Monday, January 15, 2018

THE FINAL FIVE

Well, I predicted six out of nine of the finalists, which I'm very happy with.....I really did expect a snub for the overrated "The Square", and still don't really understand how the uneven drama representing SENEGAL got saved over some much better films, but all in all it's a good list. Happy to see two African films competing and hoping that will encourage more African nations to enter. I'm very sad that for the fourth year in a row, there were no films from Central, East and South Asia on the list.....but then perhaps none of them really deserved it.

I'm still working my way through the list of 92 films.....I've seen 39 and so far my favorite is probably the (much-maligned) thriller from Germany, though I really have a soft spot for Bulgaria, Dominican Republic and Iraq......But I admittedly haven't seen most of the front-runners.

With the nominations due to be announced next week, here are my predictions for the Final Five. This is going to be really close.....A week ago, I thought Germany was losing buzz and Senegal was the only country without a chance....then Germany won the GG and Senegal won Best Foreign Film Submission at Palm Spring....So anybody could get in, especially with the larger and more international voting body this year......

LOOKING GOOD:
1. RUSSIA- "Loveless"
2. ISRAEL- "Foxtrot"
3. GERMANY- "In the Fade"

With universally positive reviews in Europe and the U.S., political relevance and a Golden Globe nomination, RUSSIA's missing child drama "Loveless" (Нелюбовь) looks like the safest option. Zvagintsev has been nominated before and the only criticism of the film is that it's a bit cold.

ISRAEL's "Foxtrot" arguably has the best reviews of the bunch Stateside, and Oscar has shown a strong interest in Israeli stories in the past. The only sign of trouble was a snub at the Golden Globes....Maybe the grim film isn't as accessible as we thought? The expansion of voting to European members could hurt, but I think "Foxtrot" will manage a spot.

I loved GERMANY's revenge drama "In the Fade", but reading reviews online, I've been getting the feeling that I'm the only one! Before the Golden Globe Awards, I had the film in seventh place, but the win at the GG shows that- although the film has its detractors- this exciting, well-acted courtroom drama (which Oscar loves)-cum-thriller (which Oscar does not love) will probably make the Final Five after all.

ON THE BUBBLE
4. LEBANON- "The Insult"
5. CHILE- "A Fantastic Woman"
6. SWEDEN- "The Square"

Although I haven't been able to see them, I'm really hoping to see Chile and Lebanon on the list next week. I'm a huge fan of directors Sebastian Lelio (especially "Gloria") and Ziad Doueiri ("West Beyrouth", "The Attack"), who is on track to become Lebanon's first-ever Oscar nominee. I've heard that the distributors for "The Insult" and "A Fantastic Woman" sent out screeners but "The Square" (the only one which had a fairly wide theatrical release) didn't. Could that make the difference?

The Insult
PROS: A well-reviewed, strongly plotted, well-acted courtroom drama that is both accessible to mainstream audiences and also won some major arthouse awards (at Venice). It's also all about men which helps with this category's aversion to women's stories. Screeners sent out to AMPAS.
CONS: Lebanon has been sending fantastic films for years with no luck.
BOTTOM LINE: I'm still a bit worried, but solid reviews across the board are likely to make Lebanon this year's debut nominee.

A Fantastic Woman
PROS: Strong reviews. Lelio has powerful stories that ordinary people can relate to, but it also won three awards at the notoriously arty Berlin Film Festival. Golden Globe nom. Screeners sent out to AMPAS.
CONS: Traditional aversion to stories about women and trans people. There's a definite minority of critics who simply don't like the film
BOTTOM LINE: This is really on the bubble. Let hope it can beat out Sweden for the fifth spot.


Which brings us to SWEDEN. Yes, I know that "The Square" won the Palme d'Or and is considered a dark horse to win. But (A)- I correctly predicted director Ruben Ostlund would fail to get a nomination for cult favorite "Force Majeure" a few years ago, and "Square" is a lighter and less thought-provoking film....and (B)- quite frankly is overlong and not very good. But, I admit the Golden Globe nomination and continued Oscar buzz has surprised me....The addition of European voters could help it knock out the more deserving film from Chile.....Maybe it's just wishful thinking "Square" will be cut. It certainly would be fun to see Ostlund make another viral video about failing to be nominated!

LONG SHOTS
7. HUNGARY- "On Body and Soul"
8. SOUTH AFRICA- "The Wound" 
9. SENEGAL- "Felicite"

In all likelihood, these three films were saved by the Elite Committee and they aren't always easy to watch. Oddly enough, the films from Hungary and Senegal have a lot in common. Both films premiered at Berlinale and feature unlikely lovers linked together by recurring dreams of animals. HUNGARY's "On Body and Soul" won the Grand Prize in Berlin and will certainly appeal to arthouse critics, while "Felicite"- filled with beautiful music- won the Jury Prize. In my opinion, "On Body and Soul" starts out okay, limps along through the middle, and ends with one of the most powerful endings of the competition. SENEGAL's "Felicite" starts out great and stays that way for the first hour....but fizzles out at the end when it loses control of its narrative. I think both of them are too divisive and not enough people will like them for them to advance. Incidentally, although "Felicite" is the first film ever to represent Senegal, it's actually made in Congo-Kinshasa with a Congolese cast and a director born and raised in Paris, who has one Senegalese grandparent.


I just saw "The Wound" from SOUTH AFRICA today, which is pushing for the "culturally exotic" slot that went to "Tanna" last year. It's a fantastic feature debut and an interesting story, but I can also tell the film will be divisive. The screenplay is great with a great (albeit somewhat predictable) ending, but I sometimes had a hard time getting into the story. This controversial story of Xhosa initial rituals and homosexuality will probably fail to make the cut.

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