamed Path, certainly feels like something brazenly, mystifyingly new in international cinema. On one hand, the film wears a skin of Bressonian austerity—dutifully withheld character exposition, an emphasis on pared-down bodily gestures as opposed to dialogue, sturdily selective Academy ratio framings—that’s been more or less in vogue in the highbrow factions of the festival circuit for some time. On the other, the particular articulation of these tropes in The Dreamed Path operates so unapologetically on Schanelec’s own wavelength that the film risks, even invites, utter bewilderment on first pass from even the most discerning of viewers. That the film adheres, upon close scrutiny, to the rough shape of a classical romantic tragedy—a seemingly intuitively understandable genre—only confirms the extreme degree to which Schanalec’s idiosyncratic manner of storytelling skirts and frustrates expectations. >>
The Future Perfect
German director Nele Wohlatz’s The Future Perfect addresses the increasingly complicated challenges of intercultural communication. Divided into three parts with each meant to correlate with the linguistic structure of past, present, and future, the film chronicles Xiaobin (Xiaobin Zhang), a Chinese teenager trying to learn enough Spanish to hold a job in Buenos Aires. The opening scenes represent Xiaobin’s failure on this front, as she cannot remember the names of deli meats well enough to handle cashier duties in her uncle’s supermarket. Wohlatz depicts Xiaobin’s ineptitudes as seeming flashbacks from the questions asked during an oral exam in a Spanish course. Thus, each successive line of questioning moves the narrative further into the future, until arriving at the titular tense. It’s an ingenious structuring device, one that Wohlatz utilizes for intriguing questions about the need to constantly reform the definition of culture, whether for interpersonal relationships or theorizing the contemporary state of global migration. >>
One of the many strengths of The Giant is that it pays homage to the everyday courage of the physically and mentally disabled without ever condescending to their struggles. There’s no patronizing, self-congratulatory pity on display throughout this film, which is both a sensitive account of one handicapped man’s efforts to lead a normal life, and a grotesque comedy of pain that exposes the cruelty that lingers in modern European society. Set in contemporary Sweden, the film begins as a kind of faux documentary of a local pétanque club and its eccentric members. Pétanque is a variation of lawn bowling, and thus a modification of an already niche sport. In choosing this particular game around which to craft his story, writer-director Johannes Nyholm emphasizes the outsider status of his characters, particularly the film’s protagonist, Rikard (Christian Andrén), an autistic and severely deformed man whose life revolves around pétanque. >>
New-agey folks gather for a retreat at a hotel in Kaori Kinoshita and Alain Della Negra’s documentary-fiction hybrid Happiness Academy. Among these “super consciousness” enthusiasts are at least one real-life actress (Laure Calamy, who plays Lily) and one singer (Arnaud Fleurent-Didier, who plays Arnaud), both of whom work as conceptual moles aimed to extract a dramatic story from the setup. What initially promises to be a fly-on-the-wall look at the events staged by the Raelian Church to coach candidates on how to live better lives soon gives way to a love triangle of sorts, as Lily and Dominique (Michèle Gurtner) fight for Arnaud’s erotic energy—and his body. >>
Happy Times Will Come Soon
In Happy Times Will Come Soon, Alessandro Comodin tries to work out a new filmic vocabulary that merges realistic fiction with fable—fracturing time, tracing out just the barest outline of each character and situation, sometimes mixing realism with surrealism, and lingering so long on shots in which the action barely changes that he all but forces us to be in the moment with him. But while the director creates many individual moments of beauty, his film is a mélange of gorgeous tiles that never quite comes together as a mosaic. >>
William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth is an adaptation—and a calculated streamlining—of Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. The novella is a relentlessly miserablist parade of abuse, adultery, and homicide, but the changes that Oldroyd and screenwriter Alice Birch have made to its plotline all but ensure that their Lady Macbeth is also essentially sexist. Leskov’s Shakespeare-inspired antiheroine—a wife who plans and carries out multiple murders—is transformed from a character driven by desperation into one who’s seemingly animated by an innate wickedness. >>
The Last Family
Jan P. Matuszynski’s The Last Family reconstructs nearly 30 years in the life of Zdzislaw Beksinski (Andrzej Seweryn), a famous Polish painter, photographer, and sculptor whose family remained perpetually on the precipice of ruin due to his son Tomek’s (Dawid Ogrodnik) chronic emotional problems. Matuszynski stages a collection of scenes, based on Beksinski’s own home-video footage, that intimate Tomek’s manic-depressive tendencies and sexual dysfunction as a primary source of the family’s tension but stops short of interrogating these facets in order to form a meaningful argument about them. Instead, the leering approach devolves into a succession of sobering moments of grief as Zdzislaw silently reckons with his inability to help his son and salvage his relationship with his spouse, Zosia (Aleksandra Konieczna). >>
