Sunday, February 22, 2015

Final Prediction- Another surprise for Argentina and their "Wild Tales"

I'm writing this post on Day 11 of a Micronesian holiday, so there's not much Oscar buzz here.

This is definitely the closest race in years. Its also the first time in history with ZERO Western European nominees (Netherlands and Sweden came closest). Regretfully, I've only seen two of the five nominees- "Ida" and "Timbuktu" making predicting the winner even harder than usual.

First of all, I think ESTONIA's "Tangerines" has run out of steam. Despite warm reviews, they're a bit weaker than the other four AND they will be hurt by the new rule that you don't have to prove you've seen all five films. With such a close race, this will be the least-seen film (though Voters will get a screener copy) and id say they're out.

So which of the rest will it be? Let's take a quick look:

The Crowdpleaser Choice: "Wild Tales" (Argentina) hopes to follow in the footsteps of "Departures". The revenge-themed black comedy has gotten universally great reviews but some may see it as too lightweight. It will benefit from the "all voters voting" policy.

The Exotic Choice: "Timbuktu" (Mauritania) hopes to follow in the footsteps of "Tsotsi". "Timbuktu", about the 2010 Islamic fundamentalist takeover of the ancient city, is the first film directed by a Black African director (though Mauritania-born Sissako is a French citizen) to make the finals. It's exotic, it's relevant, it's universally relatable and probably deserves to win (it's miles better than "Ida").

The Boring Choice: Forgettable b&W "Ida" (Poland) hopes to follow forgettable Oscar winner "The Counterfeiters". She's the front-runner for so many reasons. It's won  the majority of precursors (except the most important one), it has a post-WWII theme (though the war has recently lost favor in this category)  and box-office is best in show. Most importantly, it's the most widely seen of the Five.

The Intellectual Choice: Golden Globe winner "Leviathan" (Russia) hopes to follow "No Man's Land" and "A Separation". It was the shock winner against "Ida" at the Globes, usually a strong tip to win the Oscar. The film also has a great backstory and a Cannes Screenplay win, though festival prizes aren't too important for oscar voters.

Final Predictions-

Argentina (35%)
Poland (28%)
Russia (20%)
Mauritania  (15%)
Estonia (2%)

Good luck to the unconventional nominees!

Monday, January 12, 2015

Foreign Film Predictions- Final Five

So, I only got four out of nine finalists right. While I'm thrilled that the Academy recognized the brilliance of Mauritanian debutante "Timbuktu" (which I have seen) and the nontraditional brilliant black comedy of Argentina's "Wild Tales" (which I have not seen), I'm disappointed with their selection of "Ida" (a perfectly ordinary film that I virtually forgot the day after I saw it), "Corn Island" (well-made but dull) and "Force Majeure" (not exactly dull but very pretentious).

And of course, like everyone else I made the mistake of predicting "Two Days, One Night", forgetting that Oscar really, really hates les Freres Dardenne. The trailer for "Two Days" looks great, but I must admit I usually hate the brothers too.

So, who will make the Top Five? It will be really close this year....Eight of the nine are really competitive films while the ninth- Georgia's "Corn Island"- was clearly selected by the Elite Committee perhaps due to some sort of coin toss or fetish for learning how one grows corn.

Final Predictions:
Argentina, Mauritania, Poland, Russia and Venezuela

Who I want to be nominated:
Argentina, Estonia, Mauritania, Netherlands and Russia,

1. RUSSIA- "Leviathan"
2. MAURITANIA- "Timbuktu"
3. POLAND- "Ida"

I think these three films are safe because there is a "consensus" they are great movies. Yesterday's Golden Globe win for political critique "Leviathan" (Best Screenplay at Cannes) probably locked up an Oscar nomination for RUSSIA. It's supposed to be both accessible and intelligent, with a great political backstory (though few Oscar voters care about that sort of thing). Formerly an Oscar superpower, this will only be Russia's second nomination in fifteen years. POLAND's "Ida" is probably also safe. Though I fail to understand how the film is any different from dozens of forgotten low-budget Eastern European submissions over the years, the film has been a critical and box-office success, dominating the Foreign Film Awards among year-end American film critics (possibly the only one many of them saw?) and somehow sweeping the European Film Awards as well. I would love to see a surprise snub, but this B&W nun's tale seems safe. MAURITANIA is competing for the first time and "Timbuktu" was the best film I saw at the Busan International Film Festival last year. Focusing on the 2012 jihadist takeover of the ancient Malian city of Timbuktu in 2012, "Timbuktu" is a perfect "Foreign Language Film". It's surprisingly accessible to Western audiences yet exotic enough to entrance. It's grim and sad, but with many moments of humor. Oscar has often honored this type of film and this is a superior effort.

4. ARGENTINA- "Wild Tales"
5. VENEZUELA- "Libertador"
6. NETHERLANDS- "Lucia de B." (aka "The Accused")

These three are really close and I'm not sure who will be left out....Let's look at the Pros & Cons:

ARGENTINA's Almodovar-esque black comedy "Wild Tales"
PRO:   Universally liked and a real crowd-pleaser. Probably the best reviews of any film on the list.
CON: It's a comedy competing in what is usually a very serious, humorless category.

NETHERLANDS' pulled-from-the-headlines legal thriller "Lucia de B."
PRO: Solid mainstream Dutch effort. Supremely accessible, relatable. Director Paula van Oest managed a surprise Oscar nomination once before.
CON: No buzz, no awards. Nobody's heard of the film and the film couldn't even manage a Best Picture nomination at the Golden Calf Awards. Too mainstream? (Similarly themed "Omar Killed Me" made the shortlist but failed to advance)

VENEZUELA's historical biopic of Simon Bolivar, "Libertador"
PRO: Expensive, large-scale historical drama with lots of action and costumes. Rumor has it that it received an exceptionally warm reception during its Oscar screening.
CON: Reviews are easily the weakest of these three films, with many saying it's a rather well-made history lesson. Biopics rarely score well in this category since many people don't know much about the subjects. No awards from anywhere.

In the end, I think Argentina's critical acclaim will get them to the finals (After all, Amelie and Almodovar managed comedy nominations). For the fifth slot, it's a virtual tie for 5th between Netherlands + Venezuela plus Estonia and Sweden. Like "Mongol", I think "Libertador"'s production values will see it through for the fifth and final slot.

7. ESTONIA- "Tangerines"
8. SWEDEN- "Force Majeure"
9. GEORGIA- "Corn Island"

These three arthouse films are more divisive, meaning they may struggle to get selected for the Top Five. Quite unbelievably, two of the three films have the same obscure topic, focusing on the lives of ordinary civilians living through the civil war in Abkhazia (!)

It should be noted that Estonia and Sweden both made the Top Five at the Golden Globes. "Force Majeure" has been a critical darling among arthouse critics while "Tangerines" has quietly been building buzz. Both of them are definitely in with a chance. SWEDEN's film- "Force Majeure"- also won the Jury Prize at Cannes (Un Certain Regard) but it's pretentious, cerebral, talky plot is exactly the sort of film that may struggle to overcome the last hurdle to make it to the Final Five. ESTONIA's "Tangerines", about two Estonian settlers in Abkhazia caught in the middle of an ethnic civil war between Abkhazians and Georgians, is said to be a very special film. I've heard very good things about it and would love to predict a first nomination for the smallest of the ex-Soviet republics, but there are some who dislike the film meaning that it will probably just miss out on a nomination. The same can't be said about GEORGIA's "Corn Island", a dull film about an old Abkhaz man and his homely, barely clothed teenaged daughter who shelter a Georgian soldier while spending their year growing corn.

Thursday, December 18, 2014



I’ve been on the road on and off for most of the past two months without a laptop so I haven’t gotten a chance to rank the Eastern Europeans (you can see a quick review at the end of the Post). But the Final Nine are being announced later today so that means it’s time for my Final Predictions.

This was a rough year. With a record 83 countries, it’s nearly impossible to get a handle on all the films competing. There are no locks. Even Mauritania’s “Timbuktu” (which I see as the most likely candidate) could easily be snubbed. With so many high-profile films in play, it may seem stupid to predict dark horses like Bulgaria and Kyrgyzstan, but I’ve got a hunch we'll see one or both of them on the Final List.

