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

Thursday, July 30, 2015


UPDATE 13-AUG-2015: The Paraguayans are coming! Paraguay announced that they will enter the Oscar race for the first time in 2015. They'll announce their Oscar pick on Saturday, August 29th. 

And here's Group Four, including many of Oscar's smaller and more obscure countries. Only two of them (Netherlands and Poland) have ever won the Oscar and only a few more (Mexico, Norway and Palestine) have gotten multiple nominations.

1. MACEDONIA- "The Liberation of Skopje"  I visited Macedonia on vacation in May and it was wonderful. FYI, it should not be called FYROM unless you are a slave to the foreign policy of The Former Euro Republic of Greece. Despite some political turmoil (there were protests to bring down the government while I was there), the Macedonians have about a half dozen films to choose from this year. I predict they’ll send “The Liberation of Skopje” directed by and starring Serbian actor Rade Šerbedžija (“Mission Impossible 2”, “Harry Potter 7”, “24” etc.) who recently acquired Macedonian citizenship. Based on a beloved Yugoslavian play, it’s about WWII Macedonia seen through the eyes of an 8-year old boy. It hasn’t premiered yet, but the Macedonians often get their Oscar submissions screened at the very last minute. This has happened three out of the past four years. If "Liberation" doesn’t premiere in time, count on a victory for “Honey Night” by Ivo Trajkov (who repped Macedonia twice in 2004 and 2009) which kicked off the Skopje International Film Festival in April. Taking place on a single night during the early days of independence, it’s a marital drama with political overtones. A wire-tapping subplot in the film has coincided with a real-life government wiretapping scandal so things may also depend on who’s in power when the Macedonians make  their decision this summer! Less likely: “Children of the Sun”, a love story set against the background of an organized crime gang; it won Best Film at the Macedonian Film Festival in Toronto. Unlikely: psychological thriller “Three Days in September” and “Lazar”, about an ex-con trying to go straight. Macedonia tends to like period dramas, so if "Liberation" gets released, it's pretty much a sure thing. 

2. MALAYSIA- "Ophilia" Malaysia has only sent one film in the past ten years (action-thriller “Bunohan”) and they don’t have any standout films that would make me believe they’d enter again this year. Among the possibilities they do have are UFO-chasing comedy “Nova” (winner of the ASEAN International Film Festival) and ghost-chasing comedy “Men Who Save the World” (Busan, Locarno), which treads some tricky racial lines with its plot (I haven’t seen it, but it's about a group of Malay villagers who think there is a black ghost haunting the village), as well as gangland crime drama “Ophilia” and sentimental romance “Pilot Café”. I don’t see any of them as likely. Prediction: they send nothing, but if they send anything it will be “Ophilia”, followed by “Men Who Save the World”.

3. MALTA- "Do Re Mi" Malta joined the Oscar race for the first time last year with sea tragedy “Simshar”. I’ve only seen one Maltese film in my life and it was terrible (“Kont diga”) but I look forward to seeing "Simshar" and others. Tiny Malta is a popular filming location for European and Hollywood productions but the indigenous film industry is tiny, and the bilingual islands produce many of their films in English. Their only option this year is the intriguing “Do Re Mi Fa”, about the disturbing and lonely lives of four people- an aging actress, an arrogant radio DJ, a career-driven TV employee and a pedophile clown who performs at children’s parties. It’s in both Maltese and English and I’m not sure if it is over 50% in Maltese. But it’s Malta’s only shot.

4. MAURITANIA- Nothing eligible. Last year, Mauritania submitted Abderrahmane Sissako’s brilliant “Timbuktu”, garnering a nomination for the poor, French-speaking North African country. Although they deserved to win the award, they were passed over by a dreary film from Poland, possibly because it mentioned the Holocaust. Other than M. Sissako, Mauritania has no cinematic tradition and even M. Sissako himself is a French citizen who spent much of his life in Mali, where the film “Timbuktu” takes place. Interestingly enough, “Timbuktu” dominated this year’s French Cesar Awards because France considered the film to be wholly French with minimal Mauritanian input. I’m happy that AMPAS has loosened up the rules to allow films like “Timbuktu” to compete. But it’s highly unlikely Mauritania will be back until M. Sissako makes a new movie. He doesn’t have one this year so nothing is eligible.