The Last of Us
An eccentric mix of documentary-like observation and head-trippy experimentalism, Tunisian director Ala Eddine Slim’s wordless feature-length debut, The Last of Us, tracks a nameless man’s odyssey into the heart of nature. The film’s opening sees the man—played by street artist Jawhar Soudani and identified in the credits as simply “young man”—and his companion (Jihed Fourti) making their way across the hazy swelter of the Sahara, and for a moment it seems as if Slim will deliver a straightforward migrant drama along the lines of Jonas Carpignano’s Mediterranea. Soon, though, the complete lack of dialogue and character names reveals the project to be something much more peculiar. By the time the man, now separated from his fellow traveler, sets out across the Mediterranean only to find himself in a mysterious forested land populated solely by a grizzly old man (Fathi Akkari) clothed in animal furs, and who may or may not be an older version of himself, the film has submitted to pure abstraction. >>
Joshua Z. Weinstein’s feature-length directorial debut is built around the magnetic character of Menashe (Menashe Lustig), a Hasidic Jew from Brooklyn who’s trying to hold onto his son, Rieven (Ruben Niborski). Menashe, though, isn’t just trying to keep the boy out of the hands of his late wife’s brother, Eizik (Yoel Weisshaus); he’s also trying to assert a level of individuality away from the rest of his Orthodox community. He’s been a widower for about a year and, as we glean from the reluctance he displays on dates arranged by matchmakers, isn’t in a rush to get married again anytime soon. Menashe is the story of a man grappling with the possibility that the Hasidic tradition that requires his son to be raised in a household with both a mother and a father may not square with the life he wishes to live. His rebellion is evident in his refusal to wear the hat and jacket required by his faith, but it’s most ardently felt in his desperate desire to not raise Rieven in an environment as loveless as the arranged marriage that led to the boy’s birth. >>
My Happy Family
Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross’s My Happy Family navigates the aftershocks of a breach of a society’s restrictive codes of female conduct when 52-year-old Manana (Ia Shugliashvili) moves out of the cramped house she shares with her large family. Her refusal, perhaps even inability, to explain or justify her abrupt decision to leave vexes and frustrates her friends and family, especially given that she insists that her husband, Soso (Merab Ninindze), neither abused nor cheated on her. Rather than focus on the reasons for Manana’s departure, the film homes in on how everyone’s imperious reactions to her choice are rooted in deeply sexist expectations of maternal sacrifice and a wife’s undying subservience to her husband. >>
Making someone who looks like Patricia Dombrowski (Danielle Macdonald) the star of a film—and not a self-loathing victim but a resourceful heroine with talent, self-confidence, and a handsome and supportive boyfriend—is a gutsy opening move in our fat-shaming world. Even more provocative is how Patti’s defiant rhymes, which Macdonald spits with gutsy brio, draw a parallel between the casual contempt Patti encounters daily because of her size and the racism that’s the implicit or explicit subject of the music she loves. When Patti raps about the grievances of an overweight white girl stuck in strip-mall suburbia, is she a legitimate artist stretching the boundaries of her chosen form? Or is she, as her idol, O-Z (Sahr Ngaujah), puts it after she gives him an impromptu audition, a contemptible “culture vulture” who’s trying to be something she’s not? >>
Júlia Murat’s Pendular abounds in exquisite displays of negative space, reminding one that there’s few artistic elements as inherently appealing, visually, as a symmetrical image. The film is set in a sprawling, largely abandoned industrial complex that serves as a loft and an artists’ colony—an enormous structure that’s principally populated by two people, a dancer, Alice (Raquel Karro), and an unnamed sculptor (Rodrigo Bolzan). Alice and the sculptor are in a romantic relationship, and she’s recently moved into the building. At the beginning of the film, the couple tapes off portions of the primary loft, demarcating “his” and “her” sections for their individual work. They play with one another and soon retire to their respective half of the space, each isolated and puzzled. In this instance, the vast emptiness of the setting serves a pronounced metaphorical purpose, signaling that the relationship between these intensely insular artists is doomed. >>
Person to Person
Dustin Guy Defa’s Person to Person started as a short film by the same name, a pungently detailed portrait of a certain slice of pre-gentrified New York in which Bene Coopersmith played more or less himself as a quietly charismatic Brooklyn record-store owner. The feature film is a collection of interwoven, sometimes overlapping character studies that encompass a wider swath of characters and locations with varying degrees of success. >>
