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Archive for the ‘Cinema’ Category

The Armenian genocide

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[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below]

To mark the centenary of the beginning of the Armenian genocide, I’m linking to two articles—and two only—that I’ve read on the subject of late. One is the remarkable essay in the January 5th issue of The New Yorker by staff writer
Raffi Khatchadourian, “A Century of Silence,” in which he writes about the historical memory of the genocide in southeastern Turkey—and how it is being recovered—through the prism of his family’s own history. At 14,000 words the essay requires a certain time commitment but is well worth it.

The other piece, in the April 20th issue of TWS, is by Boston College political science prof Dominic Green, “A great calamity: One century since the Turkish genocide of the Armenians,” in which he reviews “They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else”: A History of the Armenian Genocide, by Ronald Grigor Suny, the Charles Tilly Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan. Green writes

This year is the centenary of the Armenian Genocide; the commemoration falls on April 24. On that day in 1915, the Ottoman government arrested hundreds of prominent Armenians in Istanbul. This April 24, when memorial ceremonies are held in Armenia and in the cities of the Armenian diaspora, the Turkish government will be congratulating itself with diversionary celebrations of the Gallipoli campaign. The centenary has raised the diplomatic temperature and precipitated many books. Ronald Suny’s is the best of them: Balanced, scholarly, and harrowing, it should be read by all serious students of modern history.

I’ll certainly read it à l’occasion.

I should also mention Turkish-German director Fatih Akin’s new feature-length film, ‘The Cut’, which has the Armenian genocide as its focus. Akin is a fine filmmaker, having directed the excellent Head-On and the very good The Edge of Heaven, though his Soul Kitchen wasn’t too memorable IMO. This one is his biggest budget and most ambitious film. It begins in 1915 in Mardin, in southeastern Anatolia—near the present-day Syrian border—where a blacksmith named Nazaret Manoogian, played by the French actor Tahir Rahim, lives a happy life with his wife and daughters, ages 10-12 or thereabouts, when Ottoman soldiers storm Armenian homes in the middle of the night and send their inhabitants packing. Nazaret is separated from his wife and daughters, the latter sent on the death march to the south while he’s impressed into a work gang, all of whose members have their throats summarily slashed when the soldiers are done with them. But Nazaret’s press-ganged Kurdish executioner couldn’t bring himself to commit the deed, going through the motions and sparing Nazaret’s life, but cutting his vocal cords nonetheless, definitively depriving him of speech. This part of the film, which depicts the genocide as it must have unfolded—with the round-ups, robbing and rape of those on the death march, massacres and mass starvation—is well-done and quite powerful, though one is provided with little information as to why it’s all happening. Turks and Kurds will wince at the way they’re portrayed, even if a small handful are shown to have acted honorably and/or with humanity. Nazaret ended up in Aleppo and, with the war over, learned that his wife had died but the daughters hadn’t, that they’d been married to rich Armenian businessmen living in Cuba. So he set off on his journey to find them—and this is the rest of the film—taking a boat to Havana, where, communicating via writing and hand gestures, he learned that they had moved on to Minneapolis, Minn. So smuggling himself to Florida, he made his way to Minneapolis, where he was informed that the daughters were somewhere in North Dakota. F—cking North Dakota. So that’s where he went and where his journey ended, some seven years after he was separated from his family. As for whether or not the ending is happy, sorry, no spoilers.

This part of the film doesn’t work. What started out as a film on the Armenian genocide—a subject that has rarely been treated cinematically—ended up as a story about a father looking for his lost family—and with the film’s 2¼-hour running time, a long story indeed. And having the protag lose his voice was an unnecessary contrivance. Technically the film is impressive—it was shot in five countries (Jordan, Malta, Germany, Cuba, and Canada) on three continents—but otherwise it’s a disappointment. A blown opportunity. In the version shown in France the Armenian characters speak Armenian (Rahim and others being dubbed) but I read afterward that they speak English in the main version for the international market. If the one I saw had been this, I’d have given the pic the thumbs down from the get go. Hollywood press critics who saw the film at the Venice festival had the same sentiment as I (e.g. here, here, and here). French critics were also on the same wavelength (though Allociné spectateurs were far more positive; for once I go against the vox populi). Armenian trailer w/French s/t is here, English one is here.

UPDATE: Ronald Grigor Suny has an op-ed in the NYT (April 23rd) on “The cost of Turkey’s genocide denial.”

2nd UPDATE: Ronald Grigor Suny has another piece, this an excerpt from his new book in TDB (April 24th), “Yes, the slaughter of Armenians was genocide.” The lede: “The Turkish government may not want to admit it, but the murder and removal of millions of Armenians was genocide.”

3rd UPDATE: Sabancı University political science professor Ayşe Kadıoğlu has a most interesting essay in OpenDemocracy (April 24th), “Skeletons in the Turkish closet: remembering the Armenian Genocide.” The lede: “Just like the skeletons that were discovered in Diyarbakır in 2012 nearly 100 years after they were buried, Turkey’s past is haunting its future and demanding that we remember the tragic events of the Armenian Genocide.”

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Yesterday was the 40th anniversary of the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge. Marking the occasion, Le Monde’s Friday issue has a full-page article by one of the paper’s international editors, Adrien Le Gal, “Voyage chez Pol Pot,” in which it is recalled how the Khmer Rouge victory was applauded by numerous Western leftist activists, tiersmondiste intellectuals, and engagé journalists—including, Le Gal specifies, at Le Monde itself. The subject of the article is precisely those Western apologists, delegations of whom were invited by the Khmer Rouge to visit “Democratic Kampuchea” in 1978—in groups of three or four at a time—the first Westerners to set foot in Cambodia in three years. Le Gal tracked down some of those visitors, to solicit their assessments with four decades hindsight. Most regret their views of the time, though a few remain unrepentant (one being the Swedish gauchiste writer Jan Myrdal, son of the illustrious Gunnar & Alva). One of the more vocal Khmer Rouge apologists in the English-speaking world was the British academic Malcolm Caldwell, who was killed in Phnom Penh in late 1978 in mysterious circumstances. French historian Henri Locard—who has authored a recent book on the Khmer Rouge—told Le Gal that he is quite sure Caldwell’s killing was an accident, that he was hit by a stray bullet fired by a Khmer Rouge guard in an altercation that had nothing to do with Caldwell. Interesting.

