Tuesday, December 18, 2018

INTERVIEW: Benedikt Erlingsson


Although Iceland hasn’t been nominated for the Foreign Language Oscar since 1991, the Scandinavian nation has submitted some of the most intriguing films over the years. Benedikt Erlingsson’s “Woman at War” is no different, telling a unique story of an environmental activist who wages a one-woman war against her local aluminum industry, while facing major upheavals in her personal life. With several surreal elements in the narrative, the film showcases Scandinavian cinema’s penchant for absurdism and dark humor. In a recent interview with Erlingsson, however, he revealed his strong influences from Greek art and literature. Below is an edited version of our discussion.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

INTERVIEW: Eva Melander


Winner of the Un Certain Regard Award at the Cannes Film Festival and now the official Swedish submission for the Foreign Language Oscar, Ali Abassi’s “Border” is easily one of 2018’s standout films. Its bizarre yet beguiling storyline centers on a woman with abnormal features who comes to realize her true nature when she develops an attraction to a fellow troll. Playing that lead role is Eva Melander, who underwent an extraordinary transformation to look the part. I was therefore excited to talk with Melander recently, as we discussed how she approached the role and ultimately empathized with an inhuman character. Below is an edited version of our conversation.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

INTERVIEW: Javier Fesser


It’s rare for a feel-good film to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, but Spain’s submission “Champions” is trying to buck the trend this year. Directed by Javier Fesser, this unlikely sports dramedy follows a basketball team made up entirely of players with intellectual disabilities. Led by a disgraced professional coach, their heartwarming journey conveys the importance of empathy and camaraderie. Expressing the same enthusiasm depicted in the film, Fesser was effusive about this unique filmmaking experience when I spoke with him recently. Below is an edited version of our conversation.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

INTERVIEW: Gustav Möller


One of the year’s most captivating films hits North American theaters this weekend in the form of “The Guilty,” the debut feature from Danish director Gustav Möller. This inventive thriller takes audiences through a nerve-wracking kidnapping investigation, as it plays out through a phone call set entirely within the confines of an emergency dispatch center. Winner of the Audience Award at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, “The Guilty” now aims for a bigger prize as the official Danish submission for the Foreign Language Oscar. In recognition of its release and upcoming Oscar campaign, I recently spoke with Möller to discuss the making of the film. Below is an edited version of our chat.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

REVIEW: The Guilty


In our troubled times, it often seems like we are in constant need of a hero to swoop in and save us. With the media frequently reminding us of mass shootings, societal inequalities and other forms of injustice, it’s no wonder we love heroic narratives in our films. But while we love the fantasy of perfect, God-like heroes, in reality our heroes are flawed individuals themselves. Such is the case with the protagonist in “The Guilty,” the debut feature from director Gustav Moller. This nerve-racking thriller explores the definition of “hero” through the perspective of a man with painfully recognizable imperfections.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

REVIEW: Champions


When Spain’s selection committee for the Oscars infamously snubbed Asghar Farhadi’s star-studded “Everybody Knows” for a little-known film without US distribution, it was widely assumed their chances for a nomination were squandered. But in a category traditionally dominated by solemn dramas/documentaries, their surprise pick will surely stand out. Coincidentally reflecting its current status among awards prognosticators, Javier Fesser’s “Champions” is an underdog sports story that brings rare feel-good vibes to the Foreign Language Oscar race.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Monday, December 17, 2018

OSCAR WATCH: Vice


Prior to 2015, no one would have listed Adam McKay as one of American cinema's most prominent filmmakers. But following that year's release of the Oscar-winning "The Big Short", McKay quickly established himself as one of Hollywood's most distinctive auteurs. Building on the comedic credentials of his Will Ferrell-starring earlier work, McKay has boldly applied that sense of humor to topical dramas surrounding contemporary issues. The latest of those is "Vice", a satirical examination of the life of former US vice president Dick Cheney.

Beginning with his rowdy college years as a Yale dropout, "Vice" charts the rise and fall of Dick Cheney, whose influence as the 46th Vice President of the United States far exceeded any before him. A tale of a man's hunger for power at any costs, his career in politics is portrayed as a calculated masterplan which paid off in ways even he never anticipated. With his equally ambitious wife Lynn by his side, he weathered the storm of the American public's ever-changing mindset to position himself at the heart of the Republican party. But as he made his way to the top and exerted his power, his actions revealed a man who gradually lost his soul at the expense of his own family and the lives of citizens both at home and abroad.