Jonathan Olshefski’s Quest follows an African-American family in North Philadelphia over a pivotal course of American history: from 2008, when Barack Obama first ran for president of the United States, until the presidential election last autumn, capturing, in the process, a microcosm of the country as its hopeful mood curdled. Late in the documentary, we see the Rainey matriarch, Christine’a, watching Donald J. Trump’s plea for blacks to vote for him, asking, “What the hell have you got to lose?” By this point, Olshefski has taken us so deep into this family’s world that the entitled ignorance of Trump’s boast stings with newfound universality. >>
Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s Sexy Durga generates a steady thrum of dread that builds to cringe-inducing levels as it follows a couple, Durga (Rajshri Deshpande) and Kabeer (Kannan Nayar), over the course of a night in the southern Indian state of Kerali. Though their body language and occasional urgent exchanges speak to the tender intimacy between the two, their minimal dialogue tells us almost nothing about them except that she’s a Hindi-speaking northern Indian, he’s from Kerali, and they’re trying to hitch a ride to a railroad station so they can catch a train north. This pointed lack of detail makes the story of one couple’s journey gone horribly awry feel universal, an allegory about the violent misogyny that plagues India. >>
Yance Ford’s Strong Island unspools with a procedural-like seriousness as it investigates the 1992 killing of the filmmaker’s older brother, William Ford Jr., a 24-yeard-old African-American teacher and police officer-in-training who was shot by a white auto-mechanic while unarmed. The documentary builds, out of an outlet for discussing the tragedy of one family, into an emotionally, intellectually, and aesthetically complex work of essay and memoir. With an astute sense of both the personal and the sociopolitical access points of his premise, Ford looks deeply at the trauma of black life in America. >>
The Summer Is Gone
Zhang Dalei’s The Summer Is Gone is told through the perspective of Xiaolei (Kong Weiyi), a boy in the midst of the summer vacation before his first year of junior high in Inner Mongolia. Contrasted with Xiaolei’s more or less carefree days, his mother (Guo Yanyuan) and father (Zhang Chen) are embroiled in their own separate dilemmas: Xiaolei’s mother is concerned with getting her son into a respected school, while the father loses his job at a state-run film studio after the government begins to break down its properties. But as this film is seen through Xiaolei’s eyes, the current problems facing his parents are portrayed as moments within a broader, and purposely incomplete, portrait of growing up, and which take far less precedent than a transient feeling or sensation felt by Xiaolei as he whiles his summer days away. >>
Deepak Rauniyar sets White Sun in Nepaltra, a small Nepalese mountain village that becomes a closed-off space for him to examine various sociopolitical tensions in Nepal’s post-civil war period: chiefly, tradition versus modernity, and the conflict between the political and the personal. Accordingly, the characters sometimes feel like little more than allegorical signposts, with Chandra (Dayahang Rai) standing in for the political progressivism that the many Nepaltra elders flat out reject, and a slew of supporting characters representing everyone caught in the middle of the fraught Nepalese peace process. These include Chandra’s ex-wife, Durga (Asha Maya Magrati); his resentful brother, Suraj (Rabindra Singh Baniya); and Durga’s daughter, Pooja (Sumi Malla), who thinks Chandra is her father. >>
In John Trengove’s debut feature, The Wound, passage into manhood is steeped in violence both physical and psychological. The film investigates the Xhosa practice of ukwaluka, a ritual endurance test in which young men on the cusp of adulthood undergo circumcision (during which they’re implored to shout “I’m a man!” as an elder tribesman slices their genitals), fasting, and weeks of isolation from their families. But despite the specificity of this subject matter, the film’s themes of socialized masculinity and intolerance of non-conformity resonate far outside of this South African community. >>
Though largely set on the highways leading from Bamako to Dakar, writer-director Daouda Coulibaly’s Wùlu resembles any number of North American-set films about drug running given its reliance on pat character archetypes, representations of top-down power relations, and sudden bursts of extreme violence. Coulibaly constructs one intriguing deviation from this formula in the form of Ladji (Ibrahim Koma), an ex-con whose decision to transport large shipments of cocaine across national borders is one of necessity and relative silence—a useful contrast to the typically loud-mouthed or boisterous figures of films such as Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic and Brian De Palma’s Scarface. Nevertheless, Coulibaly suffocates the film’s potential insight into the collapse of the Malian state in 2008 with an overdetermined air of existential dread by placing Ladji on a literal crash course toward inevitable tragedy. >>
Confessions of a Drag Legend: Charles Busch on The Confession of Lily Dare
Busch discusses his latest comic tearjerker, an homage to a rather unknown spate of movies from the early 1930s.
