Wednesday, November 30, 2016

AWARDS SEASON: Finding Love in a Hopeless Place

Will voters feel the love for La La Land?
As I write this piece mere moments after watching the incendiary "I Am Not Your Negro", I can't help but think of how the current political and social climate has impacted the Oscar race. At a time when the United States is as divided as ever along racial and socioeconomic lines, it is not surprising that films celebrating love have garnered the bulk of the Oscar buzz so far. From the taboo romances central to "Loving" and "Moonlight", to the familial affection underpinning "Fences", "Lion" and "Manchester by the Sea", the "Oscar bait" films of 2016 appeal to our better selves.

And of course, there's hardly anything more optimistic than a musical romance. As we head into the "serious" phase of the awards season tomorrow, "La La Land" has taken its understandable place as the presumed frontrunner. And with its popular director and cast, and the coveted TIFF People's Choice Award in hand, it certainly looks the part. But there are several other contenders hot on the heels of its dancing shoes.

Here are my first Best Picture predictions of the season, in anticipation of the nominations for the "Big Three" televised precursors (Critics Choice, Golden Globes, SAG):
  1. La La Land
  2. Manchester by the Sea
  3. Fences
  4. Moonlight
  5. Arrival
  6. Jackie
  7. Sully
  8. Silence
  9. Lion
  10. Loving
If you've been paying attention to recent Oscar years however, you'll know that we are far from the days when one film would sweep everything. Indeed, the trend suggests a new normal, where Best Picture isn't sealed until that final envelope is opened. It will be particularly interesting to see how the #OscarsSoWhite controversy plays out this year, with a number of strong films featuring largely black casts in the race. If there is to be a challenger to "La La Land", it may well be from this group of "Fences", "Moonlight" and "Loving". But the season is still young however, with many momentum shifts in store. Let's see what surprises tomorrow will bring, as the Broadcast Film Critics Association and the New York Film Critics Circle gets things rolling in earnest.


This is surely old news by now, but the shortlists for all 3 short film Oscar categories have been announced. I don't have much commentary since I've only seen one of them ("The Other Side of Home") and I'm not aware of the buzz yet. Have you seen any of these? Let me know in the comments.

Blind Vaysha
Borrowed Time
Happy End
The Head Vanishes
Inner Workings
Once Upon a Line
Pear Cider and Cigarettes
Piper, Alan Barillaro
Sous Tes Doigts (Under Your Fingers)

Brillo Box (3¢ Off)
Close Ties
4.1 Miles
Frame 394
Joe’s Violin
The Mute’s House
The Other Side of Home
Watani: My Homeland
The White Helmets

Live Action
Bon Voyage
Ennemis Intérieurs
La Femme et le TGV
Nocturne in Black
The Rifle, the Jackal, the Wolf and the Boy
Silent Nights
Sing (Mindenki)
The Way of Tea

Tuesday, November 29, 2016


Much has been said about the Academy’s rule of allowing only one submission per country in the Foreign Language Oscar category. In the eyes of many, it gives an inaccurate representation of the best in world cinema, as some countries have multiple worthy films or may not select their best. But the restriction has its benefits, namely in leveling the playing field to allow entries from smaller nations a better chance at recognition. The system still shows its biases however, as the Asian region has been sorely underrepresented among the nominees, despite containing some of the world’s most influential film industries. This year, 19 Asian hopefuls will chase Oscar glory, ranging from big-budget genre films to intimate dramas.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

REVIEW: Ukrainian Sheriffs

In a small village tucked away in the Ukrainian countryside, there’s a new sheriff in town. Two to be exact. In Roman Bondarchuk’s illuminating new documentary “Ukrainian Sheriffs,” a pair of simple men are handed an important task. Representing the police, they are expected to maintain the peace in a town on the brink of turmoil.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

OSCAR WATCH: Predicting the Documentary Feature shortlist

Any day now, the Academy will release their annual short list for Best Documentary Feature, dashing the hopes of 130 films. Typically one of the strongest Oscar categories in terms of quality, the cut is a brutal one often resulting in shocking omissions. For the most part however, the unwieldy long list tends to solidify around a smaller group of contenders that rise to the top of the pile. And that is once again the situation this year, as key precursors have hinted at where all the buzz lies in this competitive race. Most significantly, the DOC NYC Short List has been announced, which consistently forecasts nearly all of the eventual Oscar finalists with their own 15-film list. Therefore, the trick in figuring out the shortlist is to guess which few films will be replaced from that line-up.

