Wednesday, November 18, 2015

FOREIGN OSCAR 2016- The 20 Candidates from the Asia-Pacific Region

The countries from the Asia-Pacific region failed to get a single slot on the shortlist last year....Though the confusing "The Assassin" will be hoping for an arthouse "save" from the elite committee, I expect the region will once again fail to have any films make the 9-film shortlist.

But here are the rankings anyway:


20. AFGHANISTAN- "Utopia" 

Though the film appeared on the original list approved by AMPAS, multi-lingual drama "Utopia" was disqualified shortly after its official screening for containing too much English dialogue. Before the disqualification, I had the film ranked a respective 8th among the twenty Asian contenders.

Directed by UK-based director Hassan Nazer, the film is about an Afghan woman who travels to the UK for fertility treatment but who is inseminated with the sperm of a British man, instead of that of of her Afghan husband. The Afghan Film Academy has protested the disqualification and are asking for reinstatement, arguing that 48 minutes of the film is in Dari and Hindi, whereas only 37 minutes are in English.


19. MALAYSIA- "Men Who Save the World"
18. BANGLADESH- "Jalal's Story"
17. NEPAL- "Talakjung vs. Tulke"
16. VIETNAM- "Jackpot"
15HONG KONG- "To the Fore"
14. IRAN- "Mohammed- Messenger of God"

The directors of these six films should be saying "It's an honor to be nominated!"....and it is! With the exception of Majid Majidi's Muhammaed film, nobody would even be talking about these films if they weren't on the Oscar long list.

Comedies are always at a disadvantage here both because they are perceived as "not serious enough" and also because cultural humor can often be difficult to translate. So, MALAYSIA and VIETNAM can be ruled out fairly quickly. "Men Who Save the World" somewhat surprisingly dominated the Malaysian Film Festival despite its lightweight plot about a village who believes a house is haunted when they mistake a lost African migrant for a ghost. Outside of Malaysia, the film has been said to be silly. "Jackpot", directed by and starring Vietnamese-American Dustin Nguyen ("21 Jump Street") from Vietnam has been a big box-office hit at home for its story about greed and a lost lottery ticket in the increasingly capitalist Communist country. But it's said to be uneven and not an award winner.

BANGLADESH and NEPAL probably did choose their best films, but domestic turmoil and underfunded film industries make it difficult for them to compete at the international level required at the Oscars. "Talakjung vs. Tulke" follows a poor laborer from a once-wealthy aristocratic family during the turmoil of the Nepalese Civil War. I've seen part of the film and it's not particularly memorable. "Jalal's Story" follows the life of an orphan foundling from the time he is found as a baby through adolescence and his eventual life of crime. Reviews have been decidedly mixed.

HONG KONG and IRAN fall under the category of "Must Do Better"....I'm not sure who suggested to the Hong Kong Academy that it would be a good idea to send Dante Lam's unheralded bike-racing melodrama "To the Fore". The commercial film hasn't won awards, nor does anybody think it's anything more than a decent genre film. Nobody even seems to think it's one of Dante Lam's best films. It's a head-scratcher. IRAN's selection of "Muhammed: Messenger of God" is a bit less mysterious. The 50-million dollar film is directed by award-winning director and Oscar nominee Majid Majidi (who's also a regime supporter). It's the most expensive Iranian film ever, and production values are superb. However, a three-hour homage to the life of the Prophet of Islam is not likely to captivate Western viewers. Some, shall we say, may have little interest in him whatsoever. The film has been controversial in the Islamic World for depicting the back of the Prophet's head, but that won't matter at all in the US.

13. PAKISTAN- "Moor"
12. THAILAND- "How to Win At Checkers (Every Time)"
11. IRAQ- "Memories on Stone"
10. TURKEY- "Sivas"

Dog fighting in Turkey......the struggle of LGBT people in Thailand.....Kurdish society after the wars......Corruption amidst the Pakistani railroads.....

These are not subjects that are likely to interest or impress AMPAS voters, giving these four films an uphill battle.

Let's start with TURKEY's grim, depressing and violent boy-and-dog drama "Sivas". While most critics acknowledge its a good film, this is a tough watch, set amidst the violent world of dog-fighting in eastern Turkey. With a homely, 11-year old protagonist and lots of violence against animals, this is a pretty definite no, although I admit they did once somehow choose Hungary's "The Notebook".

From neighboring IRAQI KURDISTAN (though it is representing all of Iraq) comes "Memories on Stone", a drama about two directors trying to find the perfect lead actress for their film about Saddam Hussain's genocide against the Kurdish people. When they find her, they must convince her reluctant family to allow her to take the role. This is a subject that could appeal to AMPAS, but reviews have been positive but not at all enthusiastic.

I've seen the nominee from PAKISTAN- "Moor"- which represents a huge step up for Pakistani cinema. The film has excellent production values, an issue which tends to effectively eliminate films from poorer countries. It's entertaining and interesting, but the film ended quite abruptly and left some questions unanswered. Still, I liked the film and would see another film from this director.

That leaves us with THAILAND and their surprise choice- the LGBT drama "How to Win at Checkers" (Berlinale), directed by Seoul-based American director Josh Kim. The film, about a gay teen who may or may not soon be drafted into the Thai military, deals with LGBT issues, as well as corruption, prostitution and family in both a Thai and universal context. But clocking in at 80 minutes, this small film is almost certain to get lost in the mix.

9. PHILIPPINES- "Heneral Luna"
8. AUSTRALIA- "Arrows of the Thunder Dragon"
7CHINA- "Go Away Mr. Tumor"
6. KOREA- "The Throne"

Towards the middle of the group are these four underdogs.

From the PHILIPPINES comes "Heneral Luna", a two-and-a-half hour 19th century historical drama about one of the most important figures in the Filipino independence movement. This is very relevant to Filipino audiences, but may leave American audiences confused and disinterested. I was surprised by the response to "Libertador" (Venezuela) last year, but unlike Simon Boliva, Heneral Luna is an unknown Stateside. I don't see this getting anywhere.

SOUTH KOREA is still fighting for its first Oscar nomination and "The Throne" (aka "Sado") looks great. This period drama set in the 18th century focuses on the strained relationship between one of Korea's most well-known kings and his son, Crown Prince Sado. All Koreans know how this story ends (though Western audiences won't) but this film has been notable for transforming the character of the prince (usually portrayed as mentally ill and violent) into a more human character. I live in South Korea and nobody seems "wowed" by the film. When I saw it, I felt the first hour was historically interesting, while the second hour deteriorated into melodramatic soap opera. My European friend liked the second half, but felt the first hour was boring. In any case, AMPAS has never plumped for a Korean film, and this is not their best effort.

The film representing AUSTRALIA should probably be representing BHUTAN, which has been absent from this competition since 1999. Directed by an Australian who is also a former Buddhist monk but set in the remote Himalayan kingdom, this was one of the surprises on the Oscar list. Based on a true story, it's about a young woman growing up in rural Bhutan in the 1980s who wants to train in the male-dominated national sport of archery. There's virtually no information on it online, making it difficult to predict its chances. However, this is an effort by a non-professional director; it looks fascinating and I can't wait to see it myself but it's unlikely to advance.

Last but not least is CHINA's "Go Away Mr. Tumor", a box-office hit comedy about a woman battling cancer. It was a surprise last-minute replacement for "Wolf Totem" and even the film's director initially thought the film's selection was a joke. I was set to rank the film in the bottom tier until I read some of the reviews. Based on a true story of a female blogger who documented her battle against cancer (which she lost at age 30), this is genuinely supposed to be a good film. Like "50/50", it has been praised for successfully treading the line between comedy and tragedy. It won't make the finals, but it was perhaps not as bad a choice as I first thought.


5. CAMBODIA- "The Last Reel"
4. SINGAPORE- "7 Letters"
3. JAPAN- "100-Yen Love"

2. INDIA- "Court"
I don't expect any of these four films to make the Oscar shortlist, but I do think they will place well in the rankings (which we will never know). Here's hoping they will impress the committee enough to get them a US distribution deal.

The film with the best chance is clearly INDIA's appropriately-titled courtroom drama "Court", which won two awards in Venice. Thank you to India for finally choosing a good film! "Court" is a scathing yet humorous critique of the Indian judicial system, in which a 65-year old singer facing a patently ridiculous charge of inciting a man to suicide with one of his songs. The film has been warmly received and will proudly represent India, though that doesn't mean it will place high enough to be nominated. Said to be "cerebral", it sounds similar in tone to "I Just Didn't Do It" (Japan), another well-received legal drama which failed to make the finals.

Speaking of JAPAN, I'm kicking myself for missing out on indie drama "100-Yen Love" at a local film festival earlier this year. A slacker drama with an atypical protagonist, the film focuses on a 30-year old woman who ditches her lonely life by taking up amateur boxing. It's also been warmly received, although this isn't the sort of film Oscar usually recognizes (i.e. indie drama, female-driven films).