When we last caught up with Charles Busch almost a decade ago, the playwright, actor, and drag artist was starring in The Divine Sister, a vehicle he created for himself to emulate a Rosalind Russell-like star of Hollywood’s “golden” era playing a mother superior. “There’s actually this marvelous fantasy element to my career, and I’ve been very lucky the way things have worked out,” says the 65-year-old as we chatted once again in his West Village apartment, which is decorated, as he once famously put it, “like an elegant 19th-century whorehouse.” Over the past 35 years, Busch has sustained a unique and idiosyncratic career, every so often creating over-the-top roles for himself and gathering a bunch of his actor friends to put on shows just for the fun of it. On this occasion, the topic of conversation is The Confession of Lily Dare, which began life in 2018 and is now being presented at the Cherry Lane Theatre by Primary Stages.
How would you describe The Confession of Lily Dare in a nutshell?
It’s a comic tearjerker, an homage to a rather unknown spate of movies from the early 1930s. There was this brief period where things were kinda loose and creative—the so-called Pre-Code cinema—before the severe Production Code made many restrictions on morality in American film. There was a bunch of movies—all variations of the same plot—about a young girl led astray, who has an illegitimate baby who she gives up, and then, many years later, the child comes back into her life. And, because she has led this very sexual renegade life, she has to hold on to her great secret, that she never wants the child to know.
Who’s Lily Dare?
A survivor. I’ve always wanted play a role where I went from a young girl to an old crone. In a certain sense, I play four different characters, because she makes some wild transformations from innocent young girl to Marlene Dietrich-type cabaret entertainer to bordello madam to worn-out waterfront saloon singer. I morph using different character voices as she changes personae. I think in some ways it’s a metaphor for what we all go through in real life, as we change and our personalities adapt to our circumstances. I have noticed, as my contemporaries have gotten older, sometimes we become almost parodies of ourselves; we get so much more exaggerated in our idiosyncrasies and eccentricities. What I’m doing as Lily Dare is on a much more stylized level, but I think it has a basic truth to the way we do adapt as we get older.
This show was originally meant for a limited run off-off-Broadway. What changed?
I’ve had this very long relationship, going back to 1981, with Theater for the New City, which is a kind of funky downtown multiplex of a theater on the Lower East Side. Every other year we—that’s me and Carl Andress, the director I’ve worked with for 25 years—make a call to Crystal Field, who runs that theater, and say, “Can you give us a space?” It’s a fun thing to do for a couple of weeks and usually I get it out of my system. We did Lily Dare there a year and a half ago and the audience response to it was so lovely. But, really, more importantly, I wanted to do more. I loved the variety of emotion that it stirred in the audience. With comedy, I like when there’s a roller coaster of tone; it can be very outrageous and bawdy, but then there are genuine moments of tenderness or suspense. I really wanted to test this and, you know, go for big laughs but also see whether a rather jaded, cynical contemporary audience could lose themselves in the tearjerker elements of the story and be genuinely moved. So, when Primary Stages—a theater I’ve had a relationship with, going back to 1994—said it wanted me to be part of their 35th anniversary season, I suggested Lily Dare.
Mother-and-child relationships are central to Die Mommie Die! and The Third Story. Does that have something to do with your losing your mother at an early age?
I’ve always been a sucker for anything about mother love, and it’s a wonderful experience to play my obsessions night after night. I think I can speak for anyone who’s lost a parent. It’s something that marks you and influences probably every aspect of your life, whether it’s personal relationships or, if you’re a creative artist, your work. I write them into the play so I can tap into those emotions endlessly. Thank God for self-pity, because it can be very rewarding! This play, particularly, is all about the search for a mother, the search for a child.
You’ve said before that your plays come about because there’s a role you’d like to play.
Yes, I’d get an idea like “Oh, wouldn’t it be fun to be Rosalind Russell in a 1960s nun comedy,” or “wouldn’t it fun to be Norma Shearer in an anti-Nazi war melodrama.” In this case, it was “Wouldn’t it be fun to be Barbara Stanwyck in her early-1930s tearjerkers?” I’ve just been very fortunate that I’m in a position that I can get these fantasies to come true.