For the anecdote, I was one of those who applauded the arrival of the Khmer Rouge in Phnom Penh, apologized for them for a couple of years, and did not wish to read the horrific refugee accounts that appeared in publications like Reader’s Digest (which, as Susan Sontag informed an unappreciative New York audience several years later, got it more right on communism than did The Nation). In April 1975 I was a college freshman and self-proclaimed Maoist (a political posture I had adopted four years earlier—as a 10th grader—after reading Edgar Snow’s Red China Today). In 1976, during my sophomore year, I wrote a term paper, for an interdisciplinary course on East Asia, explaining and defending the Khmer Rouge’s evacuation of the population of Phnom Penh to the countryside. My principal source was a just-published monograph by Khmer Rouge Über-apologists Gareth Porter and George C. Hildebrand, Cambodia: Starvation and Revolution. The professor’s remark at the end of my paper was “Excellent!” (letter grades did not exist at my college but if they had, I would have gotten an A for sure; I probably still have the paper, buried in a box somewhere). The très engagé Porter—who’s still around and kicking—held a doctorate in Southeast Asian studies from Cornell—the top university in that field—and was thus no hack, has sort of half-apologized for his Khmer Rouge apologetics (though he’s kind of defensive about it). Other leftists of the period, who had nothing in particular to say about the Khmer Rouge while it ruled, suddenly started to denounce it, and to give credit to all the horror stories, after Vietnam’s January 1979 invasion and occupation of Cambodia. The Vietnamese invasion gave them cover. It was Vietnamese Communists good/Khmer Rouge bad (like the good Lenin vs. the bad Stalin). I am reminded of the spectacle of holier-than-thou leftists, at a public debate on US foreign policy at New York’s Public Theater in the winter of 1981, taking to task panel member Richard Holbrooke—who had just finished his stint as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs—for the Carter administration not having recognized the Vietnamese client regime in Phnom Penh and having backhandedly aligned the US position on Cambodia with that of China, the Khmer Rouge’s foreign patron…

There have been several cinematic treatments of the Khmer Rouge’s ubuesque, totalitarian regime, its enslavement of the entire Cambodian population, and the auto-genocide it embarked on (the first time in human history a ruling cabal set out to exterminate the majority of its own population). Everyone has seen Roland Joffé’s 1983 The Killing Fields. Last December Régis Wargnier’s Le Temps des aveux (English title: The Gate) opened in France. This tells the story of ethnologist François Bizot as recounted in his 2001 prize-winning book Le Portail, published in English under the title The Gate. In his book Bizot, a leading French academic specialist of Cambodian civilization who, since 1965, had been living in a village near Siam Reap—where he married a Cambodian—tells of his abduction by the Khmer Rouge at a guerrilla checkpoint in 1971. Imprisoned in an open-air jungle camp in Khmer Rouge-held territory, Bizot was shackled, mistreated, brutally interrogated, and accused of being a CIA agent, which meant execution. During his captivity, he witnessed the extreme cruelty of the Khmer Rouge, where people were led off to be shot or clubbed to death for the most minor of infractions—infractions decreed by the Khmer Rouge that almost no one could avoid committing at some point or another. But Bizot, played in the film by Raphaël Personnaz, managed to convince his otherwise pitiless interrogator, Kang Kek Ieu, a.k.a. Comrade Duch—played by writer and translator Kompheak Phoeung—that he was indeed merely a scholar researching ancient Buddhist manuscripts. When Bizot appeared before the Khmer Rouge leadership—the Angka, with Pol Pot presiding—to be judged, he was acquitted. Duch, no doubt at some risk to himself, had managed to convince his Angka colleagues of Bizot’s innocence. The scene of the revolutionary tribunal reminded me of the similar one in the film Timbuktu, which I had seen a few days earlier, of the formal commitment to law and legal procedure by men who know nothing whatever about law and are utterly arbitrary in their decisions.

So Bizot owed his life to Duch, a cruel man—a sort of Cambodian Eichmann—who, it would later be revealed, had had many thousands tortured and murdered. After three months of captivity, Bizot was freed, with instructions that he deliver an envelope to the French embassy in Phnom Penh. The envelope contained the text of the Khmer Rouge’s ideological and political treatise, which spelled out precisely what it planned to do once it had conquered the country. The auto-genocide was all in there. The treatise, it seems, was filed away untranslated at the Quai d’Orsay. No one read it before 1975.

Bizot declined to leave Cambodia after his experience—his family and work were there—and was in Phnom Penh when the Khmer Rouge arrived in April ’75.  He sought protection with his family at the French embassy, along with all resident foreigners and many terrified Cambodians. This sequence of the film is well-done, though Wargnier does take a few liberties with the historical record, e.g. in showing Duch as the Khmer Rouge official at the embassy gate (when, in fact, he wasn’t there). Olivier Gourmet plays the consul Jean Dyrac, who was the senior French diplomat in the country (France having formally broken diplomatic relations with Cambodia after Lon Nol’s 1970 coup d’Etat). Here Wargnier, relaying Bizot’s account, corrects the portrayal in ‘The Killing Fields’—Sydney Schanberg’s, in effect—of the French diplomats in Phnom Penh having behaved cynically, indeed immorally, in pushing Cambodians associated with the fallen regime out of the embassy grounds and to certain death at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. Bizot asserts that such did not happen, at least not in the way Schanberg claimed it did; the consul and his staff were faced with an almost impossible situation, as the Khmer Rouge did not respect the extraterritoriality of the embassy grounds, couldn’t have cared less about any Vienna Convention, and were ready to storm it at any moment. There was nothing the French could have done to save the Cambodians at the embassy who didn’t hold a foreign passport (see here; also here).

Bizot, with hastily made French passports for his family, left on the convoy to Thailand (though his wife didn’t make it past the border guards; she survived the Khmer Rouge but their marriage did not). The film then jumps to 2003, with Bizot back in Cambodia and where he meets with Duch, now in detention and awaiting trial for crimes against humanity. And the trial finally happened six years later, which Bizot wrote about in this 2009 NYT op-ed. I thought the film was quite good. It’s engrossing, well-acted, and effectively conveys the evil of the Khmer Rouge (and it was entirely filmed in Cambodia). And Bizot’s story is exceptional. The one full US review, in THR, is here (it’s positive, though I totally disagree with the final paragraph, on the film’s supposed “one failing”). It will surely open in the US at some point. Trailer is here.