The Southeast Asian underdogs of CAMBODIA and SINGAPORE will also likely score well this year. "7 Letters" consists of seven short films by seven of the country's leading directors (including Eric Khoo and Royston Tan, who are somewhat well-known overseas), and was put together as part of celebrations of the country's 50th anniversary of independence. Perhaps a bit too local to appeal to a wide international audience, it features the many languages, traditions, ethnicities and even foods of this tiny country. However, like all omnibus films, some films are better than others. "The Last Reel" focuses on a rebellious young woman who discovers that her mother was a major film star in the past. In the United States, that might be the plot for a light comedy but in Cambodia this has a different meaning, as all artists and intellectuals were purged and killed in the 1975-1979 Khmer Rouge genocide. The film has been developing quite a strong reputation on the film festival circuit over the past year and despite a low budget and debutante director, Variety and the Hollywood Reporter gave the film great reviews.

1. TAIWAN- "The Assassin"

I did not like "The Assassin". Neither will the large committee. While the production design is worthy of an Oscar and the costumes and cinematography are beautiful, this convoluted story of a female assassin negotiating family intrigue in medieval China is confusing with little to no character development. I frequently did not understand who the characters were, not what they were doing. Having said that, the film won Best Director at Cannes and has a rabid fan base. Thus, the film is a dark horse for one of the three elite slots. It may get one, but I'm rooting against them.

One day, I'll have to see the film again with a rewind button and see if I can figure it out. I doubt I'll care.

Now the Statistics:

Number of Asia-Pacific countries that have participated in the past: 26

Number of Asia-Pacific countries participating this year:  20

Number of debuts: None.

Number of countries opting out:  6. The only shocker was INDONESIA, a fairly prolific film-making country that has sent films nine out of the past ten years. Right before the announcement, I even read an article from the Indonesian press citing the importance of having Indonesian films participate in international competitions like the Oscars. They had plenty to choose from this year, including audience pleaser "Golden Cane Warrior", local historical epic "Guru Bangsa: Tjokroaminoto" and "Battle of Surabaya", their first stab at high-quality Miyazaki-style animation.

BHUTAN (last submitted 1999), FIJI and MONGOLIA (2005) and SRI LANKA (2009) have only ever submitted once or twice in Oscar history, so their absence is not unexpected. The Bhutanese are actually represented by the Australian film, which was filmed in Bhutan with a Bhutanese cast. English-speaking NEW ZEALAND probably didn't have any eligible foreign language films. 

Number of countries I predicted correctly:  Only 5 out of 20- Cambodia, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Taiwan though I also came super-close with Iraq. 

Already Seen: Pakistan, South Korea, Taiwan, though I plan to see Nepal before this post goes up. Fingers crossed.

Films I'm most looking forward to seeing: It's a tough decision, but I'd have to go with CAMBODIA and "The Last Reel", whose plot sounds really interesting. 

Feature Debuts:   Six. The directors from Australia, Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Thailand and Turkey are all making their feature film debuts,  

Number of Female Directors:  Not many! The only film directed by a woman is "The Last Reel" (Cambodia), directed by Kulikar Sotho. However, one of the seven Singaporean short films in "7 Letters" was directed by female helmer Tan Pin Pin. 

Oldest and Youngest Directors:  68-year auteur Hou Hsiao-Hsien of TAIWAN and 28-year old newbie Chaitanya Tamhane of INDIA. 

Number of Foreign Languages Represented:   Four films are majority in Mandarin Chinese (China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan), while two more are in Persian (Afghanistan and Iran). The others are mostly in Bengali, Dzongkha, Filipino, Hindi, Japanese, Khmer, Korean, Malay, Nepali, Tagalog, Thai, Turkish, Urdu and Vietnamese. Lots of films are multi-lingual, so you'll be able to hear some Cantonese (Hong Kong), Hokkien and Tamil (Singapore), Marathi and Gujarati (India) and Pashto (Pakistan) as well. 

Number of Comedies:  Four- China, India, Malaysia and Vietnam

Number of Animated Films, Documentaries or Horror Films:   None. 

Number of countries with a realistic chance at making the shortlist: Not many….maybe two or three.    

Highest profile film:  Definitely TAIWAN and "The Assassin", which won Best Director at Cannes. Of course, that doesn't mean it's a good or coherent film!

Oscar History:  The only Oscar nominee is IRAN's Majid Majidi who is representing Iran for the fifth time, after getting an Oscar nomination for "Children of Heaven" (1998) and also competing with "The Color of Paradise" (1999), "Baran" (2001) and "Song of Sparrows" (2008). TAIWAN's Hou Hsiao-Hsien has been in the race twice before for "A City of Sadness" (1989) and "Flowers of Shanghai" (1998), while KOREA's Lee Joon-ik had "The King & the Clown" in competition in 2006. That year, it was clearly one of the best films on the list. From SINGAPORE's "7 Letters", Eric Khoo & Royston Tan have also represented the city-state at the Oscars.

Of the 20 countries, only three have won the Oscar (Iran, Japan and Taiwan), while six more have been nominated. Australia and Turkey have been shortlisted once, while the other nine are waiting for their first Oscar recognition (inexplicably including South Korea)

Best & Worst Decisions: The smartest move was definitely INDIA, choosing the intelligent, warmly received "Court" over a series of Bollywood fluff and low-budget regional pics. Even if "Court" fails to make the Final Nine, this clearly appears to have been the film with the best shot. IRAQ,  PAKISTAN and SINGAPORE also chose wisely.

IRAN made the group's dumbest move, choosing religious epic "Mohammed". Despite excellent production values, this paean to the Prophet of Islam is hardly likely to appeal to a Western audience (would the USA submit "The Passion of Christ" to the Iranian Oscars?). CHINA, HONG KONG, KOREA and VIETNAM also picked the wrong films. 

Controversies and Changes:  Of course, the biggest controversy came from CHINA when likely nominee "Wolf Totem" was mysteriously disqualified for lack of Chinese input, even though its cast and much of its crew came from China. French director Jean-Jacques Annaud was baffled, as films from Afghanistan, France, Montenegro and Thailand were accepted despite their foreign directors. 

Indians usually jealously pounce and tear apart the film selected to represent the country, but the selection of "Court" was fairly warmly received, though a member of the selection committee resigned in protest, arguing that the head of the committee was lobbying against the selection of "Court". Since "Court" was the eventual winner, his complaints are rather puzzling.

Afghanistan was later disqualified for having too much English, although they are appealing the decision.

Omissions:     The most glaring absence was "Ode to My Father", the nostalgic Korean blockbuster hit following a Korean man over five decades, from his escape from North Korea during the Korean War, through Korea's economic miracle. Other prominent snubbed films include "Baahubali" (India), "Mina Walking" (Afghanistan), "Mountains May Depart" (China), "Pale Moon" (Japan) and "Taklub" (Philippines). 

Familiar Faces:  Former sex symbol Shu Qi takes on a more serious role, playing the title character in Taiwan's "The Assassin". Dustin Nguyen (Vietnam) was a TV star in the United States in the 80s (21 Jump Street) and 90s (V.I.P.). Oscar winner Juliette Binoche has a cameo in Singapore's "7 Letters". You also may recognize Daniel Wu ("Go Away Mr. Tumor"), Satoshi Tsumabuki ("The Assassin") and Song Kang-ho ("The Throne")

Last year's race:   Last year, these countries sent 19 films,and got zero spots on the shortlist....I only managed to see the ones from Afghanistan (B+), Japan (B) and Pakistan (B) though I've got the ones from Australia, Indonesia, Korea and New Zealand sitting at home. 

Thursday, October 22, 2015

FOREIGN OSCAR 2016- The 21 Candidates from the Eastern Bloc

So this year, 81 films have been accepted into the Foreign Oscar competition, the second-highest number ever! 

As usual, I'll be dividing the candidates into four global regions:

LATE OCTOBER- The Eastern Bloc Countries (21)
EARLY NOVEMBER- The Asia-Pacific Region (inc. Turkey) (20)
LATE NOVEMBER- Canada + Western Europe (inc. Israel) (20)
EARLY DECEMBER- Latin America, Africa and the Arab World (20)

Lots of interesting trends this year…We’ve got a huge number of movies about borders, migration and the immigrant experience (Bulgaria, Greece, Israel, Mexico, Morocco, Netherlands, Serbia, Switzerland) as well as a number of films exploring indigenous and/or traditional cultures (Australia, Colombia, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Kyrgyzstan and Venezuela). Those three Latin countries have films that are mostly in indigenous languages; not Spanish. 

We’re also seeing the debuts of a lot of relatives of famous directors. The helmers from Bosnia, Kyrgyzstan and Mexico are trying to make their names in the shadow of famous relatives. 