The other thing I do, usually after I get my idea for a play and a character that I’d like to do, is write a list of actor friends of mine that I just like to hang out with, and then I try to figure out roles for them within the context of the story. Sometimes I feel like I have my own old-time movie studio and my contract players and I have to figure out new ways of presenting them. I’m so fortunate that I’ve been working with the wonderful Jennifer Van Dyck for quite a few years now. She was a classical actress without a camp bone in her body when I got hold of her. Her range is so marvelous. I can use her in so many different ways; as an elegant lady, sometimes I write old-fashioned trouser roles for her because she has kind of a Katherine Hepburn quality. In my Cleopatra, I think she’s the only actress who’s ever played Octavian and his sister, Octavia. And in Lily Dare, she ranges from playing my bordello madam to my opera singing daughter, a doctor’s wife and a mysterious baroness.
What’s it like writing roles for yourself?
It took me to the age of 19 to figure out I could write roles for myself. It becomes harder as you get older, although, for the most part, I’ve aged into my roles. In the late ‘80s I was playing Norma Shearer in The Lady in Question, who was a great star at the peak of her beauty, let’s say in 1940, and then years later I was playing a mother superior, which would have the part that an actress would have played as she’s approaching her late 50s. It’s always important to me that when I look in the mirror, I look like the character I’m playing. Perhaps what I’m seeing in the mirror isn’t what the audience is seeing. I hope that’s not true! I may be deluding myself, but I’ve never thought that the source of the comedy of my performances was the differential between what my intention is and what the audience’s conception is. I think a big part of camp is that space. There are so many different kinds of drag performers that come from so many different points for view. For me, it was important that I physically looked as close an approximation that I possibly can to an actress from Hollywood’s golden age. In this play, I’m taking a little bit of a detour. I end up there, but I just start off with as a young convent girl of 16. With the help of my wig stylist and costume designers and lighting designer I hope I give some kind of an illusion. I’m telling you this might be the last time that I play somebody quite that young. I’m getting kinda tired being all trussed up in corsets!
Do you rely on your memories of the old movies for your parodies? Did you have to do research for Lily Dare?
I just absorbed it watching all those movies on television. I’ve been doing it since I was eight years old and I think the bulk of my research was done by the age of 12! When I do a new play like Lily Dare, I try to see some of these movies that I haven’t seen, that I know are in the same genre. But I’ve always loved Madame X, which is really the prototype for that kind of movie. It’s not for me to do the spoof of film noir; that’s really for the ordinary folk, you know. I choose obscure movies that nobody could care less about! And, in a way, that’s kind of good because I don’t really approve of something where an audience’s enjoyment is based on their knowledge of the movie. With something like Lily Dare, the assumption is that 99 percent of the audience has never seen Frisco Jenny or The Sin of Madelon Claudet or—they all have similar titles—The Secret of Madame Blanche. It doesn’t matter, you can just enjoy it as a good yarn. And thank God for Google—to be able to look for restaurants in San Francisco that were open before 1906. Because if I’m going to use an anachronism it is very deliberate.
What about the plays that didn’t feature a role for yourself, notably The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife?
I’ve written a number of them and, honestly, it’s frustrated me that my only Broadway play was that. And it’s not for lack of trying. A play of mine that we did at Primary Stages a few years ago, Olive and the Bitter Herbs, got some of the biggest laughs in my career, but critics didn’t really care for it. I don’t know, I sometimes spend useless time in rumination of “Did I make the wrong choice, did I take the wrong path there?” And where is it gonna get you? The thing about my career is that I’ve earned a nice living just by doing exactly what I wanted to do and had fun doing it. And I guess it is too late to start bitching about what might have been.
Is the movie version of Allergist’s Wife still happening?
Oh, that movie project has dragged on. I can’t say it is not going to happen, but there’s certainly no activity at the moment. I have several plays that I’d like to write in different styles—always a million notions for film parodies. There’s an Irish parody that I’ve been intermittently working on, and another autobiographical play that that I’ve done research on. What I do get excited about is being in movies. Some of the most creative experiences in my whole life have been making movies like Die Mommy Die! So, Carl and I have a new idea for a movie that we hope to do next year. It’s a zany contemporary caper movie starring Julie Halston and me, and that we hope to shoot in my apartment!
Is it true you’re writing your memoirs?
Oh, I have been working on it for so many years! The idea was that it will be more memoir than celebrity autobiography, because I’m not that well known. But I think I have a very interesting story. My aunt who raised me was a fascinating figure; I think she’s very much in the tradition of aunt literature from Tom Sawyer’s Aunt Polly to David Copperfield’s Aunt Betsey Trotwood to Travels with my Aunt and Auntie Mame. And, of course, there are the different worlds that I’ve been a part of—the East Village of the ‘80s—and there’s this story of a young person wanting so desperately to be in the theater and realizing that there’s no was no place for him in a traditional career and having to just invent one. I think I’m rather fearless as a dramatist—I just keep going and nothing seems to stop me—but I’m much more vulnerable as a prose writer. So, it’s dragged out a lot, but finally I think I see the end is near.
