On Monday, the 29th annual Palm Springs International Film Festival came to a close after offering screenings of over 180 films from 77 countries in 12 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, all nine of this year’s short-listed films screened during the festival, giving festival-goers the rare opportunity to sample the Oscar contenders in one place.
At the closing, one of the nine shortlisted films, “Félicité,” a surprise short-lister from Senegal, was selected as the festival’s Best Foreign Language Film by the festival jury of international film critics. The Best Actor award went to Nakhane Touré, who plays a caregiver during a tribal ritual into manhood in “The Wound,” a powerful film from South Africa. And the Festival Award for Best Actress went to transgender actress Daniela Vega in the film currently favored to win the Oscar by Gold Derby voters, Chile’s “A Fantastic Woman.”
But the Academy Award finalists are in the hands of Oscar voters, not critics, so I found it useful during the festival’s 12 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 2018, ranked from best to worst by their current Gold Derby odds:
1. A FANTASTIC WOMAN (Chile); Current Gold Derby odds 11/4
Sebastian Lelio‘s acclaimed film from Chile focuses on Marina (Vega), a waitress and aspiring singer, who is having an affair with a businessman (Francisco Reyes) who is twice her age. When Francisco suffers an aneurysm after making love, he further injures himself by falling down a flight of stairs before Marina can get him to the hospital. Once there, he dies on the operating table, and Marina immediately comes under suspicion by the doctors and police who insist on referring to Marina by masculine pronouns as she is in the process of transitioning as transgender. Suddenly finding herself without a lover, without a car and without a home, Marina finds herself with no place to turn.
PROs: With “A Fantastic Woman” winning the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, the film is being released by Sony Pictures Classics, a company which knows how to play the Oscar game and has positioned the film to open on February 2, just two weeks before voting begins on the final five nominees. If critical reviews can match the raves that the film has received from its festival screenings, “A Fantastic Woman” will have an important leg up on its competition.
CONs: “A Fantastic Woman” is a very gripping film, but if you are an Academy voter who is not comfortable with spending two hours with a transgender actress (Vega is front and center in virtually every scene), “A Fantastic Woman” might not be your cup of espresso.
2. THE SQUARE (Sweden); Current Gold Derby odds 7/2
Writer/director Ruben Östlund, whom many thought was robbed of a Foreign Film Oscar nomination for his 2014 comedy/satire “Force Majeure,” is back with his latest, which won the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in May. Set in a Stockholm art museum, the film centers on a publicity effort surrounding a controversial art piece. Featuring a cast that includes two well-known stars — Elisabeth Moss (Emmy winner for “The Handmaid’s Tale”) and Dominic West (SAG Awards cast nominee for “Chicago”) — “The Square” has been in release since October and has grossed over $1.3 million in the U.S. since then.
PROs: “The Square” likely has the highest profile of any of the nominees and the most recognizable cast, so it may be easier for an Academy voter to pop a screener in so as to vote in what can often be an intimidating category. Plus the Palm Springs Festival screening of “The Square” proved to be so popular that dozens of pass holders were turned away.
CONs: Anecdotally, I spoke to a number of festival goers who had seen “The Square” and were confused by the absurdist tone of the film. Satiric comedies tend not to do well in this category, such as last year’s upset loser “Toni Erdmann.”
3. FOXTROT (Israel); Current Gold Derby odds 9/2
Winner of the Golden Lion at this year’s Venice Film Festival and the Ophir Award for Israel’s Best Picture (making it automatically Israel’s submission to the Oscars), writer/director Samuel Maoz‘s film is structured as a fascinating three-act play. The first chronicles the grief of an Israeli ffamily as they learn that their son as been killed in battle. Then a twist. Act 2 is their son at a remote Northern Israeli outpost called Foxtrot who, with his buddies, find themselves fighting with boredom at a remote outpost. Then a twist. Act 3…well, I’m not going to tell you about that one.
PROs: Again, with Sony Pictures Classics behind it, “Foxtrot” is primed for a March 2 U.S. release to take full advantage of a potential Oscar win. Anecdotal reaction from festival goers has largely been very positive despite its challenging narrative structure (Palm Springs moviegoers can be very discerning).
CONs: “Foxtrot” does have an unconventional narrative structure in which the rug is often pulled out from under the viewer as far as the film’s narrative. Some voters may not like that, although some might (for the record, I do).
4. IN THE FADE (Germany); Current Gold Derby odds 6/1
This year’s Golden Globe winner for Best Foreign Language Film, Germany’s “In the Fade,” is a revenge drama in which Katja (Diane Kruger, who won the Best Actress prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival) sets out to track down the perpetrators of a bomb attack that took the lives of her husband and young son. Though she has received acclaim for her English-language performances (particularly in Tarentino’s “Inglorious Basterds”), “In the Fade” marks the first time that German-born Kruger has performed on film in her native language.