Below is a preview of the contenders to expect on the Oscar short list for Best Documentary Feature, grouped into three broad categories.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Saturday, November 26, 2016


On first glance, you may be inclined to think that "Jackie" is just another conventional biopic. Admittedly, I made that silly mistake myself when the project was first announced. But as a cinephile with knowledge of the work of Pablo Larrain, I should have known better. The inspired directorial vision behind such films as "No", "The Club" was never going to make a simple "cradle to grave" prestige film of the life of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. And so it is, "Jackie" emerges as one of the most uniquely accomplished films of 2016.

Set during the aftermath of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, "Jackie" examines the effects of the tragedy on the former First Lady. As told through a Life magazine interview, Jackie recounts the events of her life before, during and after that fateful day. Through her words we learn of her passion for the arts and history, the immediate trauma of the attack and the subsequent anger, disbelief and grief that followed. But most of all, she shows her unwavering dedication to preserve the legacy of her husband and remind the world of the greater good he believed in.

In an early scene, a man advises Jackie to stay out of the spotlight after her husband's death, stating that "the world's gone mad." This sentiment is certainly one that pervaded throughout American society during that period, and Larrain absolutely runs with it. Indeed, it's easy to understand why Darren Aronofsky was once attached to direct, as this film shares much of the same idiosyncratic filmmaking as his own Natalie Portman-starrer "Black Swan" (with another Best Actress Oscar likely on the way too). Mournful and chilly, "Jackie" has much more in common with psychological dramas than the plot-based character studies typical of the biopic genre. Mica Levi's haunting score captures the surreal atmosphere, while the direction maintains a stark, measured control. And the cinematography is often stunning in its ability to evoke the era as cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine experiments with various film stock. It would come as no surprise if the film were to garner Oscar nominations for Best Original Score, Best Director and Best Cinematography.

"Jackie" truly represents filmmaking of the highest order, and it's most tremendous technical feat is its central performance. While Jackie was understandably distraught and fragile during those dark days, Larrain also envisions Jackie Kennedy as a woman of extraordinary composure, allowing Natalie Portman to deliver her most fiercely commanding performance to date. With her modulated voice, she is admittedly jarring at first. But Portman masterfully sinks into the role, burrowing into every nook and cranny of her character's psyche. And she is well served by Noah Oppenheim's probing, non-linear screenplay (certainly a Best Original Screenplay contender), deftly showing the complexity of this fascinating woman.

"Jackie" is definitive proof of Pablo Larraín's boundless talent. He has taken a film genre and a historical icon we thought we already knew, and created something inventive and astonishing. Unlike most biopics, there is no warm emotional pay-off here. But his interpretation of Jackie's mythic "Camelot" is altogether unforgettable. We'll surely be talking about this Best Picture hopeful for months to come.

Thursday, November 24, 2016


Directed by brothers Gabe and Benjamin Turner, the documentary “I Am Bolt” starts off with a bang. Opening with a montage featuring anthemic music while a narrator introduces a man with “physical strength and magnificent speed,” it could easily be mistaken for a superhero movie. As the title suggests however, the film’s subject is the aptly named Usain Bolt, a triple world record holder in track and field. In this engaging film, this extraordinary Jamaican athlete takes us through the trials, tribulations and triumphs of his journey to a historic nine Olympic gold medals.

Read more at The Awards Circuit


If you’re reading this, you probably already know that this year’s Foreign Language Oscar race includes 85 films, thereby setting a new record. But there’s another history-making statistic that has gone by underreported. Among those submissions are a record number of films directed by women, with 16 entries crediting women at the helm. Of course, the gender ratio is still far from ideal, but when compared with the paltry numbers represented in Hollywood (often less than 10 percent in a given year), these history-making groups of women are certainly worthy of special recognition.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

INTERVIEW: Boo Junfeng

Tackling a controversial social issue like the death penalty is always a risky proposition for any filmmaker. But when such a topical subject is handled by a thoughtful director like Singapore’s Boo Junfeng, then you know you’re in good hands. I recently spoke with this up-and-coming director, whose latest film "Apprentice" examines the personal and societal implications of the death penalty, through the eyes of young man training to become an executioner. Below is an edited version of our chat.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

REVIEW: Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe

Where there’s a mass human tragedy, there are often heroes who emerge from the rubble. And then there are those who evade it altogether. The eponymous character of "Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe" is an example of the latter. In this timely biopic, director Maria Schrader adds another intriguing perspective to one of the darkest moments in human history.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

OSCAR WATCH: Indie Spirit Nominations

I feel like everyone says this every year but, how is awards season here already? Indeed, earlier today we got one of the first big announcements of the circuit with the nominations for the Independent Spirit Awards, recognizing the best in independent cinema. As the Academy increasingly looks to smaller budget films to fill out their own nominee lists, these awards have become an important precursor as of late. And that spells good news for "Moonlight", a supposed Oscar frontrunner which leads the field alongside Andrea Arnold's more divisive "American Honey". Meanwhile "Manchester by the Sea" also had an expectedly strong showing. Will this year's Best Feature winner once again repeat at the Oscars? Check out the full list of nominees below and stay tuned as awards season is now in full swing.