Do you think that your work has influenced artists of succeeding generations just as Charles Ludlum’s Ridiculous Theatre inspired you?
I guess so. Seeing Charles Ludlum when I was at such an impressionable age, it was cataclysmic the way it changed my perspective of the possibilities of who I could be. And I meet young people who say that I have that effect on them. With this play—Carl was just saying the other night—it was great to see young gay people in our audience who just seem overwhelmed. I think it is a lovely thing—it doesn’t happen too often it seems—that we have a new generation of young gay kids being exposed to the kind of humor and see generations of gay men sitting together and sharing a laugh.
Is there a confession of Charles Busch?
Really, it took me a while to understand that everything you write is personal and that even though it would seem like just a spoof of an old movie genre it is actually very autobiographical, and I’m often the last person to realize it. I think this play is a confession of Charles Busch, maybe you have to look a little deeper.
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Song
Pundits and show producers didn’t quite get the pop star-studded best song lineup that they were hoping for this year.
Pundits and show producers didn’t quite get the pop star-studded best song lineup that they were hoping for this year, as Golden Globe nominees Taylor Swift and Beyoncé failed to score nominations, though the former’s omission sparked heavy sighs of relief among Oscar completists who were dreading to have to watch Cats. Neither did they make room for Oscar-winning actress Mary Steenburgen, whose “Glasgow (No Place Like Home)” in Wild Rose was widely regarded among the year’s best movie songs. In short, this is a category that feels more characterized by what’s absent than what’s present.
Ten previous nominations have so far added up to one conspicuously absent win for the indefatigable Diane Warren, whose nomination for Chrissy Metzs inspirational dirge in the very, very Christian Breakthrough calls to mind the nomination that was removed from competition six years ago, for Bruce Broughton and Dennis Spiegel’s contribution to the also very Christian Alone Yet Not Alone. Conversely, the Toy Story series has never been absent once from this category, actually earning Randy Newman one of his two wins here for the third installment’s “We Belong Together.” Cynthia Erivo’s all but absent chances to win in the best actress category wouldn’t be much of a factor here even if the academy felt more overt remorse about #OscarsSoWhite, and so far as power ballads go, we expect the academy’s drama-queen wing to fall into line for Frozen II’s “Let It Go II.”
However, when Elton John won the Oscar 25 years ago for The Lion King’s “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” his lifelong songwriting partner, Bernie Taupin, was absent from his side, as it was Disney’s top lyricist, Tim Rice, who shared that 1994 award with the pop star. John was canny enough to mention the fact that he and Taupin had never won a competitive award while they accepted the Golden Globe earlier this month for Rocketman’s peppy closing number “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again.” In saying so, he turned the act of voting for the song into endorsing a de facto lifetime achievement award for the team.
Will Win: “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again,” Rocketman
Could Win: “Into the Unknown,” Frozen II
Should Win: “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again,” Rocketman
Interview: Kantemir Balagov on Avoiding Artistic Stagnation with Beanpole
Balagov’s cinematic verve feels like an accomplishment not so much because of his age, but in spite of it.
The cinematic verve of 28-year-old Russian director Kantemir Balagov feels like an accomplishment not so much because of his age, but in spite of it. His sophomore feature, Beanpole, may have many audacious touches, but the controlled classicism with which he constructs a meticulous physical and emotional landscape defies his age.
Beanpole centers the female home-front experience in post-World War II Leningrad. The film’s vibrant hues belie the dour misery that bonds two friends, Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko) and Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), even closer together in the wake of war’s destruction. The need to bring life, especially in the form of a child, into this bleak landscape animates the two women amid an otherwise debilitatingly austere backdrop. Balagov charts Iya and Masha’s psychological power struggle gently and without ever steering into melodramatic territory, all while maintaining virtuosic control over sound and image.
When sitting across from Balagov prior to his film’s New York Film Festival premiere last October, the incongruity of film and filmmaker seemed even more pronounced. His youthfully unkempt appearance contrasted with both the intelligence of his answers and the methodical nature of his decisions behind the camera. The interview began with Balagov elaborating on how he crafted Beanpole and ended up in a reflective discussion musing about how directors can develop a signature style without succumbing to artistic stagnation.
In your debut feature, Closeness, you introduced your presence to the audience by putting your name in title cards and contextualizing your reasons for making the film. Even though there’s nothing like that in Beanpole, are you still in the film?
Yeah, absolutely. I hope I’m in the film. I try to watch the world with my character’s point of view, their eyes. I’m [as] afraid as Iya and Masha to be alone. That’s kind of my fear and their fears. I try to share my experience with them. For me, they’re real [people], not just characters.