5. MEXICO- "Desierto" The big problem with Mexico this year is that it is so difficult to know what is eligible. Will new festival films like “The Chosen Ones” (Las eligidas) from Cannes and “Carmin tropical” be released in Mexico, or will they be eligible next year? Will bilingual films like “600 Miles” (with Tim Roth) and US-coproduction “Desierto” (with Gael Garcia Bernal) contain enough Spanish to qualify? And most importantly, what will Mexico do with “The Perfect Dictatorship”? The political satire was a major critical and financial success in Mexico last year. It was submitted last year for the Oscars and was sent to the Goyas but it didn’t release at home until October 2014. Could it be reconsidered a second time? Assuming it was eligible, I think “The Perfect Dictatorship” could win this easily. However, I doubt Mexico will allow the film to have “two bites of the apple”, as we say in the USA (I heard vampire movie “Let the Right One In” tried this strategy in Sweden a few years back; Sweden said NO). So, with “Dictatorship” and this year’s Goya winner- slacker comedy “Gueros”- not eligible (“Gueros” was also submitted last year though it didn’t open wide until 2015), Mexico’s choices are a bit thinner, but they still have half a dozen worthy contenders. In fact, I think seven films are in with a chance, namely (in alphabetical order): “Carmin tropical”, “The Chosen Ones” (Las eligidas), “The Dark Springs” (Las oscuras primaveras), “Desierto”, “One for the Road” (En el último trago), “The Thin Yellow Line” (La Delgada Línea Amarilla) and “La tirisia” (aka "Perpetual Sadness"). Mexico’s longlist usually has about twenty films, so you can also expect to see LGBT anthology “Four Moons” (Cuatro Lunas), documentary “Echo of the Mountain” (Eco de la montaña) and Beijing Film Festival winner “Beginning of Time” (El Comienzo del Tiempo) but they won’t really compete for the Oscars. So, which one will Mexico pick? If you exclude last year’s biopic “Cantinflas”, Mexico likes their films grim, depressing and hopeless. That bodes well for “The Chosen Ones” and “Desierto”. “The Chosen Ones” (Cannes) focuses on a group of poor women who are kidnapped by a gang and forced into a life of sexual slavery/prostitution. “Desierto” (Toronto 2015), which I am told is mostly in Spanish, focuses on the U.S. border (the subject of their 2009, 2011 and 2013 submissions). Gael Garcia Bernal leads a group trying to crossover to the US, while escaping a fanatical American vigilante who takes the law into his own hands. It’s the sophomore effort of Jonas Cuaron (son of Oscar winner Alfonso). It seems likely the more exciting “Desierto” may go to the Oscars while the more arty “Chosen Ones” will go to the Goyas. In third place, “Thin Yellow Line”, starring Oscar nominee Damian Alcazar and produced by Oscar nominee Guillermo del Toro, about a group of workmen doing manual labor on a highway. In fourth place, “Carmin Tropical”, a mystery about a transsexual woman who returns to her hometown and becomes involved with solving the murder of another trans friend of hers. I would love to predict boisterous comedy “One for the Road” (which would probably do very well with AMPAS), about a group of 80-something friends who go on a road trip to fulfill their friend’s last wish, but the humorless Mexican Academy will be immune to its charms. I place it fifth. Not every likes erotic drama "Dark Springs" and the well-reviewed "La tirisia" (Karlovy Vary) may be too small to represent Mexico. 

