Tuesday, December 12, 2017

OSCAR WATCH: Golden Globe Nominations


Another year, another set of simultaneously thrilling and disappointing nominations from the HFPA. The Golden Globe nominations have been announced and leading the pack of "The Shape of Water". But the more newsworthy story was the complete shut-out of "The Big Sick", despite ample opportunities for recognition in the comedy categories. Furthermore, Greta Gerwig and Jordan Peele were both skipped over in Best Director. Will these snubs repeat at the Oscars? The competition is getting very stiff.

Here are the 2017 Golden Globe nominees:

BEST PICTURE - DRAMA
Call Me By Your Name
Dunkirk
​The Post
The Shape Of Water
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

BEST PICTURE - COMEDY/MUSICAL
The Disaster Artist
Get Out
The Greatest Showman
I, Tonya
Lady Bird

BEST DIRECTOR
Christopher Nolan - Dunkirk
Martin McDonagh - Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Ridley Scott - All The Money In The World
Steven Spielberg - ​The Post
Guillermo del Toro - The Shape Of Water

BEST ACTOR - DRAMA
Timothée Chalamet - Call Me By Your Name
Daniel Day-Lewis - Phantom Thread
Tom Hanks - ​The Post
Gary Oldman - Darkest Hour
Denzel Washington - Roman J. Israel, Esq.

BEST ACTRESS - DRAMA
Jessica Chastain - Molly’s Game
Sally Hawkins - The Shape Of Water
Frances McDormand - Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Meryl Streep - ​The Post
Michelle Williams - All The Money In The World

BEST ACTOR - COMEDY/MUSICAL
Steve Carrell - Battle of the Sexes
Ansel Elgort - Baby Driver
James Franco - The Disaster Artist
Hugh Jackman - The Greatest Showman
Daniel Kaluuya - Get Out

BEST ACTRESS - COMEDY/MUSICAL
Judi Dench - Victoria and Abdul
Helen Mirren - The Leisure Seeker
Margot Robbie - I, Tonya
Saoirse Ronan - Lady Bird
Emma Stone - Battle of the Sexes

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Willem Dafoe - The Florida Project
Armie Hammer - Call Me By Your Name
Richard Jenkins - The Shape Of Water
Christopher Plummer - All The Money In The World
Sam Rockwell - Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Mary J. Blige - Mudbound
Hong Chau - Downsizing
Allison Janney - I, Tonya
Laurie Metcalf - Lady Bird
Octavia Spencer - The Shape Of Water

Monday, December 11, 2017

REVIEW: First They Killed My Father


Taken at face value, Angelina Jolie's "First They Killed My Father" is one of the most misleading film titles of the year. The eponymous father does not meet his demise until more than an hour into the film. But therein lies the film's biggest strength. While similarly-themed films focus on the violence of civil war, this historical drama (based on a non-fiction book by the same name) captures the arduous experience of a revolution to gut-wrenching effect.

"First They Killed My Father" depicts a first-hand account of Loung Ung, a survivor of the vicious Khmer Rouge regime that took control of Cambodia in 1975. Being only 7 years old at the time, hers is a story of innocence lost, as she suffered through a myriad traumas. Her journey begins when US forces evacuated the country after a period of unjustifiable aggression towards Cambodia during the Vietnam War. Leaving behind a fragile country, the communist rebels called Khmer Rouge seized the moment, claiming to act in the best interest of the nation. But as the regime forces the citizens to flee their homes, their real intentions become apparent. Before long, they are stripped of their rights and forced to work for the military under strenuous conditions, as another war between Cambodia and Vietnam seems imminent.

Told from perspective of Loung Ung (in addition to stunning overhead shots from cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle), the film rests largely on Sreymoch Sareum's tiny shoulders. But whereas many child performers rely on a certain level of precociousness, this subdued performance is impact for doing the exact opposite. She is quiet for much of the narrative, like a journalist bearing witness to the atrocities happening all around her. Her watchful, unblinking eye is the camera recording this history.

Indeed, the screenplay is notably methodical in its approach, almost to the point of being monotonous. But this is certainly by design, showing the gradual process of dehumanization that occurred. The audience feels initial promise of salvation through repetitive propaganda, the desperation of hunger and the gradual stripping away of family and identity, all leaving a lasting impact. In that regard, the film becomes a powerful anti-communist statement.

Ultimately, "First They Killed My Father" succeeds largely on its humanism. Though it eventually illustrates the devastating effects of war, it is more memorable as a lament for the beauty that was lost. As Loung daydreams throughout her living nightmare, Jolie's optimism and love for these people and their culture is evident. As mentioned earlier, the bleak "First They Killed My Father" is misleading. A more appropriate title would be the one given to one of Jolie's previous films - Undefeated.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

OSCAR WATCH: Critics Choice Nominations


Is there any awards body as blatant with its Oscar predicting as the Broadcast Film Critics Association? I think not. Today, their Critics Choice Awards nominations were announced and they've surely covered their prognosticating bases with a number of categories having 7 nominees. "The Shape of Water" was surely a benefit of this padding, leading the field by far with 14 nominations. Will it be as successful as the Oscars?

Here is the full list of Critics Choice nominees:

BEST PICTURE
The Big Sick
Call Me by Your Name
Darkest Hour
Dunkirk
The Florida Project
Get Out
Lady Bird
The Post
The Shape of Water
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

BEST DIRECTOR
Guillermo del Toro – The Shape of Water
Greta Gerwig – Lady Bird
Martin McDonagh – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Christopher Nolan – Dunkirk
Luca Guadagnino – Call Me By Your Name
Jordan Peele – Get Out
Steven Spielberg – The Post

BEST ACTOR
Timothée Chalamet – Call Me by Your Name
James Franco – The Disaster Artist
Jake Gyllenhaal – Stronger
Tom Hanks – The Post
Daniel Kaluuya – Get Out
Daniel Day-Lewis – Phantom Thread
Gary Oldman – Darkest Hour

BEST ACTRESS
Jessica Chastain – Molly’s Game
Sally Hawkins – The Shape of Water
Frances McDormand – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Margot Robbie – I, Tonya
Saoirse Ronan – Lady Bird
Meryl Streep – The Post

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Willem Dafoe – The Florida Project
Armie Hammer – Call Me By Your Name
Richard Jenkins – The Shape of Water
Sam Rockwell – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Patrick Stewart – Logan
Michael Stuhlbarg – Call Me by Your Name

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Mary J. Blige – Mudbound
Hong Chau – Downsizing
Tiffany Haddish – Girls Trip
Holly Hunter – The Big Sick
Allison Janney – I, Tonya
Laurie Metcalf – Lady Bird
Octavia Spencer – The Shape of Water

OSCAR WATCH: The Post


"Quality drives profitability." This is the mantra that fuels the narrative of "The Post" and its courageous protagonists. But one could also see it as an indirect humble brag from its director Steven Spielberg. In a career spanning several decades, he has become a household name through a reputation for producing quality entertainment. With his latest effort "The Post", he adds another triumph to his lauded filmography, delivering a thrilling period drama that is painfully relevant to our modern times.