After Wargnier’s film, I simply had to check out others on the subject. So over the subsequent two weeks I saw two documentaries on DVD by Paris-based filmmaker—and co-producer of ‘The Gate’—Rithy Panh (not to be confused with the photojournalist Dith Pran, whose story was at the center of Roland Joffé’s film). The first one was the 2003 S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, about the notorious Tuol Sleng prison, a.k.a. S21, in Phnom Penh, of which Duch was the director for most of the Khmer Rouge’s years in power and where some 17,000 persons were interned, interrogated, tortured, and executed. Prison interrogators and guards coolly described to Rithy Panh how they went about their work. It’s an amazing documentary. An absolute must-see (trailer is here). Tuol Sleng is now a museum and memorial of the Khmer Rouge’s auto-genocide.

The other Rithy Panh documentary seen was The Missing Picture (L’Image manquante, curieusement pas encore sorti en France), which won the Un Certain Regard top prize at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival and was one of the five pics nominated for the 2014 best foreign film Oscar. In this one Rithy Panh tells the story of his own experience under the Khmer Rouge, of his deportation from Phnom Penh at age 11, the slave labor in the countryside, and death by starvation of members of his family. One particularity of the Khmer Rouge era is the near total absence of images. Mug shots at Tuol Sleng and a few black-and-white propaganda films excepted, there are practically no photos or other images of Cambodia of the period. Like the Nazis and their extermination camps, the Angka did not wish to record what they were doing for future posterity. So to make up for the absence of images, Rithy Panh used miniature clay figurines to tell his story. It’s an original film and powerful. Like his ‘S21′, it’s a must-see. Hollywood press reviews are here, here, and here. Trailer is here.

These are but two of the several documentaries Rithy Panh has made on the Khmer Rouge, one of which is entirely focused on Comrade Duch. This I’ll see at some point. He’s also published his memoir (written with Christophe Bataille), L’élimination, which has been translated into English. As with the Holocaust and other episodes of genocide and mass evil, there will never be too many books or films on this subject.

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Selma

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[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below]

As today is the 50th anniversary of Selma, Alabama’s “Bloody Sunday,” I suppose this is a good day to have a post on the movie, which I saw in the US on precisely January 9th (and which opens in France next Wednesday). Like just about everyone, I thought it was a well done, well acted, even riveting film about this momentous moment in the civil rights movement, and with the climate in the South of the time—of the apartheid/terrorist order under which black Americans lived—impeccably depicted, as were the details of the period. And it was nice to finally see a biopic (of sorts) of Martin Luther King Jr., who, one need not be reminded, was one of the greatest Americans of the 20th century. On this score, David Oyelowo was well cast as MLK, as was Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King (both merited at least Oscar nominations, which they didn’t receive). The casting was indeed pitch perfect all around, particularly Tom Wilkinson as LBJ and Tim Roth as George Wallace.

I have no specific memory of the Selma march—I was nine at the time—but the civil rights movement is a part of my family history. I participated in my first civil rights march in the fall of 1964—with my parents obviously—in downtown Milwaukee WI. I have one memory of it—like a photograph (as youthful memories can be)—and specifically being told by my parents that if people aggressed us or threw things, not to react. I remember the week my father went to the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, to give a talk or maybe teach a class, in the fall of 1967, of what a big deal it was and awaiting his daily letters. And I won’t recount the atmosphere at home when MLK was assassinated on April 4th ’68. So, like I said, the story recounted in ‘Selma’ resonates personally with me.

This said, the film, while good and a must-see, is not without problems. As every minimally informed person is aware by now, director Ava DuVernay’s treatment of President Lyndon Johnson and his role at the time has been vehemently contested, notably by Joseph Califano Jr., who blew his fuses at the film’s depiction of LBJ’s reticence over moving forward on the Voting Rights Act. DuVernay defended herself but the polemic over her portrayal of LBJ’s role has pretty clearly resolved that she gave LBJ a bum rap—and not only over his alleged foot-dragging on the Voting Rights Act but also in the suggestion that LBJ knew about, and even authorized, J. Edgar Hoover’s dirty campaign against MLK.

For more on this, see novelist Darryl Pinckney’s review of the film in the February 19th issue of the NYRB, “Some different ways of looking at Selma” (and the responses to it).

Another point of contention is how the film “airbrushes out Jewish contributions to [the] civil rights [movement],” as this critique by Leida Snow in the Jewish Daily Forward postulates. In this vein, an op-ed in the JTA by Dartmouth College Jewish Studies prof Susannah Heschel explains “What Selma means to the Jews.” But as Jews are always arguing and disagreeing with one another, JDF blogger Katie Rosenblatt had a riposte to Snow’s critique, asserting that “‘Selma’ got it right by leaving out Jews.”

One critique of the film—and not an insignificant one—is that it “ignores the radical grassroots politics of the civil rights movement,” as Princeton grad student Jesse McCarthy argued in TNR. On this score, the most consequential salvo has been fired, not surprisingly, by University of Pennsylvania political science prof Adolph Reed Jr., “The real problem with Selma: It doesn’t help us understand the civil rights movement, the regime it challenged, or even the significance of the Voting Rights Act.” I say “not surprisingly,” as Reed’s academic/intellectual trademark is launching broadsides against movies, books, persons, etc, on the subject of Afro-Americans—of which he’s a leading specialist—broadsides that are always insightful and smart, albeit overly long, when not long-winded (e.g. see his barrage two years ago against Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained). In his critique here (19 pages printed out), Reed takes issue with the film’s “King idolatry,” asserting, entre autres, that there was a whole array of prominent actors in the civil rights movement of the time, some of whom are seen in the film but not accorded their due. The core of Reed’s argument, however, is on the centrality of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the history that led up to this. For the civil rights movement, this was IT (the early scene in the movie of the Oprah Winfrey character trying to register to vote is one of its most powerful). I won’t try to summarize what Reed has to say on this, except that it’s complex, informative, and important (though, as is Reed’s wont, a little long). Definitely worth reading.