A few words about "Ida", which has somehow emerged as the front-runner for the Oscar. For those of you who haven't seen it, “Ida”, a well-lit, pleasant but forgettable B&W film from Poland. Frankly, I don’t understand all the excitement. Since when does pretty cinematography equal an Oscar? I have been predicting a surprise snub for “Ida” but its recent win at the European Film Awards and its nomination at the Golden Globes show the film clearly has a great deal of love (and momentum). I could pretend it’s the Jewish WWII subject matter, but frankly far superior films (like Hungary’s unrecognized “Fateless”) on that subject have been ignored by the committee before. So, I really don't understand....I still am not sure “Ida” can crack the Top Six but the Elite Committee is probably ready and willing to save it. But I hope not. One interesting possible scenario: BULGARIA’s Jewish themed WWII story “Bulgarian Rhapsody” (which I hear is quite good) does make the Top Six making a snub for “Ida” more palatable, and making room for "Wild Tales". Black comedy "Wild Tales" is probably the best-reviewed film on the whole list, but it will struggle to find a fan base. I hope it replaces "Ida". Fingers crossed.

1. MAURITANIA- “Timbuktu”
2. BELGIUM- “Two Days, One Night”
3. ISRAEL- “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Absalem”
4. SPAIN- “Living is Easy with Eyes Closed”
5. KYRGYZSTAN- “Kurmandjan Datka: Queen of the Mountains”
6. POLAND- “Ida” (I hope I’m wrong!)
7. RUSSIA- “Leviathan”
8. BULGARIA- “Bulgarian Rhapsody”
9. ESTONIA- “Tangerines”

10. CANADA- “Mommy” (elite committee only)
11. CZECH REPUBLIC- “Fair Play”
12. ARGENTINA- “Wild Tales” (fingers crossed! I really hope I’m wrong!!)
13. ITALY- “Human Capital”
14. NETHERLANDS- “The Accused” (Lucia de B.)
15. GREECE- “Little England”

16. SWEDEN- “Force Majeure”
17. UKRAINE- “The Guide”
18. TURKEY- “Winter Sleep”
19. HUNGARY- White God”
20. SOUTH KOREA- “Sea Fog” (Haemoo)
21. VENEZUELA- “Libertador”

22. LEBANON- “Ghadi”
23. CUBA- “Conducta”
24. GERMANY- “Beloved Sisters”
25. ETHIOPIA- “Difret”
26. PHILIPPINES- “Norte, the End of History”
27. ICELAND- “Life in a Fishbowl”
28. MALTA- “Simshar”
29. AUSTRALIA- “Charlie’s Country”
30. KOSOVO- “Three Windows and a Hanging”

31. CHILE- “To Kill A Man”
32. GEORGIA- “Corn Island”
33. MEXICO- "Cantinflas"
34. PERU- "Gospel of the Flesh"
35. DENMARK- "Sorrow and Joy"
36. PALESTINE- "Eyes of a Thief"

No, I haven't forgotten "The Way He Looks", "Saint Laurent" or "Concrete Night". They're not contenders.

We'll find out later today!

NO CHANCE IN HELL: Croatia, Lithuania, Moldova, Montenegro, Serbia, Slovenia
EXTREMELY UNLIKELY: Azerbaijan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Latvia, Slovakia
MIDDLE CANDIDATES: Georgia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Romania
DARK HORSES: Czech Republic, Hungary, Ukraine
FRONT-RUNNERS: Bulgaria, Estonia, Poland, Russia

FOREIGN OSCAR PREDICTIONS- A look at the 21 Nominees from Western Europe

The 21 films from Western Europe (including Israel and Turkey) are aiming to dominate this year's race as they traditionally have. Half of them have an actual shot at the Final Nine and competition is going to be tight, especially with 60 other countries jockeying for position. Will the elite committee be swayed by major awards (Turkey) or big names that have perpetually been snubbed (Belgium)? Will the big committee be impressed by buzz (Sweden) or old-fashioned storytelling (Spain)? Will they impressed by "gorgeous" films (Germany) with middling reviews or "gritty" films with better ones (Finland)? Or could they give the new kid (Malta) a chance?

21. LUXEMBOURG- "Never Die Young"
20. UNITED KINGDOM- "Little Happiness"
19. SWITZERLAND- "The Circle"
18. PORTUGAL- "What Now? Remind Me"

Documentaries generally aren't a good fit in this category, but that didn't stop perennial European underdogs Luxembourg and Portugal (as well as 2-time winner Switzerland) from sending them this year. All three of these have gotten fairly good reviews (including a Locarno Jury Prize for Portugal and a Berlinale Audience Award for Switzerland) but there's no reason to believe they'll be honored here.

LUXEMBOURG's "Never Die Young" is a 70-minute look at the life of a recovering heroin addict who ended up in a wheelchair during an escape attempt from court. Unlike Portugal and Switzerland, it hasn't won awards internationally and sounds a bit preachy. It's Western Europe's longest of long-shots.

The Foreign Film committee has shown little interest in LGBT-themed films over the years (ignoring "C.R.A.Z.Y.", "Ma vie en Rose", "Contracorriente" among others). Therefore an LGBT documentary has two strikes against it. PORTUGAL's "What Now? Remind Me" is a nearly three-hour autobiographical look at a year in the life of an HIV-positive Portuguese filmmaker. SWITZERLAND's docudrama "The Circle" is a bit more accessible (though perhaps not as good) as it combines documentary and interview footage with re-enactments of a gay love story in homophobic 1958 Switzerland. I've heard some say that "The Circle" might have done better as one or the other (doc vs. drama) and might be better suited for television. "What Now?" will struggle to find a support base.

As for the UK's obscure Turkish-language "Little Happiness", it was one of the biggest surprises on this year's long list. This drama about a young Turkish couple desperately trying to escape honor killings and arranged marriages at home, was made by a Turkish director based in Britain with a mostly Turkish crew. There's little info about it online but it has the lowest IMDB rating of any film in the whole race (3.9) and the trailer looks rather grim. I'm surprised the usually finicky BAFTA submitted it. No chance.

17. AUSTRIA- "The Dark Valley"

16. FINLAND- "Concrete Night"
15. DENMARK- "Sorrow and Joy"
14. IRELAND- "The Gift"

These films simply aren't well-liked or well-reviewed enough to contemplate getting to the next round.

Recently, the Danes have been a superpower in this category, but DENMARK's "Sorrow and Joy" seems a poor choice. While one must applaud director Nils Malmros for facing his demons and making a film about the incident in which his wife Marianne murdered their young baby due to a psychotic episode (they're still together), reviews have been decidedly mixed. Positive reviews tend to focus on the emotion of the director's backstory and the performance of the lead actress rather than saying anything particularly nice about the film itself. Similarly, reviews for Tyrolean western "The Dark Valley" from AUSTRIA mostly compliment the beautiful production design but even though who LIKE the film agree it's grim and cold. Nobody seems to love it, meaning no high-ranking votes. For the record, it follows a mysterious man who receives a rather hostile reception when he arrives in a small town near the turn of the 20th century.

As for IRELAND, hoping for their first nomination in this category, "The Gift" is unlikely to be it. Reviews have been pleasant enough for this thriller (in Irish Gaelic, English and Polish) about a ship's crew facing a moral dilemma when they discover a crime scene and a huge amount of cash. But it's basically a TV movie.

Reviews for FINLAND's "Concrete Night" have been much stronger than the other three but it's the exact opposite of what the Oscar Foreign Film committee tends to select. This grim B&W drama is about a 14-year old bonding with his older brother before the latter goes to jail. The film is dark and depressing and has more in common with countless Eastern Euro dramas that have been ignored and forgotten over the years. It won't stand out.


13. FRANCE- "Saint Laurent"
12. NORWAY- "1001 Grams"
11. ICELAND- "Life in a Fishbowl"
10. MALTA- "Simshar"

Simply put, these four countries have sent well-reviewed dramas that will struggle to stand out in the crowd.

FRANCE's "Saint Laurent" is not even the biggest biopic of fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent made in France this year (though it did book a Cannes slot and get better reviews than the more widely-seen "Yves Saint Laurent"). Though France is still a film-making super-power, they haven't been nominated in five years and this biopic hasn't gotten more than average reviews.

ICELAND's "Life in a Fishbowl" is said to be the best Icelandic film of all-time. Unfortunately, the people who are saying that are all from Iceland. This drama about three characters whose lives intersect in Reykjavik on the eve of the country's 2008 financial crisis presents stories that are instantly relatable for a local audience. It captures the "zeitgeist" and will dominate the country's upcoming Edda Awards. For those outside of Iceland, they will probably see this tale of a struggling single mother, an alcoholic writer and ambitious footballer as merely a very good film.

NORWAY's Bent Hamer is on his third try with Oscar with another quiet, barely noticeable drama (he previously competed with "Kitchen Stories" and "O.Horten"), namely "1001 Grams". In the film, a female Norwegian researcher finds the potential for romance on a trip to Paris to attend a conference on defining the weight of a kilogram. Hamer's minimalist stories have never found favor with the Academy. They're not bad...just wispy and lightweight and they will struggle to stick in the memory of voters watching 81 films.