As one unnamed character complains in a post-credits scene, "Vice" proudly wears its liberal bias. Its overtly comedic tone never lets us forget that the characters are meant to be ridiculed. Though the narrative's basic structure is a "greatest hits" biopic, McKay uses it as a playground for his trademark style.

Indeed, from its non-linear storytelling, to tongue in cheek asides, to the narration, the filmmaking is typically showy work destined to once again garner Oscar nominations for Best Director and Best Editing. This certainly isn't your grandfather's biopic, for better or worse. As the sociopolitical issues get even more serious, the style begins to feel distracting. This is especially unfortunate in light of the rather erudite screenplay (a major contender for Best Original Screenplay), which efficiently gives the viewer an understanding of the reinforcement of the conservative ideals which laid the groundwork for the current Trump presidency. While Cheney is at the center of the story, "Vice" also serves as a scathing but entertaining review of the Republican playbook of the past few decades.

McKay's flashy style will certainly keep you glued to the screen, but the most impressive aspect of it all is the decidedly more understated lead performance by Christian Bale. In yet another incredible transformation, Bale embodies the portly physicality of Cheney. But under all the weight gain Oscar-worthy work for Best Makeup and Hairsytling, is a skillfully controlled performance. The calm growl in his voice is both magnetic and intimidating. A second Best Actor nomination for Bale is all but a certainty.

Like "The Big Short", "Vice" employs a large ensemble cast. But while Amy Adams stands out as a Best Supporting Actress candidate, most of the roles are little more than superficial cameos. And ultimately, this lack of true depth is what hampers "Vice" from being a great film. While it gives a widespread introduction to the various players in recent Republican politics, it never slows down enough to really reckon with their inner lives. At one point in the film, Bale's Cheney asks Donald Rumsfeld (played by Steve Carell) what the Republican party believes in, to which Rumsfeld simply laughs hysterically. As you watch "Vice", it becomes clear that McKay has a similarly dismissive view of the Republican party. But considering the desperate times we live in, a more rigorous assessment would have been more impactful. And it could have made the difference between "Vice" cementing itself as a Best Picture winner instead of just a Best Picture nominee.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

OSCAR WATCH: Predicting the Foreign Language Film Shortlist


Among the various categories to follow in the Oscar race this year, Best Foreign Language Film is at once the most exciting and uneventful. On the one hand, the caliber of submissions promises one of the most impressive lineups in recent memory. At the same time, the overwhelming adoration of Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” suggests that the winner is a foregone conclusion. Indeed, this black-and-white epic has managed to transcend the usual foreign language “ghetto,” positioning itself as a major player in marquee categories like Best Picture and Best Director. As such, its slot in the upcoming Academy Award shortlist for Best Foreign Language Film seems all but secured. But what about the other eight films? Read on for my take on how this category could play out in the lead up to the shortlist announcement on December 17.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

OSCAR WATCH: Predicting the Documentary Feature Shortlist


By all accounts, it was an outstanding year for documentary filmmaking. While the traditionally narrative feature-focused Best Picture race has seen some high profile flops at the box office, audiences turned up in unprecedented numbers for several non-fiction films. And with the streaming services providing further access to the documentaries, it’s no wonder that publications have declared this a new Golden Age for the form. Ask any cinephile for their favorite documentaries of the year and you’re bound to get a myriad of answers.

The Academy faces a huge task in narrowing down the 166 eligible films to 15 when the Documentary Feature shortlist is announced on December 17. From festival darlings to awe-inspiring human interest stories, there is no shortage of great options. As we eagerly anticipate the shortlist announcement, here are our best guesses for which contenders will make the cut.

Read more at The Awards Circuit

Friday, December 14, 2018

AWARDS ROUNDUP: Golden Globe, Critics Choice & SAG Nominations


It's been a whirlwind week for major nominations announcements, culminating in a rather shocking set of SAG nominees that left Oscar pundits scratching their heads. While the expected frontrunners "A Star Is Born" and "Black Panther" comfortable secured the important nods, it was "BlacKkKlansman" which showed a real surge after somewhat underwhelming showings at the various regional critics awards so far. Is it finally Spike Lee's time? As we head into the New Year, the awards season is really starting to heat up.

