Subdued AFI Fest Makes for a Quieter Awards Season – But Look Out for ‘Dolemite’ and ‘Uncut Gems’

Also in this awards-season report: repeat viewings, power ballads and a Oscar Top 13

richard jewell clint eastwood quid pro quo
"Richard Jewell" / Warner Bros.

The AFI Fest opens in Hollywood this week, which in a normal awards season means that this is the week when everything gets completely crazy. This year, though, the Oscar race got crazy a couple of weeks ago, and AFI Fest simply seems like a little more of the same, or maybe even a slacking off of the insanity that surrounded the Academy’s Governors Awards back on Oct. 27. That’s partly because of AFI programming this year. While studios have often used the festival for gala screenings that showcase their prime awards contenders, this year Netflix’s “The Two Popes” and “The Irishman” (screening as part of a tribute to Martin Scorsese) are the only films considered top-drawer Best Picture candidate to have an AFI Fest gala. Netflix isn’t sending its other top contender, “Marriage Story,” and the festival also won’t be screening “Parasite” or “Little Women” or “Ford v Ferrari” (which opens in theaters this weekend) or “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” or other awards-bound films. The festival does have one prime premiere, Clint Eastwood’s “Richard Jewell,” along with a handful of films that have already screened or played at other festivals and are lurking in the margins of the awards conversation: “Queen & Slim,” “The Song of Names,” “Just Mercy,” “Clemency,” “The Aeronauts” and “The Banker.” And it has one high-profile gala that has nothing to do with the Oscars but could figure heavily at next year’s Emmys: “The Crown,” the TV series that will premiere Season 3 on Saturday, the day before it hits Netflix. But with the Governors Awards two weeks behind us instead of taking place during the AFI Fest, as it often does, and with a lineup short on the biggest contenders, this week just doesn’t have the fervor it did in past years. I would guess that we’ll probably learn more about this year’s Oscars race when Sam Mendes’ World War I epic “1917” screens around town on Nov. 24, three days after AFI Fest concludes, than we will during the festival itself.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” / Sony
Step-by-step Oscar predictions are a part of the awards-pundit gig that I’ve tried to avoid when I can, because everything is guesswork at this stage. But I do take part in the “Gurus of Gold” panel at Movie City News, which is getting off to a very late start this week with its first slate of nomination predictions for the 92nd Oscars. So for the record, I put “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” at No. 1 over “The Irishman,” partially because a second viewing of that latter film convinced me that its length could be a problem for some voters. “Parasite,” which unquestionably has the passionate following needed to land a nomination, tops “Marriage Story” to come in at No. 3, while my fifth spot is occupied by the one film in my top 13 that I have yet to see, “1917.” I won’t know for sure until it screens in a week and a half, but Sam Mendes’ WWI drama feels too significant not to be a major player. My second five consists of “Little Women” (the only female-ensemble piece in the mix unless you count “The Farewell” and “Hustlers,” both of which I have a problem seeing as serious Best Picture contenders, though I know the former has lots of supporters); “Jojo Rabbit,” the most divisive and most uncertain nominee among recent Toronto Film Festival audience winners; “The Two Popes,” which has proven to be a crowd-pleaser at festivals but hasn’t really started screening for the Academy; “Ford v Ferrari,” which mixes thrills with emotion in an exemplary way and might be underestimated by many Oscar-watchers; and “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” which doesn’t connect with everyone but is heartwarming in a way very few other films on this list are. Nos. 11-13 find “Joker” (I’m skeptical but not dismissive of its best-pic chances) sandwiched between two films that keep coming up in conversations with voters, “Dolemite Is My Name” and the Safdie brothers’ “Uncut Gems” — which, perhaps not coincidentally, “Dolemite” co-writer Larry Karaszewski recently called “an insane f—ed-up masterpiece” on Twitter. I’ve now seen it three times, I agree with Larry and the screenwriter of another film in my top 10 was just raving to me about it. So maybe my putting it on the list isn’t entirely a bit of wishful thinking.
Uncut Gems
“Uncut Gems” / A24
