Having just rounded out its fifth decade as the longest running American film fest, the San Francisco International Film Festival might be forgiven for a bit of self-love. In addition to the guest lineup of local megastars (George Lucas, Robin Williams), there were the “we rock” vibes emitted by Fog City Mavericks. Better suited for a cable premiere, Gary Leva’s fluffy love letter to Bay Area filmmaking was instead granted centerpiece status, in return giving Frisco its wettest recorded tongue bath. Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, Clint Eastwood and Philip Kaufman are among the interviewees, but no Easy Riders, Raging Bulls downfall arc here; the trajectory of San Francisco directors is presented as a steady ascension, buoyed by oft-repeated ideas of artistic independence. It’s one thing to trace a straight line from Eadweard Muybridge’s photographic experiments to the Skywalker Ranch, or to completely ignore the most memorable SF-set films (Vertigo, Point Blank, Petulia) in favor of a couple of Pixar sketches; it is quite another to give me Chris Columbus the auteur.
No need for such cheerleading: the program by itself was enough proof of the festival’s dedication to vital cinema, with a strikingly varied line-up of international works for cineastes to lose themselves in. Emanuele Crialese’s Golden Door, a remarkable reinvention of the immigrant-saga format, opened the fest and summed up everything great about it with its fierce expressiveness and curiosity toward new worlds. Crialese’s rich imagery (resplendently captured by the great Agnès Godard) was matched by Pedro Costa’s in his bone-dry, poetic, spectral Colossal Youth, another film of precise yet mysterious movements. Having not seen the Portuguese filmmaker’s earlier work, it’s difficult to imagine how the rigid aesthetic (suffocating compositions, incantatory non-performances) might fit in his last installment of a trilogy about slum dwellers in Lisbon’s Fontainhas district; what is unmistakable, however, is Costa’s masterly control of space and his investigation of it as a crossroads of lost souls. Challenging pictures of narrative innovation and cinematic sensuousness, Golden Door and Colossal Youth indelibly illustrated the “voyages of exploration, discovery and transformation” promised by executive director Graham Leggat as the fest’s main thrust.
Cyrus Frisch’s Why Didn’t Anybody Tell Me It Would Become This Bad in Afghanistan was another promise fulfilled, namely the fruit of the “new technological platforms” discussed in last year’s Kinotek program. Offered as the first feature-length work shot on a cellphone (a decision, Frisch assured me, more budgetary than conceptual), it feeds off a sense of free-floating anxiety and finds hitherto unknown textures amid the heightened blotchiness of the camera’s pixilation. Scarcely living up to its provocative title and groping through its new format, Frisch’s film is a muddled mix—half genuine discovery, half excruciating private reel—but a searchingly modern one. The modernity of such experiments was pointedly balanced by screenings of silent movies like Victor Sjöström’s great The Phantom Carriage and Allan Dwan’s graceful The Iron Mask, the latter introduced by pioneering film historian and documentarian Kevin Brownlow. A much deserved winner for the Mel Novikoff Award of cinema appreciation, Brownlow was as diligent as ever in his conservationist efforts, presenting invaluable glimpses of lost silents, introducing one of his documentaries (Cecil B. De Mille: American Epic), and reminding viewers of the need to look backward as much as forward.
The festival was full of such contrasts. Flanders and The Violin both dealt with the cruelties of people at war, yet where Bruno Dumont’s new film sees the battleground as an extension (crystallization, really) of his vision of a senseless world, Francisco Vargas Quevedo’s portrait of wartime resistance views military nightmares as devastating intrusions into severe but hopeful human landscapes. The rural patches and battered deserts of Flanders give Dumont as ideal a canvas as the imagined Vietnam of Full Metal Jacket did for Kubrick, but the director’s ponderous approach has by now become calcified to the point of unintentional lampoon. There are evocative moments—a cut from the blood on a prepubescent insurgent’s head to the blood bubbling between the heroine’s thighs back home—but here Dumont’s Neanderthal brooders and weighty glares amount to little more than a lengthy, existential shrug.
