On Monday, the 27th annual Palm Springs International Film Festival came to a close after offering screenings of 191 films over 10 days. Though films from the U.S. and other English-speaking nations were well represented in the screening lineup, Palm Springs is primarily known as an international festival with the spotlight on foreign language films. Scheduled as it is in the height of Oscar voting season, the festival has taken on a huge role in raising the profile of potential nominees for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.
In fact, eight of the nine shortlisted films screened during the festival (while the ninth, “Tanna” from Australia, was shown in last year’s festival), and it offered festival-goers the rare opportunity to sample the Oscar contenders. At the closing, one of the nine shortlisted films, Germany’s “Toni Erdmann,” was selected as the festival’s Best Foreign Language Film by the festival jury of international film critics.
But the Academy Award finalists are in the hands of Oscar voters, not critics, so I found it useful during the festival’s 10 days to dive into the crowds and ask festival-goers what films they saw and, in particular, what they liked. (I also eavesdropped in the lobby after several screenings of the shortlisted films to get the audience’s immediate reactions as well.) Granted, these reactions are anecdotal, but the demographic of audiences here may not be too far removed from Oscar voters, and what these audiences told me could be useful in making your final picks.
Let’s analyze the pros and cons of the final nine contenders for Oscars 2017:
1. TONI ERDMANN (Germany)
Current Goldderby odds: 13/8
With its Best Foreign Film win at Palm Springs only accelerating the film’s Oscar chances, Maren Ade‘s comedy about the very unusual relationship between a buttoned-up businesswoman (Sandra Hüller) and her prankster father (Peter Simonischek) received a rousing reception at the festival with over 100 people turned away from the screening at the large Camelot Theater.
PROs: As the awards keep piling up, the film is slowly beginning to be distributed nationwide, allowing key word of mouth to grow. And that strategy is being directed by Sony Pictures Classics, one of the best in the business at managing Oscar campaigns.
CONs: It’s a (nearly) 3. hour. German. comedy. Knowing that, if it doesn’t win over a voter right away, will they even bother finishing it?
2. THE SALESMAN (Iran)
Current Goldderby odds: 9/2
Asghar Faradi, who won the Oscar for his country in this same category for 2011’s “A Separation,” is back in the running for this layered drama focusing on a couple whose current marital strains are reflected onstage as they perform Arthur Miller‘s “Death of a Salesman” in a local Tehran production. At Palm Springs, crowds were large and enthusiastic, particularly in the after-screening reactions.
PROs: As the film nears its January 27 U.S. release, its current Rotten Tomatoes score is 100% fresh, suggesting that the film will be showered with more popular praise during the prime Oscar voting period.
CONs: “Didn’t this guy just win?” might be a reaction among voters as they may choose to spread the wealth. And will the film’s distributor (Cohen Media Group) rise to the challenge of waging a major Oscar campaign?
3. LAND OF MINE (Denmark)
Current Goldderby Odds: 11/2
The official Danish entry is set in Denmark just after Germany’s surrender in World War II, where very young German POWs are ordered to defuse more than two million land mines that the Germans had buried in Danish beaches. Director Martin Zandvliet balances his portrait of the gruff Danish commander who needs to get the job done and the teens who only want to be home with their families now that the war is over. Lots of verbal reaction from the festival crowd whenever a land mine went off (SPOILER: land mines do go off) and hearty applause as the film concluded.
PROs: Sony Pictures Classics is handling this one too and helped to raise the film’s profile by placing prominent print ads for “Land of Mine” in New York and Los Angeles newspapers over the holidays, even though the film won’t open domestically until Feb. 10.
CONs: Though the film’s take on the Germans is a fresh one, it is nonetheless competing with two other World War II films among the final nine shortlisted films. Is its take fresh enough to stand out from the pack?
4. A MAN CALLED OVE (Sweden)
Current Goldderby Odds: 11/2
If there is a sleeper film that could pass the favorites to take the big prize, it was clear to me that, among the many festival-goers to whom I spoke, their clear choice would be Hannes Holm’s “A Man Called Ove,” a comedy about an old curmudgeon (Rolf Lassgård) whose suicide attempts are interrupted by his need to boss his neighbors around. Though it screened early in the festival, even by closing night, audiences were still fondly remembering it.
PROs: By far this is the most widely seen (and most widely read) shortlisted film (a domestic box-office gross of over $3.7 million and growing, not to mention over a year on the New York Times paperback best-seller list, where next week it will rank #2). Plus the film has been shortlisted for a Makeup & Hairstyling nomination. If it makes the final five, a likely but by no means sure thing, it could be the unexpected popular choice when it gets to the final balloting.