Best Feature
American Honey
Manchester by the Sea

Best Director
Andrea Arnold, American Honey
Barry Jenkins, Moonlight
Pablo Larrain, Jackie
Jeff Nichols, Loving
Kelly Reichardt, Certain Women

Best Male Lead
Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
David Harewood, Free in Deed
Viggo Mortensen, Captain Fantastic
Jesse Plemons, Other People
Tim Roth, Chronic

Best Female Lead
Annette Bening, 20th Century Women
Isabelle Huppert, Elle
Sasha Lane, American Honey
Ruth Negga, Loving
Natalie Portman, Jackie

Best Supporting Male
Ralph Fiennes, A Bigger Splash
Ben Foster, Hell or High Water
Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea
Shia LaBeouf, American Honey
Craig Robinson, Morris from America

Best Supporting Female
Edwina Findley, Free in Deed
Paulina Garcia, Little Men
Lily Gladstone, Certain Women
Riley Keough, American Honey
Molly Shannon, Other People

Saturday, November 19, 2016


Back in 2014, Christopher Nolan released the ambitious but divisive sci-fi film "Interstellar". In perhaps its most pivotal scene, Anne Hathaway's character poses a far-fetched theory to save the world from impending apocalypse. She essentially explains that the power of love, rather than science, is the answer to their predicament, representing a higher dimension we can't perceive. Two years later, this character's philosophy reverbates in a kindred spirit of sorts in Louise Banks, the lead character in Denis Villeneuve's equally heady sci-fi drama "Arrival". As unexpected alien spacecraft emerge across the world, her character attempts to solve the puzzle using the more intangible elements of humanity like language, versus the hard "facts" of science.

Set in an undisclosed time period, "Arrival" centers around Banks (played by Amy Adams), a leading linguist whose skills have afforded her high level security clearance with top intelligence and military agencies in the past. One day, she is called out of her university teaching job yet again, as unidentified spacecraft have appeared at several sites across the globe. Inside are alien species, which become termed as "heptapods", speaking an unrecognizable language. Fearful of an aggressive invasion, Banks is recruited by the U.S. military to co-lead a team (alongside Ian Donnelly, played by Jeremy Renner) in Montana to decipher a way of communicating with the aliens. By combining her linguistic background with Donnelly's scientific prowess, they hope to get an answer to a fundamental question. What is the aliens' purpose on earth? Their subsequent research proves to be a massive undertaking, as the aliens' language seems far more complex and symbolic than the typical human alphabet. But even more importantly, time is of the essence, as research teams at other international sites become increasingly suspicious of the aliens' intentions.

This race against the clock establishes a platform for director Denis Villeneuve to impose some visually and intellectually stimulating ideas. From the abstract language of the aliens, to the mysteries surrounding their presence, the film creates its own alternate world as befitting its genre. But whereas many sci-fi films are characterized by elaborate futuristic visuals and complex theories to make your head spin, "Arrival" offers a refreshing change of pace. Its production design takes a minimalist approach, relying heavily on a single visual motif (the spacecraft), while the focus on language ensures a relatively straightforward narrative.

Under its stripped down indie surface is a film with a whole lot to say however. Indeed, the premise instantly recalls the Biblical Tower of Babel, where the emergence of different languages was believed to be a curse from God for man's disrespect. And that tension is made palpable in the film, as miscommunication between man and alien, as well as between citizens of different nations, threatens potential war. As such, it is a sobering reminder that humanity is always on the verge of self-destruction, often due to our inability to communicate effectively and our mistrust of each other.