Last is MALTA, competing for the very first time with real-life shipwreck drama "Simshar". The Maltese are the second-smallest country in the race this year (Population: 415,000...just ahead of Iceland). By all accounts, "Simshar" is a powerful debut, based on a 2008 family tragedy intermixed with a story of asylum seekers trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. 30-year old debut filmmaker Rebecca Cremona should feel proud that Malta is probably going to beat established European powers like Bosnia, Denmark and France in the (secret) rankings, but the film probably isn't going to be considered quite strong enough to get to the Final Nine. (Having said that, the similarly themed "The Deep" made the shortlist despite similar problems). Welcome, Malta!

9. GERMANY- "Beloved Sisters"
8. TURKEY- "Winter Sleep"
7. SWEDEN- "Force Majeure"
8. ITALY- "Human Capital"
9. NETHERLANDS-"Lucia de B."

In a normal year, all five of these films would be strong threats for the shortlist, but with so much competition this year, I think they will all fall short. One could surprise.

First of all, GERMANY's "Beloved Sisters" (Berlin) has the highest production values but the weakest reviews. Although some clearly like the film, most say that this period costume drama is prettier to look at than it is to follow the true-life plot of two aristocratic sisters fighting for the attentions of a young writer. If voters want to honor a soap opera about two feuding sisters in a love triangle, they'll more likely to vote for Greece (see below). Still, it's always hard to count out Germany as they are expert judges of what AMPAS likes. But "Sisters" hasn't won a thing so I'm skeptical of its chances.

I've managed to see two of the most popular titles on the list, namely SWEDEN's "Force Majeure" (disappointing) and ITALY's "Human Capital". "Human Capital" (which beat Oscar winner "Great Beauty" at Italy's Donatello Awards earlier this year) is clearly the superior film. Skillfully telling the stories leading up to a hit-and-run accident from the perspectives of two Italian families (one aristocratic, one middle-class), "Human Capital" is both a fascinating mystery and a well-written character study. Arthouse "Force Majeure" is more of an acquired taste. A Swedish family of four on a French ski vacation experiences a frightening avalanche. Then they proceed to talk about it. And they talk about it. And then they talk about it with their friends. And then their friends talk about it. The film might inspire some existential "What if?" discussions among the audience but as a film I frankly don't understand what all the fuss is about it. Having said that, the film is one of the front-runners to get an Elite Committe slot. The arthouse critics clearly love it and it's sure to be ignored by the larger committee meaning that it may indeed make it to the next round. That would be disappointing.

TURKEY's "Winter Sleep" is a real wild card and another contender for the Elite Three. Nuri Bilge Ceylan's "Three Monkeys" made the shortlist in 2008 without any elite help and this year's Cannes Palme d'Or winner is said to be better and more accessible. However, buzz has cooled down considerably for this drama about an urban transplant running an inn in rural Turkey and it always seemed more popular with Eurocentric critics than American ones. With 81 films in play, I think "Sleep" is destined to be an also-ran.

Lastly, we have the NETHERLANDS' "Lucia de B." (aka "The Accused), a legal thriller based on the case of a prosecutor who convicts a nurse of a number of killings but who later has a change of heart and tries to clear the woman's name. Director van der Oest has been a surprise Oscar nominee before ("Zus & Zo"). Too much of a mainstream effort to be selected by the Elite Three, this film has to try and charm the Large Committee for a chance to grab one of the final spots.


4. GREECE- "Little England"
3. ISRAEL- "Gett: The Trial of Viviane Absalem"
2. BELGIUM- "Two Days, One Night

Belgium, Greece and Israel could all make the shortlist. Let's look at the pros and cons:

BELGIUM- "Two Days, One Night"
Overview: Oscar winner Marion Cotillard stars as a woman desperately trying to convince her co-workers one-by-one to save her from being laid off. If they vote to keep her on the pay-roll, all the other employees will lose their year-end bonus amounting to major economic hardship for all.
Pros: Cotillard is said to be wonderful, and the film got great reviews (though no awards) at Cannes. It also arguably has the strongest buzz of any film. The usually dull Freres Dardenne are said to reach "thriller" levels of tension. Elite Committee would stave off embarrassment by choosing it.
Cons: Oscar has never liked the Brothers Dardenne (neither have I). No Golden Globe nom.

GREECE- "Little England"
Overview: A gorgeous period drama set in the 1930s, about two sisters on a small island inhabited mainly by women (the menfolk are usually at sea) who fall for the same handsome sailor.
Pros: It's a "big" film and production values are supposed to be beautiful, helping attract votes from the tech branch members. Everyone who has seen the film says it's very good- a soap opera in the best sense of the word. Won Best Picture in Shanghai (a middle-sized fest).
Cons: The film has barely been seen outside of Greece. Running time (160 minutes) is very long. Female-centered films rarely score in this category.

ISRAEL- "Gett: The Trial of Viviane Absalem"
Overview: A Jewish woman faces off against Israel's religiously linked "divorce court" system as she attempts to obtain a divorce from her husband over his strong objections.
Pros: Made the Top Five at the Golden Globes. American audiences will easily identify with the protagonist and relate to the film, while also being fascinated by the "foreignness" of the Jewish divorce court. Oscar likes Israel and reviews have been very strong.
Cons: None, really. It will definitely place high, but will it be high enough?

Bottom Line- It's a tight race. I think the Elite Committee will save "Two Days" if ignored by the larger group, and believe that "Gett" is very likely to qualify from the big committee. Buzz is less important with the independent-minded voters on the Foreign Film Committee so Greece could make it as well though they're more likely to be left out. It's gonna be close!


1. SPAIN-"Living is Easy with Eyes Closed"

So, I'm predicting SPAIN will be the strongest contender from Western Europe. Turkey won Cannes, Belgium has buzz and Sweden + Israel got Globe nominations, so why predict Spain as #1? Simply put, Spain has what the Academy likes. First of all, reviews have been very strong for this 1960s road trip dramedy about a professor who picks up two hitchhikers on a way to see the Beatles in concert. The film swept the Goyas in Spain and tells a bittersweet comic story that will charm older voters and alienate nobody. High ranked votes are assured and should get Spain to the Final Five for the first time since their Oscar win for "The Sea Inside" in 2005.

 Now, the statistics:

Number of Foreign Languages Represented:  16, including 3 in French, 3 in German, 2 in Turkish and one each in Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Greek, Hebrew, Icelandic, Irish Gaelic, Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese, Spanish, Swedish and the first-ever submission made mostly in Maltese

Highest profile film:  It’s a tie between two Cannes titles, namely Belgium’s “Two Days, One Night” and Turkey Palme d’Or winner “Winter Sleep”

Number of Western European countries participating this year:  21

Number of debuts: One, Malta. With Malta’s participation, Cyprus is the only EU country and the only major film-making country in Western Europe never to enter.

Number of countries that have participated in the past: 21

Number of countries opting out:  Just one! Greenland (population: 55,000) didn’t produce any feature films this year.

Number of countries with a realistic chance at making the shortlist: Strong year for Western Europe. About half the titles (10) have a decent shot at the 9-film shortlist.   

Number of countries I predicted correctly:         10- Austria, Belgium, Greece, Iceland, Israel, Italy, Malta, Netherlands, Spain and Turkey.

Films I'm most looking forward to seeing:           I’ve already seen “Human Capital” (Italy) and "Force Majeure" (Sweden) but I’m intrigued by the moral dilemmas in Ireland’s “The Gift”.  

Feature Debuts:             This is an extremely experienced group of directors. The only debutante is Rebecca Cremona of Malta.                           

Number of Comedies:  None, really. There are some comedic elements to “Living Is Easy” and theoretically also "Force Majeure" (though I didn't find it funny) but no laugh-out-loud comedies.

Number of Animated Films, Documentaries or Horror Films:      Three documentaries (Luxembourg, Portugal and Switzerland) who will have no luck here.

Oscar History:  ELEVEN of the directors have been selected before, though only Paula van der Oest (Netherlands) can call herself an Oscar nominee. She got one for “Zus & Zo” in the 2002-2003 competition. Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Turkey) made the 9-film shortlist with “Three Monkeys” in 2008-2009 and was also entered in 2003 (Distant) and 2011 (Once Upon A Time in Anatolia). Most people think the Brothers Dardenne (Belgium) have been honored by Oscar, but they are only darlings at Cannes. Their  films were submitted three time previously in 1999, 2002 and 2005 (for Rosetta, The Son and The Child respectively). Also submitted in the past: Tom Collins (Ireland, 2007, Kings), Pol Cruchten (Luxembourg, 2007, Little Secrets), Bent Hamer (Norway, 2003/2008, Kitchen Stories & O. Horten), Nils Malmros (Denmark, 1977/1982/1997 for Boys, Tree of Knowledge and Barbara), Ruben Östlund (Sweden, 2009, Involuntary), David Trueba (Spain, 2003, Soldiers of Salamina) and Paolo Virzì (Italy, 2010, First Beautiful Thing). Pantelis Voulgaris’ “Brides” (Greece) was selected but disqualified in 2005.