To summarize, ‘Selma’ was about one big thing, which was voting rights—and which are under assault today, with the 2013 SCOTUS ruling and the ambiguous posture of the current GOP on the question. As for other current issues concerning black Americans—notably the DOJ’s just released report on Ferguson MO—I’ll come back to this another time.

À propos, journalist Ari Berman—who’s written extensively on civil and voting rights issues—has a piece in The Nation, “Fifty years after Bloody Sunday in Selma, everything and nothing has changed.” The lede: Racism, segregation and inequality persist in this civil-rights battleground.

John Lewis, who was on the Edmund Pettus Bridge 50 years ago today, has given the thumbs up to Ava DuVernay’s film. Also doing so is UT-Austin prof Charlotte M. Canning, who has a piece in TAP on “‘Selma’ and ‘The Birth of a Nation': A tale of two films, 100 years apart.” The lede: A century after D.W. Griffith’s artful abomination, Selma succeeds by telling the true story of everyday people who come together to achieve the improbable.

I’ve never seen ‘The Birth of a Nation’. As this is its centenary and in view of its notoriety—and as it’s available on YouTube—I’ll bite the bullet and watch it. C’est l’histoire de l’Amérique.

UPDATE: That was one helluva speech President Obama gave in Selma yesterday (watch here). (March 8th)

2nd UPDATE: The Über-conservative National Review has a commentary, by staff writer Charles C.W. Cooke (who’s British), deploring “The GOP’s conspicuous absence from Selma.” C’est bien.

3rd UPDATE: The other day I attended a round table featuring Sciences Po prof and américainiste Sylvie Laurent, who discussed her latest book, Martin Luther King: Une biographie intellectuelle et politique. As Mme Laurent is one of France’s leading academic specialists of the US civil rights movement—and her biography of MLK looks first rate—I asked her what she thought of the movie ‘Selma’. Her response: It’s a very good film, portrays the events of the time as they were, and with the depiction of LBJ’s disputes with MLK over the Voting Rights Act largely accurate, i.e. she disagrees with the POV of Joseph Califano & Co. Dont acte. (March 21st)

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Bernie & Joe

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Too bad Richard Linklater’s ‘Boyhood’ didn’t win the Best Picture Oscar. It was the best American film of 2014 hands down and definitely more meritorious than ‘Birdman’. As for Alejandro G. Iñárritu winning Best Director over Linklater, this was a closer call, though Linklater still should have gotten it. As I wrote last summer, ‘Boyhood’ was the first Linklater film I had ever seen, so I spent a few evenings of my US vacation catching up on some of his œuvre. One that I saw (via Netflix) was his 2012 black comedy ‘Bernie’. I loved this movie. If one doesn’t know it, it’s based an actual fait divers in the mid 1990s, in the east Texas town of Carthage (pop. 6,700)—Linklater learning about it from this Texas Monthly article—of funeral home director and well-liked newcomer in the community, Bernhardt “Bernie” Tiede II (actor Jack Black), who befriends rich 80-year-old widow Marjorie “Marge” Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), whom everyone in the town hates, as she’s a mean, nasty old woman. Bernie, in his late 30s, and Marge are inseparable until, one day, he kills her. Comme ça. With a shotgun. He readily confesses and is indicted for murder by local DA Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey), but with the latter finding it impossible to constitute an impartial jury in Carthage, as so many of the locals think Bernie was right to have killed Marge (the trial was moved to another town and Bernie was convicted). The story really happened. The film is a riot. It was shot in Carthage and with all the extras local citizens who knew Bernie and Marge, and speak about what happened. E.g. as one put it: “They don’t care that he did it, they think he should have done it.” And another, describing the general situation: “I’m walking into a story that’s part slapstick comedy, part small town gossip, part Shakespeare tragedy.” I am no fan of Texas—politics, culture, mentality, you name it—but these Texas folks are hilarious! Watch the trailer here and see for yourself. Reviews were good on the whole. The film has yet to open in France.

Pour l’info, Carthage is in Texas’s 1st Congressional District, which is represented by Louie Gohmert, a Republican bien évidemment, who is wacky and extreme even by Tea Party standards. Voilà some of his more notable public pronouncements (paraphrased by this website): “Jesus hates taxes! Gun control will lead to bestiality! The American Jobs Act is an attack on marriage! Obama talking to BP about the 2010 oil spill is just like Hitler! Foreign aid to China will lead them to sell us food with cats and dogs in it! Oil pipelines are good for wildlife! Hate crimes legislation leads to necrophilia!…” He’s also one of those who thinks Obama may be a “secret Muslim” trying to Islamize America. Liberal/progressive websites and commentators like to call Gohmert an “idiot” and “moron”—which he may well be—but I think he’s a cut-up, along with the residents of Carthage TX he represents. Texas folklore.

As it happens, I saw a film last spring (this one at the cinoche), ‘Joe’, directed by David Gordon Green—previously unknown to me—that was also set in the Texas 1st CD or not far from it. The people in this one are not cut-ups. At all. In short: Joe Ransom (Nicolas Cage)—an ex-con with a lot of problems but not a fundamentally bad person—is the foreman of a tree-clearing crew out in the woods and hires a self-reliant 15-year-old boy, Gary (Tye Sheridan), who wants to make money out of sight of his abusive, alcoholic white trash father, Wade (Gary Poulter). Joe takes Gary under his wing and gets caught up in the latter’s family shit, and with all sorts of shit happening. It’s a well-done, well-acted film whose subject is poor people in one of the most backward corners of America (the pic reminds one of Jeff Nichols’s Mud, which also starred Tye Sheridan). If one doesn’t mind a certain level of violence, it may definitely be seen. Reviews were good in both the US and France. Trailer is here.

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Back to Richard Linklater, last summer I also saw, on DVD, his 1993 ‘Dazed and Confused’, a coming-of-age film about teenagers on the last day of high school in Austin—it could be nowhere else in Texas—in precisely 1976. It’s pretty clearly autobiographical on Linklater’s part. I watched it with several people—middle-aged and older—and we all enjoyed it, though my mother (age 83) was disturbed by the hazing scenes, which I opined had to be a local Texas tradition (and that has no doubt died out since the era in which the movie was set). The ensemble cast (including Matthew McConaughey, Ben Affleck, and Milla Jovovich) is great. I was thinking of ‘American Graffiti’ throughout, which, not to detract from this one, is a superior film. Roger Ebert’s review is here, trailer is here.

