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Will La La Land suffer from enough backlash before the Acadamy Awards ceremony this Sunday, Feb. 26, to lose the Best Picture Oscar? Will Matt Damon show up to foil Jimmy Kimmel’s big hosting gig dressed as Batman? Will Ben Affleck stop pouting about how badly Live by Night bombed and re-accept the directing chores of The Batman?

I know that last part was off-subject, but if you mention Damon, you have to mention Affleck. Alternative-newspaper writers are fined $78.53 if they fail to do so.

Honestly, it’s odd to see so many people hating on a movie that is cleaning up at the awards. I’ve personally and publicly recommended La La Land to many people, feeling it was a sure thing, only to be met with scowls when they next saw me. One person actually punched me in the face and threw their drink at me. It was awkward … and it was wine, so it stained. Lawsuit pending.

I just don’t understand the backlash. Ryan Gosling is so dreamy.

Anyway, here’s a detailed rundown of the major categories, along with some quick picks of the secondary ones.

But first, this year’s Oscar drinking game is as follows: Every time Meryl Streep takes a jab at Donald Trump, drink two tequila shots, and go tell your neighbor you despise their taste in shoes. By the time the evening is over, you should be sufficiently wasted, and your neighbor’s garbage can will hopefully be overflowing with gaudy pumps and stinky sandals.


Best Picture

Arrival

Fences

Hacksaw Ridge

Hell or High Water

Hidden Figures

La La Land

Lion

Manchester by the Sea

Moonlight

The least-deserving nominee in this pack would be Fences, although it does qualify as an acting powerhouse, and the nominations it received in acting categories are much deserved. Overall, as a movie, it felt a bit narrow with its staging, like something more appropriate for HBO or Netflix than the big screen.

La La Land has been scoring this year. It’s hard to think it will lose out on the biggest prize, but if it does, I think Moonlight will be the film responsible for an upset.

Snubs: The Witch was an outstanding horror film, an audacious directorial debut, and possibly the year’s best-looking film. Of course, it got zero nominations. Not even a nomination for costumes or Best Evil Goat Performance!

Should and will win: La La Land


Best Achievement in Directing

Denis Villeneuve (Arrival)

Mel Gibson (Hacksaw Ridge)

Damien Chazelle (La La Land)

Kenneth Lonergan (Manchester by the Sea)

Barry Jenkins (Moonlight)

It’s so bonkers to see Gibson nominated. Granted, he did a great job, but there were others more deserving, so it feels a bit showy for the Academy to put him in there. They love their controversy.

No matter … Chazelle is taking this one home. If it’s not him, it’s Jenkins.

Snubs: David Mackenzie for Hell or High Water; Robert Eggers for The Witch.

Should and will win: Chazelle


Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role

Isabelle Huppert (Elle)

Ruth Negga (Loving)

Natalie Portman (Jackie)

Emma Stone (La La Land)

Meryl Streep (Florence Foster Jenkins)

Of those competing, Stone is the most deserving. Her performance was a major feat and will not be ignored. While Streep is fun in Jenkins, she has no chance of winning, and it’s a wasted nom. As for Huppert, she’s a great actress, but Paul Verhoeven’s Elle is a bad film.

Snubs: The worst snubs of the year happened in this category. Amy Adams should be here for Arrival, a film that got many nominations and that wouldn’t have worked as well without her at its center. Oscar likes to do at least one or two truly dopey things a year.

Even worse, Annette Bening’s career-best performance in 20th Century Women is nowhere to be found. Perhaps not enough Academy viewers were able to see it in time? That can be the only explanation, because she was incredible, and would be my second choice after Stone.

Should and will win: Stone


Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role

Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea)

Andrew Garfield (Hacksaw Ridge)

Ryan Gosling (La La Land)

Viggo Mortensen (Captain Fantastic)

Denzel Washington (Fences)

It looked like Affleck was going to make a clean sweep of the major awards, but, uh oh, he lost the SAG award, and that award is a fine predictor of who will get the Oscar. Being that Affleck is also plagued with controversy this year, I’m thinking the Oscar is going to Denzel.