Here are the nominees for the Golden Globe, Critics Choice and SAG Awards for 2018:

Golden Globe

BEST PICTURE - DRAMA
BlacKkKlansman
Black Panther
Bohemian Rhapsody
If Beale Street Could Talk
A Star Is Born

BEST PICTURE - COMEDY/MUSICAL
Crazy Rich Asians
The Favourite
Green Book
Mary Poppins Returns
Vice

BEST DIRECTOR
Bradley Cooper – A Star Is Born
Alfonso Cuarón – Roma
Peter Farrelly – Green Book
Spike Lee – BlacKkKlansman
Adam McKay – Vice

BEST ACTOR - DRAMA
Bradley Cooper – A Star Is Born
Willem Dafoe – At Eternity's Gate
Lucas Hedges – Boy Erased
Rami Malek – Bohemian Rhapsody
John David Washington – BlacKkKlansman

BEST ACTRESS - DRAMA
Glenn Close – The Wife
Lady Gaga – A Star Is Born
Nicole Kidman – Destroyer
Melissa McCarthy – Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Rosamund Pike – A Private War

BEST ACTOR - COMEDY/MUSICAL
Christian Bale – Vice
Lin-Manuel Miranda – Mary Poppins Returns
Viggo Mortensen – Green Book
Robert Redford – The Old Man & the Gun
John C. Reilly – Stan & Ollie

BEST ACTRESS - COMEDY/MUSICAL
Emily Blunt – Mary Poppins Returns
Olivia Colman – The Favourite
Elsie Fisher – Eighth Grade
Charlize Theron – Tully
Constance Wu – Crazy Rich Asians

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Mahershala Ali – Green Book
Timothée Chalamet – Beautiful Boy
Adam Driver – BlacKkKlansman
Richard E. Grant – Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Sam Rockwell – Vice

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Amy Adams – Vice
Claire Foy – First Man
Regina King – If Beale Street Could Talk
Emma Stone – The Favourite
Rachel Weisz – The Favourite

Full list at The Awards Circuit

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

OSCAR WATCH: AAFCA Awards


Early yesterday morning, the African-American Film Critics Association (of which I'm a member) announced their winners for the best in film and TV in 2018. And it was certainly one of the highest quality lists of honorees this group has ever selected. I was particularly pleased to see some of my picks getting recognition, including Barry Jenkins' "If Beale Street Could Talk" for Best Independent Film. Unsurpisingly, it was "Black Panther" which took the top award, continuing its run of success this year. Here is the full list of AAFCA Award Winners for 2018:

Best Film: “Black Panther”
Best Director: Ryan Coogler (“Black Panther”)
Best Screenplay: Charlie Wachtel & David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott & Spike Lee (“BlacKkKlansman”)
Best Actor: John David Washington (“BlacKkKlansman”)
Best Actress: Regina Hall (“Support the Girls)”
Best Supporting Actor: Russell Hornsby (“The Hate U Give”)
Best Supporting Actress: Regina King (“If Beale Street Could Talk”)
Best Breakout Performance: Amandla Stenberg (“The Hate U Give”)
Best Animated Film: “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”
Best Independent Film: “If Beale Street Could Talk”
Best Foreign Film: “Roma”
Best Documentary: “Quincy”
Best Song: “All The Stars” (“Black Panther”)
Best New Media: “Red Table Talk”
Best TV Drama: “Queen Sugar”
Best TV Comedy: “Insecure”

AAFCA’s Top Ten Films:

  1. Black Panther 
  2. If Beale Street Could Talk 
  3. The Hate U Give 
  4. A Star is Born
  5. Quincy
  6. Roma
  7. Blindspotting
  8. The Favourite 
  9. Sorry to Bother You 
  10. Widows

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

AWARDS SEASON: Who's the Favourite Star?

Will "A Star is Born" shine on Oscar night?

It's that time again, as we enter one of the most significant phases of the awards season. Tomorrow morning, the Golden Globe nominations will be announced, giving a boost to the myriad of contenders vying for Oscar glory. As the first of the major televised awards shows, many will look to the Hollywood Foreign Press Association's picks for clues as to where the real buzz lies.

Best Picture has become increasingly difficult to pin down at this early stage of the game and 2018 is no exception. When looking upon the expected field of contenders, it is clear that we are in a new era of defining what is Oscar-worthy. In a year when a proposed Best Popular Film category threatened to sully the prestige of the Oscars, the eventual lineup of Best Picture nominees could be the most populist in years. From genre fare like "Black Panther" and "A Quiet Place", to the decidedly youth-oriented "Mary Poppins Returns" and "Eighth Grade", it seems we can finally put the term "Oscar bait" to rest.