Of the 21 countries, nine have won Oscars, five have been nominated multiple times, two have been nominated just once and one more (Turkey) has managed a shortlist spot. Only Ireland, Luxembourg and Portugal (plus newcomer Malta) have never been nominated. Portugal holds the world record for most submissions with no luck whatsoever.

Number of Female Directors:  Four ladies are competing this year, namely Rebecca Cremona (Malta), Ronit Elkabetz (Israel), Pirjo Honkasalo (Finland) and Paula van der Oest (Netherlands).

Oldest and Youngest Directors:  There’s a 44-year age difference between 74-year old Pantelis Voulgaris of Greece and 30-year old Rebecca Cremona of Malta.   

Familiar Faces:  The big star of course is Marion Cotillard who stars in “Two Days, One Night” and who is hoping for a second Best Actress nomination. The French submission “Saint Laurent” also boasts a fairly big-name Francophone cast including Lea Seydoux (Mission Impossible), Gaspard Ulliel (Hannibal Rising), Louis Garrel (Dreamers). Valeria Bruni Tedeschi co-stars in both the French and Italian nominees. The Spanish submission co-stars famous actors like Ariadna Gil, Jorge Sanz and frequent Almodovar collaborator Javier Camara.

You may also recognize Valeria Golino in “Human Capital”, actress-director Ronit Elkabetz  in “Gett”, Marianne Sägebrecht (“Bagdad Café”) in “The Circle”, British actor Sam Riley (“Maleficient”) in “The Dark Valley”, Nicolas Bro in “Sorrow and Joy”

Controversies and Changes:     As usual, the Western Europeans were pretty well-behaved this year. I anticipated a bit of controversy over Ireland’s submission “The Gift”, which was filmed with the intention of making both a feature film for cinemas and a television mini-series. However, unlike “Burning Bush” (disqualified last year) the film premiered in cinemas BEFORE the television series so no rules were broken.

Omissions:        Several countries had very competitive races (especially Austria, Italy and Sweden), with notable absences being crowd-pleaser "The 100-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out a Window and Disappeared" (which I thought was much better than talky "Force Majeure") and Lukas Moodysson's "We Are the Best" (both from Sweden), as well as "Amour Fou", which many thought would represent Austria, "The Wonders" and "Black Souls" (from Italy) and "Stations of the Cross" (Germany).

Last year's race:              I saw 9 of last year’s 19 submissions, including eventual winner “The Great Beauty” (B) which I thought ran out of steam halfway after a brilliant start.  My favorite was the sickly brilliant Dutch thriller “Borgman” (A), followed by Denmark’s “The Hunt” (A-). I also saw “The Wall” (B-), “Broken Circle Breakdown” (B+), “Renoir” (C), “Two Lives” (B+), “Blind Spot” (B+) and “More Than Honey” (B+)

Thursday, December 4, 2014

FOREIGN OSCAR PREDICTIONS- A look at the 21 Nominees from Asia & the Pacific

Here’s my favorite batch of submissions- the films from Asia and the Pacific. Last year, Asian countries got an impressive three spots on the 9-film list (Cambodia, Hong Kong and Palestine). I doubt they’ll maintain that number this year, but here’s hoping they get at least two. Israel + Turkey think they are Western European countries (even though they're not) so they'll be in the next round of predictions.

One surprise this year is the number of countries who selected foreign-born directors. China’s director is from France, Taiwan’s director is from Burma and Iraq’s director is from Iran. And though they have long worked in their adopted countries, Hong Kong and Australia’s directors are from China and the Netherlands respectively and Japan’s director is a Korean citizen born in Japan. Another theme from the Asian films this year is the presence of strong female lead characters. I find it interesting that the films from South and Central Asia have all chosen films dominated by strong female leads (Bangladesh, India, Kyrgyzstan, Nepal, Pakistan).


21. SINGAPORE- “Sayang Disayang”
20. BANGLADESH- “Glow of the Firefly”

I think it’s great that small, lesser developed film industries like BANGLADESH and SINGAPORE participate in the Oscar race. In the coming year, I’ll do my best to track down and watch these two intriguing titles. Having said that, Bengali-language melodrama “Glow of the Firefly” and low-budget Malay-language musical “Sayang Disayang” are clearly out of their league here. The spare 70-minute “Sayang Disayang” is about a grumpy old Malay-Singaporean man who is assigned a live-in Indonesian maid/caretaker who enjoys singing around the house while she cooks. Shot on a minuscule indie budget ($US315K) by a brand-new director, it looks like a visually interesting student film. And don’t expect the Malay-language melodies to resonate with the Oscar voters either. Foreign-language musicals are a hard sell. “Glow of the Firefly” (aka Jonakir Alo) is about a kind-hearted woman torn between two suitors and her dream of adopting a child. Bangladeshi films rarely have the production values to compete at the international level and “Firefly” is no exception. It’s also the only title on the list that has zero voters at the IMDB AND it will be the last of the 83 titles to screen for the committee. Not promising signs. Better luck next year.


19. THAILAND- “The Teacher’s Diary”
18. INDONESIA- “Soekarno”
17. NEPAL- “Jhola”
16. HONG KONG- “The Golden Era”

One step up the ladder are a glossy historical drama, a formulaic box-office hit rom-com, a creaky biopic and a look at the traditional Hindu custom of sati (bride burning). All of them are unlikely to appeal to the Oscar committee for several reasons. INDONESIA’s “Soekarno” is an expensive biopic of the country’s controversial first President, but the history lesson will be too obscure for American voters, Indonesian historical dramas tend to be somewhat didactic and dull and reviews have been mixed. NEPAL’s “Jhola” has a morbidly fascinating topic (a woman escapes sati, the ancient Hindu tradition of forcing widows to commit suicide by jumping on their husbands’ funeral pyre) and the filmmaking looks quite exotic and pretty. It was a major word-of-mouth success at home in Nepal, but I think the melodramatic acting will fail to appeal. The only one of these films that anyone has really heard of is Ann Hui’s three-hour biopic “The Golden Era” from HONG KONG, about an obscure Chinese female poet who died at age 35. While it’s supposed to be competently made and well-acted, it’s also supposed to be overlong and fairly boring. Poet Xiao Hong may have been very talented, but poetry is hard to translate and this film looks like a non-starter. Last in the group is THAILAND’s “The Teacher’s Diary”, a “concept” romantic dramedy about a man who falls in love with a woman he has never met by reading her diary. This was a popular hit in Thailand this year, but even the head of Thailand’s Film Academy admitted that he was perplexed about selecting this for the Oscars. Imagine the USA choosing “You’ve Got Mail” (a pleasant-enough romantic comedy) to represent the country at a prestigious international film festival and you’ve got an idea of what the Thai have done. These four have no chance.

15. TAIWAN- “Ice Poison”
14. IRAN- “Today”
13. JAPAN- “The Light Shines Only There”
12. PAKISTAN- “Dukhtar”
11. INDIA- “Liar’s Dice”

Interestingly enough, rivals India and Pakistan have both chosen similarly themed female-helmed, female-driven road movies. From PAKISTAN comes “Dukhtar” (Daughter). It’s about a wife who flees her village with her young daughter when she learns her husband plans to marry the girl off to a brutish elderly clan leader in order to end a blood feud between their two families. From INDIA, comes “Liar’s Dice” about a wife who leaves her village with her young daughter to SEARCH for her husband who has gone missing after moving to the big city to find work. “Dukhtar” has booked a number of festival screenings (Toronto, Busan) while “Liar’s Dice” has been more quiet. Having seen “Dukhtar”, it’s a good movie but it’s clearly the work of a director still learning her craft. There are a few unrealistic moments and a few too many South Asian film clichés. I haven’t seen “Liar’s Dice” yet but I get the feeling it may suffer from some of the same issues.

IRAN’s “Today” is supposed to be quite good, but reviewers note that it is too subtle to appeal to a wide audience, and sometimes too culturally “different” to be comprehensible to a Western audience. The story focuses on an Iranian taxi driver who becomes involved in the life of a pregnant single woman when she enters his cab while going into labor.

TAIWAN’s gritty “Ice Poison”, set in Burma, is about an ethnic Chinese couple’s efforts to make ends meet in a crime-ridden border area rife with drug trafficking, human trafficking, prostitution and violence. It has gotten some excellent reviews, but reaction has been divided with some clearly hating the slow, cinema verité style.