So, first…the Eastern Bloc countries (including Central Asia)

Last year, the countries of the Eastern Bloc got an amazing four spots on the Oscar shortlist (up from 2, 1, 1, 0 and 2 in the previous five years). However, they aren’t likely to repeat that feat this year, although the official front-runner (“Son of Saul”) could allow them to win two years in a row. Most of this year’s Eastern Bloc films have little or no chance to be nominated.


21. KOSOVO- “Babai”
20. SLOVAKIA- “Koza” (The Goat)
19. GEORGIA- “Moira”
18. SLOVENIA- “Drevo” (The Tree)
17. LATVIA- “Modris”

These five films with one-word-titles from some of Europe’s smaller countries have little chance to advance in this year’s competition. But as I always say, the Oscars provide a platform for these films and their directors to be seen and talked about by international critics.

Among the least likely are the family dramas from the ex-Yugoslav republics of Kosovo and Slovenia, both of which premiered at Karlovy Vary. KOSOVO's second-ever  Oscar submission “Babai” is about a young Kosovar boy who runs away to try and find his father who is working abroad in Germany. It has won some small awards but it is said to be a fairly average film from a country just beginning to develop a domestic film industry. SLOVENIA's “The Tree” has gotten mostly positive reviews but critics frequently use words like “subtle” and “challenging”, i.e. unlikely to appeal to Oscar. It’s a grim story told in three parts, about a family in the aftermath of some sort of accident; each is from a different POV- the mother and her two children.
Latvia, Georgia and Slovakia have chosen minimalist character studies of the underclasses. LATVIA's “Modris” is about a disaffected teen barely making an effort to get through life, getting involved with petty delinquency and developing a serious gambling problem. SLOVAKIA has chosen a gritty docudrama (“Koza”, aka “The Goat”) which played at Berlinale; it's about a Roma boxer who once competed in the Olympics but is now living in poverty and attempting a career comeback.  GEORGIA's “Moira” (San Sebastian) is about a man who returns to his family in their seaside home after getting out of prison.  The film is said to be "formulaic" and has failed to get very good reviews. Georgia probably would have done better to choose something else. These grim films can all be counted out. 

16. POLAND- “11 Minutes” 
15. MONTENEGRO- “You Carry Me”
14. RUSSIA- “Sunstroke”
13. MACEDONIA- “Honey Night”

It’s unusual for defending champion POLAND and Oscar superpower RUSSIA to be ranked so low down the list (they were both among the five nominees last year). However, the films they selected are just supposed to be really bad. “11 Minutes”, a fast-paced and visually slick thriller following eleven quirky characters, looks like great fun. Unfortunately, reviews have been terrible and everyone I know who has actually seen it has told me they hated it. It was the one film I was unable to get tickets for at the Busan Film Festival so I'm afraid I'll have to reserve my own opinion. As for Oscar winner Nikita Mikhalkov’s bloated three-hour patriotic drama “Sunstroke”- set in the waning days of the Russian Empire in Crimea- is said to be a mess. Bad reviews will condemn these two to being also-rans. 

The former Yugoslav republics of Macedonia and Montenegro didn’t have much to choose from this year. MACEDONIA had only one film submitted for consideration whereas MONTENEGRO ended up choosing a majority-Croatian film due to a lack of suitable candidates. Neither film has made much of an impact on audiences. “You Carry Me” is a Croatian take on “Crash”, focusing on a number of characters with intersecting lives. While some clearly like the film, most refer to it as an overlong two-and-a-half-hour soap opera. With "Wolf Totem" disqualified for lack of Chinese input, I'm confused how "You Carry Me" is even on the list. As for Macedonia’s “Honey Night”, it could be an amazing film......However, the film has zero buzz, political overtones that may confuse an American audience and there's virtually no information about it anywhere online. It's about a national political scandal coinciding with a couple’s marital problems on their 10th wedding anniversary. 

12. SERBIA- “Enclave”
11. CROATIA- “The High Sun”
10. LITHUANIA- “Summer of Sangaile”
9. BOSNIA- “Our Everyday Story”

Three of these four films examine the aftermath of the Yugoslav Wars from the point of view of each of the three main beligerents. Whereas they are all good films, they lack the “oomph” necessary to get to the next round. Despite the highest IMDB rating of all the Eastern films, SERBIA's “Enclave” may also be too political. It looks at the relationship between Kosovar Albanians and Serbs,  who found themselves de facto living in a foreign country after Kosovo declared independence. The film won the Audience Award in Moscow, but is certain to appeal more to the Serbian audience who feel emotional pain at the idea of losing the province. CROATIA selected “The High Sun” which won the Un Certain Regard award at Cannes and Best Croatian Film in Pula for its story of three interethnic love stories, set in 1991, 2001 and 2011. The three sets of lovers are played by the same set of actors (a very interesting, but also potentially confusing gimmick). The film is good and it has a lot to say about ethnic conflict, but the chapters vary in their quality (I agree the first is the best). The title of BOSNIA's “Our Everyday Story” says it all- it’s a film about a modern-day, middle-class Bosnian family with modern-day, middle-class problems, most notably the cancer diagnosis of the family matriarch. Though it will likely score highest of the seven ex-Yugoslav republics this year, I just have a hard time believing that this quiet, true-to-life family drama can get the scores necessary to advance.

As for LITHUANIA, they’ve selected teen lesbian romance “The Summer of Sangaile”, which won Best Director at the Sundance Film Festival. Critics have loved this sleeper hit about two teenaged girls who fall in love at an air show. However, the Foreign Film committee is rarely kind to LGBT-themed films or youth-oriented films, so I think “Summer” and its lesbian protagonists will also find themselves out of luck.

8. ALBANIA- “Bota”
7. KAZAKHSTAN- “The Stranger”
6. ESTONIA- "1944"

These three films may have their fans but likely will struggle to get noticed. 

ESTONIA has chosen a patriotic war drama (“1941”) that highlights the uniquely complicated situation facing the three Baltic republics during World War II. Other than Hungary (see below), Estonia is the only country that has selected a WWII film, when Estonia was invaded by both the Nazis and the Soviets. Many Estonians were drafted and/or volunteered by sides, resulting in Estonians fighting other Estonians for causes they may not have even agreed with to preserve their nationhood. AMPAS likes war films, but this one is said to be very nationalistic and may suffer from some rather obscure history.

KAZAKHSTAN’s “The Stranger” is the third film by Yermek Tursunov to represent Kazakhstan since 2009. "The Stranger" is about a drama set during Communist times about a man who attempts to resist Sovietization and retain traditional ways. Tursunov was shortlisted for the shortlisted "Kelin" (which certainly deserved an Oscar nod) but response to "The Stranger" has been divided. Many find the film to be confusing and off-putting. 

That brings us to the delightful "Bota" from ALBANIA, about a married man and his two female employees working at a cafe in one of the remotest regions of Albania. Sad, funny and with beautiful music, the film's tagline is "Nothing happens. Everything happens." Events unfold slowly but the film is never boring. And without spoiling the ending, your emotions end up being pulled in two directions. Good storytelling made this (as usual) a great entry from one of Europe'a least-known film industries. Honestly, I know the film is too "small" to make it to the next round, but films like this are one of the reasons I try to see all the film on the list every year. Good luck! 

5. KYRGYZSTAN- “Heavenly Nomadic”
4. ROMANIA- "Aferim!"
3. CZECH REPUBLIC- “Home Care”

I'm not predicting that any of these three films will be nominated come January, but one of them could potentially surprise, particularly if the quiet CZECH tragicomedy of “Home Care” resonates with the older voters on the large committee. It’s difficult to make a funny movie about such a sad subject (a wife and mother dying of cancer) but the Czechs have a talent for deftly balancing comedy and tragedy. In the film, a rural Czech nurse who is passionately devoted to both her husband and troublesome patients is stunned to learn that she is ill herself, and embarks on the road to self-discovery and closure. However, I ultimately think this low-key film will be too "small" to ultimately make the finals.

ROMANIA’s road movie “Aferim!” is about a 19th century constable and his son searching for a runaway Gypsy slave in the wilds of a multi-ethnic province of the Ottoman Empire. It’s all very witty and clever with a shocking ending but the puns and witticisms (though very well-translated) may lose something in the translation. The former Soviet republic of KYRGYZSTAN always sends a good film and has likely come closer to an Oscar nomination several times; “Heavenly Nomadic” is said to be a sweet, likable film about a nomadic family living on the steppes. It will score well with the larger committee but it will be almost impossible for this small film to make the Top Six there.