6. MOLDOVA, a small Romanian-speaking republic in Eastern Europe, began submitting films to the Oscars two years ago. Last year they had two eligible films (“What A Wonderful World” and Oscar submission “The Unsaved”) but this year I think they have none. Not to worry as this year has seen a lot of positive developments. Last year, a new film law was passed slashing Soviet-era red tape and making it easier for filmmakers to get government funding. A National Film Center is due to be established this year. The Moldovans had a short student film at Cannes (“Echoes”) which competed in a Romanian sidebar, and an interesting new project (“How Far is Europe?) was pitched at Tallinn Black Nights. Moldovan filmmakers were also invited to participate alongside their Romanian counterparts at training workshops at the Transylvanian Film Festival. I think Moldova will be out of luck in 2015 but expect them back next year.

7. MONGOLIA- "Khuden" (Mist) Mongolia has been absent from the Oscar race for a decade despite a small but growing film industry. The movie "Father" (Aav), which opened in May, was the big winner at the Mongolian Film Awards this year, winning Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor. It appears to be about a gangster raising a young daughter, but I'm not really sure. More likely to have the English subtitles required to send the film to the Oscars is “Huden” (Mist), which appears to be some sort of thriller about a rural family involved in a murder. It opened the Ulaanbaatar Film Festival but only managed a single win (Best Supporting Actress) at the Mongolian Oscars. There's also “Tutu”, about an aspiring ballet dancer who gets involved in political intrigue after returning home from her studies in Russia. None of these really look like a suitable Oscar contender…But I’d give the edge to “Khuden”. 

8. MONTENEGRO- "Gorcilo" Montenegro was the smallest of the former Yugoslav republics. This seaside country of less than a million people first entered the Oscar race in 2013 and again in 2014, sending crime thrillers both times. Their next Oscar submission will probably be “Time Between Us”, a drama set amidst the closing days of World War II, when a father is searching for his (presumed dead) son. It won financing from the Montenegrin government and the Sarajevo Film Festival. It's not scheduled to be released until 2016. This year, I only know of one Montenegrin film that has actually been released- culture clash comedy “Gorcilo”, about a new road that connects a remote village to the city- but reviews have not been great and I'm not sure Montenegro will think enough of it to send it in. We'll see! 

9. MOROCCO- "Fevers" Morocco is one of only three regular participants from Africa (alongside Egypt and South Africa). Like the country itself, Moroccan films are a mix of French and Arabic influences with very little from what the world thinks of as African. The hardest thing about predicting Morocco is that movies often sit on the shelf for months or even years before being released in local cinemas. For example, “Le sac de farine” (starring Hiam Abbass) premiered at the Tangier Film Festival in January 2012, but didn’t get a national release until April 2014. Neither last year’s winner at the Moroccan Film Festival (“Sotto Voce”) nor this year’s winner (“The Narrow Frame of Midnight”) seem to have been released in Moroccan cinemas (nor was my prediction last year, “Adios Carmen”), although any could conceivably get a summer release. My prediction this year is “Fevers”, winner of Best Picture at the FESPACO Film Festival of African Cinema and also the Moroccan representative in Abu Dhabi. It’s the story of a troubled Moroccan teenager sent to live with his father in France after his mother is sent to jail. The Moroccan Academy is often inclined to send movies about social issues, especially troubled youth. It appears to have gotten a limited release in Morocco last fall. If the Moroccan Academy doesn’t go for “Fevers”, there are a trio of strong contenders. The aforementioned “The Narrow Frame of Midnight” won Best Picture at the National Festival of Film in 2015, and also played at Dubai and Toronto. This moody story of a girl on the run from a gang of kidnappers has Danny Glover as a celebrity producer, but poor reviews outside of Morocco. “Blind Musicians” was the only Moroccan film in the main competition at the Marrakech Film Festival. Set in the 1970s, it features a father-son team during a time when blind musicians were often hired to perform at events for women. Last, there’s “Adios Carmen” (which I predicted last year), about the relationship between a young boy and a Spanish emigree living in Morocco in the 1970s. A possible dark horse is the upcoming 1970s drama “Other Side of the Sky” revolving around a poet and a bank robbery, which won Best Screenplay at the Moroccan Film Festival. Two well-made movies about prostitution- “Pillow Secrets” and “Grains de grenade”- will probably be too controversial, as will the banned “Much Loved” by Nabil Ayouch (also about prostitution) and “The Sea Behind” (transgenders). I bet on “Fevers”, with “Blind Musicians” as runner-up.

