BIFAs and Indies

Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts’s For Sama (2019)

December begins with a fresh round of lists and awards, and Elena Gorfinkel is having none of it. Lists “consolidate and reaffirm the hidebound tastes of the already heard,” she writes at Another Gaze. “Lists are an anti-film politics.” The piece has sparked a bit of conversation on Twitter, where Srikanth Srinivasan counters: “Canons are what enable alternate and anti-canons. I think it was Truffaut who said you need to have culture before you can be anti-culture.” Love them or loathe them, though, the lists are going to keep on coming.

Year in and year out, one of the most fun top tens is the one John Waters has been writing up for every December issue of Artforum since the dawn of the century. This year, he’s giving his top two slots to French filmmakers. Gaspar Noé’s Climax, in which an acid-spiked bowl of sangria turns a dance company’s party into a traumatic horror show—“The Red Shoes meets Hallucination Generation,” offers Waters—is followed by Bruno Dumont’s Joan of Arc. “The ten-year-old star [Lise Leplat Prudhomme] stares nobly and defiantly through the camera lens right into your soul and doesn’t even wait for the church authorities—she burns herself at the stake.” Subscribers to Artforum can see the full top tens from Melissa Anderson,J. Hoberman,James Quandt, and Amy Taubin, while nonsubscribers are allowed at least a skim of their top two or three choices.

Bilge Ebiri, too, has put Climax, “a surreal techno-musical about the death of a multicultural France,” at the top of his ten. For fellow Vulture critic David Edelstein, the best film of the year is Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood, “a fetishistic collage of ’60s bric-a-brac that transcends its inspirations, building to a denouement at once euphoric and heartbreaking.” And writing about her favorite film of the year, Alison Willmore observes that Josh and Benny Safdie “have an affection for a particularly New York brand of street-level chaos, and Uncut Gems is their purest distillation of that so far, a film that huffs the dying fumes of capitalism—and man, what a rush.”


For the Telegraph’s Tim Robey, Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts’s For Sama is “maybe the most shattering of a dozen or so documentaries that have come out of Syria’s Civil War.” Last night, For Sama won best film, documentary, director, and editing at the British Independent Film Awards. From 2011, when she was a university student, through 2016, by which time she’d become a journalist for Britain’s Channel 4, al-Kateab filmed daily life in Aleppo—weddings, her sleeping newborn daughter (Sama is Arabic for “sky”), children playing, and children fleeing to the hospitals which are being systematically targeted by forces allied with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. In 2017, al-Kateab, pregnant with her second child; her husband, a doctor; and young Sama left Aleppo for London with the 500 hours of footage al-Kateab was smuggling in her loose clothing. Working with Watts and editors Chloë Lambourne and Simon McMahon, al-Kateab spent two years shaping For Sama, and writing for Sight & Sound, Nikki Baughan finds that the editing “brings both narrative drive and cohesion, without ever detracting from or laboring the scenes playing out before us.”

The Personal History of David Copperfield, Armando Iannucci’s loose adaptation of the Dickens classic, has picked up five BIFAs, including best supporting actor for Hugh Laurie and best screenplay. Only You, which Pamela Hutchinson, writing for Sight & Sound, calls “a remarkably mature love story” about “two people who have grown together through suffering,” has won a debut director award for Harry Wootliff and best actor for Josh O’Connor. And Renée Zellweger has won best actress for her turn as Judy Garland in Rupert Goold’s Judy.

We haven’t yet mentioned here that the nominations for the thirty-fifth Independent Spirit Awards are out. Two films that A24 is putting in theaters this season, Robert Eggers’s The Lighthouse and Josh and Benny Safdie’s Uncut Gems, lead with five each, and following with four apiece are Alma Har’el’s Honey Boy and Kirill Mikhanovsky’s Give Me Liberty. The Spirit Awards will be presented on February 8, the evening before the Oscars more or less wrap the 2019/2020 awards season.

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