My second choice in this category after Affleck would be the oh-so-dreamy Gosling, who learned how to play jazz piano for La La Land, and delivered an engaging, funny and sweet performance as well. Someday, this guy is going to get an Oscar.

Snubs: I love me some Viggo, and Garfield was powerful in Ridge, but Jake Gyllenhaal (Nocturnal Animals) and Joel Edgerton (Loving) should’ve gotten noms in their places.

Should win: Affleck

Will win: Washington


Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role

Viola Davis (Fences)

Naomie Harris (Moonlight)

Nicole Kidman (Lion)

Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures)

Michelle Williams (Manchester by the Sea)

All the nominees in this category are deserving, and this is one of the more snub-free categories. It’s a tough one to pick, but Williams shared perhaps the most memorable dramatic scene of the year with Affleck in Sea, and she absolutely rocked it. Davis is the favorite here, but Williams is the most deserving.

Should win: Williams

Will win: Davis


Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role

Mahershala Ali (Moonlight)

Jeff Bridges (Hell or High Water)

Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea)

Dev Patel (Lion)

Michael Shannon (Nocturnal Animals)

There’s no question with this one: It’s going to Ali for playing the controversial father figure in Moonlight. If I were picking, Hedges would get it for Sea, but the inevitable Ali win is almost as deserving.

Snubs: While there were no major snubs in this category, equally deserving actors included Ben Foster in Hell or High Water, and Woody Harrelson in The Edge of Seventeen.

Should win: Hedges

Will win: Ali


Best Animated Feature Film

Kubo and the Two Strings

Moana

My Life as a Zucchini

The Red Turtle

Zootopia

While Kubo is the more ambitious and better film, Zootopia will get the most votes.

Snubs: Whoa … no Finding Dory? That’s just silly.

Should win: Kubo and the Two Strings

Will win: Zootopia


Other Predictions

Cinematography: La La Land

Costume Design: Jackie

Documentary Feature: O.J.: Made in America

Documentary Short Subject: The White Helmets

Short Film Animated: Piper

Short Film Live Action: Sing

Film Editing: La La Land

Foreign Language Film: The Salesman

Music Original Score: La La Land

Music Original Song: “City of Stars” (La La Land)

Production Design: La La Land

Sound Editing: Hacksaw Ridge

Sound Mixing: La La Land

Visual Effects: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Adapted Screenplay: Moonlight

Original Screenplay: Manchester by the Sea

Published in Previews and Features

One of the highlights of the Palm Springs International Film Festival is its extensive program of films submitted for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar—giving audiences a taste of the best movies from around the world (or, well, at least what government agencies around the world have decided are the best movies).

This year’s festival featured 43 of the more than 80 Best Foreign Language submissions for the upcoming Oscars—including eight of the nine movies on the Academy’s shortlist. The five nominees, as well as the nominees in all the rest of the categories, will be announced tomorrow, Tuesday, Jan. 24.

The nominees in the category generally tend toward the middlebrow, with serious historical dramas—often focusing on World War II—reliably taking up a few spots each year.

Such is the case this year—three of the eight shortlisted movies shown at the PSIFF deal with World War II and its aftermath: Denmark’s Land of Mine, about young German POWs forced to clear land mines in Denmark after the war; Norway’s The King’s Choice, about the first days of Germany’s invasion of Norway in 1940; and Russia’s Paradise, about a Russian resistance member in Nazi-occupied France.

Of these three, Paradise is the most artistically successful, doing more than just dramatizing sections from a history textbook. Shooting in black and white, in the constrained Academy ratio, director Andrey Konchalovskiy combines dreamlike imagery and magical-realist plotting with stark, clear-eyed depictions of life in a concentration camp, and the balance of power between Nazi officers and prisoners. The movie’s conceit of “interviews” with three main characters after their deaths is sometimes a bit heavy-handed, but it allows for poetic moments and quiet reflection that more straightforward historical dramas often lack.