10. NEPAL- "Talakjung vs. Tulke" Nepal closed all its cinemas and canceled all film shoots for nearly two months after the April 2015 earthquake while the country was in mourning. That effectively puts the country at a bit of a disadvantage this year. However, the Oscars present Nepal with an excellent opportunity to promote new talent in their film industry. This year, I see two front-runners: “Bhimdatta” is a historical biopic of a renowned peasant revolutionary (though that may be too political). “Talakjung vs. Tulke” is a story of revenge and caste differences, set during the Nepali Civil War in the late 1990s. I don’t know much about the Nepali film industry, but dark horses could also include “Chankhe, Shankhe, Pankhe”, an expensive Bollywood-style comedy, orphanage drama “Highway to Dhampus” (which has good reviews but an American director and lots of English), and the unusual “Love You Baba”, which recently entered the Guinness Book of World Records for its youngest-ever 8-year old director Saugat Bista. I predict “Talakjung vs. Tulke” will represent the ex-Kingdom at this year’s Oscars, unless there’s a strong late release I don’t know about.

11. THE NETHERLANDS- "The Surprise" Lately, the Dutch seem to be specializing mostly in family films (as they always have) and comedies. Their two major national film prizes were awarded to somewhat strange choices this year. The Golden Calf for Best Picture went to “How to Avoid Everything” (known in Dutch as “Aanmodderfakker”….Try and say it out loud), a comedy about a 32-year old slacker who falls for a teenage babysitter. The Rembrandt Award for Best Picture went to “Vipers Nest 2”, a comedy sequel based on a TV show about a group of rich, trashy women. I’m not saying either of these are bad films (“Aanmodderfakker” looks quite entertaining), but they’re not the sort of film that will get anywhere with AMPAS. For Oscar, I think the Netherlands will choose either big-budget 16th century action movie “Admiral”, co-starring Rutger Hauer and Charles Dance (“Game of Thrones”), or “The Surprise”, this year's best comedy about suicide. The Netherlands last won an Oscar in 1997/1998 for 38-year old Mike van Diem’s feature film debut, “Character”. Despite his big Oscar success, van Diem never did direct another movie....until now. “The Surprise” is about a depressed millionaire who signs a contract to end his life. When he falls in love with a suicidal woman who signed the same agreement, they both find it’s difficult to get out of the deal. The sheer size and scale of seafaring drama “Admiral” means it’s probably going to get in, but I’m predicting a surprise for “The Surprise”. In third place: I would love to see this go to “Schneider vs. Bax”, a black comedy about a hit man encountering a bizarre series of problems getting his latest job done. Director Alex van Warmerdam did “Borgman”, which I loved. Rounding out the Top Five choices for Holland: #4- “Prince”, a drama-thriller about an Arab-Dutch teen who seeks to impress a pretty Dutch girl already engaged to a gangster. It won a special award for youth film in Berlin, and #5-  “Zurich”, about a young widow who discovers her husband had a second family. Less likely: music biopic “Blood, Sweat and Tears” (aka “Andre Hazes”) got great reviews but will probably be too local to be selected and the Serbian-language “The Sky Above Us" may not be considered Dutch enough. 

12. NEW ZEALAND- Nothing eligible. New Zealand has sent films in indigenous Pacific languages three of the past four years. This year, I don’t they have anything eligible in a foreign language. The only Maori film I’ve been able to find information about in 2015 was a 15-minute short comedy called “Ow What!”. That may change next year with the release of crowd-funded Maori tale “The Patriarch” (in English and Maori). But for this year, I just don’t think the Kiwis have anything to send.