"The Post" is set in the early 1970s, a time when American citizens were becoming increasingly concerned about the nation's involvement in the Vietnam war. As it became clear that it was a waste of precious human lives and resources, the press played a central role in giving voice to these frustrations. One of those major players was The Washington Post. Lead by publisher Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) and editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), The Post was known for its integrity and commitment to reporting the facts, no matter how harsh. Their biggest challenge was soon to come however, as they are made aware of secret cover-up called The Pentagon Papers. Acquired from a whistle-blower named Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), this shocking information detailed years of deception by the government and was first communicated to rival newspaper The New York Times. But when the government successfully silences them from proceeding further, The Washington Post is left to make a history-making decision. Do they risk their careers and freedom in order to do the right thing?

As history will tell us, The Washington Post did eventually go to print with this news. But the journey to get there was understandably fraught with fear and intimidation. And this is before even taking into account the extensive research and legal acrobatics required to find loopholes to avoid possible prosecution for treason.

In the hands of Steven Spielberg however, this procedural becomes as exciting as any of his crowd-pleasing blockbusters. Indeed, with the aid of a typically stirring score by John Williams, "The Post" is a Spielberg movie through and through. The story moves at invigorating pace, with a palpable energy that exudes from Janusz Kaminski's agile cinematography and the sharp editing.

But the most riveting aspect is the treat of watching a pair of thespians at the height of the powers. Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep lend the film effortless gravitas with their graceful work here, which is sure to put them in contention for Best Actor and Best Actress Oscars. Through their respective character arcs, Liz Hannah and Josh Singer beautifully explores the personal dilemmas that were intimately linked to their ultimate decision. Streep's Graham is especially compelling as a woman who broke a glass ceiling as the first female publisher of a major American newspaper. Faced with the possible ruination of the legacy of a company inherited from her father and late husband, her internal struggle is brilliantly conveyed. It's easily one of Streep's most skillful performances. And she has such terrific chemistry with Hanks that it makes you wonder why it took so long for these icons of American cinema to share the screen.

Indeed, Hanks and Streep do the roles justice. At a time when journalism is under threat by "fake news" and "post-truth politics," their story is incredibly inspiring. And "The Post" emphatically captures what makes the profession so rewarding, as it captures the thrill of the scoop, the nerve-wracking pressure of deadlines, the excitement of competitive rivalries and the power of teamwork. It's simply sensational. And the Academy now has another major contender to consider in many categories, including Best Original Score, Best Original Screenplay, Best Director and of course, Best Picture.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

AWARDS SEASON: A Battle of the Sexes?

Is Lady Bird our frontrunner?

Awards season is now upon us and it's turning out to be a real "battle of the sexes." While men in the film industry have come under increased criticism in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, it's no coincidence that women have come to the fore in record-breaking ways. This summer, "Wonder Woman" was a major box office success for director Patty Jenkins, while the fall season brought Greta Gerwig's "Lady Bird", now the best reviewed film of all time on Rotten Tomatoes. Fresh off a big win from the New York Film Critics, this beloved coming of age tale has now soared to the top of the current Best Picture rankings:
  1. Lady Bird
  2. The Post
  3. Call Me by Your Name
  4. Get Out
  5. Dunkirk
  6. The Shape of Water
  7. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
  8. Darkest Hour
  9. The Florida Project
  10. Mudbound
Of course, the race is still far from over. But an interesting narrative is starting to form around Best Picture and the associated Best Director categories. If Gerwig's film were to be nominated for both, she could join Jordan Peele ("Get Out") and Dee Rees ("Mudbound") in what would be a watershed moment for the newly diverse Academy. Having a Best Director lineup comprising only two white men may seem far-fetched to seasoned awards fans, but they are definitely in the running. 

Aside from Gerwig and Rees' achievements behind the camera, there are also a number of female-led films in Best Picture contention. These include "The Post" with the legendary Meryl Steep, "The Shape of Water" with the exquisite Sally Hawkins, "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri" and its dynamite Frances McDormand and "The Florida Project" starring the pint-sized phenom Brooklynn Prince. After years of "women's pictures" being ghettoized as Best Actress contenders only, such a female-centric Best Picture field would be a welcome change.

To come out on top in this battle of the sexes however, these films will likely have to fend off the challenge of a pair of films centered around perhaps the most masculine of topics - war. Indeed, Christopher Nolan and Joe Wright will certainly count on the Academy's affinity for World War II stories - in addition to an "overdue" awards narrative - to ensure their films "Dunkirk" and "Darkest Hour" will be announced in January. But do they represent a brand of prestige cinema that is losing its appeal with the Academy? A year after the "Moonlight" victory, a masterful LGBT love story like "Call Me By Your Name" may be more to their liking. It's certainly my favorite of the year so far, and I think AMPAS voters will respond to it too. 

Friday, December 1, 2017

OSCAR WATCH: The Shape of Water


Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro has a unique gift of transporting us to fantasy worlds that are not far from our own. In 2006, he created such a masterpiece with "Pan's Labyrinth", exploring the darkness of Spain's Franco-era fascism. With "The Shape of Water" he's done it again, turning his lens towards an original fairytale set in 1960s Baltimore.

"The Shape of Water" stars Sally Hawkins as Elisa, a kindhearted woman who has been mute since she was very young. She lives above a grand movie theater called the Orpheum, spending much of her spare time with her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins). During the nights however, she diligently clocks in for a mundane job as a janitor at a research facility. One day, her life gets a jolt of excitement however, as a mysterious "asset" arrives at her workplace. Her curiosity leads her to discover that there is a humanoid sea creature being held captive. Sneaking in to interact with this fascinating being, Elisa and creature soon strike up an unlikely friendship that deepens to something more. But external forces - namely the cruel boss Colonel Richard Strickland - threaten to keep them apart.

With a voice-over narration that bookends the film, "The Shape of Water" immediately signals its "once upon a time" storybook premise. Indeed, Elisa is referred to as "the princess without a voice." Her life is far from perfect however. She doesn't live in a castle and isn't placed on a pedestal for her beauty.

As you can imagine, del Toro instead uses her speech impediment to make a parable about tolerance. But this inspired tale (sure to be in the mix for Best Original Screenplay) casts the net even wider, using the atmosphere of the pre-civil rights and Cold War era to comment on racism, homophobia and in the case of the monster, a lack of humanity towards other species.

In doing so, the script establishes some easily identifiable archetypes alongside our outcast protagonist with her heart of gold.The chatty black friend (played by Octavia Spencer), the evil bureaucrat (played by Michael Shannon), the kind scientist (played by Michael Stuhlbarg) and the middle-aged man who is despairingly lonely and gay. Among them, the latter is the most fully realized character, allowing Richard Jenkins to convey his insecurities and motivations. In addition to the more obvious choices of Sally Hawkins and Octavia Spencer in Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, Jenkins could definitely become a contender for Best Supporting Actor.

But even though the character development is somewhat lacking, del Toro more than makes up for it with his astounding visual and sound design. The wondrous art direction (largely rendered in a striking teal color palette) is arguably the best of the year, while cinematographer Dan Laustsen captures some unforgettable moments. I dare you not to be utterly enchanted by the underwater shots of Elisa and her Amphibian Man in a loving embrace. And composer Alexandre Desplat produces some of his best work with a whimsical score. The film should therefore be a shoo-in for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Production Design, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Visual Effects and Best Original Score nods.