Who do you consider to be the protagonist of this film: Iya, Masha, or both?
I think that even Sasha [Masha’s love interest, played by Igor Shirokov] and the doctor are beanpoles. In Russian, beanpole is about height. But, for me, it’s about clumsiness. The way they are trying to live after the world is a clumsy way. They feel clumsy, and they talk a little bit clumsy. They’re all beanpoles in some way.
You’re working once again with non-professional actresses. Is there a particular effect you’re looking to achieve with their less studied and self-conscious style?
They’re actresses, and they studied while shooting. For me, the most important thing is personality. I don’t need the acting course. I need the personality first of all. Trauma and personality.
Since they hadn’t been in other films before, does that make them more impressionable as performers? Can you shape their performances in a certain way?
I think the lack of film experience didn’t play a big role. In the first moment, we created a human connection rather than a professional one.
Is there any conscious reason in particular why, at least so far, you’ve gravitated toward telling women’s stories?
I try to discover my female side and understand my childhood. I was living with my mother because my parents were divorced. I feel comfortable with them.
It’s impossible to discuss your films without colors, especially blue in Closeness and green—as well as yellow, to a lesser extent—in Beanpole. What’s the process of conceiving those intellectually and then working with your production team to visualize it?
The content of the film shapes the colors. Specifically talking about Beanpole, in reality, the colors were much gloomier. We wanted to pick colors to highlight avoiding their reality—to uplift it.
Is that for the sake of the characters in the film or the audience watching it?
That was made for the emotional impact. I knew what my characters would be. I knew how much suffering there would be, and I didn’t want them to look miserable in the frame. I want them to look decent, so that’s why we tried to create some beautiful frames. Like art frames.
It’s such a stark contrast to post-war films with greys or desaturated colors.
Yeah, from the beginning, it should be like mud. But there are just some things that helped point me to using colors.
Does it come from a feeling you have? Are you a student of color theory?
No, my hobby is photography, and I’m a huge fan of Magnum photos, the agency created by Henri Cartier-Bresson with Robert Capa. In the color photos, there’s some rhythm of the colors. It’s easy to see because a photo is like a freeze frame. I took it and used it in Closeness, and I liked it.
The line “heroes weren’t only on the front lines” feels like such a summation of Beanpole’s mission—revising history to accommodate the substantial contributions of women. Is it meant to echo forward into the present at all?
Frankly speaking, I didn’t intend to make a movie that resonated with today. I started to think about it in 2015, and it’s important to remember that the events of 2015 might not be expressed in this in 2019. My goal was not to make something that reflected today’s events.
The press notes point out there’s no imagery of Stalin or communism at all in Beanpole. What was the rationale behind that—to make the story more universal?
Cinema, for me, is a tool of immortality. I think those people don’t deserve immortality, in my view.
It makes the film feel not necessarily universal, but it’s not quite so bound to specifics of the time. It’s applicable beyond the immediate context.
Yeah, I think so. We didn’t want to hitch it to a certain period. We wanted to create a universal story.
What’s the effect of all your meticulous historical research on the set? It strikes me that it has as much to do with having an impact on the performers as it does the audience.
I think those meticulous things we included in the film affected the body language, for example. It helped the actors achieve a specific tone, voice, and gesture. The way people moved back then is very different from the body language we have today.
People were exhausted by the war. They moved slowly. When I was researching, I watched some footage from those times. In some way, we have some common things [with that time period]. But they talk differently. The intonation in the voice seems very fragile—one touch and it’s going to break.
You’ve frequently referred back to the advice of your mentor Alexander Sokurov. Now that you’ve made two films of your own, are there any areas where you’ve gone your own way or found your own wisdom?
As an auteur, I want to be independent. But as a human being, I feel a connection with him. I really appreciate it.
In recent interviews, you’ve said that you feel like you’re still searching for your style. What does the end result of that search look like for you? A single, identifiable aesthetic or a more intangible voice?
It’s hard to describe. It’s you who will decide.
Don’t put that pressure on me!
I was so curious, I asked Sokurov when I was studying what’s the difference between stagnation and an author’s signature. He said to me that you should find it on your own, I don’t have the answer for you.
I get the sense that artists tend to look for stories that inspire you, and you all don’t think of necessarily envision a linear career path in the same way that journalists do. Scorsese, for example, makes so many different kinds of films, but you can always tell that he made them.
That’s why I was curious about the difference between style and stagnation. I really admire many contemporary directors, but so many of their works are stagnant. I’m afraid of that. I’m afraid that my third film will be a sign of stagnation.