13. NICARAGUA- "The Naked Screen" (La pantalla desnuda) Nicaragua rarely produces feature films, but French expatriate director Florence Jaugey made “La Yuma” in 2010, which was a major hit and which was their first Oscar submission in 22 years. This year, Jaugey is back with “The Naked Screen” (La Pantalla Desnuda), a topical drama about a teenage girl whose boyfriend pressures her into making a sexual video on his camera-phone, which is then stolen by a kid from the neighborhood. “Screen” hasn’t been as strongly received as “La Yuma”, but it looks interesting and is probably their only eligible film.

14. NORWAY- "The Wave" Norway traditionally releases a three-film shortlist before selecting their national nominee. This hasn’t been a particularly strong year for Norwegian cinema and I predict the Norwegian shortlist will be: incest drama “Homesick”, disaster thriller “The Wave” and upcoming revenge psychodrama "The Doll in the Ceiling" (aka "The Good Sister"). Comedy "The Wendy Effect" opens right before the deadline and could also make the list if it's good, as could cancer drama "All the Beauty" if it gets released (though it probably won't). Last year, the Norwegians selected “1000 Grams” which opened right before the deadline and which nobody had seen or heard of. Probably out-of-luck:  action-thriller “Haram”, about the country’s Pakistani immigrant community, family adventure “Operation Arctic”, about siblings trapped in a winter storm in remote Svalbard, and “Returning Home”, about two former soldiers searching for their missing father. I’m predicting upcoming “The Wave” a large-scale disaster movie about a real-life series of landslides and tidal waves that terrorized village communities 1934 Norway. “Homesick”, about romantic chemistry between two long-separated half-siblings may be too “icky”, "Doll" too small-scale, and comedy “Wendy Effect” a bit too silly. Norway's last Oscar nominee was the big "Kon-Tiki" so “The Wave” should be able to win this easily.

15. PAKISTAN- "Moor" Pakistan has been seeing a definite cinematic revival in recent years so it appears likely they’ll continue sending films after returning to the Oscars in 2013 after a 50-year break. This year, I feel confident they will send “Moor”, a drama set in the ethnic minority province of Baluchistan. Though the plot doesn’t sound too exciting (the decline of the railways industry in Baluchistan), it is said to be beautifully shot and tells the story from a very human perspective. It’s set to be released on Pakistani Independence Day in August.  The Pakistanis have several other options. The three biggest challengers are high-octane action drama “Yalghaar”, about a famed anti-terrorist operation, poet biopic “Main Manto” and “Ho Mann Jahan” (September, a more contemporary story with strong word-of-mouth, about three friends trying to make it in the music industry. Oscar winner Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy is a question mark. She won Best Documentary Short in 2012 and released her first feature film this year- a popular 3D animated film for children called “Bahadur”. Obaid-Chinoy has chaired Pakistan's Oscar selection committee for the past two years. Will that mean anything? Despite good box-office and local reviews, it’s very much a children’s film so I’m hoping one of the more serious films gets the nod. Obaid-Chinoy’s documentary background may also make them consider “Beyond the Heights”, about the first Pakistani woman to climb Mount Everest. There are also three strong dramas with no release date: “Hijrat”, a love story set on the Afghan-Pakistan border, cricket biopic “Kaptaan” and most importantly patriotic  drama “Saya-e-Khudaya e Zuljalal”, repeatedly delayed since last year. In conclusion, I’m still feeling very good about “Moor”’s chances, with “Ho Mann Jahan" its main challenger.

16. PALESTINE- "Dégradé" Palestinian cinema has been moderately successful this year, with three films featured at major international festivals. “Villa Touma” (Venice 2014) is about three sisters from a wealthy Christian family who now find themselves living in poverty. “Dégradé” (Cannes 2015) is about a group of women at a beauty salon sheltering from Israeli bombings in Gaza. “”Love, Theft and Other Entanglements” (Berlin) is a thriller about a man who steals a car, not knowing an Israeli soldier is being held captive in the trunk. All three have gotten somewhat mixed reviews, with Western critics being especially harsh. There’s also the expensive Jesus Christ biopic “The Saviour”, and UK-funded documentary “Roshmia” about an elderly Palestinian couple forced from their home by Israeli soldiers. It won Best Feature in Dubai 2014. My prediction is “Dégradé”, whose twin-brother directors have successfully branded the movie as the Palestinian film to see this year. Hany Abu Assad’s two films that I mentioned last year haven’t advanced past the development/production stage.