"The Shape of Water" is undeniably a fairy tale for adults. That's evident in its unflinching depiction of violence and gore, as well a brazen sexuality that is jarring at times. But underneath it all, this is a gorgeous romance that will have you feeling like a child again, hoping for a "happily ever after" for its star-crossed lovers.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

OSCAR WATCH: Wonder Woman


As we enter the thick of awards season, filmmakers and publicists are very busy trying to get attention for their fall releases. But it's worth remembering that the year is 12 months long and has already delivered Oscar-worthy fare. One such example is Patty Jenkins' "Wonder Woman", a summer box office hit that was an unexpected critics darling and sparked significant Best Picture talk.

"Wonder Woman" is the origin story of its titular character, a member of the famed comic book superhero team known as the Justice League. But before becoming one of Earth's most vital protectors, she was just Diana, a gifted child growing up around a civilization of women called Amazons. These women are fierce warriors created by the god Zeus to protect mankind. After man was irreparably corrupted by war and hate however, they retreated to the secret island of Themyscira. But one day in 1918, a mysterious American man stumbles upon them, bringing the ongoing World War with him. With her world and that of the humans now under threat, Diana must venture out into to fulfill her personal mission to stop the forces of evil and restore peace.

As Diana embarks on her adventure, "Wonder Woman" essentially shifts between 3 different films, of which the first is the best. The opening act is a coming-of-age fantasy tale, as we are introduced to the mythology surrounding the Amazons and Diana herself. Handsomely shot, it provides effective world-building as it captures the untouched beauty of Themyscira. This segment also offers the most thrilling action sequences through its training montages and the aforementioned invasion. The awesomely choreographed athleticism is truly something to behold.

The film gets increasingly more familiar after this promising start however. Still, it never fails to keep your attention thanks to terrific performances from Chris Pine and Gal Gadot. The former is effortlessly compelling in his role as both an Allied spy and Diana's eventual love interest and partner. He has excellent chemistry with Gadot, who once again proves that she was indeed the right choice to play this beloved character. She has the perfect combination of girlish naivety and womanly strength that pays off wonderfully in the middle act's "fish out of water" humor in London and an enthrallingly feminist scene in the aptly named "No Man's Land".

Subsequent to this World War I subplot, the film unsurprisingly devolves into the usual explosive battle royale between our heroine and the "Big Bad" that often garners Oscar nods for Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing and Best Visual Effects. But even within this formulaic conclusion, there's an unabashedly moralistic message that distinguishes the film from the typical superhero film. Despite her incredible powers, Wonder Woman is more importantly a beacon of goodness and love. And this sentimentality is ultimately refreshing in a genre that usually caters to the "cool" bravado that appeals to young men. "Wonder Woman" is funny and thrilling, but it also has a sweetness and sincere romance at its core. In other words, it's a comic book movie that anyone can enjoy. I know I did.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

OSCAR WATCH: Predicting the Documentary Feature Shortlist


With a record 170 films in the running, there’s no doubt that the Oscar race for Best Documentary Feature will be one of this year’s most competitive. And with many esteemed films in contention, the category is high on quality too. In a few months we’ll know which 5 of these the Academy deems the best, but prior to the nominations, this unwieldy longlist will soon be whittled down to 15. Predicting which films will make that shortlist is no easy task however, as the Academy’s Documentary branch is known to throw curveballs every year. But after observing the festival and awards circuit thus far, there are some clues as to which films are generating buzz. Here is our take on the main candidates for this year’s Oscar shortlist for Best Documentary Feature.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Monday, November 27, 2017

OSCAR WATCH: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri


"Raped while dying. And still no arrests. How come, Chief Willoughby?" That is the central question being asked in "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri", the latest work from director Martin McDonagh. Answering that question gets complicated however, in this timely and resonant drama.

The three billboards bearing this question were placed by a woman named Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), a devastated mother seeking justice for a daughter. Living in a town where a laid-back attitude permeates throughout society, she hopes it will bring more attention and stir up some urgency. So said, so done. The billboards cause a commotion in the community and gains attention in the local media. But not everyone is on her side. The police department feels unfairly chastised, especially the Chief (played by Woody Harrelson) and others like Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), who had already been in the news for a case of police brutality. Furthermore, the locals feel a sense of loyalty to their Chief, who is seen as a role model in the community. But Mildred will stop at nothing to bring her daughter's murderers to justice.

As the determined Mildred, Frances McDormand delivers what will likely become one of her signature roles (and a possible Best Actress-winning performance). There's a riveting bombast to her straight-shooting defiance that masks a deeply felt pain over her loss. As she rages against the machine that is the patriarchy and indirectly, white supremacy, you can't help but root for her.

Indeed, McDonagh's brilliant screenplay takes on metaphorical power in its scathing condemnation of American society. Whether through a razor-sharp monologue about the nature of culpability or highlighting ineptitude and complacency in the broken justice system, it gives voice to the voiceless.

And yet, there's also a humane comfort to this story. "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" is undoubtedly a a Martin McDonagh film, primarily evident through its irreverent humor. In that regard, Woody Harrelson's Chief Willoughby and Sam Rockwell's dimwit Dixon are fascinating characters. Particularly the latter, as McDonagh's Oscar-worthy original screenplay peels back the layers of his hate. And Rockwell's detailed performance is worthy of every Best Supporting Actor recognition he'll get during this awards season.

Directed, written and performed to perfection, "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" depicts an arresting crusade (nominations for Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Editing should be forthcoming). But its ultimate message is more disarming than a simplistic tale of vengeance. Indeed, it is one of empathy, even in the worst of times. As such, it is one the most urgent and relevant films you could watch right now. And it would likely remain so in March 2018, where it would make for a fine Best Picture winner indeed.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

OSCAR WATCH: Indie Spirit Nominations


Awards season is well underway, as the 2017 Independent Spirit Awards nominations were announced today. As major studios have steered away from awards fare, this formerly low profile awards show has grown to become a significant bellwether for future Oscar success. Things are looking good for "Call Me by Your Name" then, which lead all films with 6 nominations. Following right behind were "Get Out" and "Good Time" with 5 each. Will the Spirits continue their trend of predicting Best Picture winner at the Academy Awards? Let the speculation begin. Here are this year's Spirit Awards nominees:

Best Feature
Call Me By Your Name
Get Out
The Florida Project
Lady Bird
The Rider

Best Director
Sean Baker – The Florida Project
Jonas Carpignano- A Ciambra
Luca Gudagnino – Call Me By Your Name
Jordan Peele – Get Out
Benny Safdie/Joshua Safdie – Good Time
Chloé Zhao – The Rider

Best Female Lead
Salma Hayek – Beatriz at Dinner
Francis McDormand – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Margot Robbie – I, Tonya
Saiorse Ronin – Lady Bird
Shinobu Terajima – Oh Lucy
Regina Williams – Life And Nothing

Best Male Lead
Timothee Chalamet – Call Me By Your Name
Harris Dickinson – Beach Rats
James Franco – The Disaster Artist
Daniel Kaluuya – Get Out
Robert Pattinson – Good Time

Best Supporting Female
Holly Hunter – The Big Sick
Alison Janney – I, Tonya
Laurie Metcalf – Lady Bird
Lois Smith – Marjorie Prime
Talia Webster – Good Time

Best Supporting Male
Nnamdi Asomugha – Crown Heights
Armie Hammer -Call Me By Your Name
Barry Keoghan – Killing of a Sacred Deer
Sam Rockwell – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Ben Safdie – Good Time

OSCAR WATCH: Mudbound


"Pain is here." This line is taken from "Queen Sugar", a TV drama set in present day New Orleans which recently concluded its phenomenal 2nd season. But it could just as easily have come from Dee Rees' Mississippi-set period drama "Mudbound". In this powerful new film, two families - one white, one black - experience the pain of racism that is inextricable from the history of America and particularly its Southern states.

