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In terms of media coverage, the AFI Fest in Los Angeles is generally portrayed as yet another launchpad for big-name Oscar contenders in this crowded season -- headlines were dominated by the US premiere of "Saving Mr. Banks," the surprise package of "Lone Survivor" and so on. All that Hollywood-focused talk, however, tends to obscure what a fine selection of world and art house cinema the festival also showcases -- and it's this lower-profile part of the programme that comes to the fore when it's time for the jury and audience awards to be handed out.
Often, the AFI winners are under-the-radar films that have escaped my notice elsewhere on the festival circuit. This year, however, I can heartily endorse at least a couple of the selections, beginning with the Audience Award in the New Auteurs section for Clio Barnard's "The Selfish Giant," one of the year's standout British films -- and a very strong candidate for my own year-end Top 10. (I reviewed it for Variety back at Cannes.)
It's been a good week for this starkly powerful coming-of-age tale, which has launched Barnard (who debuted two years ago with the much-lauded hybrid doc "The Arbor") into the ranks of Andrea Arnold and Shane Meadows: on Monday, the film received seven nominations for the British Independent Film Awards, and is widely tipped to win top honors there. Clearly, American viewers are feeling it too.
That wasn't the only award taken by the "The Selfish Giant": Barnard also won a special award for direction from the critics' jury. But the jury's top prize in the same section -- the New Auteurs Critics' Award -- went to German drama "Nothing Bad Can Happen," the story of a fervently Christian teenager whose principles are tested when he's taken in by an abusive adoptive family. I have yet to see the film, which drew a divided response when it premiered in Un Certain Regard at Cannes earlier this year.
The jury also gave another special award -- this one for Personal Storytelling -- to "In Bloom," Georgia's submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. I've heard terrific things about this study of two teenage girls facing both the usual adolescent crises and more violent tensions in the immediate aftermath of the USSR's disintegration; it's already taken awards at a host of international festivals, including Berlin, Hong Kong, Montreal and Sarajevo.
"In Bloom" wasn't the only foreign Oscar hopeful to take a prize. Returning the the public's choices, Australia's entry "The Rocket" won the Audience Award in the World Cinema section -- beating such notable selection as "Child's Pose," "Borgman," "Gloria," "The Great Beauty," "Like Father, Like Son," "The Lunchbox" and "The Wind Rises." I'm not surprised to see "The Rocket" beat such stiff competition, however: as I wrote in my review from the London Film Festival, this sentimental but effective tale of a resourceful young Laotian boy taking charge of his displaced family is a natural crowdpleaser. It won the Best First Film award at Berlin, and took both the jury and audience awards at Tribeca; an Oscar nomination would not surprise me at all.
Meanwhile, I'm pleased to see the Audience Award in the Breakthrough strand go to Nigerian director Chika Anadu's quietly powerful debut "B for Boy"; their choice in the American Independents section was Texas-set thriller "We Gotta Get Out of This Place." Winning shorts included French-Tibetan live-action effort "Butter Lamp" (a nominee at the European Film Awards) and American animation "The Places Where We Lived" -- their AFI wins now qualify them for Oscar consideration.
The full list of winners:
New Auteurs Critics' Award: Katrin Gebbe, "Nothing Bad Can Happen"
New Auteurs Special Award for Direction: Clio Barnard, "The Selfish Giant"
New Auteurs Special Award for Personal Storytelling: Nana Ekvtimishvili and Simon Gross, "In Bloom"
Audience Award (World Cinema): Kim Mordaunt, "The Rocket"
Audience Award (New Auteurs): Clio Barnard, "The Selfish Giant"
Audience Award (American Independents): Zeke and Simon Hawkins, "We Gotta Get Out of This Place"
Audience Award (Breakthrough): Chika Anadu, "B for Boy"
Grand Jury Award (Live Action Shorts): Hu Wei, "Butter Lamp"
Grand Jury Award (Animated Shorts): Bernardo Britto, "The Places Where We Lived"
Special Jury Award: Lendita Zeqiraj, "Balcony"
Special Jury Award for Direction: Patrik Eklund, "Syndromeda"
Special Jury Mention for Best Datamosh: Yung Jake, "Datamosh"
Everything: Academy Awards
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