17. PANAMA- "Canal Stories" (Historias del canal) Panama became the fourth Central American country to enter the Oscar race last year (after Costa Rica, Guatemala and Nicaragua, but before El Salvador and Honduras). Production is up and their clear front-runner is “Panama Canal Stories”, a series of five short films revolving around the Panama Canal at five different eras in Panamanian history (1913, 1950, 1964, 1977 and 2013), including one by Abner Benaim, who directed Panama's debut submission last year, and two helmed by women. There’s also surfing documentary “Breaking the Waves”, but I’m pretty sure “Canal Stories” will be selected. For an interesting article on Panama’s burgeoning film industry, see here 

18. PERU- "The Vanished Elephant" (El elefante desaparecio) Peru has about ten eligible films this year, not including Claudia Llosa’s “Aloft” starring Jennifer Connelly, which appears to be in English. I think it will come down to a very close race between confusing mystery-thriller “The Vanished Elephant” and “Climas”, a pretty film about the lives of women in three different regions of the country. “Climas” looks more like what the Peruvian Academy usually selects, but I’m going to predict “Elephant” because of director Javier Fuentes-Delon, who made my favorite Peruvian movie of all time- “Contracorriente”.  "Vanished Elephant", about a mystery writer trying to solve the mystery of his missing girlfriend, is said to resemble David Lynch, which can be a good thing or a bad thing. Peru has a few other candidates too. They could easily go for large-scale historical drama “Glory of the Pacific”, a war movie that got middling reviews at home but could try to emulate last year’s shortlisted “Libertador” from Venezuela, or select “NN”, which has played at a number of festivals, about a forensic team trying to identify the bodies found in mass graves- a real-life historical legacy of the former dictatorship. The other candidates are unlikely: quirky experimental film “Videofilia”, rape drama “Atacada”, low-budget drama “Solos”, comedy “The Grandfather” and “Desaparacer”, a missing-person thriller set amidst the world of illegal logging. 

19. PHILIPPINES- "Bwaya" (Crocodile)  The Philippines is one of the hardest races to predict this year. The Filipinos have gone arthouse the past five years with films that booked slots at major festivals. Three of these were co-produced by Cinemalaya, famous for making, edgy, often low-budget independent cinema. Many of these independent films don’t get a wide cinematic release (unlike mainstream Filipino films which are released alongside Hollywood films in multiplexes across the country) so I never know when they are eligible. Most Oscar watchers this year are predicting the Philippines will send Brillante Mendoza’s Cannes drama “Trap” (Taklub), about the aftermath of Typhoon Yolanda. It won the Ecumenical Jury Prize at Cannes, but Mendoza’s gritty films have never been selected before and “Taklub” is not his most acclaimed film. It has a chance, but I think Mendoza may have to continue to wait. No less than eight films from last year’s Cinemalaya Film Festival won major awards- “The Commitment”, “Crocodile”,”The Janitor”, ”Justice”, “K’na the Dreamweaver”, “Sparks”, “Sundalong Kanin” and “Where  I Am King”.  Two of these (“Crocodile” and “Sparks”) got Best Picture nominations at the Gawad Urian Awards (a good precursor for the Philippines Oscar submission). You can add to the race two very different biopics- one about a man who fought the Spanish (historical drama “Bonifacio”) and one about a living legend who fights everyone (boxing drama “Kid Kulafu”, about the life of Manny Pacquiao).  Popular rom-com “English Only Please”, about a Filipino-American trying to find a bride, may also be considered a dark horse since Americans may be able to relate to it. This is really a wide-open race and I see it coming down to three finalists; (1)- Mendoza’s “Trap” has the buzz and the momentum and last year the Filipinos chose the “festival favorite” (which they don't usually do). There may also be the feeling that he has been passed over so many times that he’s due, (2)- “Crocodile” (Bwaya) is a docudrama about a woman whose 13-year old daughter disappears after being attacked by a crocodile. It’s not a "big" film, but it has the advantage of positive notices at both mainstream and independent awards ceremonies, (3)- “Kid Kulafu” is about Manny Pacquiao, a man that Americans will know well. It was well-received by critics and got an A-rating from the Cinema Evaluation Board but it's clearly a mainstream effort for the masses. I predict an upset for “Crocodile”, with “Kid Kulafu”  and “Trap” second and third. Rounding out the top five will be “Where I Am King”, about an old man returning to his ancestral village, and “Sundalong Kanin”, about young brothers growing up during the Japanese occupation of the 1940s.  

