Harlan Jacobson's Take on the 89th Academy Awards

Feb 24, 2017

Film Critic Harlan Jacobson likes several of the foreign films up for Oscars
Credit oscarwinners2017.com

A recent Hollywood Reporter poll, however, shows that 66% of Trump voters turn off the show when it goes political, but 43% of Clinton voters want speechifyers to slam Trump. And 60% of the country can’t name one best picture nominee. Well I can, and that’s Barry Jenkin’s Moonlight, and it’s the film of the year. Superbly made, with pitch perfect performances, in a script that began as a play and continually plays with our notions of black life and character. In this Clip, Mahershala Ali, who should win for his supporting role as drug dealer and kind stranger, teaching Alex Hibbert as Little how to swim.

Along with Denzel Washington’s direction of August Wilson’s Fences and non-Oscar caliber director Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures, a runaway box-office hit about the African American women who did the math to put NASA into orbit… African Americans have the the juice this year.

The other best film nominees, Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge, David McKenzie’s Hell or High Water, Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, especially Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea, and nominally Garth Davis’ Lion and Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival are all about white folks getting left behind and either succumbing or devising some strategy to deal with it. How is it that even when we think we escape the everyday socio-political muck by disappearing into the darkest space we can find outside our bedrooms, we still don’t escape? We still nurse what’s bothering us.

So I turn to the sub–categories, docs and foreign films. With the exception of Life Animated, which I didn’t see, any of the docs—Fire At Sea, I Am Not Your Negro, OJ Made in America and above all 13th-- could and should win. The selection of foreign film nominees is on a par with the selection of a new Pope.

Every country submits its own nominee for consideration. Can you imagine the process for that? The Academy foreign committee then splits into groups and divides up the submissions for viewing, culling the top from each subgroup. They arrive at five, but the head of the committee can override the cull, as happened this year with Marin Ade’s German father-daughter drama, Toni Erdmann. Which is a contemporary inter-generational conversation between Baby Boomer Germans and Millennials about the folly of Germany trying to run the world, or at least Europe, that got reviewed as a German comedy--a concept akin to ordering a 3 legged duck stuffed with sauerbraten in a bierstube. It’s an itchy German picture, so it got left Audi until it got put back inni by Fiat. Here’s how Hollywood really handles a film like Toni Erdmann: it announces a remake with Jack Nicholson and Kristin Wiig.

The skinny on the foreign films is that the grumpy old man Swedish film, A Man Called Ove (pronounced Oovuh) based on a book by a 30-something Swedish newspaper columnist that lives on the NY Times best seller list, has been the front runner. I like it. It’s an old guy revenge film about a widower who keeps trying to hang himself, can’t get it done, and comes to the rescue of a young Iranian woman he initially has no use for. It’s what really happened last night in Sweden… Can you imagine!?!

The dark horse candidate is Martin Zandvliet’s Land of Mine, about a Danish army officer supervising a crew of teenage German POWS tasked with cleaning the Atlantic beaches of German land mines in 1945. Put simply, its about the return of the civilized heart, is much the best made of the foreign nominees, and opens this weekend. Don’t rule out The Salesman, an Iranian movie about a couple staging Arthur Miller’s Death of A Salesman in Teheran, who get caught up in a telling personal drama. It’s not the strongest film, but the Trump ban on travel that prevents director Asghar Farhadi from coming to the Oscars—as he did six years ago when he won the Oscar for A Separation—is the perfect platform for a statement.

And then there’s Tanna, made on the S. Pacific island of Vanuatu, 1500 miles off the Australian coast, where quarreling tribes in grass skirts worship a pissed off volcano goddess and settle their feuds by paying off in unwilling brides who prefer to marry for love. It’s the first film ever submitted in the Nauvhal language, or for that matter made in Nauvhal. And you can check out Nauvhal next month in a grass hut near you.

Click above to hear Harlan Jacobson's preview of the 89th Academy Awards.