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2015 Oscars

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I’ve seen all but three of the films in the top categories (unlike last year, when I managed to see all). The list of nominees is here. Some of them I have blog posts on (or will imminently): American Sniper (reprehensible film), Boyhood (excellent), Gone Girl (way overrated), Selma (meritorious but not a masterpiece), The Grand Budapest Hotel (good), Two Days, One Night (excellent). As for those I haven’t posted on, here’s my brief take on each, starting with the Best Picture nominees:

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance): I’ll see anything by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, who is always interesting even if his films are not without issues (‘Amores Perros’ is his best IMO). I had high expectations for this one, in view of the top reviews and strong word-of-mouth on social media. I will readily acknowledge the film’s merits, notably Iñárritu’s direction—which is impressive—and the acting. And it certainly held my attention, which is saying something for a two-hour film that takes place almost entirely inside a theater. But while it is, in an objective sense, a good movie, I found the characters so unpleasant, indeed antipathetic, that I just couldn’t gush about it afterward. And Michael Keaton is a tête à claques (an admittedly subjective opinion). C’est tout c’que j’ai à dire.

The Imitation Game: Good quality Hollywood entertainment and a biopic that works to boot, as I knew nothing about the personality—Alan Turing—beforehand, so didn’t know what was going to happen or how the pic would end. And it’s always good to see a well-made WWII movie. The message—admittedly not original—was salutary too: of how prejudice (here, against gays) not only shatters lives but also undermines the interests of nations and states. Benedict Cumberbatch is solid in his role and Keira Knightley is too (and I am normally not a fan of hers). So thumbs up to this.

The Theory of Everything: This biopic works less well than the one above. Eddie Redmayne is exceptional as a quadriplegic Stephen Hawking but Felicity Jones, who plays Jane Hawking, hardly merits an Oscar nomination for her performance. The pic left me unsatisfied, as its main focus is the relationship between the two, with Hawking’s science getting short shrift. And one does not come away with a clear sense of how he has managed, with his debilitating handicap, to keep so productive, make new scientific breakthroughs, write books, and all. In other words, how did he do it? So my reaction to this one is neither thumbs up or down but just bof

Whiplash: I was originally not going to bother with this one, as I am not a great fan of jazz—except for jazz piano (Keith Jarrett, Bill Evans, etc)—and do not understand why anyone out to learn a musical instrument would choose drums (sorry if I offended any drummers out there; I respect you all the same; and if it makes you feel better, I just came across this piece on social media informing us that “drummers are smarter than…everybody else”). But as the pic received top reviews—and particularly in France—and was playing at my neighborhood theater during Xmas week, I decided WTH. In short, I was absorbed in the story from the outset, at the midway point started think that it was a very good film indeed, and decreed toward the end that it would make my Top 10 list of the year. It’s an excellent movie. And J.K. Simmons is redoubtable as the sadistic psychopathic fascist jazz maestro. Voilà!

And then there are these:

Foxcatcher: I knew nothing about the story going in except that it was about wrestling, and have no memory of the 1996 fait divers that concludes it (which apparently didn’t receive much media attention in France). It’s an absorbing, well-paced, well-acted movie that held my attention throughout, which is saying something in view of its 2+ hour length and the fact that I don’t find wrestling particularly interesting. Steve Carell and Mark Ruffalo deserve their Oscar nominations (though I don’t know if they deserve to win). The film also has a politically progressive message—if one wants to see it that way—which is the parasitical character of the scions (a certain number of them) of wealthy families—the kind of people who were born on third base and think they hit a triple—and who are destined to occupy an increasing portion of America’s ruling class in the coming decades (for an elaboration on this theme, see the review in Le Monde, which calls the film a “chef d’œuvre” and “intellectuellement passionnant”). If one wants an ironclad argument for a steep estate tax on wealth in the eight or nine figures, this movie is it. So: recommended.

Wild: Woman in her late 20s, whose life is a mess, sets out to walk the thousand mile Pacific Crest Trail—despite having no hiking or camping experience—so she can work through her personal problems (pic is based on a true story). Why did I go see this? I was on vacation (in the US) and had seen all the other interesting-looking movies playing at the local multiplex. It’s okay, memorable mainly for the impressive nature scenes. Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern put in perfectly fine performances but do not merit their Oscar nominations. The movie may be seen, but may also not be seen.

Voilà my ballot:

BEST PICTURE: Boyhood.
A no-brainer.

DIRECTING: Richard Linklater (Boyhood).
Alejandro G. Iñárritu is a credible winner for this, as is Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel), but Linklater deserves it for his tour de force.

ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE: Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything).
This is by default, as the real winner of this should be Jake Gyllenhaal for his role in Nightcrawler, but for which he was incomprehensibly not nominated. Michael Keaton, who is likely to win it, is worthy, I suppose (even though he’s a tête à claques).

ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE: Marion Cotillard (Two Days, One Night).
This one is also by default, as it is an almost forgone conclusion that Julianne Moore will win for her role in ‘Still Alice’, but which I have not seen, as the film hasn’t opened in France yet (and hadn’t nationally when I was in the US last month). Now I love Marion Cotillard and who was excellent in her film, but as it’s not American I don’t know what she’s doing in this category. But as the remaining nominees absolutely do not deserve it, I have to go with her. [UPDATE: Having now seen ‘Still Alice’ (March 19th), I will confirm that Julianne Moore absolutely deserved to win the best actress award; her performance in the film is exceptional.]

ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE: J.K. Simmons (Whiplash).
Obviously. I’m sure Robert Duvall is great in ‘The Judge’ but I missed it.

ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE: Patricia Arquette (Boyhood).
A natural choice. I didn’t see ‘In the Woods’ (and have no intention of), so can’t speak to Meryl Streep’s performance, but hasn’t she won enough already?

FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM: Leviathan.
This is the nº1 of the five available options, with Timbuktu a close second. Ida is a haunting, impressively shot film but it didn’t blow me away the way it did to everyone else. ‘Wild Tales’ is fun but doesn’t merit the top prize in any awards ceremony outside Argentina. I haven’t seen ‘Tangerines’.

 

2015 academy awards nominations

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american-sniper-poster-small

[update below]

I saw this three days ago, the day it opened in France. I made it a point to read nothing on the movie beforehand—either reviews or articles—though am aware that it is a big box office hit in the US—beyond all expectations—and particularly among conservatives. And I still haven’t read anything about the movie, though will, after writing this. My verdict: It is a reprehensible film. It is so because it makes a hero out of a man who is, in fact, not a hero and who achieved his heroic status—in the eyes of those who accord him this (and they are numerous in l’Amérique profonde, as one sees at the end)—in fighting and killing in a war that America had no business fighting. Navy SEAL Chris Kyle is considered a hero because he killed 160 combatants and other irregulars who were out to kill American soldiers in a war zone. Bully for him. Soldiers protect their own in all wars, no? What else is new in the history of warfare? CPO Kyle, we learn, went beyond the call of duty to protect his buddies. He was a brave man, intrepid even. Bully for him again. One may understand why he was considered a hero within the US military—fellow soldiers called him “the legend”—but there is no rhyme or reason for him to be considered as such by any citizen outside the military.

It would be otherwise, of course, if CPO Kyle had been killing enemy combatants who were at war with America and posed a threat to America inside its borders. Celebrating his feats in the larger society would thus be comprehensible. But this was the Iraq war. The nagging (rhetorical) question that went through my mind throughout the film, in watching Kyle and his fellow soldiers engaged in urban warfare in Fallujah and Ramadi, was WTF were they doing there in the first place? What enemy were they fighting? Now it is established early in the film that Kyle enlisted with the SEALs following 9/11, as a patriotic reflex of an American whose country was attacked. Lots of Americans had that reflex (for the anecdote, in the days after 9/11 I let the US embassy in Paris know that my services were available—including to any intelligence agency—should they want them; I didn’t hear back). After completing SEAL boot camp the film jumps to Kyle in Iraq. But Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. Iraq posed no threat to America. Now the US government of the time and all sorts of other Americans intoxicated by nationalist hysteria or Washington groupthink believed that Iraq was indeed a threat to the United States, but those who knew something about the Middle East and, more generally, how to analyze and think coherently—which includes myself, obviously—knew this was preposterous and argued it to all and sundry.

At one point in the film, Kyle tells one of his buddies that “we have to kill the enemy here so they don’t come and kill us in New York or San Diego” (approximate quote). That even an ignorant soldier could believe such bullshit by 2005 is breathtaking. The enemy that Kyle & Co were fighting is clearly identified: Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his Al-Qaida in Iraq (not once is Saddam Hussein and the Ba’athist regime—the ostensible threat to America in 2003—mentioned in the film). Now Zarqawi and AQI were definitely not nice people. I will even agree with Kyle that they were Evil (capital E) (the notion that America is fighting Evil, and not just in Iraq, is evoked more than once in the film). But here’s the thing: America did not invade Iraq to fight Zarqawi and AQI. AQI, which posed no threat to the American homeland, did not even exist when America launched the Iraq war. The very existence of AQI—and its presence in Iraq’s Sunni triangle—was a direct consequence of America’s invasion. And Fallujah being reduced to rubble and its population driven from the city was directly caused by America being there (the scene in the house that the soldiers have stormed—with Kyle demanding to know what the family is doing there and why they hadn’t evacuated the city—is incredible, as if people should naturally abandon their homes and worldly possessions—to looters, criminals, terrorists, whoever—because a foreign army tells them to). None of this is examined in Eastwood’s film. America is in Iraq fighting the enemy because that’s what it’s doing. America is there because it’s there. Fighting Evil there, before it comes for us here.

Further contributing to the film’s reprehensibility is its backhanded celebration of America’s gun culture—and of militaristic values more generally (American society being the only one in the Western world, as Tony Judt observed in one of his later essays, that continues to exalt the military and its values). In the opening scene we see seven-year-old Chris in rural Texas bagging a deer on his first hunting trip with his father. Kyle père is teaching his son how to handle firearms. Now I can accept that rural people the world over and since time immemorial hunt and have rifles at home. I don’t relate to it but, for rural folk, that’s just the way they live and I pass no judgment on it. But the moral code that daddy Kyle seeks to instill in his sons around the dinner table—which is underpinned with violence and accompanied by stupid ass references to God and the Lord—is another matter. I’m sorry but Chris Kyle’s father—who was ready to whip his sons with a belt—was an asshole. And then there’s the scene toward the end, of Kyle at home with wife and kids—before he drives off in his pick-up and gets murdered—goofing around the living room and kitchen with a six-shooter, which may or may not be loaded (but if the gun’s not loaded, what’s the point of having it in the first place, if, acting with hair-trigger presence of mind, one can’t immediately neutralize a bad guy entering the house uninvited, or some shit like that?). Anyone who keeps a handgun at home, in proximity to children, and plays around with it in front of children to boot is a reprehensible SOB.

On ‘American Sniper’ as cinema, it’s okay. Bradley Cooper puts in an acceptable performance, though hardly deserves an Oscar nomination for it. Sienna Miller is likewise acceptable as Chris’s wife Taya—she’s certainly attractive—but spends too much of the film weeping over her husband going off on yet another tour with his beloved SEALs (for Chris Kyle, Iraq was a war of choice). And the scenes of their lovey dovey satellite phone conversations while he’s picking off enemy fighters from rooftops or heading into combat stretched credulity. One would think that any soldier who chats up his wife or g.f. on the phone while under fire would be reprimanded by his commanding officer, if not subjected to disciplinary action. Generally speaking and in view of its inescapable political parti pris, I don’t see how anyone outside of Jacksonian America—to borrow from Walter Russell Mead—can possibly adhere to the film and its message. But, as it happens, the early reaction in France has been positive, among both critics and Allociné spectateurs. The French love affair with Clint Eastwood continues. Every last Eastwood movie—including his worst and/or schlockiest—receives a rapturous welcome here and ‘American Sniper’ appears to be no exception. Hélas.

