They Shoot Oscar Prognosticators, Don't They?
Handicapping the Other Feature Film Races
By J. Don Birnam
February 8, 2018

Reflecting on stuff and things.

Today we continue handicapping the Oscar categories by looking at what I call the “other” Best Picture races, the awards for feature length films that are either in a foreign language, a documentary, or in animation. One of those categories is a gimme this year, the other two appear wide open.

Last year, I did OK here getting two correct but refusing to believe that the Academy would really use the Muslim ban to topple the better German movie and give it to Iran instead. Lessons learned about the new Academy. Thoughts? Twitter and Instagram.

Best Animated Feature

This category has become inherently predictable, with the Disney/Pixar movie that gets nominated normally having a cake walk unless something else is up. There was that year that Big Hero 6 happily surprised, but, again, Pixar/Disney.

So although the nominees are Ferdinand, The Bossy Baby (controversially), The Breadwinner, and Loving Vincent, there really should be no question in your mind about who the winner will be--Coco. Out of respect, let’s briefly discuss the other films.

The Boss Baby is perhaps the best well-known of these, about a bully baby voiced by Alec Baldwin and with eerie similarities to a certain politician. The movie is mediocre at best, and it really shows the weakness of the year or the laziness of the branch. And I can say the same about Ferdinand, the adaptation of the classic bull tale. It was a late breaker and perhaps that helped it, but the movie itself is nothing special.

Meanwhile, the two artsier films, for which the branch always seems to save space, are themselves not that compelling. The Afghan movie The Breadwinner has been getting all the nominations, but it is a pretty standard and even clichéd plot. Loving Vincent, meanwhile, is beautifully drawn, but somewhat tedious in its real-life docu investigative style.

The prize belongs clearly to Coco, which happens to be the best of the movies too. It has won at PGA, and DGA, and has won with the guilds too, including for Editing and Production Design most recently. And, of course, it won eleven Annie Awards from the animators’ guild. This is your easy point for the night.

Will Win: Coco
Could Win: N/A

Best Foreign Language Film

This race can also become predictable quickly when a favorite starts winning everywhere, but this year the movie that was winning everything, including the Globe, was not nominated. That dubious distinction belongs again to Germany, for the Diane Kruger drama In The Fade. So instead the nominees are Sweden’s The Square, which also won the Palme D’Or at Cannes, Russia’s Loveless, Hungary’s On Body and Soul, Lebanon’s The Insult and Chile’s A Fantastic Woman.

Thanks to Ingar Bergman, Sweden has already had three trips to the winner’s circle, and Hungary can boast of two, most recently Son of Saul. The Soviet Union garnered three wins, while Russia has won it one time. By contrast, this is only Chile’s second nomination (it was last here for No in 2012), and it is Lebanon’s first after 13 submissions.

It seems like the win could belong to Chile this time around but let’s walk through it. I would rule out Hungary’s submission first. The movie is about an autistic young woman who is having the same dreams as her much older coworker, where they are both dear. They discover this and form a bond. The movie is not as strange as that setup sounds and its emotional weight is definitely intriguing. Still, it seems the least topical or relevant or showy of the bunch, and I think Hungary will be happy with the somewhat surprising nomination.

I would probably also eliminate Lebanon’s first nomination from the list. The movie is about the aftermath of a confrontation between two men in Lebanon—one Palestinian, the other, Christian. Egos and tempers flare and the two end up in a grudge match that becomes a proxy for the whole of Palestinian’s troubles in Middle Eastern countries where they are immigrants. The movie is very well made and does a great job of keeping the emotional complexities well balanced, forcing you to root at different times for both sides. However, it devolves a bit into courtroom spectacle in the end, and so it suffers enough in quality that it will likely be overlooked.

I think the race is between Chile, and my two favorites, the Russian and the Swedish entry. The Russian movie, Loveless, is as depressing as it sounds. It is about an unhappy couple in the middle of a messy and hateful divorce, and the disappearance of their son in course of these happenings. The movie haunts you because it is so darn sad and depressing, and it is well made. Its director, Andrey Zvyaginstev, has been here before, directing the equally bleak Leviathan, but that lost to Poland’s Ida (which was not a happy film, but it was a Holocaust movie, and those do well historically in this category). I could see it pull off the win because it is arguably the best of the five.

Still, I am tempted to pick Sweden’s entry, because of its status as a Cannes winner. You have to go back all the way to the Best Picture nominated Fanny and Alexander to find Sweden’s last win here, in 1983. But this movie is much less period and much more talky than that Bergman classic. It is about art and its relationship to modern ills of the world including social inequality, immigration, and poverty. It is the smartest film of the bunch, though it is a bit long and may therefore be inaccessible to most members.

Finally, my sources tell me to go for the Chilean entry, about a transgendered woman who has to deal with the family of her partner after he dies suddenly. The movie features a transgendered actress, and is therefore history making just with the nomination itself. The movie is thoughtful and well made, and certainly a landmark, but it was not as remarkable, to me, as the two I think have a shot. But I can see them voting for this because of the historic significance of it, and why not, it is a very good movie.

Will Win: A Fantastic Woman
Could Win: The Square

Best Documentary Feature

This race became slightly more unpredictable when the slew of nominees came out. Many had predicted that the NatGeo documentary about Jane Goodall, Jane, was ahead, specially after a PGA win, while the DGA went for the war documentary City of Ghosts. Then neither of those showed up at the Academy list. So what now?

The one documentary that has been doing well since its festival season release is the Agnes Varda/J.R. collaboration, Faces Places. The tender project has them going across the countryside and telling stories by taking pictures of peoples’ faces and pasting them in various locales. It is a touching endeavor between an aged film star of yore (do the younger Academy members know who she is?) and one of the quirky European artists du jour. It is well made and endearing. Documentaries that are happy tend to do better than super bleak ones, so this is a major threat.

Speaking of bleak, the personal story Strong Island seems like it has the slimmest chance. It is a story about the horrific murder of a black man in Long Island in the 1990s and how an all-white grand jury failed to indict his killer. The story is told and directed by the victims’ sister, who narrates the guilt she and her family have felt for whatever role they felt they could have played in the tragic affair. The story is sad and even infuriating, but it seems like the story of one person more than anything else. Although of course the themes of racial injustice resonate and have relevance today, the movie never really goes there, happy to stick with its own tale. That is fine, but it may have to stick with the nomination too.

The same can be said about the financial crisis-light documentary, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail. The movie tells of the prosecution for mortgage fraud of a local Manhattan bank run by Chinese immigrants and their descendants. Based on a series of false statements made by certain employees in loan applications, the principals of the bank and the bank itself were made to sit through a grueling 60+ day trial in state court while determined to prove their innocence. The documentary is short, crisp, and very engaging. It is actually probably the most watchable of the lot, so this gives it a chance. Still, like Strong Island, it feels more like an individual story of injustice than anything grander, and may face challenges for that reason.

Finally, the sports-doping documentary, Icarus, seems like another potential winner. It has shown up among the nominees in most guilds and, even though it has not won anything, its main competition is gone from the lineup. The story follows an American athlete/filmmaker who becomes friends with the head of the anti-doping lab in Moscow, a man who eventually defects and gives evidence of a state-sponsored doping ring that affected all Russian athletes. Given the prominence of this story in the media in the last few years (and with the Winter Olympics about to begin), this story could win on the strength of its topicality alone.

Will Win: Icarus
Could Win: Faces Places