2. BULGARIA- “The Judgement”
1. HUNGARY- “Son of Saul”

Everyone is already talking about HUNGARY's Auschwitz-set drama “Son of Saul” as this year’s Oscar front-runner. The glowing reviews from Cannes frequently hailed its “original look” at the Holocaust as seen through the eyes of a Sonderkommando- a little-known group of Jewish prisoners tasked with disposing of the dead. The film left Cannes with Grand Prix. We all know that AMPAS loves any film mentioning the Holocaust (how else to explain the win of the mediocre “The Counterfeiters” a few years back) so “Saul” is as close to a lock as there is.

Conversely, nobody is talking about BULGARIA's “The Judgment”, a morality play about a widower living with his angry teenaged son in Bulgaria's border region, who turns to human trafficking to try and make ends meet. Director Stephan Komandarev was the first and only Bulgarian to make it to the shortlist (for “Salvation is Big and the World Lurks Around the Corner”, which similarly had little-to-no-buzz that year). Perfectly timed to coincide with the current refugee crisis in Europe, “The Judgment” will likely do well with Oscar voters….It just remains to be seen if it can make the Top Nine. It will be on the bubble.  

Now the Statistics:

Number of Eastern Bloc countries that have participated in the past: 27

Number of Eastern Bloc countries participating this year:  21

Number of debuts: None.

Number of countries opting out:  Six. The most notable absence this year is UKRAINE, which had some complicated problems involving their selection committee. I’m not sure of the whole story but apparently half the members quit after last year’s controversial selection of “The Guide” over “The Tribe” and Ukraine was either late getting a new committee approved by AMPAS, or their proposed committee was rejected. In any case, the Ukrainians were rumored to be sending “Brothers: The Final Confession” or “Battle of Sevastopol” and officially asked AMPAS for a deadline extension to settle their internal problems. But ultimately, they didn’t make the list.

The only other surprise was AZERBAIJAN, which has sent films the past three years and who had baity nationalist drama “Black January” eligible. As for MOLDOVA, I don’t think they had any eligible films this year. As usual, Armenia (last submitted in 2012), Belarus (1996) and Tajikistan (2005) are also absent.

Number of countries I predicted correctly: 12 out of 21! Not bad- Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Kosovo, Kyrgyzstan, Romania, Russia and Serbia. And I would have gotten Macedonia too if I’d known that “Liberation of Skopje” wouldn’t be ready in time.

Already Seen: Albania, Croatia, Czech Republic, Romania

Films I'm most looking forward to seeing: KYRGYZSTAN has a history of sending absolutely wonderful village dramas (“Wedding Chest”, “Tengri”) so I would definitely choose “Heavenly Nomadic”

Feature Debuts:      9. The directors from Albania, Czech Republic, Hungary, Kosovo, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia and Slovenia are also making their feature debuts. The ladies from Bosnia and Montenegro co-directed “Some Other Stories”, but since that film was really a series of five short films from five Yugoslav republics, I think they should be considered to be making their debuts too.

Number of Female Directors:  5 - Iris Elezi (Albania), Ivona Juka (Montenegro) and Sonja Prosenc (Slovenia) are the first-ever female helmers to represent their countries. They’re joined by Alanté Kavaïté (Lithuania) and Ines Tanović (Bosnia-Herzegovina)

Oldest and Youngest Directors:  77-year old Jerzy Skolimowski of Poland is the oldest European director this year. 32-year old Juris Kursietis of Latvia is the youngest from the Eastern Bloc.    

Number of Foreign Languages Represented:  17 primary languages, including four in the Serbo-Croatian dialects and two in Albanian, plus one each in Bulgarian, Czech, Estonian, Georgian, Hungarian, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Latvian, Lithuanian, Macedonian, Polish, Romanian, Russian, Slovak and Slovene.

Due to a large number of films about historical invasions and occupations (Estonia, Hungary, Romania) as well as borders and migration (Bulgaria, Kosovo, Serbia), there are a lot of multi-lingual films from the region this year, adding a bit of German and Turkish into the mix.

Number of Comedies:  Romania comes closest, but I wouldn’t say any of the films are comedies. 

Number of Animated Films, Documentaries or Horror Films:   Slovakia chose what you’d call a “docudrama”.

Number of countries with a realistic chance at making the shortlist: Not many….maybe four or five.    

Highest profile film:  Definitely Hungary’s “Son of Saul” which won the Jury Grand Prize at Cannes. None of the others come close.  

Oscar History:  Five directors have been in the race before. Nikita Mikhalkov of Russia is certainly the most successful. He won the Oscar for “Burnt by the Sun”, got two more nominations for “Close to Eden” and “12” and was also selected two more times to represent Russia for “Burnt by the Sun 2:Citadel” and “The Barber of Siberia”. Kazakhstan’s Ermek Tursunov is on his third try after “The Old Man” (Shal) and “Kelin”, which made the 9-film shortlist. Bulgaria’s Stephan Komandarev was also shortlisted once, for “The World is Big and Salvation Lies Around the Corner”. Macedonia’s Ivo Trajkov (“The Great Water”, “Wingless”) and Croatia’s Dalibor Matanic (“Fine Dead Girls”) have also been in the race before.  

Of the 21 countries, five have won the Oscar (Bosnia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Russia), four more have been nominated,  three have been shortlisted and the other nine are waiting for their first official nominations as independent countries.

Best & Worst Decisions: Albania made the best decision by rejoining the race and sending charming drama “Bota”. Last year, a selection committee met and failed to send either of two competing films. Entering the race will help publicize this wonderful hidden gem. After two Georgian directors made the shortlist last year, Georgia probably made the worst decision by sending the untested “Moira”, which has not been well-reviewed.

Controversies and Changes:     No big controversies this year, although some grumbled that the selection of the three-hour “Sunstroke” was due more to Nikita Mikhalkov’s political connections and the film’s emphasis on Russian ownership of Crimea, rather than the quality of the filmmaking. And I’m surprised there was no controversy over the nationality of “You Carry Me”, a Croatian film representing Montenegro.

Omissions:        The most unfortunate omission this year was Hungary’s critically-acclaimed black comedy “Liza, the Fox Fairy”. Hungary is frequently willing to send unconventional films (“Taxidermy”) to the Oscars, but faced with a potentially Oscar-winning Holocaust drama, the quirky “Liza” just couldn’t compete.

Also doomed by heavy internal competition: morality tale “The Lesson” from Bulgaria, biopic “Gods” from Poland and dramedy “The Treasure” from Romania, while the political tone of Russia’s “The Fool” could not have helped. And Kazakhstan’s Ermek Tursunov defeated himself when “The Stranger” defeated the final film in his Kazakhstan trilogy, “Kenzhe”.

Familiar Faces:  There are no superstar actors in this batch, although many actors are famous in their own countries. Two actors of note for followers of this category are Luminita Gheorghiu (“Child’s Pose”, “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu”) who plays a very small role as a village wife in “Aferim!” (Romania), and Bosnian actor Emir Hadzihafizbegovic who, by my count, is making his 14th co-starring role in an Oscar submission with “Our Everyday Story” (Bosnia).

Last year's race:   Last year, the Eastern Bloc got four spots on the 9-film Oscar shortlist, as well as three of the five Oscar nominees. I saw all four plus the nominees from Croatia, Hungary and Lithuania. My favorite was Estonia’s “Tangerines”, though the technical artistry of Hungary’s “White God” was most impressive. Final grades: Croatia (B-), Estonia (B+), Georgia (C-), Hungary (B+), Lithuania (C+), Poland (B-), Russia (B).

Thursday, August 6, 2015


And here's the last group of predictions, minus the unpredictable Russians. I will try to research the final two giant countries (France and India) over the next week. 