The aforementioned quote is a response to a plot-line involving the display of Confederate symbols in a well-heeled private school, which seems to bother only its few black students. In similar fashion, "Mudbound" opens with a scene where the deep roots of racism stare its characters in the face. A pair of brothers are digging a grave for their deceased father, only to encounter remnants of a murdered slave already laying there.

Over the course of this film, we learn of the events leading up to the racially frought circumstances of this burial. It involves the McCallans, a white family trying to build a new life as farm owners in 1940s Mississippi. The family includes Laura (Carey Mulligan) and her husband Henry (Jason Clarke), as well as his charming younger brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) and severely racist father (played to bone-chilling effect by Jonathan Banks). As they struggle to run a successful business amid imperfect rainy conditions, their lives intersect with the Jackson family, who are sharecroppers with ties to the land that extend back to slavery. Hoping to eventually buy their own land and provide for their family, Hap (Rob Morgan) and his wife Florence (Mary J. Blige) work tirelessly for the McAllans. But as World War II looms, both families will become even more connected, in ways neither could have anticipated.

Indeed, when Jamie and the Jacksons' eldest son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) return from the war, the lives of all the characters are changed forever. While both are war heroes, Jamie suffers from crippling PTSD and Ronsel comes "home" to a society that treats him as a second-class citizen. The latter's experience is especially fascinating, as the astute script (a surefire Oscar contender for Best Adapted Screenplay) starkly underlines the irony of being embraced more by the "evil" German enemies than his own countrymen.

As with similarly themed dramas, Ronsel's family faces unconscionable injustices as his enlightened perspective stokes the flames of hatred in the community. But the toil and suffering is only part of the story. Indeed, "Mudbound" captivates audiences by also exploring the better world that could have been. Through the unlikely friendship between Jamie and Ronsel (played with sincere chemistry between Hedlund and Mitchell), we see the capacity for human kindess that is still to be fully realized today. Likewise, the empathy shown by Laura and the strength of Mary J. Blige's Florence (a possible contender for Best Supporting Actress) is deeply felt. And there are other standouts in this stellar ensemble, as the poetic narrations allows their varying perspectives to resonate.

Indeed, "Mudbound" is a poignant film that will surely remain in the conversation in the coming months (look out for potential history to be made in Best Director and Best Cinematography). At once intimate and grand, bleak and hopeful; it has the feel of an American classic. This Best Picture contender is "prestige cinema" done right.

Monday, November 20, 2017

FOREIGN OSCAR GUIDE: Europe


Terrorism, debilitating illness, the lingering trauma of war. These are just a few of the dark themes represented in this year’s European submissions for the Best Foreign Language Oscar. With a typically sizable contingent of 38 films, exploring this year’s European films can therefore be a daunting task. But as past winners like “Amour” and “Son of Saul” can attest, “serious” fare is catnip for the Academy. And with festival prizes and famous actors in the mix, they would appear to have the recipe for success. Here’s a closer look at the European films vying for Oscar glory this year:

Read more at The Awards Circuit

FOREIGN OSCAR GUIDE: Asia-Pacific


After a 4-year streak of European domination for the Foreign Language Film Oscar, 2016 was a standout year for cinema from the Asia-Pacific region. Indeed, Iran and Asghar Farhadi claimed their 2nd win for “The Salesman” while Australia picked up their first ever nomination with “Tanna”. Looking ahead to 2017, the new submissions from the Far and Middle East boast the potential to perform even better. As always, they are a diverse set, ranging from intimate indies to crowd-pleasing blockbusters and everything in between.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

FOREIGN OSCAR GUIDE: Women Directors


For reasons good and bad, there’s been a lot of talk lately about women in the film industry. Notably, Hollywood has been rocked by recent sexual harassment scandals in the same year that Patty Jenkins-directed “Wonder Woman” conquered the summer box office. While the picture isn’t perfect overseas, the Foreign Language Oscar category continues to be a beacon of positivity. Just last year, we celebrated a record number of submissions from female directors, yielding a nomination for Maren Ade’s “Toni Erdmann” in the process. And now, that milestone has been smashed, with 26 women-directed films being chosen to represent their countries. Only three women have ever helmed winners in this category, but hope springs eternal with this talented group. Here’s a deeper look at these films and the directors attempting to follow in the footsteps of Marleen Goris, Caroline Link and Suzanne Bier.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

FOREIGN OSCAR GUIDE: The Americas


After a fruitful run that garnered four shortlisted films over the last three years, this year’s Foreign Language Oscar submissions from Canada, Latin America, and the Caribbean enter the race with a noticeably lower profile. Films from the region were less prominent on the festival and awards circuit in 2017, compared to years past when films like “From Afar” and “Embrace of the Serpent” stole the headlines. But while the names associated with this year’s crop of submissions may be unfamiliar to Oscar voters, there is still plenty to like about the offerings.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

FOREIGN OSCAR GUIDE: Africa


If you’re still looking for proof that #OscarsSoWhite, look no further than the history of the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Unsurprisingly, this category has been overwhelmingly dominated by European films, with 56 winners from the region. In comparison, you can count the African winners on less than one hand, with only three winners to date. The under-representation of African cinema could also be explained by the low number of entries, however, as only a few countries bother to submit films each year. But as this year’s slate proves, there is no shortage of talented African filmmakers. Here’s a closer look at the eight African films vying for Oscar attention.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

FOREIGN OSCAR GUIDE: LGBTQ Films


Less than a year after the historic “Moonlight” win at the Oscars, its influence is already being felt. Indeed, if the 2017 race for the Foreign Language Oscar is anything to go by, queer cinema will once again be at the forefront of awards chatter this season. Like “Moonlight”, these acclaimed films are bringing new LGBT perspectives to the screen, representing a diverse spectrum of genres and countries from across the globe. Here’s a look at the 6 submissions hoping for some “Moonlight” afterglow.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Sunday, October 15, 2017

REVIEW: The Square


There must be something in the Nordic air. The filmmakers of this region seem to have a talent for dry, satirical - and often dark - comedies that is totally unique. In a 2015 BBC article titled "Is Nordic humour too dark for the rest of the world?" their trademark style is given the name "gálgahúmor", which means gallows humour in English. Among his peers, Ruben Östlund is a leading proprietor of this subgenre, notably breaking out with his award-winning 2014 film "Force Majeure", which has already been set for a Hollywood remake. His latest will undoubtedly be a harder sell for North American audiences, with an even stronger Swedish sensibility despite its inclusion of American and British actors. Nevertheless, Östlund has truly outdone himself with "The Square", delivering a delicious, hearty slice of absurdist cinema.