Which brings me to the three presumed frontrunners in the race. If you were to ask awards pundits a year ago to predict the Best Picture winner, I doubt you would get many mentions of "A Star Is Born", "Green Book" or "Roma". "A Star Is Born" is the fourth remake of a story that has historically underperformed with the Academy. "Green Book" has already been chastised for its antiquated approach to exploring the racial tensions of the American South during the civil rights era. And "Roma" is the unlikeliest awards beast of them all, as a black and white, understated, subtitled drama.

And yet, all three have captivated audiences and critics alike. Eliciting the passionate support needed to sustain a successful Oscar campaign, it's hard to imagine any other film usurping them at the head of the race. Of course, anything can happen between now and February 24. But here's how I see the current standings for Best Picture:

  1. A Star is Born
  2. Green Book
  3. Roma
  4. If Beale Street Could Talk
  5. First Reformed
  6. Mary Poppins Returns
  7. Black Panther
  8. The Favourite
  9. Eighth Grade
  10. A Quiet Place

Do you agree with my assessment of the Best Picture race? Let me know in the comments and be sure to check back throughout the season, as I continue to update my official predictions.

OSCAR WATCH: The Favourite


I've never professed to be a fan of Yorgos Lanthimos, the director behind such acclaimed films as "The Lobster" and "Dogtooth". Though I've always admired singular auteurist style, I tend to be slightly put off by the mean streak that runs through his work. But with his latest effort "The Favourite" I am now a new member of his fan club. This period drama set during the reign of Queen Anne is a vulgar delight that kept me thoroughly entertained.

"The Favourite" takes place in 18th century Britain, where Queen Anne sits on the throne. Despite dwindling resources, Britain is at war with France. Seeking counsel over the imposition of increased land taxes, her subjects jockey to exert their influence over the vulnerable, ailing queen. Her closest confidant is Sarah Churchill, who actively works as her adviser and secret lover. The arrival of a Sarah's cousin Abigail (Emma Stone), however, threatens Sarah's status as Anne's right-hand woman. A former member of the aristocracy who has fallen on hard times, Abigail is a wily operator determined to regain her place among the elite. Before long, Sarah and Abigail are engaged in a rivalry, as both will stop at nothing to be their queen's favourite.

Fueled by lust, jealousy and betrayal, "The Favourite" sees Yorgos Lanthimos reimagining the costume drama as a way to express a sordid view of high society. While the ornate backdrops and elegant attire - sure to be spotlighted among the Oscar nominees for Best Production Design and Best Costume Design - reflect the commonly held belief of a more dignified and sophisticated era, Lanthimos' interpretation is one of both moral and physical decay (with the projectile vomit and festering wounds to match). The film may be set within the posh confines of the British royal court, but Lanthimos applies many of the peculiarities of Greek Weird Wave to thrilling effect.

At the center of the debauchery is Olivia Colman, who gives a bravura performance as the sickly Queen Anne. The character's limping gait and impetuous personality is positively grotesque, but behind Colman's searching eyes lie a vulnerability and insecurity that is undeniably relatable. A Best Actress nomination is certainly on the cards for her, as she emerges as the MVP of an outstanding cast.

Indeed, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone should also find themselves in the Best Supporting Actress conversation as Colman's competing ladies-in-waiting. Weisz is particulary memorable, as her silky voice is the perfect fit for the loquacious and confident Sarah Churchill. Meanwhile Nicholas Hoult is the film's most pleasant surprise, turning in a deliciously Machiavellian performance as cocksure Parliamentarian Robert Harley.

All four actors are given a prime showcase for their talents, thanks to Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara's screenplay, which is rich, cheekily funny and unpredictable in equal measure. There's a touch of modern irreverence to the nearly Shakespearean dialogue that captivates the viewer and will likely impress voters for Best Original Screenplay. Indeed, Lanthimos manages to pull the costume drama out of the stuffy doldrums, creating a truly invigorating cinematic experience. He would therefore be a deserving Best Director nominee for this visionary work of art. "The Favourite" may initially appear to be your usual Anglophilic period drama. But as you look closer through Robbie Ryan's (a surefire Best Cinematography contender) fishbowl lenses and obtuse angles it becomes obvious that this is one of the most innovative and masterful films in this year's Best Picture race.