20. POLAND- "Karbala" For the first time in their (nearly) 60-year Oscar history, Poland is attending the Academy Awards as reigning champion. While I will never understand the appeal of the well-made but forgettable “Ida”, it’s nice they got their chance to shine. This year they have a number of candidates with no clear front-runner. I‘m inclined to predict “Summer Solstice”, a drama following four characters in the Polish countryside in 1943- a Nazi officer, a Polish man and woman, and a Jewish woman who escapes from a concentration camp. The film- a co-production with Germany- is finished and was screened at Cannes Film Market representing Poland. It’s scheduled to premiere in German cinemas in October but has no release date in Poland. So I doubt it’s eligible, though Poland did do an Oscar-qualifying run for "In Darkness" so one never knows. Assuming it's not released, the race is wide open, with no less than five viable candidates. In alphabetical order, they are “Body” (winner, Best Director at Berlinale 2015), a dramedy about a man, his anorexic daughter and a therapist with unusual powers, “Gods”, which got ten nominations (but only one win) at last year’s Polish Eagles, the biopic of a renowned surgeon, “Heart and the Sweetheart” (director Kolski was selected in 2003), about a little orphan girl who aspires to be a ballerina, “Karbala”, a thriller about Polish soldiers fighting Jihadis in Iraq circa 2004, and “The Photographer” (director Krzystek was selected in 2012), a mystery-thriller about a serial killer. I’m inclined to think that “Karbala” (scheduled to premiere right before the deadline) will be the one to resonate with the Polish Academy, if “Summer Solstice” doesn’t premiere until October. It’s patriotic, exciting (hopefully) and will resonate with American audiences who saw their own soldiers fight in Iraq. If it sucks, then “Gods” will probably get this. Unlikely but still possible: “Close-ups”, about a woman with a domineering mother who wants a baby of her own, “Carte Blanche”, about a professor slowly going blind and “Influence”, a historical drama co-starring Crispin Glover (?!) which is in Polish.

21. PORTUGAL- "Arabian Nights, Volume One" Portugal has the worst record of any country at the Oscars- dozens upon dozens of submissions with zero nominations. This year, they’ll be hoping to change that with Miguel Gomes’ magnum opus “Arabian Nights”.  Premiering in Director’s Fortnight at Cannes, “Arabian Nights” is actually three 2-hour films, transporting Scheheradze and her stories to Portugal circa 2012, in the midst of that country’s devastating economic crisis. Will Portugal send the first film? Or the better-reviewed second one? Or will they try and do an Oscar-qualifying screening of the full 6 hour, 35 minute omnibus? Or will they just make a crazy decision and pick something else entirely, like when they ignored the acclaimed “Mysteries of Lisbon” for a documentary? “Arabian Nights” has been fairly warmly received so I think they’ll send the first film (though Variety indicates they are meant to be watched together), but the Portuguese often make mind-numbingly odd decisions. The biggest challenger is "Montanha", set to premiere at Venice Critics Week in August. This highly anticipated film is a coming-of-ager about a 14-year old faced with the death of his beloved grandfather. However, with no domestic release scheduled, it will likely not threaten until next year. Next up is "Grey and Black” (Cinzento e Negro), a revenge drama set amidst a small village. It will open in Portuguese cinemas in September. In Fourth Place, is likely to be “Horse Money” (Locarno 2014), a “neo-realist” sequel of sorts to a film called “Colossal Youth” (I've never heard of it) about a 70-year old destitute Cabo Verdean who has lived in Portugal for decades. Rounding out the Top Five choices: “Suddenly My Thoughts Halt”, a documentary about schizophrenia. I think the sheer scope of “Arabian Nights” and prestige of Cannes should wow the weak and perpetually disappointed Portuguese Academy.