1. RUSSIA- "Sunstroke" Russia is particularly confusing, and a lot will depend on who exactly is on their selection committee! In 2011, there was a big controversy when Russia selected the critically maligned “Burnt by the Sun: The Citadel”, which many said was chosen due to director Nikita Mikhalkov’s political connections. It's possible though I thought this judgment was a bit harsh. It's true that Mikhalkov is a big supporter of Vladimir Putin. But, whatever his politics, he had never failed to be nominated for an Oscar, winning for “Burnt by the Sun” and nominated for “12” and “Close to Eden”. So you could argue that Russia just thought he was their best chance. Last year, people (including me) said the politicized Russian Academy would never choose “Leviathan”. Although universally praised as the best Russian film of the year, it was almost banned at home for its realistic portrayal of Russian political corruption. Film critics were thrilled when they decided to send it in after all. Why? Is the new selection committee liberal and fair? Did they do it as a small, Machiavellian gesture to make it seem that they were liberal and fair? Or did they put political considerations aside and just decide they wanted to win an Oscar? We might have a better idea this year when Nikita Mikhalkov’s latest bloated historical epic “Sunstroke” faces off against “The Fool”, another critically praised drama about Russian corruption. The three-hour “Sunstroke”, set amidst Russia’s political turmoil in the early 20th century, has been criticized for turning a four-page story into an expensive, overlong film. However (with the exception of last year’s surprise “Leviathan”) Russia almost always chooses these sorts of BIG historical dramas,  and Mikhalkov is almost a default nominee when he has a new film out. Add to that the fact that this takes place in the disputed region of Crimea, and “Sunstroke” would be a very pro-Russian choice. “The Fool” (aka “Durak”), about a lowly plumber facing off against a corrupt regional mayor, has better reviews. It won Best Screenplay at the Russian Nika Awards (beating “Leviathan”), received a Best Picture nomination and did reasonably well at the box-office. But it’s not as high-profile as “Leviathan” and there won’t be any pressure to choose another anti-corruption drama. And don’t necessarily count out the baity “Batallion”, about a battalion of female soldiers serving in a suicide squad during the Russian Civil War. This would let the Russians choose a patriotic war film while avoid the controversy of another Mikhalkov. Some online are predicting Andrei Konchalovsky’s “Postman’s White Nights” (Venice), but Konchalovsky pulled his boring film from the Oscar race last year and premiered the film on Russian television, rendering it ineligible. Konchalovsky, who lives in the US, said he didn’t want a Hollywood award.  Two other films by previously selected directors are long-shots- futuristic, existential “Under Electric Clouds” (Berlin) simply seems to make no sense, while “Zvezda”, a comedy-drama about an aspiring actress seems too light to represent the dour Russians. Other choices include “Angels of Revolution” (Rotterdam), about a female Communist official trying to “Sovietize” the Khanty and Nenets peoples of Northern Russia, “Arventur” (Moscow), an animated film based on a Chinese fable that won a Silver Prize at the Moscow Film Festival, “Orleans”, about an evil little town approached by a sort of Faustian devil and "Pioneer Heroes”, about the last generation of Soviets before the fall of the USSR. Dark horse: Ukrainian co-production “Battle of Sevastopol” wrapped up production just as Russian and Ukrainian tensions began flaring. Since the director is Ukrainian, it should compete for them. See Ukraine below. Final verdict: It's nowhere near a sure thing, but it’s stupid to bet against Nikita Mikhalkov, beloved of both Putin and AMPAS. “Batallion” and “The Fool” will duke it out for second place.

2. SAUDI ARABIA- Nothing eligible. Saudi Arabia banned cinemas in 1980, making it nearly impossible for local films to meet the AMPAS requirement that films screen in their country of origin for seven days. The female-helmed “Wadjda” managed to get around the rules by screening at foreign cultural centers and oil rigs. There are rumors that Saudi Arabia will re-open cinemas soon but for now local films cannot qualify in the normal way. Despite this, Saudi Arabia has a thriving market in short films. The second annual Saudi Film Festival in Dammam managed to go forward this year, although there were no features in competition. Ironically, the 1st and 2nd prizes went to shorts directed by Saudi women, perhaps following in Haifaa Al-Mansour’s footsteps. As for the Oscar race, I don’t think the Saudis have anything eligible.

3. SERBIA- "Enclave" Serbia unfortunately changed its selection process a few years back, and now only considers films that pay an entrance fee (I think 300 euro) to the Serbian Academy of Film Art and Science. Last year, my prediction (“Barbarians”) didn’t pay the money so it wasn't even in the running. I see as many as eight Serbian possibilities, but it’s impossible to know which films will pay the money to enter the race. This year’s obvious choice seems to be “Panama”, a youth-oriented thriller that screened in Cannes and Sarajevo about the perils of love and relationships in the modern-day world of social media.  Serbia often passes over youth-oriented films, so I think its far more likely they will send “Enclave”, a well-reviewed (and politically relevant) film about friendship across the ethnic divide in the disputed Kosovo region. Politically, it would be a good choice since Serbian foreign policy strongly advocates the return of independent Kosovo to Serbian control. Two period dramas are also in with a chance- “For King and Homeland”, about the memories of a Serbian-Yugoslavian WWII veteran and “The Man Who Defended Gavrilo Princip”, about the fate of the Serbian assassin who started World War I by killing the Archduke Ferdinand. The director of "Gavrilo Princip" is the screenwriter of three previous Serbian submissions. Basketball drama “We Will Be World Champions”, by a previously submitted director, is sort of possible but only because Serbia has selected sports-themed dramas three times, as is “Next to Me” (Best Picture, Pula), a violent drama about a woman who takes action against a gang of nationalist students who attack her because of her husband’s controversial artwork. There’s also hope for “The Disobedient” (Sundance 2014), a drama about friends reunited by a funeral, and “No One’s Child” (Venice 2014), about a feral child found in the woods. As I said, so much depends on which producers pay the entrance fee. My prediction is “Enclave” and I’m feeling pretty confident about it. Runner-ups (in order): “Panama” (with its Cannes prestige), “Next to Me” (which will premiere right before the deadline), “The Man Who Defended Gavrilo Princip” and “No One’s Child”. 

4. SINGAPORE- "3688" Singapore celebrates 50 years of independence from Malaysia this year and several of their 20 or so local releases this year will celebrate the city-state's vibrant culture, history and traditions. “7 Letters” is a series of short films about Singapore's national identity, directed by seven of the country’s most prominent filmmakers. The film was suddenly green-lighted for a limited commercial release after special screenings sold out immediately. Among the seven directors is Royston Tan who also has a new musical- “3688”- about an aspiring singer whose dreams are hampered by taking her care of her sick father. Musicals don’t usually play well abroad, but three of Singapore’s eight previous submissions have been musicals. Randy Ang’s hotly anticipated historical drama “1965” tells the story of Singapore’s independence from Malaysia, though the film's emphasis on the importance of ethnic harmony of the film may mean it relies too much on English (Singapore's Chinese, Indian and Malay citizens typically use English when speaking across racial lines). Multi-lingual Singapore was disqualified in 2005 for having too much English in their film. Two indie films could be dark horses: Malay-language girl power sports drama “Banting” and surveillance thriller “Camera”. Unlikely: any of the numerous local Chinese comedies (the top contenders would be “Our Sister Mambo” and “Wayang Boy”). Unlikely to premiere in time: Eric Khoo’s “In the Room” (Khoo was selected to represent Singapore three times), “Endless Day” (about the WWII romance between a Japanese soldier and a Eurasian girl) and “Sinema Paradiso” (a tribute to 1950s cinema) were all scheduled for 2015 but haven't premiered. My prediction: their preferred choice “1965” has too much English, "7 Letters" is deemed too "local" for an international audience and “Sinema Paradiso” will be prepped for next year. They’ll half-heartedly send “3688”, which debuts September 17.

5. SLOVAKIA- "Comeback" Slovakia has had a fairly uneventful film year. I think they have six or seven fiction features eligible (including two unremarkable children’s films), plus a bunch of documentaries. Unlike last year, it’s a pretty ordinary lot. No majority Slovak features competed at Karlovy Vary, which usually prominently features at least one or two Slovak films. In recent years, the Slovak Academy has preferred dreary arthouse ("Made in Ash", "My Dog Killer") and quirky documentaries rather than the engaging village dramedies they used to send (I loved “Return of the Storks”). I see four Slovak possibilities: (1)- “Comeback”, a documentary following a number of recently released inmates from prison trying to reintegrate into society, (2)- “Eva Nova”, about a once-glamorous actress trying to reconcile with her son while at the same time struggling with alcoholism, (3)- “Koza” (Berlin), a docudrama about a Romany boxer who’s fallen on hard times, and his girlfriend who wants to get an abortion. It was the only Slovak film to play at a major festival in 2015, and (4)- “So Far, So Near”, a documentary about autism by Jaroslav Vojtek, who directed their 2010 submission. With "Eva" unreleased, I think this will come down to “Koza” or “Comeback”. “Koza” is the favorite (and it is filmed in much the same style as their last three grim candidates), but I’m predicting an upset for documentary “Comeback”. Unlikely: village dramedy “Hostage”, road movie “Stanko” and another documentary (about the legacy of the Communist secret police), “Salto Mortale”.

6. SLOVENIA- "The Woods are Still Green" 
Slovenia's film industry got a shock at last year’s film awards when a documentary (“A Fight For”) about Slovenia’s 2012 version of the Occupy Wall Street movement, and a 19-minute student film (“The Springtime Sleep”) split the major awards, beating out favorites “The Tree” (Karlovy Vary 2014), about a mother and her sons, and “Inferno” (Busan; it won just two tech prizes), a violent, social drama about an unemployed man facing off against society. "The Tree" managed to get Best Actor and the Audience Award, while "Inferno" just won two tech prizes. Those two arty films were also passed over at the Cannes Film Market, where Slovenia instead chose to promote a new comedy (“Siska Deluxe”) and horror film (“Idyll”), both of which will premiere in October. So, Slovenia has quite a confused race, with no obvious frontrunner. I am going to predict they make an odd choice and send German-language WWI drama "The Woods are Still Green" by Marko Nabersnik, who directed Slovenia’s 2008 submission and their biggest-ever domestic box-office hit “Rooster’s Breakfast”. Slovenia was part of German-speaking Austria during the war. It is probably the best reviewed Slovenian film of the year, if you believe it to be a Slovenian film. In 2nd place will be the angry, nihilistic “Inferno” (dir: Vinko Moderndorfer, who repped Slovenia in 2009) while the equally grim “The Tree” should place 3rd. The aforementioned winner of the Festival of Slovenian Film (“A Fight For”) probably won't come into play, as the Slovenian Academy tends to be bit more mainstream than the Festival judges. Opening too late: mystery-thriller “Nightlife” (Damjan Kozole, 2003) and drama "Mother" will not be released until fall at the earliest.