CONs: With the film working with a familiar kind of sitcom structure (one could easily see this being adapted into an American TV series), the question remains, as it does with any comedy nominee, is it too light to be considered worthy of an Academy Award?
5. MY LIFE AS A ZUCCHINI (Switzerland)
Current Goldderby Odds: 12/1
Unique among this year’s hopefuls, “My Life as a Zucchini” is a contender in both the Foreign Film and Animated Feature categories. Though the stop-motion characters in the film, which took four years to complete, resemble the kind of figures which you’d see on kids’ TV, the dark undercurrent running through the narrative of the 66-minute film came through to the adult festival audience, which gave the film a solid reception.
PROs: As the sole animated film in the bunch, “My Life as a Zucchini” clearly stands out from the pack, and the occasionally dark storyline gives it some extra heft.
CONs: Nonetheless, at 66 minutes, the film may seem to many voters as being little more than a super-sized animated short.
6. PARADISE (Russia)
Current Goldderby Odds: 33/1
A new film from Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky piques the interest of any serious film fan, and “Paradise,” winner of the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival, gives those fans much to chew on. Starkly photographed in black-and-white, the film focuses on three characters — a Russian aristocrat caught while working for the French Resistance in World War II and sent to a concentration camp, a German officer who hails from nobility, and a French officer whose job it was to round up Jews — as they sit and recount their deeds during the Holocaust. It’s a somber piece, and festival audiences were quiet at the conclusion, making it difficult to gauge audience reaction.
PROs: The Holocaust is a subject matter to which Academy voters have often responded (last year’s winner in this category is “Son of Saul”) and may do so again.
CONs: Still the style of “Paradise” is designed to be clinical, and those concentration camp movies that have won (not only “Saul” but “Life is Beautiful” come to mind) tend to feature characters who are more emotionally involving.
7. TANNA (Australia)
Current Goldderby Odds: 50/1
If Foreign Film voters are looking for something different, they may look no further than “Tanna,” a “Romeo and Juliet”-type story, which earned the Audience Award at this year’s Venice Film Festival. The first film ever to be filmed in the multi-island nation of Vanuatu in their native language of Nauvhal, “Tanna” features a cast who had never even seen a movie before, and voters may find its uniqueness a refreshing alternative to standard foreign film fare.
PROs: The Audience Award at Venice is a clear sign that the film is audience friendly which may translate into being an alternative for Oscar voters looking for something fresh.
CONs: “Tanna” has come and gone in American theaters without making much impact, and a resurrection by Oscar voters may be considered a long shot.
8. THE KING’S CHOICE (Norway)
Current Goldderby Odds: 100/1
The third World War II drama in the mix, Erik Poppe‘s “The King’s Choice,” focuses on the decision that had to be made by Norway’s King Haakon II as to whether to continue to keep up the fight against German forces seeking to invade Norway and suffer more casualties or instead to surrender to Germany and buckle to German occupation. Festival reaction was favorable, with several filmgoers citing it as one of their favorites.
PROs: It’s an epic-scale film focused on personal responsibility that may make it stand out from the pack.
CONs: Of the World War II trio of films, “The King’s Choice” appears likely to have the lowest profile among voters.
9. IT’S ONLY THE END OF THE WORLD (Canada)
Current Goldderby Odds: 100/1
Arguably one of the most controversial films on the shortlist, edgy Canadian director Xavier Dolan‘s latest is a surprisingly conventional story of a young writer who returns to his family after 12 years to announce to them that he is terminally ill. However, they are too caught up in their own drama to pay much attention to him. A starry cast, including Marion Cotillard, Vincent Cassel and Nathalie Baye, lend their talents to the proceedings.
PROs: Of all of Dolan’s films, this is by far the most audience-friendly, with a “bickering family” setting that’s been recognizable in sit-coms for decades.
CONs: That being said, the film’s conclusion was met with silence and much grumbling by festival-goers in the lobby afterward, a reaction that matches the movie’s current 42% rotten rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Be sure to make your Oscar predictions. Weigh in now with your picks so that Hollywood insiders can see how these films are faring in our Oscar odds. You can keep changing your predictions right up until just before nominations are announced on January 24 at 5:00 am PT/8:00 am ET. Be sure to read our contest rules. And join in the fierce debate over the Oscars taking place right now with Hollywood insiders in our forums.