Humanity gets a fairer share in The Violin, and the wider variety of emotions on display makes the violence endured by the characters more affecting. Set during an unnamed Latin American country’s civil war, Vargas Quevedo’s film pits guerrilla rebels against oppressive military forces, with an elderly violinist (a wonderful Ángel Tavira) traveling between the two groups in an effort to help out his son, one of the rebels. The story’s penchant for peasant nobility and aged sagacity is kept in check by Vargas’s unsentimental admiration for the characters’ revolt, and by a sensitivity to the complex emotional connections of music that brings to mind Ichikawa’s The Burmese Harp.
Defiance is also the subject of Im Sang-soo’s The Old Garden, even if filtered through a thick curtain of disillusion. The virile anger marking much of the new South Korean cinema is accompanied here by the bitter melancholy of the protagonist, a socialist activist (Ji Jin-hee) arrested in the aftermath of the Gwangju Massacre in the early ‘80s and released in the new millennium to face “freedom shock.” “Life is long and the revolution is short,” it is said as he sees his former comrades as pale shadows of their former militant selves, yet Im rejects defeatism by insisting on the critical reconsideration of historical wounds still palpably felt today (as in Im’s The President’s Last Bang, the film has brought him his share of controversy back home). The Old Garden’s politicized disgust shames The Caiman—likewise a leftist’s lament, Nanni Moretti’s so-called return to his early political works is instead a slack, pusillanimous comedy about the Italian film industry, with its supposedly subversive subject (a schlock producer takes over a new project without noticing the movie is really an attack of Berlusconi’s machinations) shoved aside in favor of fatigued jibes at movie-star vanity and bourgeois domestic troubles. Moretti himself appears as one of the actors playing the political leader in the film-within-a-film, but his point seems to be the obsolete nature of political films nowadays, coupled with the belief that “it’s always a good time for comedy.” Offered as Moretti’s Sullivan’s Travels, The Caiman is barely his Hollywood Ending.
Continuing with auteur entries, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Hana brings his themes of struggling familial communities and spiritual dislocation to what is possibly the least urgent samurai saga ever. The hero (Junichi Okada) is a swordsman burdened with the duty of having to avenge his slain father, but he’s more interested in teaching the kids in his dilapidated village to read, or in chastely courting a local widow. Mock duels are held because “real fights are scarce” in 1701 Japan, but when the father’s killer at last appears, Okada is reluctant to bring violence; so is Kore-eda, who, with the film’s gentleness and mild scatology, seems to preserve the child’s view from Nobody Knows even in ronin territory. The picture may at times get too winsome for its own good, but that’s nothing compared to the insufferable cuteness of Gardens in Autumn, where the tone of deadpan cloying is set in the very opening (a batch of old Parisian gents surveying a warehouse of coffins as if looking for a coat). Deposed diplomats and African squatters all figure in Otar Iosseliani’s comedy, which is so mellow about its own elfin absurdity that it dissolves long before Michel Piccoli pops up in granny frock and drag. A similar desperation befalls Tom DiCillo’s Delirious, where the teaming of a choleric paparazzo (Steve Buscemi) and a sweet, homeless aspiring actor (Michael Pitt) suggests an oblivious parody of Midnight Cowboy. At one point Elvis Costello appears to pitch a musical about Britney Spears (“Imagine Tennessee Williams…only not so gay”), a project that sounds more interesting than this film, which proceeds like a vague Sundance memory from 1996.
Costello is on hand to tear into “The Butcher Boy” in The Old, Weird America: Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, a fond documentary of the filmmaker, musician, painter and record collector responsible for the revival of American folk music in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Lou Reed, Nick Cave, David Johansen, Sonic Youth and Beck are among the musicians heaping praise (and performing vintage favorites) on the late, eccentric Smith; a less reverential approach than Rani Singh’s might have better captured the subject’s personality (Terry Zwigoff would have been a good choice), but, then again, the subject of the film is not so much the man behind the revival as the revival itself, with the preservation of long-forgotten songs emerging as a heartening recognition of priceless cultural artifacts, a heritage exhilaratingly remembered and rescued from oblivion. This threat looms large in The Rape of Europe, also a chronicle about the dangers many cultural treasures face over the years. The rape of the title refers to the degradation of European artworks during World War II, when museums were pillaged and invaluable works were at best looted, at worst burned. Suggesting Hitler’s status as a mediocre painter as a driving force behind the Nazi depredations, the documentary depicts harrowing ramifications of the Fuhrer’s lunatic ideology in the wartime treatment of such “degenerate art” as works by Van Gogh, Matisse and Picasso. It’s a tragedy that still continues, the movie argues, in the ensuing legal battles over the paintings—a cultural degradation that lingers in the competing price tags pinned to art.