7. SOUTH AFRICA- "Treurgrond" South Africa has a number of potential submissions, including an Afrikaans-language thriller by Darrell Roodt, the director of their first-ever Oscar nominee, "Yesterday”. Roodt has three films in South African cinemas this year though the other two aren't eligible. One intriguing option is “Breathing Umphefumlo” (Berlinale 2015), a Xhosa-language operatic redux of La Bohème. However, the South African Academy didn't send the acclaimed “U-Carmen eKhayelitsha” (a Xhosa-language Carmen) by the same team, which got far better reviews. Perhaps because the director is British? Afrikaans mystery “Ballade vir n’Enkeling”, a mystery based on a popular 80s television series about a missing author got strong notices from the Afrikaner community, while urban dance drama “Hear Me Move” entertained audiences, though to me it looks like just a South African version of “Step Up”. “Love the One You Love” (Busan), about love and relationships in modern-day Cape Town, was made on a micro-budget, with improvised dialogue and mostly been warmly received by critics. Two co-productions with neighboring countries that don’t compete in the Oscars (“Dias Santana” with Angola, and “Coming of Age” with Lesotho) could also contend if South Africa considers them to be domestic productions. “Necktie Youth” has played at a number of festivals, but it seems like it has too much English. Bottom line: South Africa’s Academy is likely to choose “Treurgrond”, a thriller about the true-to-life brutal attacks that terrorize South Africa’s farms and its farmers, with low-budget “Love the One You Love” its strongest competition. 

8. SPAIN- "Ma ma" Spain doesn't have as much to choose from this year as they usually do. This year's big Goya winner ("La isla minima") was eligible last year, both their films at Cannes and Berlin were filmed mostly in English and many of their leading draws at San Sebastian will not hit cinemas until October. Never fear because Oscar winning actress Penelope Cruz is here! Cruz co-starred in both of Spain's Oscar-winning films from the 1990s ("All About My Mother" and "Belle Epoque") and her "Ma ma" (which opens September 11) looks like exactly the sort of heartwarming, sad, inspiring film that Oscar loves. It's about an academic (Cruz) battling breast cancer (cancer de mama is the Spanish for breast cancer) with the support of her family. "Magical Girl" (San Sebastian, Best Picture 2014), an odd film about a man desperately trying to obtain an anime costume as a final gift for his dying daughter, is likely to get another slot on Spain's traditional three-film shortlist. The third film is a mystery to me; it could be adolescent drama "Nothing in Exchange" (Winner, Malaga Film Festival), Basque-language mystery "Loreak" (which got a rare Best Pic nomination at the Goyas), or Agustí Villaronga's "The King of Havana", which was denied permission to film in Cuba for its story of a teenager experimenting with sex, love, rum and crime during Cuba's economic collapse in the 1990s. Villaronga was selected in 2011. Although this has been a relatively weak year for Spain, they've got lots in the pipeline and will have a very strong year next year. For now, I'm confident about "Ma ma", with "Magical Girl" and "King of Havana" filling out the shortlist. 

9. SRI LANKA- "28" Sri Lanka has sent only one film in the past ten years (and only two in Oscar history) and I don’t see any indication they will send a film this year. However, they do have a number of candidates should the new government choose to re-enter the race, perhaps to promote local cinema. The most popular choice would clearly be “Maharaja Gemunu”, an impressive-looking costume drama about a renowned King which performed well in the domestic market.  However, the two films Sri Lanka sent to the Oscars were both more arthouse efforts. In that case, the favorite would probably be “28” (Rotterdam), a drama about three men transporting the body of a murder victim, who turns out to be a relative of one of the three men. “Thanha Rathi Ranga” (Between Today and Tomorrow), about three friends visiting Northern Sri Lanka after the Civil War, could also be chosen, while “The Strange Familiar” probably won’t be considered due to its LGBT-themes as homosexuality continues to be a crime in Sri Lanka. Bottom line: in the unlikely event they send a film, it will be “28”.

10. SWEDEN- "A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence" Sweden has had a slow year filled with comedies and documentaries, so there’s little doubt they would choose Venice Golden Lion winner “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence” if the year ended today. “Pigeon” is the final film in what Variety magazine says is probably “the lowest-grossing trilogy in history”, following the soporific “Songs from the Second Floor” and "You the Living”. Although both these plotless films were terrible, they both represented Sweden at the Oscars. “Pigeon”, which Variety swears has slightly more of a plot in its absurdist vignettes than the other two films, seems likely to follow...but I’m rooting against it. Note to the Academy: Roy Andersson’s films have been sent to the Academy three times without success. AMPAS, like me, clearly has no tolerance for his dull, nearly wordless films. Now, Sweden’s last film to get an Oscar nomination was Kay Pollak's sleeper musical drama "As It Is In Heaven” (the Swedes have been shortlisted three times since then, but never nominated) . Miles better than the similarly themed “Les choristes”  that same year, Pollak has now made a sequel- “Heaven on Earth”- which will be released in September. Choosing a sequel as your Oscar candidate is risky- most Oscar voters can't remember the first one- but I would love to see Pollak (who at least has a proven track record at the Oscars) getting this instead of a fourth failure for Andersson. Another potential dark horse is Andreas Ohman’s upcoming romantic drama “Odödliga” (premiering August 21). Ohman’s “Simple Simon” was a buzzy late release in 2010 and made it all the way to the Final Nine. There's also Berlinale adolescent drama “My Skinny Sister” about a girl going through figure skating and eating disorders (I fell asleep at a screening after a few minutes but admittedly didn’t give it much of a chance). I’m desperately trying to find a way to make a prediction against Andersson, but he’ll probably get it. Sigh. Strongest alternate is “Heaven on Earth”. 

11. SWITZERLAND- "La vanité" Switzerland would be easier to predict if only Barbet Schroeder’s “Amnesia” were eligible. The Oscar-nominated director is a Swiss citizen and his new film (his first in seven years) got good reviews in Cannes and will open the Swiss Films section in Locarno. Set in Spain with two German lead characters, much is made of the fact that the German woman insists on speaking only in English. I believe the film will be over 50% in English and won’t qualify (like last year’s “Clouds of Sils Maria”). For the past five years, Switzerland has chosen a film from either Berlinale or Locarno. That would appear to bode well for “Dora, or the Sexual Neuroses of our Parents” (Berlin) and “Pause” (Locarno), which faced off against each other at the 2015 Swiss Film Awards, where they both lost to “The Circle”. But neither “Dora”, about a mentally unstable woman who becomes pregnant, nor musician rom-com “Pause” has really wowed the critics. “Unlikely Heroes”, a comedy about a bored divorcée who finds meaning in life when she volunteers at a center for asylum seekers, has also gotten mixed reviews but it’s a definite crowd-pleaser. I loved the film and it won the Audience Award at Locarno 2014. It’s similar humor to “Late Bloomers” which Switzerland selected in 2007. Other contenders include “La vanité”, a dark French-language comedy (co-starring Spain’s Carmen Maura) about an elderly man seeking outside help to commit suicide (from a Spanish nurse and a male prostitute from Eastern Europe), “War”, about a sensitive boy forced to spend the summer working hard on a remote farm, and “Heimatland”, a series of ten shorts envisioning a dark future for Switzerland. And because the Swiss have chosen documentaries two years in a row, let’s throw in a pair of immigration-themed films, namely “Iraqi Odyssey”, a moving documentary tracking the director’s Iraqi family who have been dispersed around the world by decades of emigration and war, and “Shelter”, about migrants in Switzerland. Previously selected directors Rolando Colla (“Seven Days”) and Xavier Koller (“A Bell for Ursli”) have new films but they won’t prefer until the fall. Final predictions: hardly any of these films seem likely but I’m predicting “La vanité” pulls this off. The more grim and depressing “War” (Chrieg) has the next best chance, followed by documentary “Iraqi Odyssey” and comedy “Unlikely Heroes”. As much as I’d like to predict an unlikely victory for “Unlikely Heroes”, I’d say that’s unlikely to happen. “Dora” rounds out the Top Five choices. UPDATE: Switzerland announced their seven finalists. I’m pleased to note that four of my Top Five are on the list- “Vanité”, “War”, “Iraqi Odyssey” and “Dora”, which have been joined by “Pause”. Also on the list: “Bouboule”, a comedy about a fat kid (no chance to be selected) and “No Place to Stay”, a documentary about the Roma that I admittedly have never heard of. Out of luck: “Unlikely Heroes”. My prediction remains the same. 