While "Force Majeure" focused on the emasculation of a "man's man" in the wake of a single split-second decision, Östlund takes things to a whole new level with this new protagonist. Similarly confident, handsome and even more influential, Christian (Claes Bang) is the chief curator of a prestigious art museum in Sweden. Always looking to push boundaries with his exhibitions, he is working on a new project called The Square, described as "a sanctuary of trust and caring." But as Christian organizes the concept and marketing of this new artwork, a series of misfortunes challenge his own belief in the ideals of the project. Beginning with a robbery of his phone and wallet, he begins to lose control of his life as angry pre-teens, pushy women and homeless beggars alike gradually cut him down to size.

The darkly comic style of "The Square" is distinctly Swedish, but the storytelling is all Ruben Östlund. As the film satirizes the art world, Ostlund displays his boyish sense of mischief, his immaculate directorial eye and his knack for crafting hilariously awkward situations out of human interactions that would otherwise seem banal in real life. Indeed, masculinity has rarely been as fragile as it is in Östlund's films. With a narrative structure reminiscent of Roy Andersson, the film puts Christian through essentially a series of skits which are alternately thought-provoking, shocking or delightfully cringeworthy in their awkwardness. Or sometimes all at once.

With all due respect to Claes Bang's excellent performance though, Östlund is truly the star of "The Square". For a film about a man that is losing control of his life, the direction and screenwriting shows an auteur who is in total command of his voice. He never wastes a single frame, whether it be a morbidly funny sight gag or a moment of vulnerability for his lead character. Furthermore, the unexpected humor he generates from simple scenarios could only have come from the mind of a comic genius and perceptive humanist. Indeed, underneath the gut-busting laughs is a rather scathing examination of the apathy and prejudice of the upper class. Ultimately, this masterful film becomes not just a satire of the modern art world, but of life itself and its endless absurdities.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

REVIEW: The Other Side of Hope


"An artist's duty, as far as I'm concerned, is to reflect the times." This famous Nina Simone quote was uttered in reference to the mid-20th century civil rights movement but it remains equally relevant today. And as one of the most powerful and popular artforms, cinema has always been a champion of this belief. With the ongoing refugee crisis, it's no surprise then that a new wave of films about the immigrant experience has been flooding theaters. From non-fiction to traditional dramas, this urgent human rights issue has become an increasingly important topic for filmmakers. Few of them however, capture the refugee experience with the same level of sharp wit and purposeful artistry as Aki Kaurismaki with his latest - and possibly last - film "The Other Side of Hope".

This tale of unlikely friendship between two men is set in modern day Helsinki. One is an elderly local named Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen), a former salesman who has just left his wife. After winning big on a poker tour, Wikström has his sights set on a new career as a restaurant owner. Meanwhile, a young refugee named Khaled also hopes to start fresh, seeking asylum in Finland after an arduous journey from Syria. Both men are somewhat lost in their new worlds however, but when their paths collide, they instantly strike up a mutually beneficial relationship.

Like a lost film from the New German Cinema movement, "The Other Side of Hope" gives you a retro feel with its cinematography (obviously shot on film), wry sense of humor and strong characters. Indeed, the relationship between Wikström and Khaled is particularly reminiscent of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's "Ali: Fear Eats the Soul". There's a heartwarming simplicity to their friendship that poignantly contrasts the unnecessary bureaucracy that Khaled faces in his asylum appeal.

This juxtaposition of individual humanity vs collective intolerance is handled brilliantly by Kaurismaki. He blends a gently comic tone with the harsh reality of our modern times with equally unsentimental matter-of-factness. The brightly colored walls and humorously misguided attempts at cultural appropriation may seem to affirm the illusion of a welcoming society. But Kaurismaki is soberingly blunt in exposing the hypocrisy of European liberalism, where the possibility of racist violence lurks around every corner.

In this regard, Sherwan Haji is amazingly effective as Khaled. There's an intensity in his eyes that feels almost accusatory towards the viewer, as if we are complicit in the harrowing ordeal that brought him to Finland. We are therefore invested in his tumultuous journey, through which Kaurismaki shows the other side of freedom, home and hope.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

OSCAR WATCH: Blade Runner 2049


If there's one thing you can't fault Denis Villeneuve for, it's his ambition. Since his Oscar-nominated foreign language breakthrough "Incendies", this gifted French-Canadian has successfully crossed over to Hollywood, taking the industry by storm with his awe-inspiring directorial vision. Indeed, with each new film, he has charted new cinematic heights, amassing praise for the stunning scope and scale of his productions. It therefore gives me no pleasure to admit that I was left disappointed by his most ambitious effort to date - "Blade Runner 2049".

As the title suggests, the film takes place in the year 2049, 30 years after the events of the original film. In this future society, the bioengineered humans called replicants have been redesigned to obey, allowing them to act as blade runners to eliminate the remnants of older models. One such blade runner is a man simply known as "K" (played by Ryan Gosling), who is sent on missions to infiltrate a rebel movement of replicants fighting for freedom. During one portentious mission, he comes across the remains of a female replicant. And upon further analysis, it is revealed that she died in childbirth. This shocking revelation calls into question the humanity of the longstanding practice of using replicants as slaves. The authorities therefore try to cover up this potential scandal. But K is hell-bent on finding answers, which takes him on a journey that will change his world forever.

"Blade Runner" fans will be pleased to learn that this new outing retains the philosophical essence of its predecessor. This time however, the mythology is deepened further, improving on the dystopian vision by incorporating ecosystem collapse. Indeed, Villeneuve's expansive world-building is truly something to behold. And with great style, he maintains the grungy noir atmosphere, albeit spruced up with modern production values, such as the Oscar-worthy Cinematography and Production Design.

The visuals are almost staggering at times, complimented by the bold, immersive sound design (Oscar noms for Best Sound Mixing and Best Sound Editing are a lock) that has become a staple of Villeneuve's work. And the storyline is just as rich, though at nearly 3 hours, it struggled to keep me engaged throughout. In fact, the only thing measured about this film are its performances, notably by Gosling in the lead role. There's an intensity to him that is gripping and often saves the film through its dull patches.

"Blade Runner 2049" is bigger in every way, but is it actually better? I'm not fully convinced by this lauded Best Picture contender. Despite its considerable virtues, the film left me cold. Whereas "Blade Runner" was concise yet still intellectually and emotionally stimulating, this grandiose and overly cerebral feels superflous in comparison. There's undoubtedly some outstanding filmmaking on display (I would certainly support a Best Director nod for Villeneuve). But for me, it was maybe too much of a good thing.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

OSCAR WATCH: The Big Sick


As buzz words like "inclusion" and "diversity" become increasingly prominent within the film industry, there is one group that still feels neglected. Namely, persons of Asian descent have scarcely seen themselves represented on screen outside of token roles. But there are signs of change, as Asian-Americans have been slowly coming to the forefront of film and TV. A perfect example is Kumail Nanjiani, who co-wrote and stars in Michael Showalter's "The Big Sick", an autobiographical romantic comedy that was a breakout at the Sundance Film Festival.