Lastly, JAPAN has once again made a bizarre selection choice with “The Light Shines Only There”, a grim, obscure film about an unemployed, alcoholic slacker who falls for the sister of a friend. Reviewers generally say the film is depressing and filled with drinking binges and meaningless sex. Not the sort of film that’s generally honored or appreciated here, so not sure why Japan sent it in. Why not “World of Kanako” or “Little House”?


10. NEW ZEALAND- “The Dead Lands”
9. IRAQ- “Mardan”
8. AFGHANISTAN- “A Few Cubic Meters of Love”
7. PALESTINE- “Eyes of a Thief”
In the middle of the pack are the submissions from three of Asia’s most troubled countries, plus a rare Maori epic from New Zealand.
AFGHANISTAN’s “A Few Cubic Meters of Love” (which I saw in Busan) is a really interesting love story about the relationship between the teenaged daughter of an Afghan refugee in Iran (formerly a doctor in Afghanistan, but now an exploited laborer) and a handsome Iranian boy working on the construction site where her father works. Made in Iran by a young, new director (himself an Afghan refugee), it’s not a perfect film but it certainly shows potential and packs an emotional wallop. It will place well.
NEW ZEALAND arranged an early qualifying release for Maori warrior epic “The Dead Lands” (Toronto), a violent historical action movie about a young man trying to avenge the murder of most of his clan. “Dead Lands” will be competing directly against another period warrior epic- “Kurmandjan Datka” (Kyrgyzstan) and I’d give the Kyrgyz film the edge. “Dead Lands” looks great but it just seems like too much of a violent action movie to score enough votes here. Of course, some will point to the similarities with shortlisted “Seediq Bale”, but I just think “Dead Lands” is too much of a genre pic to make it to the next round.
The obscure slow-burn mystery “Mardan” from IRAQ's Kurdistan region was one of the last films to be added to the Oscar list. It’s the directorial debut of Iranian director Bahman Ghobadi’s brother Batin and it’s said to be a brooding drama in the style of Nuri Bilge Ceylan about a hardened police detective investigating a murder in the Kurdish countryside. Though the film has gotten good reviews, it seems to be too cerebral. The reviews I’ve read say it relies heavily on symbolism that may not translate to the mainstream.
PALESTINE’s Najwa Najjar became the second woman to represent Palestine with “Eyes of a Thief” which opened in Ramallah at the last minute to qualify. It’s the story of a man freed from an Israeli prison after ten years who begins a desperate search for the daughter he left behind (interestingly Iraq sent a similar film, “Jani Gal”, in 2008). AMPAS has shown a great deal of interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conundrum (nominating several Israeli and Palestinian films dealing with the conflict) and “Thief” could ride that wave to victory. However, the reviews I’ve read say it’s a solid film but there’s nothing to indicate its good enough to advance further than this.


6. CHINA- “The Nightingale”
5. AUSTRALIA- “Charlie’s Country”
4. PHILIPPINES- “Norte, the End of History”
3. LEBANON- “Ghadi”

All four of these films are in with a chance, though ultimately they’ll probably fail to finish higher than 15th or 20th in the race. Loads of people are talking about “Norte, the End of History” (Cannes 2013)- a drama about a murderer who goes free and an innocent man sent to jail- from the PHILIPPINES as a potential nominee. However, I’m not convinced. First of all, it’s four hours long. Despite director Lav Diaz’s comments that a movie doesn’t have to be two hours (his latest film is eight hours) many Academy members will beg to differ (me too!). Going to the movies is not like watching a season of “The Killing”. Films and mini-series are very different animals. “Norte” does fulfill some of the criteria we’ve come to expect from the Elite Committee (it’s edgy, arty and very much in need of a save) so it definitely has a chance of being nominated by the smaller group, but forget the large committee. It appears to be on iTunes so maybe I’ll pretend it’s a TV show.
CHINA raised eyebrows when they chose the obscure “Nightingale”, a Chinese-language film directed by a Frenchman loosely remaking his own film “Le papillon”. It’s about a rural grandfather who ends up taking a trip with his spoiled, tech-obsessed granddaughter. While many were annoyed that China didn’t select one of their better-known festival efforts, the more I think about this choice, the smarter it seems to be. China’s Oscar submissions are usually praised in the West for their technical achievements but are criticized for being cold and/or lacking a certain soul. Having a European director at the helm with a Euro/French style (Oscar loves French films) and an intergenerational plotline may be the just the sort of film that Oscar likes. But reviews have been positive but enuthusiastic.
“Charlie’s Country” is the third Aboriginal film to compete at the Oscars, after “Ten Canoes” and the (terrible) shortlisted “Samson & Delilah”. Films like “Charlie” that have a lot of supporting dialogue in English make them easier to watch and might give AUSTRALIA an edge. This story of an Aboriginal man who unsuccessfully decides to “drop out” of modern society and live in the bush the way his ancestors did won Best Actor at Cannes. It’s supposed to be a good film, though it’s usually mentioned more for its acting than anything else.
LEBANON is trying for the “Amelie” slot (again) with feel-good comedy “Ghadi”, about a mentally handicapped boy who may or may not be an angel, and who breathes new life into his hectic Lebanese community. Winner of a huge number of Audience Awards worldwide, this is a definite crowd pleaser though it’s probably too light to make the next round. If Oscar didn’t go for Toronto winner “Where Do We Go Now?” (one of my favorites), they likely won’t go for the lower-profile “Ghadi” either, but here’s hoping for a US release!

2. SOUTH KOREA- “Sea Fog”
1. KYRGYZSTAN- “Kurmandjan Datka: Queen of the Mountains”

Korea and Kyrgyzstan are the most likely Asian candidates to make the Final Nine shortlist this year. Having said that, I’d be somewhat surprised if more than one made the final list.

Tense maritime thriller KOREA's “Sea Fog” (Toronto) has the stronger buzz and it’s been quite well-received by both domestic and foreign critics. However, I still predict they will fail to make it since AMPAS consistently passes over incredibly good Korean films year after year after year. (Maybe it’s the truly hideous Korean language? Could that be it?) “Sea Fog”, about a ragtag ship's crew helping to smuggle illegal Chinese immigrants to South Korea, is the sort of film that may find some success with the large committee- it's mainstream enough to be widely accessible and get lots of high votes, but the filmmaking is of a high-enough quality to be appeal to the arty people. Some fault characters without depth but that's almost every movie that takes place on a boat, right?

And then there was one....That only leaves this year's dark horse Asian front-runner- “Kurmandjan Datka: Queen of the Mountains”- the expensive biopic from KYRGYZSTAN which is hoping for a “Mongol”/”Seediq Bale” slot. Though they’ve never been nominated, Kyrgyzstan consistently sends excellent films to the competition (try to see "Wedding Chest" or "Tengri"). "Queen" tells the inspiring true story of a 19th century woman who bucked local traditions and defied the odds to become a military leader and strategist who united Kyrgyz tribes against Russian invasions. “Kurmandjan Datka” will suffer a little because voters don’t know (or care) about Kyrgyz history but perhaps the unexpected “warrior queen” aspect will help them overcome that. The film has something for everyone. It's beautifully shot (which will please members of AMPAS from the technical branches...these are guys that probably doomed "4 Months, 3 Weeks" a few years ago), culturally exotic with an even mix of action and artistic flourishes. A good dark horse. Good luck to the Queen.

Now, the statistics:

Number of Foreign Languages Represented: A diverse crowd...The 21 films are in 17 primary languages. There are two films apiece in Arabic (Lebanon, Palestine), Mandarin (China, Hong Kong) and Persian (Afghanistan, Iran) and one film each in Bengali, Hindi, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Kurdish, Kyrgyz, Malay, Maori, Nepali, Tagalog, Thai, Urdu, Yolngu and the Yunnanese dialect of Chinese.

Highest profile film: The Asian countries picked a mostly obscure set of films. The most buzz seems to be whirring around 4-hour drama “Norte, the End of History”, representing the Philippines, with Korea’s “Haemoo” (Sea Fog) a close second.

Number of Asia-Pacific countries participating this year: 21

Number of debuts: None

Number of countries that have participated in the past: 33

Number of countries opting out: 12. The shocking absence was Kazakhstan, easily the most important country missing this year (2 shortlist spots in the past 7 years) with a real potential Oscar contender - “Harmony Lessons” (which opened domestically in Kazakhstan in December 2013). Kazakhstan is always one of the last countries to announce…Did they miss the deadline? Did they forget? They were prominently featured in Busan 2013 so it’s so sad to have their national cinema absent this year.