ADDENDUM: A further comment. Toward the end of the film Chris Kyle, in dealing with his PTSD, attends rehab sessions with Iraq war vets who have suffered serious injury (limbs blown off, etc). Some 40,000 American soldiers were killed or wounded in Iraq, many of the latter saved thanks to advances in military medicine, who would have died of their wounds in previous wars. What do Jacksonian, Fox News-watching Americans make of this? In fact, they almost have to uncritically accept the thesis of the film—that America was fighting Evil, no questions asked—as if one were to accept that the Iraq war was a catastrophic mistake—the most disastrous foreign policy decision in American history—then there would be no escaping the conclusion that Americans died or had their lives shattered for absolutely nothing. And then there is, of course, the number of Iraqis killed, which, since 2003, is heading upwards of 200,000 (if not more). Now most of those Iraqis were killed by other Iraqis. But if Iraq in 2003 was a Pandora’s Box of simmering sectarian hatred, America came in with a baseball bat and smashed that box open. The catastrophe in Iraq happened on America’s watch. And while there’s a lot of blame to go around, the catastrophic situation in Iraq today is ultimately America’s fault.

2nd ADDENDUM: One bit about the movie that caused me to jolt in my seat, but which slipped my mind while writing this post, was the final battle scene, where CPO Kyle finally terminates AQI sniper Mustafa with the golden bullet. The battle took place in Sadr City, which, as any halfway knowledgeable person knows, is the big Shi’ite quartier populaire of Baghdad. But AQI—which has since mutated into ISIS—is Sunni. AQI was killing Shi’ites when it wasn’t killing Americans. Sadr City at the time was Muqtada al-Sadr’s fiefdom, and he and his followers didn’t like AQI, to put it mildly. So on this level the scene makes no sense. Clint Eastwood and his team betrayed inexcusable ignorance here.

A correction: I wrote above that Kyle enlisted with the SEALs after 9/11. In fact, he did so after the 1998 Nairobi/Dar es Salaam bombings.

UPDATE: I’ve come across an excellent review/commentary on ‘American Sniper’, dated January 10th, by Ross Caputi, a former Marine who, like Chris Kyle, participated in the 2nd Siege of Fallujah. Caputi’s reaction to the film is similar to mine. His review is well worth reading. (February 28th)

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2015 César awards

40ème César

[update below]

The French movie industry’s carbon copy imitation of the Oscars. The awards ceremony is happening tomorrow night—two nights before the Oscars (as usual)—at the Théâtre du Châtelet (as always). The full list of nominees is here. Leading with ten nominations is ‘Saint Laurent’, followed by Les Combattants (Love at First Fight) with nine, Timbuktu with eight, and Hippocrate and ‘Yves Saint Laurent’ with seven each. There were several films in the top categories I hadn’t seen when the nominations were announced last month. In order to cast my ballot, as it were, I managed to catch all in the past three weeks (DVD and en salle). I have blog posts on most of the nominees. For the ones I don’t—those seen of late—here’s my brief take on each:

La Famille Bélier (The Bélier Family): This is the crowd-pleasing, heartwarming, feelgood smash hit comedy of the season, with over six million tix sold since its release the week before Xmas and racking up six César nominations, including Best Film. I originally had no intention of seeing it but, César oblige, had little choice. The story: The Béliers—husband Rodolphe (François Damiens, Best Actor nominee), wife Gigi (Karin Viard, Best Actress nominee), 16-year-old daughter Paula (Louane Emera, Most Promising Actress nominee), and 13-year-old son Quentin (Luca Gelberg)—are a zany family of deaf dairy farmers (they make cheese) in the bucolic Mayenne Angevine—except for Paula, who has normal hearing and thus acts as family interpreter, as it were (Damiens, Viard, and Emera learned sign language for the film; Gelberg is hearing impaired in real life; Viard also looks to have dropped 50 or 60 IQ points for her role). At school Paula chooses chorus as an elective—as that’s what the boy she has a crush on is taking—the teacher of which (Eric Elmosnino, Best Supporting Actor nominee) is a slave-driver who relishes skewering students for their lack of talent (recalling the jazz teacher in ‘Whiplash’, though without the sadistic psychopathic side). But Paula turns out to have talent indeed, so impressing her hard-to-impress teacher—a Parisian who lives his posting in bumfuck rural Anjou as a sort of purgatory—that he takes her under his wing, telling her that she absolutely has to go to music school in Paris, which would, of course, mean leaving the farm and her loving, zany, deaf family. And that’s what she decides to do. The pic actually has a few good laughs and gags, notably from Rodolphe (François Damiens is a well-known Belgian comic actor), who, in a subplot, decides that the mayor of the village is such a condescending idiot that he, Rodolphe, is going to run in the local election to unseat him, even though he can’t hear or talk; to surmount the insurmountable odds he draws inspiration from François Hollande’s writings, which he carefully studies in bed at night; now that’s funny (he wins, of course). The bons sentiments naturally kick in toward the end (have hankies ready, for the tears of joy). Middlebrow family entertainment for the masses (though it will likely be hit with an R rating in the US for the sex talk and allusions, of which there’s a lot). If it wins Best Film I will definitively lose all respect for the Académie des Arts et Techniques du Cinéma.

Pas son genre (Not My Type): Clément (Loïc Corbery) is a late 20ish Parisian philosophy professor—in lycée (philo being a required subject for all 12th graders in France) and university—high culture maven, and author (with prestigious publishing house), who cannot conceive of life outside the 6th arrondissement, with morning café and croissant at Les Deux Magots and all. But being a fonctionnaire with l’Education nationale he pretty much has to go where he’s assigned, so when informed that he’s being posted to teach high school philo in Arras—Prefecture of the Pas-de-Calais, which is only an hour on the TGV from the Gare du Nord but not really practical for a daily commute, so he has to live there for at least part of the week—he reacts like he’s being sent to French Guiana, or to a provincial town in Madagascar. Purgatory (a refrain in French movies; see above). Now Clément is not the most outgoing guy: he’s a psychorigide cold fish and arrogant snob to boot, and clearly has problems in his relationships with women (established in the opening scene). But once in Arras, he takes a liking to bubbly hairdresser Jennifer (Emilie Dequenne, Best Actress nominee), asks her out on a date, and stuff inevitably happens. Educated intellectual guy takes up with girl down the education/social class ladder. Not exactly an original cinematic theme, nor what happens between them: she falling for him more than he for her, but then she melting his ice-cold exterior, causing him to fall for her but while she, cognizant that the relationship can’t possibly go anywhere, pulls back. The film—otherwise unexceptional—is carried by Dequenne’s performance. She’s very good and deserves her César nomination (pour mémoire, Dequenne, who’s Belgian, won Best Actress at Cannes for her role in the Dardenne brothers’ 1999 film ‘Rosetta’). So while the pic is not worth going out of one’s way for, it may be seen chez soi on DVD.