"The Big Sick" follows the personal crises of Kumail, a Pakistani immigrant who moved with his family to the United States a young age. Now an adult, Kumail is starting to realize the American dream. He is a budding comedian on the brink of success, a path that his more traditionalist parents firmly oppose. However, they are willing to indulge his "hobby" if he can grant them one wish - that he marry a Muslim woman. But as much as they try, Kumail is uninterested in his mother's matchmaking attempts. To make matters worse, he meets a white American woman named Emily, who he begins to fall in love with. The situation is a stressful one, as Kumail struggles to chose between his family and his heart. Meanwhile Emily is reluctant to fully commit to this new relationship, having already been through a divorce. And things get even more complicated when she contracts a mysterious disease that forces Kumail to finally decide what's important in his life.

Kumail's subsequent journey of self-discovery is filled with humor and tragedy, as he faces the messiness and unpredictability of life. Indeed, Kumail's courtship of Emily goes to unexpected places due to the baggage they both bring to the relationship. Free from gimmicky quirks, there is a rare authenticity to the characters, as much of the story is based on the experience of the writers - Nanjiani and his wife Emily Gordon. In the case of Kumail, the script therefore touches on the unique perspective of first-generation Asian-Americans. Much like Ravi Patel showed in his documentary-romcom hybrid "Meet the Patels", the loving, close-knit family structure of Pakistani and Indian cultures is hard to reject, even in the face of "true love." And that delicate balance between suffocating control and comforting support is handled particularly in a series of dinner table scenes, which hilariously includes a revolving door of suitors who "just happened to show up", as Kumail's meddling, but endearing mother claims.

As many in his situation do, Kumail takes it in stride, with a sense of humor which stands out whether the character is on stage or in his daily interactions. Indeed, Nanjiani is far from your typical romantic lead, possessing a dorky personality that would make most casting directors look the other way. But director Michael Showalter smartly leans into Nanjiani's unorthodox screen presence, which pays off wonderfully when he eventually meets Emily's parents (perfectly played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano). As he shares in their anxiety and sorrow and laughs through the tears, Nanjiani shows new depths to his acting ability.

And ultimately, it's surely Nanjiani's impressive performance and his sharp writing that have lead many to declare the film as "one of the best romantic comedies" in years, even spurring talk of an outside shot at the Best Picture Oscar. Personally, there are some perhaps unavoidable cliches that prevent me from falling head over heels for it however. Though beautifully acted, Kazan's character mostly functions as a catalyst for the male lead's growth. Thankfully, she is no manic pixie dream girl and she isn't beholden to the man, which is a credit to the script (a deserving contender for Best Original Screenplay). "The Big Sick" may not be "perfect", but it's a heartfelt, satisfying film that at least brings a fresh face and voice to the big screen.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

REVIEW: Window Horses


It takes a certain skill to make an animated film both educational and entertaining. However, this style of “edutainment” seems to come naturally to Anne-Marie Fleming, director of “Window Horses“. Under Fleming’s creative vision, “Window Horses” compellingly navigates dense thematic terrain, exploring history, culture, and politics through the experience of a young Canadian woman’s journey to Iran.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

REVIEW: Bobbi Jene


We’ve been taught to believe that geniuses are often anti-social, narcissistic and selfish. When we meet one who contradicts these expectations, we are therefore amazed at how “down to earth” and “nice” they are. Such is the case with “Bobbie Jene“, Elvira Lind’s compassionate documentary about the life and art of its titular subject.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

REVIEW: Kill Me Please


At once lurid and aloof, “Kill Me Please” is a truly puzzling film. A debut feature by Brazilian director Anita Rocha da Silveira, this genre mashup takes a simple horror premise and takes it to unexpected places. But while its varied themes and styles are ambitious, the film never fully coheres to pique audience interest.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

REVIEW: Polina


In the world of ballet, elegance and grace is of the essence. The titular dancer of Valérie Müller and Angelin Preljocaj’s “Polina” knows this all too well, facing criticism at an early age for not being limber. But natural-born talent can only get you so far, as Polina proves in this captivating saga about a young woman who fearlessly chases her dreams.

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REVIEW: Gook


As decent Americans look on aghast after another incident of racially motivated violence in Charlottesville, films like “Gook” remain incredibly timely. Starring, written, and directed by Justin Chon, this drama relives the tense atmosphere of South Central Los Angeles in the wake of the infamous Rodney King verdict. Crafted carefully around those real life events, “Gook” delivers a rare, engaging Korean-American take on race relations in the early 90s.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

REVIEW: The Nile Hilton Incident


Corruption is a disease that plagues societies all over the world, particularly when under the rule of a dictatorship. Such a regime forms the background for “The Nile Hilton Incident” a crime drama directed by Tarik Saleh. Set in pre-revolution Egypt in 2011, this Sundance winner is a scathing indictment of corruption, as uncovered in the aftermath of a murder.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Sunday, October 1, 2017

OSCAR WATCH: Battle of the Sexes


Before Serena, before Steffi, before Martina, there was one woman who changed women's tennis and paved the way for them all. Her name is Billie Jean King and her fight for equality revolutionized the sport forever. Unsurprisingly, she is now the subject of an inspiring Hollywood movie by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris titled "Battle of the Sexes", chronicling a pivotal moment in her illustrious career.

That titular Battle of the Sexes refers to an exhibition match that became a turning point for women in sport. It was played between King (Emma Stone) and a retired male pro Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), who posed the challenge to assert male superiority. In the lead-up to the battle, King was at the top of her game. But she was frustrated by the lack of respect shown to the women's players. Despite their ever-increasing popularity, they were awarded only a fraction of the prize money of their male counterparts. Taking a stand, she joined with fellow players to form their own Women's Tennis Association with their best interests at heart. Meanwhile, an unhappy ex-pro named Bobby Riggs saw their efforts and decided to take advantage of their media visibility. So he decides to propose a challenge match to prove that even an out of shape 55-year old man could beat the best women's player in the world. King was initially reluctant however, perceiving it a fiasco designed to humiliate her and the entire sisterhood of athletes. But she later realized the golden opportunity it presented to prove the value of the women's game and promote equality. And the rest is history.

Indeed, King's on-court achievements are well known. As with any biopic then, the challenge is to give deeper insight into the person. In that regard, Simon Beaufoy's script (a likely contender for Best Original Screenplay) mostly succeeds, delving intimately into King's personal life and public activism. And Beaufoy is commendably efficient in establishing King's character and the central conflict, setting things in motion with an early scene where King confronts the head of the US Lawn Tennis Association to put forth her case that women deserve equal prize money.

Of course, the times weren't as progressive as they are now and she was rebuked. But we soon learn that King is nothing if not a fighter. The storyline soon reveals her leadership qualities in establishing the WTA, her fierce work ethic and as a married woman, her personal struggle to hide her secret lesbian affair. But even as she was evidently an icon of women's rights, LGBT rights and an ambassador for the sport, one of her most winning traits is her humility. And this humility is shared between both the character and Emma Stone in her portrayal of her. While the role is easily Stone's most transformative, the performance is completely naturalistic and devoid of actorly showmanship. Her effortless warmth therefore creates a rooting factor that serves the film well and will surely gain her fans in the Best Actress Oscar race.

In contrast, Bobby Riggs is considerably less remarkable, which is no fault of Steve Carrell's enthusiastic performance. With the frequent reminders that he is a "self-proclaimed chauvinist" who is simply putting on a show, the script sometimes undermines the feminist intent of the film. Instead, his character is mainly just a moronic gambling addict craving the spotlight, making him a rather lame antagonist.