Both Land of Mine and The King’s Choice take a more straightforward historical approach, and while they tell stories that have been underrepresented in historical accounts (at least outside their native countries), they only intermittently bring those stories to life. In Land of Mine, a group of young (most appearing to be in their early teens) German soldiers are kept as POWs in Denmark following the war, and are forced to clear the tens of thousands of land mines along the Danish coast. The movie offers a welcome perspective in which the Germans are sympathetic, scared young men who don’t necessarily understand the consequences of their actions; it’s the often vindictive Danish military personnel are the villains. But the young characters are nearly interchangeable; their eventual emotional connection with their Danish commander is predictable; and the suspense built around periodically exploding kids seems a bit exploitative.

The King’s Choice doesn’t have any exploding kids, and it’s a bit dry in its ploddingly procedural account of the few days between the time when Germany invaded Norway, and when the country’s King Haakon VII made an historic break with Parliament and refused to surrender to Germany. As director Erik Poppe explained before the screening, the king’s actions are an important part of Norwegian history, taught in schools—but without that inherent Norwegian pride, it’s hard to get worked up over this fairly minor military aspect of the war, or to get invested in the principled stands of a pampered (if likable) royal family.

After war movies, the next most-popular genre for the Foreign Language Oscar is possibly the intense domestic drama, represented by Canada’s It’s Only the End of the World and Iran’s The Salesman, both from acclaimed international auteurs. It’s Only the End of the World was adapted from Jean-Luc Lagarce’s stage play by prolific filmmaker Xavier Dolan, and despite its cast of French superstars (Gaspard Ulliel, Vincent Cassel, Marion Cotillard, Léa Seydoux, Nathalie Baye), it remains stagebound and claustrophobic, with the characters tediously talking in circles during a tense family gathering over the course of a single day. Dolan is known for bold, visually inventive films, but here, he sticks mostly to uncomfortable close-ups and stands back as his actors chew the scenery.

The Salesman, from A Separation Oscar winner Asghar Farhadi, is more restrained, even as its subject matter is darker. It’s a slow burn about a married couple whose relationship is strained when the wife is attacked in their apartment, and her husband becomes consumed with finding the perpetrator. But this isn’t some action-packed revenge thriller; it’s a contemplative story about responsibility and empathy, a rumination on the value of vengeance and a look at how seemingly strong relationships can be destroyed in a moment. The lead performances from previous Farhadi collaborators Shahab Hosseini and Taraneh Alidoosti are very good, and while the connection to Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (a production of which the couple star in during the events of the movie) is a bit tenuous, both are thematically rich family dramas with satisfyingly downbeat endings.

Thanks to the creation of an additional executive committee several years ago, the selections for the Foreign Language Film Oscar category have gotten a little more diverse, and a few of this year’s shortlisted films fit less neatly into familiar genres. Sweden’s A Man Called Ove, Germany’s Toni Erdmann and Switzerland’s My Life as a Zucchini are all lighter than their fellow shortlist selections, with more emphasis on unique artistic visions. Ove is the most conventional, a feel-good dramedy about a grumpy old man who comes to appreciate life thanks to the efforts of his friendly neighbors. It’s the kind of crowd-pleasing, gentle movie that could star Tom Hanks if it came from Hollywood, and while star Rolf Lassgård makes for an appealing curmudgeon, the flashbacks slowly illuminating his tragedy-filled past eventually tug way too hard on the heartstrings. But Academy voters seemingly love to have their heartstrings tugged, and with its mix of the heavy and the heartwarming, Ove comes across as typical Oscar bait.