Saint Laurent & Yves Saint Laurent: Two biopics on the famous fashion designer in the same year. Can you believe it? Crazy. Don’t producers coordinate these things? I had zero interest in seeing either but, in view of their respective slew of César nominations, decided that I really should. The seven nominations for ‘Yves Saint Laurent’—the first of the two to come out (Jan. ’14)—include Best Actor (Pierre Niney), Best Supporting Actor (Guillaume Gallienne), and Best Supporting Actress (Charlotte Le Bon). This one is the more conventional biopic, covering the couturier’s life from the launch of his career in Algeria at age 21—in 1957, during the war; YSL was a Pied-Noir from Oran—and apprenticeship with Christian Dior to his “Russian ballet” collection of 1976—considered his greatest—with flashes ahead to his later years. The relationship with the high-flying businessman and philanthropist Pierre Bergé, YSL’s companion to the end of his life (d.2008), is a natural focus of the film (Bergé collaborated with director Jalil Lespert, lending him the original 1976 outfits for the reenactment of the runway show). The film, which did well at the box office, received generally good reviews, with Allociné spectateurs giving it even higher marks. It’s a perfectly acceptable by-the-numbers biopic that may be seen (at home; not worth schlepping to the cinoche for). The second one, ‘Saint Laurent’—which came out in October and whose ten nominations include Best Film, Best Director (Bertrand Bonello), Best Actor (Gaspard Ulliel), and two for Best Supporting Actor (Jérémie Renier and Louis Garrel)—covers only YSL’s 1967-76 period. It’s stylized, impressively shot, well-acted, and got top reviews, though Allociné spectateurs were more lukewarm (and the film was not a box office success). On this, I go with the vox populi. The pic, which is an unreasonable 2½ hours long, is tedious and drags for long stretches. I couldn’t wait for it to be over. The one thing I’ll say in its favor, though, is the beautiful outfits for the 1976 collection, which were created by costume designer Anaïs Romand—they look more Arab than Russian in style—as Pierre Bergé and the YSL house refused to have anything to do with Bonello’s film. I know nothing about fashion and care even less about it but was impressed with Romand’s creations, which, IMO, are even better than YSL’s originals.

Un beau dimanche (Going Away): Baptiste (Pierre Rochefort, Most Promising Actor nominee) is an early 30ish itinerant primary school teacher—who appears more intello than your average instituteur—in a beach town near Montpellier, who takes charge of a pupil whose father forgot to pick up at school. When Baptiste takes the boy to his mother, Sandra (Louise Bourgoin)—who works as a waitress in a restaurant on the beach—they strike up a conversation and one thing leads to the next. Yet another movie about bourgeois guy—Baptiste being, as we learn in the latter part of the pic, the brebis galeuse son of a very wealthy local family—and prolo girl (and who has made bad choices in her life and frequented the wrong type of people). It’s a small film, nothing to write home about, and utterly forgettable. C’est tout c’que j’ai à dire.

Voilà my vote:

BEST FILM: Hippocrate.
This was the best French film of the year. ‘Timbuktu’—which will almost certainly win—is a fine runner-up, though it’s not a French film.

BEST DIRECTOR: Abderrahmane Sissako (Timbuktu).
A semi political choice but deserved nonetheless.

BEST ACTOR: Guillaume Canet (La Prochaine fois je viserai le cœur).
Pierre Niney will probably win this one for his role in ‘Yves Saint Laurent’ but Canet is utterly convincing as a serial killer in his film.

BEST ACTRESS: Sandrine Kiberlain (Elle l’adore).
Most of the nominees here—Marion Cotillard, Adèle Haenel, Catherine Deneuve, Emilie Dequenne—are worthy winners but Kiberlain hit it out of the park with her performance in the film for which she has been nominated. She won the big prize last year and deserves it again.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Reda Kateb (Hippocrate).
Other nominees are worthy but Kateb is The Man, hands down.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Kristen Stewart (Clouds of Sils Maria).
Stewart may be an American and who speaks not a word of French in the film but as it’s French-made, directed by a Frenchman, and her performance was tops, she gets it in my book. Claude Gensac, the adorable mamie in Lulu femme nue, is the runner-up.

MOST PROMISING ACTOR: Ahmed Dramé (Les Héritiers).
Kévin Azaïs will likely win this one for his role ‘Les Combattants’ but Dramé is my sentimental choice (see post on film).

MOST PROMISING ACTRESS: Ariane Labed (Fidelio, l’odyssée d’Alice).
This is a very strong category, with all the nominees worthy winners, but Labed is my favorite.

BEST COSTUMES: Anaïs Romand for ‘Saint Laurent’.
I would normally pay no attention to this category but Romand’s beautiful outfits (see above) merit an award.

BEST FIRST FILM: ‘Elle l’adore’, by Jeanne Herry.
Of the films nominated this is nº1.

BEST FOREIGN FILM: Winter Sleep.
All of the nominees are good and some are great, but Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s chef d’œuvre is the best.

BEST SHORT FILM: ‘Les Jours d’avant’, by Karim Moussaoui.
This is the only one I’ve seen in this category—it’s Algerian, though French produced—and is very good (I’ll eventually have a post on it). As it’s a sophisticated little story about the 1990s “dark decade” in Algeria and by a new, young Algerian director, I hope it wins. The New Algerian Cinema deserves the recognition.

UPDATE: ‘Timbuktu’ was the big winner, with seven awards out of eight nominations, including Best Film (obviously). The YSL biopics got only one apiece. I was on the money with most of my choices or predictions. The awards list is here. Variety’s dispatch is here.

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