12. TAIWAN- "The Assassin" Let’s review. Since 2000, the only films from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan to make it past the longlist stage were “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, “The Grandmaster”, “Hero” and “Seediq Bale”. All four were artsy Chinese-language epics with tons of martial arts fighting and close attention to cinematography, color and historical detail. Taiwan thus has the easiest decision of any major country this year and will surely send Hsiao-hsien Hou’s gorgeous 9th century epic “The Assassin”. Eight years in the making, “The Assassin” has probably gotten the best reviews of Hou’s career and is also more accessible than his earlier arthouse films. "The Assassin" won Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival for its story of a female assassin torn between love and duty. “The Assassin” will bowl over the competition which was anyway weak this year. Chang Tso-chi’s grim “Thanatos Drunk” (Berlinale), set in the back-alleys of Taipei, dominated the the awards at the Taipei FIlm Festival, but it got mixed reviews internationally. Cho has been chosen before, and so has Sylvia Chang, but her slow-paced “Murmur of the Hearts” (aka Nian Nian), about reunited siblings on a small Taiwanese island, was also not beloved with critics. Better reviewed was cerebral high-school heist comedy “Meeting Mr. Sun”, which won Best Screenplay at the Golden Horse Awards but I don’t think it's very likely either. This will be an easy win for “Assassin”. 

13. TAJIKISTAN- "Tasfiya" Tajikistan last submitted a film in 2005 when they were disqualified after the official print of their film failed to arrive in time. Since then, they’ve shown no interest in the competition even during those rare years when they had suitable candidates (like Nosir Saidov’s bittersweet “True Noon”). This year’s most acclaimed Tajik film (Nosir Saidov’s “The Teacher”) premiered in Dushanbe slightly too early to qualify. They probably won't participate but they do have candidates. They had four local films (probably a record) playing at the biannual Didor International Film Festival which was held in Dushanbe in October 2014. And according to an interesting new article, Tajiki cinema has been getting a boost in funding lately. If they return, I predict they send “Tasfiya” a surreal fantasy-drama by a new female helmer, about a couple living in a small village under Soviet times.

14. TANZANIA- "Daddy's Wedding" The Tanzanians sent an obscure Swahili-language film called “Maangamizi” in 2001, but have been silent ever since. Their only really successful film of the year was critically acclaimed short film, "Fish of the Land”. The Tanzanians had quite a few local feature films in competition at the Zanzibar International Film Festival this year, but most seem to have been released the previous year, including "Kutakapokucha", which won Best Tanzanian Film and "Mr. Kadamanja" (which won the People's Choice Award). For the sake of completion, I’ll predict “Daddy's Wedding", a comedy-drama which won two of the seven awards in the local awards section (Director and Cinematography). They also have One Month Date”, a drama about the dating problems of a single mother, but I’m sure they won’t send anything this year.

15. THAILAND- "Pheun Keed Sen Tai" Thailand doesn’t have much to choose from this year. Apichatpong Weerasethakul had another slow, pretentious, lugubrious movie (“Cemetery of Splendor”) at Cannes this year, but it didn’t win any awards and nobody likes his films in Thailand anyway. After Palme d’Or winner “Uncle Boonmee” failed to get Thailand an Oscar nomination, a second chance seems unlikely (they really don't like him in Thailand). Of the major 2014 releases honored at the Thai Oscars (the “Subhannahongsa Awards”, or Golden Swans) this year, only two are eligible- documentary “The Master”, about the man who introduced arthouse films to Thailand by pirating them, and romantic comedy “I Fine Thank You Love You”, a standard rom-com. 2015 releases have been even more silly than usual. In fact, Thailand probably has fewer good options than any major country this year. Now having said that, the Thai always find something to send. Unlike most countries, they have no prejudice when it comes to genre, choosing popular romance (2014, 2009), horror films (2013), action movies (2012, 2006), arthouse (2010, 2003), musicals (2002), costume dramas (2011, 2007) and LGBT (2008), which is quite refreshing. But everything this year seems to have a major handicap…LGBT drama “How to Win At Checkers” (Berlin) has an American director. “King Naresuan 6” is visually spectacular and the end of a long series of films (it was originally a trilogy) which reportedly bankrupted its studio, but the history-in-progress plotline will be hopelessly lost on Western viewers. Expensive “Khrua Toh”, the biopic of a revered Buddhist monk, will showcase Thai culture and religion well, but the trailer looks melodramatic and dull by Western standards, and American audiences won't have a clue who he is. Horror-comedy “The Black Death” is supposed to be loads of fun but a period film about the living dead is hardly Oscar’s cup of tea. So, I’m going on a limb and choosing "Pheun Keed Sen Tai" (เพื่อนขีดเส้นใต้), an omnibus of three films by independent directors exploring friendships and relationships. It has no English title yet, but literally means "Underlining Friends". I’ll put “King Naresuan 6” in second place, with “Khrua Toh”, “Postcards from Nowhere” (about a postcard that brings interconnected characters together) and “Cemetery of Splendor” rounding out the Top Five. 

16. TUNISIA- "Tunisian Spring" Tunisia hasn’t sent a film to the Oscars since 2002- way before the chaos of the Arab Spring. This year, Tunisian features were completely absent from the Abu Dhabi Film Festival and they sent a film from last year (“Challat de Tunis”) to Cairo and Busan. That leaves three choices: (1)-  “Bidoun 2”, the only local feature in competition at the country’s Carthage International Film Festival, (2)- “Tunisian Spring”, which represented the country at FESPACO, and (3)- the three-hour dark horse “Looking for Muhyiddin”, which combines elements of documentary and fiction. “Tunisian Spring”, a drama about the lives of four young people set against the backdrop of the 2011 Arab Spring, should be considered the front-runner. Female helmer Raja Amari is very much owed. Her film “Satin Rouge” got Oscar buzz way back in 2002 but when the Tunisian committee met (for the first time in 7 years), they picked an obscure film nobody had ever heard of instead of the feminist "Satin". Hopefully, they will send her new film and not snub her again for “Bidoun 2”, about two itinerant young people who meet during the political turmoil of 2013 (post-Arab Spring). I’m predicting (and pulling for) Amari and “Tunisian Spring”

17. TURKEY- "Mustang" Turkey's most acclaimed film of the year is clearly “Mustang”, dubbed by many as a Turkish “Virgin Suicides”. The plot is about five sisters whose innocent horseplay with the neighborhood boys sets off a local scandal and results in a loss of the girl’s freedom. It won a small award at Cannes and the Grand Prize at the much smaller Odessa Film Festival.  Despite creeping Islamization in the government, Turkey is still fairly modern and liberal so it's feminist themes shouldn't present a problem as they might in other Muslim countries. It’s main competitor is “The Miracle”, a tearjerker/romance about a city teacher whose arrival has a profound effect on a small village community in 1960s Turkey. Director Mahsun Kirmizigül was selected in 2009. The Istanbul Film Festival usually presents us with some good options, but most Turkish filmmakers boycotted this year’s event due to censorship complaints. The most likely option from there is “Ivy” (Sundance), about a group of sailors forced to stay aboard a ship’s final journey when the company goes bankrupt. At the Antalya Golden Oranges, the two big winners were a pair of family dramas, namely “Kuzu” (Best Picture), about a family preparing for their son’s circumcision feast and “Sivas”, a youth film about a boy who rescues a fighting dog. Other Turkish options include “Bahara Yolculuk”, about a teacher who dreams of opening a school in Kyrgyzstan, “Eksik”, a political historical film about life after the 1980 military coup, “Entanglement” (Sarajevo), about two laborer brothers whose relationship is strained by their mother’s death and the appearance of a woman who comes between them, “Limonata”, a comedic film about two brothers getting to know each other on a road trip and “Two Hearts as One”, about two lovers separated by WWII who spend half a century trying to reunite....I predict “Mustang” will get this with “Miracle” a close second and “Two Hearts as One”, “Bahara Yolculuk” and “Ivy” rounding out the Top Five choices for Turkey. 