No less valuable than rare records or paintings are the stories told by the aged residents of a small village in the Brazilian northeast in The End and the Beginning. Like the other documentaries, Eduardo Coutinho’s film is about preserving a country’s history, with the many recollections ultimately forming a kind of oral map of regional troubles and glories. A procession of weathered, humorous storytellers (“Come on in, poverty ain’t contagious,” says one ancient farmer to the interviewer), it is also an example of the on-the-road quality of much of Brazilian film history, a quality that extends to the festival’s other Brazilian works. Ricardo Elias’s The 12 Labors charts a young delivery boy’s trajectory through São Paulo, with the Herculean reference of the title possibly acknowledging Brazilian cinema’s other famous appropriation of Greek myth into modern-day society, Black Orpheus; the welter of incidents is gracefully woven, but the mystery of the characters’ lives is needlessly diluted by pretentious voiceover. The need to travel is notable in the other entries by its absence: The characters in both Fish Dreams and Love for Sale are trapped in dead-end communities and yearn to break away. Kirill Mikhanovsky’s film follows intersecting lives in a small fishing town, while Karim Ainouz’s traces a young woman’s self-inquiring journey as she lives with her family and ends up offering her body as the prize of a raffle in an attempt to get money to leave town; both are quite beautiful in their ethnographic detailing, the former enriched by the director’s outsider curiosity and the latter bolstered by Hermila Guedes’s lovely performance.
The “society of fear” of post-9/11 America is the subject of Strange Culture, San Fran native Lynn Hershman Leeson’s account of the Kafkaesque spiral experienced by conceptual artist Steve Kurtz after his wife died in her sleep in 2004 and his scientific studies were used to bring bio-terrorist charges against him. A mix of news footage and reenactment (with Thomas Jay Ryan and Leeson axiom Tilda Swinton appearing both as the real-life married couple and as themselves), with Kurtz himself commenting on his ordeal, the film is as much of a multimedia project as its subject’s exhibits, with its engaged outrage tempered with a lightness of touch that rescues the film from being a picture of slogans. A bit of Leeson’s humor would have helped Niki Karimi’s A Few Days Later…, the Iranian actress’s directorial debut. Despite a sly nod to her own minimalist style when a client dismisses her character’s graphic design as “too simple,” it’s for the most part a placidly dour piece of alienation. Yet it is also a thoroughly personal account of muted anxiety, expressed through narrow framing and left scrupulously unresolved. The Island, meanwhile, opens with anguish (“O Lord, have mercy on this sinner,” chanted over the wintry Russian expanses) before sneaking sharp humor into its story of a traumatized WWII victim who becomes a monk in a White Sea monastery. As the monk reveals a prankish streak and locals come to see him looking for miracles, Pavel Lounguine’s film shifts from the angst of mid-period Bergman to flashes of divine buffoonery of Rossellini’s Flowers of St. Francis (the signature shot is a lateral pan that creates a solemn Orthodox mural only to spot one of the monks facing the wrong way).
With such distinguished titles as Alain Resnais’s Private Fears in Public Places, Guy Maddin’s Brand Upon the Brain! and Hal Harley’s Fay Grim, it’s a shame the festival chose La Vie en Rose as its closing feature, but, then again, what fest doesn’t want a punchy finale? And punchy is how one feels after Olivier Dahan’s draggy, superficial biopic of the legendary Edith Piaf, which hits you over the head with “tempestuous” time-hopping bits to cover up its hoary showbiz clichés. Marion Cotillard labors through a parade of Oscar clips, all teeth and eyes, while every opportunity for deeper inquiry is thwarted. (Why plop Marlene Dietrich next to Piaf in one scene if the picture hasn’t the slightest desire to examine their relationship?) In at least one way, the film is faithful to the festival’s border-erasing goals: It proves that the French can fashion dreary, awards-grabbing biopics just as well as the Americans.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: International Feature Film
Parasite is a pervasive presence in the news cycle, and at just the right time.
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