The most critically acclaimed movie on the shortlist, Toni Erdmann, is the frontrunner to win the Oscar, and it’s certainly the strangest and most challenging film of the eight shown at the festival. Running nearly three hours, Maren Ade’s film is a combination of cringe comedy, family drama and sociopolitical commentary, with plenty of strange detours along the way. The title character is the alter ego of Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek), an eccentric, lonely old man who wants to reconnect with his corporate go-getter daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller). It takes almost an hour for Toni to emerge, as Winfried follows his daughter to her work assignment in Romania, and the movie unfolds at a meandering pace, with dry corporate meetings next to uncomfortable scenes of Winfried’s attempts to insert himself into his daughter’s life. Many have found the film moving, funny and profound, but for me, it was like listening to a long, rambling joke with no punchline.

The best of the eight shortlisted movies I saw at the festival is also the unlikeliest selection, the Swiss stop-motion animated movie My Life as a Zucchini. It’s also eligible for the Best Animated Feature award, but it’s a bit of a dark horse in both categories. That’s a shame, because director Claude Barras’ film is utterly charming, beautiful to look at and sweetly affecting. It’s the story of a young orphan (who goes by the name Zucchini) adjusting to life in a group home and eventually finding a makeshift family. The material isn’t groundbreaking, but the hand-crafted animation gives it a wonderfully skewed perspective, while the dialogue is funny and realistic, and the characters are very likable.

It was the last movie I saw at the festival—and it ended my experience on a high note. Hopefully Oscar voters will feel the same way.

Published in Previews and Features

The Boxtrolls, nominated for a Best Animated Feature Film Oscar, is another weird film from the studio that also made Coraline and ParaNorman.

As far as appearances go, this is the best film in this Oscar category, which also includes Big Hero 6 and How to Train Your Dragon 2. Most of the work is traditional stop-motion animation, with some fine digital animation included as well.

The story follows a young boy named Eggs (the voice of Isaac Hempstead Wright), who is being raised by strange creatures who live below the streets of London. The creatures wear boxes for clothing, and Eggs gets his name because, quite simply, his box says “Eggs” on it.

An evil exterminator looking for a higher station in society (Ben Kingsley) contracts to kill all of the boxtrolls, putting Eggs and his buddies in danger.

The voice cast also features Elle Fanning, Jared Harris, Nick Frost and a barely recognizable Tracy Morgan.

The story doesn’t hold up as well as that of Big Hero 6, but The Boxtrolls is still a lot of fun—and it scores points for being extra-twisted.

Special Features: The disc is packed with behind the scenes featurettes and commentaries. 

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

I can’t deny the wonderful acting work by the likes of Bruce Dern, Will Forte, Bob Odenkirk and especially June Squibb in Nebraska; they are all wonderful in this movie.

What I can bemoan is the stupid, stupid story propelling that acting.

Dern plays an old codger who becomes convinced that he’s won a million dollars because of a magazine-subscription letter saying he’s a winner. Therefore, he starts walking from Montana to Nebraska; his son (Forte) eventually helps him on his quest with an automobile.

It’s a dumb idea, and the premise is too improbable for a serious comedy movie. Still, it does lay the groundwork for a decent father-son dynamic between Dern and Forte; Odenkirk shows up as another son and knocks the part out of the park.

Of the six Oscar nominations this film earned, I would call Squibb the most deserving for her work as Dern’s droll wife; the black-and-white cinematography is also quite nice. As for Best Screenplay, Best Picture, Best Actor (Dern) and Best Director (Alexander Payne), I wouldn’t go there. The movie is good in a peculiar way, but far from great. The premise annoyed me a bit the whole time I watched Nebraska.

Nebraska is now playing at the Camelot Theatres (2300 E. Baristo Road, Palm Springs; 760-325-6565); the Cinémas Palme d’Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-779-0430); and the UltraStar Mary Pickford Stadium 14 (36850 Pickfair St., Cathedral City; 760-328-7100).

Published in Reviews