Eric Heisserer's screenplay (a surefire contender for Best Adapted Screenplay) truly gives you a lot to think about long after the film's utterly profound climax. As Banks makes progress with each new breakthrough, the film also enters increasingly emotional territory (handled with aplomb by Amy Adams, possibly heading for another Best Actress nomination). At the risk of spoiling its brilliantly moving conclusion (an epilogue worthy of Best Picture and Best Director consideration in its own right), the film resonates with the deeper meaning behind its original title - "Story of Your Life". Under all the wondrous sci-fi accoutrements - look out for the film in Best Production Design, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing and Best Original Score - "Arrival" is ultimately a human story about the choices we make, the destinies we embrace and like Anne Hathaway in "Insterstellar", the people we love.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

REVIEW: Apprentice

“Being good at this kind of work is not very beautiful.” This quote is taken from the trailer for the upcoming spy drama “Allied,” but it could have just as easily come from Boo Junfeng‘s “Apprentice.” In this prison drama, Junfeng presents the grim world of the executioner to suitably unnerving effect.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

INTERVIEW: Pavel Giroud

There have been a number of AIDS-themed films over the years, but you’ll hardly find one quite like “The Companion.” This story of an unlikely friendship in a uniquely Cuban setting provides a fascinating window to the past. And with the film’s selection as the official Cuban entry for the Oscars, director Pavel Giroud hopes to share its empathetic message to the world. Recently, I caught up with Giroud to discuss his inspirations for the film and its historical premise. Below is an edited version of our chat.

Read more at The Awards Circuit


Anyone paying attention to world cinema will surely have noticed the rise of Latin American cinema. Along with their North American counterparts (aka “The New World”), the region has been a hotbed of emerging talents in the last few years. Indeed, it seems like rarely does a major film festival go by without a Latin American film winning a prize. And in terms of Oscar, countries like Chile, Colombia and Peru have recently received their first ever nominations for Best Foreign Language Film. This year, 15 films will represent the Americas with hopes of keeping that momentum going. Here’s a look at this eclectic group.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

FOREIGN OSCAR GUIDE: Africa & Middle East

Back in 2006, the Academy implemented a significant rule change that no longer required films in the Foreign Language category to be in the language of their submitting country. In an increasingly globalized industry it was seen as a necessary evolutionary step, with subsequent nominees like “Mustang” and 2012 winner “Amour” taking advantage. And indeed, this year’s crop of films from Africa and the Middle East region reflect this global perspective. Among them are co-productions with countries as far afield as Norway and France, while Israel achieved a historic milestone with their submission. As the following 12 films show, African and Middle Eastern cinema is ready for the world stage.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

REVIEW: The Companion

With a plot exploring themes surrounding unlikely friendship, AIDS and boxing, Pavel Giroud’s “The Companion” would appear to be an unusually ambitious film. But looks can be deceiving, as the storytelling in this low-key drama takes a rather tentative approach. Despite a fascinating premise, Giroud keeps the emotions reserved and the conflicts minimal with his underwhelmingly light touch.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Friday, November 4, 2016

INTERVIEW: Nare Mkrtchyan

Recently selected for the Oscar shortlist for Best Documentary Short, “The Other Side of Home” is an eye-opening account of the legacy of the 1915 Armenian genocide by the Turkish government. Filmed during the 100th year commemoration of the tragedy, it follows a Turkish woman named Maya who has learned of her Armenian heritage. As she travels to Armenia to explore her mixed identity, the film provides a somber reflection on the complexities associated with this harrowing historical period. Earlier this week, I interviewed the director Nare Mkrtchyan to discuss the film and the importance of showing the humanity amid the atrocities. Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

INTERVIEW: Fisher Stevens

As an actor, director, producer and writer, Fisher Stevens is one of the most dedicated persons in the film industry. From his early days in front of the camera, he has lately branched into significant directing and producing work related to one of his biggest passions – protecting the environment. For his latest effort “Before the Flood,” he teamed up with the ideal partner (Leonardo DiCaprio) to raise public awareness of one the most important environmental issues – climate change. Recently, I had a phone chat with Stevens to discuss this collaboration and delve into the lessons he wishes to share from the making of this globally relevant documentary. Here is the edited version of our conversation below.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Thursday, November 3, 2016

REVIEW: Before the Flood

The familiar voice of Leonardo DiCaprio opens “Before the Flood,” narrating over a set of graphic paintings by Hieronymus Bosch. He explains that they represent his first encounter with the environmental concerns to be subsequently discussed in the documentary, depicting the downward spiral of man from the harmonious Garden of Eden to an apocalyptic future of paradise lost. Just as these images must have haunted his infant mind, the intent of this impassioned documentary is clear – humanity is heading down a destructive path and we need to wake up before it’s too late.

Read more at The Awards Circuit


Last year, the big story out of the Foreign Language Oscar category was the success of the debut filmmakers. Indeed, an impressive three of the five nominees were first features, with László Nemes’ staggering Holocaust drama “Son of Saul” eventually prevailing. For the 2016 Foreign Oscar race however, the stage seems set for a number of the category’s veterans to make a return with their latest films. Here’s a look at the nine former nominees who will be among this year’s strongest contenders.

Read more at The Awards Circuit