As the film engagingly builds towards its triumphant conclusion, the imbalance between the characters becomes ever clear. I therefore agree with others who believe that the film would be more interesting as a more fulsome biopic focused more on Billie Jean King. Still, the film is a perfectly solid "down the line" play, to use tennis terminology. But perhaps more significantly, it's a striking reminder of how this Battle of the Sexes mirrored the recent US Presidential election. This social relevance will surely give the film some lasting power and will likely resonate with Academy voters. And with Billie Jean sure to join in on the film's awards campaign, the Best Picture has a proven champ in its midst.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

TIFF: Wrapping up the festival


With the announcement of a surprise People’s Choice Award Winner that precious few predicted, the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival came to a close with less fanfare than previous years. The general consensus was that the festival lacked the slam dunk hits that Oscar dreams are made of. But on deeper reflection, there was much to appreciate from this year’s slate of films.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

REVIEW: A Ghost Story


The only certainty in life is death. But what comes after? With his latest film, David Lowery poses an answer to this question that provides even more room for thought. It may be titled "A Ghost Story", but it's also a love story and so much more.

Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara play a couple simply known as C and M. They live in a quaint suburban home as C tries to make a living as a musician. But one day, he dies tragically in a car accident just outside their home. M is distraught, consumed by her grief and loneliness. C returns home in spectral form however, hoping to re-connect with his wife. She can't see him however, though she senses his presence. Unfortunately, the pain and memories are too much to bear. M plans to move out of their home, leaving C desperate to break through to her before it's too late.

The experience of watching C's subsequent odyssey is one that delivers endless surprises. In the first act, the heartbreaking tragedy of its love story is presented with stark austerity, emphasizing the quiet solitude of loss and the overwhelming impact of grief. Free from hysterics, Lowery instead channels these feelings through his evocative use of music and Rooney Mara's delicate performance.

But Lowery does an interesting thing with this heartbreak, turning the focus towards C's ghost in the most fascinating of ways. It truly becomes "A Ghost Story" of unusual depth, gradually evolving into a bleak contemplation of the meaning of life and the afterlife. If Lowery's "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" was his faithful homage to the master Terrence Malick, then "A Ghost Story" is his graduation from his apprenticeship. With this effort he has truly found his voice, exploring an inspired take on cosmic existentialism to rival "The Tree of Life".

Indeed, "A Ghost Story" gets deeply philosophical - with a strikingly nihilistic outlook - but there's also an immediacy to the emotions that comes from his experimentation with recognizable genre tropes. Our protagonists' home is essentially a haunted house for example. But the haunting invokes despair rather than fear, as it plays off the "unfinished business" concept. Additionally, the film confronts the cruelty of time in a manner typical of sci-fi films. And these moments are so visceral that they put every 2017 film I've described as "profound" or "breathtaking" to shame.

In essence, "A Ghost Story is very sad, but it's also richly satisfying. Few filmmakers could take such a potentially comical premise (Casey Affleck haunts Rooney Mara dressed in a sheet with two holes for eyes) and make something so stunning. "A Ghost Story" is therefore a testament to the unlimited potential of a resourceful, visionary director. With minimalist production design, unshowy cinematography (i.e. a modest 1.33:1 aspect ratio) and little dialogue, Lowery conveys a story of tremendous beauty and power. "A Ghost Story" is a little film with grand ambitions. And it's easily one of the year's best.

Friday, September 22, 2017

INTERVIEW: Ruben Östlund and Terry Notary


On the basis of his first 4 features, writer-director Ruben Östlund has established himself as one of the most exciting voices of world cinema. His work is often mischievously satirical, giving him a reputation as the “Master of Discomfort.” With his latest film “The Square“, he soars to new heights with a brilliantly absurd comedy centered around the world of modern art. In celebration of the film’s TIFF premiere and its recent selection as Sweden’s Oscar submission, I sat down with Ostlund and actor Terry Notary for a discussion on pretension in art, the value in making mistakes and the gratifying feeling of awards recognition. Below is an edited version of our conversation:

Read more at The Awards Circuit

INTERVIEW: Sebastián Lelio


It feels like every few months we get an article decrying the paltry numbers of speaking roles for women in contemporary cinema. With his recent string of in-depth portraits of a diverse range of heroines, Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Lelio, therefore, feels like a rebel against the status quo. True to form, he brought not one, but two unconventional female-centric films to the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. In “A Fantastic Woman“, a transgender woman copes with an intolerant society in the traumatic aftermath of her boyfriend’s untimely death. For “Disobedience” he made his English-language debut, with Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams starring as Jewish women harboring mutual feelings of forbidden love.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Sunday, September 17, 2017

TIFF: In The Fade


When we first meet Katja (Diane Kruger), the protagonist of “In The Fade” she seems to have it all. Living a comfortable lifestyle in Hamburg with her loving husband and son, she has no worries. In the blink of an eye, all that is taken away in this gut-wrenching revenge thriller from Fatih Akin.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

TIFF: Wajib & Sheikh Jackson


In a pair of TIFF films set in the Arab world, the tensions between Eastern and Western culture take on personal implications. Both are Oscar submissions for their respective countries, with “Wajib” and “Sheikh Jackson” representing Palestine and Egypt respectively. They also share similarities in their focus on father-son relationships, through which they discuss cultural differences surrounding religion, ancient traditions, and individual freedom.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

TIFF: Racer and the Jailbird


Film history has given us such memorable pairings as “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”. For his latest film, Michaël Roskam sought to emulate these dynamic duos with his own take on love, crime, and punishment. The result is “Racer and the Jailbird“, a flawed but ambitious film starring Matthias Schoenaerts and Adèle Exarchopoulos.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

TIFF: The Disaster Artist


After receiving his first Oscar nomination for “127 Hours”, James Franco hasn’t exactly lived up to the expectations of that honor. Though he remained incredibly prolific and acted in a few hits, his place on the A-list became precarious. Most noticeably, he made a foray into directing, which resulted in a slew of underwhelming indie experiments that almost became a running joke for their consistent inclusion at major film festivals.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

TIFF: Disobedience


Not content to bring just one award-winning film ("A Fantastic Woman") to TIFF 2017, Sebastián Lelio doubles up this year with another engrossing female-led drama. Starring Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams, “Disobedience” marks his English-language debut. And more significantly, it is arguably his most impressive directing achievement to date.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

TIFF: A Fantastic Woman


Movies about “triumphs over adversity” have long been a staple of cinema throughout the history of the artform. Unfortunately, that ubiquity can lead to predictable clichés. But every so often, a film like “A Fantastic Woman” comes along that breaks the mold. Directed by Sebastián Lelio, this aptly titled drama features a uniquely inspiring protagonist, showcased through the perceptive eye of a brilliant filmmaker.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

TIFF: You Disappear


In the opening scene of Peter Schønau Fog’s “You Disappear“, a man (Frederik, played by Nikolaj Lie Kaas) recklessly joy rides his family car – with terrified wife and son inside – to a potentially deadly crash. Moments later, as the family exits the car to catch their breath, he falls off a ledge at the side of the road. When he’s taken to the hospital, the family gets unexpected news. A tumor has been found in his brain, explaining his erratic behavior. But there’s an even more troubling revelation to come in this challenging Danish drama.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