So variation is what you hope for?
Yeah, I would like to make an animated movie. I’m really curious about games. I would like to direct a game. I’d like to make a film from a game, like The Last of Us. I’m open to it.
Translation by Sasha Korbut
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Sound Mixing
The Oscars have a long history of awarding war films in this particular sound category.
We’re sorry. Last week, Eric and I agreed that he could blow my lead here by saying that we were going to bet on Ford v. Ferrari to take both sound awards. Part of our logic was that the sound awards split more times than not, and opting for the same film in both categories would guarantee that we’d at least get one of those categories correct. But seemingly every day of this accelerated awards season hasn’t only increasingly solidified 1917’s frontrunner status for best picture, but also pointed to the possibility of it lapping up almost as many Oscars as Slumdog Millionaire, so we’re doing some course correcting.
Last night, the Cinema Audio Society, which has accurately predicted the winner in this category 14 out of 26 times, awarded its prize for achievement in sound mixing to Ford v. Ferrari. And that 1917 wasn’t even nominated for that award makes Ford v. Ferrari a relatively safe bet here. (Only one other film, Whiplash, has won the Oscar here after failing to be nominated for sound mixing at the Cinema Audio Society since the guild’s inception in 1994.)
But we’re going to take it as a sign of things to come that Ford v. Ferrari and 1917 split the top sound awards at the recent MPSE Golden Reel Awards, suggesting that the latter’s lack of a CAS nomination may have been a fluke, possibly a result of it entering the awards race so late in the season. Also, the Oscars have a long history of awarding war films in this particular sound category, especially those with more than a realistic chance of snagging the top prize, so we’re giving the edge here to Sam Mendes’s war horse, which will be lapping James Mangold’s racing drama at the box office in a matter of days.
Will Win: 1917
Could Win: Ford v. Ferrari
Should Win: Ad Astra
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Actor
Luckily for Joaquin Phoenix, he’s not up against anyone playing a real-life individual.
We’ve reached the halfway point of our rolling Oscar prediction coverage, and I think I speak on behalf of Ed and myself when I say we’re already absolutely spent. Yes, we still have some major rounds of mental gymnastics to undergo for best picture, which most people believe can be won by no fewer than three and as many as six films, and a few other races feel ripe for an upset (we’ve got all eyes on both screenplay categories). But nowhere does the fatigue of even an accelerated Oscar season feel most evident than it does in the acting categories, which at an increasing rate seem to be nailed down even before the Golden Globe and SAG award winners are announced each year.
Yes, we still have the image of Glenn Close nodding and grimly grinning while resignedly slumped over in her front-row chair at the Oscar ceremony last year imprinted in our memory bank, but that universe-disrupting exception only proved the rule. And it’s a rule that, incidentally, is only rivaled in rigidity by what Ed mentioned last week when predicting Renée Zellweger at the beginning of this year’s marathon: “There’s nothing more unwavering than Hollywood’s support for actors playing real-life individuals.”
Luckily for Joaquin Phoenix, who’s going to win the Oscar, he’s not up against anyone playing a real-life individual. Sure, he’s up against Adam Driver playing a thinly veiled version of director Noah Baumbach in Marriage Story, and Antonio Banderas playing a thinly veiled version of director Pedro Almodóvar in Pain and Glory, and Jonathan Pryce playing a thinly veiled version of the faultless, approachable, non-slappy Pope Francis that director Fernando Meirelles sells to the world in The Two Popes. But none of them are in the same class of mimicry-first winners as Rami Malek, Gary Oldman, and Eddie Redmayne.
Add to that the fact that the historically prickly Phoenix has proven himself capable this Oscar season of not only directing his pugilism at worthy causes (being arrested alongside Jane Fonda protesting climate change enablers, comforting slaughterhouse pigs), but also coming off as a genuinely effusive member of the acting community, as when he spent his speech time at the SAG awards paying tribute to his co-nominees and, then, Heath Ledger. He’d have the award even if he wasn’t playing Joker’s real-life version of Donald Trump.
Will Win: Joaquin Phoenix, Joker
Could Win: Adam Driver, Marriage Story
Should Win: Antonio Banderas, Pain and Glory
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Documentary Short
Bet against a message of hope and you may find yourself losing an Oscar pool.
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
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Live Action Short
It never hurts to let this academy feel as though they’re just liberal enough.
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
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Animated Short
Another year, another reminder to take our prediction in this category with a grain of salt.
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
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Sound Editing
It’s not difficult to rationalize picking the same film to win both sound editing and sound mixing.
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
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Animated Feature
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