The other key absentees were Cambodia, which got a surprise Oscar nomination last year for “The Missing Picture” and Vietnam, which claimed they did not receive an invitation from AMPAS this year. While Vietnam did in fact have some successful films this year, it’s unclear whether Cambodia had anything eligible.
Nobody should be surprised by the absence of a few countries that have only ever submitted films once (Bhutan, Fiji, Jordan and Saudi Arabia) or twice (Kuwait, Malaysia, Mongolia, Sri Lanka and Tajikistan), although I did expect Mongolia might return with gentle drama “Remote Control” (Busan) or that Malaysia might do the right thing and nominate box-office hit “The Journey” despite their racist policy of promoting only Malay-language fare.

Number of countries with a realistic chance at making the shortlist: Not many. Three?

Number of countries I predicted correctly: I didn’t do so well. I only got four exactly right- Australia, Hong Kong, Kyrgyzstan and Lebanon, which were all fairly easy. But I think I also deserve credit for New Zealand and Palestine which I would have predicted but thought wouldn’t get released in time. Lots of countries really threw me for a loop, especially China (whose nationalist authorities chose a film by a French director) and Thailand (which chose a routine rom-com over their most critically acclaimed film of the year).

Films I'm most looking forward to seeing: I’ve seen the films from Afghanistan (B+) and Pakistan (B). If I could choose one more, it would definitely be either Kyrgyzstan’s gorgeous biopic “Kurmandjan Datka” or Lebanon’s audience favorite comedy “Ghadi”.

Feature Debuts: 9! Jamshid Mahmoudi (Afghanistan), Geethu Mohandas (India), Batin Ghobadi (Iraq), Shim Sang-bo (Korea), Sadyk Sher-niyaz (Kyrgyzstan), Amin Dora (Lebanon), Yadavkumar Bhattarai (Nepal), Afia Nathaniel (Pakistan) and Sanif Olek (Singapore).

Number of Comedies: Only two- Thailand romantic dramedy “The Teacher’s Diary” and Lebanon’s “Ghadi”

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

Oscar History: Oscar has never really warmed to Asian cinema. Iran, Japan and Taiwan are the only countries who have won the award before, while only four others- China, India and Palestine- have been nominated before, plus Hong Kong for two Mainland China-produced films in the 1990s.

Only three directors have been in the race before. This is Ann Hui’s fourth time at the rodeo, having being submitted by Hong Kong in 1995 (“Summer Snow”), 1999 (“Ordinary Heroes”), and 2011 (“A Simple Life”). Reza Mirkarimi was selected twice by Iran, in 2005 (“ So Close, So Far Away”) and 2012 (“A Cube of Sugar”) though they ended up boycotting for political reasons in 2012. Last but not least, Australia’s submitted Rolf deHeer’s “12 Canoes” in 2006.

Number of Female Directors: 5 ladies this year- Ann Hui (Hong Kong), Geetu Mohandas (India), Najwa Najjar (Palestine), Afia Nathaniel (Pakistan) and Mipo Oh (Japan). Nathaniel is the first woman ever to represent Pakistan in the competition.

Oldest and Youngest Directors: 67-year old Ann Hui is one of Hong Kong’s most respected directors, while 31-year old Jamshid Mahmoudi (Afghanistan) makes his feature debut with “A Few Cubic Meters of Love”. Mahmoudi’s family fled Afghanistan and moved to Iran as refugees when he was a year old.

Familiar Faces: Certainly the most familiar face is Tang Wei, star of "Lust, Caution" who plays the lead role in Hong Kong's "Golden Era". Film fans may also recognize Li Baotian ("Ju Dou"), Rena Owen ("Once We Were Warriors") and Egyptian heartthrob Khaled Abol Naga in the Chinese, New Zealand and Palestinian submissions.

Controversies and Changes: Not much in the way of controversy. Most countries chose their nominees without incident, although China did raise a few eyebrows by choosing a French director and a film that nobody has seen over more acclaimed festival fare by native Chinese directors. Then in Thailand, the head of Thailand’s Film Academy politely noted that he was “very surprised” at his country’s decision to pick a fairly unassuming rom-com.

And in India, of course bitter rival directors complained and made unfair allegations about the selection of “Liar’s Dice” because...well...they weren’t selected themselves. This happens every year as Indian directors don’t seem to be capable of congratulating one another!

Omissions: The most surprising omission was the aforementioned “Harmony Lessons” from Kazakhstan. Zhang Yimou’s “Coming Home” and Berlinale winner “Black Ice” were probably too politically sensitive for China. Besides Zhang, two other directors previously recognized by Oscar were snubbed, namely Yoji Yamada for “Little House” (Japan) and Wei Te-sheng who produced “Kano” (Taiwan)

Also missing from the race: Korea’s monster hit “Roaring Currents” (I’m glad they didn’t pick it), Tsai Ming-liang’s “Stray Dogs” (Taiwan), "The Last Executioner" (Thailand), popular Bollywood favorite "Queen" (India), and Middle East dramas "Palestine Stereo" (Palestine) and "Che" (Iran).

Last year's race: Last year, I saw 11 of the 22 films from the Asia-Pacific countries (the only region to record a drop in entries this year) and they were a good lot, netting three spots on the official shortlist. My personal favorite was Saudi Arabia’s “Wadjda” (A), which succeeds on so many different levels and also because it has such a good backstory. Also very strong: Afghanistan’s “Wajma” (A-), Australia’s “The Rocket” (A-), Cambodia’s “The Missing Picture” (B+), Iran’s “The Past” (A-) and Palestine’s “Omar” (A-). Honorable mention to Thailand’s wacky horror film “Countdown” (B+ for a horror film, but definitely not an Oscar candidate) and Singapore’s “Ilo Ilo” (B). Somewhat less successful were China’s “Back to 1942” (B-), Korea’s melodrama “Juvenile Offender” (B-) and Taiwan’s “Soul” (B), though none were bad films. I’ve recently acquired the DVDs from Hong Kong, India, Japan and New Zealand and look forward to adding those to the list.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

FOREIGN OSCAR PREDICTIONS- A look at the 20 Nominees from Canada, Latin America & Africa

83 submissions?! Only a few years ago 50 films was considered to be a record, so this number is truly astounding. Literally almost every film-making country in the world is here, including several that make films mostly in English. You have to feel for the Academy, which now has to schedule double the screenings in a shorter period than before (shortlist used to be announced in mid-January....Now it's mid-December).

Of course it’s true that half of these films don’t actually have the slightest chance at getting a nomination...But when small countries send their best film to Hollywood, foreign movie fans like me and many others go out in search of them. I’ve seen so many hidden gems this way- Kazakhstan’s “Kelin”, Hong Kong’s “The Day the Sun Turned Cold”, Netherlands’ “Borgman” and Estonia’s “Klass” just to name a few....And that's why I keep up the effort to see everybody's film. The Foreign Film Award is a wonderful way to get publicity for smaller filmmaking industries- which is why I’m so confused as to this year’s two major drop-outs, Albania and Kazakhstan.

One big trend this year is REALITY....With four documentaries (Luxembourg, Panama, Portugal, Switzerland) seven biopics (France, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Kyrgyzstan, Mexico, Morocco, Venezuela), four "ripped from the headlines" dramas (Chile, Ethiopia, Malta and the Netherlands), one "true story" costume drama (Germany) and no less than THREE autobiographical stories about the lives of their directors (Costa Rica, Denmark and Latvia), not to mention several others with some basis in historical events (Bolivia, New Zealand, etc.), there's less fiction than usual. It'll be interesting to see if any of these "true" stories break through. I tend to find original stories do better in this category (unless they're about World War II).

So, first let’s take a look at the films from The Americas and Africa. Both regions sent a record number of films- (15 + 5), including the return of Bolivia after a 5-year absence, and the first-ever submissions from Mauritania and Panama.

20. MOROCCO- “The Red Moon”
19. PANAMA- “Invasion”
18. EGYPT- “Factory Girl”
16. COSTA RICA- “Princesas Rojas" (Red Princesses)

One of this year’s least likely Oscar contenders is the obscure ”La lune rouge” (The Red Moon), a biopic from MOROCCO about the acclaimed blind musician/composer Abdessalam Amer whose career collapsed during the political turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s. Where to start? First of all, American audiences have no idea who Amer is, and they also have no connection to his music (including his famous-in-Morocco tune “La lune rouge”). They probably have even less context to understand the 1971 coup d’etat prominently featured in the film. Add to that the fact that the production values look kind of old-fashioned and hardly anyone has either seen or heard of the film (zero buzz) and La lune rouge is one of the year's biggest non-starters.

