The AFI Fest may chiefly get press for its starry gala premieres of Hollywood heavyweights like “J. Edgar” and “The Adventures of Tintin,” but it’s no less invested in showcasing far smaller works from the fringe and foreign sectors that could use the festival exposure — and it’s this aspect of the event that is reflected in their jury and audience awards, which shine a light on up-and-coming talents that could use the exposure.
Still, glancing down the list of winners announced earlier today, a few titles are familiar — particularly to those who have been following the submissions process for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Indeed, the one multiple prizewinner at AFI is Belgium’s candidate for the award, Michaël R. Roskam’s “Bullhead.” A reputedly tough-minded study of masculinity in the unlikely context of illegal cattle breeding (I haven’t seen it, but Drew McWeeny wrote a glowing review recently), the film took the audience award in the New Auteurs section, seeing off formidable competition including widely-admired Cannes titles “Snowtown,” “Michael” and “Oslo, August 31st.”
The audience wasn’t alone in being impressed by “Bullhead”: a jury of critics, including Variety’s Justin Chang and the LA Times’s Mark Olsen, awarded leading man Matthias Schoenaerts their acting prize, “for his nuanced and intensely physical embodiment of bruised masculinity.” For an Oscar submission that was greeted with surprise and some displeasure by pundits rooting for the Dardennes’ Cannes favorite “The Kid With a Bike,” the lesser-known film is starting to look like a credible choice in its own right.
The jury handed their top award in the New Auteurs strand to Julia Loktev’s “The Loneliest Planet,” which stars Gael Garcia Bernal and has drawn strong reactions across the fall festival circuit, “for its bold exploration of societal structures and gender roles, set against a landscape that conveys both profound beauty and profound alienation.” Their Special Jury Prize, meanwhile, went to another Oscar hopeful, this time from Greece: Athina Rachel Tsangari’s offbeat coming-of-age tale “Attenberg,” produced by “Dogtooth” creator Yorgos Lanthimos, is something of a festival veteran by this point, having travelled extensively since winning Best Actress for young star Ariane Labed at last year’s Venice Film Festival (where I rather liked it)..
Going back to the audience awards, their top pick in the Breakthrough section was Alexandra-Therese Keining’s “With Every Heartbeat,” a lesbian romantic drama from Sweden that one can only hope makes good use of compatriot Robyn’s storming pop single of the same name.
Teacher-student themed indie comedy “Wuss” took audience honors in the Young Americans strand, while the outcome in the World Cinema section is something of a surprise: though the lineup included such critically lauded festival hits as “A Separation,” the award was split between two lower-profile US productions, Rwanda-set genocide story “Kinyarwanda” and culinary documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.” (I won’t, however, feign astonishment that the audience didn’t go for “Faust” or “The Turin Horse.”)
Finally, short film awards were handed to “Babyland,” “Frozen Stories,” “The Eagleman Stag” and “The Voyagers.”