TIFF: Tulipani: Love, Honour and a Bicycle


With a title like “Tulipani: Love, Honour and a Bicycle“, you’d be correct in assuming this comedy-drama from Mike van Diem is not a simple story. Indeed, this cross-cultural, decades-spanning yarn is at its heart, a showcase for the art of storytelling. Whether you are narrating or being told a story, it can be a joyous experience, as shown with this highly entertaining film.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

TIFF: The Florida Project


In his latest indie gem “The Florida Project,” Sean Baker puts the spotlight on everyday heroes hidden in plain sight. Much like his Hollywood-set “Tangerine,” he looks at the “shady” side of another one of America’s famous dreamlands. This time around the setting is a cluster of cheap motels located just a stone’s throw from Disney World. And in the same empathetic way that made “Tangerine” a highlight of 2015, “The Florida Project” is one of this year’s most warm, vibrant films.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

TIFF: I, Tonya


In one the best surprises of TIFF so far, Margot Robbie stars in “I, Tonya” as Tonya Harding, the disgraced American figure skater who came to prominence in the early 1990s. Her story begins in Portland, where from a very young age, she longed to become a professional figure skater. With prodigious talent to go along with her desire, her mother LaVona (Allison Janney) encouraged her to aggressively pursue her dream. As a struggling waitress with a failing marriage, however, LaVona quickly realized that Margot’s humble background did not fit the elegant image expected of the sport. Through ruthless determination and undeniable skill, however, the combative (towards naysayers and each other) mother-daughter duo fought for Tonya’s place at the top of the figure skating world. But it all came crashing down in one of the biggest sports scandals in history.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

TIFF: On Chesil Beach


Adapted from an acclaimed Ian McEwan novel (“Atonement”), set in 1960s Britain, and starring the luminous Saoirse Ronan, “On Chesil Beach” has all the makings of a classic “prestige” period film. That it centers around a prickly romance also promises rich dramatic potential. But while “On Chesil Beach” offers the conventional pleasures of an engaging story and handsome production values and actors, this debut feature from Dominic Cooke falls short of its potential.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

TIFF: Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami


As a Jamaican, it is with great shame that I confess to knowing relatively little about Grace Jones. Outside of her androgynous persona and a general sense of her iconic stature and cultural influence, she remained an almost mythical figure of a bygone era in my mind. It was on this basis that I eagerly anticipated the documentary “Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami“, an up close and personal look at this one-of-a-kind woman.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

TIFF: Call Me by Your Name


It’s easy to get caught up in unnecessary hyperbole when attending a film festival, especially under the excitement of your first screening. But after seeing Luca Guadagnino’s “Call Me by Your Name“, I am confident in calling it an instant classic of queer cinema. Filled with moments of pure bliss, this deeply touching film is a romance for the ages.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

TIFF: Preview


Now that we’ve come down from the rarefied air of Telluride, it’s time to head north for the Toronto International Film Festival. Known for its audience-friendly programming and major industry presence, TIFF is the last stop in the early fall Venice-Telluride-Toronto trifecta. With an abundance of big premieres on its slate however, this mainstay of Toronto culture is certainly no after-thought.

Indeed, despite a decision to scale down the number of films – by a considerable 20% – this year, there is still a plethora of choices for all tastes. With a total of 255 feature films to be shown, Oscar campaigns will be launched (or face an early death) and new talent will be discovered among an array of diverse perspectives from all around the globe. And notably, about a third of these films are directed by women, a significant contrast to the low numbers seen at other major festivals like Venice and Cannes.

In short, if you love movies, Toronto is the place to be over the next 10 days. And with so many enticing choices, Awards Circuit is here to guide you with our 17 Films to See at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival:

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Monday, September 4, 2017

COMING SOON: The Oscar Slate


After a surprisingly strong summer at the multiplexes, it's once again time to turn our direction to the "prestige" films vying for Oscar consideration. But first, it's worth mentioning the contenders that have already been released this year.

During the same weekend that "Moonlight" scooped a shocking Best Picture win, Jordan Peele gave us an early preview of the next awards race with "Get Out". This horror-comedy opened to raves from critics and chart-topping box office numbers, with audiences praising its astute satire about race in America.

Towards the end of the summer, another film about race relations made its own Best Picture claims in the form of Kathryn Bigelow's "Detroit". But while some praised raw intensity of this true story, others criticized its depiction of brutality against African-Americans and questioned Bigelow's intentions as a white director.

With the bona fide "genre" style of "Get Out" and controvery surrounding "Detroit", it remains to be seen whether the Academy will ultimately embrace them. But there was one summer film that emerged with serious potential to go all the way. Namely, Christopher Nolan delivered another astonishing masterwork to his filmography with "Dunkirk", a truly nerve-wracking cinematic experience. You can expect Warner Bros. to pull out all the stops to get Nolan his first Best Director nomination to go along with a likely Best Picture nod.

Looking ahead, "Dunkirk" will surely face some stiff competition however, as evidenced by the reactions to the recent Venice and Telluride premieres. And in a few days, the Toronto International Film Festival gets under way with even more possibilities to consider. With so many Oscar hopefuls, it can be hard to keep track of the race. But if you dig deep enough, you can see the Best Picture field starting to take shape. With that in mind, here are the trailers for the major films to keep an eye on over the next 6 months:

Thursday, August 31, 2017

COMING SOON: Toronto International Film Festival


For the third year in a row, I'm pleased to announce that I'll be attending the Toronto International Film Festival. As a member of the press I'll have prime access to all the screenings and events this wonderful fest has to offer. Be sure to follow me at The Awards Circuit, where I'll be posting all my coverage, including articles, interviews, reviews and more.

INTERVIEW: Sunao Katabuchi


It’s not often that you find an animated film that caters directly to older audiences. But that’s exactly what Japanese anime director Sunao Katabuchi has achieved with “In This Corner of the World.” Based on a manga by Fumiyo Kouno, this film is a profound reflection on life during wartime, as seen through the eyes of a young woman named Suzu. Recently, I caught up with Katabuchi to discuss the film’s mature themes and its surprising audience of “children.” Below is an edited version of our chat.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

REVIEW: Whose Streets?


In the wake of several incidents of police brutality towards black people, the Black Lives Matter movement has evolved into an international phenomenon. One of the catalysts for this increased activism was the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown, which is the focus of “Whose Streets?“, a documentary by Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis. Fueled by the deep outrage felt by his community, this film chronicles the efforts of those who woke up to this atrocity and in the process, rallies viewers to support one of today’s most important human rights causes.

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REVIEW: In This Corner of the World


In the world of animation, it’s always quite striking to be reminded of the still untapped potential of Hollywood films. Save for a few ambitious efforts, the medium has been mostly synonymous with fantasy-related children’s fare. Internationally, however, animated films have been more willing to approach difficult subjects through a realist lens. One such example is “In This Corner of the World,” the new anime feature from director Sunao Katabuchi. Recalling the 1988 Studio Ghibli classic “Grave of the Fireflies,” this impressive period drama takes place in Japan during the tumultuous events of World War II and the bombing of Hiroshima. Told through the eyes of a young civilian, it never shies away from the harsh realities of life during wartime. As such, this modest animation stands out at this summer’s box office alongside like-minded fare such as “Dunkirk.”

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