22. PUERTO RICO- "La granja" Puerto Rico was unceremoniously dumped from the Foreign Oscar invite list in 2010. AMPAS has never given a good reason why they allowed the Spanish-speaking U.S. territory to compete from 1986-2010 (obtaining one Oscar nomination) before banning them in 2011. Greenland and Hong Kong, which have similar autonomous status, are still allowed to send films. Hopefully one day, AMPAS will rectify this extremely stupid decision. I still include them in my predictions. This year, Puerto Rico would be sure to submit the long-awaited “La Granja” (The Farm), a multi-strand drama about five characters living in an Argentine barrio. It played at the 2015 Cannes Film Market. Director Angel Manuel Soto has had shorts screened at Cannes twice before and this film has been in development for years. It will be released in Puerto Rico in the second half of 2015. 

23. ROMANIA- "Aferim!" Unfortunately, my research on Romania seems to have gotten erased by accident so I'll keep this one short. I predict an easy win for "Aferim!", a B&W historical drama that won Best Director at the Berlin Film Festival. Set in the 19th century, it's about a gendarme's search for a runaway "Gypsy slave" through the multi-ethnic Romanian countryside (then part of the Ottoman Empire). The film has been a critical success as well as an unexpected box-office hit in Romania, generating a great deal of debate about inter-ethnic relations. It's main competition is "One Floor Below", about a quarrel between neighbors that ends up in death. Was it a murder? Other options: comedy "The Treasure" (about a neighbor who asks for help finding buried treasure) and drama "Quod erat demonstratum" about a mathematician who learns he was betrayed by a dear friend twenty years before, during the Communist times. Though it's a 2013 film, it opened in Romania in October 2014. "Aferim!" should get this easily. 

PARAGUAY is the only major Latin American country never to enter the Oscar race but with domestic film output up to 20 films in 2015 and a Goya nomination in 2013, I wouldn’t be surprised if they gave it a go with “Filthy Luck” (aka “Cicada Moon”), about an American who travels to Paraguay and gets involved in the country’s underworld, or “Mangoré”, a music biopic starring Mexican Oscar nominee Damián Alcázar. If they don’t, I’d expect them to join next year with the heavily buzzed-about road movie, “Guarani”. Acclaimed African New Wave director Souleymane Cissé of MALI appeared at Cannes 2015 with “O Ka”, a documentary about his family's struggles not to lose their land, only his second film in 20 years. Unfortunately, it probably never screened in Mali. NIGERIA said they would send a film for the first time last year, but they didn't.....This year's Ibo-language "Chetanna" is a fairly big-budget effort and it was the only non-English language Nigerian movie nominated at this year's African Academy Awards. And although it's highly unlikely, three small island states could send surprise submissions, namely "Jilel: The Calling of the Shell”, a film about a girl who sets out to single-handedly stop global warming from destroying her island atoll from MARSHALL ISLANDS; “Emme Fahu Vindha Jehendhen”, a Bollywood-style romance between two young people from different social classes which has been quite popular in the MALDIVES; and “Lonbraz Kann” (Seattle) from MAURITIUS a film in Mauritian Creole, about the effect the closure of a sugar mill has on the local community.