Unlike Morocco's 1971 coup, American audiences will definitely have more familiarity with the historical events depicted in PANAMA's documentary “Invasion”. After all, the 1989 US invasion of Panama was only 25 years ago- well within memory- and the documentary is supposed to be a thought-provoking one, exploring the memories and experiences of different people from different social classes whose “true stories” about the invasion all seem to contradict one another. Despite good reviews, it’s a documentary and it’s fairly short (70 minute) meaning I can’t see it advancing against weightier and more sophisticated fare.

Two of Latin America’s smaller countries- COSTA RICA and the DOMINICAN REPUBLIC- are also out of luck. “Red Princesses” (Berlinale 2013), a small-scale drama about two girls growing up in a family of Communist revolutionaries during the Cold War, has been praised for the performance of its child actresses but higher-profile films with similar subject matter (“Kamchatka”, “Clandestine Childhood”) have failed to advance, and reviews haven't been as strong as those Argentinian films. “Cristo Rey” is a Dominican re-telling of Romeo & Juliet with overt racial overtones about two half-brothers (one with a Dominican mother, the other with a deported Haitian one) pursuing the same girl in the Dominican inner city. It looks interesting but critics say the film is "okay" but flawed.

That leaves EGYPT and their supposedly feminist drama “Factory Girl”. It's about a poor factory worker who daydreams about her handsome supervisor only to find her reputation destroyed after a rumor spreads that she is pregnant with his child. Though the film has been well-received in Arab fests, Western critics have not been kind. They criticize both the performance of the lead actor and a story they say does not translate well to Western audiences (they see it as misogynist rather than feminist). Egypt has been submitting films since the 1950s with no success, and "Factory Girl" won’t change things.

15. BOLIVIA- “Olvidados” (The Forgotten)
14. SOUTH AFRICA- “Elelwani”
13. COLOMBIA- “Mateo”
12. ECUADOR- “Silencio en la tierra de los sueños" (Silence in Dreamland)
11. URUGUAY- “Mr. Kaplan”

These five obscure films haven’t won any awards internationally and so will struggle to make an impact in a field of 83 films. I’ve seen URUGUAY's droll “Mr. Kaplan”, a comedy about an elderly Jewish man who escaped the Holocaust as a child, who tries to find meaning in his life by kidnapping an elderly German man he suspects (without any proof) of being a Nazi. Although some like the film, I found it mostly forgettable- not funny enough as a drama and not dramatic enough as a drama (I felt the director's previous "A Bad Day to Go Fishing" balanced the two genres better). COLOMBIA's “Mateo” is about a gangbanger teenager whose crime boss uncle asks him to infiltrate a local actor’s troupe. Despite his rough past, Mateo develops strong relationships with the people he is supposed to be spying on. It has also gotten some good reviews, although critics consistently point out this is “a youth film with a moral”, with one even comparing it (albeit favorably) to an After-School special. Ouch. BOLIVIA 's “Olvidados” (The Forgotten) is an historical drama about a dying General confessing the sins that he and the Bolivian Government committed during Bolivia’s 1970s military dictatorship to his adult son on his deathbed, including abductions, arbitrary arrest and kidnappings. The film boasts Damian Alcazar (one of Mexico's greatest actors) and might be well-suited to a Human Rights Film Festival. However, the political subject matter may alienate some Academy memebrs and reviews have been decidedly mixed at home in Bolivia.

From South America to Africa, we have “Elelwani” the first-ever film made in the Venda language and the first South African Oscar submission ever to be directed by a Black director. Though SOUTH AFRICAis usually a contender and though the feminist plot is interesting (a modern young woman’s dreams of studying abroad are rudely interrupted when her traditionalist parents suddenly announce her engagement to an elderly nobleman in their home village), reviewerss note that is definitely a work of a director still learning his craft. I’ve heard it’s well-meaning but rather average, with many comparing it to a telefilm.

Finally, ECUADOR's “Silence in Dreamland” is the hardest film to rank...Although it beat out Berlinale favorite “Feriado” to represent Ecuador, there’s virtually no information about it online! The film is about the life of a deaf widow who retreats into a world of fantasy after the death of her husband. Clearly the life of a deaf woman presents certain cinematic challenges (see “Be With Me”) and the trailer looks decidedly arty, albeit with some lovely music. It’s just hard to see this getting very far, but with no reviews, one never knows!


10. ETHIOPIA- “Difret”
9. CHILE- “To Kill A Man”
8. PERU- “Gospel of the Flesh”
7. BRAZIL- “The Way He Looks”

6. MEXICO- “Cantinflas”

I’ve been hearing Brazil, Chile and Ethiopia mentioned frequently in the “shortlist” conversation (and Mexico's "Cantinflas" a bit less so), but these four films are all likely to be passed over this year due to different obstacles. Let’s start with the high-profile “Cantinflas” from MEXICO. This biopic of one of Mexico’s most respected comedians quickly got a US distributor and a US release. Working against it? Well, no one really loves the film. Reviews have ranged from “positive but unenthusiastic” to decidedly negative. In its favor? Well, easy/unchallenging Mexican soap operas like “Father Amaro” and “Tear this Heart Out” managed to make the shortlist with similarly unenthusiastic reviews. It also features enough quite a bit of English to make the film an easier watch for American audiences (but not enough to risk disqualification). It will probably finish better than most people expect but “Cantinflas” would have a better shot in a weaker year.

BRAZIL's LGBT-youth drama “The Way He Looks” has the opposite problem. Everyone seems to really like the film. It’s rarely gotten a bad review for its sweet story about a blind teen dealing with first love at his school. As touched as everyone is by the story, LGBT films rarely score here and most people admit that as charming as the film is, it’s really just a well-done coming-of-age story...not a legitimate awards contender. The elderly large committee may be turned off by the gay angle, and the elite committee will be looking for something more edgy.

CHILE's tense thriller “To Kill A Man” arranged an early release to represent Chile, easily winning the nod (and doubtlessly causing annoyance to surreal drama “Dance of Reality” and family mystery “Illiterate” which lost their chance). The violent revenge film about a meek middle-class father avenging a crime perpetrated against his family is said to be disturbing and unpleasant to watch. While the filmmaking may be good, this is not the sort of genre usually honored at the Oscars, and many viewers simply don't like it. Too divisive.

ETHIOPIA's “Difret” also deals with the issue of justifiable homicide. Based on a true story, “Difret” deals with a teenaged girl who is put on trial for murder when she kills an older man trying to abduct her into a forced marriage. The title is a play on words in can mean “courage” or “rape”. “Difret” has gotten a lot of buzz because of executive producer Angelina Jolie and because it’s exotic and because we rarely see films from Ethiopia on the international film festival circuit. Despite winning two big Audience Awards (Sundance and Berlinale Panorama) this year, most film critics say “Difret” is primarily a culturally interesting film with a powerful cultural message.

Last in this group is PERU's “Gospel of the Flesh”, a gritty “Amores Perros”-style drama about the intersecting lives of three men (an undercover cop, a football coach and a bus driver who has found religion) as they deal with personal struggles tragedies and moral dilemmas in modern-day Lima. Unlike the other four, this film has no buzz, but those who have seen it say it’s very good. Ultimately, it will probably place better than we expect (perhaps 25th or 30th out of the 83 films), but probably won’t contend for a nomination.


5. CUBA- “Conducta” (Behavior)
4. VENEZUELA- “Libertador” (Liberator)
3. CANADA- “Mommy”

Canada, Cuba and Venezuela all made smart choices this year and are hoping to grab the eighth or ninth spot on the list. Cuba and Venezuela face an uphill climb.

VENEZUELA's "Libertador" is a rumored 50-million dollar biopic of national hero Simon Bolivar. With excellent production values, lavish battle scenes and gorgeous costumes and the added bonus of an interesting, complicated historical figure, critics have mostly praised the film. However, biopics rarely score here (American viewers may not be overly familiar with South America's most important historical figure) and even fans of the film note the inherent impossibility of condensing Bolivar's life into two hours. Key reviewers note that it lacks the "spark" (Variety) to reach greatness. From CUBA comes "Conducta" a simple, low-budget tale about the relationship between a poor boy from a dysfunctional family and his elderly teacher who's being forced into retirement. No battle scenes, just a good story, simply told. I haven't seen the film, but I've heard it's very good. If this were ten years ago, with 50 countries and a traditional committee that loves simple stories about kids, "Conducta" might be in with a chance. Now, this small film will probably just be recognized as a good film among two or three dozen good films.