18. UKRAINE- "Song of Songs" Ukraine had a great film year in 2014, but civil conflict, the annexation of Crimea and the occupation of several Ukrainian provinces by pro-Russian forces have understandably led to drastic cuts to arts and cultural programming, including cinema. Production on many films has simply stopped mid-way and it’s unclear which local films will be finished and released. The biggest Ukrainian hit of the year- “The Battle for Sevastopol”- would be a controversial choice for several reasons. Billed as the first (and last) big-budget co-production with Russia, the film was made in Ukraine’s autonomous Republic of Crimea (now annexed illegally by Russia) in the Russian language by a Ukrainian director in cooperation with a Russian studio. Despite worries that the film, about a celebrated female Soviet sniper and war heroine who made a famous visit to the United States at the height of the Cold War, would have trouble being finished and/or released in either country, it has, in fact, been a surprise success in both Russia and Ukraine. Because of the political symbolism of that film, however, I think Ukraine will instead opt for one of two other films:  "Maidan” (Cannes 2014) is an acclaimed documentary by Sergei Loznitsa ("My Joy") about the 2013-2014 protests that forced out Ukrainian President Yanukovych, while “Song of Songs” (Karlovy Vary) is the story of star-crossed young lovers living in a conservative Jewish shletl community in pre-WWII Ukraine. It won Best Ukrainian Film at the scaled-down Odessa Film Festival and has been praised for its attention to detail in portraying a community now mostly lost to history and emigration. Strong 2015 contenders like 1920s historical drama “The Occupaton” and “The Nest of the Turtle Dove”, about a woman who goes to work in Italy to send money home to her family, were still in production as of May and appear unlikely to be released in time. I had "Maidan" down as my prediction but am switching to "Song of Songs". 

19. UNITED KINGDOM- "Trash" The UK used to send mostly Welsh films and IMDB says they have two new ones this year- “Yr Ymadawiad” (The Passing), a Twilight Zone-style drama about a car crash, and “Under Milk Wood”, starring Rhys Ifans and singer Charlotte Church, which was made in both English and Welsh versions. In any case, Britain is almost certain to send “Trash”, a Portuguese-language drama about three youths living in the Brazilian favelas, which is directed by three-time Best Director Oscar nominee Stephen Daldry (“The Hours”, “The Reader”, “Billy Elliott”). Often compared to “Slumdog Millionaire”, it’s said to be a very Hollywood version of a foreign film, and likely to please the Academy. A final dark horse is “Gemma Bovery” , a majority French romantic comedy with a French-Luxembourgian director, based on a British novel and with a British lead (Gemma Arterton, “Quantum of Solace”) and which was made with the support of the British Film Institute. But Daldry's involvement and the baity "kids in peril" plotline should make this an easy win for him. Other foreign-language productions from Britain like “We Will Sing” (in Lithuanian) and “The Anglistanis” (in Hindi) are out of luck. Count on Daldry, with "Under Milk Wood" the lead challenger. 

20. URUGUAY- "A Moonless Night" (Una noche sin luna) Little Uruguay has had a fairly slow year but, as usual, they have some droll tragicomedies they could send to the Oscars. This year, I believe they have five eligible features, plus some documentaries. The directors of their 2010 and 2011 submissions, the producer of their 2013 submission and the winner of the 2009 Silver Berlin Bear (probably Uruguay’s best-ever finish at a Class A Festival) are all back with new movies and there’s also a pair of documentaries (“Tus padres volveran”, about the children of political dissidents who return to Uruguay to rejoin relatives while their parents remain in exile, and “El hombre Nuevo”, about the life of a transgendered Uruguayan) that could contend, though Uruguay tends to prefer comedy. Unlike most countries, three-fourths of Uruguay's submissions were comedies (though I didn't find "Whisky" or "A Useful Life" very funny). I think Uruguay will end up choosing between "A Moonless Night” (Una noche sin luna), about three lonely people visiting a small town on New Year’s Eve (Uruguayan summer!), and the yet-to-be-released “The Apostate”, a quirky co-production with Spain about the absurdities of religious faith.  The trailer for “Moonless Night” looks like a typical Uruguayan submission…lots of tragicomedy and quiet humor. “The Apostate” looks much more intriguing, but I have no idea whether it’s good or not, and it's tentative release date is in October, meaning it would probably need a special qualifying release. Perhaps next year.... In third place: transgender documentary “El hombre Nuevo” (Uruguay is probably the most progressive country in Latin America on LGBT rights), with footballer dramedy “El Cinco” and horror film “Dios Local” (rock musicians confronting their greatest fears in a mine shaft!) rounding out the Top Five possibilities.

21. VENEZUELA- "Dauna" Venezuela made it to the 9-film Oscar shortlist for the first time ever last year for historical drama “Libertador”. They didn’t make the Final Five, but it showed that Venezuelan cinema is on the rise. Neighbor and rival Colombia is now the only country in South America’s “Big Six” that hasn’t advanced to the next round. At this year’s Merida Festival for Venezuelan Film, the two big winners were jet-black beauty pageant comedy “3 Bellezas” (Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actress, plus two small prizes) and village drama “Dauna, Who Leads the River” (Jury Prize, Press Prize plus three small prizes). I personally can’t wait to see “3 Bellezas”, which plays fast and loose with Venezuela’s national obsession with beauty pageants. It’s about a mom who will do absolutely anything to make sure her teenaged daughter wins…think “Drop Dead Gorgeous”, “Honey Boo Boo” and “Serial Mom” all mixed into one. However, the Venezuelan Academy has recently shown a preference for films that are grim and serious and they may feel more confident now that their pick of the serious “Libertador” over comedy “Bad Hair” has been vindicated. “Dauna” is about an indigenous Warao woman torn between her village’s traditional ways versus the prospect of utilizing her modern education in the city. The film has some relationship with the Berlin Film Festival (maybe it got funding there?) and is the favorite to represent Venezuela this year....though I’m still hoping for “3 Beauties”. Four other films won awards at the Venezuelan Film Festival and could be chosen if “Beauties” is too silly and “Dauna” is too dour. The dark horse is “Espejos” (Best First Work), a psychological thriller telling six interrelated stories. Unlikely but possible: 1950s coming-of-age drama “Travesia” (which won the Audience Award) and period drama “Gaspar Mendoza’s Hell” (Best Actor) about a family dealing with the illness of their daughter after surviving Venezuela’s brutal 19th century War for Independence. I’d rather see “KM 72”, a modern-day Venezuelan “Rashomon”, but that left the Festival empty-handed. Here's hoping for "Beauties", but I think I'll be disappointed.

22. VIETNAM- "Children of the Village" Vietnam has a number of interesting choices this year. As usual, the Vietnamese Academy will need to choose between the dull, old-fashioned films from their National Film Studio (which is what they’ve done lately) and the more independent and adventurous arthouse films that represent Vietnam abroad (which is what they used to do). Of course, their third choice is not to choose anything at all- the last two years they’ve opted not to send a film to the Oscars. The most critically acclaimed Vietnamese film of the year is clearly “Flapping in the Middle of Nowhere” (Venice Critics Award, 2014) but although it did screen in Vietnam, I’m skeptical the conservative Vietnamese Academy will choose a film that highlights social problems like abortion. The same goes for Berlinale drama “Big Father, Small Father and Other Stories” about the quirky residents of an overpopulated slum. Three films shared Best Picture honors at this year’s state-sponsored Golden Kite Awards, namely “Rise”, an action-drama about the shocking rise of a female gangster, “Paradise in Heart”, about a love triangle involving a bisexual ex-con, and rural drama “The Children of the Village”. The first two winners may indicate that the stodgy Vietnamese are loosening up a bit! But unfortunately, I’m still going to predict they choose “Children of the Village”- the “safest” and most conservative film in the bunch. In 2nd place: “Farewell, Berlin Wall”, an action-drama shopped at the Cannes Film Market about a Vietnamese woman living in Germany in the waning days of the Cold War who ends up kidnapped. In 3rd place: festival fave “Flapping in the Middle of Nowhere”.

The most likely debutantes from this group of countries are UGANDA, which has “Boda Boda Thieves” (mostly in Swahili), a local take on “The Bicycle Thief” or “Beijing Bicycle”, about an impoverished family whose livelihood depends on a bicycle which has been stolen; and the UNITED ARAB EMIRATES’ “Dolphin” (Dubai), about the lives of a young man and his divorced parents living in the remote eastern Emirate of Ras-al-Khaimah. “Thieves” has played at festivals but I don’t believe it’s been distributed in Uganda. Also from Dubai, YEMEN’s “I Am Nojoom, 10 and Divorced” beat films from all over the Arab world to win Best Arab Film at the Dubai Film Festival, but probably has not screened in war-torn Yemen. English-speaking TRINIDAD & TOBAGO could send “Haiti Bride”, a film in Haitian Creole about a woman who returns to her country to find the husband she left behind in the chaos of the 2010 earthquake. The Pacific kingdom of TONGA made their first-ever feature film- “When the Man went South”- in 2014, but I’m not certain it screened at home in Tonga. RWANDA’s acclaimed “Things of the Aimless Wanderer” (Sundance) seems to be mostly in  English.

A look at last year's race