Yes, I really did see “The Irishman” twice “Uncut Gems” three times — which is to say that repeat viewings become something of a habit this time of year. So what improves on a second viewing, and what doesn’t? I’d say that Pedro Almodóvar’s quiet, quasi-autobiographical reverie grows stronger and more moving the second time. “Dolemite” holds up well, especially if you see it with an audience. The first time I saw “Judy,” I thought it was a great performance in a so-so movie; the second time, I appreciated the film itself more. “Parasite” reveals the intricacies of its construction in a second viewing, and the way Bong Joon Ho plants the seeds for what will happen later in the movie along the way. And “Uncut Gems,” which I’ve now seen more than any other top contenders, is missing a key surprise the second and third time around, but it’s every bit as engaging, the high level of craft (the editing! the sound design!) is even more impressive, and so is the unexpected performance of former NBA star Kevin Garnett as a version of himself. I talked to co-director Josh Safdie at a reception following my third viewing, and he said, “Was the third time the best? That’s what I’ve been told.” I wouldn’t go that far, but I loved this crazy mess the first time around and the repeat viewings have only strengthened that feeling.
Frozen 2
“Frozen II” / Disney
In a weird bit of awards-season misdirection, I’ve lately found myself on a brief power-ballad kick. Granted, the power ballad is a maligned form of music — you know, those hunks of majestic silliness in which a (usually) male vocalist busts a lung to the accompaniment of (mostly) screaming guitars and (almost always) booming drums as he sings of unrequited love/catastrophic heartbreak/cataclysmic longing/all of the above. Back in the ’80s, when power ballads regularly topped the charts, I was a rock critic, and like most rock critics I didn’t like them or most of the artists who did them. So why have I been listening to them this week? It started when I finally caught up to Alex Ross Perry’s “Her Smell,” a rough-hewn and spirited indie in which Elisabeth Moss plays the drugged-out hellion of a singer in an all-girl punk band. Late in the film, when her excesses have led to personal and professional ruin, Moss’ character sits down at a piano and plays Bryan Adams’ “Heaven” for her young daughter. Now, I figured the Talking Heads’ “Heaven” would be more her style, but apparently even rock casualties of a later era have a fondness for ’80s power ballads — and let’s face it, Adams’ “love is all that I need, and I found it there in your heart” is a more comforting thought than David Byrne’s “heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.” Then I saw an advance screening of “Frozen II,” in which married songwriters Robert Lopez and Kristin Anderson-Lopez have plopped a big ol’ power ballad right in the middle of a film filled mostly with more musical-theater kind of songs. “Lost in the Woods,” which is sung by Jonathan Groff, who plays the reindeer wrangler and romantic leading man Kristoff, was one of the film’s funniest moments, and clearly the talk of the post-screening reception. I chatted with co-writer Anderson-Lopez about it for a while, and she said that she and her husband drew from lots of different late ’70s and early ’80s songs, but changed their song anytime they felt it was getting too close to an existing song “because people love to sue anybody who works for Disney.” But that conversation led me down the rabbit hole to listening to the genre for a couple of days, during which I decided a few things about the fruitful power ballad/movie connection. For instance, Diane Warren may be best known for Oscar-nominated songs sung by female pop or soul singers, but she came up with an apotheosis of the genre when she got together with Aerosmith for “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing”; it’s not only the songwriting equivalent of a Michael Bay movie, but it which illustrates my first commandment of power ballads: They have to be so deadly serious that they’re also ridiculous and funny. Oh, and Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman’s “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad” does for power ballads what Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women” does for women’s movies: It is simultaneously a prime example of the genre and a wry deconstruction and criticism of it. NOTE: This story originally did not list Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” as part of the AFI Fest lineup. It is not listed in the festival program but is screening on Friday, Nov. 15 as part of a tribute to Scorsese.