PROs: With an international star in the lead and a worldwide audience of millions witnessing the film’s Golden Globe win, the profile of “In the Fade” couldn’t be higher among the films in this category.
CONs: At only 68% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, “In the Fade” has the lowest amount of critical acclaim of the nine short-listed films, which may work against it.
5. LOVELESS (Russia); Current Gold Derby odds 13/2
Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev is a Festival regular and has been previously Oscar-nominated for his spare 2014 film “Leviathan.” Like that searing critique of Russian society, “Loveless,” his far more accessible work, is a scathing look at Russian society, focusing on the story of a bitter couple who would like nothing more than be rid of their 12-year-old son. One day, they are too busy bickering to notice that their boy has indeed disappeared.
PROs: Sony Pictures Classics again, so that if “Loveless” makes it to the Final 5, its premiere date of February 16 will be right in the thick of Oscar voting time, giving “Loveless” a distinct advantage.
CONs: Zvyagintsev’s films are extremely well made, but his characters can be difficult to love, particularly the couple here whose bitterness might make watching the entire screener a little tough to take for an Academy voter.
6. THE INSULT (Lebanon); Current Gold Derby odds 50/1
A refusal to apologize for a leaky drainpipe leads to a war of words between Lebanese Christian Tony (Adel Karam) and Palestinian refugee Yasser (Kamel El Basha). The perceived insult then leads to violence, then on to a courtroom and finally rioting in the streets. Ziad Doueiri‘s film starts with the micro — a tiny incident that could happen to anyone every day — and grows via pride, racial prejudice and a polarized country into a national issue, a timely theme is there ever was one.
PROs: “The Insult” has just opened this past weekend to stellar reviews and many background articles, so it will still be fresh in the minds of Oscar voters. And its distributor, Cohen Media Group, propelled last year’s Foreign-Language winner, “The Salesman,” to the Oscar.
CONs: Given the amount of time spent in the legal case, “The Insult” might be dismissed as just another courtroom drama, when it is anything but.
7. THE WOUND (South Africa); Current Gold Derby odds 80/1
“The Wound” is a coming-of-age story unlike any I’ve seen. In this South African semi-finalist, teenage boys and their caretakers are brought to a remote site where they undergo an ancient Xhosa tribe ritual in which the boys are circumcised and, with the help of the caretakers, try to survive for two weeks without food or water as their wound heals. “The Wound” takes viewers on a decidedly different journey as some of the male caretakers use the annual manhood ritual to renew sexual relationships with one another.
PROs: “The Wound” has spent the past year on the festival circuit, showing to great success and surprising audiences with its take on delicate subject matter, with only the Oscar stage left to prove itself.
CONs: “The Wound” has already had brief runs in the U.S. this fall, and rarely has the Academy chosen a winner from among films that have closed months ago.
8. ON BODY AND SOUL (Hungary); Current Gold Derby odds 100/1
Winner of the Golden Bear at the 2017 Berlin Film Festival, Ildikó Enyedi‘s unusual love story takes place at a Hungarian slaughterhouse where an executive and a new employee learn that they each share the exact same dream every night — in their dream, he is a stag and she is a doe walking together in a snowy forest. This bizarre bond that they both share marks the first steps in breaking down their barriers and sharing a most unexpected love.
PROs: When it premieres on Netflix on February 2, “On Body and Soul” may be the film that has the largest potential viewing audience among all the short-listed films.
CONs: An explicit scene of how a dead animal is stripped of its skin and prepared for butchering may turn off Oscar voters who may simply be looking for a love story.
9. FELICITE (Senegal); Current Gold Derby odds 100/1
Winner of the Palm Springs Festival’s “Best Foreign Film Award,” French Senegalese director Alain Gomis‘ film focuses on Félicité (real-life vocalist Véro Tshanda Beya Mputu), a singer working at an outdoor bar in Kinshasa who learns that her 14 year-old son has been severely injured in a motorcycle accident. The boy will lose his leg unless he can undergo an immediate operation, a procedure for which Félicité has little means to pay, but her efforts to find some financial help among friends and family members are rebuffed as the clock is ticking for her son.
PROs: Being named the festival’s best foreign-language film over all of its competitors in the Oscar race is no small thing and indicates that the film has significant critical appeal.
CONs: That being said, at the screening I attended, the film received no applause during the credits (a rarity here), and post-screening reactions from festival goers with whom I spoke was tepid at best, suggesting that “Félicité” may have more appeal to critics than to potential Oscar voters.
Be sure to check out how our experts rank Oscar contenders in this and the other top races. Use the drop-down menus at the top of each page to see the other categories. Then take a look at the most up-to-date odds before you make make your Oscar nomination predictions. Don’t be afraid to jump in now since you can keep changing your predictions until just before nominees are announced on January 23.