That leaves Xavier Dolan's "Mommy" from CANADA. Dolan is brilliant and "I Killed My Mother" (which Canada submitted) and "Heartbeats" (which Canada did NOT) deserved Oscar nominations. Cannes Jury Prize winner "Mommy"- about a mother dealing with a hyperactive, foul-mouthed, occasionally violent, occasionally loveable teenager- is not my favorite Dolan film, but it does seem to be the most accessible. The reason I love Dolan's films are their flawed but completely relatable characters. In "Mommy", I simply didn't LIKE Steve. In any case, I'm worried that Oscar's elderly crowd just doesn't GET Dolan and his hyper-verbose ultra-modern screenplays...Will the Elite Committee save him and continue Canada's obscene winning streak (6 films shortlisted in 8 years)? They very well may....And despite being a pre-nomination favorite, that's probably "Mommy"'s only chance.

2. ARGENTINA- “Wild Tales”
1. MAURITANIA- “Timbuktu”

With contenders from Argentina, Canada and Mexico, who would have guessed that this group's top contender is from MAURITANIA??? Yet France-based Abderrahmane Sissako's brilliant, gentle, touching, sad, funny, shocking and human "Timbuktu" is surely one of the best films on the list, but being "good" doesn't guarantee you a trip to Hollywood. "Timbuktu" however checks all the right boxes. Its story of the Islamic takeover of Timbuktu (in neigboring Mali) is relevant and topical, but doesn't require any deep knowledge of the Malian politican situation. It's artistic and beautiful yet surprisingly accessible. It's serious, but has a sense of humor. I was lucky to see "Timbuktu" at the Busan Film Festival and I'm fairly certain this one will be on the list. If so, Mauritania will become the first country to get an Oscar nomination on their first try since Nepal's "Caravan" achieved the feat in 1999/2000.

As for ARGENTINA, I'm a little less sure. Black comedy "Wild Tales" is wildly popular and reviews have been great. The film has won numerous Audience Awards (though few other awards) at festivals around the world for its six comedic stories of love and revenge. I can't wait to see it. There's a big debate as to whether or not this Tarantino/Ritchiesque film will be able to snag a nomination. The large committee prefers serious but non-challenging films. The elite committee is rumored to like more artistic, festival fare. "Wild Tales" doesn't seem to fall into either of these categories and risks being left off entirely. Although Oscar doesn't usually like comedies, they can certainly be great films. This one is on the bubble but it's so well-liked it will certainly be a big threat.

Now, the statistics:

Number of Foreign Languages Represented: Seven. 13 films are in Spanish while 2 are in Arabic. That leaves one each in Amharic (Ethiopia), French (Canada), Portuguese (Brazil) and the first-ever feature film in Venda (South Africa). Mauritania’s “Timbuktu” is in six languages, primarily Hassaniya (a distinct dialect of Arabic) and Tamazight.

Highest profile film: Most people would say Argentina’s buzzy black comedy “Wild Tales”, co-produced by Pedro Almodovar, though the Canadians might disagree.

Number of American/African countries participating this year: 20.

Number of debuts: 2. Mauritania and Panama.

Number of countries that have participated in the past: 28

Number of countries opting out: Almost nobody! This year saw record participation from both regions. Of the countries that didn’t submit, Chad and Nicaragua probably had no films that met all the eligibility requirements and Puerto Rico is no longer invited by AMPAS. The remaining countries (Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Congo, Cote d’Ivoire, Guatemala, Kenya and Tanzania) have only ever submitted one film apiece.

Number of countries with a realistic chance at making the shortlist: Four

Number of countries I predicted correctly: I did pretty good! I got 10/20 correct (Argentina, Canada, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Rep., Egypt, Ethiopia, Mexico, Peru and Uruguay) and would have gotten three more (Brazil, Chile and Venezuela) were it not for slippery release dates (Brazil’s “Casa Grande” didn’t open in time...Chile’s “To Kill A Man” did an early qualifying release). Ecuador and Morocco admittedly caught me completely by surprise.

Films I'm most looking forward to seeing: I've seen the films from Canada (B+), Mauritania (A-) and Uruguay (C). Now I’m most excited to see front-runner “Wild Tales” and Ethiopia’s “Difret”.

Feature Debuts: 5: Laura Astorga (Costa Rica), Maria Gamboa (Colombia), Zeresenay Mehari (Ethiopia), Tito Molina (Ecuador) and Daniel Ribeiro (Brazil)

Number of Comedies: 2- Argentina and Uruguay

Number of Animated Films, Documentaries or Horror Films: 1 documentary- Panama’s “Invasion”

Oscar History: The only prior Oscar nominee is Mexican director Carlos Bolado (this year representing Bolivia) who was nominated for Best Documentary Feature for co-directing “Promises” in 2002.

Six of the twenty directors have been entered in the Foreign Oscar race before. Ironically, Xavier Dolan (Canada), Ernesto Daranas (Cuba) and Alvaro Brechner (Uruguay) all faced off five years ago for “I Killed My Mother”, “Fallen Gods” and “A Bad Day to Go Fishing” respectively. Dolan definitely deserved an Oscar nomination, Daranas definitely didn’t while Brechner was on my bubble. Also submitted before: Leticia Tonos (“Love Child”, Dominican Republic, 2011), Mohamed Khan (“In the Heliopolis Flat”, Egypt, 2007) and Alberto Arvelo (twice for Venezuela, 1997/2001 for “One Life & Two Trails” and “House with a View of the Sea”).

Out of the 20 countries, three (Argentina, Canada and South Africa) have won the award while two more (Brazil and Mexico) have been nominated numerous times. Chile, Cuba and Peru have earned a single nomination each.

Number of Female Directors: The three Latina ladies competing are Laura Astorga (Costa Rica), Maria Gamboa (Colombia) and Leticia Tonos (Dominican Republic).

Oldest and Youngest Directors: It’s difficult to believe Xavier Dolan is only 25 (this is his fifth film). He’s the youngest out of all the 83 competitors this year. The oldest is Mohamed Khan of Egypt, who just turned 72.

Familiar Faces: American audiences will be most likely to recognize Michael Imperioli (“The Sopranos”) who plays the American agent in Mexico’s “Cantinflas". Venezuela’s Edgar Ramirez plays the title role in “Libertador”, and he has recently done a lot of English-speaking work in the States (“Bourne Ultimatum”, “Carlos”). Co-star Iwan Rheon is on "Game of Thrones". Argentina’s Ricardo Darin (“Wild Tales”) is also a familiar face.

Although not household names, two notable Spanish actors are in the mix: Goya winner Oscar Jaenada (“Cantinflas” but also "Pirates of the Caribbean 4") and Dario Grandinetti (“Wild Tales”) who some will remember from “Talk to Her”. Anne Dorval (“Mommy”), Damian Alcazar ("Olvidados") and Hani Abdel (“Factory Girl”) are well-known in their native Quebec, Mexico and Egypt respectively.

Special mention goes to Frank Perozo (“Cristo Rey”) who has co-starred in four Dominican submissions in a row, not to mention the final two submissions from neighboring Puerto Rico.

Having said all that, the most familiar “face” was actually behind-the-scenes...That’s Oscar winner Angelina Jolie, executive producer of Ethiopia’s “Difret.

Controversies and Changes: A virtually controversy-free year! There were some rumblings in Venezuela that the voting process was politically motivated. Jose Ramon Novoa (who repped Venezuela twice) and a few other unknown directors withdrew their films from consideration in protest but the fact is that this was always a two-way race between “Libertador” and “Bad Hair”. For the second year in a row, Venezuela ignored an acclaimed LGBT film but truth be told “Libertador” has the best chance to get a nomination for Venezuela this year, so I think Venezuela made the right choice (unlike last year, when they should have chosen the delightful “My Straight Son”/”Azul y no tan rosa” which became the first-ever Venezuelan film to win a Goya). The only other controversy is that Puerto Rico continues to be banned for no good reason.

Omissions: No mind-blowing snubs this year...Probably the most surprising omission is that there is no film from Nigeria. Nigeria had announced earlier in the year that they would be participating in the Oscar race for the first time, but they later changed their mind. Other than that, ”Bad Hair” (Toronto 2013) from Venezuela and “Feriado” (Berlin 2014) certainly had their supporters, particularly in the LGBT community. And I was a bit surprised to see Bolivia and Chile ignore “Yvy Maraey” (which got sent to the Goyas) and “The Dance of Reality”, made by two of their most celebrated national directors, as well as South Africa’s box-office hit thriller “iNumberNumber”. Also out of the running: the prolific Xavier Dolan defeated himself meaning no Oscar for “Tom at the Farm” and Viggo Mortensen couldn’t beat “Wild Tales” with period drama “Jauja”.

Last year's race: Last year, these regions sent a total of 15 films. I only saw 3- the outstanding, funny, sad and superbly charming “Gloria” (A) from Chile, the surprisingly good character study “GriGris” (B+) from Chad and the mostly forgettable “Neighbouring Sounds” (C+) from Brazil. I will see Canada’s “Gabrielle” this week.